Preparing for Performance {Subtracting Improvisational Energy from Emotional Energy}

Preparing for Performance

{Subtracting Improvisational Energy from Emotional Energy}


It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.

Then the victory is yours.

It cannot be taken from you.



As you approach a performance, remember:  performing is not about inspiration or improvisation.

So many soloists take pride in the improvisational nature of their interpretations, in their lack of pre-definition – this defines immaturity.  A polished performance results from working through as many of your improvisational tendencies in the practice room as possible and defining beforehand the mold that you will fill with emotional energy at the moment of performance.  Performing is complex enough without adding in improvisation.  Remember that freedom is not the equivalent of improvisation.

An improvised performance, even by Beethoven himself, lacks the underlying levels of definition and polish that a prepared interpretation possesses.  The subliminal levels of subtlety are missing.  Remember that muscle memory is an important aspect of performing.  So much of what you prepare is absorbed by your body and flows out of you without conscious thought or control.  Take advantage of this – don’t sabotage it!  It’s self-defeating and destroys the countless moments of previous inspiration and improvisation that have influenced your interpretation and become a part of you.  You only struggle against yourself.  The improviser comes away feeling like he gave the most wonderful performance until he listens to the playback { if he has the courage… } and hears the work of a hack.  Improvisation and exploration is extremely important, but it belongs as much as possible in the practice room. 

This is not an argument for not following you intuition in the moment of performance.  When intuition speaks, you must listen, especially in the moment of performance.  You must be true to yourself, and this may naturally force improvisational elements into your performance.  But know yourself!  Know how to inspire these inspirations out into the open before the big performance. 

You have to practice performing, not simply practice practicing.  As a performance approaches, schedule as many pre-performance run-throughs as you need to work out anxieties, uncertainties and improvisational tendencies.  A friend or a colleague should suffice, or a group of friends.  I find that performing is the greatest definer of your interpretation.  The pressure and excitement of the moment heightens your senses and forces you to constantly choose definitively.  Listening to the playback of a concert or pre-performance is like taking a lesson from yourself about yourself and your interpretation.


The stage should not be a foreign space in your imagination – it’s your home.  The more time you spend on stage, and the earlier in your life you begin performing onstage, the more it will be your element.  A soprano friend of mine likes to say to young aspiring singers, Perform at the opening of an envelope!  


When you accept yourself, the Universe accepts you.

~ Lao Tzu






The practice of Zen

is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.

~ Koun Yamada


Solo pianists, instrumentalists, and often accompanists themselves often perceive Accompanying as an inferior Art-form.  Accompanying, on the contrary, is the most difficult and complex of all the Performing Arts.  It requires the skills of a soloist, the mind-reading of a clairvoyant, the improvisational skill of a great jazz artist, the modesty of a Monk, and the creative formal invention of a great architect.  

How much easier it is to step onstage alone and create your own destiny!  Even Chamber Music is easier.

I’ve been blessed to work with many great performers – singers, instrumentalists, dancers and visual artists.  The greater the performer, the easier it is to accompany him.  The movement of the energy is so pure, clear, and logical that it requires no compensation at all, only support and comprehension.  You simply breathe together.

Once as a teenager, I was about to go onstage with a violinist.  She said, I’m not concerned about the ensemble, I just want us to breathe together… 

Obviously easier said than done.


Still water has no mind to receive the image of the migrating geese.

~ Zen Proverb


Accompanying is a selfless occupation.  Its ultimate goal and challenge is to make the soloist sound better than he actually is.  This may sound arrogant, and you needn’t point it to the soloist … but he usually thanks you for it!  Some feel at first as if they’ve had a moment of inspiration, as if their more-successful-than-usual performance was their own doing.  But most realize eventually that they’ve reached beyond their own abilities by the help of a master accompanist.

There are countless ways to become a better accompanist.  The first is to learn the solo part as well as your own.  Sing it through as you play and discover your own interpretation of it.  Define where its inner Energy Pillars lay hidden.  Put into words the emotions and colors that define each phrase { write them into your score }.  Notice where the soloist may need extra time, either to breathe or get through some technically difficult passage.

In rehearsal, subtly shape the soloist’s phrasing to your own vision, without forcing.  And listen for where his vision is more convincing than your own and adapt.  Talk about the direction of energy and make the soloist conscious of his interpretation.  Remember that performing mustn’t be an improvisation.  As an accompanist, you’ll constantly deal with this mentality and you need to make the soloist make choices.  Even if they are inferior, a strong performance often results more from the unity of the vision between soloist and accompanist and its polish than from the details of interpretation.  Also – and this is extremely important – the soloist must believe in his own interpretation!  Don’t force yours on his when there’s not enough time to make changes or your words fall on deaf ears, or worse, she'll try to make changes and everything will fall apart.  The soloist needs to feel confident in the value of his work and supported by you in all their final decisions.  Thus, the accompanist’s position is always a delicate, compromised one.

Many soloists are afraid of being the soloist.  They want to bathe in your light and energy and shy away from the audience.  In the rehearsal process, this is fine at the beginning, but as the performance nears, they need to make the transition to being in the spotlight and leading.  There’s nothing more difficult or awkward for an accompanist to follow someone who’s following you.  It’s like pulling up to a four-way stop at the exact moment as someone else and sitting there gesturing to each other to go ahead for half-a-minute then finally pulling forward at the same time and run into each other.  It ends up being embarrassing for the soloist.  He needs to be aware that the audience rarely gives extra points to the soloist for being accommodating or for being a good chamber musician.  Chamber Music is a separate Art-form.  


Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.

~ Art Linkletter


In performance, your eyes must be soft and your demeanor full of praise.  You have to on the one hand feel as if everything coming out of the soloist is the best thing since sliced bread, and on the other, know that’s it’s not and constantly compensate, reshape, redesign and gently inspire the soloist to the greatest possible vision.  And all this while you remain in the shadow, seemingly innocuous.  Never be tempted to compete with the soloist!  Be ever prepared to sacrifice your own ego and make yourself look bad for his sake.

As an accompanist, contrary to the soloist, you MUST rely on improvisation in the moment of performance – it’s your constant companion.  You must be more sensitive than expressive.  The circular balance between the two is more balanced toward sensitivity than in solo performing.

Accompanying gives you intimate contact with various instruments and voices, and many different types of interpreters.  This helps develop your inner ear and your feeling for interpretational style.  If you have a clear understanding of various sounds, you’ll be more likely to be able to translate those sounds into pianistic sounds.  And if you learn to absorb and blend with interpretational styles foreign to your sensibilities, you will grow as an interpreter.

Becoming a skilled accompanist inevitably makes you a better soloist.  Never treat it less seriously than your solo playing.  It will give to you as much as you give to it.

When you make yourself into zero, your power becomes invincible.   - Gandhi


Integrity and Persona

Integrity and Persona


In Art, contrary to a strict Moral Code, Integrity is a rather fluid concept.  Personal artistic truth is transcendental and ever-transformational.  Persona, if it ever exists as a fixed entity, is a temporary stop on a journey.  The artist that lets himself be defined by the image of his past achievements ceases to grow and gradually withers.  He becomes a caricature of himself. 

