great pianist

On Great Pianists

Part III {Scherzo}


I love individuals.

Every person you look at,

you can see the universe in their eyes if you're really looking.

~ George Carlin



From the pine tree learn of the pine tree.

And from the bamboo of the bamboo.

~ Basho


On Great Pianists

My whole life I’ve been influenced and taught by the great pianists of mine and preceding generations.  As the years pass, certain pianists come back to me over and over again with something new to offer.  For the most part, it’s about these pianists I choose to write.  Like any exercise of this nature, these short portraits and commentaries will likely reveal more about myself than about the actual subjects.  I’m in no way trying to make a complete list of the great pianists – there are many obvious omissions and some curious inclusions. 

This Scherzo is the lightest of the four movements and is at times comical, at times pensive, at others irreverent or provocative, but always full of love and respect for the subjects.  Each sheds a special indirect light on the concepts presented in the other three sections.


You yourself must strive.

The Buddhas only point the way.

~ unknown

Mind your thoughts, as they become your words.

Mind your words, as they become your actions.

Mind your actions, as they become you.

~ Buddha

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff


One must be an inventor to read well. 

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson



Sergei Rachmaninoff was perhaps the most complete musician of the 20th century.  He towered as composer, conductor and pianist, and in him, all three disciplines were intimately intertwined.  

One of the many paradoxes of Rachmaninoff’s genius is that he is most beloved for his lyric inspirations – timeless, never-ending melodies that linger in the ears and heart.   Paradoxical because he was one of the greatest contrapuntal masters of the 20th century.  He writes layers upon layers of melody and eachlayer is a world unto itself.

There have been many great melodists, from Mozart to Chopin, Verdi to Gershwin, but in all of these composers’ works, there is basically a melody with a simple accompaniment.  Rachmaninoff’s genius lay in his ability to combine layer upon layer of melody while giving the listener a sense of a single principle line with a complex inner life.

This applies to his orchestral works, piano works, vocal works, chamber works – everything.  But it also applies to his piano playing.  The inner melodies, from the bass-line all the way on up, teem with life.  The emotional and intellectual integrity of the inner part compares perhaps only with the genius of Glenn Gould or Vladimir Horowitz.  Yet what’s striking is that all of this comes off as subliminal, peripheral.  In the moment of performing – and this applies to all the great pianists – you feel his mind and soul centered in the melody.  The richness of inner complexities does not come at the cost of sacrificing the principle melody – the most important line and the place where most of the audience’s attention is centered.

The next thing you notice is the absolute command of architecture.  He has very strong points of view and it’s often easy to disagree with them, but the strength and inner logic of the design overwhelms. 

Another striking element of Rachmaninoff’s playing is the grand scope of the dynamic range.  His piano begins where most pianists’ forte stops.  Yet it SOUNDS piano and IS piano!  And this brings us back to an important point about dynamics and energy – dynamics are only indirectly related to decibels of sound; they’re related to relative decibels of sound, but more importantly, they’re defined to the listener’s ear by the relative level of the performer’s energy and the quality of that energy.   A piano can sound forte, for instance, if it’s forced.  Simply stated, dynamics represent mood, color and relative energy levels. 

One’s energy level changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, and the performer must be sensitive to this and counterbalance it when necessary, without forcing.  Rachmaninoff plays piano with a big sound but a calm mind and relatively relaxed joints, so the effect is piano.  Yet underneath the melody, there are seemingly infinite layers of dynamics, which lends his accompaniments a rich, orchestral effect.

Technically speaking, Rachmaninoff plays the melody from his forearm or upper arm.  This immediately gives him effortless access to an enormous amount of strength unattainable from the fingers alone.  In general, he plays ppp melodies as well as fff chordal masses all from the arm with its peculiar, sustained, penetrating quality.  The inner voices he assigns to the forearm, hand or fingers, according to the color desired.

This general approach to technique is typical of most of the great pianists of the golden age – it is one of many reasons they were able to achieve such differentiation of sound and emotion.  Modern techniques are based either solely on finger-strength or on a finger-hand combination that leaves the upper arm and forearm floating effortlessly in the air.   Great economy of motion but lack of strength and monotony of color result.  How can the fingers and hands alone create all the colors of the orchestra!  That’s a recipe either for tendonitis, resulting from over-working the smaller muscles (to little sonic effect), or a black-and-white contained approach to piano requiring only a small palette of colors produced with a petite dynamic range.

A word on Rachmaninoff’s forte chordal passages.  Rachmaninoff has a way of packaging chordal passages like few pianists in history; he phrases and shapes them so compactly and richly!  They resonate strength.  He seems to prefer a somewhat edged sound in forte and fortissimo passages, which he achieves by slightly holding the elbow.  It’s what I call a wooden underpinning.  It’s quite similar to the tonal ideal that Artur Rubinstein employs in forte chordal passages.

(Interestingly, while Rubinstein claimed not to be a fan of Rachmaninoff’s “sentimental” music, he adored Rachmaninoff the pianist and held his “golden tone” as his ideal.)

Rachmaninoff’s singing “wooden” sound in forte is the closest he comes to using percussion in his playing.  This is perhaps part of the nobility of his approach and general character.   The sound sometimes has an edge but is never forced, always rounded.  The irony here is that Rachmaninoff the orchestrator uses the percussion section to maximum effect.  In such an orchestrally-minded musician, why did he deny the piano of some of its most striking, innate NATURAL tone colors?  Who is the real Rachmaninoff?

When I listen to Rachmaninoff, I occasionally long for timpani here, a snair-drum undercurrent there, bells and chimes . . . This negation of percussive effect at the piano strikes me as odd and somehow unfulfilling. 

(Rachmaninoff, in his later years, toured the United States extensively, and remained there from 1918 until his death.) 

My way of understanding this paradox is through my own experience as a composer and conductor, but also through my experience with languages.  When I first learned to speak Spanish as a teenager, I discovered that a new personality was streaming out of me through my newly acquired language.  Language and culture are so powerfully intertwined that they often dictate thought and personality.  Gradually this is overcome, but never completely.  I went through the same experiences as I acquired fluency in French, Italian and Korean.  What baffles the mind is having a conversation with another bi- or multi-lingual speaker, switching between languages – you’ll notice how your feelings and thoughts about the subject subtly shift.


So it is with Rachmaninoff – Rachmaninoff the composer is different from Rachmaninoff the conductor is different from Rachmaninoff the pianist.  Together they give a more accurate account of the completeness of Rachmaninoff the musician.  As a conductor, he was less developed, more inhibited and conservative.  As a pianist, he reached the highest heights, but as a composer, he came closest to meeting his true self and achieving his artistic potential.

In the practice room, Rachmaninoff speaks to me in three languages.

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz


Creativity is always from the beyond.

~ Osho



If I could go back in time, there are two red-letter dates in the history of 20th century pianism that I wouldn’t miss, both involving Rachmaninoff and his Third Piano Concerto.  The first is around the beginning of the century when Rachmaninoff debuted his new Concerto in NYC with none other than Gustav Mahler at the podium conducting – what a concert that must have been!  The greatest conductor perhaps in the history of conducting accompanying the greatest pianist of the first half of the 20th century!

The second was a much more private affair.  The young Horowitz had just landed off the boat in NYC and with all the sights the New World had to offer, his first stop was Rachmaninoff’s Manhattan apartment.  The next day they met at the now famed basement of Steinway Hall so that Rachmaninoff could hear what the young artist could do with his colossal Third Concerto.  They played through the entire work at two pianos.  Can you imagine what that must have sounded like - these twin giants of 20th century pianism - their languages blending and playing off each other! 


Horowitz is a complex beast.  He always forces you to love him or hate him, often simultaneously.

I remember the day my allegiance switched from Rubinstein to Horowitz – it happened in all of a couple minutes.  I was sixteen, living with my uncle not far from the University.  One afternoon I came home from school and raided his LP collection.  I found Horowitz’ recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto and Second Sonata.

I knew of Horowitz from before I ever began lessons but my first teacher was a big Rubinstein fan and it naturally rubbed off on me.  When I was eleven or twelve, I went to a lecture about competitions for aspiring pianists.  One comment struck me – If Horowitz were to ever enter a modern competition, he wouldn’t make it past the first round.

I’m sure that the lecturer was making some important point about the futility of competitions, how individuality rarely wins out and how you don’t compete to win, but rather not to be eliminated.  What remained with me instead was simply, What’s wrong with Horowitz if he can’t even pass the first round of a competition?

Horowitz died when I was thirteen and I didn’t even notice …

I didn’t buy his LP’s or go out of my way to listen to them.

And then I put on the Sonata.

No single event in my musical life has impacted me as much as that moment.  From the first crashing, cascading arpeggio followed by electric, deeply penetrating chords full of passion and sheer color, I knew that I was hearing absolute mastery and artistry.  Others have said it before – The first time I heard Horowitz, it’s as if I were hearing the piano for the first time, as if my ears never had never known what the piano was capable of…   Such was his impact on me that afternoon.


I devoured all of his recordings and took up Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, imitating every nuance of Horowitz’ legendary interpretations of it.  After a few months, I reached my first Horowitz saturation point – I simply couldn’t take any more.  Everything I loved about it started getting on my nerves.  Then I would come back, over and over again, the cycle always repeating itself.

I simply couldn’t figure out Horowitz, and that bothered me and captivated me.  All artists can be defined and categorized, but Horowitz is an Enigma: as soon as you have him briefly pinned down, he morphs into another entity and contradicts you.  His strengths are as many as his weaknesses.  But he never ceases to fascinate.  No other pianist has been written about and analyzed so extensively, so I’ll leave you to their commentaries, but there are two extremely important aspects about Horowitz’ language that are usually glossed over or misunderstood: his willfulness and his acceptance of Brass and Percussion as an integral part of orchestration.


The most common argument about Horowitz’ approach is –  He would be great if only he didn’t do such-and-such, if only he didn’t do such-and-such.  I used to approach him like that, trying to imitate only Horowitz’ proper qualities, excising what shouldn’t be there.  But what I was left with was often meaningless babble.

And this is so often true – take away what you don’t like about something, and you may be removing the very reason why you like it so much. 

Horowitz will sometimes willfully mangle part of a phrase, making you sit on edge and gnaw your teeth, close your ears and cringe.  You want to scream out, Why do you have to do that!  And then the next moment, he’ll play the most beautiful, dissolving, nostalgic phrase, and you’ll swear that you’ve never heard such a beautiful passage.  You’ll love him again and know him for the poet and seducer he is.

Yet take away the first part, and what’s left?  Dribbling nonsense.  Horowitz never gives you anything important without somehow making you want it first.  This is part of his genius.  He knows how to balance love and hate, creating the most romantic, extreme contrasts.  And it becomes addictive.  You want him to bend the phrases against your own design so that he can then apologize and set everything right again.

Horowitz’ least successful, least personal playing, are his recordings with Toscanini.  Yes, they’re fantastic recordings nonetheless, but these two giants of interpretation were simply not meant to make music together.  It’s as if they’re speaking to each other in Chinese, one in Mandarin, the other in Cantonese.

Horowitz is the weaker Artist in the meeting.  He was intimidated by his Father-in-law and wanted to please him and be accepted by him.  He plays the Emperor and Tchaikovsky’s First in a quite normal, proper way.  You still hear Horowitz underneath but he’s in a straitjacket, smothered.  Listening, you long for him to break free, but he doesn’t.   It’s disingenuous playing, masterful but false. 

Later in his life, Horowitz could often become a caricature of himself, taking things a step too far.  But even this was at least Horowitz.  His sin was loving opium.  Take his late recording of the Liszt Sonata.  It’s like a series of character pieces, broken up and torn down at every opportunity.  But what colors!  What poetic hallucinations!  Contrary to common opinion, this is for me far superior to his earlier recording, which is full of momentum and verve and holds together architecturally much better, but lacks the tonal imagination and attention to detail.  When he plays Liszt, the devil and angel in him meet in the most perfect balance.  He is Liszt incarnate.

He has a similar chemistry with several composers, Rachmaninoff for example.  The composer admitted that Horowitz played many of his works – the Third Concerto, for instance – better than himself.

And Scriabin!  And Scarlatti!  The list goes on and on.  But let’s move on to the second important feature of Horowitz style, indirectly related to the first and usually overlooked or misunderstood – his percussiveness.

Horowitz imitators are the noisiest pianists around.  It’s not nearly as common as it was thirty or forty years ago when every Conservatory pianist was trying to play as fast and loud as Horowitz.  Students pick up on his power without understanding its source or being able to define its substance and think they can capture it by simply flailing away at the keyboard.

I myself admit to having occasionally fallen victim to this trap.  Inspired by a Horowitz recording, I go to the piano and try to recapture its magic; after a couple days I think I’ve managed somehow.  Then I listen again.  It’s not nearly as percussive or loud or heavy as it seemed in my memory.  It simply rings with a golden shimmer.  The weight doesn’t stay in the sound; it passes through it like electricity.  The effects often seem much greater than they actually are because of the way he places them in time and constrasts them against opposite colors, or against silence.  In his phrasing and in his voicings, he pinpoints the exact notes to point up for maximum effect.  He searches out the dissonant intervals, melodically and harmonically, and heightens them.  He doesn’t smear colors or effects over groups of notes – he crafts each note individually.

Unlike most pianists, Horowitz isn’t afraid of Percussion and Brass – he embraces them as friends.  He uses them sparingly but always at just the right moment for maximum effect.  Only in Horowitz do you think he’s reached a triple forte only to be suddenly hit with a chord twice as loud and powerful!  Yet he rarely actually offends the ear as many of his imitators do.  He punches you in the gut and sends you reeling.  And you stand up smiling and come back for more! 

Gilels is another pianist that embraces Percussion and Brass, but he does so in a much more muscular, bulky way.  Horowitz slaps much more often than he punches; he plays with you and provokes you, but he saves real punches for maximum effect.    Magic is not a heavy entity – it floats and can never quite be pinned down, and Horowitz is the ultimate Magician.

Horowitz’ Percussion is very rarely percussive; he embraces Percussion as a light, singing force.  He uses it as a great orchestrator does - to highlight phrases, to create contrast, to clarify structure.  And among the Greats, he is absolutely unique in his acceptance of Percussion.  None of the Golden Age pianists understood Percussion like Horowitz – they all shied away from it, searching for the ever-elusive golden tone.  Oddly, that ideal generally possessed little gold or polish; it has more of a matte finish.  Listen to the entire Leschetizky School, for example – all possess an almost identical sound, singing, round and translucent.  Horowitz’ sound, at least in the melody, is rarely as beautiful or pure – he leaves a certain edge in it that gently attracts the ear to it.  Horowitz does possess the Leschetizky sound, but he usually hides it from view.

Why conceal beauty?  This is a mystifying feature of his language – Horowitz often veils his most beautiful sounds underneath the surface, lending the overall effect a complexity and beauty that often surpasses the greatest of the Golden Age pianists. 

The conundrum for a pianist wishing to experiment with percussive effects is – where do you use them?  If you put them in the melody, the tone-color of the melody becomes less beautiful.  If you put them underneath the melody, they distract the listener’s ear from the melody and generally destroy the effect.

