Variation V

Variation V:  Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, Op. 82 (opening of first movement)


WWI would mark the end of an Era; nothing would be the same again.  Not that the world had never known war before.  But the massive scope and unparalleled violence left few in Western Civilization unscarred.  The artistic world as a whole turned inwards as it set off on new Modern paths. No one could have foretold that the end of WWI was just a prelude to the even greater destruction of WWII.

Two Russians addressed war, not by running away, but by confronting it head-on – Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  Much has been made of these two composer’s differences, personal, ideological and artistic, but in the war works – Shostakovich’s Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies and Prokofiev’s Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Piano Sonatas – they speak and sing with an uncannily unified vision.

If one must compare, Prokofiev is an important orchestral composer, but he finds his home more in the Piano and Piano-connected Chamber Music, such as the Violin Sonatas; Shostakovich is a great Symphonist and a brilliant orchestrator, but much less at home with the piano.  The key for me of interpreting Prokofiev’s War Sonatas is to orchestrate them with the scope and colors of Shostakovich’s War Symphonies.


Percussion is an integral part of Orchestration, and War and Devastation requires plenty of Percussion and Brass.  Don’t try to romanticize or smooth out the harsh realities of a devastated landscape.  Don’t close your ears to occasional ugliness; don’t apologize for bombs blowing away a crater right next to you, killing your comrade.  You are the bomb, your friend, and yourself.  Bombs, machine-guns and swords don’t apologize for their nature – they just are.

Remember at the same time that you are a human being subject to laws of efficient movement – sew destruction with the grace of a sword-wielding Samurai. This I learned from Argerich.  You needn’t hit the Piano with the imbalance and forced sound of a Lazar Berman or the whole school of pianists imitating Gilels and Horowitz, imagining that bigger and louder is better, no matter the cost.  Although it’s difficult to reach the Piano’s outer dynamic limits with relaxed, efficient sound-production, it’s quite easy to force even a small sound if you lose your balance and tighten unintentionally.  Remember that there are two types of Percussionist – those that hit and beat, and those that sing and dance.  As they say, know what you are and be it.




Defining the Color Levels

Our excerpt is the first eight bars of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata.  Do you see the four primary layers?

In the first bar, the only possible ambiguity is in the l.h. – is the octave on the downbeat Bass divisi or Bass doubled by Tenor?  It depends how you hear the second beat – does the D-sharp tri-tone enter out of nowhere, or does it reach out of the downbeat as a monstrous leap of a sharped eleventh?  I prefer to hear it primarily melodically, as an army of Bass and Tenor Trombones blaring away threateningly.  Still, the separate elements cry out to be highlighted.  If I were orchestrating, I would double the low A on the downbeat and the low D-sharp on the fourth beat with a couple prehistoric-sounding Tubas, and the D-sharps on the second beat with complex of percussive effects and even a high ornamental flourish in the Soprano Clarinet.  This last touch, however, would be Orchestral Transcription and not simple Orchestral Reduction because it would introduce notes that don’t’ exist in the original Piano Version.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, simply define the four layers generically, using Dynamic Contrast and a certain amount of Color Differentiation. 

Here are the eight bars of the excerpt, color-coded:


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

The larger the orchestral force, the more potential for spreading the beat.  Start by using a wide Vertical Hierarchy spread in each hand, playing the r.h. before the l.h. when they line up.  Then decrease the spread until the perception of a double-beat disappears.

Now increase the spread again slightly and try to eliminate the double-beat by changing timbre (Mallet, type of energy, Depth, Height) and/or increasing Dynamic Differentiation. 

Isolate the l.h. octave on the downbeat of the first bar.  These two notes are not widely spread out horizontally, so if played at the same dynamic level with the same touch, you will only be able to spread the beat a little using Vertical Hierarchy before a double-beat becomes apparent.  If you introduce dynamic contrast, playing the top A f and the bottom A p, you’ll find that you can increase the spread while maintaining a unified beat.  Now play the top A ff and bottom A ppp.  The potential spread is now enormous, because the higher, loud A casts a long, dark, shadow. 

The same effect can be realized by changing timbre between the upper and lower note of the octave.  If you use a brighter color on top, you’ll be able to spread them farther apart.

If you combine Dynamic Differentiation and Timbre Differentiation, using a bright, brilliant, glossy ff on top and a mellow, matte pp on bottom, you may be shocked by the amount of spread you can get away with.  Try it.

Now take the r.h. alone on the downbeat of the first measure and exaggerate the possibilities of spread with those two wide-eyed notes.  You’ll notice that they can’t be spread nearly as much because they’re so close together spatially, only a minor third apart.  They can still be spread more than you might think though.  Experiment.