Integrity in Art is Zen itself – it means being true to what you believe now, even if tomorrow you believe something else.  Others define Integrity for an interpreter as faithfulness to the written score.  This is a valid approach to interpretation, and one that has born much fruit, but it would never have born the fruit of the Golden Age of Pianism. 

Music Criticism as an Art-form has always had Integrity.  It’s often difficult to distinguish one critic from another because they’re necessarily products of their generation.  I often disagree with a critic, but I rarely doubt his Integrity.

If you were to treat Criticism in a Hegelian light, as a spirit or entity, even as a human being, he might be found devoid of Integrity for having changed face so many times over the centuries.  But can you blame him for always being true to himself?

This is the very nature of Artistic integrity.  Have the courage to contradict yourself!  Have the courage to shock your admirers with a new opinion or style.  Honesty and openness harkens growth.

Your vision will become clear when you look into your heart.

Who looks outside, dreams.

Who looks inside awakens.

~ Carl Jung

Whereas artistic preferences in Music Criticism change notably over decades, personal artistic preferences generally change much more quickly.  Sometimes artists, even great composers, have their personas identified early on by themselves or the establishment and find it difficult to break away from the mold.  Success and power becomes addictive and they lose contact with personal truth.


The modern equivalent of persona is essentially image.  How are you packaging yourself?  How are you selling yourself?  Image only has artistic value if it’s true.  And it can only be true if you don’t create it – it comes of its own.  That’s the Zen nature of true image, true persona.  Let your persona represent truth of expression; then you need no longer concern yourself with it – just play!


The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.

~ Buddha


An interpreter should not only be open to change but should seek it out daily.  Challenge yourself to understand what you dislike and learn to love it.  Learn to see in every interpreter what other people see in them, even if he’s not your cup of tea.  Don’t shun composers or styles because you don’t feel at ease with them.  Pursue and persist until you have a change of heart.  Know yourself, yes, but constantly challenge yourself to become larger more all-encompassing than you are.

Once as a young teenager, I told my teacher that I didn’t feel like going to an Early Music concert that evening because I wasn’t particularly fond of it.  She half-smiled, replying,

Don’t presume to know at your age what you like and don’t like.  Go to the concert! 

May that reprimand be directed to all of us, at any age.


The greatest of all composers, Beethoven, was in constant transformation.  He always knew what he liked, but what he liked was always changing.  Every work grew out of the last and showed something decidedly new and original.  He concerned himself not with the Establishment, with the critics, with being understood by his generation.  He simply wrote as his Integrity demanded.

This is by no means true of all the great composers or interpreters.  It’s much more common for an artist to find himself and settle in comfortably. 

Beware of comfort!  Don’t let yourself become static, irrelevant and false!  Simply play with fearless Integrity; the audience always feels whether you’re being honest or not.


~ End of Part II ~


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


Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich


The world belongs to those who let go.

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


I was sixteen and about to perform Tchaikovsky’s 1st Concerto.  I was out of town and had picked up a CD by an unknown pianist.  From the opening chords, I was enthralled - what sounds!  And what free-flowing lyricism!  Then came the famous octave passage in the Development… a stampede of octaves out of Hell.  I couldn’t believe my ears!  I stopped the CD and opened the player to see who it was – Martha Argerich.  {How I reached the age of sixteen without knowing anything about her still surprises me}.

Fast-forward two years.

My Piano Professor was having her annual end-of-the-year party for her students and late in the evening she invited us to watch a new video that she’d just acquired – Argerich playing Strauss’s Burlesque, live with Abbado on New Year’s Eve.  I’d never seen her play before and imagined flailing arms and a bit of jumping up-and-down off the seat.

I see a petite, fragile, feline creature walk on stage with a shy, girlish smile and gesture to the conductor to begin.  A few moments later, she enters with those same, massive octaves and humbling virtuosity.  But she remains perfectly still and calm, as if she were sipping tea.  My jaw dropped.  My whole concept of technique was thrown on its head.  I left immediately, muttering apologies, and went straight to the University.  It was nearly midnight and the School of Music was locked up, but I searched out a cracked window and crawled through it like a thief in the night.

I found a classroom unlocked and felt my way to the piano without turning on the lights for fear of attracting security guards from afar.  I had recently performed Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto for the first time, so I began re-working it, trying to keep my movements – even in the most passionate forte and fortissimo moments – calm and contained.  I played until dawn, elated.


Roaring dreams take place in a perfectly silent mind.

~ Jack Kerouac


Argerich would be my idol for the next few years as I tried to come to terms with her technique and artistry.

In terms of color and orchestration, she’s a rather black-and-white pianist; she seems to have learned little in that regard from her studies with Michelangeli.  Nor is she a great architect; she simply doesn’t seem to have a genius for form.  But she dances and sings in a way that more than makes up for her deficiencies. 


She’s also at least as great an accompanist as soloist.  She’s malleable and mirror-like, such that when she works with a good conductor, her interpretations take on a more logical and well-organized form. 

On her own, especially in her younger years, her fiery energy would often get the better of her.  A Liszt Sonata, for example, might end several minutes sooner than it ought to have, details gobbled up in a flood of pedal and passion.

She has a race-car driver’s lust for speed and is one of the few who can often get away with it.  Her performances have a visceral excitement, which she doesn’t apologize for.  Speed sometimes becomes an art in itself.  At her best, she makes you believe that every one else is simply playing several notches too slow!

Onstage she embodies passion, grace, absolute freedom, forward momentum and joy.  She makes you get excited about Classical Music and live concerts because her concerts are live, not replicas of a studio recording.  I was always the kind of person to leave concerts at intermission, but with Argerich, I would hang out at the scene long after the concert was over, savoring the occasion.

I was at her Carnegie Hall comeback solo recital.  Only at an Argerich concert do fans rush the stage repeatedly and beg for encore after encore, clapping wildly even after she’s waved definitively goodbye for the tenth time and been offstage for more than five minutes!

My generation can only say thank you to that kind of inspiration coming from a pianist not 50 years dead but still quite alive.  She’s truly a Spirit from another Age.

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.

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?

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 I

Variation I:  Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 2 no. 1 {excerpt from the beginning of the 1st movement}


Beethoven’s first Piano Sonata screams out genius and originality from the first note to the last.  That’s not common for many of the great Sonata composers.  It’s a form that takes experience to conquer.  What’s even more astonishing is that Beethoven published not one, but three Sonatas together in this early Opus, all unique, groundbreaking, and equally ingenious.  You know immediately that you’ve come upon an inspired, inspiring, humbling force of nature.

Its opening bars have been analyzed from virtually every conceivable angle by composers, theorists and pianistic thinkers alike.  But I hope to offer a few fresh insights.  The absolute compactness – architectural, emotional and motivic – is extraordinary.  It’s passion bound by the strictest of classical rigueur – not a superfluous note.  The four-movement Sonata lasts all of twelve minutes, but it contains the music of an entire Opera, and is indeed quite operatic.

Beethoven, often more than even Mozart, is difficult to come to terms with and play naturally and idiomatically.  His scores are so precisely notated and so demanding emotionally and pianistically that it’s hard to feel like you’re not being constantly forced by his firm hand.  Liszt tends to sound harder than it is; Beethoven sounds easier than it is. 

