“The more I play, the more I am convinced the pedal is the soul of the pianoforte!”

Arthur Rubinstein

“….abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, and that making a lot of noise is a way to drown the music you’re slaughtering!”

Claude Debussy

Piano dampers and strings

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 pedal

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.

(source: E-MusicMaestro)

And how not to do it:

(source: E-MusicMaestro)

Download the complete legato pedalling exercise

Pedal markings

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.

The first in an occasional series of interviews with piano teachers – and I am delighted to launch this new series with an interview with acclaimed pianist and teacher Philip Fowke.

Philip Fowke

What is your first memory of the piano?

My first memory of the piano was when my parents bought an upright for my sister Alison who was beginning to learn the piano. I can recall it coming into the house quite clearly and I must have been about 4 years old. I was fascinated by it from the start and its grinning mouth of keys. At my first school, Milford, in Gerrards Cross, the headmistress, Miss France, used to play the piano for hymns and music classes. I can remember watching her hands and the way the keys went down. It is a vivid memory and it was Miss France who first encouraged me to play and gave me my first lessons. Initially, I did everything by ear and taught myself simple harmonisations of well known tunes like ‘The British Grenadiers’. I remember playing this during break to all the other children as we had our regulation bottle of milk.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers? 

Miss France, whom I mentioned above, was my first encounter with a piano teacher and she set me on the road. However, she felt I needed a more qualified teacher and she arranged for me to have an audition with Marjorie Withers who also lived in Gerrards Cross. She was an outstanding musician and teacher and I went to her when I was seven. It was she who really inspired me and had a gift for giving me pieces which really excited me. She also encouraged my playing popular tunes and improvising. I was heavily into Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and Joe Henderson in those days and could do a passing imitation of them. At Downside School, where I boarded from 1964 to 1967, I also had remarkable teachers in Roger Bevan, the Director of Music, Lionel Calvert and Peter Matthews

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching? 

I have mentioned the teachers I had as a boy and they all had influences on me, most notably Marjorie Withers. It was really she who laid the foundations of such technique as I may have, and who instilled in me the discipline of practice and ways in which to make it creative and effective. She was also a fine pianist herself and was well able to demonstrate, quite dazzlingly as it seemed to me, Chopin Studies, bits of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Grieg, and numerous other composers. Her attitude, her sense of fun and celebration of the music deeply influenced me

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?  

Initially the pressures of having to earn a few pennies was quite an incentive to start giving lessons to local children and one or two adults. However, I do recall helping a friend at school, of no particular pianistic talent, to play a piece he was struggling with. I remember feeling a strong desire to help him conquer what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties! However, it was Gordon Green at the Royal Academy of Music who was the chief musical and pianistic inspiration and who continues to exert an extraordinary influence on me and many others who had the good fortune to study with him.  His philosophy was to allow young people to develop at their own pace in their own time. Not for him the pressures of competitions, rushed learning and the resulting stress and misery which can follow. He used to say that his concern was not how you played today, but how you would play in ten years’ time. His wisdom, gentleness and encouragement enabled many of his students to go on to achieve considerable success. He was neither possessive nor ambitious except in the sense of wishing students to be balanced, fulfilled human beings who happened to play an instrument.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

There are many issues but one is the tendency to choose too challenging a repertoire. Also nerves and confidence. Then there is physical condition, i.e. muscular flexibility. This can be very variable. In general my approach is always to build positively on whatever the situation presents. It is all too easy to be inadvertently discouraging and negative. Always be upbeat and positive. Quite often there have been bad, even traumatic experiences with past teachers and this can result in a general crisis of confidence which has never been fully addressed. Inevitably there is a tremendous legacy of vulnerability which must be handled with sensitivity and gentleness. The early lessons need to be a form of therapy with a bit of piano occasionally thrown in with no strings attached preferably! I often start with a course of simple exercises which involve the entire keyboard….a kind of embrace and bonding with the keys. It is also important do some simple pre-keyboard exercises, standing, bending stretching and relaxed breathing. It is also good to be aware of the prevalent danger of “wishful listening”. This is very common and accounts for attempting to play pieces before they have been sufficiently prepared and studied. The trouble is, a habit forms whereby the student doesn’t hear what’s actually being played, but hears an imaginary and vastly edited version which sounds, to their ears, acceptable…only it isn’t!

