My husband laughs at my love of The Joy of Painting with American painter Bob Ross, which is broadcast on BBC Four in the early evenings. The programmes were originally created and aired in the 1980s and early 90s, and they do look a little dated now (along with Bob’s permed hair!). Additionally, Bob’s paintings – rather cheesy landscapes and snowy scenes – are not the sort of art I’d hang on my walls, but that hardly matters in the context of this article.
Bob is clearly a highly skilled artist. He exudes a quiet self-assurance which comes from confidence in his own techniques, and he uses his materials with a remarkable yet modest dexterity. He knows exactly which brush or palette knife to use to create a specific effect – the silvery bark of a birch tree or reflections on water. Watching a painting emerge from Bob’s palette before your eyes is mesmerising and strangely calming, but that is not the primary reason why I am hooked on these programmes: I am fascinated by Bob’s technique.
Musicians, like artists, need well-developed, secure technique in order to navigate the score and create music. Technique should always serve the art, whether it is painting or performing music; one demonstrates how finely-honed one’s technique is when it is no longer visible – when one plays, or paints, in such a way that it appears fluent and effortless. Bob Ross has mastered his technique to such an extent that we almost forget there is any technique involved at all.
Technical skills like this require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.
Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire, a greater sense of intuition when we practice and perform, and the ability to play with greater spontaneity and nuance. The control of nuance will determine the version the performer performs. Much of this nuance will be pre-planned, practiced, memorised and finessed to such a degree that it sounds totally spontaneous in performance, but the rest comes ‘in the moment’ of performance – a genuinely spontaneous, quasi-improvisatory response to interaction between performer and music, performer and audience, the responsiveness of the audience, the performer’s mood and sensibilities, the ambiance of the concert hall, the time of day….It is this kind of musical “sprezzatura” that creates those magical, “you had to be there” moments in live concerts. It cannot be planned in advance – and yet it comes from the performer’s meticulous preparation, their deep knowledge of the music, their technical facility and mastery of their art, and their experience.
No one wants to watch an artist labouring with their work – this is one of the reasons why The Joy of Painting is such a pleasure to watch because Bob makes it look so easy (and he never lets his ego get in the way of the creation of art). Watch a performer like Martha Argerich in performance (a pianist I’ve been lucky enough to hear live in concert on several occasions) and you will see this same effortlessness.
“my jump is not high enough, my twists are not perfect, I can’t place my leg behind my ear…..Sometimes there is such an obsession with the technique that this can kill your best impulses. Remember that communicating with a form of art means being vulnerable, being imperfect. And most of the time is much more interesting. Believe me.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov – ballet dancer
Music, like ballet, is a creative, artistic activity, but that creativity must be underpinned by secure technique – a range of mechanical skills, such as how we move our limbs, manage breathing and airflow, or control our embouchure, which enable us to execute musical ideas. These skills are developed and honed over time, and a large proportion of the musician’s training and practice is devoted to fine-tuning and maintaining their technical facility.
Musicians use a variety of means to practice technique, including scales and arpeggios, exercises, etudes and excerpts from the music currently being worked on. Technical skills require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.
Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire.
As the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says in the quote at the head of this article, “an obsession with technique can kill your best impulses”. The obsessive need to find perfection in one’s technique, coupled with the anxiety of achieving perfect arpeggio runs or intonation, can deaden musical and artistic expression, leading to performances which may be note-perfect and faithful to the score, but lacking in emotional depth and communication. In addition, this quest for technical perfection may lead to over-practicing and even injury. It can also rob us of curiosity and joy in our practicing and music-making.
“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.” David Mamet, playwright & director
Technique must always serve the music – the two are inseparable – but if one becomes too obsessed with technique alone, one risks overlooking the expressive, communicative and emotional aspects in the music. A willingness to look beyond technique, to accept that perfection is unattainable (because we are all human), leads to greater artistry and imagination in our music-making, and allows us to play “in the moment”, creating performances which are spontaneous, exciting and memorable.
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Pianist, composer and teacher Peter Feuchtwanger has died. I never met Peter, though I wanted to, but I felt a connection to him and his wisdom via my teachers who studied with him, and also via pianist friends and colleagues who were taught by him and spoke of his inspirational, sympathetic and experimental approach to piano technique and piano playing.
In addition to his own piano studies with Gerti Rainer (a pupil of Emil von Sauer), Max Egger, Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking, Peter Feuchtwanger also studied composition with Hans Heimler (a pupil of Alban Berg, Heinrich Schenker and Felix Weingartner) and Lennox Berkeley, as well as Indian and Arabic music and philosophy. His Studies in an Eastern Idiom (Tariqas) and Variations on an Eastern Folk Tune are inspired by Eastern folk and art music and demonstrate inventive use of the piano’s sonority, texture and pedal effects to suggest Arabic, Indian and other Eastern instruments, styles and motifs.