Emotionally it’s challenging because every phrase has to be shaped with absolute emotional precision, and not only this – the emotions that he demands are often counter-intuitive.  He’ll lead you into a wonderfully satisfying peak, only to suddenly break it off and leave you and the audience hanging, frustrated.  The audience has time to react and adjust, but the pianist has to adapt immediately to a new emotional reality.  This is not as easy as it might seem.

His subito dynamic changes, often jolting, can often only be performed effectively by giving yourself over to the emotion and mood of one side of the cliff.  Either stay with the forte, for example, all the way to the breaking point and then begin the subito piano with almost no emotional involvement, painting for a few beats until you begin to recover; or detach yourself from the end of the forte passage so you’ll be emotionally ready to sing from the first note of the piano.  You can’t have it both ways and not lose your balance. 

This is one of the great secrets to performing Beethoven successfully; not taking this advice results in a performance that constantly builds up residual tension from being jolted back-and-forth.  You’ll never feel completely balanced and you’ll likely fall.  It’s the equivalent of a singer stacking her breath by repeatedly forgetting to exhale before breathing.  Her shoulders gradually begin to arch, she leans forward, and it’s not long before she begins shouting, even in pianissimo.


After you've put the notes of the following passage under your fingers, begin working through the 27+ filters from Part I, one by one.  A few of them are linked together, but they’re presented as before.




Defining the Color Levels

Defining colors is the most complex of the filters and requires working through countless filters before arriving at concrete solutions.  In practice, I begin defining the color levels by simply as relative dynamic levels, exaggerating the contrasts.

Rather than redefine specific colors for each example, I’ll keep the same color levels from the Rachmaninoff Prelude for easy comparison.  Define and redefine the colors for yourself as you develop your own interpretation.

Most music can be reduced to four-part harmony, chorale-like, so let’s start by defining the first four layers of our excerpt, the first twenty measures of Beethoven’s First Piano Sonata.



The first and last step in interpretation is to clearly define the primary line.  Practice the excerpt with the Red layer in a solid, bright forte and the other layers in a combined hazy, pp Light Blue.

Now take the Royal Blue line, the Bass line, and play it as if it were the most important line, the rest in Light Blue.

Next, combine the Red, f, against Royal Blue, mf, with the rest in Light Blue, pp.

Now separate the Tenor line, Dark Green, played almost exclusively with the l.h. thumb.  Play it as if the principal line, f, the rest pp Light Blue. 

Combine it against the Red line and then against the Royal Blue line, and then combine all three, layered with dynamic contrast, the rest in Light Blue.

You’ve essentially defined all four layers now, but approach the fourth layer individually so it will start to have a consciousness and emotional life all its own.

Play the fourth layer, the Dark Blue line, as if the principal line.  You’ll notice that it occasionally splits into two voices when the texture of the harmonic thickens by a degree.  This is essentially the fifth layer in this excerpt.  Play it through once, always staying on the higher voice when it splits.  Then play it again, taking the lower voice.

Combine each version at will against each of the other three layers and in various combinations.


Knowing which specific pianistic color you want for each note in your interpretation will only come to you with clarity once you’ve worked through the other filters at least once.


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

The principal of Vertical Hierarchy applies to all types of music.  It’s an acoustic principal which relates to time and space.  Many pianists define their space minutely and send their music out to the audience from the smallest of boxes.  But music is larger than this.

Think of an Opera stage – there’s the music coming from the pit, the stage, and backstage.  Each of these three sources is complex by itself.  The conductor’s job is to unify the varying sources of sound originating in spread-out acoustically contrasting locations so that the audience perceives a unified vision.  This means balancing several different beats all at once.  The choir singing backstage needs to be given a beat well before the beat so that by the time their voices reach the audience they won’t be so behind that they belong to another beat altogether.  Brass in general also needs to be invited in slightly earlier than the rest of the orchestra because their sound production generally requires more time.  The singers onstage notoriously love to ride the backside of the beat, but by the time they’re on the stage, forcing them onto the beat is often wasted effort…

The beauty of the overall effect of Opera when properly realized is the spaciousness of it; it approximates real life experience.  When you walk down the street, everything is happening in real time, yet you hear sounds now that originated several seconds earlier from far away.  There’s a big difference between a loud sound that comes to you softly, delayed by distance, and a soft sound originating right next to you that reaches you immediately.  Do such effects belong only to Romantic and Modern interpretation?  Did not Bach and Beethoven also express the real sonic qualities of nature?

These are questions for you to resolve on your own as you develop your relationship with each piece, composer and style.

They relate to how much you allow yourself to spread the beat, either according to Vertical Hierarchy {downward arpeggio}, Reverse Hierarchy {upward arpeggio}, or Free Placement.  No matter what the style, don’t make your beat so narrow that it won’t allow for special sonic effects.  Art represents life; it shouldn’t be its caricature or exist for its own sake.


This said, stylistically Bach, Mozart and Beethoven generally take less well to large spreads of the beat than Chopin or Liszt.  But it depends how it’s done.  If the spread expresses intense emotional longing of a willful nature, it likely belongs more to the Romantic vein.  However, if in Beethoven, you strive for the spaciousness and universality of his Symphonies, you would be justified in indulging in larger spreading of the beat.  Likewise in Bach, if you wish to evoke a Baroque Organ in a large Cathedral, you’ll never achieve it unless you spread the beat considerably and use the pedal generously.  This can be done with expressive nobility, and not romantic fervor!

Even Mozart spreads more than you might at first realize if done within the style and in imitation of his orchestral and operatic works.   What makes Mozart sound unidiomatic is misplaced romantic accents and exaggerated willful rubato.  Even Böhm or Muti’s clear-cut Mozart has a rather spread beat because of the nature of the orchestra itself. 


In certain repertoire, if you spread the beat to the point that the common listener discerns the spread as a double-beat, you will have gone too far.  Mozart is generally tighter than Beethoven, which is tighter than Chopin.

Also, you can always get away with spreading the beat more using Vertical Hierarchy than Reverse Hierarchy because Vertical Hierarchy naturally hides the spread, whereas Reverse Hierarchy highlights it.  Remember also that the spread depends on dynamic and tonal range, as well as tone color differentiation.


Let’s look at the first few bars in terms of Vertical Hierarchy.  Except for exceptions where I package the chords in the l.h. outside of Vertical Hierarchy, it is respected throughout.



Work through the example as we did with the Rachmaninoff Prelude, exaggerating the spread as much as possible.


Notice now the packaging of the l.h. chords in the diagram above.  I place the Alto and Bass almost together, followed by the Tenor.  This is a matter of Chordal Packaging.  I want the outer part of the chord to be weighted and stand out.  The inner part is filler and requires a completely different color, which supports the outer part of the chord but doesn’t interfere with it or weight it down.  This small violation of Vertical Hierarchy in the inner parts goes unnoticed by the common ear and is completely stylistic and orchestral.  It’s covered by the difference in dynamics and in tone color.  Remember also that it happens in a split second.