Now put the four notes together, two in the right, two in the left.  The distance between the two hands is more than two octaves, which naturally allows more of a spread than a single octave.  Experiment with these four notes, outside of the scope of this Prokofiev excerpt, treating them to various colors and dynamic levels. 

Now take the same four notes and apply Reverse Hierarchy to them, first with a wide, arpeggiated spread, then a tight, explosive spread, feeling the rotation in the forearms, opening each chord like a doorknob.  Continue through the entire excerpt in this way.

Have you discovered colors you want to use?  Try now applying Free Placement, mixing up Vertical Hierarchy and Reverse Hierarchy, even occasionally within the same chord in the same hand.  Your interpretation will most likely lie somewhere in this realm.


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

Look through each layer, defining the Energy Pillars.  Where there’s ambiguity, make temporary choices and refine them later.  Once each layer becomes clear, put them all together, heavily accenting each of the Pillars.  Once you stop resisting the flow of energy, relax the accents and flow with it.  Zen takes over. 

But remember that Zen only works when it’s the means and not the object.

Notice again how vertical moments usually center into a single note, just as phrases center energy horizontally.  Here are the Energy Pillars as I realize them:



Applying and Removing Gloss

The nature of this excerpt invites high gloss, especially in the main line.  Don’t ever confuse volume with gloss, though; gloss makes a sound seem louder without increasing the actual volume.  You may want to create contrast by incorporating big sounds with a mattier finish or softer sounds with a glossier finish.


Defining the Pedaling

The texture has to remain absolutely vivid.  This doesn’t mean dry, but the pedaling shouldn’t seem overly present.  Clear it completely as often as possible, especially when attacking important notes, and grade the pedal with virtuosity.

Experiment with heavy pedaling, playing under tempo, savoring the blending of harmonies and colors.  Then take away the pedal, using only heavy finger-pedaling.  When this becomes comfortable, add in the pedal again, little by little, relaxing the finger-pedaling somewhat.

As you work through each filter, notice how various touches affect your pedaling.

Write in your pedaling choices into the score with as much precision as possible, making revisions as you discover superior choices.


Linking and Separating

Linking and Separating can be practiced musically, or purely physically.  Play through the excerpt, rhythmically grouping physical gestures.  Once each physical grouping becomes tighter and more separated from the surrounding groupings, link all of the gaps by reorganizing the rhythms to pause on the first note or chord after each gap, and not before it.  Through this process, your understanding of the physical patterns will become refined and the separation between patterns erased.  The energy purifies.

Next, work purely musically, separating and linking gestures and phrases in the same way. 

All punctuation should be placed deliberately before being read naturally.


Defining Rubato

This is a highly rhythmically driven excerpt, so the Rubato on all levels should be subtle and calculated.

Notate into your score all three types of Rubato – Placement, forward/backward movement, and tempo modification between phrases or sections.  Be aware of how each of the three affects the listener’s perception of Future, Present and Past dimensions.

Realize your intentions with as much precision as possible, then release them again to your intuition.


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

Contrast a heavily finger-pedaled approach with a loose, staccato approach in the Argerich vein, releasing sounds immediately to the pedal.  Once that becomes comfortable, begin refining each individual touch, becoming aware of its exact length in the finger and the speed of its release.

Create a rich tapestry of touch.


Height and Depth

Work through the entire excerpt, using all the previous Height and Depth exercises.  In general, Height will give greater clarity and shine, Depth greater weight and penetration.

A touch that works especially well in this excerpt is something I call the Punch in the Gut.  From about six inches about the key surface, drop the entire weight of the arm into the keys, sinking deep.  Don’t relax the arm completely though – punch as you drop, letting the weight take on a certain percussive edge to it.  The Piano will shout back a little as it absorbs such a jolt of energy.  Don’t shy away though – it should have just enough edge to grab the listener but not make him close his ears.

Remember also, percussive colors sound much less edgy in the concert hall.


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

I’m not much of a Dancer.  Perhaps I’m too shy or too much of a perfectionist to enjoy throwing my body around superficially in a crowd of people.  Or maybe I just need lessons…

But I’ve always been fascinated by Dance and Choreography.  I love to see music animated by moving bodies – translating it, commentating on it, moving against it.  I used to even sometimes dream in Dance.

I was about twenty-two and it was mid-January.  NYC is frigid in Winter, and Manhattan’s skyscrapers create wind tunnels that ice the streets and chill the brain.  Early one morning, walking down Broadway, around 72nd St., I ran into a fellow pianist who coached with me.  A couple days earlier I’d given her a lesson on a Chopin Nocturne.

