goldberg variations

Variation III

Variation III:  Bach’s Goldberg Variations {Variation XXX}


J.S. Bach’s music is perhaps the purest ever composed.  It transcends medium.  It can be reorchestrated, rearranged, transcribed and retranscribed – its power remains.  It’s simply not bound to the instrument it was composed for.  This is not to say that his Violin Suites are unidiomatic, that his Cello Suites are unidiomatic, that his entire Organ output is unidiomatic.  By no means!  On the contrary, he understood each individual instrument perfectly and wrote in the most idiomatic way for whatever instrument or complex of instruments was required.  In spite of this, his music is so universal that it can be taken away from the intended medium and transcribed for another, often to equal and sometimes greater effect. 

Such is the case with Bach’s Keyboard output.  He wrote for the Harpsichord, and it sounds glorious on Harpsichord, but the modern Piano is by many counts a superior instrument.  Bach would be the first to embrace performing his Keyboard works on the modern Piano, with all its orchestral colors.

Don’t use the pedal in Bach because the Harpsichord has no pedal.  First of all, the Harpsichord is a very wet-sounding instrument.  It’s vibrant and electric and romantic!  If you feel strongly about the Harpsichord, I invite you not to perform Bach on the Piano at all and play it only on the Harpsichord …

Using pedal or not using pedal, playing Bach on the Piano or on the Harpsichord – these are artistic choices, not moral ones.  Bach played dry makes for a pristine, beautiful effect.  Touches of pedal add warmth.  Generous pedal, as Busoni would approach it, makes it lush.  Bach is big enough to embrace all three approaches, or even better, a combination of the three.  Don’t minimize Bach in your pianistic orchestrations – maximize him.  You will never arrive at the grandness of his original vision.


If you don’t view Bach as a Romantic, listen to his B-minor Mass.  Listen to his Organ works in a great European Cathedral with its warm, echoing acoustic.  He’s more than simply the parlor-room, dry, intimate meditation that so many interpreters make him out to be. 


The Goldberg Variations are arguably Bach’s Keyboard masterpiece.  The 30th Variation is the final, culminating variation before the return of the Aria Theme.  In it are encapsulated many of the trademarks of Bach’s genius.  Orchestrate it respecting the scope of his legacy.  And remember that if you choose to play of Bach on the Piano, whatever you do is invariably a transcription.


Defining the Color Levels

With one brief exception, this Variation is written strictly in four-part, chorale-like harmony.  It has the all-embracing, uplifting quality of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.  We’ll look at the first half, the first eight bars.  Here it is, color-coded:


The genius of Bach’s counterpoint, and this is especially evident in the Goldberg Variations, is that the hierarchy can be defined and varied at will without easily weakening the form.  Incidentally, this is not at all true of Beethoven’s counterpart, which is more harmonically conceived and deliberately favors a specific voice at any given time.

Rearrange the relative value of the four layers, giving each voice a chance to be on top.  After you’ve worked through all of the levels and gained command of separating them dynamically, decide on what your own main line will be, permitting yourself to jump between lines depending on your focus.  Remember that everything can be redefined on the repeat.

If you already have a vision about what kind of specific colors you intend to use on this excerpt, write them into your score and realize them.  Return later to revise and refine them.  The importance of this filter is to define the Color Levels, not the colors themselves.


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

Once I was preparing for a Bach Competition in Germany.  A friend of mine listened to some of my repertoire, offering me a piece of advice:  If you want to pass the first round, make sure you always attack notes exactly together – save your approach for concerts.  And I realized she was right.  I was in the heart of Urtextland.  I decided to pass on the competition. 

In the real world, Bach is just as receptive to spreading the beat as Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.  It simply depends on how you do it, on your intentions. 

Work through the Vertical Hierarchy exercises until you can comfortably and consistently place each of the four voices in its own Time-dimension.  Once you achieve this vertical definition, let your mind take in the horizontal lines again as well.  Remember that exaggerating the spread will help you to define it such that you can eventually narrow it to a more subtle, stylistically acceptable level.

Next define the spread in the opposite direction, with Reverse Hierarchy.  Revel in the romantic lushness of it.

Now allow yourself completely liberty to place each note wherever you feel, defining what’s not as much as what is.