Technically, this is an example of two-pronged weight.  The hand usually centers over a single note for greatest definition and color contrast, but it can center over two or more notes, played in the exact same moment or slightly separated, depending on the effect desired.  Rachmaninoff is the master of packaging chords in this way.


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy – Defining the Energy Pillars

You will discover that the Energy Pillars in the Red Level, with a small amount of effort, will be easy to define:



Now look at the remaining layers which make up the accompaniment.  You’ll notice that they have contrasting Pillars which never line up with the Red Pillars.  Here in the first eight measures, I notate only the Red and Blue Pillars, letting the Blue represent Green and Yellow as well.  Then in bar 9, the energy divides in three as the Yellow line begins to assert itself independently:



Now let’s look at the inner flow of energy, the balance between positive and negative poles.  This is a very rhythmic excerpt, heavily rooted in meter.  Notice the intricate balance between positive and negative energy already in the first short phrase in the r.h.:



Level I here represents the miniscule fluctuations of energy, and as you move up, the energy is measured in broader strokes.  Notice how the high A-flat is positive in all four levels.  That’s of course because it’s the first Energy Pillar.  If however, I were to show Level V as well, this pillar would become negative, because it’s negative in relation to the second Energy Pillar, the high B-flat in m. 4.

Work through the energy levels in the full excerpt from the miniscule to the tectonic.  Focus on each level individually and then combine two of them, then three, and so on.  Eventually you’ll be able to consciously maintain several layers at once.


At this point, you may wonder how much difference to make of each positive and negative note within a line.  As a general rule, if the desired effect is free-flowing and relaxed, you can afford to make a greater on a local level, but not to the point of making it sound choppy.  If however the effect you desire is more intense and sustained, you’ll make only a minimal difference.  This is because every note, except the single climactic note of a work, is both positive and negative – it’s a matter of balance, percentage.  Equality of positive pull in two notes side by side sets up magnetic competition between them, and this causes emotional tension.  When this is the effect you desire, evening out the energy between positive and negative notes in a line will do that for you.  Beethoven often requires this sort of approach because of the sustained, expressive quality of many of the emotions he conveys.  The exceptions are less common, and miraculous, like his Pastorale Symphony, seen here in it opening bars: 



This is a more Mozartian work, where the opposite applies as a rule – observe carefully the balance between positive and negative energy and don’t let the tension be sustained at equal levels between two notes side by side except in exceptionally expressive passages.  Observe the free-flowing lyricism of the principal theme from the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K. 488, for example: 



This is typical Mozart, flowing and pure.  The energy level is less intense, more up, and the positive and negative notes are gently but clearly balanced and contrasted.  Man flows with nature rather than against it. 

Contrast this melody with the theme from the second movement of the same work:  Each note has a relatively intense chiaroscuro color, and the short notes are nearly as heavy and present as the longer ones.  The actual Energy Pillars have a sustained, penetrating quality. 


Returning to our Beethoven excerpt, experiment with various ways of balancing the negative and positive notes, noticing how the line becomes more intense and personal as they become more even, and more flowing as you again relax, somewhat dance-like if you make the difference slightly greater, and finally choppy as you cross of the threshold.


Consider here the nature of Romanticism.  Each gesture can be nearly flat or wildly curvaceous, subtle or romantic, or even violent, insane.  Romanticism partly defines itself by extremes.  An individual gesture is romantic if it swoons from p to f, for example.  A larger section or work can be considered romantic if it spans from pp or ppp to ff or fff.  The scope of a gesture, sweeping or miniscule, defines its romanticism.  Romanticism taken to an extreme reaches into violence and insanity.  (This same argument can be applied to Tonality.)

As you define the scope of each individual gesture, keep the larger gesture in mind and remember that ultimately smaller beauties often need to be sacrificed or reformatted for the greater beauty of the large gesture. 


Play through the excerpt, exaggerating the romanticism of each small gesture.  Once this becomes comfortable, approach the entire excerpt as one single gesture, making it as romantic as possible.


Dynamic Differentiation

Dynamics need to be differentiated both horizontally and vertically.  The biggest mistake the pianist can make regarding dynamics is to assume that if Beethoven wrote p, every note must be piano, be it the melody or the least significant note in the harmony.

A piano melody in Beethoven should be full and vocal; a vocal piano is twice as loud as a pianistic piano but they both emit the mood of piano.  All dynamics in Beethoven should be approached with this mentality.  Beneath the melody, grade the dynamics as far down as you dare, keeping in mind however that the bass in Beethoven is structural and should rarely be veiled – it must either ground you or lift you up.


Horizontal dynamics in Beethoven have to be approached with the greatest of care.  Never go beyond the boundaries of the stated dynamics in Beethoven – the architecture and meaning depend on their strict observance.  More than any other composer, each dynamic level for Beethoven represents a spiritual sphere.  Pianissimo is a mystical, mysterious realm.  Piano is the human level.  Mp is a heightened human level, an elevated state of being.  Forte is universal; it comes from the heavens.  Fortissimo is either the rage of heaven or its ecstasy. 

What of mf?  Look carefully through all of Beethoven’s scores, orchestral and instrumental, and you’ll notice that mf rarely exists.  He passes through mf occasionally in crescendo or diminuendo when a human ascends to heaven or the heavens descend to earth, but it hardly ever exists as a solid plane.  Never play mf when it’s not called for!  That’s the death of your Beethovenian interpretation.  This is no easy task - it takes absolute instrumental mastery and emotional restraint to keep from stepping unintentionally into the middleland of mf.

Let’s examine the dynamics of our Beethoven excerpt.  In the first eight measures alone, there are no fewer than ten dynamic indications: p, sf, cresc., sf, <, ff, >, p, >, and finally, p.  Notice their abruptness and severity, their romanticism bordering on insanity.  The ff outburst is volcanic, subsiding as suddenly and unexpectedly as it erupted.  Notice also that there’s no mf, not even a mp or a f.  The canvas is stark and wonderful.  Be demanding of yourself as you struggle to maintain the dynamic levels throughout our excerpt, and throughout your entire approach to Beethoven.


As you do this, however, remember that complexities and freedoms bubble underneath the surface.   A dynamic marking represents the overall effect of the texture, not of each individual note:


Try out this interpretation of the inner dynamics of the opening gesture, then make up your own throughout the excerpt and realize them.


Applying and Removing Gloss

The most famous of Beethoven interpreters, Artur Schnabel, was a student of Leschetizky.  Like all of the legendary Polish pedagogue’s great students, he possesses a warm, translucent, somewhat acquatic tone, quite un-Beethovenian in the modern sense.  It lacks the Sturm und drang edge that all of the most well-known modern Beethoven interpreters possess, from Rudolph Serkin to Alfred Brendel to Richard Goode.  The modern approach appreciates a certain metallic polish to Beethoven, and I think this is not completely misplaced.  Adding a certain polish to the outer edge of Beethoven pianistic creations lends them a certain Fortepiano feeling, and makes the overall effect strong and powerful.   

This quality can be achieved by slightly holding the forearms and hardening the fingertips, not so unlike the approach to imitating Horowitz, except that underneath that sound will be more weight than in a typical Horowitz sound.  (Remember again that touch involves three parts: the surface of the sound, its body, and its release, which itself can often be separated into the release of the finger and the release of the pedal.)