Horowitz deliberately uses brighter, less beautiful colors in the melody, against common logic.  And this is revolutionary!  The proof of its effectiveness lies in his recordings.  An added bonus of this approach is that the melody naturally has more carrying power in a large hall.  Brighter sounds ring more and often carry better. 

Remember also, brightness in a small space never sounds as bright in a larger space.  The larger the space, the duller the effect, and the greater the need to increase the scope of everything.

Finally, Horowitz’ embracing of Percussion and Brass is one of the features that sets him off as Modern against the previous generation of pianists. 

In Horowitz, fire sings through metal, glass, water and ice.


The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.

Albert Einstein


Artur Rubinstein

Arthur Rubinstein


While Rachmaninoff was Horowitz’ opposite twin, Rubinstein was his nemesis.  Two artists could hardly be so different, yet so alike.  Reminds me of a story about two composers.  Copland, asked about his relationship to Gershwin while both were residing in Hollywood, replied, “Well, you know, we simply had nothing in common.”

There’s such a full-bodied lilt to Rubinstein’s playing, an inner joie-de-vivre and a constant risk-taking.  But he wasn’t extravagant – he played in the simplest, most natural way, like a man who strides, arms swinging, taking in the scenery and never looking at the ground at his feet.  There’s an unlikely resemblance to Toscanini’s conducting technique – both possess swing and lilt and naturalness and rightness and simplicity and absolute beauty of form, all coming from a constant contact with nature.  They both harness the natural weight and swing of gravity and the innate life of the human spirit, spinning them into upward, forward-moving energy.


Rubinstein was for me the ONLY pianist from age 10 to about 18.  Reading his memoirs at the age of fourteen and fifteen affected me greatly in other ways as well.  I wanted to possess languages and cultures like he did, so I started tackling one language after another, with the same stubborn passion that I applied to piano.  I longed to enter his turn-of-the century Parisian reality.  And I longed to speak a pianistic language that communicated to thousands at a time.

Chopin was my vessel to understand Rubinstein and Rubinstein my vessel to understand Chopin.  His is not a fragile or sentimental Chopin – it’s strong and full-bodied.  Inspired by his outdoors approach to music-making and piano-playing, I hesitated using my fingers to initiated sound; I used them as instruments of my forearms.  It wasn’t until my later teenage years that I began to really learn to use my fingers.  I was a full-armed pianist most comfortable in big, chordal textures. 

Rubinstein recognized beautiful tone in others (especially Rachmaninoff’s “golden” tone) and possessed a natural, beautiful sound (with a soft wooden underpinning).  But tonal beauty was not a goal in itself.  He set his sights on the breath, the long phrase, the timing, the rubato, the vitality of the inner rhythms, and most importantly, perhaps, the larger architecture.  Sound was something that came of its own and he was ever prepared to sacrifice tonal color or even risk missing the notes themselves for the sake of larger, greater goals.  This element of constant risk of the small details lends his pacing and vision the quality of a great conductor.  He played like an orchestra under the baton of a great conductor and breathed like a great singer.

The simplicity of his approach is ever-inspiring.  Barenboim said, He seems to sift everything through a strainer and only retain what he feels to be absolutely natural and unaffected.  But it’s not as dry as Richter’s approach – there’s a constant inner rubato and a stamping of every note with his personality and will.  It’s a conceptual difference between the two, but it comes across.  { I’ve always felt that Richter’s belief of being able to put the composer in the fore and negate his own personality belied an enormous ego or less-than-balanced mind.  Richter’s black-and-white, it-just-is approach has its own deep beauty, but that’s for a later Essay . . . }


It must be admitted: Rubinstein is not generally a master of shading, and pedaling is not his forte.  He always seems to choose the most direct path; he lacks something of Horowitz’ dark magic, unexpected twists, occasional melancholy or twisted passion.  But who plays with such aplomb or joie-de-vivre?  What the two share is a characteristic of most great pianists – in the moment of performance, their mind and heart are cleanly focused on bringing the forefront to life.  They engage the audience directly and vocally, and that’s the key to heartfelt, moving, meaningful performance.

Rubinstein seems to be most in his element in rhythmically accented music.  His accents are full-bodied and life-giving.  His deFalla and Spanish music in general is strong for this reason.  Chordal, orchestral music also suits him, Brahms for instance, or Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral, Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue, Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne.  And I can just now hear him playing the solo piano version of Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges – TRULY orchestral!! 

What interpretations does he own?  Obviously, everything he touched turned to Rubinstein, which is easily distinguishable.  But there are few interpretations that I would rate as the greatest of any given work.  Perhaps deFalla’s Fire Dance?  Or Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral?

The other day I re-listened to his Valses Nobles et sentimentales – not his most convincing interpretation.  He simply recorded too much!  His enormous repertoire and appetite to learn is an inspiration in itself, but he might have been more selective. Sometimes you feel like he ought to have gone home, practiced a few more days, then come back to the studios.  It’s the inner levels that are often neglected – the background finger-work.  Not because his fingers didn’t work splendidly and subtly { as it sometimes seems. . . }, but because in the moment, he wasn’t focused on the inner levels and hadn’t practiced them enough at home for them to come out on their own, peripherally.

Technically, Rubinstein’s is an active forearm and upper arm technique.  Imitating him feels a bit like playing tennis – his full-armed piano is so big already that when you get into forte, it quickly becomes full-contact.  The fingers at first are shocked, even in piano, by the weight and speed of the attack from the forearm.  They struggle to hold up.  But gradually they get used to being walked upon and it becomes completely natural and effortless – and what power!!

He would often attack the keys from a foot or more in the air, enthralling audience with his balletic grace and athletic prowess.  He admitted though, The real attack comes from closer to the key – the rest is just for show.  And he loved to show.

He is remembered and loved almost more for what he represented as a person than for his transcendental pianism.  How many great musicians can you say that about?

Ivo Pogorelich

Ivo Pogorelich


You can be sure something’s not quite right with the state of interpretation in the 21st century when a relatively conservative interpreter like Pogorelich is still considered the bad-boy of classical piano…

If you’ve ever composed, studied jazz or done even a bit of improvising, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The field of interpretation is still wide open for the creative, searching interpreter.

The 20th Century was a paradox for the interpreter.  It saw a string of wars of unprecedented violence and carnage and the birth of the techno-age.  Modern Art responded by exploring and pillaging every possibility of human expression, from the most conservative peace-loving minimalism to violent, vulgar and purely profane expressions of protest against humanity.  Each artist seemed to be out to out-wow his colleagues and predecessors. 

The world itself was questioning the existence of God on a massive scale and some seemed to turn to Classical music as a stand-in for Religion.  Interpreters took up the challenge and began seeing themselves as Monks and Priests of the faith.  The Urtext Age was born; Serialism became a moral obligation for composers.

Pogo sprang onto the scene, gaining fame for not winning a competition.  He seemed to present himself as a Priest of the Anti-establishment – yet he was preaching to the establishment and was ultimately of the establishment.  He reached out not to non-believers, but to believers of wavering faith or sinful tendencies. 


In a way, he was a post-modern throw-back to the pre-modern Golden Age of pianism.  He embodied Liszt’s slogan, Le concert, c’est moi.  But he wasn’t simply selling himself as an artist with a personal take on the repertoire.  He gave commentaries on urtext beliefs.  He deliberately provoked and taunted.

Something about him was decidedly different, and you couldn’t ignore him.  A large portion of the establishment decried him as a False Prophet and would have loved to revoke his performing license.   Others found him to be a breath of fresh air – a Pogo Cult emerged.  Few were lukewarm about him.

His approach to interpretation is essentially cubist.  He distorts and reinvents.  He tries to tell you what is by showing you what isn’t.  Or perhaps he simply tells you what isn’t… either way, the effect on the listener is the same.  Does he really believe some of his half-tempos?!  You find yourself wondering whether he’s rooted in genius or simply a little off center, or both.

But the pianism!  He left his detractors in a conundrum.  No matter what you believe about his interpretational abilities or beliefs, there’s no denying that he possesses a colossal technique, one of the most complete of the 20th century.   The polish and scope of his live performing is astounding.  I heard him live only once in a sold-out 4,000-seat hall.  The largeness of the space was appropriate to the largeness of his playing, and of his ego.

Picasso: The Guitar Player

Picasso: The Guitar Player

He’s not a generally lovable player, but he’s a tone-poet and vexes you with spells.  He revels in making you hate and love him at the same time – a true prima donna in his own mind.

Many of his recordings are simply strange, off-the-mark.  Like his Liszt Sonata or Mussoursky Pictures at an Exhibition.  But even these are must-listens because of the extraordinary never-heard colors at every turn.  Some of his recordings, though, truly rate with the best of the century, like his (Ravel’s…) Gaspard de la nuit, Prokofiev 6th, and the Scarlatti album.  { It’s not Horowitz’ Scarlatti, but nears it. }  His Chopin B-flat minor Sonata will make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.  Willfully distorted, granted, but not less-so than Rachmaninoff’s legendary recording.

His distortions left such a mark on the scene that any pianist engaging in cubism is seen as imitating Pogorelich.  But distortion is such an important key to truth!  The possibilities to the 21st century interpreter are still wide open.  The 20th century has yet to happen in the world of interpretation.  It’s one of the final frontiers of Art.

Whether or not you have the courage or will to take distortion to the stage is between you and yourself, but distortion is a must in the practice room.  You have to explore the work you’re studying from every conceivable angle.  I pointed that out to one of my NY piano professors.  He said that he has too much to do already with what is to waste his time with what isn’t.  We didn’t last long together.

If you were a painter commissioned to paint a building as it looks from a certain angle at a certain time of day in a certain time of the year, would you spend hundreds of hours sketching and painting it over and over again to the exact specifications of the commission?  Would you not go out of your mind and lose perspective altogether?  How can you possibly perceive the light and shade and angles and colors without taking in the scene from every possible angle, real and imaginary?  You can only paint truth once you really know the subject. 

Interpretation is no different.  Often, by turning the object upside-down and inside-out, you’ll uncover hidden beauties, possibly even truth that evaded you.  Have the courage to take some of your discoveries to the stage.  Must you live in fear of shocking the listener?


Creative people who can't help but explore other mental territories

are at greater risk,

just as someone who climbs a mountain is more at risk

than someone who just walks along a village lane.

~ R. D. Laing


Claudio Arrau

Claudio Arrau


Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,

The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance.

~ Seng-chao



Arrau is the tree-planter of the piano.  I imagine him barehanded weeding his garden, watering the plants, sinking his fingers deep into the soil, savoring the earth, his fingers penetrating like the spades of a shovel.  He’s at one with nature.

Practicing for him must have given him the same sensation as tending his garden, applying the same loving care to weeding Brahms and Liszt.

There’s a natural sinking, unforced depth to Arrau that makes his playing speak with the wisdom of a 500-year-old Oak.  The older he got, the slower he played, and the more espressivo every note became.  He became increasingly sensitive.  He searched out emotional tension and sucked the marrow out of it.  Perhaps it became too slow at times, but such expression!  He once said, “Don’t be afraid to be boring.” Granted, it did sometimes get to slow and languid, but he certainly had courage and conviction.   I sometimes wonder if he didn’t intentionally try to bore at times trying to distinguish himself morally from more flashy pianists like Horowitz …

His philosophical approach to music has a serious German bent to it but his soul has Latin warmth.  He sings warm, thick energy into a clearheaded, cool, logical form.

There’s an odd resemblance to Rachmaninoff.  His depth is like sinking into sand whereas Rachmaninoff’s is more actively pressed, but they both penetrate deep below the key-bed. 

Whenever I want to really savor the notes slowly and touch base with the wet earth, I think of Arrau and let him speak to me and through me, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days at a time.  He’s been a faithful companion and inspiration for years and years.


Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli

Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli


The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains

is the Zen you bring up there.

~ Robert Pirsig


Michelangeli is the greatest painter~sculptor the piano has ever known.  He embodies the tonal mastery of the French Impressionists, the attention to detail of a Swiss Watchmaker, and the inborn sense of integrity and self-respect of an Italian Artist.  Oddly, he seems to lack the Italian’s love of Opera and Singing, but you hardly miss it for the splendors he offers. 

For some unexplainable reason, Michelangeli remained peripheral to my pianistic world for my first quarter-century.  But when I moved to Italy, where he’s a demigod among musicians, I was forced to come to terms with him and came to realize his greatness.

I can’t believe he just split a note like that.  That’s so not like him! 

A ‘cellist friend of mine as a teenager had just unwrapped a new CD – a live recording of Michelangeli playing the Emperor.  He was still alive at the time, hiding away in Switzerland from the Italian authorities for tax evasion.  He was said to love Football {Soccer…} as much as Music.


I loved that!  From the age of seven I had declared to my parents my intentions to either play the Piano like Horowitz or Soccer like Pele.  Music was my calling but I never lost my love of Soccer.

We listened to the entire first movement.  Indeed, that split note in the introduction would be the last.  I had never heard such controlled mastery.  It was frightening and off-setting.  If it hadn’t been live, I would have assumed it had been edited down in the tradition of Glenn Gould.  { Nowadays, live of course rarely means live anymore… }.  I couldn’t help but feel that there was something unnatural about it.  It was the antithesis of my old-Russian-School style.  Would I ever learn to play with such perfection, such coolness?  I was enthralled but turned off at the same time.

A year later, my Professor entered our weekly performance class a few minutes late in a rare, disarmed state, a copy of the New York Times in her hands.  All were silent, waiting for her speak.

Michelangeli is dead.

She spoke of his artistry, character, sins and passions. 

If any of you hasn’t heard his recording of Rachmaninoff’s 4th Concerto and Ravel’s G-major, go listen to it.  There’s no greater interpretation of either.

After class, I immediately awayed to Tower Records and found the CD.  Again, I was enthralled and intimidated.  How can a human being play with such cool mastery of color and touch!  He painted like DaVinci or Renoir.  Still, although it was consummate playing, where was the singing soul?  The Rachmaninoff especially, for all of its resplendent colors, seemed completely off-the-mark stylistically.

Two years later, I heard his live recording of Gaspard de la nuit.  It was breath-taking; Scarbo was absolutely frightening.  This was a different side of Michelangeli – he was singing and dancing and actually taking serious risks.  You could hear underneath it the Italians’ love of car-racing.  I caught glimpses of his unveiled soul.  A great Horowitz recording would have sent me to the piano inspired; Michelangeli inspired me away from the piano, frustrated.


And then a few years later I move to Rome.  The air is different there; it’s older and fresher and richer all at once, filled with Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, Michelangelo, DaVinci…  I was living in a house full of artists and musicians, my own Villa Medici, a few blocks down the street from the Colosseo.  The Vatican was only a few metro stops away, walking-distance on a nice day.  It’s a city where legendary marble statues line the piazzas and millennia-old monuments form the fabric and soul of the city.  I would get up at dawn and study Beethoven orchestral scores sitting atop a stairwell as long as the Spanish Steps leading up to a Church overlooking the Foro Romano, where the original Roman Senate still stands.  Beethoven had never seemed so fresh and new!