Take out your Bach filter, applying it to the excerpt.  Has your filter changed at all?


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

In all music, but especially in Bach, each line possesses its own unique energy field.  The Pillars in each line have to be defined carefully.  They then have to be built up slowly to the point that each voice has complete autonomy.  When Gould first presented his Goldberg Variations, the critics were amazed by his ability to inhabit each voice with such integrity and life.  It was as if a Quartet of pianists were playing in perfect sync.

Work through each line separately, notating each of the Energy Pillars.  Then realize your intentions.  At first, because of the mental and emotional complexity of balancing the horizontal energy of four distinct lines, it may help to consider each Energy Pillar as an accent or sforzando.  After each Pillar is thus defined in an exaggerated way, the notes and energy surrounding them will gradually come into focus.

Here are the first four bars of the excerpt with the Energy Pillars as I define them:



How does it differ from your own conclusions?  Work through mine until you feel that you understand the inner logic of the choices.  If I’ve convinced you to change any of your own decisions, rework your Energy Pillars, and realize them.


Applying and Removing Gloss

Understanding and distinguishing between the attack of a sound and its body is not always easy.  The two are intimately linked and it’s not always clear where the one ends and the other begins.  One way to understand it better is as a syllable with a consonant and a vowel, such as the solfège mi.

It may encourage you to know that even professional singers struggle with separating vowels from the consonants that surround them.  There’s a famous Italian saying about singing that’s as true as it is false:  Si canta come si parla.  One sings as one speaks.  The singer desires to communicate the deep meaning of the words she sings about, speaking in slow motion, as it were, to the audience.  Communicative singing demands this approach.  However, from a technical point of view, singing demands clean separation of vowels from consonants, vowels from other vowels and consonants from other consonants.  In normal speech, they’re often thrown together without clean separation.  The singer has to communicate the meaning of the words while clearly enunciating them, often one phonetic sound at a time; this is the painting aspect of good singing that often eludes singers, good and bad.

Try a simple exercise before we move on.  Isolate the [m] sound and vocalize it.  Let your lips touch fully, the outer edges slightly protruding but relaxed – this makes for a resonant [m] sound.  Now say or sing a good Italian [i] { ee }  This is a lateral vowel, but don’t exaggerate the spread of the lips as if offering a cheesy smile for a snapshot.  Once you’ve found a good resonant [i], combine it to your [m] saying or singing mi.  Prepare the [m] for maximum resonance with the [i] sound already prepared in your mouth, but not allowing the [m] to become tight or forced.  As you move into the vowel, do so immediately, leaving behind the light muscular sensation of the [m]. 

Now intone mi several times in a row moving between these two sounds cleanly and clearly.  They’ll tend to want to become mixed together if you’re no careful.  Prolong the vowel, constantly purifying it – miiii, miiii, miiii.

The biggest diction problem for singers is not the enunciation of consonants and vowels – it’s the clear, autonomous separation and linking of consonants and vowels.  Vowels that contain the residue of the previous consonant (or vowel) or the following consonant (or vowel) make for tense, vocally unpleasing sounds.  Consonants that aren’t free of surrounding vowels and consonants sound muted and muddled.  The rule of thumb is, Crisp, clean, fast consonants; long, pure vowels.

This is exactly the relationship between the surface of tone (initial attack) and the body of tone.

In glossy finish, the syllable begins with a consonant.  Consonants are divided into two basic types, voiced and unvoiced.  [d] is a voiced consonant; [t] is its unvoiced equivalent.  Likewise, [b] is voiced, [p] unvoiced, [v] voiced, [f] unvoiced, [z] voiced, [s] unvoiced, etc.  You can imagine each consonant, with its peculiar quality, as a type of Gloss.  Each consonant can be pronounced a thousand different ways without losing its basic characteristics.  Experiment with each consonant on your own and discover the limitless possibilities.

A syllable beginning on a vowel can be considered to have a matte finish.  It’s possible to begin a vowel with a glottal stop (closing the throat), resulting in an initial G- or K-like sound, but a pure vowel attack begins immediately on the vowel, from an open throat.