Try playing the entire excerpt with the sensation that a sound originating in the fingers and hands but connected to the weight in the upper arm, even in pp.  Imagine that your fingertips are coated in gold.

Once you become comfortable, remove some of the gloss from the accompanimental layers, but keep the melody in high gloss.

Don’t leave Beethoven without experiencing the other side though.  Listen to a Schnabel recording and see if you can imitate his sound.  He uses a translucent, matte finish, and the fingertips are warm and breathing.


Defining the Pedaling

Beethoven was the first composer to really begin to understand the Piano and experiment with the realm of its pedals, even as he continued going deaf.  Sometimes he errors in his pedaling markings, especially in his latest works, or they’re simply not practicable on the modern Piano with its much greater sustaining power.  The spirit, however, of his dynamic marking must always be respected.

The edges in Beethoven need to be clearly pronounced and delineated.  The pedal comes up completely quite often.  Don’t milk the pedal with a deathly legato; balance dryness with warmth.

The pedaling in our excerpt is very scarce and quite delicate because of its staccato and explosive nature.  Even when one could use a quick, deep pedal, such as on the downbeat of the second measure, show restraint because the color of that A-flat needs to ring out clean and clear.  You can use a slight brush of pedal on the end of the first beat to briefly warm the sound, but more than that should be avoided.

The first real pedal doesn’t come until the very end of the first large phrase as the melody F descends to E, and even then the pedal should come late so as not to accent that E, which is the resolution of an appoggiatura.  Remember always that the Sustaining Pedal is also called the Loud Pedal with good reason.

The following passage should be contrasted with very shallow, more continuous pedals to give a warmer, more feminine and compassionate quality to it.  Don’t make the mistake of most pianists though by exaggerating this difference with deep pedals, making it suddenly sound like sentimental rubbish.


Linking and Separating

The driving quality of the initial eight bars precludes the possibility of breathing between the smaller phraselets that make it up.  This is because of how Beethoven has realized the accompaniment, constantly thrusting the momentum forward between melodic gestures.  The first real pause, the fermata in the eighth measure, is a dramatic one.  It needn’t be long for the effect to be strong.

The next phrase begins immediately in tempo, as if nothing had happened, and the accompaniment, although more lyrical, continues to push the melody forward, almost against its own will.  Slight punctuations can take place before any or all of the three E-flats in the melody in these five measures (include measure numbers here -  mm. 17-20?).

In practice, however, break up this passage into its individual gestures with commas so that each gains its own identity and mental/emotional tightness.  Then link them back together.  Do this not only for the principal melody, but for the inner layers as well.


Defining Rubato

Rubato in Beethoven is a very tricky subject.  Glenn Gould, a bit of a purist when it comes to rhythm, meter and rubato despite his peculiar ideas about tempos, complained that Schnabel equates crescendo with accelerando and diminuendo with ritardando.  The modern concept of Beethoven interpretation is to allow as little tempo fluctuation as possible.  Wagner, Furtwangler and all the great Beethoven interpreters would have strongly disagreed, lamenting the convent-like approach to modern Beethovenian interpretation.  The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle.  Beethoven would have assumed that the sensitive interpreter would gently alter the tempo and exhibit a refined taste for rubato. 

This is a delicate and very personal subject, but I’ll offer a few possibilities of rubato to consider as you approach this excerpt.  First of all, Schnabel’s inclination to speed up in crescendo and slow down in diminuendo is not childish – it’s completely human and natural.  Overusing it belies immaturity, but denying its existence and importance reveals a certain negation of one’s own instincts.

The first significant question to ask yourself is whether to play the first five quarters absolutely in time.  Here the answer must be a resounding yes because the listener needs to be brought into the rhythmic nature of the work immediately.  Let your rhythmic resolve here be like a rock emanating electricity.

The second question to be resolved is whether to play the triplet figure in the third measure absolutely mathematically.  It seems to me that each time the figure appears, it calls out for individuality, without turning it of course into gypsy music.  It can be absolutely precise and militant, spread out slightly for emphasis, or clipped excitedly.  Listen to what the context tells you.

The third question to consider is whether to make the l.h. accompanying chords absolutely rhythmic, or free.  Again, considering the rhythmic, motoric drive of the passage, the rhythm should be emphasized and heightened, not negated.  Still there’s slight room, if you’re so inclined, to play with the rhythm, speeding it up impetuously or playing a chord slightly early or late for emphasis.

The fourth question to consider is whether to slightly hold back the downbeats of the fifth, sixth and/or seventh measures to build tension leading into the climax on the downbeat of the seventh measure.  The opposite approach can also be taken for a more driven effect. 

The next phrase (beginning on the upbeat to the ninth measure) is often taken under tempo.  This is dangerous because it’s not easy to get it back successfully in the twentieth bar, the end of our excerpt.  My approach is to begin absolutely in tempo with the theme in the l.h.  I feel the music wanting to relax and slow, and I give in ever so slightly until it reaches a turning point on the downbeat of measure fifteen.  Here it starts to look forward again and wants to gain momentum, in the accompaniment figure especially.  I allow myself to gently and gradually take back the slight tempo I had sacrificed in the previous six bars.  By the time I reach bar twenty, I’ve hopefully arrived back at the original tempo, even a hair faster. 

Try notating rubato into your score using forward and backward arrows, as before.


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

Now your interpretation should be coming into much sharper focus.  Each note you play has a certain solidity, depending on how long you hold it in your finger and/or how long you hold it in the pedal.  Rather than try to change what you’re doing with your fingers, simply become aware of how long you’re holding your fingers to achieve the effects you want.  Notate into your score lightly in pencil above or below each note or group of notes the percentage of held length relative to the length of the note.  { If it’s a sixteenth note, for example, and your holding it for have of its value, write .5 . }  Remember that you have more leeway in the accompanying figures to play with less solid sounds.  As a rule, the more solid the sound, the more it attracts the ear to it; the less solid the sound, the easier it is to hide it in the texture.  If you notice that the talea is somewhat monotonous despite great diversity of touch and dynamics, experiment with varying it to create a convincing structure with talea alone.  It may help to eliminate your colors and narrow your dynamic spectrum so that the talea comes into relief.

In this Beethoven excerpt, as already mentioned, because of the sparseness of the pedal, what the fingers do is basically what the ear hears – the pedal only occasionally adds in the second dimension of talea, wet talea.  In dry talea, even more than wet talea, the precision of the solidity { length } of each note has to be precise and varied.  Don’t fall into the trap of many urtext players, making all staccato uniform.  Make it your goal to make no two staccatos exactly the same length – let them vary slightly or greatly.  Even pizzicato can be short or long, dry or wet.


The Dry Pedal – Finger-pedaling

Continuing the same argument, define your finger-pedaling as precisely as possible.  Because of the purity and starkness of much of these twenty measures, especially when it becomes wetter and more expressive in measure eleven, the fingers need to be able to imitate the effect of the pedal and not depend on it; in this way, the pedal can dip in and out shallowly for the sake of color alone, not to help with the legato.  The fingers need no pedal at all in this passage.  The more you can capture with your fingers alone the real and magical way the pedal blends harmonies and passagework together, the more your pedal will be able to act freely and create numerous additional layers of sound and color that would otherwise be impossible.