And gradually I came to better understand the statuesque approach to Art of many of the legendary Italian interpreters, from Tebaldi to Toscanini to Michelangeli.  Stone can breathe and sing.  Look into the Madonna’s face in Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Dome at the Vatican and tell me that her soul is not singing!

I became fascinated in the idea of interpretation as sculpture.  Not dry museum sculpture, but living breathing marble.  I had discovered a Looking-Glass to turn my world upside-down; everything suddenly made sense in an opposite way.  I devoured recordings of the great Italian interpreters, studied Italian Art History, lived and breathed Italian Culture, beginning each day for the first year or so with the morning edition of the Corriere della Sera and an espresso, despite my distaste for it { I finally caved in and began ordering caffe americano to mocking glances… }.

And I began to move beyond my fear of Michelangeli and embrace him, making his approach part of my own. 

I realize now that it’s not an unnatural approach – the emphasis is simply different.  Whether you gravitate toward Michelangeli’s cooler, marble approach in performance is a matter of personal preference; however, coming to terms with a sculptured approach to each interpretation in the practice room is absolutely necessary.

I even wonder sometimes whether Sculpture, rather than a subset of Architecture, might be better seen as the Fifth Pillar of Interpretation – Song, Dance, Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould


The truth is more important than the facts.
- Frank Lloyd Wright


When I was seven and had just begun taking piano lessons, my Uncle Steve, himself a pianist, gave me the legendary 1955 Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations.  He told me that no matter how many times I listened to it, I could never tire of it.  Taking him at his word, I put it on every night for a year or so as I fell asleep, each day turning the volume slightly softer until I could only hear it echoing in my imagination.  Occasionally I would turn it up for a moment to see if we were in sync…

That was my introduction to Classical Music, J. S. Bach, and Glenn Gould.  Only much later would I begin to understand the genius of the Canadian recluse, but his stamp was deeply embedded in my psyche from the very beginning. 

Gould was the first bad-boy of the Urtext Age.  He made his way into the Establishment through the hazy back-door of urtext thought, J. S. Bach.  How can you define what’s just and right for a style if it’s so unclear in the text?  It was a conundrum for urtext thinkers.  J. S. Bach was one of the most careful editors of his time.  He didn’t want to give his compositions over in rounded-out form so that any hack musician could improvise his way over them left and right, as was the custom of his époque.  He wrote out much of the desired embellishments into the score with such interwoven precision and detail that he left little to be filled in or changed.

Nevertheless, from a modern perspective, there’s still much vagueness; urtext thinkers didn’t know yet how to nail him down.  The page doesn’t reveal all of its secrets; it can’t be precisely defined.  Tempos, dynamics and articulation, not to mention characterization – all of this is generally left up to the interpreter.  Who’s to say who’s wrong or right?  They knew only that his music needed to be rid of the romantic excesses of the past and be purified, the juicy wet heart excised.


And along came Glenn Gould with his Goldberg Variations, dry as could be, with a flawless finger-technique linked to a cerebral but passionate rhythmic verve that drove the critics into a frenzy.  Down with Landowska and her romantic excesses!  Long live the genius hailing from the North!  1955 became a defining year in Baroque interpretation.

But step by step, without losing his dryness and directness, his Bach became a bit strange, the stamp of genius ever greater.  Still, it was difficult for urtext critics to criticize because he hadn’t actually altered anything in the score.  It’s not as if he had changed a Presto to a Largo, a legato to staccato, a crescendo to diminuendo, because none of those marking tended to be in the score.  It was simply the notes and rhythms, black against white, the rest left up to the interpreter. 

Who’s to say whether Gould’s approach to Bach isn’t a manmade remolding of Baroque Cathedrals into skyscrapers?  Who’s to say whether he has unearthed hidden natural truths or built up his own modern re-creations for his own recreation?  With Beethoven, you can prove it by pointing to deviations on the written page; with Bach it’s any man’s guess.  And besides, it’s usually so convincing!

It was when Gould ventured into less free terrain that his anti-urtext tendencies were blatant and often offensive.  The free-spirited Leonard Bernstein himself, irony of all ironies, felt it his duty to address the audience with an unprecedented disclaimer before beginning a performance of Brahms 1st Piano Concerto with Gould as soloist.  Gould had the idea that it should be slower, that there was a common underlying pulse linking the three movements.  This would add a good 7-8 minutes to the performance and make the whole thing sound endless.  {If you take the trouble to listen to the live recording, it’s actually not a slow tempo at all by today’s standards!}  “In the spirit of experimentation, I’ve decided to humor this young gentleman, but know that these are not my tempos – they’re his...”

Some early Beethoven could be spot-on – dry, electric and full of rhythmic verve and precision.  Other Beethoven, taken with a wetter approach, revealed a terrible command of the pedal, way-out tempi and strange liberties.  You never knew quite what to expect from any repertoire. 

But what people thought of his approach was not his primary concern.  He played for himself and for his scattered people.  He had by now withdrawn from playing concerts and become the mystic voice of the wilderness. 

Whatever you think of him, you always feel that his playing is absolutely sincere, that he isn’t simply trying to provoke, at least not maliciously.  He embodies creative interpretation and integrity.

I think of him as the original cubist.  I sometimes wish that post-Baroque composers had left the pages as bare, leaving greater liberties to the modern interpreter.  Would Glenn Gould have had a successful career if Bach had been as precise in his interpretive indications as Beethoven?  If Beethoven had left his pages more bare, giving the interpreter more liberty, would a Beethovenian Glenn Gould have sprung up among us?


The question is not whether we will be extremists,

but what kind of extremists we will be...

The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Walter Gieseking

Walter Gieseking


Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching



Debussy had a very curious approach to piano technique.  He taught that the keys shouldn’t be “played” – it’s the keys themselves that draw the fingers down magnetically.  That’s a very Zen-like approach to touch!  And it’s very revealing about how he might have interpreted his own piano works.  You would likely assume from his statement that his fingers would have a constant connection with the keys and that he might prefer the fleshy part of the fingertip for its less direct sound.  Except for an occasional martellato effect, he seems to desire a non-martellato sound, a sound devoid of hammers.  If this is so, he may have found one of his greatest interpreters in Gieseking.

Gieseking’s interpretations of both Debussy and Ravel are legendary.  They speak in a language of elves and fairies, pixies and water sprites. The first time I heard Gieseking’s celebrated recording of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, I felt as if I were hearing an unknown magical instrument, anything but a piano with hammers and strings. 

Gieseking has all the painterly qualities of Michelangeli, but the two couldn’t be more different.  Michelangeli’s approach is superior in so many respects:  it has a greater variety of color, it’s more precise in every way, more respectful of the score – you can take dictation from it!  Gieseking’s interpretations are free, full of unabashed liberties.  Many of the notes are so veiled that they would be hard to identify by any but the most gifted listener.  He mystifies the ears, confounds reason.  The notes often lack individual value; they’re grouped together for larger effect.  The unexplainable in what he achieves lends him the quality of a conjurer.  In the Impressionists, his special approach makes for enchanting, enthralling, unforgettable interpretations.


Gieseking had a facile memory, a large technique, and a vast repertoire.  He simply played everything, the 32 Beethoven Sonatas, for example.  The hardest thing about preparing the Beethoven Cycle was memorizing them.  Later in the same interview, he adds, humbly, memorizing them actually came quite effortlessly.  Unfortunately, they don’t say very much.  Much of his recorded legacy simply disappoints.  I would have thought his Rachmaninoff, for example, would be something quite special, but it’s played with little magic, little understanding.

While his discography is vast and varied, if he had simply left us with his recording of Gaspard de la nuit, he would have earned his place among the immortals.  And it’s this recording that I summon whenever I try to achieve an enchanting, hammerless effect on the keyboard.  How would Gieseking-playing-Gaspard realize this passage?  It may seem odd, but it’s a key that has opened my mind and ears to many magical possibilities throughout the repertoire.

Milan Kundera writes, eventually everyone is reduced to kitsch.  And this is what I do without apologies.  I reduce an artist to his greatest quality {or qualities} and use it as a tool.  On the other hand, I don’t hold their weaknesses against them, and I use what I take thankfully.  Sometimes I have to wonder, though, what will I be reduced to?

Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot


If you have truely attained wholeness, everything will flock to you.

~ Lao Tzu



Alfred Cortot’s greatness reveals itself most in his Chamber playing; his Trio with Casals and Thibaut is the stuff of legend.  But he’s more renowned as a soloist.  Many nominate him as the greatest pianist of the 20th century, and that’s unmerited, but a greater poet of the piano there never was.  He exudes warmth in prose.

There are two Cortots: pre-Wagner and post-Wagner.  Until the age of about twenty, he was a mere pianist – a fantastic, dry, elegant French pianist – but he lacked depth and sincerity.  I imagine, listening to his earliest recordings of works such as Saint-Saens’ Etude in the Form of a Valse, for example, that he must have played much of his repertoire in a similar vein.  The technique is staggering and the style full of élan.  But it’s a bit insincere and lacks color.

Then he became a Wagner convert, began learning to conduct, and spent his early twenties in Germany working as a Choral Coach and then Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.  In 1902, at the age of 25, he conducted the Paris Premiere of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung.  During these years, he reinvented his pianistic language and persona, returning to the stage as a transformed pianist, hardly recognizable.  He had reached greatness.

Although a conductor at heart, you don’t hear the baton in his interpretations as you do with many conductor/pianists { Leonard Bernstein or James Levine, for example }; his interpretations are never orchestral transcriptions.  Rather, he plays with the vision of a conductor and the colors of an orchestra in the language of a pianist. 

The piano is in countless respects inferior to the orchestra but in just as many superior.  The pianist has absolute freedom to manipulate time on every level.  Every nuance is his own.  A conductor would need limitless rehearsals to achieve the same effect.  Granted, it’s possible, but in the modern world it’s simply cost-prohibitive.  Gone are the days of 30 or 60 rehearsals for a new Opera, the underpaid orchestra subject to the whim of a sometimes great but merciless conductor.

The pianist needn’t depend on mercy – his orchestra is ever willing to oblige, and free of charge.


Cortot is the Piano’s Great Orator.  He didn’t separate words and vision from musical expression.  There’s a wonderful clip of Cortot teaching a Masterclass, playing Schumann’s Der Dichter Spricht { The Poet Speaks } while narrating the music’s poetic intentions.  A must-see!  The playing is stunning alone, but accompanied with his words and generous spirit, reveals a light into his soul and thought-processes.

He wrote down his poetic visions about a great deal of repertoire in various Editions, of Chopin and Schumann in particular, and although his writing style is out-dated, over-the-top, and second-rate as Prose, as a guide to understanding the repertoire, it’s often spot-on and visionary.

Many pianists talk about speaking and singing with their fingers – Cortot talks and writes, but also shows. 

What turns off many to Cortot is the way he carelessly throws away countless notes in his recordings.  He belonged to another era and didn’t quite understand the immortality of recordings.  He was thrown into recording from early on, but I doubt he truly believed in the medium.  He was a live artist of the Old School.  But don’t be deceived – if he needed to rerecord and play a note-perfect performance, it would have given him little trouble.  It’s not as if he didn’t possess a colossal technique!  He simply had his priorities elsewhere, on the poetry and the pure expression of his artistic vision.  Hard to fault the man for the noblest of intentions. 

Besides, after his early recordings set new standards for virtuosity, recorded or otherwise, perhaps he no longer felt the need to prove himself on a technical plain.  The first time I heard Cortot’s early recordings, I locked myself in a practice room in the heat of summer for two full weeks, castigating my fingers for their sloth and laziness.  Such was I humbled by Cortot’s elegant mastery.


There’s a revealing story about a change of the guard.  Cortot was to conduct Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto in Paris.  The soloist, the young Horowitz, 26 years his junior, was already making waves across the Continent.  I had heard that Horowitz was an albatross, but upon hearing him in person I failed to see his wings.

Did Horowitz have an off night? 

The following story illustrates the similarity and difference between Cortot and Horowitz.  Each of them enjoys catching you off-guard at the peak of a large crescendo.  They save a little something extra.  Cortot recommended to students to put down the Soft Pedal and make as much crescendo as possible.  At the very peak, release the Soft Pedal to reveal a sudden reserve of extra sound and brilliance.  It produces quite a special effect – try it!

Horowitz doesn’t often use the Soft Pedal above piano.   If he needs to crescendo to ff and then release a mighty sforzando at the peak, he plays a natural crescendo to ff, making you believe he’s maxed out.  Then he hits you with a dynamic level that only Horowitz and a small number of pianists possess – ffff!  It’s only partly illusion.  Most pianists possess a usable dynamic range from pp to ff.  Some possess a range from ppp to ff and others from ppp to fff.  Horowitz’ range is easily from pppp to ffff.  I imagine that only Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt possessed such a massive dynamic range with minute control over its entire scope.

The difference between Cortot’s Orchestra and Horowitz’ is that Cortot’s includes Strings, Winds, Horns, a solo Trombone and a solo Trumpet, whereas Horowitz’ includes all of the above plus an entire Brass and Percussion session – a full Mahlerian Orchestra, in effect.

Cortot couldn’t have helped but feel a little threatened by this.

Although perhaps not the greatest pianist of the 20th Century, Cortot certainly ranks among the top dozen.  Ranking, however, is an often juvenile pastime; esteeming, dissecting and possessing is the purpose of these pages.  Cortot still has much to teach me.

Sviatoslav Richter

Sviatoslav Richter



I’ve spoken of Richter’s it-just-is approach on a couple occasions.  There’s something right, even righteous, about his playing.  When you get under its spell, like that of all the great interpreters and Prophets, it seems as if there could be no other way to perceive reality.  It’s pure Zen.  Yes, there’s plenty to criticize, much missing, but there’s a purity to it, a completeness and utter inner logic and consistency.

In America, Richter fascinates and is respected, even loved, but his reputation has never quite equaled that of many other great pianists such as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau or Gilels.  In Europe however, I discovered that Richter is viewed by many as the ultimate pianist, and contrasted to America’s Horowitz, often derided as a tasteless trickster.  At first I found this offensive and laughable, and I still find it misguided.  Richter is over-rated there and Horowitz much under-rated.  Yes, Horowitz can be offensive, and he can at times seem trivial, but don’t let yourself be deceived – there’s an underlying seriousness to everything he does, and he leaves a colossal legacy that will feed countless generations to come, much more so than Richter’s ever will.

But Richter still rates very high in the larger scheme of things.  I didn’t get to know his work seriously until I was in my mid-twenties.  I knew a few of his recordings and respected his work, but I had an aversion to the idea of Richter.  What makes him the Prophet of the great composers?  Who does he think he is!

One night I put on a CD of his and listened to it calmly, without judging.  At first it seemed dry and colorless, but it began to grow on me.  As I continued listening, I actually started to like it.  It quietly insinuates itself into your consciousness.  The CD ended and I pressed play again.  And again. 



The next day I sat down at the piano and worked through some repertoire guided by Richter’s direction, as it were.  It felt like a purifying Zen ritual.  All of the excess color, emotion, and rubato filtered out and the black-and-white form remained, pure and simple.  I excised my will as much as possible to let the music speak – not the composer, but the music itself. 