Pure singing is thought to be on vowels alone, but good singers realize not only the expressive qualities of consonants, but the necessity of consonants to smoothly connect vowels.  Also, consonants are wonderful vowel-launchers; it’s much easier to start singing on a consonant than on a vowel.


As a vocal coach, my main goals are to clarify the energy of the line and overall architecture, and help clean up the diction.  As the diction improves, the vocal technique improves.  As the music’s energy becomes more clearly defined and expressed, the vocal technique improves.  In this way, I indirectly teach vocal technique.


Defining the Pedaling

There are two ways to approach Bach in the practice room – no pedal, and heavy, lush pedal. 

No pedal is the better starting point.  Pedal tends to spoil the fingers, giving them more than they’ve earned.  A naked texture reveals how much you’ve taken for granted; you may find yourself in need of a little exercise.  Your fingers suddenly have to work twice as hard.  Quickly though, you adjust, and the purity of a pedal-less reality energizes you.

It’s also best to use no pedal as you define your fingering.  Remember that this music was written for the pedal-less Harpsichord.  The keys are narrower, and there are usually two manuals, so occasionally the fingers are stretched beyond easy comfort or the hands get tangled crossing one another, but usually, the notes fall quite comfortably under the fingers.  You quickly develop the organist’s virtuosity changing fingers quickly on held notes.

Next add in little touches of pedal here and there for the sake of color.

Now approach the texture from a harmonic perspective, with continuous pedaling, highlighting the chorale-like harmonic movement. Take in the romantic, rich expressive beauty of Bach’s harmonic language.  Such dissonances!  Such distant harmonic leaps!  Take out your most mannered Chopin filter and drink it in.


Now that your ears and emotions are spoiled, take away the pedal completely and try to recapture the same effect, with heavy finger-pedaling, harmonies and melodies blending into one another.  Be careful not to force your fingers into yoga poses beyond their flexibility or strength, but explore your limits. 

Once this becomes comfortable, add in little brushes of pedal here and there and relax the finger pedaling somewhat.  Now you’ve arrived in the neighborhood of my ideal of good Bach-playing. 

This is but one approach though, and countless approaches are equally valid.  The greater interpreter masters several approaches to the same style and finds a way to bring them together convincingly, giving the listener greater contrast.

One contrast that I’m particularly fond of is juxtaposing pedal-less Bach with somewhat generously pedaled Bach.  This is quite effective in a work such as the Italian Concerto, for example.  Play the solo parts dry and the orchestral parts with Horowitzian Scarlatti pedal.  The effect is riveting. 


Linking and Separating

A good actor makes music of language.  You could employ virtually every aspect of musical notation to capture the effects they achieve with their voice.  You can almost imagine the harmonic movement guiding their phrasing choices.  The pitch rises and falls, the rubato constantly juicing the words for all they’re worth.  The rhythm, with little difficulty, can be translated into Western notation because of the universal aspect of pulse in speech.  And the energy as well can be analyzed in the same way, centering around Energy Pillars.  When words are set to music, respecting the real energy of the text, the energy fields of the words and of the music match with uncanny precision.

For those of you who have never worked with the music of language, take this simple example.  How would you notate the rhythm of this basic expression (using standard American pronunciation)?

What do you want to do today?

Think first of how it’s pronounced in everyday use:  Wha-duh-yuh-wan-nuh-do-duh-day?

Where are the beats?  Sound it out and see if you can notate it. 

There are four beats.  The pronunciation on the beats is left pure, intact; the pronunciation between the beats is eaten up, consonants and vowels altered for easy flow, spoken under the breath.


Here’s the notation:



There are various ways to inflect the words but the most common way is to have a primary accent on third beat, do, a secondary accent on the first, What.  Here’s the rhythm with the relative negative and positive energy displayed and the direction of energy defined on three levels:



As you can see, it’s not such a stretch to set words to music, or to imagine words beneath text-less music.  The underlying Energy Grammar is virtually the same.

Always look for the words beneath music, for the meaning, the ideas, the syntax.  Phrase with the grace and power of a great orator.