As an experiment, play it through without any pedal, trying to imitate the effect of heavy pedaling.  Once this becomes comfortable and your right foot stops wanting to suck on the pedal, add in the pedal again.


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

You’re probably already including a certain amount of Height in your attacks, so play through the excerpt simply being aware of the distance between your fingertip and the key-surface on each attack.  Which notes do you attack from the air?  Which from the key-surface?  Which from within the key?

Now experiment with attacking everything from at least a centimeter in the air, but aim for several inches or half-a-foot.  Allow yourself to miss notes unapologetically, and think big like Paderewsky or Rubinstein.  Don’t show off with the large gestures – rather, embrace the piano with open arms; walk with it in full stride.

After spending even fifteen minutes playing like this, you’ll feel your inhibitions start to fall away.  Beethoven, because of his demanding qualities, tends to make the performer crawl in on himself in fear, physically and emotionally.  This exercise will open you up again and return you to your fearless nature.

Like before, at first, you’ll miss a lot of notes and your sound will harden, but after a couple days, it will clean up and the sound will round again.


Applying Height Vertically and Horizontally

There are many ways to apply Height vertically and horizontally, and rather than repeat them, I’ll refer you back to the exercises in the corresponding Essay in Part I.


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

Beethoven requires depth – real penetrating weight from the arms.  If you have been only playing to the key-bottom until now, it’s time to dig in deeper.


Applying Depth Vertically and Horizontally

Remember that although relative Depth is not necessarily equivalent to relative dynamic level, it can be helpful to think of it in this way at first.  Take your present interpretation of the Beethoven excerpt as is and turn your attention to the Depth.  For each note, descend beneath the key-surface, in relationship to the volume desired.  For pp, for example, descend one centimeter, for p, one inch, mf three inches, f, six inches, ff, one foot.  You may need to use a combination of dropping weight and pushing in strength.

Now try another approach to Height, differentiating color layers.  For the moment, set aside the dynamics on the page, and play the top layer, Red, at one foot depth, Royal Blue at six inches, Dark Green at three  inches and Dark Blue at one centimeter.

Use the various exercises from the corresponding Filters in Part I to build these layers up gradually.

Now approach it from a strictly horizontal point of view, intensifying your connection with each of the Energy Pillars.  Separate the energy into two levels for the first ten measures – r.h. and l.h., then separate the l.h. into two layers from bars ten through twenty.  Play everything at one centimeter, except the Pillars themselves, which should be as deep and penetrating as possible.  The Pillars should be energized physically and emotionally, and be careful to remain sensitive – otherwise, you’re overdoing it and have lost your balance and focus.


Combining and Contrasting Height and Depth

Now you’re ready to combine Height and Depth into one powerful attack.  Start from your interpretation as is, following the same principals as above; that is, attack from as high above the key as you intend to descend beneath it.  Let your intentions in terms of dynamics guide you.

You will miss more than a handful of notes along the way, but as you gain command of this powerful combined touch, you will possess a penetrating sound with high definition, and you will rarely actually miss once you gain both the skill and the trust in yourself to use it.


Remember, Beethoven is not the antithesis of virtuoso music; it’s not as if his music is pure and Liszt’s, for example, shallow virtuosity and effect.  Beethoven was a great virtuoso for his time and his music is often quite virtuosic.  Don’t apologize for using a real virtuoso technique to approach his colossal visions.


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

In Beethoven, more than any other composer, the expressive markings are as important as the notes themselves.  Every dynamic marking is of crucial importance; every sf is elemental to a good interpretation, every slur key to proper phrasing.  I’m an exceptionally careful score-reader, but every time I work through a Beethoven score away from the piano, I discover something I hadn’t ever fully noticed or absorbed before.

There are so many ways to analyze a score, to breath it in and sing it out {Yes, really sing each line in the privacy of your home or the practice room.  You needn’t sing loudly, but a real vocal connection to each line in the music is transformational.}  When you look at the page without playing, you can easily see the music from a distance and notice certain correlations and contrasts that you might otherwise be too absorbed to notice.

I leave you to the score.


Imagining Real Orchestration

Beethoven, Mozart and Bach are the three composers who were equally comfortable with the Keyboard as they were with the Orchestra.  In all of their Keyboard music, there’s a synthesis of the nature of the Orchestra with the nature of the Keyboard.  And Beethoven is the only of the three that wrote for the Piano. 

If you’re preparing a Beethoven Sonata, take it upon yourself to listen to any of the Symphonies with the score in hand, and notice how the colors are laid out.  Listen with the recording until you feel you can work through the score without it.  I only recommend using a recording at all for those of you with less-developed score-reading skills.  Take the time to read through it singing and gesturing freely at least ten times.  Then take it to the Piano and see if you can realize even a phrase or two with your fingers.

Now return to our excerpt and make a few thoughtful choices about certain instruments and instrumental combinations that each layer of sound in each phrase makes you think of.  Write your choices into your score.  They don’t have to be ideal; don’t fret over them.  Assuage your doubts with the Zen adage, first thought, best thought, and see if you can realize your choices away from the Piano in your inner ear, and then at the Piano with your finger-tips.  Refer to the Essay in Part I about the techniques used to achieve given sounds. 

You will only be able to make the Piano sound like an Orchestra if you have a basic understanding of the actual colors of the orchestra and have developed that understanding to the point that your inner ear can produce the individual sounds and combined sounds that your imagination dictates.

This is a lifelong process – be content with slow progress.


Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

Awareness of your own Energy and thought processes is one of the most difficult things to achieve.  How do you observe yourself thinking without stopping thinking and acting altogether?  The key to self-knowledge of course is experience and practice, but some practice their whole life without meeting themselves or having but a glimpse of their real musical thought processes.  Knowing beforehand, however, what you ought to be thinking if the machinery is working properly helps a great deal.  This is one of the things I hope this book will help you understand more fully.

Try playing the opening measures of the Beethoven excerpt on a table or on your lap.  If you breathe music into it, you’ll have a musical, emotional experience.  If you do it dryly, it will only be tapping away.  The reason for the difference is simply the breath of musical life.  Although it may seem at first that your emotions move in sync with your fingers, you’re actually feeling and hearing the music first, then tapping your fingers in response.  Take this to the Piano now.  As you play, the first two time-dimensions in place, let your ears open and experience the music singing out of the Piano.  Hearing is the Third Dimension.  Again, because it happens so fast in a small space, you may have the sensation at first that it’s happening simultaneously, but they are separated in time.  If you can, take your experiment to a large space, a larger hall or even a cathedral.  The goal in performing is not to listen to the sound of the Piano as it moves out into the hall, but to hear the sound as is bounces back at you.  There’s a discernable time difference.  The returning sound is much more true to the real sound that the audience experiences. 

