This beautiful and instructive letter was sent by pianist Dinu Lipatti to one of his students. I particularly like his advice that one should “discover the complete emotional content by playing it a great deal in various different ways….” This is sound advice for pianists of all levels, amateur and professional. Too often there is a tendency to focus first on the technical aspects of a piece, without considering the emotional content. I firmly believe that technique should serve the music, enabling us to play with greater expression and emotional depth: playing which exhibits only high-facility technique can be lifeless and mechanical.
Lipatti is considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th-century. He died tragically prematurely from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 33 in December 1950, leaving behind little more than three and a half hours of recordings for EMI’s Columbia label. His long-standing international fame is due almost entirely to the widespread distribution of his recorded output: in the words of his producer Walter Legge, “small in output but of the purest gold.” Pianists today still revere Lipatti and many continue to pay tribute to him in recitals and other homages.
“What can I tell you about interpretation? I really ought to talk to you about it rather than write, as I should need thirty pages. In a very imperfect manner I could recapitulate the method which in stages guides us, as I believe, to the truth.
First, one should try to discover the complete emotional content of a work by playing it a great deal in various different ways before ever starting to play it ‘technically’. When saying ‘playing it a great deal’ I think above all of playing ‘mentally,’ as the work would be played by the most perfect of interpreters. Having lodged in one’s mind an impression of perfect beauty given by this imaginary interpretation — an impression constantly renewed and revivified by repetition of the performance in the silence of the night — we can go on to actual technical work by dissecting each difficulty into a thousand pieces in order to eliminate every physical and technical obstacle; and this process of dissection must not be of the whole work played right through but of every detail taken separately. The work should be done with a clear head and one should beware of injecting any sentiment.
Finally comes the last phase, when the piece, mastered technically throughout, must be built up architecturally into its overall lines and played right through so that it may be viewed from a distance. And the cold, clear-headed and insensitive being who presided over the whole of the preceding work on the material of which the music is made, takes part in this eventual performance as well as the artist full of emotion, of spirit, of life and warmth who has recreated it in his mind and has now discovered a new and greater power of expression.
Forgive me for expressing myself so badly about something so solemn. I hope it will not seem incomprehensible to you.”
An interesting programme broadcast on BBC Radio Three in which concert pianist Stephen Hough talks about the activity of practising, memory, how to balance perfection in practise with a sense of “letting go” in performance, and much more. With contributions from Nicola Benedetti, Joyce Di Donato, and Julian Bream. Many interesting insights from top international artists which have relevance to musicians of all levels.
Pedaling is an aspect of piano technique which is frequently misunderstood and abused. Ask a junior student what the right hand pedal is for and they will invariably reply “to make the piano louder”. The right hand pedal is often wrongly called “the loud pedal”, or is regarded as an “on-off switch”, which shows a complete lack of understanding of the purpose and uses of the “sustain” or “damper” pedal. Pedaling is hard to do well, and I regularly come across instances of sloppy, lazy or misjudged pedaling when I am reviewing at professional concerts.
The sustain pedal has two principal purposes:
1. Allowing the sound to continue even after we release the keys;
2. Changing the timbre of the sound, making it deeper, warmer, more intense, more ‘alive’.
In order to pedal well, it is important to understand what is happening, mechanically, inside the piano, and to engage the ears so that they are alert to all the subtle sounds and variations the pedal can produce. When the pedal is depressed, all the dampers are lifted off the strings so that they can continue to vibrate and sound after a note on the keyboard has been released. The effect of the vibrations is to create a fuller, warmer and more intense sound. When I demonstrate this to students, I play a C-major chord without the pedal, and then play the chord again with the pedal. A student who is listening carefully will notice the cloud or “bloom” of sound which seems to rise from the piano (as opposed to just saying “it sounds louder”). This bloom of sound is the result of ‘sympathetic vibrations’, and will mostly be pitches related to the principal note. Since the resonance of the entire instrument is called into play when the dampers are lifted off the strings, the chief effect of the damper pedal is a change in the sound quality of the piano. And this, I think, is the key point to remember – that the damper pedal is about quality of sound, rather than volume of sound
The point when the pedal is depressed can have a particular effect on the sound of the piano. For example, when the pedal is depressed before the note is struck, all strings are available to resonate, and the sound will have a richness from the beginning. While it is held down, the pedal accumulates sound with each additional note struck. This property can be used to create or enhance a crescendo, particularly in a context of more rapid notes where little pedal is being used. Conversely, by lifting the pedal slowly, there is a gradual decrease in the sound, which creates a diminuendo.
