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.

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.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The question is not whether we will be extremists,

but what kind of extremists we will be...

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

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Walter Gieseking

Walter Gieseking


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

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching



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

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

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


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

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

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

Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot


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

~ Lao Tzu



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Did Horowitz have an off night? 

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

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

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

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

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

Sviatoslav Richter

Sviatoslav Richter



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

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

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

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



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

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


The Wise Man is square but not sharp,

honest but not not malign,

straight but not severe,

bright but not dazzling.” 

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Emil Gilels

Emil Gilels


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

~ Albert Einstein


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


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


When you do something, 

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

leaving no trace of yourself.

~ Shunryu Suzuki


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

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


Zen space, the space of Giants...


~ End of Part III ~

Part IV {Fuga con Variazioni}

Part IV  {Fuga con Variazioni}


If we don’t occupy ourself with everything, 

then peaceful mind will have nowhere to abide.

~ Shen-hui


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

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

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

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

Fuga: The Music Theory behind Energy Pillars

Fuga: The Music Theory behind Energy Pillars


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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



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


But how can you justify it theoretically?


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


Harmonic Dissonance

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



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


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

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

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


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



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

Let’s look at a few basic meters.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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


This is true also of the melody:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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






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






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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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


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


Analysis for Performance

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


I notate it like so:

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


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






Or more explicitly, like so:





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

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


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

Where is its energy-center?

How do you define its harmony?

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

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

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


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


Variation 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.

Variation II

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


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

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



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

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



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

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

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


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

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




Defining the Color Levels

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

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



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

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

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

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


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

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


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

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


Reverse Hierarchy

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


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


Free Placement

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

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


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


Past, Present and Future Dimensions

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

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

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

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

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

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


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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



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


Applying and Removing Gloss

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Defining the Pedaling

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

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

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


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

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

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


Linking and Separating

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

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

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


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

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


Defining Rubato

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

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

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

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


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


The Dry Pedal – Finger-pedaling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

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

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

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


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

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


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


Combining and Contrasting Height and Depth, Vertically and Horizontally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Imagining Real Orchestration

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

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

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


Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

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

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

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


The Four Principle Mallets

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

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

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


The Four Physical Levels

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

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


Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

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

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


The Weight-bar, or the Hand of Karajan

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

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

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

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


The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Horowitz’ Voicing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Speed, Weight and Compression

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

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



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


Playing Blind

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


Variation III

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


Defining the Color Levels

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


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

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

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


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

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

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

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



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


Applying and Removing Gloss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Defining the Pedaling

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Linking and Separating

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

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

What do you want to do today?

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

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

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


Here’s the notation:



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



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

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


Defining Rubato

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


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

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

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

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


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

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

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


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

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

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


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, you think I’m joking?”

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

The wand is indeed magical when wielded by a magician.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Four Principle Mallets

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


The Four Physical Levels

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

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

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

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

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


Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

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

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


The Weight-bar, or the Hand of Karajan

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

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

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


The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Speed, Weight and Compression

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



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

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

Variation IV

Variation IV:  Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes

Debussy brought the concept of touch and color to a new level.  In an unprecedented way, the tone colors begin to take on as much importance as the notes and dynamics themselves; painting the music is now as important as singing it, often even more so.  The subject, as in most French Art of the period, has a warm but veiled, indirect quality.

Debussy is as much a revolutionary as Beethoven.  He turned an approach to harmony and form developed over centuries completely on its head, showing the beauty and validity of viewing them through Alice’s Looking-Glass.  Many of the same harmonic colors of his colleagues and predecessors, seen through this magical lens, take on opposite qualities.  Debussy’s Theory and Composition teachers at the Conservatoire knew that his experiments could only be the revolutionary lunacy of an overzealous youth, but his early efforts, including his masterpiece, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, proved them wrong.  They and their successors scrambled, groping for new definitions and justifications.  Like most acts of genius, the theory came after the fact.

Parallel to the harmonic developments taking place not only in Debussy’s music, but everywhere, the science of orchestration was reaching ever new heights.  The orchestra was already quite well defined by Beethoven’s time – even Mozart’s for that matter – but in the second half of the 19th century, it began to reach maturity.  It would keep expanding until WWI, when the economic situation, a lack of musicians and general shock would bring composers back to a more minimalistic approach regarding orchestration.