What do you expect from your students? 

Expectations vary especially between college students and amateur adults. Inevitably more is expected from a young person embarking on a professional life of a musician. In the case of adult amateurs, those doing it for pleasure in such time as they have available, different expectations arise. I take each person as they are, as circumstances allow, and work within those parameters. However, I do always work at simple strategies which, if followed closely, can save endless hours of needless repetition…..which unfortunately so much so called “practice” can often be. An issue which often arises is the one of that dreaded word “tension”. I make a point of never using the word preferring to ask whether the students feels “comfortable” in a particular passage. Invariably the answer is uncomfortable, so I suggest that together we find a more comfortable way of doing it. This, in itself, reduces tightness and anxiety. To simply say ”that looks tense” exacerbates the problem and is, in my view,  poor teaching psychology. I have found that many tension issues have not been addressed simply because the symptoms have been treated and not the cause. A tight wrist can be the result of weak fingers or an impractical fingering. It’s amazing what an unconventional fingering or a cunning redistribution can achieve…let alone the discreet omission of troublesome notes which can barely be heard. I rather hear fewer notes comfortably and confidently played than more, scrambled!

Another issue is the release of notes, usually caused by the notion that everything must be legato fingering. The horror of letting go and allowing the pedal to help in appropriate situations, is a real psychological and physical difficulty. The traditional tyranny has taught that not doing legato fingering is a mortal sin. There are ways of achieving legato other than holding on to notes in distorted and twisted ways which make a horrid sound and cause great discomfort. In saying this, I do not wish to mean that legato fingering is of no importance…. it is essential, but a realistic balance needs to be found and allowed for. Too often I encounter “off the peg” fingering – one size fits all. Only it doesn’t!

In general I find with adults, as with the younger generation, stretch and extension exercises have not been addressed. Fingers operate in isolation with one another. I encourage a dialogue between all the fingers so that they can get to know one another. Coordination exercises also can be of great benefit. So often fingers are complete strangers to one another, and rather hostile ones at that! Explore movement; find the slip roads on to the motorway. Ski, fly, grope the keys. When fingering, explore options, be daring. Give the fingers a choice. Within a very short time they will make their own decision….. and a good one provided they have the initial choice. Let the miserable, bald battery fingers out of their cages to roam free, grow feathers and lay big fat brown eggs. They’ll make a better sound. I call it Fowke’s Free Range Fingering. Your fingers will smile in gratitude and relief scuttling off into pastures new and sunlit glades.

Don’t get stuck on slow practice. Practice above tempo in short bursts, strong beat to strong beat to learn movements and gestures which can help the keyboard choreography. Practising slowly, though essential at all stages, does need an antidote. There can be a danger of practising to play slowly. Similarly with hands separate practice.

Practice pianissimo, or on the surface of the keys. Too much practice is too loud and too fast. Listen in your head. A good maxim, though not invariable,  is to practice loud passages pianissimo, and piano passages forte. Similarly, practice slow movements quickly and quick movements slowly. Play in different registers, crossed hands, even in different keys. Muck about. Practising can be like a kitten teasing a ball of wool. I always remember Shura Cherkassky saying to me that if I heard him practice, I wouldn’t think he could play the piano. This made an indelible impression on me at the time and beautifully describes real practice…. a craft that has to be carefully honed. Learn to dismantle a piece down to the tiniest component

We press keys down, but do we consider the release? Same with the pedal. Practice the sustaining pedal with the left foot. Concentrates the mind and ear wonderfully!

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions? 

Very mixed. They all have their place but in my view far too much emphasis is put on the competitive element and too little on the musical and artistic elements. Performing in public has become an international sport and the list of sporting casualties and injuries grows proportionately. We need to review the number and regularity of some of these major competitions…..and the way the media promotes them. As to exams, again they have their place, but it is noteworthy that countries where the graded system does not exist produces playing of a singularly and consistently high order from an early age.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students? 