There are also degrees of pedal, such as half, quarter or even eighth pedal. This technique of pedaling is particularly useful in Mozart, or during runs and passagework, where it gives substance to the tone without blurring the sounds. For example, in Schubert’s E flat Impromptu from the D899 set, I use one-eighth pedal throughout the rapid triplet runs to provide depth without losing clarity: we want to hear every single note, but we don’t want the music to sound too dry.
Every piano is different and so it is important to experiment – and listen carefully: special colours and immediacy of effect can be achieved by synchronising pedal changes with finger attack, while pedaling before playing can soften the opening of a phrase. Pedal use is also determined by the size and location of the instrument.
Experienced pianists use the pedal instinctively. I often get ticked off by cheeky students for pedaling music which has no pedal markings. This usually prompts a discussion on the use of the pedal to create certain effects, and how pedal markings are written into the score. Good pedal technique is based on experience, careful listening, and thoughtful practice.
Legato pedaling, in its simplest form, is the act of joining two otherwise unconnected notes or chords together. Logically this can only happen when the sound of the first note/chord stops and the sound of the second note/chord begins at the same time. To achieve this, the pedal must come up exactly at the point at which the next chord sounds. Where it then goes down is a matter of judgement to do with the type of musical context or the effect desired, speed of the passage etc.
Here is a simple but effective exercise, easily comprehensible for junior piano students, to practice good legato pedaling.
Practice this exercise by depressing the pedal on the 2nd beat of each bar and bringing it up exactly on the downbeat of the next new chord. Legato pedaling makes use of coordination opposites: in other words, the foot releases the pedal exactly when the hand goes down. The pedal then goes down again without being snatched and rushed at some point after the first beat.
Ped and * marks are often placed inaccurately, which can make interpretation of the composer’s intentions regarding pedaling confusing. For example, the Ped…….* pedal markings in Chopin are often misleading, and should not be interpreted literally: it is more likely that Chopin intended continuous use of the sustain pedal, and that this type of pedal marking would be more accurate: __/\_/\__ (etc.).
It is said that Chopin “used the pedals with marvelous discretion,” (Auguste Marmontel, Debussy’s teacher and a former student of Chopin), and Chopin himself declared that “The correct employment of the pedal remains a study for life.”
When writing a legato pedaling scheme onto music for both my students and myself, I tend to use this marking __/\_/\__, rather than the more traditional Ped…….*, simply because it’s clearer, the “peaks” indicating when the pedal should be lifted and depressed.
Direct, finger and “dirty” pedalling
Direct pedaling is where the pedal goes down exactly as the hands do. The style of the music will influence how the pedal is used: for example, in classical repertoire, a direct pedal, corresponding with the hands, can often be applied to two-note slurs, sfzorzandi, and cadential chords without distorting articulation and phrasing. “Finger pedaling” should be considered with Alberti bass figures.
“Dirty” pedaling requires acute listening skills and is appropriate when a more misty sound and colour are desired, or when the texture needs to be thinned out gradually. Lift the pedal very slowly. I have found this technique particularly useful in Liszt when the composer designates a smorzando with a diminuendo.
Debussy and the sustain pedal
Pedaling was – and is! – very important in the playing of Debussy’s piano music, though Debussy almost never marked pedaling on the score. Where he does, it should be observed carefully. Too many pianists, professional and amateur, believe that the pedal in Debussy is used to create the famous “impressionistic blur” so often associated with his music. In fact, “he wanted the pedal used in long harmonic strokes, without breaks or confusion. Occasionally he allowed the pedal to encroach a tiny fraction from one harmony into the next………….. In any case, the blur should be used only for special effects, and with utmost discretion.” [Nichols]
Debussy’s works often imply the use of pedal, because he writes bass notes that cannot be sustained without the help of the pedal. At the same time there are often chord changes that require the pedal to be lifted in order to avoid blurring. Techniques such as half-pedal and “dirty” pedal can be used to create satisfying effects in his piano music.