When I thought deeply though, I realized that there was still one filter remaining – Richter.  He was teaching me, though, and was welcome to stay for the time being.


The Wise Man is square but not sharp,

honest but not not malign,

straight but not severe,

bright but not dazzling.” 

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching



Richter invites philosophical discussions about the nature of interpretation.  Does the composer have the right to stand between you and his music? 

When a composer creates, he taps into a force much larger than himself – Music.  Music in turn belongs to Creation.  The Composer doesn’t create music; he simply borrows its gestures and arranges them like Legos.  He can create nothing that doesn’t already preexist in the infinite possibilities of musical creation.  He uncovers preexistent truths and has no right to claim them.  The created work is greater than the composer.  And in a practical sense, by publishing, he releases interpretational rights and gives over his creation to interpreters.  As Rachmaninoff so often proves, the composer is not necessarily the best interpreter of his works, even if he actually possesses the instrumental skills to interpret them, which is rarely the case.

The composer needs to be as modest in front of Music as the interpreter does.  At this point in Music History, the interpreter and the composer are no longer co-dependent, practically or philosophically; neither serves the other.  Rather, they are both served by Music.  Music in return is served by purity of intent on the part of its practitioners.

Depending on the composer as a psychological go-between hinders intimacy with the music itself.  Many students have so many go-betweens – their present teacher, past teachers, composers, idols, respect for tradition - that they don’t know what’s real anymore.  Their communication with the listener and with themselves becomes weak.  Some become so blocked by filters that they become emotionally and mentally paralyzed.  A student has to learn how to throw away the image of his go-betweens and make direct contact with the music. 

Filters are tools:  they’ll serve you if you know how to use them, but if you don’t, they’ll either sit idly or get in your way.  Using teachers or composers or idols as filters is invaluable, but first you have to be able to experience the source first-hand.

Sometimes undesired filters are imbedded so deeply inside you, like computer viruses, that you don’t even realize they’re there.  Other times, you’re aware of a filter but find that you’re unable to function without it.  In this case, you’ve probably digested it so much that it’s becoming part of your intuition.  Give it time and don’t fight against it.  Remember that intuition can be viewed as a massive compendium of filters working subconsciously.


Does Richter come closer to Music than all other pianists, as many of his admirers believe?  Certainly not.  You can appreciate his Art though without acknowledging what he or others believe it to be.  The best way to describe it is high-definition black-and-white.  There’s plenty of contrast and glimpses of imagined color, but he deliberately rejects certain beauties for the sake of purity and simplicity.  The language is convincing and consistent in and of itself, and it mesmerizes.

At present, Richter is still not deeply rooted in me; it doesn’t stick to me as well as other filters.  But perhaps that’s because ultimately our approaches to performing, if not interpretation, are not so fundamentally different in many respects; it’s a matter of semantics.

Emil Gilels

Emil Gilels


True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist.

~ Albert Einstein


Emil Gilels is one of the Piano’s great Forces of Nature.  He has the qualities of a Poet and a violent storm wrapped in one.  Of all his recordings, Petroushka is his most definitive – some of the most orchestral playing in recorded history!


Like Michelangeli or Radu Lupu, you hear a Sculptor’s approach to the Piano in Gilels, but there’s an essential difference:  In the first two, you usually hear only the finished product, luminous and calm; in Gilels, it’s the actual process of Sculpting that you witness, like Performance Art in a Piazza.  You see the piercingly visionary eyes of the artist, his rippling muscles, the gleaming steel of the hammer and chisel, the chips flying left and right – you witness the birth of a work of Art.  The youthful, fearless struggle with the elements is viscerally exciting, mesmerizing!  Anything could happen.


When you do something, 

you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, 

leaving no trace of yourself.

~ Shunryu Suzuki


Occasionally, usually in studio recordings, you hear a much calmer, more passive Gilels, where the product of his sculpting becomes more important than the actual process.  Wisdom and calm abound.  And this side of Gilels has a glowing appeal as well, like Arrau or late Rubinstein.

Gilels at his best comes between these two extremes, when you feel the inevitability of the final product, but also the singing reality of the moment of creation – it’s present and eternal at once.  Here, Gilels and Michelangeli, seeming opposites, occasionally meet. 


Zen space, the space of Giants...


~ End of Part III ~

Part IV {Fuga con Variazioni}

Part IV  {Fuga con Variazioni}


If we don’t occupy ourself with everything, 

then peaceful mind will have nowhere to abide.

~ Shen-hui


The fourth and final movement of this Zen Symphony is a recapitulation of the Orchestration and Energy principals from Part I.  As the subtitle suggests, it takes the themes from the Zen Prelude and envelops them in a dense, penetrating Fugue ensued by a set of five variations. 

In Part I, we applied all of the principles to a single page of Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp minor Prelude.  As every style demands special orchestration, I’ve chosen five stylistically contrasting works from the standard repertoire to examine and prepare, step-by-step.  Each will be taken through the 29 filters of Part I.  There will naturally be a certain amount of repetition and reinforcement, like a Second-year Foreign Language textbook.

If any of you have harbored concerns about whether these concepts apply as much to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Prokofiev as they do to Rachmaninoff, Part IV will alleviate them.  I will use examples from the gamut of the piano repertoire to show the universality of the concepts.  There are of course stylistic differences that affect the application of certain techniques, and these will be explored in detail.  I’ve chosen works that you may already have played, or with which you at least likely may have a strong familiarity.

As with Part I, read slowly and try to put each of the examples into your fingers.  Techniques are only abstract ideas until they’re put into actual use with your own two hands.  To understand and absorb the techniques, they have to enter your body and filter through you.  It may be helpful as you work through Part IV to re-read corresponding Essays from Part I. 

Fuga: The Music Theory behind Energy Pillars

Fuga: The Music Theory behind Energy Pillars


Mastering the flow of energy is the Zen aspect of music-making, and involves an understanding of positive and negative energy.  This energy is made up of several different energy fields that overlap.  Getting beneath the surface of energy movement, which can be reduced to quite simple pathways guided by Energy Pillars, requires delving into each individual energy field and seeing how the notes are affected by them.  Each field must be separated and explored with as much depth as possible.  Although this seems impossible at first, it’s quite plausible and practicable. 

In order to master the flow of energy, you need not only understand the movement of energy on a local level, but also the larger architecture – how thetectonic plates of form revolve around one another, creating a multi-layered monarchic form.

Beyond the inner movement of pure energy, as it’s fleshed out and clothed in color and emotion, a psychological depth not unlike a human being, or even a group of human beings, reveals itself.  A psychologist amateur musician friend of mine, during a discussion about emotional counterpoint – how each voice has its own inner life separate from all the others but at the same time inter-connected by a common bind of time, space and fate – exclaimed excitedly, It’s just like family therapy!  Each individual inhabits his own reality but the family unit has its own dynamic that influences and is influenced by the individuals that make it up.

Music theory and analysis are not simply about understanding the harmony and basic musical form.  This is simply scratching the surface, and in an abstract sense does little for the performer.


My approach to analysis of harmony and energy is not dissimilar to the Italian notion of appoggio, centering one’s energy and support in the points of greater emotional tension and expression.  Relative dissonance is generally the essence of harmonic expression and each harmonic pattern creates its own energy field with positive and negative pulls.  Rhythms and meters also each have their own energy fields, and as they play off each other, juxtaposed against the ebb and flow of the many levels of harmonic and melodic movement, a complex web of energy emerges, which when properly understood however, can be simplified with Mozartian precision.   The important points of each musical gesture can be easily identified like pressure points and brought out, aligning the energy fields, clarifying the surrounding architecture, and heightening the meaning and effect.

The prerequisite for the following argument is a basic understanding of Music Theory.  Whether you possess this or not, remember that understanding how to choose the Energy Pillars is less important than believing in their existence and taking your best guess.  More often than not, your intuition will give you the correct answer.  And even when it does not, choosing a Pillar and organizing your energy around it will focus your interpretation and give it clearer meaning while giving you all the other physical and emotional benefits of balanced, non-static energy.  Skim over this and come back later if it’s too difficult.


This subject in and of itself is the subject for life-time study and deserves a book of its own – Music Theory for Performers (perhaps someone will get around to writing it one day…).  I took many Theory courses as an Undergrad and Graduate student, required and elective, and all left me unfulfilled by their simplistic and dry nature.  No course frustrates the Performance Major more – most perceive it as the antithesis of performing and either try NOT to learn it for fear of being corrupted by academia, or learn it enough simply to pass the course, and then quickly forget it because they never use it.  Few theory teachers are performers themselves; many of them are composers who are forced to teach it and suffer through it as much as their pupils.  Others are Theorists who love the beauty of abstract, useless ideas.  And even they find no pleasure in teaching the rudiments of their craft to unenthusiastic, half-asleep students. 

If only theory could be viewed as a tool to perform better.  If only the two could be seen as two sides to the same coin!  Then performers would flock to it and lap it up!  If they could be actively linked and constantly applied to the performer’s craft, students would develop quite a different attitude toward theory.  Theory as a discipline would be reborn in a sense.  What could at first be an elective Theory Course for Music majors with a pre-requisite of First-Year Theory could later become a unified approach to Theory and be taught from the beginning as Theory 101.  After all, music needn’t be separated from its performance; all musicians are performers.

This is what my approach is about.  Start from the performer’s perception of energy, color, emotion, and form.  What truth does he instinctively possess?  How does Theory apply to his actual experiences playing music?  How can he learn to analyze his own energy and the energy hidden in a page of music and somehow unite them logically?  Shouldn’t this be the goal of Theory?


Let’s start with a basic example from the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111.

If we analyze the harmony of the first couple measures with Roman numerals, it looks like this:


It’s in C major and the chords are all primary.  Granted that a IV-chord or a V-chord generally possesses more energy/tension than a I-chord, you would assume that those chords in the first two bars might be accented, like so:


However, the performance major will tell you, No!  That’s not so . . . what’s the point of analyzing harmony if it doesn’t tell you anything about the music?



If you take the normal performer’s view of the energy in these bars, it will look like so:


But how can you justify it theoretically?


The four basic types of energy that define Energy Pillars, listed in order of importance, are as follows:  1) Harmonic Dissonance (both appoggiaturas within a chord, and relative dissonances between chords); 2) Meter, 3) Note-value (the relative length of the notes), and 4) Note-height (how high or low the pitches are relative to one another).


Harmonic Dissonance

In Western Music, Harmonic Dissonance is the single most important factor in determining relative energy value between notes and between chords.  Meter is a close second because it’s difficult to determine whether dissonance is passing or accented without knowing where it’s placed rhythmically.  However, even before there was meter, such as in Gregorian Chant, music balanced itself between positive and negative poles.  Look at the movement of energy in the following Chant in Dorian Mode { in modern notation }:



Ascending stepwise from the tonic D, we land at our first Pillar on the 6th degree of the scale, which is more dissonant than its 5 lower neighbors and is accented expressively.  The following F and A then act as passing notes into an accented G, the dissonant 4th degree of the scale, which then descends stepwise through F, E and D until the C, our second main Pillar.  This dissonant 7th degree of the scale is accented as a brief appoggiatura, resolving through the E and C and finally settling back into the consonant, Tonic D. 


I can’t allow myself here to drawn into a several-hundred-page-long dissertation about the relative value of harmonies, but suffice it to say for the present that every chord in a composition has a relative energy value to all the other chords in the work.  No two chords, even when appearing identical, can possibly share the same energy value because they are influenced by their placement in time.  It’s important at first to gain a conscious command of feeling the relative dissonance between any two chords side-by-side.  Analyze them in terms of traditional notation and the perceived movement of energy, and try to decide which one has more dissonance.  Usually, the answer presents itself readily once asked.  Seek and you shall find – provided you know the right questions. 

Move through a phrase step by step until you’ve established the relative harmonic dissonances, then step back and compare the more harmonically charged chords to one another to see which one is more dissonant.  As you move away from the work and see its larger harmonic movement, you’ll see how it’s generally motored by relative dissonance between harmonies.

Melodic dissonance is a close second in determining the movement of harmonic energy.  An incredible amount of energy can be released by simply introducing melodic dissonance into an otherwise relatively consonant chord.  A poignant moment of dissonant consonance is expressed in the final appoggiatura from the Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (played on the beat as a long eighth-note):


These harmonic principles will be explored as we move through examples in this essay, and again in several examples throughout Part IV.



Meter is another enormous subject beyond the confines of this book, but certain basic ideas need to be understood.  Meter alone produces its own energy spheres.  Each meter has a basic energy pattern that cycles bar after bar.  Each individual beat makes up a meter in itself, and inside the beat, the possibility for infinite inner meters is theoretically possible. 

Let’s look at a few basic meters.

In 2/4, beat one is strong and beat two weak; beat one is positive and beat two negative.

3/4 is a little more complex.  Beat one is the strong beat, beat two the weakest, and beat 3 slightly stronger.  Beat one is positive and beats two and three are negative, however beat 3 is positive in relationship to beat two.

4/4 is even more complex.  Beat one, as always, is the strongest.  Beat three is the second strongest, beat four the third and beat two the weakest, such that beat three is negative to beat one, but positive to beats two and four, which always remain negative.  Beat four is usually stronger than beat two, as it’s drawn into the energy of the downbeat.

Compound meters combine two simple meters.  6/8, for example, is basically 2/4, each beat divided by three.  The parameters change slightly though because beat six can’t be so weak that it’s not able to lead into beat one.  Therefore, beat six is only slightly weaker than beat 4.

Any individual beat can be defined as a meter or combination of meters – we’ll look at examples of that later on.

The mystery of meter is that its power is constantly in flux depending on the strength and dominance of other energy fields.  It is often negated to the point of being unrecognizable on the surface.  Only occasionally is it experienced in its purest, absolute rhythmic form, often in accompanimental figures.  Yet it constantly exists below the surface.  Let’s look for a moment at Mozart’s Aria,  Voi che sapete, from Nozze di Figaro.



Both the melody and the accompaniment bubble with rhythmic and metric vitality.  Let’s look first at the accompaniment.  The constant, regular sixteenth notes (string pizzicato in orchestration) arpeggiating slow-moving primary harmonies, cleanly respect the metric energy fields - positive always balanced by negative.


{In the above example, Level I represents the metric field at the sixteenth-note level, Level II at the eighth-note level, and Level III at the quarter note level.}


This is true also of the melody:

{Here Level I represents the Metric Field at the eighth-note level and Level II at the quarter-note level.}

Interestingly though, if we look at the complete first phrase of the vocal line (the first four bars), the energy and expression of the Italian text sometimes overrides the underlying metric and harmonic energy.  Voi che sapete che cosa è amor {You who knows what love is, or word-for-word, you (Voi) che (that) sapete (knows) che (what) cosa (thing) è (is) amor (love).}  In Italian, this phrase can be interpreted and accented in several different ways, depending on the desired inflection.  Mozart’s setting of the words seems to imply that he deems the che on the downbeat of m. 3 as the primary accent.  After all, he places it on the highest tone, on a downbeat, and exactly in the middle of the phrase, which lends it symmetric beauty.  If you recite the Italian this way though, it sounds awkward.  It would be more natural to emphasize VOI or CO(sa) or (a)MOR, or all three, in relative values, than CHE.  So the sensitive singer needs to find a way of respecting Mozart’s musical setting while also observing the rhythmic and metric values of the original text.   