This is difficult to condense into a few simple sentences. If I have one thing to say it is that so many pianists of whatever age, ability and experience have little concept of the keyboard. They have never been encouraged to explore it, to improvise, to be allowed to make nasty noises eventually leading to rather more beautiful sounds. An intrinsic fear lies at the core of so much playing; fear of wrong notes, fear of going wrong. All this is caused by a basic lack of harmonic awareness, a hazy knowledge of scales and arpeggios, and an inability to busk and improvise. Teachers pass on their own fear as they themselves were never encouraged to improvise to play with the keyboard rather than on it. The tyrannical pull of middle C reigns supreme I fear!

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job? 

I’m not sure I can answer this. Teaching is not exactly a job for me, more a mission. I simply want to explode myths, to enable and to explore, to reveal the keyboard as more than an extension of middle C

What is your favourite music to teach? To play? 

Well, of course it is always a pleasure to work on familiar core repertoire. However, I do enjoy the challenge of unfamiliar scores which nobody has issues with, received opinions and which no one has ever heard before!

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why? 

This is dangerous territory and one I have consistently tried to avoid!

Is there a link between teaching and performing? 

It has been said that performers don’t make good teachers. Well, this is true in some cases but certainly not all. Equally I know of some good teachers who don’t, and never have to any significant degree, performed in public. However, having said that, the experience of performing, the physical and psychological act, does possibly lend one’s teaching an element of realism and practicality. Knowledge and respect for the score is well and good, but how to deliver it? What I describe as health and safety editions with their plethora of notes and commentaries, foot and note disease, can be daunting. Nothing is left to chance and this can inhibit performance rather than inform it. Performing in public can give a teacher the insight into that which is to be aspired to, that which is feasible, and the experience to make the choice.

Philip Fowke, known for his many BBC Promenade Concert appearances, numerous recordings and broad range of repertoire performed worldwide, is currently Senior Fellow of Keyboard at Trinity College of Music.

He is also known for his teaching, coaching and tutoring in which he enjoys exploring students’ potential, encouraging them to develop their own individuality. He is a regular tutor at the International Shrewsbury Summer School as well as at Chethams Summer School.

Conductors with whom he has worked include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rudolf Barshai, Tadaaki Otaka, Sir Simon Rattle, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov and the late Klaus Tennstedt. He will shortly be recording piano works by Antony Hopkins CBE in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday.

In addition to Philip Fowke’s many invitations to tutor at festivals, summer schools, and numerous lecture recitals, he will be appearing with The Prince Consort, a group founded by his former student Alisdair Hogarth. Their recent recording for Linn Records featuring works by Brahms and Stephen Hough, has received outstanding acclaim, and was nominated CD of the month by Gramophone Magazine. Future appearances include the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room, Cheltenham Festival and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

JACK Quartet (image credit: Henrik Olund)

Who or what inspired you to take up the cello, and make it your career?

My mom was a big part of it; she began ear training and piano skills with me from a very young age, bought me my first (eighth-size) cello, and started me on Suzuki training when I was just shy of age four.  While I was obviously not thinking about a career at this point, because music has been part of my life as long as I can remember it made the decision fairly easy later in life.  The incredible breadth and diversity of the recordings of Yo-Yo Ma were frequently played in the house and a master class I had with him in high school was truly inspiring.  I think the experiences that really cemented it for me were my three summers at the Kinhaven music camp in Vermont, where I first realized just how gratifying chamber music could be, especially with friends.  The new music bug also bit me fairly early through the vehicle of Kronos Quartet recordings.  My dad bought many of these which I borrowed (stole) as a teenager, I think I never gave many of them back!

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?