Largely self-taught, he formed his personal conclusions about technique through experimentation that was free from the dogma or narrow approach of “schools” of piano teaching or formal musical training. As a consequence, he was regarded by some within the profession with suspicion, while those who studied with him and absorbed his wisdom are full of praise for his ability to think outside the box of traditional piano technique and talk of the transformative power of his teaching.
Most people are slaves to technique. But technique is not about playing mechanically and quickly, it is also about tone-balance, colours…. – Peter Feuchtwanger
His piano exercises were developed to relax the hand without making it completely powerless. The specified fingerings encourage the smooth, elliptical, natural choreography of the hands and fingers, and allow the instrument to be played with the greatest relaxation of the body, resulting in tension-free playing and a beautiful sound.
Touching tributes from some of his former pupils
I will never forget the kindness shown me by Peter Feuchtwanger……..without his guidance and generosity of soul I doubt I would be a musician today. He criticised perpetually (with characteristic vibrancy and charm), strove to make me realise my finest self, instinctively understood me, was a considerate listener, was a fountain of naughty jokes, never doubted me and proved to be far more than merely my piano teacher.
You haven’t died, Peter; your legacy lives with the vitality of every string set into vibration by the many pianists who’s lives you touched.
….his vast knowledge of styles of playing, along with his unique technical approach, have been incredible for my development, and I’m constantly amazed at his generosity, and commitment to teaching. (DR)
He brought out the absolute best in his pupils by his unquestioning faith in his pupils’ abilities, and his loyal support and generosity of time. The universal truth in his technique will live on in his many hundreds of students. (WMS)
Great teachers never die: their wisdom and enduring legacy is passed down to their students, and continues through successive generations of pianists.
A new website has been launched by Jovan Haji-Djurich, a student of Kemal Gekic and his studio teaching assistant for 2 years at the Florida International University, Miami FL. Prior to studying with Kemal, Jovan worked worked with Alan Fraser (The Craft of Piano Playing Method) for several years.
Here Jovan introduces his new project:
It’s a subscription based website/service where awesome piano teachers like Alan or Kemal Gekic get to upload their teaching videos, masterclasses for other pianists to watch and they get paid for it.
Some of the core features are:
Up to 70% of the money collected from subscription fees gets used to pay the teachers.
Teachers are paid by the number of cumulative video views at the end of the month.
Various algorithms prevent misuse by the students and teachers as well. For example, a teacher can not create views on his own videos…etc
I developed a a unique ‘cost per view’ mechanism, which determines a cost of a single lesson view based on the number of total users, lessons, and total number of lesson views.
I built it myself using latest web technologies. I felt the need to share Alan’s, Kemal’s, or any great teacher’s teaching videos to the general public. How often can we afford to travel and play for a really good teacher. Or even just observe their masterclasses.
I am delighted to present my third article for ‘Pianist’ Magazine’s e-newsletter, on the use of the sustain pedal, often misused and misunderstood by pianists and piano students. The article includes a helpful exercise to assist in mastering the art of good legato pedalling (an exercise which I know works as I have used it successfully with a number of my students).
There is also a link to a feature on the London Piano Meetup Group and the South London Concert Series, which I run with my friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage.
People who know me well – and who have eaten at my dinner table – probably feel it was inevitable that I would eventually combine my twin passions of food and pianism in a blog post.
This time last year I was in the midst of final preparations for my ATCL Performance Diploma. I was also hooked on Masterchef the Professionals, a BBC TV competition for working chefs. This time this year I am once again immersed in Diploma preparations (for the higher LTCL), and nightly glued to Masterchef the Professionals.
So how can a cookery tv game show (which is how Masterchef began nearly 20 years ago) provide inspiration to the pianist, and musician in general?
The programme features some very talented individuals. Many of the dishes they submit to the highly discriminating judges are amazing: creative, imaginative and beautifully prepared. In order to progress through the contest, the participants must complete a variety of tests, including skills tests which examine things like the ability to joint a bird correctly, prepare a lobster or make Hollandaise sauce (three ways). They must also prepare a classic dish, set by Michael Roux Jr, as well as cooking and serving a two-course meal for food critics. As the competition progresses, the tasks become more challenging.
The more I watched Masterchef, and the further the competition proceeded towards its exciting denouement, the more it became apparent to me that the chefs who consistently came out top (and the one who eventually won the competition, Ash Mair), all had their “skills sets” perfected. At the foundation of everything they cooked was a solid understanding of technique, ingredients, flavour combinations, and time-management, combined with creative flair and imagination. And as I watched, it occurred to me that musicians, especially those preparing for concerts, competitions, festivals or exams, also need to have secure “skills sets” (i.e. technique).
Technique is at the foundation of everything we do as pianists (and this is true for anyone who works in a profession/craft requiring skill and dexterity – for example, sportspeople, surgeons, sculptors, plumbers). Piano technique is not just finger dexterity but – just as for a chef – an aggregate of many skills. It is an understanding of how movement can influence the way we play the piano, the sounds we make, our ability to move rapidly around the keyboard. It is “a way of using your body to play the piano” (Maria Joao Pires). I see technique as the solid architectural framework on which we hang our creativity, artistic and interpretative vision, our musicality, and our communication with the listener. And technique must never just be about acquiring “finger technique”; we should always practice in a musical way – because practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music.
