the composer George Gershwin

It seemed fitting in the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death for the pianist Denis Kozhukhin to devote half of a concert to his music, and appropriate to include George Gershwin in the second half. Debussy was undoubtedly aware of – and influenced by –  American ragtime and jazz, and had an immense influence on Gershwin, and later jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. The ghost of the French composer haunts many of Gershwin’s works with their pungent harmonies, simple melodies and improvisations.

Never had Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes seemed so languid, so laid back as in Kozhukhin’s hands: even the up-tempo pieces such as Le Vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, or the capricious La Danse de Puck had a relaxed suppleness which suggested music played not in a grand concert hall but rather late evening in a Parisian café with a glass of something before one. Danseuses de Delphes set the tone: this first Prelude had an erotic grace, a hint of naughtiness behind the direction Lent et grave (slow and serious). Voiles even more so: was this a boat gently rocking on water, its sails barely ruffled by a warm breeze, or perhaps diaphanous veils wafting in an altogether more sensuous scenario? Kozhukhin kept us guessing, lingering over Debussy’s intangible perfumed harmonies, subtly shading his colourful layers and textures, and highlighting the quirky rhythmic fragments which frequent these miniature jewels. His approach was concentrated and intense – the frigid stillness of Des pas sur la neige was almost exquisitely unbearable – but there was wit and playfulness too, Minstrels prancing cheekily across the keyboard to close the first half with an insouciant flourish.

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Artist photo: Marco Borggreve

My forays into the periphery of jazz repertoire have made me reconsider and adapt some techniques to suit the mood, nature and simple ability to play the pieces by Gershwin I am learning at present. This issue came up on the piano course in March, when one of the students, who presented the first two Gershwin Preludes for the masterclass, was urged by teacher to put aside all her classical training and thought processes, and to start thinking and playing like a jazz pianist. Thus, in the opening measures of the first Prelude, she was urged to “slap” the keys, literally throwing the hand at the keyboard, to allow the weight of the arm to create tenuto, and to employ heavy, lazy staccato. The difference in the sound of the piece was instant. It was immediately more “cool”. unforced, lazy almost. This kind of playing is very difficult to achieve – and this brief lesson in jazz piano technique proved that even the most improvisatory playing is based on very solid foundations of technique and harmonic awareness.

I’ve been putting some of these teaching “tricks” into practice with my students, a number of whom have expressed interest in learning some jazz, and while I would never ever profess to be a teacher of jazz piano (it’s a whole ‘nother world as far as I’m concerned!), I’m happy to work on some simple pieces with my students.

One student, who joined my studio last summer, was “escaping” from jazz. Her previous teacher was obviously keen on jazz and was teaching the ABRSM jazz syllabus which is very separate and distinct from the ‘classical’ piano syllabus. Like me, Bella was finding the music quite incomprehensible. Together we looked at the score, puzzled by some of the markings. I’ve been playing the piano for a long time (over 35 years), and I pride myself on my excellent sight-reading skills which enable me to pick up most music and gain a reasonable understanding of it on first view. Grade 2 jazz repertoire, however, was a mystery. What did the instruction “straight eights” mean? And what were those dashes where the notes should have been on the stave? (We realised eventually that this was a marking for improvisation.) Some internet research didn’t enlighten me much, and I was relieved when Bella declared she wanted to return to classical repertoire. Indeed, it was a relief to both of us to open the Grade 2 book and see a comforting page of Haydn.

Fortunately, Gershwin’s scores look like ‘traditional’ piano music: there are no weird markings, and he uses standard Italian terms, and places where crossed hands are required are less for virtuoso effect and more for ease of playing. So, by not having to translate the score into a language I understand, I can devote more time to honing technique to suit the music.

My students are growing familiar with my weird and wonderful visualisation techniques. Asking them to “tell the story” of the music has produced some wonderful effects, especially in those students who have been working on exam repertoire, where musicality is as important – if not more so – as playing the notes accurately. Reminding them that the piano can be “orchestrated” or played to mimic a particular instrument is also useful. Another trick I employ is asking a student to “hear” or “sing” the music in their head before playing. My teacher does this with me and it really does work. Another technique, employed at a recent lesson, was asking me to play the opening movement of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes closed, thus forcing me to think about touch and quality of sound.

Most of my students now know about the “giant invisible hand” which “lives” in my piano room. This helps them to articulate their hands towards the black keys by moving their elbow, or to push the wrist down to play drop slurs. It also pushes the forearm along to move the hand and wrist fluently when playing scales and arpeggios. It sounds daft, but this, more than anything else, is the visualisation technique which works the best. Even my adult students have come to know it and tell me they find it useful when practising at home.