Defining Rubato

Rubato is the essence of expressive Harpsichord, Organ, and String interpretation in Bach.  The varying limitations of each of these instruments, compared to the Orchestra or the Piano, encourages a more exaggerated use of rubato.  Through WWII, rubato was generally accepted in all styles and all instruments, but in the mid-50’s, the time was ripe for a new vision, and Gould’s rhythmic imperative overtook the Modern mind.  This is not however the only way to interpret Bach!  Listen to Landowska’s entire Bach output or Casals ‘Cello Suites.  The rubato is so free – insanely free by today’s standards.  Indulge yourself.  Discover the other side of Bach.


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

Bach is the ideal place to gain a command of Talea, especially Dry Talea.  This particular excerpt is not ideal in this regard however because it’s so chorally conceived; it could be quite beautifully adaptable to a choir of 100 or more.  It embraces the world with a legato appeal for unity.  A perfect union of vertical and horizontal expression, it works most convincingly with a certain amount of pedal, highlighting the harmonious chordal movement.

Nevertheless, Talea is always at play.  Work through the excerpt becoming aware of the Talea you’re using.  Redefine it for greater contrast and separation between each of the lines.  Less important lines, for example, can be less legato or non legato.

For the sake of experiment, work through the excerpt using only staccato and staccatissimo, pizzicato-like, except for the long notes, which should remain sustained.  If done without any irony, it could work, perhaps on the repeat, like a distant march into eternity.


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

One of the easiest ways to achieve clarity in passagework is by adding more oxygen to the attack.  Bach’s textures are often complex, and the more clearly you define each line, the better.  Also, although Bach’s music remains hierarchical, it approaches democratic ideals.  Each line strives to be the equal of the rest.  Bach is often willing to sacrifice vertical effects for the sake of the line; Beethoven sacrifices horizontal effects in inner voices for the sake of the vertical.

Work through the previous Height exercises, exploring its applications both vertically and horizontally.


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

Depth should always be a point of departure.  It’s much easier to subtract Depth, Height, Volume, or any form of increased energy, than adding it in.

Bach suffers almost as much as Mozart from the perception that the technique should remain light and merely finger-based.  Again, you need only take a brief look at Bach’s Vocal and Orchestral output to see how limited this approach is.


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

Conducting is one of the easiest disciplines to approach because its technique, at the most basic level, requires little more effort than walking.  I’d like to offer here the briefest introduction to the Art of Conducting.  The purpose is not to turn you into a Conductor, per se, but to make you a better Musician.  The point of Conducting, at its core, is not about leading others; it’s about becoming the Orchestra and learning to lead yourself.

No two great conductors have the same technique; in fact, the technique of conducting defies definition because it manifests itself in so many different styles.  And although the same can be said about the piano (!), at least with the piano, technique ultimately involves pressing down the keys, usually with fingers.  A conductor can elicit sound, emotion, line, even love or fear, with the wiggling of a finger, the jostling of an elbow, the raising of an eyebrow, an inviting or commanding glance, a breath, a smile, a flick of the wrist.  The list is unending.  Yet the experienced orchestral player can tell you immediately how effective the conductor is – the only real test of the conductor’s technique is how well he realizes the individual orchestra’s potential, and this is often a matter of temperament.

If you’ve ever observed conductors even casually, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to define what it is they actually do.  So many second-rate musicians get away with passing themselves off as conductors because they either have money or good organizational skills.  The audience often blames the musicians for a lackluster performance or conversely credits the bad conductor for good playing.

My first exposure to the study of conducting came as a young teenager.  From the age of twelve or thirteen, I would spend one day a week at the University’s Music Department, frequenting courses that interested me during the morning, then having my lesson in the afternoon, followed by Performance Class.  The one class that I was loath to miss was the conducting class, taught by a stout Hungarian Master of the Old School, the late, great Peter Erös.   With a tongue of sardonic wit and eyes of piercing intelligence and depth, he personified power. 

I would claim at least half of one of the three uprights comprising the orchestra, and students would attempt to lead us.  Few would make it through more than a few minutes before having been cut down to size and sent packing.  The sound of three discordant pianos producing such cacophony in front of an unskilled leader was conversely comical and painful.  Then the Master would conduct the same phrase by simply looking at us, and a Philharmonic would be born.  The room trembled transcendence. 