This is the world of the Singer and the Vocal Accompanist, if you venture into the vocal repertoire, you must take into account this other dimension of energy, character and style, often even during the instrumental interludes.  Sometimes I wonder if purely instrumental works as well are not sometimes influenced by the energy and even diction of the silent, unformed words that accompany them.  Endless volumes have been written about programmatic undercurrents of “pure” music, but what of the hidden languages behind the programs?  Although we won’t be able to enter such discussions here, we will briefly return to a discussion of the rhythm and energy of speech in a later essay.


Now let’s look for a moment at a couple examples of inner meter in the above example.  Here is the treble accompaniment of bar 6:

The triplet on the second sixteenth of the first beat reveals an inner 3/32 meter.  That is, in the time of a single sixteenth note, the metric laws of triple meter are observed.  Any beat or fraction of a beat can subdivide into Micro-meters, each revolving around, or inside of, the larger meter.  At the other end, bars often group into Macro-meters, such that four bars of 2/4, say, can form a single 4/2, or two bars of 2/2.  The above four-bar phrase of Voi che sapete can be interpreted either way.

As you analyze musical examples from not only Modern Music, but from all periods of music, you’ll discover every manner of Micro- and Macro-meters, as well as other complex and cross meters, often extending over the boundaries of tradition metric definitions and even phrase definitions. 

As you become more aware of the interacting energy fields of meters, of how larger complex meters are formed by grouping bars into macro-meters, your playing will gain in depth, dimension and meaning. 

A useful exercise with any work or passage is to play it to through first observing the Micro-meters as closely and exaggeratedly as possible.  Then take a step back to the next Micro-meter level or to the notated Meter level.  Then take another step back playing each bar as 2/2 – cut time.  Then as 1/1, with an eye to linking bars into Macro-meters.  (In case I’ve lost any of you with hypothetical time signatures, 1/1 would mean that there is one beat per bar and that a whole note equals one beat.)  When dealing with grouped bars, treat the metric laws more freely; the main accent, like many dances, may be on an unusual beat.

If you were to apply this exercise to the first four bars of Voi che sapete, you could begin by realizing it as if it were in 4/8, say, then as written, in 2/4, then 1/2 (one beat to the bar, a half-note equals one beat), and then grouping two bars together into a larger macro-measure, 2/2, then four together, 4/2.

Another useful exercise to develop a greater sensitivity to meter and to its forward-propelled movement is to superimpose rhythms upon a phrase of music as you play it, as if a tambourine we’re silently accompanying you with rhythmic verve.  


Above a bar of music in 2/4 with sixteenth notes, you could superimpose the following rhythm, for example:






If triplets are at play, you could superimpose this rhythm:






All of these rhythmic juxtapositions propel you into the downbeat and accent the dance-like roots of meter.  They give the downbeat accent, but also lift; they downplay the weak 2nd beat by hiding it in the shadow of the downbeat; and they propel the anacrusis (upbeat) into the downbeat.


Returning to our argument, another idea to consider briefly is that the accompaniment, especially an accompaniment of such dance-like character as this, attaches itself to and indeed defines itself by the underlying metric values.  Melodies, in general, are less beholden to meter because they define themselves either by their ignorance of it or their freedom from it.  Melodies ride the meter but are usually not obviously defined by it.  It’s just as wrong to kill the meter by expressively belaboring the melody as it is to trifle-ize the melody by making it too metric.

Sometimes Meter’s power is not real but virtual.  The expectations of Meter are ingrained in the listener’s psyche to such an extent that variations from it on the surface are interpreted as expressive deviations from a hidden metric field.  Deviations from meter constitute metric dissonance, which is the essence of metric espressivo, a principal element of rubato.

{The concept of the listener’s perceptions changing the actual substance of the music and becoming an active element of the interpretation is a fascinating subject of its own outside the scope of this book.}



Go into the long note.  This is one of those pieces of advice that you can virtually trust blindly because 95% of the time, it works perfectly and the other 5% at least passably. 

There’s a reason why certain notes are longer; generally it’s because they’re more important.  And I’m not simply referring to whole-notes and half-notes; gestures very often find their peak in a relatively long note - be it a whole-note, dotted-quarter-note, eighth-note or dotted-thirty-second-note. 

Rhythm operates outside of Meter and produces its own energy field, whether we’re talking about a miniscule gesture or the arch of an entire Opera or recital.  Rhythm and Meter are of course linked and constantly play off one another, but it’s important to be able to separate them and perceive their unique energies in order to be able to flow with them and to be able to manipulate them for expressive purposes.

The Shorter the note, the lighter it should be played.  And vice-versa.  Not observing this truth regularly will make your playing pedantic; observing it indiscriminately will make it lack expression.  A wonderful old-school Italian conductor once pointed out to me, In Puccini, it’s the short notes that are expressive, not the long ones!

The reason this is often true in Puccini and in Romantic music in general, is because by fighting against natural rhythmic and metric laws, the melody asserts itself expressively.

Rhythmic Characterization falls into this general discussion on Rhythm and again is a subject far too complex and vast for the confines of this book.  Besides, Rhythm is generally best experienced rather than read about.  I was once lent a wonderfully complex book about Rhythm – more than 600 pages long in small print.  The weight of it in my back-pack made me feel a little more important.  I made it through the first several pages zealously, then opened a page of music and started searching on my own from primary sources.


Every rhythm has a special character with relative weight-distribution.  As you begin categorizing rhythmic patterns for yourself, take note of each pattern’s common characteristics and how they change depending on the tempo and the meters they’re placed against.  The same dotted rhythm, for example, can be flippant or deathly serious depending on context.



All music is essential either vocal or vocally derived.  Because of the nature of vocal technique, as the pitch rises, the energy level also rises.  The highest pitches in one’s vocal range require an inordinate amount of energy to emit and sustain.  The Soprano or Tenor’s high-C, for instance, is so intense and its communicative power so expressive that when sung well, it brings the house down.  An untrained singer will tend to sing with a natural crescendo/diminuendo as the melody moves up and down.  This is simply the natural order of things.

However, notes are often governed by other energy sources that negate the desire of higher notes to be louder than their lower neighbors.  One of the great difficulties of mastering singing is to overcome this technical hurdle, to make it seem quite often that the higher note requires less physical/mental/emotional energy than lower ones.


Pianists are often so disconnected from their voice that moving up doesn’t make them sense a growing vocal intensity.  Singers on the other hand are trained so extensively to use an increase in energy every time their voice rises that they have a hard time seeing music and phrasing in any other light.


Analysis for Performance

Once you come to terms with how the above types of musical energy can be reduced to energy spheres broken down into positive and negative points, you’ll notice where several fields line up to suggest the overarching flow of energy.  Often though, the data contradicts itself, and one form of energy must impose itself at the expense of the others.  How this happens is often mysterious.  The definition of the arc of energy, the Super-melody, is your most important goal as an interpreter because it corresponds most completely with your energy experience during performance. 

But, like analyzing the stock market or any other complex system, divining it requires experience and intuition.  Obviously, inserting all the data into a super-computer wouldn’t result in the ultimate musical solution, or even an artistic one.  And more often than not, the performer will stumble upon a valid solution without being able to define it theoretically, and thereby refine it.  Conversely, theorists sometimes spin beautifully logical theories that have little to do with the actual performance of a work; contemplating such theories at length, or worse, trying to express them through performance, may result in a less-than- inspired evening.  There’s nothing so painful as a Piano recital serving as a pedagogical demonstration.

As you come to better understand your options and the energies inspiring your mind and emotions, your choices will become more self-evident; while at first your mind may become cluttered with too much data, once you’ve sorted out what’s essential, your mind will become clearer, your vision long, and your emotional expression purer and more direct.


Now, let’s return to analyzing the opening bars of the Beethoven example above and see why the energy moves the way it does.  Here is the manuscript in Beethoven’s own hand, which lays out the architecture of the long phrase in stark relief while shrouding the smaller inner gestures in mystery. 


Certain details are striking!  Notice how he writes each of the hairpin crescendo-diminuendos as a single arch – the energy is solid and intense, with no space to escape or breathe as it swells and peaks.  Never have I seen any edition of Beethoven that demonstrates this peculiarly Beethovenian notation.  Notice also the size of the first crescendo leading into m. 6; it’s the largest single marking so far in the score!  There’s no ambiguity that we’ve arrived at the climax of the first phrase. 

Consider also the spacing of the notes – is it possible to divine how Beethoven imagined the pacing of the phrase, its rubato?  Notice how each of the beats in the first two measures are spaced quite regularly and relatively close together, as if simply defining a pulse, molto semplice.  Then suddenly the downbeat of m. 3 is delayed considerably; the vision of the long phrase to come harkens breadth and reflection, as if taking in infinity’s aurora.  The second beat of the same measure is delayed even further as the melody soars up a 6th to an “E” – cantabile!  The first two beats of m. 4 again take on the regular, compact spacing of the first two measures, but the third beat is delayed – why?  Perhaps he needs to set off the sudden, dramatic ascent into the climax through the following measure.  Indeed, m. 5 again is spaced more broadly, especially the third beat, palpably delaying the arrival to the climax on the following downbeat.  

Could all this be mere coincidence?  It seems as if he’s breathing and singing across time through his quill.  Shouldn’t an urtext edition strive to recapture the revealing idiosyncrasies of the manuscript, its spacing, even perhaps the intensity of the strokes, its strange calligraphy?  Or perhaps it’s simply worth searching out the original documents for oneself…

Now let’s turn our attention to the harmony.  The first chord, on the 3rd beat, is C major, the tonic.  The next chord, on the downbeat, is also C major.  And the third chord is a Dominant chord.  If we look only at the relative dissonance between the three chords, the Dominant ought to receive the most weight, yet it doesn’t. 

So now we need to look at the Meter.  The downbeat always has an innate accent potential.  And indeed the energy does center on the downbeat.  Metrically, it makes sense that the Pillar should be on the downbeat. 

Now let’s look at the relative note-values of the principal line.  It begins on C with a short note, then moves to G on an even shorter note, and finally settles into a second G on a very long note.  This G on the first downbeat is where the energy centers, and therefore its placement works logically on that level. 

Now consider the Note-height relationships of the top melody: C-G-G.  It begins on a Treble C, then descends a perfect fourth to G, and then the G repeats. Vocally, the C, being the highest pitch, should be the energy center, and indeed, many singers would try to sing it this way, but would be mistaken.   Many early, Romantically-inspired editions of Beethoven interpret it this way as well.  Even Schenker, in his edition of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, treats this initial gesture as if a Victorian sigh, adding in a diminuendo:


{Notice also Schenker’s insertion of a crescendo-diminuendo in mm. 3-4 (not ill-conceived if interpreted on a small scale) and also notice how the crescendo in m. 5 peaks on the third beat rather than the following downbeat, as in Beethoven's hand, deftly destroying the composer's much simpler and more powerful indication.  In Schenker’s view, the treble G (both of them, it seems) represents the melodic pinnacle of the phrase, both because it’s the highest note and because it falls on the fifth (Dominant) degree of the scale, which has inherent melodic tension (a Schenkerian theme).  The first G however is merely the preparation of the following G on the downbeat, and only one of the two can rightly reign as the first major Energy Pillar.}   

Returning to our previous argument about the phrasing of the initial gesture, it would be enough to conclude that since the Meter AND the relative Note-value favor the long note on the downbeat of m. 1, despite its relative consonance to the Dominant and its melodically lower placement, we can feel confident in choosing the downbeat as the first Energy Pillar.  After all, most feel and play it that way instinctively; ultimately, both personal and mass intuition must be relied upon to make the final decision.   

Again, some vocally-inspired pianists give an expressive accent to the initial C in the melody because it’s higher.  There’s a fleeting beauty in this, but this is Beethoven, and beginning the last movement of his last of 32 Sonatas as if he were introducing Chopin seems like an affront to his legacy.

Other harmonically sensitive pianists, feeling the relative dissonance of the Dominant on the 2nd beat, insert a small, expressive crescendo, as if apologizing for its misplacement.  More Chopin to my ears.

What’s missing here in traditional notation is the realization that the two C-major chords are not the same chord!  How often I coach singers to realize that just because two identical notes are side-by-side doesn’t mean that they share the same color or meaning!  Listen to the harmony surrounding them, to the rhythm, to the movement of the line.  Everything affects the color of two seemingly identical notes, making them quite different.  An E, for example, might be the major third over a C major chord one moment, magically transform into a major seventh above an F major chord the next, and then become the sharped 4th resolving up a half-step above a B-flat major chord.  The meaning and resulting color constantly change according to surrounding harmonic and melodic movement.

Chords work the same way.  They can often be interpreted simultaneously on several different levels.  Try to reach their functional level – the level that means most to the performer.  If the second C major chord in the example feels dissonant against the following Dominant chord, where does this dissonance come from?  How can you explain it?  The reason it feels dissonant is that rather than being a tonic C major chord, it’s a Sub-dominant C major chord, acting as a chordal appoggiatura to the following chord. 


I notate it like so:

An appoggiatura is a leaning note, a point of tension that dissipates as it resolves into the following note.  Likewise, a chordal appoggiatura is a chord of inherent relative tension that resolves into the following chord.  In both cases, the tension and its resolution form one single entity, taking on the combined rhythmic value of the two, such that a quarter-note appoggiatura resolving into a quarter-note resolution is best felt as a single half-note that changes pitch and intensity level.  If you conceive of an appoggiatura and its resolution as two separate events, you’ll never express its true nature. 


The following gesture works exactly the same way, and can be notated traditionally like so:






Or more explicitly, like so:





Seen in this light, it all makes sense.  The relative harmonic dissonance that the interpreter feels is not ignored – it’s observed for what it truly is!  You’ll no longer have to resist your romantic desire to express relative harmonic dissonance, because by interpreting the second C major chord as dissonant rather than consonant, you can naturally phrase it romantically while remaining quite classical and pure.  This is theory and analysis in action for the serious performer.

Let’s now take a step back and try to define the larger movement and subdivisions of this seamless, cryptic initial 8-bar phrase.  A typical, classical 8-bar phrase divides into 3 units: 2+2+4, with the climax in the third unit.  This example divides though more precisely as 1+1+2+4; therefore, there are four pillars, each of subtly growing intensity. 


We’ve already defined the first two gestures and their respective Pillars, so now let’s look at the third:

Where is its energy-center?

How do you define its harmony?

It’s sometimes best to define the harmonic movement of a given passage by the key of the arrival point, in this case a chordal appoggiatura IV-I over G major, the Dominant.  As you approach the Dominant, Tonic chords morph into Sub-Dominant chords of the Dominant.  That is, the C major Tonic chord reinterprets itself as the Sub-dominant of G major even before the ear fully realizes it.  In this passage, as it’s unaccented, it serves as a magical bridge to a new realm, fleeting as it were.   