This also forces you to go beyond yourself.  Your first goal is to become the Piano.  The second goal is to become the room.  The third goal is to become the audience, to absorb them and become one with them.  Next allow yourself as you hear the music to let it sink into your being and become a part of you.  This is the Fourth Time-Dimension, and I refer to it as the moment after.  The danger here is to dwell on it and reflect.  The audience has this privilege because they don’t have to keep playing and remain present.  You can indulge yourself insomuch as you’re able to continue to be present and keep looking forward.  It’s a matter of balance.

The Fifth Time-Dimension, if you will, is the extension of pre-hearing, the Conductor’s dimension.  If you’ll recall, the conductor has to inhabit a pre-dimension of time in order to inspire his players to inhabit real-time.  He beats about one-sixteenth note before the Orchestra’s real beat, but it’s not a fake beat – he actually inhabits it.  At the same time, he listens to the Orchestra and remains with the Orchestra as well.  It’s not unlike playing an Organ from the front of a Cathedral which has the pipes in the back.  The sound delay can be over a second, yet you can’t wait for the sound to come before you move on; otherwise you’ll indulge in a perpetual ritardando.  Instead, you have to inhabit both beats simultaneously.

If you can reach this level of pre-hearing, you’ll literally feel your brain expand beyond its normal limits.

Approach our Beethoven excerpt, challenging your conscious mind to become aware of several dimensions of time-perception at once.  See how long you can maintain your awareness without dropping all of the balls.  Over time your skills will develop to the point where all the time dimensions seem to return to center, forming one complex, wide beat.


The Four Principle Mallets

To review, the Four Principle Mallets are: the fingertip, the sides of the fingers, the fleshy ball of the finger, and the fingernails.  The last of the four, granted, is for special effects, but it’s valuable as a practice tool.  The more comfortable you get with it, the more likely you’ll feel comfortable enough choosing to use it in performance.

Using one mallet at a time, work through the Beethoven excerpt.  Notice where certain notes or groups of notes sound particularly effective with a given mallet.  Go through the score and orchestrate it based solely on the mallets to be employed and see if you can realize your intentions.

The greatest of string players use their bows in the most flexible, expressive ways.  If you’re unfamiliar with bowing technique, watching a video of Heifetz playing is an excellent starting point.  Watch how he constantly turns the bow and varies its speed and weight. 

The mallets correspond to the contact point between the bow and the string.  If you turn the bow, the contact point is thinner and more focused.  This is like playing on the sides of the fingers.  Using full contact of the bow-hairs with the string is like playing with the fleshy ball of the finger.  Playing on the fingertip is akin to playing somewhere between these two extremes.  In actual performance, the mallets you use will constantly, subtly shift, just like Heifetz’ bow.  

Don’t discriminate – all four mallets are Beethovenian.


The Four Physical Levels

Few pianists have even minimal awareness of the separation between the four primary joints that define piano technique.  Much attention is given to developing independence of the fingers, but little to independence of the joints.

Take the Beethoven excerpt and play everything exclusively from Level I, the fingers.  Next, from Level II, the hand (wrist).  Then from Level III, the forearm, and finally from Level IV, the upper arm.

Many approach Beethoven with a finger-and-hand technique, supported by the forearm, but with a passive upper arm.   They believe Beethoven’s language ought to be respected through physical restraint.

Where this idea came from I cannot say, and although I must admit that it can be effective in its own way, Beethoven can be so much more if you invite the forearm and upper arm to play an active role.  Half of the Orchestra resides in the forearm and the upper arm – why should they be excluded!

As a rule, not only for Beethoven but for all composers, when in doubt about the color desired, use the upper arm.  Quick notes obviously can’t be articulated from the upper arm, but even when not using it directly, be sure to leave the elbow unlocked and the upper arm breathing.  Remember that it’s always easier to move down in Levels than up.

Another rule of thumb when in doubt: the louder the sound desired, the further up in Level it should be played.  This is a less advanced form of Orchestration, but it’s a very natural one and yields consistently orchestral results.

The most advanced form of Orchestration in terms of Levels alone involves the cultivation of each Level separately, from ppp to fff, respecting the individual qualities of that Level in its full dynamic range. 

Work through the Beethoven excerpt from each of the Four Levels.  Then combine them at will in various combinations.

Finally, work through the score at the Piano or away from it, notating the Level that you intend to use for each note.  Again, I use f. for finger, h. for hand, f.a. for forearm and u.a. for upper arm.  Practice your Level transcription, making adjustments as necessary.  Notating Levels into your score is often as important, even more so, than the actual fingerings.  As you increase your awareness of the Four Physical Levels, most technical problems will disappear.

Here’s a simplified example to guide you:



Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters


To follow the path, look to the master, follow the master,

walk with the master, see through the master, become the master.

~ Zen Proverb


How would each of your Masters interpret the Beethoven excerpt?  Add to your list all of the great Beethoven specialists that you know – Schnabel, Kempff, Brendel, Goode.

Let each one of them speak through you.  Take what you like and remember that anything that filters through you is you.  Claim it.

Come back next week…


The Weight-bar, or the Hand of Karajan

The main significance of Karajan, besides being an important Master filter, is his relationship to the bow and bowed weight.  Bowing takes on special significance in Beethoven because he often writes bowing into his Piano scores as the fabric of the phrasing.  Obviously Beethoven felt the Piano to be capable of bowing.  Beethoven is not alone in this – Mozart and Haydn and other Classical masters also write bowing into their piano scores.  Bowings should be bowed! 

Remember the difference between bowing and other weighted attacks.  A simple weighted attack involves dropping weight into the key(s), letting it sink in, and then pulling it back out in preparation for the next attack.  Bowing, on the other hand, begins the same way with dropping weight into the key(s) and sinking in, but then the weight shifts smoothly to the next note and the following, not lifting up until the phrase comes to a lift or an end.

Like good bowing, the weight never remains static; it constantly varies according to the demands of the phrasing.  At the same time, the speed of the bow fluctuates as does the angle of the contact of the bow with the string.

The first bowing over several notes in our Beethoven excerpt is on the downbeat of the second measure in the r.h.  Let the A-flat drop-and-sink-in.  The three notes of the following triplet are played within that weight and the F on the next downbeat lifts the bow off the string.

Even staccato can be bowed.  Instead of thinking simply of a quick drop in-an-out, imagine the horizontal movement of the bow as it deftly makes contact with the string, sinks in, and then lifts out.

Play through the excerpt as if a String Quartet, four musicians bowing away.

At this point, it might be help to touch briefly on the concept of up-bow and down-bow.  It’s enough for the moment to try to use up-bow as an upbeat or for preparatory gestures and down-bow on strong beats.  In an up-bow, as you move from the tip of the bow toward the base of the bow (the frog), there’s a natural tendency to crescendo.  Likewise, as you move from the frog toward the tip in a down-bow, there’s a natural tendency to diminuendo.  A good player can naturally compensate for those tendencies, maintaining an even tone if necessary in up-bow or down-bow, but good bowing generally respects the basic nature of up-bow and down-bow as much as possible. 

Up-bow is traditionally notated [ \/ ]and down-bow [┌┐].  Pretend for a moment to have a violin in your hands and air-bow your way through the Beethoven excerpt, as if reading the 1st Violin part from a Beethoven Symphony or String Quartet.   Try to imagine the tension of the bow cleaving to the string.  Notice where there’s an obvious up-bow or down-bow and notate it into your score.  Try it a few times and notice that it gets a little easier.