The student would inevitably ask, “But how do you do it?  Why does it work for you and not me?”  And his answer took deep root in my musical being:  “Because I want it more than you do.”

He would become angry when an unprepared or musically insensitive student would ask, “Maestro, should this passage be in two or four?”

“Conduct it in three for all I care – just conduct the music!”  The classroom would erupt in uproarious laughter.

“What, you think I’m joking?”

With that, he would glance in our direction with a serious smirk. “Come.”  And he’d begin conducting it, in three, and yet we would play exactly in sync, with unified vision and expression, none of us comprehending how it worked.  Everyone’s jaw would drop.

The wand is indeed magical when wielded by a magician.

The novice conductor is confronted by an ocean of air in front of him without the faintest idea of how to swim through it without drowning, or drowning others.  Where to begin!  Yet there’s a small comfort – if the list of possible ways of conducting is vast, the list of ineffective conducting techniques is infinite.  And over the short history of the Art of Modern Conducting, a fairly well-defined standard technique has been established, such that the student can develop an effective technique that can be immediately understood by any orchestra or ensemble, instrumental or vocal, without the need of spoken explanations or apologies.

The first lesson of this technique is to learn the basic 4/4 beat pattern.  Beat one is down, beat two, left, beat three, right, and beat four, up.  It looks a bit like a Priest blessing the congregation with the sign of the cross.  Try it.  Use only your right arm for now, your left hanging at your side or contained in a pocket if necessary.  Think of the beats as directions rather than locations.  The actual beat can be centralized – place it about a foot in front of your navel if you’re conducting with your bare hand, or further away from the body if you’re using a pencil or baton. 

Saying “one, two, three, four” in sync with the beat, move your arm through the pattern for a couple minutes, allowing your body to get used to the movements until they become a single undulating gesture.  Allow your gestures to be quite large at first, so that you can feel the movement through your whole upper body and claim your space.

For now, let the movement be legato, even legatissimo, and espressivo.  Allow the expressive weight of gravity to become denser, such that the air surrounding you becomes thick, like honey.  Don’t be deterred if this sensation evades you at first. 

Now imagine that your arm is a pendulum – let it swing into the beat, gaining speed and momentum, and then as it swings out of the beat it will lose momentum and finally reach a point of near weightlessness before dropping into the next beat.  

Next, try a dry staccato beat.  There will be a visible click from the wrist on each beat, like an electric accent.  You needn’t directly involve your elbow or upper arm in the expression of this click.  Try it first outside of time, then insert it into the 4/4 beat pattern.  Keep the beats all on the same horizontal plane, as if tapping on a flat surface in front of you.  At first, you may find it difficult to move the arm through the beat pattern while flicking the wrist to clearly define each beat, but you’ll overcome this with a little practice.

At its most basic form, a beat expresses tempo, the dynamic marking, the articulation, and finally the mood.  They say that the right hand should clearly delineate the beat, and that the left should convey the mood and cue, but this is true only in a quite abstract sense.  In practice, one hand suffices to convey everything. 

See if you can conduct a crescendo from pp to ff over four bars or so, Andante, and then a diminuendo back to pp.  It will take several tries to come close to something even remotely effective, so persevere.  Now see if you can define in rough terms the size of each of your dynamic levels.

Think of your conducting space as a box in front of you.  It will only occasionally extend above your head or below your waist, or to the far extremes to the right or left.  It will never extend behind you!  All musical expression will be able to fit inside of this box.  Good conducting needn’t involve walking or jumping or crouching.  Feel free to err on the large side at first, but your goal should be to discover infinite freedom within the framework of this finite box.

Now we’re ready to apply your conducting to actual music, our Bach excerpt.  Imagine a String Quartet in front of you.  Take the effort to actually visualize the players with a certain degree of precision – how would they be seated?  Do they have music stands?  Can you visualize how they’re holding their instruments?  How far away from you are they?  Remember that conducting involves leading actual musicians who usually want to make honest music.  When you’re ready, look at them and make sure all of them are ready, looking up at you.  Raise your arms up in invitation, then take a breath and give a fearless, inspired upbeat to the ‘cellist, and your off! 

At this stage of preparation, sing as you conduct.  It helps to make your musical signal much stronger.  As each new voice enters, engage the player or players with your eyes just before cuing.  You will probably stumble repeatedly as you try to do this, but it will come with practice.  