Sure, you come across people who play the piano well, but maybe you wonder, when you hear them play, why their fortes are too strident, or their tonal control lacks true cantabile sound. Both aspects require an ability to understand how we use the body to create particular sounds and effects on the keyboard. So, like the chefs on Masterchef the Professionals, we must bring together our skill set and our musicality to enable us to play better.
Another aspect which was very obvious from Masterchef was that all the finalists were highly organised time managers. They knew how long their dishes would take to prepare and they were expert at multi-tasking. They also had a well-developed understanding of how the different components of a dish should come together to create a whole meal. In the same way, the skilled musician understands how to construct a programme that will delight, excite and surprise the listener. The ingredients of a good programme should pique the listener’s appetite well before the soloist arrives on stage (when I select concerts to review, I largely base my choices on interesting repertoire and programming rather than performer). A concert pianist friend of mine once told me that his teacher (Phyllis Sellick) described a programme featuring music by the same composer as “a list!”, but “seasoning” your programme well can make a concert focusing on a single composer a fascinating and engaging experience – for listener and performer.
Let me backtrack a little in the process and explain how Masterchef influenced my Diploma preparations in the run up to the exam last December:
Be well-prepared: allowing oneself enough time to fully prepare each piece. Last-minute preparations are never a good idea, whatever level of exam you are taking. Being well-prepared can also counteract nerves on the day.
Time-management: make sure your programme runs to the correct timings as given in the exam regulations. At Diploma level, you will be marked down if your programme is too short, or over-runs. Time your pieces individually as well as your entire programme. And think about the silences between the pieces too: some pieces hang together naturally (I played a Bach Toccata and Debussy’s Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’ virtually back-to-back in my Diploma recital, to demonstrate the connections between the pieces, but a longer pause between the Schubert E flat Impromptu and Liszt Sonetto 123 was necessary, in part to allow me to catch my breath!)
Plan your menu. Your programme is your menu: plan it wisely. In my experience, as a regular concert-goer and occasional performer, the best programmes are those which offer different levels of energy, perhaps building to the climax of a big virtuosic piece, or piano sonata at the midway point. If the programme is very weighty, remember that the audience needs a break too.
Presentation: at Diploma level you are marked on your presentation skills and stagecraft, and your attire and manner must be professional. Dress appropriately for an afternoon or early evening recital, and practice playing in your concert clothes ahead of the actual date. (I had trouble with my shoes, for example, as I cannot pedal in high heels! And make sure your page turner is correctly attired too: mine wore plain black shirt and trousers).
Stay focussed: nerves can get the better of you but if you are well-prepared you should have no reason to feel nervous (beyond the “positive nerves” of looking forward to presenting your programme to an audience/examiner).
A couple of other tips for practising have come up as I’ve watched this year’s Masterchef The Professionals contest:
Last year, I played the Schubert E flat Impromptu to a pianist friend, twice, as part of my preparations. He told me I was using the pedal too much and ordered me to practice the piece without the pedal (except in the trio). At first, I found this a difficult and unpleasant experience, not least because the piece sounded dreadful without pedal on my piano. After a while, however, I began to notice new details about the music, which had hitherto been hidden by my rather over-enthusiastic foot. Likewise, on Masterchef last year, one of the finalists made a ‘Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom Pie’. He took all the components of a classic chicken pie, stripped them down and presented them in an elegant and witty way. When I made it myself, I realised why my friend had suggested practising the Schubert without pedal: when I went back to play the piece for my teacher, with one-eighth pedal, the result was more refined, musical and had far greater clarity.
So, it’s worth taking the trouble to strip the music back to its components: this does not necessarily mean doing an exhaustive analysis of the score, but being aware of all the little details that make up the whole. Practising sans pedal allows you to hear better what is going on in the music – maybe some interior voices or melodic lines were not obvious before? Understand what makes the whole and try to bring all the individual parts together to make a coherent and elegant finished version.
I’ve been working on my LTCL repertoire for nearly a year now, and soon it will be “decision time” as to when I take the exam (spring or summer 2013). The experience of the previous Diploma – and the inspiration from Masterchef! – means I feel far better prepared this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning aspects of technique including pedaling (specifically for Mozart A minor Rondo, K511, which requires very little, and very sensitive pedaling), and building stamina to enable me to play a brash and exuberant Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau (op 33, in E flat). I’ve done a lot of “tasting” – listening around my repertoire to gain inspiration from recordings, other works by the same composers, live performances etc. My ‘menu’ is nearly ready to be run by friends and colleagues who will sample it ahead of the exam:
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974
Takemitsu – Rain Tree SketchII
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Rachmaninov – Two Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 – No. 7 in E flat & No. 8 in G minor
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If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site