So how’s it coming along?

Much better, but I still can’t find my way through the opening phrases convincingly.  I need another lesson!

Well, show me what you’re doing with it.

What, here, now!?

Why not?

She was Japanese, with big eyes that always seemed to be asking a question.  She pulled ice skates out of her backpack and started putting them on.  I didn’t know she skated, but she was an unpredictable girl and it didn’t faze me.  She waddled and wiggled her way over to the edge of the street, iced over and oddly free of yellow cabs, lifted her right foot as if breathing, and stepped onto the ice, immediately gliding.

The crisp, morning air filled with Chopin’s nocturnal reverie.  She skated just as she played!  Yes, I could immediately see where she misfocused the energy and broke the line, the points where her body lost its natural elegance, the sound hardening.  I watched and listened as she performed the entire piece. 

A crowd was gathering.

So what do you think of it?  She was breathless, her cheeks red, eyes perplexed.

I began explaining what had worked and what hadn’t, what needed further reflection, what...

She grew impatient, cutting me off.

David, SHOW ME! 

Alright, come over later on then and we can work through it.

No!  Here, NOW!

She had the patience of a toddler.

I looked at my watch – I still had a few minutes before my eight o’clock appointment.  Such eyes are hard to say no to.  I took off my backpack, whipped out my own ice skates (did she know I skated as well?), put them on and began giving her a full-out Piano lesson on ice. 

Suddenly there was a loud siren, completely destroying the enchanted scene.

I woke up with a start.  Eight o’clock.


Imagining Real Orchestration

The more the orchestra becomes a part of you, the more easily and readily you’ll imagine orchestral colors as you study scores.

Read through the excerpt, noting orchestral possibilities for each note or group of notes.  Work through them singing and conducting.  This excerpt is in a rather strict four, just like the Debussy excerpt, so it should give you little difficulty.  Remember to envision your Orchestra, continuing to use your eyes to cue entrances.  (Add in your left arm once the right starts to move on its own.)

Take the score back to the Piano and realize your orchestral colors pianistically. 

Here is a sketch of how I envision the orchestration.  Realize it first away from the Piano, as a Conductor, then again at the Piano.


Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

The other day, my almost two-year-old girl climbed up on the Piano bench and found a MET program from the previous night’s Opera.   She brought it over to the couch, where I was sitting, and started leafing through it.  A picture of Hansel and Gretel caught her eye, and she asked me tell her the story.  About thirty seconds into it, she interrupted me with her baby Korean, Doi-tta!  (That’s enough!)

Snatching away the program, she ran over to the Piano, climbed up on the bench, placed on the music rack, opened up to the picture of Hansel and Gretel, sat down and began playing and singing me the story, all the while scribbling away as if annotating interpretational choices along the way with a #2 pencil…

What Piano-playing is all about.

The Four Principle Mallets and the Four Physical Levels

Work through all of the Mallet and Physical Level exercises, combining and contrasting them.  Be as specific as you can in your score once you arrive at interpretive decisions.  Simple awareness solves a great deal of technical problems and clarifies your interpretation.

Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

If you don’t have the patience at the moment to work through all of your filters, choose at least ten of them that you feel will influence you the most.  It’s of course always comfortable to embrace friends, but reach out as well to artists that you don’t like or don’t understand yet. 

The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

The Hand of God finds its ideal home in Prokofiev, and all big orchestrally conceived works.  You can use it as a tool in the practice room or actively in the concert hall, as Gilels did.  It depends on your preferences.

Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

I leave the Samurai’s sword in your hands.

Speed, Weight and Compression

Like all composers, Prokofiev can be approached from any of the three sides of energy, or any of the combinations of the three, but the greatest orchestrator usually finds a way to use most of the colors at his disposal.  If you choose to limit your choices, as in orchestrating for a String Orchestra rather than a full Orchestra, do so for artistic purposes.


The size of Prokofiev, like the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, confuses the mind and the emotions.  Return to the Super-melody, clearing out a focused pathway for performance.

Playing Blind

Everyday I wake up and it occurs to me that I’m finally beginning to understand the Piano.  It’s the first day of the rest of my life…

One of the times I felt I was really beginning to get to know the Piano for the first time was when I played Petroushka through several times in a row with my eyes shut.  Over time I became quite comfortable playing without looking, and for a time I did entire recitals with my eyes shut.  The Concert Hall becomes a Zen Temple, a Hall of Meditation.  I gradually started performing with my eyes open again, but I wasn’t looking anymore. 

I see only the reflection of my shadow.