When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.
Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.
So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):
Bach – “counterpoint”
how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.
Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”
to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal
Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”
an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm
Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”
Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar
Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing
Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”
Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!
“Do not find yourself in the music, but find the music in yourself” (Heinrich Neuhaus)
Heinrich Neuhaus’s book The Art of Piano Playing is now available to read online. So, that’s my holiday reading for next week sorted…. Joking apart, this is still regarded as one of the most authoritative and widely-used books on the subject: my teacher regularly quotes from Neuhaus (and Matthay).
Neuhaus was born in the Ukraine in 1888, and though his parents were both piano teachers, he was largely self-taught. The biggest early influence on him came from his cousin, the composer Karol Szymanowski, and his uncle, Felix Blumenfeld. He also studied with Leopold Godowsky in Berlin before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1922 he began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (where he was also director from 1935 to 1937). His pupils include some of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century: Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Nina Svetlanova, Alexei Lubimov and Radu Lupu. His legacy continues today – through his pupils, his grand-pupils, great-grand pupils, and through the many teachers around the world who regard his book as the most authoritative on the subject of piano playing. His own playing was renowned for its poetic magnetism and artistic refinement.
Sviatoslav Richter talks at length about his studies with Neuhaus in the film Richter: the Enigma, directed by Bruno Monsaingeon.
Several of my students have been learning and enjoying this well-known piece by the Penguin Café Orchestra, and so I thought it might be helpful to have some background.
The Penguin Café Orchestra (PCO) was a collective of musicians, founded by Simon Jeffes in the 1970s. It is hard to categorise their music, but it combines elements of exuberant folk music, and the minimalist music of composers such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. The music also contains references to South American and African music, and uses a variety of instruments including strings, pianos, harmoniums, slide guitars, cuatros, kalimbas, experimental sound loops, mathematical notations and more. A number of their works are very familiar as they have been used in film, tv and advertising.
Perpetuum Mobile is one of PCO’s most famous pieces, and comes from their fifth album, ‘Signs of Life’ (1987). The title is Latin for “perpetual motion” (or continuous motion) and in music it refers to two things:
pieces or parts of pieces of music characterised by a continuous steady stream of notes, usually at a rapid speed
whole pieces, or large parts of pieces, which are to be played repeatedly, often an indefinite number of times.
In both cases, there should be no interruption in the ‘motion’ of the music. Examples from classical music include the presto finale of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. Marked “sotto voce e legato” (literally “under the breath and smoothly”), the entire movement is a musical stream of consciousness of unremitting parallel octaves, with unvarying tempo and dynamics, and not a single rest or chord until the final bars. The difficulty for the pianist, aside from keeping the triplets absolutely equal and even throughout, is the sotto voce (a fairly common marking in Chopin’s music) which suggests a muted sound. Careful pedalling will, in part, create the desired effect but the sound should never become woolly or muddy: we want to hear every single note. This movement has a strange and mysterious cast: Arthur Rubenstein remarked that the fourth movement is like the “wind howling around the gravestones”, and a pianist colleague of mine described performing it as “horrible – like having your entrails picked over on stage”. Interestingly, Chopin himself said of the movement: “The left hand unisono with the right hand are gossiping after the [Funeral] March” (source: James Huneker in his introduction to the Mikuli edition of the Sonatas). Played well it is inscrutable and brief; played badly and it’s just a muddle.