My cello teachers have been hugely important in helping me hone my craft, both in musical and technical terms.  Troy Stuart at the Peabody Preparatory gave me a great foundation when I was in high school and transitioning into advanced repertoire, and then Steven Doane at Eastman really helped me refine these skills and be able to isolate all the technical difficulties in a piece of music and be able to put them back together in a way that was expressive and with clear interpretation.  Also at Eastman I developed my new music chops through collaborations with countless composers and performers, too many to name here.  I will note that my experience playing with the Eastman Musica Nova Ensemble under the direction of Brad Lubman was crucial, and helped me learn to parse difficult scores with precision and clarity.  Our professional as well as personal interactions with the Arditti Quartet have also been invaluable; without them much of our repertoire (as well as corresponding performance practices and attitudes) would simply not exist.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The JACK Quartet specializes in contemporary music performance, and now we are constantly learning new (and often very difficult) repertoire.  This has forced me to learn music very quickly, which means careful study of scores and annotation of parts as well as practice sessions and rehearsals that are efficient as possible.  Striking a balance between this immense amount of work and maintaining a personal life can be very challenging, as the former tends to take priority over the latter.  However the work is well worth it, and I realize I might not be able to keep this pace up forever, so I figure it is time to strike while the iron is hot!

What are the special pleasures/challenges of ensemble playing?

I think the sublimation of the ego into something greater than oneself is simultaneously a special pleasure as well as a challenge of ensemble playing.  I find the joy of chamber music performance to have little to do with self-congratulation and more to do with gratitude to be part of amazing shared musical experiences.  That being said, it is often difficult to relinquish control, and much of chamber music interpretation has to do with compromise.  Sometimes everyone’s opinions align, but many times they conflict.  It’s important to try out everyone’s ideas and come to decisions about which direction to take that make everyone happy.  Many times I find that I have been stubborn about my viewpoint, only to realize that a different approach was equally valid (or in fact better.)  You have to choose your battles carefully.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Our Xenakis disc has had much to do with our career trajectory and these quartets remain some of my favorite music to play.  Tetras in particular can generate so much energy in the crowd when performed live that you can practically feel electricity in the air.  The music of Helmut Lachenmann also holds a special place in our repertoire and we hold our interactions with him near and dear to our hearts.  (Shameless plug: our recording of the Lachenmann quartets will be released on Mode Records in the coming year.)

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Le Poisson Rouge in New York City very much feels like a home base for us at this point.  We know the audiences will be excited and primed for the music we present there and the crowd reactions are always supportive and overwhelming.  As far as more traditional venues go, our performances at Wigmore Hall in London have been incredible experiences.  The hall has an amazing sound and warmth to it but is also small enough to feel very intimate.  I can not think of a more ideal place for chamber music.  (Shameless plug #2: I should probably add our disc that was just released on the Wigmore Live series to the previous list of performances/recordings we are most proud of.)

Favourite pieces to perform?

I mentioned Tetras earlier, and should specify that Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 3 “Grido” is also exhilarating to perform.  Wolfgang Rihm’s String Quartet No. 3 “Im Innersten” is always an overwhelming emotional and cathartic experience to perform.  There must be something about third string quartets, because I must also mention Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 3 “in iij Noct.” here, which is performed in complete darkness.  We insist that the condition of darkness be so profound when we perform it that you can’t see your hand in front of your own face.  The piece has a quasi-improvisational structure to it that allows for a bit more spontaneous music making than many other pieces in our domain.  All these conditions add up to an experience that elicits a range of responses: from terrifying to ecstatic, hallucinatory to synaesthetic.  It’s a blast!  Rounding out the list is Horatiu Radulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “Before the Universe was born” which pulls a range of harmonics and complex spectral sounds out of our instruments unlike any other music we’ve played.  It is an experience both spiritual and transcendent.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Many of my favorite musicians are already listed in my responses to the above questions and so imagine me re-listing all of the above here.  There are many cellists whose recordings have been highly influential to me, including Rostropovich, du Pre, Isserlis, and many others.  I’ll also take this opportunity to note that my tastes vary widely to include much more than classical and contemporary classical music.  I am often fascinated by autodidactic musicians who developed their own sophisticated musical languages.  Frank Zappa comes to mind, as well as electronic musicians Aphex Twin and Autechre.  Björk has a unique vocal instrument as well as an idiosyncratic approach to the craft of songwriting.  The Swedish metal band Meshuggah has developed a complex polyrhythmic style that is hard to duplicate successfully in any other musical form.  There are many others, again too numerous to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