Experiment with different dynamic levels, articulations, moods, styles.   Don’t be afraid to be ridiculous and invent gestures you’ve never used before or long since forgotten.

Now take your experience of conducting to the keyboard and play the excerpt with your fingers.  Has it gained depth, scope and rhythmic vitality?


If I’ve just converted some of you from the Art of Piano to the Art of Conducting, so be it.  I trust you’ll find your way back eventually. 


The Four Principle Mallets

Play through the excerpt, becoming aware of the mallets you’re using.  You’ll likely find that you’re gravitating toward a single mallet for every note.  Work through the Mallet exercises and then notate new mallet choices into your score.  Realize them.


The Four Physical Levels

It’s always useful in a four-part texture { which, as seen, applies to virtually any texture } to define each voice as a Physical Level.  Start with the Bass as upper arm, the Tenor the hand, Alto fingers, and Soprano forearm.  Discipline yourself to respect the ground-rules.  Try out various other combinations.

Remember that all four Physical Levels are interconnected.  Defining a sound as a certain Level means that it initiates from that Level and is most influenced by that Level.

Just as you can combine types of energy {Speed, Weight and Compression}, you can likewise combine different Levels for combined attacks, such as a finger/hand attack, a hand/forearm attack, a forearm/upper arm attack, and also less obvious combinations, such as a finger/upper arm attack.  Indeed, all combinations of the four Physical Levels are possible.  I notate them in shorthand into my score like so:  f./h., u.a/f., etc. 

Experiment on your own, gaining both conscious awareness of the various combinations and independence between the Levels. 

The most underused and misunderstood Level is the hand { usually referred to as the wrist }.  If you gain independence at the Level of the hand, you’ll find that other Levels become more independent at the same time.  It’s not unlike a three-part Invention – if you can bring the middle line out with absolute independence, the surrounding parts will sort themselves out on their own.


Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

Begin here by listening to Bach on the Organ, Bach on Harpsichord { Wanda Landowska deserves serious study }, Bach in his Choral and Orchestral works.  Use each of Bach’s languages as a filter to understand Bach’s Keyboard works. 

Work through the rest of your Imitation Filters at least once. 


The Weight-bar, or the Hand of Karajan

Hopefully you’re gradually gaining a connection to the bow and to bowing.  Listen to a Bach ‘Cello or Violin Suite.  Imagining the sound of the strings, bow your way through our excerpt, focusing on one layer at a time.  Where are your bowings?  Which are up-bows, which down-bows? 

Imagine the excerpt as a String Quartet with your favorite players on each Part.  Try to characterize each line with the voice and personality of your soloist, in the particular colors of his instrument.  Feel the four bows breathing individually.

Technically, if you have two bows moving in the same hand, you have to use one real bow and one artificial one.  Use the real bow on the more important line, which takes the weight from the arm.  The artificial bow recreates the effect of the bow in the secondary line with finger-compression.  Turn your hand to the left or right to favor the real bow.


The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

We return again to rock.  Take our excerpt and build up a Gothic Cathedral, all in marble, sparing no expense.



Pianists often take the release of notes for granted.  We’re attack-oriented.  Good pianists know how to attack and then ride out the note, linking it with the next, but few pianists really pay attention to how they release notes.  All other Instrumentalists, Singers, and Conductors, know the importance of releasing give it just as much care as attacking.

As a fledgling Conductor, focus on how you cut off a sound.  There are countless ways to make the orchestra cut off, but I’ll show you the most common.  Simply put your arm out in front of you and make a circular gesture, led by the wrist.  The moment your hand reaches or passes through the point that you departed from, the orchestra should cut off.

Try it a few times.  Start your circular movement sideways, to the right.  The movement slows at the top, like a pendulum, reaching a brief moment of weightlessness, then begins to swing down, gradually gaining momentum and speed.

There are countless ways to express this simple gesture, depending on what you desire.  The circle can be small or large, delicately pp or passionately ff. The final flourish can be wet and rounded, or dry and precise.