Try out the following simple bowings to give you an idea:


Now return to the Piano and try to bow it through with your fingers.

As you gain greater command of bowing, your Beethoven will gain greater authority.

The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

What composer captures the spirit of Michelangelo’s artistry and genius more than Beethoven?  Beethoven, likewise, takes quite well to sculpting.

Take your interpretation as is, letting your fingers turn into chisels, and carve it out of marble.  The colors will brighten, the volume increase, the edges sharpen, and your life-size concept will take on epic dimensions.

The first purpose of using the Hand of God is to achieve an interpretation with a mild amount of force that might not come to you naturally.  Forge out a solid, broad, focused energy pathway.  After the third or fourth time through, relax and play without forcing at all.  The sound will round but the dimensions, with almost no effort, will remain grand.

The second purpose is to let you embrace brighter and stronger colors unapologetically.  You may discover things you would have been too passive to stumble upon otherwise.

The third purpose of Hand of God is to encourage you to view interpretation as living, breathing sculpture.  The more you can define your interpretation as a solid rather than liquid form, the greater freedom and control you’ll have onstage to realize your vision effectively.  Performing should be defined as breathing life into an existing form. 

A Jazz musician (orchestrators and sometimes arrangers à la Art Tatum aside) has a different performance ideal – part of the beauty of Jazz is the creation of a new mold from a skeletal frame in front of your eyes.  The audience is thrilled by the improvisational element.  What Jazz musicians lose through the demands of their Art-form is polish and depth of intention.

The body and mind, through layered practice, build up a complex structure that could never exist the first or second or third or twentieth time through.  You build up a mold that in performance needs only be filled with mind and emotion, not improvisation.

Improvisation tends to weaken the structure much more than it strengthens it.  Save improvisation as much as possible for the practice room and give your audience the best that you have to offer.

If you haven’t found the mold to breathe into with your conscious mind, fully backed by your intuition, you’re not ready for peak performance.  But remember that performance itself is a part of the purification process – let the stage form you.  My point in delving back into this argument is to encourage you as strongly as possible to know where your mind should be once you’ve attained mastery.  The vision of interpretation as marble inspires definitive choices; the indecisive sculptor ruins countless pieces of priceless rock.


Beethoven demands high-definition in every respect.  Play through the excerpt being aware of every release., not only of exactly when you release the note, as you’ve already done above with Talea, but of how you release it, the speed of the release.  Is it matte or glossy?  The release of a note could have a dynamic marking just as its attack, from ppp to fff.

Play through the excerpt several times, exaggerating the release with a high-polish glossy finish.  The fingers need to be trained out of their often unaware laziness to release decisively.  Once you get used to it, they’ll begin to release more actively without conscious thought.

Look through the excerpt, and for each note ask yourself what kind of finish it requires.  Work through it again trying to realize your intentions.

Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

Know, understand and respect tradition, but don’t let it rule over you; tradition is your servant, not your master.  This applies as well to any thought or sense of duty that rules over you.  Fear of making a less than beautiful sound hinders grand interpretation.  Fear of moving beyond the bounds of what’s acceptable, even within the privacy of your own practice sessions, makes you small and insignificant.  Dare to claim freedom of expression.

Beauty is defined by the overall experience of a work of Art, not by its individual details.  Beauty requires constant sacrifice; smelling all the roses along the way is the fastest way to destroy any prospect of beauty.  Smell them all one by one, slowly and deeply, in the practice room, but make architectural choices with the larger gesture always in mind.

As Horowitz for one proves, making the color of the melody brighter and less beautiful often enables the texture to be more beautiful and the scope to be greater.  Beethoven often invites a mildly percussive edge to the sound, particularly in the main line.  The material underneath can be more sensitive and feminine, but the melody needs to resonate strength and nobility.

If you look at Beethoven’s orchestration of his Symphonies, you’ll see that Brass and Percussive have an important role.  Whenever you want to know when Beethoven has reached an important architectural point, look for Brass and Timpani.  Use the same principal at the Piano, using Brass and Timpani to underscore the architecture; don’t burden the Strings and Winds alone to force out the important points.

This said, the role of Brass and Percussion in Beethoven’s Orchestra are of secondary importance to the Strings and Winds with respect to the modern Orchestra.  The Strings and Winds in Classical orchestration are its bread-and-butter; Beethoven’s orchestra was still in an undeveloped state.  For any number of technical reasons that a good Orchestration manual like Piston’s will explain, the Winds and Brass in particular had a long way to go through the 19th Century and into the 20th until the Orchestra could grow into its modern state.  If Beethoven had in his hands the Orchestra of Shostakovich, you can be sure that his orchestrations would have been quite different!

Let Beethoven’s piano works be orchestrated with the colors of the modern orchestra while respecting his original intentions. 

Orchestrate the Beethoven excerpt with an all-brass ensemble, then with an all-Percussion ensemble, then with a mixed Brass and Percussion ensemble.  Return to your own interpretation and see if it hasn’t changed.

Speed, Weight and Compression

Great Beethoven interpreters have proved that it’s possible to interpret him with any of the three approaches to energy and sound.  Contrast is one of the keys to great artistry; mastery of all three approaches and then their tasteful combination produces the most effective interpretation.

{As always, if you need to re-read the corresponding Essay in Part I to clarify the difference between Speed, Weight and Compression, do so before reading on.}

Work through the excerpt using only Speed.  Next, using only Weight.  Then Compression.  Combine them in various ways.

Work through the score and make decisions about each note, notating them into your score like so: S (Speed), W (Weight), C (Compression), or use combinations like SW, WC, SC, or SWC.  Remember that any touch is necessarily a combination of all three but that the percentages vary.

A typical Beethovenian sound is equally balanced between the three (SWC) but he loves contrast and embraces every extreme.


The first and final step in preparing an interpretation for performance is defining its principal line.  Ninety percent of your mental and emotional energy should funnel into that line alone during performance; the rest happens on its own and is experienced peripherally.

This is no less true for Beethoven.  Despite his egalitarian, brotherly ideals, he’s a monarch and his compositions are ruled by hierarchy, not Democracy.  Just because every note in Beethoven is important doesn’t mean that they should all be played importantly.

Clearly redefine for yourself the Red line of our excerpt.  Be aware of where your eyes look and where your mind and voice wander.  Discipline yourself to stay on task until it no longer requires discipline.  I find that using the Hand of God filter on the melody alone helps to carve it out with solidity and focus all of my energy on it. 

Once you get used to playing with focused melodic intent, it will become a habit and you’ll become addicted to the expression of the main line.

Playing Blind

Although this is the final filter of the 29 from Part I (with hundreds more embedded within them), this is by no means the final step!  Keep returning to filters that have been especially useful to you until you can reclaim them instantaneously. 

Playing blind is a tool I use as soon as I’ve begun memorizing, which I try to do from the get-go. 

You’ll never really know yourself or your interpretation until you’ve experienced it with your eyes shut.  Only those who have never taken the time to become comfortable playing blind would deny this.