What happens in the following measure is even more fantastic – the C major chord unwittingly becomes the VII chord of D minor, again acting as a bridge between parallel realms.  This chord, accented with a poignant, softly piercing melodic 4-3 appoggiatura finds its heightened tension from being effectively the (minor) Dominant of the Dominant, and in the next two bars, the tension retreats through the Dominant and then resolves, almost stoically, into the Tonic, now completely transformed.  The colors of C major!  It’s a truly wondrous passage, and it pains the ear to so often hear it performed as if every C major transformation were merely the Tonic.

After you’ve defined the Pillars and organized them, the next step is to ask yourself what each of them makes you feel.  Choose several adjectives that immediately come to mind.  After you sketch out what it is you feel, try to decipher why it is that each Pillar inspires the given emotional responses.  Then as you prepare to realize your intentions at the Piano, allow yourself to exaggerate your responses so that you can fully claim them and control them.  Be luxuriously sensitive, lavishly expressive.  At this point, you can then release control and follow the emotional pathway you’ve set for yourself.  Like a good actor, you’ve prepared the affect that you find most true and then realize it with the freshness of spirit that the audience will possess when they hear you perform it.


We’ve only touched the surface in this Introduction to Performance-centered Analysis, but I hoped to have shown that Theory needn’t be dry and detached; indeed, analysis is the soul of mature interpretation.  It’s what gives meaning and form to emotion and movement.  All analysis in the end is simply explaining and understanding of the ebb and flow of emotional tension.  As you take apart the scores you prepare, your analytical skills will improve, and I dare say that your understanding of your very self will become more true and complete.  Is not this the goal of all artistic endeavor? 


Variation II

Variation II:  Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2


Chopin appeals to the hearts of all listeners, even those with no previous knowledge of Classical music.  He has a timeless, ageless appeal; not even Mozart is so accessible and beloved by the masses.

Chopin is also one of the more thankful composers to interpret.  His music is so easy to feel and understand, so natural to express, and so pianistic to play, that even Intermediate pianists find themselves quickly comfortable in many of his works.  For the adolescent, aspiring pianist, a healthy dose of Chopin is a must.  He teaches the pianist a transcendental technique, but more importantly, he teaches him how to sing and express himself.



Chopin is the pianist’s Opera composer.  Inspired by Bellini and Donizetti, he crafted long, expressive, lyric lines that appeal directly to the soul with their poetic melancholy and lofty visions.  His music embodies bel canto, even taking the idea beyond the capabilities of actual singing.  Beauty and warmth of sound is a constant goal, even in the most torrentially passionate moments.  Remember that Lucia’s suicide is expressed through bel canto.

The piano is not only capable of singing, but can sing seemingly never-ending lines without having to breathe.  Not only this, but it has a vocal range of 88 semitones, more than seven octaves.  Many of Chopin’s most stunning melodies take advantage of both these peculiar traits.  Look at this breathtaking when the Piano soloist enters for the first time in the 2nd movement of Chopin’s F-minor Concerto:



It spans six full octaves!  Look how long it takes before the singer’s first breath!  And this is only the beginning of the phrase.  The concept of Super-Melody is always easy to understand with Chopin because the principal line is so easy to define.  It’s often as if an entire composition were one long phrase, separated by commas and slight pauses, but with a single period at the very end.

The challenge of singing on super-long breaths with an abnormally wide range is that as human beings, we feel certain vocal limitations out of habit, perhaps even genetically.  Pianists usually find it easiest to sing within their own vocal range, or something resembling it.  As soon as they leave their range, they begin imitating singing, but don’t actually directly connecting to the notes emotionally.  Most pianists, men and women, seem to possess a vocal range of about three octaves, from the C below middle C to High C.  Experiment and see if this isn’t true for yourself.  Chopin challenges you to extend your pianistic vocal range to include the entire keyboard.

Singing a long line on a long breath is also mentally and psychologically challenging.  The mind seeks for something to hold on to, a slight pause or break, to re-balance itself.  Careful ~ you may occasionally find yourself forgetting to actually breathe.  In Chopin’s long lines, the energy turns and spins, but doesn’t break or pause.  Learning to come off one Energy Pillar, the energy receding, and gradually feel the increasing pull of the subsequent Pillar, gives you the feeling of briefly floating, then being spun around gently in a new direction by the pull of fresh energy.  You don’t stop or pause, you simply spin and redirect according to the energy surrounding you.  This technique applies to all music, but Chopin’s kicks it up a notch because the phrases are so long.


A particularly satisfying feature of interpreting Chopin is that it accepts all sorts of interpreters and interpretations.  The music gives you much interpretational freedom and also seems to accept you as you are.  It takes on your mood as its own, chameleon-like.  Arrau spoke of needing certain composers at different times in his life.  I think we could all admit that we need Chopin.

The Nocturnes represent the zenith of his Operatic approach.  Learn to play one of them well and you’ll have unlocked many of the secrets to interpreting the Polish Tone-Poet.  The excerpt we will be studying is the first four bars of one of Chopin’s earliest and most beloved works, the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2:




Defining the Color Levels

Let’s first define the example in terms of its chorale-like four parts.  As with most of Chopin, and most Western Music for that matter, once you’ve defined the four parts, you’ll have defined the gist of the composition. 

The Soprano line, the Red Level, couldn’t be clearer.  Chopin often uses the r.h. as a solo singer like this in his works.  The Alto, Tenor and Bass might be less obvious at first sight because of the spread nature of the l.h. accompaniment, but are self-evident once you see them:



As in the Beethoven example, the fourth layer (here turquoise), the Tenor line, sometimes splits in two depending on the demands of the supporting harmony.

It’s best to define color differentiation at first simply with dynamic contrast.  Louder sounds tend toward brightness and softer sounds toward mellowness.  This needn’t be so, but for the moment, follow your natural tendencies.

Make your initial goal to be able to play the Soprano line in a bright, deep f, the Bass line, mf, the Alto line p and the Tenor line pp. 

Once you’ve achieved this, move on to the next filter and come back to color later on and define your choices with increasing specificity.


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

Each of the four parts should inhabit its own time dimension.  Begin by spreading the beat using Vertical Hierarchy, like so:


In order to achieve this, approach each voice, separating it in time from the pack.  Play that single voice f and the rest pp.  At first, it may feel like stabbing fish in a river with no sense of line or color, but as you become comfortable, the sound quality will improve, the horizontal line will come back into view, and you’ll begin to sing again.  Remember to connect to each line emotionally; listen to its individual character and needs.

Following the previous examples, build up the excerpt according to Vertical Hierarchy.   Ultimately, you should be able to separate the four lines in time while maintaining the dynamic differentiation achieved in the previous filter.


Reverse Hierarchy

Countless Chopin interpreters, especially from the Golden Age, use Reverse Hierarchy, especially in Chopin.  The result looks something more like this:


It’s a sort of subtle (and often not-so-subtle) continuous series of arpeggios.  The Bass usually anticipates the beat, the soprano lazes in after the beat, and the remaining parts spread in through the center of the beat.  It’s willful and romantic, often quite beautiful and luxurious, but quickly tires on the modern ear.


Free Placement

The more sophisticated Chopin interpreters use a subtle blend of Vertical Hierarchy and Reverse Hierarchy, which I call Free Placement.

Chopin taught that the accompaniment part should stay in relatively strict tempo while allowing the melody to express itself freely, with plenty of rubato.  This is simplistic and only touches the surface, but is a great starting point, and I’m sure Chopin meant it as such.  Let’s look at the first two bars in a possible realization of Free Placement:


Play it through this way until it becomes comfortable and you’re able to freely sing the melody.


Past, Present and Future Dimensions

One useful way to divide the beat is into three dimensions – the Future, the Present, and the Past.  The Future is the front side of the beat, the Present, on the beat, and the Past, after the beat.  Countless modern musicians interpret everything in only one of these three dimensions.  The wise pianist lives on the back side of the beat, constantly offering reflections and commentaries.  The young pianist, full of forward momentum and emotional longing, exists on the front side of the beat in a forward-moving, seemingly perpetual accelerando.  The Proper pianist nails down all his notes dead-center, existing in the present, but often quite deathly so.  What kind of pianist are you?

Once I heard a virtuoso Piano Duo composed of two artists with opposite personalities, one playing consistently in the Future, the other in the Past, neither aware of his own or the other’s proclivities.  Yet they meet in the middle in seemingly perfect sync.  The result is ironic and somehow disconcerting.  On the surface, it sounds like marvelous ensemble playing, yet they actually play with two divergent beats that never meet.

You’ll notice in the example above that the soprano and bass line are crossing between dimensions.  Even in the first measure, you’ll find a wonderous degree of subtlety and hidden meaning.  Notice the placement of the Soprano notes.  The B-flat pick-up is placed slightly early in relationship to its proper slot within the beat, full of hope and expectation.  The G and F that follow are centered in the present, but the following three notes are increasingly late, creating the illusion of a ritardando.  Beginning in the Future, passing through the present and ending further and further in the past evokes a potent sense of nostalgia.  The appoggiatura on the F resolves demurely into the E-flat as it lovingly turns its glance backwards.   Not to be drawn into reverie, the next phrase reasserts itself in the present, centered, but it too gets drawn increasingly into past reflections until the B-flat, which acts as a turning point.  The line then gradually gets drawn toward the present, setting up the third phrase, which will begin full of momentum, on the wings of expectation.

Turn your attention now to the eight notes in the bass, which balance and contrast the soprano.   When the soprano is off the beat, the bass is centered on it, solidifying pulse.  The one exception to this is the downbeat of m. 2, where the bass anticipates the beat and the soprano lags behind it.  The expressive tension of this moment is heightened by the tension of time bent and spread. 

Experiment on your own.  Play it first with the r.h. straight, in tempo, the l.h. manipulated; then try it with both Soprano and Bass manipulated, as in the above diagram.  The effect of these ever-so-slight variations in time is great yet subtle, refined and idiomatic.  For particularly beautiful effect, play the downbeat C in the Bass subito pp. 

This offers you a small glimpse of the possibilities, not only in Chopin but in all styles of music, of manipulating the Past, Present and Future dimensions.  If this concept is new to you, you’ve begun a lifetime hands-on exploration of this vast and complex subject.


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

Where are the Energy Pillars in our four-bar excerpt?  In Chopin, because of the idiomatically subjective nature of his expression, it’s not always clean-cut.  There often exist several equally valid ways of interpreting a phrase.  However, each choice affects the next, and often one choice forces you into another.

Take the first two bars, for example.  The first bar has two potential Energy Pillars, the G on the downbeat or the F on the third beat.  The second phrase { the second bar } also has two possible Energy Pillars, the C on the second beat or the B-flat on the third.  These two phrases form one larger phrase and need to somehow complement one another.  If you treat the first phrase in diminuendo, the Energy Pillar on the downbeat, the second phrase begins at a dangerously low energy level, longing for another jolt of Energy.  The second phrase then works most naturally if you choose the high C on beat two as the Energy Pillar, beat three acting as a retreating echo of sorts. 

If you have a more Wagnerian view of these two phrases though, you could begin in the same way with the first downbeat as the first Pillar and the third beat of the second bar as the second – it’s dramatic and effective.

If instead you choose the first Pillar as the F on the third beat, the second Pillar could fall quite naturally either on the high C, because of its height, or on the B-flat on the third beat, because of its melodic dissonance.  If you choose to place both Pillars on the third beat, they’ll have a Classical symmetry to them; if you put the first Pillar on beat three and the second on beat two, the asymmetry is more romantic and impulsive.  Both work equally well, but you must choose!  Indecisiveness ruins every possibility of meaningful communication.

Now look at the Energy Pillars for the Red and Blue levels as I realize them in:



Play it through a few times, trying to understand why each of the Pillars is placed where it is.  Do you disagree?  Experiment and define your own Pillars.  Be prepared to defend and justify your choices to others, but mainly to yourself; the most important aspect of interpretation is personal conviction.


Applying and Removing Gloss

Most interpreters and listeners seem to prefer matte finish when it comes to Chopin.  The Pleyel however, has a rather bright, thin, translucent sound.  Should Chopin’s instrument of choice dictate touch?

This is an interesting subject that’s not often addressed.  Americans are often criticized in Europe for using a brighter, less serious sound.  It’s thought to reveal a shallower approach to interpretation, and it sometimes does.  Yet look at European pianos – Bösendorfers, Bechsteins, Faziolis, German Steinways – they all possess a brighter, thinner, more translucent sound than an American Steinway or Baldwin.  Ironically, the European instruments have a Hollywood gloss about them.  It’s as if the piano manufacturers in Europe compensate for a less glossy approach to sound on the part of European pianists, and the opposite in America!  The result is a rather unified approach to sound on both sides of the Atlantic.  A European pianist playing on an American Steinway tends to sound lackluster, and an American playing on a European piano sounds too bright.  A good pianist can of course adapt, to a certain extent, to any piano and create his own sound, but habit is a powerful force.

Piano manufacturers obviously respond to the demands of their customers, but should period instruments retroactively dictate artistic choices to interpreters?  That is, should Beethoven be played with a Fortepiano-like sound, Bach with a Harpsichord-like sound, Chopin with a turn-of-the-century Pleyel sound?

I recently played Samuel Barber’s piano, still in wonderful condition.  If you listen to Barber’s own playing in recordings, it lacks warmth and has a certain modern quality to it.  Is this how he would have wanted his piano works to be interpreted?  His piano possesses one of the warmest, most lyric sounds I’ve ever heard it recalls the sound of his Adagio for Strings.  This is the piano he chose from hundreds with the help of a concert pianist colleague.  Did he choose such a warm, lyric instrument because it represented his ideal sound or because it complemented his more percussive approach to playing?  Did Chopin use Pleyels because he truly loved their innate sound, because they complemented his own sound in some way, or simply because they were the best he could get? 

As you can see, the argument is not nearly as simplistic as many make it seem to be.  Period instruments are extremely revealing, but they don’t necessarily reveal truth.

Chopin takes to all kinds of finish.  Experiment with various types of finish in each vertical level, and along horizontal lines, and decide for yourself what kind of approach is most suited to yourself in relationship to the piano you happen to have at your disposal. 


Remember a basic rule about gloss – for every note you add gloss to, several other notes should have gloss removed or decreased.  Balance your textures in good taste, always leaving room for shadows.


Defining the Pedaling

Chopin’s pedal indications are often rather bizarre.  It sometime seems as if he scribbled it in at the request of editors at the last minute, against his will.  They’re occasionally revealing and should always be tried out, but generally they have to be redone from scratch.

The biggest mistake in Chopin is continuous legato pedaling, never a moment of clean air or clear textures.  Many play with the effect of an old upright, changing the pedal 90%, but never clearing it completely.  This is offensive to a discerning ear; if this is your habit, practice lifting up the pedal completely and waiting a full sixteenth note before putting it back down again.  This will clean out your ears like a slice of pink ginger between pieces of sushi, helping you to properly appreciate each flavor. 