Something else my teacher does is play on my bare forearm to demonstrate touch. The skin on the forearm is very receptive and it’s amazing how a quick demo of how I should be playing the opening measures of my Chopin Etude can be translated into sound on the keyboard. I have not yet tried this with my students; sadly, these days of child protection and over-cautiousness about touching children have made me wary of doing anything more than occasionally adjusting a child’s hand position.

Little Sam, who is only 8 and is already showing an affinity for jazz after only a year of lessons (he pulled off a characterful performance of ‘The Entertainer’ at my summer concert), proved at his lesson yesterday that he understands about “jazz hands”. He quickly picked up the idea of “slapping” the keys, lifting his hand off the keyboard momentarily before allowing it to fall heavily onto an E flat, thus emphasising the syncopation in the bar (he’s learning a piece called ‘Homework Blues’). Later, when I was looking at the opening of Gershwin’s first Prelude, I found myself doing exactly the same thing, which just goes to prove how one’s teaching can inform one’s own playing: it seems that by teaching a new technique it crystallises it in my mind – and fingers.

And now I really must do some practising…….

I’ve never been that keen on jazz, and, if I’m honest, it’s because I don’t really understand it. For all it’s grooviness and funkiness, it’s very esoteric, almost to the point of being impenetrable, sometimes even more inaccessible than the most obscure classical music. I am told, on a fairly regular basis, that the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is a genius, once a child prodigy, classically trained, who gave his first formal piano recital at the age of 7. However, whenever I have heard recordings of him playing, it just sounds like random notes, a bit plinky-plonky here and there, sounds that move off into the strange tangents of Jarrett-land, avenues and cul-de-sacs of improv which seem to have little coherence or structure. I’ll probably get into trouble with jazz fans and Jarrett-afficionados for saying that, but hey ho…..

Of course, I’ve always been aware of Gershwin. How could one not be, when ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Porgy and Bess’, and his piano concerto are some of the most famous works which bridge the gap between the classical and jazz worlds. His music epitomises the excitement of the 1920s, as the world emerged from the darkness of the First World War and people began to enjoy life again, now liberated from the social mores of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

My first attempt at playing Gershwin was a piano reduction of ‘Promenade’, more commonly know as ‘Walking the Dog’, a cute little number originally written for clarinet with small orchestra as incidental music for the film `Shall we Dance` (1937) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (The music accompanies Fred and Ginger as they exercise their dogs on a ship deck somewhere mid-Atlantic.) It was fun to learn and relatively easy to play.

I had heard the second prelude from the Three Preludes while looking for an MP3 of ‘Promenade’. I liked its languid mood, its tempo, Andante con moto e poco rubato, its use of blues chords, its nod to ‘Summertime’ in the main melody, wending its way above a smooth, steady quasi ostinato bass-line. Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby”. I first heard it, and the first prelude from the set, played live by one of the students on my teacher’s piano course in March. I got hooked on the second prelude and decided to learn it for my students’ concert. It has been a useful and occasionally steep learning curve, for, as my teacher pointed out, it has been necessary to set aside much of my classical training and try to think like a jazz pianist. At first this was very hard: letting go of nearly 40 years of training and method is not easy, and to start with, the piece sounded stiff and formal, with “classical” ornaments, and a melody that refused to ‘swing’. Gradually, though, I learnt to let go and the piece began to assume its own identity under my fingers. A run through for my teacher a couple of weeks ago confirmed this, and by the time I played it in my summer concert, I felt it had exactly the right mood: lazy and ‘cool’.

The first prelude from the set, marked Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, is altogether more ‘jazzy’, with its syncopated rhythms based on Brazilian “baiao”, and chords containing flattened sevenths (which sound – and feel – like “real” jazz chords). It begins with a 5-note blues motif and virtually all the melodic material in the piece is based on this. I’m just beginning to get my fingers, and head, around it. On first sight, I thought “Crikey! I can’t possibly play THAT”, but a bit of careful reading, going through it line by line with a pencil clamped between my teeth, and already it’s a lot clearer. It’s fun to play, as it contains fragments of a number of virtuoso techniques, including repeated notes, octaves, scales and crossed hands, each of which is used for only a moment before the piece catches a glimpse of some new idea.

I love this music, and I can safely say I am well and truly hooked on Gershwin. It’s satisfying to play – those big chords feel wonderful under the fingers – and a refreshing contrast to Chopin, Schubert et al, music that’s at ease with itself. I am thinking of playing the first Prelude at my Christmas concert, and offering all three as part of my performance Diploma programme.