Here is Ivo Pogorelich, with a good view of his hands at work
Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat is another perpetuum mobile, at least in the outer sections (the middle section of the piece is a rough gypsy waltz), which, like the example by Chopin, is built from almost continuous triplets in swirling, tumbling scalic figures which never quite break free from the secure tether of the bass line. The difficulty in this piece, as in the Chopin, is keeping the triplets even, though with some give-and-take/rubato and dynamic shading to add interest: unlike the Chopin, there is prettiness and charm in this piece, and the dance rhythm of the bass line should be highlighted too. My problem when I was learning this piece (or rather relearning – I first encountered it in my teens) was lifting the fingers too high, which produced a chunky, “notey” sound and interrupted the flow of the music. It also made my arm tense. I taught myself to keep the fingers curled into the keys and to start with a slightly higher hand position: the result was a pleasing “trickling” effect in the long scalic runs, and the piece was far less tiring to play.
Pedalling is another issue in this piece, and I had a long discussion with a colleague about this, who kindly heard my Diploma programme ahead of the exam. In the end, I compromised on 1/8 pedal: like the Chopin Sonata, you don’t want a muddy sound (and I’ve heard plenty of live and recorded performances of this work with some very sloppy pedalling!). The beauty of this music, in my opinion, is the clarity of the writing, and the elegant song lines which are subtly embedded in the triplet figures. Careless or over-pedalling won’t highlight these interior elements to the listener.
A further danger of this piece is getting so caught up in the perpetual motion of it that you forget to breathe! This may sound daft, but I can confirm that in my Diploma recital, I probably played the restatement of the opening section on one breath. And in rehearsal one afternoon, my page turner was so absorbed in the music, he forgot to turn over the pages for me!
Perhaps the most famous example of a musical perpetuum mobile is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, an orchestral interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. This popular work, often performed as an virtuosic encore, consists of nearly uninterrupted runs of chromatic semiquavers, with leitmotifs (Givdon’s themes) from the opera. It is not so much the pitch or range of notes that present the challenge, but the sheer speed of it and the musician’s ability to move quickly around the notes.
Other famous perpetuum mobiles from classical music include Debussy’s ‘Mouvement’ for piano (from the first book of Images), and Francis Poulenc’s Trois Mouvements perpétuels.
PCO’s Perpetuum Mobile is built on a simple repetitive melody which is put through several harmonic and textural changes, building in grandeur as it goes. The repetitions of the melody make it a hypnotic piece, but the changes prevent it from being boring. Instead, the accumulation of elements and orchestration make this an energetic and exciting piece to listen to, and to play.
A friend of mine has adapted the music for easy piano (Grade 2-3 level), and although simplified, the music retains key features from the original, including the harmonic and textural changes. After the introduction, the main melody is introduced and repeated in the right hand before the left hand joins in with a progression of stern chords in open 5ths and octaves. Further along in the score, and both hands play the melody unison, reflecting the string articulation in the original. The two-bar melody, which is scored in 7/8 and 4/4, contains an octave leap which might be tricky for smaller hands. However, this also offers a great opportunity to practice ‘rotary motion’: I get students to practice the second, 4/4, part of the melody first, as the smaller stretches make rotary movement easier to grasp.
Before playing a single note on the piano, we practice rotary motion above the keyboard, or even away from the keyboard. Many teachers and tutor books describe rotary as “turning a doorknob” (an old-fashioned round doorknob, obviously) or turning cooker knobs. But my teacher and I decided the movement was more like the windscreen wipers of a car: it’s an “out-in” movement rather than “in-out”. To practice it at the piano, start in a 5-1 position, G-C (either Middle C position or an octave higher, if more comfortable), and place the hand in a “karate chop” position on the G with the fifth finger. Allow the hand to “flop” onto C with the thumb, and repeat. Encourage the student to watch the movement of the wrist: if the wrist isn’t moving, it ain’t rotating! Speed the movement up so that the student understands that it is the rolling (“rotary”) movement of the wrist that makes the sound, rather than the fingers. Keep the wrist and hand flexible and soft throughout: this will also help achieve a good tone.
Everyone I’ve taught this piece to wants to play it fast, but to try and play it up to tempo before you have practised rotary motion and grown comfortable with it will lead to tension in the hand and possibly pain. Keep the tempo sensible and perfect the rotary motion and good legato-playing before cranking it up. Meanwhile, enjoy experimenting with different dynamic levels for dramatic effect. The unison section should be light, nimble and nicely articulated to achieve the effect of the strings from the original.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site