The ear pedals, not the foot.  Once the ear has made her  choices about pedaling, let your conscious mind become aware of them choices as specifically as possible; write them into your score with as much creative precision as possible.  No form of traditional pedaling notation will come close to virtuoso pedaling.  Pedaling is so intimately linked to touch, dynamics, dynamic and color differentiation, and a host of other conditions that one person’s pedaling may work for him and not for you.  Keeping this in mind, look at my pedaling for the first two measures of the Nocturne (notated in Free Placement):


If you look closely, you’ll discover traditional syncopated pedaling underneath – one pedal change right after the attack of each bass note, catching both the new bass note and the melody note above.  This much could have been notated with standard pedal indications.  Yet the depth of the pedal, the height of the change, the varying speed of change, the exact length of the breath at the peak of each pedal change, as well as other constant minute gradations are all wonderfully clear in this graph, as are the precise relationship of the pedaling to Free Placement.  And again, this is but a simplified reduction. 

As you take it to the Piano and realize it, be aware of the constant adjustments of touch as the pedal moves.  Your ear will teach you, but one guiding rule will be especially helpful:  when the pedal releases completely or even nears the last 10%, your fingers need to speak and sing more.  Clean changes will destroy the atmospheric overtones and diminish volume, so at the moment of these changes, you need to project more with your fingers.  If you manage this with perfect timing and balance, the ears will be distracted momentarily by the singular intensity and presence of the exposed tones at the change so that the listener won’t be pained by or likely even notice the loss of overtones.  Illusion reigns.  The difference between a trick and real magic is only the degree of mastery.   

In performance, real-time realities – acoustic properties of the performing space, tonal characteristics of the instrument, a split note, a less-than-well-regulated instrument, a less-than-well-regulated technique (Did you not warm up your finger-staccato before performance or forget to do your routine Sun Salutations this morning?), a split note, and on an on – will require minor or sometimes drastic changes to your intentions.


Linking and Separating

Separation is a subtle question in an excerpt such as this because the element of constant legato bel canto is present.  Chopin deliberately extends the line, making it seem eternal and never-ending.  The melody contains a single rest in the first, long eight bars, and the accompaniment, except for the upbeat rest before it enters, none.  Legato and connectedness reign.

Yet there are plenty of half-breaks and turns-of-phrase.  These can be defined mainly with a combination of subtle clearing of the pedal and gentle rubato.

Take for example the opening two bars.  There are two bar-long phrases that connect to form a two-bar phrase.  In the first phrase, there’s a gentle leaning forward tempo-wise into the third beat, then a relaxing and subtle suspension of time into and on the following downbeat, like so:


The pedal, likewise, becomes gradually deeper into the third beat and gradually clears in the third and fourth beats.  This by itself creates the effect of a crescendo/diminuendo of volume and lushness.  As the air clears, the listener perceives the phrase coming to a close, but since there’s then no break in the line, the following phrase grows naturally out of the first, creating a seamless two-bar phrase.  This same type of phrasing occurs over and over again in Chopin, such that a one-bar phrase becomes two, then three, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then thirty, and before you know it, the whole ten-minute work has become a single, ever-extended phrase!   Schubert and Rachmaninoff are two other composers who manage this miracle over and over again.

When you analyze the phrases in Chopin, define all of the smallest gestures first, then gradually work out from them, seeing how they combine.  You need ten different types of commas to begin analyzing Chopin.  Break up the individual gestures first, tightening them, then link them into larger, tight gestures, and eventually you’ll be able to conceive his endless lines without forcing them or breaking them up where they shouldn’t be.


Defining Rubato

Rubato needs to be understood on three basic levels.  The common interpretation of rubato is the manipulation of time in terms of its beats.  A more complex version of this same concept is the manipulation of sub-beats and sub-beats of sub-beats.  What makes rubato so complex, even on this surface level, is that each layer of the music possesses its own inner logic and dictates its own unique rubato.  The desires and aspirations of individual lines often need to be checked and compromised for the sake of the family of lines that share the same beats.

As you work through each individual line of a vertical texture, be sensitive to each line and give it full liberty to express itself in time.  You have to know the inner desire of each line before being able to make decisions for the greater good of the texture and pacing of the main line.

The second, less commonly perceived aspect of rubato is the way each note is placed against its proper position.  Just as the placement of a note against its designated place on the beat or inside a beat invokes the Past, Present or Future, rubato can similarly be viewed as representing the Past, Present and Future dimensions.

Balancing these two aspects of rubato is a complex art.  They often contradict one another.  An understanding and awareness of their combined use is necessary to master the flow of time and expression. 

The third aspect of rubato, generally not considered rubato at all, is tempo modification.  Great interpretations ever-so-subtly modify the tempo from phrase to phrase, section to section, just as the heart never beats at exactly the same pace.  The concept of rubato is identical, only that it’s viewed from a couple paces farther away from the structure.  Sensitivity to this level of rubato and the ability to naturally control it require a certain wisdom.  Your inner mind and heart will understand it sooner than your conscious mind.  Ideally this knowledge must pass between the conscious mind and the heart countless times, teaching one another.

The following diagram displays all three types of rubato in our 4-bar Chopin excerpt, together with Energy Arrows:


Stepping back and dryly observing the interrelationships between the three types of rubato and their constant interplay with the Direction of Energy dazzles the mind.  I’ve exaggerated and simplified it a great deal in this diagram, but even so, it’s immensely complex to realize in real-time.  Take it to the Piano and see how deeply and objectively you can penetrate into the movement of time and energy.  My interpretation here may differ greatly from your own; make changes to reflect your ideal interpretation and work it out with your own two hands.  Then release it again to your intuition and let your emotional whim guide you.  No matter how closely you learn to consciously manipulate time, masterful timing is guided by the energy of the moment.


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

Such a pedaled texture as our Chopin excerpt affords a good opportunity to observe Wet Talea. 

Play through the excerpt, being aware of the length of your touches.  Notate into your score what you’re doing that works and what you’d like to change.  The longer the touch, the more solid the effect; therefore, as a rule, the more important the note or line, the longer the touches should be.  Likewise, unimportant notes and lines should employ shorter, more relaxed releases.

Here’s how the first two measures of the Nocturne might be realized:


Try to achieve the minute specifications as closely as possible.  See if you can discover the rationality behind the seeming randomness of it.  What do you like?  What do you dislike?  Redefine your own Talea choices as needed.  Make it your goal to make no two notes exactly the same length, especially two notes side by side.


The Dry Pedal – Finger-pedaling

In such a wet example as this, dry pedaling may seem less important, but you’d be mistaken.  The reason for this is that a good command of dry pedal works within the pedal to help with every infinitesimal shade of pedaling. If you clear the pedal in the slightest way while holding notes down, those notes suddenly stand out in contrast.  You needn’t come even near completely clearing the pedal for this to work.  Simply lift the pedal 5% and you’ll hear the difference.

Practice the entire excerpt several times with absolutely no pedal while trying to imitate the effect of heavily smeared, romantic pedaling.  At first it may take real self-control not the put the pedal back on, but gradually this drier reality will gain its own appeal and you’ll become comfortable.  Then add in the pedal, at first very shallowly, then more generously but with continuous subtle changes.  Come all the way up as often as possible, trying to make the melody exist in a drier sphere than the accompaniment.  Notice that with the fingers capable of pedaling whenever you need them to, countless new levels of sound possibilities present themselves to you.

Again, pedaling is often understood in simplistic terms.   Deep pedal, half pedal and quarter pedal are usually thought of as originating from a completely released pedal.  Most pedaling, however, happens between pedals.  It happens as the pedal slowly or quickly sinks in or comes out.  It happens when you shake off 10% of the bulk of the pedal rising up from 50% depression to 60% depression and back again in a moment.  The listener perceives it not as a change in pedal, but rather only as some sort of magical highlighting effect.  And she doesn’t know whether you achieved the effect with the pedal or your fingers or both.  This is the realm of artistic pedaling.

The pedal is the soul of the Piano.  But think of it mechanically occasionally to try to unveil and master its mystique.  Think in percentages.  Descend quickly 45%, gradually surface over two beats to 20%, then come up quickly to 0%, down just after the next beat 90%.  Try to notate it in your score with such precision.  Does it still seem too artificial or scientific?  Specificity of intent is the very nature of Art.  Once you become completely conscious of your choices and of the very technique of pedaling, you will become intuitively wiser in its use.  Your knowledge will seep down again below the conscious level and serve you well.   Don’t be afraid of knowledge, as some artists are.

As pianists, it’s easy to disassociate ourselves from the nature of the instrument.  The Piano is essentially felt-tipped wooden hammers bouncing against strings at play with felt dampers.  As the strings vibrate, they rise up and down in various degrees depending primarily on the length of the string and how loud it’s been struck.  Imagine that the pedal has descended to the point where the damper is fully raised (and this usually occurs before the pedal is fully depressed, depending on how it’s been regulated).  You strike a note staccato, letting it ring out.  All of the strings vibrate slightly, some more than others depending on their sympathetic harmonic vibrations.  The note that was struck will vibrate most actively and widely, of course.  Now begin raising the pedal, ever so slowly, allowing all of the dampers to slowly descend.  Eventually they’ll will reach the outer edge of the struck note’s vibration cycle, and begin dampening it gradually.  It doesn’t happen all at once, of course; it gradually makes it softer and less clear and finally will dampen it completely only once the dampers have fallen completely.  There is an enormous amount of play between slightly brushing the outer edge of the strings’ vibration cycle and completely dampening them.  This is why pedaling is so complex and is capable of producing such magical effects. 

I spent a full summer in my early twenties tearing apart pianos in my living room, putting them back together and selling them again.  At one point, I had three large grands in my small Manhattan apartment.  Learning to understand every miniscule part of the instrument and experimenting with altering the interplay of thousands of parts was mind-opening. 

I don’t recommend that you necessarily go to the extreme that I did (!), but understanding the mechanics and inner workings of the Piano is important to becoming one with the instrument.  Even a few hours of study may open up your mind and change your attitude toward it.  Again I’m reminded of what my piano technician mentor and guru at the time had to say about the subject:  The more I get to know the inner workings of the piano, the more it becomes a mystery to me.


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

Rubinstein taught me the validity of playing chordal Chopin passages from the air, full-bloodedly.  Even passagework under Rubinstein’s fingers was full of life-giving oxygen.  Don’t suffocate Chopin by only attacking from the key-surface; constantly vary the amount of oxygen in the sound.

Play the excerpt through, again being aware of how much space you put between your finger and the key-surface on each note.  Notate it mentally into your score.

Experiment, as previously, with exaggerated Height and Height Differentiation, going through the various Height exercises from before.  Once you’ve finished, work through the score notating new decisions.  Then realize your intentions.


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

Depth is the other side of Height, being both opposite and complementary.  As a general rule, Height (separated from Depth) effects the surface of the sound, whereas Depth effects the body of the sound. 


Chopin is still often played with very little Depth, as if his creations are too delicate to take any weight.  The surfacey Pleyel ideal persists.  Yet Chopin without Depth Differentiation is unsubstantial and unsatisfying.


Combining and Contrasting Height and Depth, Vertically and Horizontally

Play through the Chopin excerpt being aware of the Depth of each finger stroke.

Next, work through the various Depth exercises, first without any Height, then adding in Height as desired.  Gradually increase your awareness of the connectedness of Height and Depth in each stroke and how they produce differing but often linked results.

Compare it to a golf stroke.  For putting, a high preparation will get in your way and likely punch the ball over the green.  On the other hand, when driving, if you try to punch the ball 100 yards with a two-inch preparation, you may only send it 100 feet at best.  Depth encourages Height and Height Depth.

Golfers also have a choice of clubs to use; don’t use a putter when you need to drive it deep.  Clubs correspond to the pianist’s mallets.  Using the same Height and Depth but varying the mallet will produce quite different results, both in terms of dynamics and color.

The Pro Golfer knows as well how to balance Speed, Weight and Compression in his stroke.  Some strokes and clubs require a meaty weighted swing, others a compressed but slow swing, others a weightless, tensionless, little tap from the wrist.  A Tiger Woods understands all of this intuitively and consciously.

At the Piano, often the most peculiar and beautiful colors are produced by combining seemingly contrasting qualities.  Imagine for example using a soft mallet (the plush ball of the finger) with a compressed forearm in a weightless, but deep attack.  The effect is a penetrating and deep, yet slightly muffled color. 

As you gain increasing command of each of the individual filters, seek to consciously combine them, discovering new, more complex filters. 


My personal approach to this excerpt and to Chopin in general is to use a relatively greater Depth in the main line while varying the Depth within each line horizontally according to the demands of the phrase.

Try out this approach and then become aware of the ground-rules that define your own approach to Chopin.


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

One of the peculiar qualities of Chopin, as discussed above, is his long phrases based on bel canto.  In order to fully appreciate this all-important aspect of Chopin, it’s important for the pianist to learn how to breathe and sing, and this is as good a place as any to sneak in a short introduction to both.



For all of you who may have never seriously thought about how to breathe, this will be an important step in your development.  There are many places to learn how to breathe properly, such as a good Singing or Yoga manual, so I’ll be brief and let those so inclined search out other sources.

Babies breathe completely naturally from the stomach (laymen terms, although imprecise and sometime inaccurate, are often more useful for immediate comprehension).  Adults, for a number of psychological reasons, tend to breathe more from the chest.   When adults sleep, however, their breathing returns to its natural state.  Over the years, bad breathing habits are formed, and habits, good or bad, feel comfortable. 

Observe your own breathing.  Standing in front of a mirror, take in a long, deep breath.  Where does the air go?   Where do you feel the air pass?  If you’re like most when they first try this exercise, your shoulders will rise quite noticeably.   You’re holding in your stomach, pushing the air shallowly into your chest, and your shoulders tense up a little and rise.  People seemingly begin breathing this way as they become aware of how they’re perceived by their classmates at a young age.  Everybody wants to look thin and fit, so people hide their breathing by pushing it into the chest instead of allowing it in deep, which causes the stomach to swell gently in and out.

Right now you’re likely alone.  Try to shake off the sensation of being watched or judged on a physical level, even by yourself.  Breathing should be perceived as an activity that happens mainly below the chest.  The ribcage gently rises and falls, on the breath.  The shoulders, except for a light sensation of expansion, remain calm, flat and wide.  The open, natural sensation of good breathing happens when the shoulders don’t cave in on the chest protectively. 

Exhale deeply, then breathe in again.  Your stomach will expand outward, as well as sideways and even backwards as you feel your lower back gently expand.  It will help to feel all of this if you place your hands on your sides just below the ribcage, your thumbs touching your back and fingers wrapping around front. 

{Some people are on some level afraid of learning how to breathe because they fear losing their perception of natural breathing.  Don’t worry, this is impossible…}

Because of your bad breathing habits, at first, good breathing will feel a bit awkward and unnatural.  Reclaiming your breathing on a conscious level is an immediate but also long, long process.  Soon however, you’ll easily discern efficient, natural breathing from tight, high, surface breathing.

The best way to practice breathing is to apply it to Yoga or Singing.