This may be cheating a bit as it is in the near future, but we are about to travel to Bali to perform with a full gamelan and traditional dancers on a huge outdoor stage at a festival attended by an estimated 8,000 people.  I believe it will be quite memorable!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

You must figure out what is the most unique contribution you can make to the music world and follow that path.  It is not enough just to play well anymore, but you have to figure out what makes your interpretation or performance different and memorable in order to stand out from the crowd.  You also have to love and care about your work.  I think it is nearly impossible to make a personal stamp without putting your heart into it.

What are you working on at the moment?

Trying to stay sane until our break in July!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be surrounded by people you love, to be doing work that is gratifying and rewarding, to always be learning and growing as a person, to smile and laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and to be at peace with yourself so that you can know true compassion for others.

Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, JACK is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works, leading them to work closely with composers Helmut Lachenmann, György Kurtág, Matthias Pintscher, Georg Friedrich Haas, James Dillon, Toshio Hosokawa, Wolfgang Rihm, Elliott Sharp, Beat Furrer, Caleb Burhans, and Aaron Cassidy. Upcoming and recent premieres include works by Jason Eckardt, Zeena Parkins, Payton MacDonald, Huck Hodge, James Clarke, Mauro Lanza, Simon Steen-Andersen, Walter Zimmermann, , and Toby Twining.

JACK has led workshops with young composers at Princeton University, Yale University, the American String Teachers Association of New Jersey, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany), New York University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, Eastman School of Music, University at Buffalo, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, University of Huddersfield (United Kingdom), University of Washington, University of Victoria (Canada), and Manhattan School of Music. In addition to working with composers and performers, JACK seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience.

The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music, and they have since studied with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Muir String Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

www.jackquartet.com

Ford Madox Brown ‘Pretty Baa Lambs’ (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

This autumn’s blockbuster exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain, is a sumptuous display of much-loved paintings by the core of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt – together with works by their disciples, as well as sculpture, textiles, furniture and glass. Five years in the making, this is the chance to see around 180 works brought together, and is the largest survey of the group since 1984. Read my full review here

Pianist, broadcaster and teacher David Owen Norris presented an engaging, informative and entertaining masterclass at the BBC Radio Theatre as part of the autumn season The Piano on the BBC. The event was filmed for the Radio Three website and BBC YouTube Channel and featured five young pianists, all recent graduates/post-graduates from music college or university.

The masterclass was called ‘Sooner or Later’ because it sought to explore, through individual performances of whole pieces by each pianist and then detailed work on aspects of the score, how pianists can play more expressively and ‘poetically’ by arriving at a note or phrase sooner or later, in effect using what musicians call tempo rubato.

Tempo rubato (literally “stolen time” in Italian) is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of space or shape within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato gives the music expressive freedom, allowing it space, room to breathe – just as the human voice has shifts in dynamic, tempo and cadence.

As David Owen Norris pointed out, other instruments are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expressiveness. When listening to music, the audience want to be “surprised” or “satisfied”, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction.

Rubato is not always written into the score (though Liszt has “written in” rubato in many measures of the Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, largely through the use of syncopation) and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line as a sung line.

David Owen Norris (DON) used the example of Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5 to demonstrate how the composer uses directions such as “sf” (sforzando) to highlight points of interest in the music. A less refined pianist might be tempted to simply lay extra emphasis or force on these notes, but as DON pointed out, a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying the arrival at the note. It is the placing of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

I also liked his definition of the hairpin crescendo marking being an indication to “set the music free” and “let it take flight”. Often, our natural inclination when we see such a marking is to increase the tempo slightly, just as we might slacken the tempo with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes (example from masterclass – the ‘Andante’ from Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14).