The developing orchestra taught composers about sound potential; the great orchestrators, from Beethoven to Berlioz, Wagner to Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel, taught the orchestra what it could do.  Although Liszt was the first great orchestrator of the piano, Debussy brought the notion of orchestral color for color’s sake to a new level at the piano.  He wrote for the piano with the colors of the orchestra, but in a completely pianistic way.  Liszt expanded the piano’s possibilities by refusing to accept its limitations, breaking strings left and right along the way; Debussy understood the limitations of the piano, accepted them, and discovered how to seemingly transcend them.

One of the paradoxes of interpretation is that the French School of interpretation has little to do with French Music.  (The Italian School of pianism is another – it has absolutely nothing to do with the Italian’s love of Opera.)  It’s as if interpreters have set up a mode of thought in opposition to their composers, to somehow to prove their independence and superiority.

{Allow me a small digression.  During the second half of the 19th century, performers slowly stopped composing, and composers stopped performing.  The world of Music was becoming ever specialized.  The Renaissance Man, as it were, was becoming a thing of the past.  Composers, for a time idolized, lost their place to Performers.  And into the 20th century, mere Performers lost their place to Conductors.  Broadness in Music Education was replaced increasingly by a race to reach the top as fast as possible.  This approach remains to the present day.  Is this Progress?}

French interpretation, even now, is characterized by clarity and dryness.  The clarity of course makes sense, as does, on a certain level, the avoidance of extremes.  But remember that little music is more extreme then Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.  And Berlioz wrote in his classic orchestration manual that the ideal symphony orchestra of the future would consist of more than a thousand performers . . .!  The father of modern Orchestration had an insatiable desire for extreme contrast.  How seemingly un-French!

Ravel, in his Gaspard de la nuit, wrote that he had set out to write a caricature of Romanticism, but that in the end, Romanticism seemed to have gotten the better of him.  The insane contrasts couldn’t be more extreme.  The perceived limits of the piano and the pianist are not respected!  He somehow manages to surpass even the demands of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.  This from a Frenchman.  Never underestimate the French, as French interpreters do consistently. 

Where does the French School’s love of dryness come from?  French composers of the late 19th and early 20th century expanded the concept of Pedaling into an Art-form in its own right.  They perceived its transformational, magical powers and used them to build up layer upon layer of enveloping harmonies, subtly mixing forbidden colors.  Yet the French School abstains as much as possible from the pedal, as if it were dirty and profane.  It’s no wonder that it took a foreigner, and a German at that, to first realize the nuances of the French impressionists – Walter Gieseking.  And he would pass on the mantle to another foreigner, the Italian Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, to continue the French tradition.  They say it takes a foreigner’s eyes to understand what’s unique about a country, and certainly this has been the case with French interpretation.


Debussy’s Piano works are touch Etudes.  Each is a study in balancing contrasting colors in a tight space – very few notes, each packed with meaning and absolute individuality.  Each piece requires the self-control of a Mozart specialist and the technical prowess of a super-virtuoso.  The technical feats are often enormous, while seeming understated, and like in Mozart or Beethoven, a single note out of place often destroys the entire effect.

But don’t be led astray – just because there’s more of an emphasis on tone-color than before, the three other pillars of interpretation – Song, Dance and Architecture – are still very much alive and active.  Interpreters of Debussy most often forget to sing and dance!  Realize what’s special about this music without exaggerating it.

In 1903, nine years after his early symphonic masterwork, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and two years after his Operatic masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy composed one of his most beloved piano suites, Estampes.  The first movement is an ode to the orient, Pagodes. We will examine its first eight bars.  

The Pagoda is a five-sided edifice consisting of several levels.  The base is generally very simple, and each level becomes increasingly ornate.  Debussy depicts this architectural concept sonically with simple gongs in the bass, slightly more flowing accompaniment in the Tenor and Alto, decorative melodic writing in the Soprano, and fast-moving glissando-like movement when he later reaches into the heights of the keyboard.