A general piece of advice: try to make the size of the gesture match the dynamic level.  If you give a p cut-off to an Orchestra playing f, many of the players may not respond and the cut-off will be sloppy.  Likewise, if you give a f cut-off to an orchestra playing p, the effect is jolting and unnerving.

Try it with the left arm (beginning the circle to the left, away from the body), and then with both arms together.  Watch a video of a great conductor, noticing the many techniques he uses to cut off the orchestra, and the effect each has on the players and on the quality of the release.


Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

The pianist who doesn’t fully understand the difference between the surface of tone and the body of tone may experience similar technical problems as the singer who fails to separate vowels from consonants.  It’s easy to assume that the surface of tone on the Piano defines itself.  After all, it’s a percussive instrument, hammers hitting strings.  Any beginner poking away will quickly remind you of this fact.  Don’t hit the Piano!  Each attack by nature has an accent, highlighting its surface.  Yet the Piano is sufficiently complex in its design that the percussive nature is largely softened, and the advanced pianist develops such sophistication as to seemingly negate its percussiveness completely.  Pianists, however, need to stop associating the concept of percussion as something completely negative.  Gloss is of course directly related to percussiveness – it’s soft percussion, sexy percussion.

The body of the hammer is relatively hard wood.  Wood hitting strings has quite a percussive ping to it.  To soften this, the tip of the hammer is covered in several layers of felt.  In new hammers, the felt is too soft so the piano doesn’t speak unless you hit it percussively; as it gets worn in, it begins to speak and sing naturally.  As the felt gets worn out, it hardens and the tone becomes brilliant and then outright percussive.

A new soft hammer usually has its tip painted with a thin layer of gloss.  This adds a percussive edge to the sound, making it sing.  When the hammers get worn out, the technician needs to make a visit and needle them, coaxing them back into their original, soft, felty state.  They then may need to paint on a fresh coat of gloss hear and there.  This is called voicing. 

Every Piano has its own special tone qualities depending on its design, the acoustics of where it’s placed, and how its hammers are voiced.  A good Piano has an enormous range of tonal possibilities, from dull, muted sounds to brilliant, percussive sounds.  Even the worst Piano has a wide range of tonal possibilities.

Each Pianist brings to the Piano his own unique set of mallets.  There are many ways to soften the attack, just as layers of felt soften the attack.  Using the soft, fleshy tip of the fingers softens the tone, as does slowing the attack, for example.  Remember that slow doesn’t necessarily mean soft – a heavier, slower attack can produce the same volume of sound as a lighter, faster attack.  The difference lies in the color quality of the sound.

The purpose of this argument is to show that although the Piano is a percussive instrument with an innate ping to the surface of the sound, there remains a great deal of play.  Sound is a matter of perception and balance.  Softer, slower attacks, despite being hammered, have a mellower, duller, matte finish.  Harder, faster attacks have a glossier finish.  The resourceful pianist uses every kind of finish, accepting both the piano’s hammers and their felts.

Virtually every sound has an initial, percussive edge to it.  Consonants have a more obvious edge by nature, some more than others.  Vowels have decidedly less edge, but a phrase beginning on a vowel still has to punctuate against silence; it’s a muted, fluid edge, but an edge nonetheless.  The surface in such sounds becomes virtually identical to its body, making it seem invisible or inexistent.  This is the nature of matte finish – it hides the point of the attack, directing the listener’s attention more to the subject (the body of the sound) than to its surface.  In effect, it pretends that the object is more important than its presentation, but don’t be fooled – matte is just as stylish and statement-making as gloss!

Percussion is a complex, multifaceted aspect of the Art of Piano – learn to appreciate it in its many forms.


Speed, Weight and Compression

Play through the excerpt, becoming aware of your touch choices regarding Speed, Weight and Compression.  Work through the exercises and then notate new choices into your score, as before:  S, W, C, SW, SC, WC, and SWC.  Realize them.



Although Bach is not the autocratic, operatic Chopin, he’s not as Democratic as he may seem.  Ultimately, at any given moment, one voice has to stand out from the others as the main line.  In Bach, this can be a predefined line that stays the same throughout a work, or more often, it can jump around between parts.

On the repeat, everything can be completely different.  Work through the excerpt making choices about the Super-melody.  Carve it out your using Hammers and Chisels.