Rubato is not easy to teach, and inexperienced students may find it hard to shape phrases or allow “space” between notes convincingly. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural and uncontrived. In my experience, too many pianists, professional and amateur, when playing Chopin, feel the need to pull the tempo around far too much, making the music sound schmaltzy and saccharine. It is the subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This is why it is a important to encourage students to sing a phrase, listen to the natural shaping the voice gives to the melodic line and then recreate that at the piano. My recent experience as an accompanist has also taught me more about rubato, and the subtle fluctuations in tempo that another performer will bring to the music: a skilled accompanist will have the requisite empathy to “read” or predict where the other instrumentalist might place notes or phrases. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced. I agree with David Owen Norris that this ability to play rubato convincingly and intuitively comes from both a detailed study of the score to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own “personal sound” at the piano.

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!”

– Arthur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

Music examples from the masterclass (links open in Spotify):

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Op.67 – No. 5. Moderato in B minor “The Shepherd’s complaint”

Mendelssohn: Rondo capriccioso, Op.14

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Op.53 – No. 4. Adagio in F “Sadness of Soul”

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight”: Adagio sostenuto

Chopin – Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Op.19 – No. 4 in A (Moderato)

Francis Poulenc – Novelette

Billy Mayerl – Printers Devil

An earlier blog post on entasis and taking time in music

Emmanuel Vass, one of the participants in the masterclass will feature in a forthcoming ‘Meet the Artist’ interview. The film of the masterclass will be released on the BBC Radio Three website and YouTube channel on 17th September.

BBC Media Centre press release:

This Autumn, Saturday 15 September until Tuesday 6 November, the BBC will be dedicating a suite of programmes to the music, history and beauty of one of the world’s most iconic instruments, the piano.

Piano Season on the BBC is a major six-week season celebrating a single instrument. The season will explore the piano’s wide-ranging influence from the 1700s to the present day, as well as delve into the lives of the people behind the piano and the music created for it.

Highlights of the season include an in-depth insight into The Leeds International Piano Competition, a Jazz Battle live from Trinity Laban College Greenwich, a downloadable A-Z of the piano, Peter Donohoe’s 50 Greats, an online masterclass for budding pianists and well-loved personalities from around the UK, such as Woman’s Hour’s Jane Garvey, Radio 1’s Dev and Olympic medal winner Samantha Murray, taking up the challenge of learning the piano for the first time, with eight of them taking part in the season finale, Gala Concert in Cardiff on the 29 October 2012.

The season begins with extensive coverage of the Leeds International Piano Competition with live broadcasts of the final on BBC Radio 3 and a six-part series about the finalists on BBC Four. The season will culminate on 6 November with a special episode of Imagine on BBC One focusing on Lang Lang as he turns 30.

Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3, comments: “The piano is a single instrument that has the ability to convey a range of emotions and the power of a whole orchestra. Over six weeks we will be exploring this remarkable instrument: its history, mechanics and influence, as well as delving into the lives of the people behind the instrument and the music created for it. Piano Season on the BBC embodies everything that makes Radio 3 unique, offering listeners a distinctive range and depth of classical music, jazz and discussion.”

Richard Klein, Controller BBC Four, comments: “As the gold card channel for arts and culture, BBC Four is delighted to give our viewers an insight in to the Leeds Piano Competition through a series of six documentaries focussing on the finalists of this world class competition. The BBC is committed to partnering with arts and music organisations and BBC Four is delighted to be continuing the relationship with the Leeds Piano Competition to bring such a high calibre of classical music, performances and artistry to viewers as part of Piano Season on the BBC.”

The Leeds International Piano Competition on BBC Four will be presented by Suzy Klein, herself a pianist, and will showcase the six finalists and their concerto performances in full. The series will also take viewers behind the scenes to discover why ‘The Leeds’ is admired worldwide, take a closer look at the mechanical marvel that is the piano, speak directly to the woman behind the competition, Dame Fanny Waterman, who has inspired a generation of young musicians and delve into what makes a world-leading concert pianist. With arguably one of the piano world’s biggest stars taking an ambassadorial role with the competition, we’ll also hear from Lang Lang on why ‘The Leeds’ still matters as it approaches its 50th birthday.