The key to great singing is great breathing.  Amateur singers perceive their voice as coming from their throat and vocal chords; great singers sing from the diaphragm.  Although the diaphragm can’t be directly felt, you can feel most of the muscles surrounding it and in this way have a real, direct contact with your voice. 

Many great singing pedagogues advocate the noble posture of the Old Italian School.  This involves all of the characteristics of good breathing regarding posture discussed above plus one peculiarly singerly technique – slightly raising the rib cage before breathing.  To understand this, take in a few good breaths, noticing how the rib cage is pushed up and out during inhalation, and how it slowly collapses during exhalation.  Now inhale, and before exhaling, support the ribcage’s elevated position muscularly.  Now as you breathe out, hold your ribcage in this noble position.   It will still collapse slightly, but considerably less so.  Now, without allowing your ribcage to collapse, breathe in again.  The sensation of breathing will be much less heavy because the breath won’t be pushing against the ribcage.  It will feel unnatural and effortful at first, but you’ll become accustomed to it if you persist.  Most of the great singers breathe this way, which is why they often don’t seem to be breathing at all. 

As you begin singing, don’t fret about perfect breathing; strive only for improved breathing.

The Old Italian School of Singing, which is the model for the modern international approach to singing, often refers to the notion of appoggio, which means support or leaning.  The term appoggiatura, leaning note, comes from the same root verb, appoggiare.  There are two distinct ways the term is used, both of which have applications to Piano technique. 

The first definition of appoggio is as the root of good sound production.  Following a good deep breath, press gently against the breath from the abdomen, side and back muscles before beginning to sing.  This compresses the air expressively.  It’s the sensation you feel if you were about to blow hot air into your hands to warm them up.  Then begin singing while maintaining this sensation.

Try singing a five-note diatonic scale, up and down, in the middle of your range on mi (mee).  Breathe in deeply, gently lean on the breath (without letting any air escape), then begin singing. 

As the voice moves up, it will need greater breath support.  Some pedagogues recommend thinking of breath support as a pyramid.  The lower part of your range feels wider and less effortful.  As you move up the scale, gradually lean down into it, giving the higher notes more expressive compression and support.  The higher notes feel narrower and more compressed.

This brings us into the second definition of appoggio, which is related to phrasing and Energy Pillars.   When the energy centers in a phrase, which in vocal music is often the highest note of the phrase because of the vocal intensity that higher notes naturally imply, the expression requires greater support and compression.  The first definition of appoggio involves the onset of vocal sound in order to establish a supported, colorful, expressive sound for the entire breath; the second definition means giving greater support to the key expressive moments of a phrase or gesture.

A solid understanding of both definitions of appoggio is key to good singing as well as good Piano-playing


Returning to our Chopin excerpt, sing through the Soprano line (in your own range and changing octaves whenever necessary).  See if you can keep each phrase on a single breath; you’ll almost certainly need to catch a number of breaths here and there.  Give yourself time to breathe and don’t rush into the next note.  Use your own, meager voice – don’t try to be operatic – but try to breathe deeply and properly.  Keep reminding yourself that your voice comes from your stomach (diaphragm) and not from your chest, neck, vocal chords or mouth.  Sing on whatever vowel or syllable combination comes naturally to you.

Sing through each of the remaining three color layers in the same way, being aware of your breathing and phrasing.  As you reach each Energy Pillar, give greater vocal support from the muscles surrounding your diaphragm, centering your vocal and emotional energy.

Return to the Piano, using your fingers and arms to breathe and sing vocally.  The sensation of singing begins the same in your energy center, heart and mind, but instead of passing through the vocal chords with your breath, it passes  through your arms and out of your fingertips.  The differences between singing with your voice and with your fingers are only superficial.


Imagining Real Orchestration

If you were to orchestrate this excerpt, what kind of instrumentation would you use?  Whatever your choices, write them into your score with as much precision as possible and then realize your intentions. 

Listen to a Soprano aria of Donizetti or Bellini with a great singer and a great conductor.  Try to realize the effect of that type of orchestration accompanying a Soprano.  This is not the arrival point for understanding Chopin, but it’s a great departing point.

Then listen to the slow movement of either of Chopin’s Concertos from the Full Score and see if you can realize at least the orchestral introduction to either of them at the keyboard.  Once you’ve achieved the effect of Chopin’s orchestra accompanying a solo pianist, take that combination of colors and create a similar effect with the Nocturne excerpt, the r.h. as solo pianist and the l.h. as accompanying Orchestra.  Now you’re arriving closer to the real language of Chopin – inspired by Opera, but singing pure Piano.  


Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

Imagine yourself in an Opera House standing on the Conductor’s podium.  The Orchestra sits down below you looking up attentively, waiting for your first upbeat.  Several Soloists are onstage, as is part of the Chorus.  The rest of the Chorus is backstage.  The house is full. 

You suddenly realize that every person in the house is you.  The Opera House becomes your piano, which itself becomes an extension of your own body.  You are the Opera House. 

This is the essence of Circular Energy and the Four Time Dimensions.


The Four Principle Mallets

As with Beethoven and virtually all music, all four mallets can be used separately or in various combinations to great effect in Chopin.

As before, play through the excerpt becoming aware of the mallets you’re using.  Take a few moments to redefine them or clarify them in your mind, notating your decisions in your score as necessary.  Realize your intentions and make adjustments.

Work through the various mallet exercises from before; you’ll likely discover fantastic colors that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.


The Four Physical Levels

In the same ways as before, work through the various Physical Levels exercises. 

The only general advice I’ll offer as you define your interpretation is to play the melody as much as possible from the arm, even in pp.  Notate your choices into your score – f. for finger, h. for hand, f.a. for forearm and u.a. for upper arm.


Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

By now you should have well over 100 hundred Imitation Filters, and your list should continue to grow.  Keep them written down and organized by discipline (Pianists, Instrumentalists, Singers, Conductors, Composers, Dancers, Artists) for easy reference and access.  When you access each Master, it may be helpful to remind you of his language, by putting on a recording for a minute, for example.  Over time, you won’t need additional stimuli as much.

Add to your Pianist list any Chopin specialists that might not already be there.  I recommend Ivan Moravec, Ignaz Friedman, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Vladimir de Pachmann for starters.  The most important part of your list for any style will hopefully be a storehouse of interpreters from the Golden Age; study interpreters with the same respect that you study composers.


The Weight-bar, or the Hand of Karajan

Play Chopin as if Mozart and Mozart as if Chopin.  This is a beautiful saying that sheds a great deal of corrective light on the interpretation of both composers as well as on their connection to one another.  Chopin should be played with Classical clarity and not as sentimental rubbish; Mozart should be played with warmth, full of expression, and not dryly or primly.  In this light, Chopin is usually approached with a finger-based technique as an extension of a Mozartian technique.  Chopin’s teaching regarding technique seems to affirm such an approach.  His grandness is poured from a porcelain vase.  Yet I side with Rubinstein – Chopin is not the weak, sickly, delicate, effeminate figure we often imagine; he has the strength of Liszt and the power of Beethoven.  Chopin had a small technique relative to his friend and colleague Franz Liszt.  Chopin was comfortable performing in Parisian salons but not onstage in larger halls.  Liszt on the other hand possessed a massive technique permitting him to comfortably sing to thousands at a time.  Chopin was the first to acknowledge that Liszt was the greater pianist.  It was Liszt who opened up Chopin’s eyes as to how the latter’s Etudes should be interpreted

Chopin always responds well to weight, and a bowed technique works beautifully quite often.  It all depends on what type of sound and mode of expression you prefer.  All of Mozart’s String compositions depend on the weight of the bow against the string – should his Piano compositions be devoid of bowed weight?

Work through the Chopin excerpt noticing where you might already be using a certain amount of bowing.  Go through the score notating potential bowings, even specifying up-bows and down-bows if you like.  Realize them.

Next, imagining the Hand of Karajan guiding you, play through the excerpt a few times.  Follow – don’t lead.  Feel a gentle weight sinking you into the keys.  Feel the breadth and vision of orchestral expression.


The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

This filter may seem like the antithesis of Chopin’s noble, elegant, warm and rounded language, but it isn’t.  Look again at the reproductions above of Rodin’s Hand of God and Michelangelo’s Pietà.  Both pieces, through the medium of rock, resonate all of these characteristics.

Using hammers and chisels in the practice room may as well grate against your manner of interpreting Chopin, but these are tools to be used to carve out a natural pathway so that when you perform, you won’t need to force.  Sometimes, forcing occasionally in the practice room, with great sensitivity and care, creates a larger interpretation, as well as a store of excess energy which will often save you onstage. 

Chisel your way through the Chopin excerpt, working in marble.  Once you become comfortable in the medium, return to the way your intuition dictates that you play the same excerpt.  You can be sure that you won’t be left untouched by the power of marble, neither technically nor interpretationally.



Remember that After-touch divides into two parts – the release of the key and the release of the pedal.  Releasing the key pertains to the fingers primarily, the hand secondarily.  Neither Weight nor Compression directly affects After-touch, only the Speed and pacing of the release.  A good Level I technique (finger-technique) is based on staccato or non legato, not legato. 

Wagnerian or even Dramatic Verdian Sopranos often have a weak staccato.  They specialize in slow, weighted, compressed, legato sounds.  When a light, quicker staccato passage comes along, they fake their way over it and hope no one notices.  A Coloratura Soprano, on the other hand, delights in letting her voice skip and jump and sprint along at sometimes dizzying speed.   Few Sopranos are equally at home in staccato and legato, fast and slow tempos.  This applies as well to Instrumentalists.

Remember that releasing the key requires an opposite set of muscles from pressing them down – exercise them!  Legato is somewhat relaxing; staccato requires conscious physical effort.  When practicing staccato, lower the dynamic level at first to p or pp.  Focus your energy on maintaining a short staccato or staccatissimo sound.  Staccato focuses your energy on releasing the sound much more than legato.  Once you gain command over a dry staccato with a quick release, you’ll gain sensitivity and control over every other kind of touch and speed of release.  There’s also a direct link between staccato and speed – the better your staccato, the faster you’ll be able to play.

Our excerpt is relatively slow, which will allow you to give special attention to each release.  Play it through without pedal, every note staccatissimo.  At first, play p or pp, not f.

Once this becomes comfortable, add in pedal, but keep the finger releases just as short. 

Now, change from staccatissimo to non legato, still with pedal.  Then play as your intuition dictates, being aware of your choices regarding the length of each touch (Talea) and the speed of each release (larghissimo to prestissimo).  You’ll experience now a heightened sensitivity to both Talea and After-touch.


Horowitz’ Voicing

One of my teachers lived and traveled with the Horowitz’s for several years, absorbing everything that the Master could teach him.  He made many legendary recordings, including perhaps the greatest recording of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto, Reiner conducting – a must-own!  It’s of course the American virtuoso, Byron Janis. 

So much about his playing is heavily inspired by Horowitz and he comes closer than any other to capturing Horowitz language and demonic virtuosity.  Yet something’s decidedly lacking.  It’s a bit like listening to a Karajan recording and then to his student Ozawa’s rendering of the same work – everything’s there but something is missing. 

Then he lost the use of his hands and retreated from the concert scene for decades.  When he came back, just as I began working with him, he was a transformed musician.  He seemed a bit resentful of Horowitz’s heavy influence on his young development.   He had become the anti-virtuoso and a much more thoughtful and poetic thinker about music.  I knew he had many answers that I needed, but I avoided taking lessons from him as much as possible so I could make my own discoveries.  I only saw him a couple times the first semester and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had given me an A anyway.  I ran into him once at the Steinway basement after a long absence from lessons and he smiled kindly, encouragingly, So David, how’s it coming?  It’s been a while…

I had come to him because he is himself a colossal pianist, but also because I wanted to know Horowitz’ secrets first-hand.  I discovered that Horowitz was the last thing he wanted to discuss.

That’s how Horowitz can be for all of us sometimes.  His influence can at times be too great.  You can’t imitate him onstage and be convincing.  Yet in the practice room he has so much to teach that I feel justified in dedicating a little bit more space in these pages to Horowitz than to any other Master filter.

The first explanation I heard of Horowitz’ voicing came not from Janis, but from McCabe.  Imagine playing the note you want to voice slightly earlier than the rest.  I learned later that it’s more than simply imagining, but imagining does the trick.  Still, this only divides a chord into two layers – the imagined early note and the rest.  Horowitz’ voicing is much, much more complex than this.  I figured out countless other Horowitz’ voicing tricks along the way, but his own explanation of what I call drop-voicing was the most revealing.

In a five-note chord in one hand, for example, it’s as if the hand becomes a key with five teeth, each gauged according to its place in the chord.  Before dropping the key from above the key-surface, or while dropping, you can turn the hand slightly from the forearm, as if turning a doorknob, in order to favor the most important note in that chord.  However, turning the hand as you drop it swings the weight of the hand and arm into a single note or group of notes.   (This is very much akin to the basic twisting punch of TaeKwonDo.)  Swinging the hand (Rotation) can also be separated from dropping the hand, but this is another discussion.

Work through the Chopin excerpt dropping each note or chord in.  No finger-legato will be possible.  Raise the hand at least two inches for each attack.  Set the finger(s) first, turning the hand slightly if needed, then drop in fearlessly, trusting that the sound you pre-hear will come out.  You will of course have to work through a bit of rough splashing before this actually happens. 

It’s as if you play the notes first in the air, depressing the fingers and setting them in somewhat exaggerated fashion, then play them again with the hand and arm as you drop in.  It’s a combination of a Height and Depth attack with a chiseled Hand of God approach.  

A ten-note chord in two hands will involve two five-toothed keys opening a sound of ten colors in ten Time-dimensions.  And each will have its own dynamic as well.  After you become accustomed to dropping in, you’ll discover, somewhat magically, that it’s enough to simply imagine dropping in to get virtually the same effect.


Speed, Weight and Compression

Play through the excerpt being aware of the energy qualities of each note.  Label it in your mind as S (Speed), W (Weight), C (Compression), SW, SC, WC or SWC.    It’s possible to develop a perfectly acceptable interpretation without changing your approach to energy at all.  Work through the example consciously limiting yourself to each of the seven types of energy (the three principle types and the four combinations).  Then combine them in various ways at will.

When you feel that you’ve gained a certain command of the possibilities, work through the score, labeling each note or group of notes with a specific quality of energy.  Think of each of the seven as colors.  Then realize your energy transcription, as if filling in a color-by-numbers picture.



After turning your mind inside out over and over again, examining your subject from every conceivable angle, you always have to come back to the principle melody, learn to forget everything you’ve learned, and focus your mind and heart where it matters.  Don’t try to show off your deep knowledge and lofty intentions – you’ll only disappoint your listeners.  Instead, trust that everything you’ve studied in the meanwhile will have seeped below the conscious level and come out on its own.  You’ll experience it peripherally and will be able to fully appreciate it when you listen to the recording of your performance.


Playing Blind

Liszt chided his pupils, Never look down at the battlefield.  Only amateurs have to look at their fingers!  For any of you passive readers who still haven’t tried this, know that if five- and six-year-olds can accomplish this effortlessly and joyously, it shouldn’t be such a step for you to as well.