Radio 3 listeners can follow the competition live with both Concerto Finals nights and the Sunday Afternoon Gala Concert broadcast live from Leeds. Piano Season on Radio 3 continues with artists such as Lang Lang, the Labeque Sisters and Malcom Martineau sharing their musical inspirations, as well as hearing from experts such as David Owen Norris and Peter Donohoe. Programmes will feature some of the greatest piano music ever written by composers who themselves loved and played the piano; including Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin alongside late night jazz programming exploring some of the greatest names in jazz pianism.

Monday nights will be ‘Piano Night’ when Radio 3’s Live in Concert will offer listeners a series of unique piano recitals, from different corners of the nation, given by an array of international artists. Past Leeds finalist Sunwook Kim will play Beethoven and Schubert and Russian Evgenia Rubinova presents a programme of music from her native country; Ukrainian Alexei Grynyuk plays Chopin and Liszt; Pascal and Ami Rogé play French music for two pianos; while Radio 3 New Generation Artist Igor Levit performs Rzewksi’s celebrated and fiendishly difficult Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”; Ashley Wass and Huw Watkins team up to perform Robin Holloway’s pianistic tour-de-force “The Gilded Goldbergs”.

In Radio 3’s morning programmes, listeners will have the chance to hear the 50 Great Pianists – a short daily focus on one of the 50 greatest names from the world of pianism as selected by Peter Donohoe, while regular programmes such as Composer Of The Week will explore the lives of composers who wrote for the instrument, from Clementi to Rachmaninov.

Special guests and piano lovers including as Kathryn Stott, Valentina Lisitsa, James May, Alan Rusbridger and Benjamin Frith will be joining the regular Radio 3 presenters through the season to talk about their passion and experiences with the iconic instrument. There will also be online masterclasses, exploration of the historical and social history of the piano and an entertaining A-Z of the piano in Radio 3’s late afternoon programme In Tune.

Trinity College London and the ABRSM [Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music] will be helping budding pianists hone their skills in ‘110%’ on Friday nights. We’ll be treated to great performances of Piano Syllabus pieces and hear from the experts on what make them so special and how to get 110% in their exams.

Later on in the Autumn, BBC One’s Imagine will return with a special documentary presented by Alan Yentob on Lang Lang, arguably one of the greatest pianists of his generation, as he turns 30. Lang Lang’s dazzling technique and musicality have inspired a generation of young pianists and delighted audiences throughout the world.

Imagine follows him on an impressive schedule of concerts in Shanghai, New York, London and Berlin and reveals a personal story that began with great hardship and a family dream that nearly ended in tragedy. In this auspicious ‘Year of the Dragon’ Lang Lang celebrates his 30th birthday at a concert in Berlin with Herbie Hancock, opens his own piano school in China, plays for the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee, performs sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and becomes the first classical musician to headline at a British pop music festival.

BBC Four will also celebrate Lang Lang being appointed as the Global Ambassador of the Leeds International Piano Competition with two one-off documentaries on Friday 2 November. Lang Lang At The Roundhouse will give viewers an opportunity to see this stunning performance at London’s legendary Roundhouse, recorded at the iTunes festival in July 2011. Lang Lang performs a remarkable Liszt recital as the only classical music artist in a true rock-star surrounding, next to international pop stars like Coldplay, Adele and Linkin Park. And Lang Lang: The Art Of Being A Virtuoso follows Lang Lang through China, the US and Europe and offers a glimpse into life on tour with the superstar.

 

Tomorrow, I will be attending a live recording of a masterclass hosted by David Owen Norris, to be filmed for Radio Three website as part of the piano season on the BBC. The masterclass will explore how pianists set about discovering and conveying the poetic musical message of much loved piano pieces. In a neat coincidence, one of the participants is pianist Emmanuel Vass, who will be featured in my ‘Meet the Artist’ series.