Defining the Color Levels

Sometimes you’ll come across examples where the chorale-like texture is either absent or less evident.  Usually, though, you’ll discover it hidden just beneath the surface.  In choral music and orchestral music, parts often divide within sections.  In Debussy’s orchestrations, in part inspired by Berlioz, he sometimes divides sections into four or more parts, such as four Clarinets forming a four-part harmony.

The first measure of Pagodes has seven layers, the third, nine.  See if you can define how the Bass, Tenor, and Alto parts divide. 

Here are the first four bars of our excerpt color-coded:


As you practice separating the four primary levels from one another, try to grade the color within each part, at least dynamically.  Notice the slight gradations of hue, horizontally and vertically, within this possible realization of the third bar alone:


The colors shimmer, dancing and singing!


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

Apply Vertical Hierarchy to the example in an exaggerated way.   When chords line up vertically between the hands, play the right before the left.  Once a wide spread becomes comfortable, narrow it to a barely discernable level.  Here are the first four bars:


Now apply Reverse Hierarchy, as if arranged for a Harp Duo, every chord rolled within each hand from bottom to top.  Exaggerate the rotation in the forearms from the elbow.  Enjoy the richness of the harmony and the freedom of a large spread.  Once this becomes comfortable, narrow the spread so that it sounds almost perfectly lined up. 

Next, apply Free Placement, becoming more aware of Time-dimensions, how anticipating or delaying entries changes the character and meaning of each line.  Make the spread as wide as possible at first, then narrow it until it feels stylishly convincing.  The spread in Debussy can remain rather wide, as long it feels passive and orchestral. If it sounds romantically willful, it’s probably out of character.  Exceptions to this are neo-romantic invocations, such as in most of the melodic content of La soirée dans Grenade, for example, or romantic caricatures, as in the Tristan quote from Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (from Children’s Corner), marked maliciously, avec une grande émotion.

Give some thought to how you’re packaging chords.  Remember that it’s often quite effective to play the outside of chords before the inside, like so:


Notice that virtually every note respects Vertical Hierarchy.  As I set up the eternal feel of these opening bars, I don’t want anything to stand out obviously, rhythmically or sonically.


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

Debussy was first introduced to Javanese Gamelan music at World Exposition in Paris in 1889.  Westerners are generally struck by the relatively static, uniform beauty of the Gamelan.  It’s essentially a Talea Art-form.  The language is not based so much on the Westerner’s approach to phrases as it is on building complex patterns of rhythm, pitch and timbre.  Still, great Gamelan ensembles can phrase with subtlety and scope not unlike Western Classical phrasing.  The energy patterns can be analyzed with the same ease and fluency of virtually all Western Music and of all spoken languages. 

There’s no way of knowing what kind of performances Debussy heard, but he began using pentatonic modes extensively from then on, and in Pagodes, he managed to extract the true essence of Gamelan music while melding it to Classical phrasing and harmony. 


Identify the Energy Pillars in the eight-bar excerpt.  First define the smaller phrase units and the Energy Pillar within each of them, and then notice how the phrases group together and how the Pillars balance and contrast one another.

Realize your Pillar map, exaggerating each of them with a big accent or sforzando, then play naturally, letting the Pillars guide you and lead you.  Make adjustments to them as necessary.  You’ll discover that in an excerpt like this with rather static harmonic movement, the underlying dance movements of the meter and rhythmic patterns will help you define the pillars and surrounding gestures.


Applying and Removing Gloss

Just as Debussy has placed Eastern pentatonic harmony above a Western tonal setting, not every tone color in Pagodes represents those of the Gamelan – ringing gongs and metal plates are balanced by mellower, warmer, more Western sounds.  The finish as well displays the whole gamut, from high gloss to flat matte.  The Gamelan sits on top, in the treble, with the more rounded colors in the lower inner textures. 

Even where Debussy represents the Gamelan directly, he does so in a rounded or veiled way, as Renoir or Monet might have depicted them performing.  Although Debussy disliked being labeled an “Impressionist”, there’s no denying the similarity between his works and the Impressionist Artists.  (Even for a revolutionary and a visionary, it’s hard to completely escape your culture and your generation.)

As you clarify the relative levels of Gloss, ask yourself which technique is the most appropriate to achieve the specific type of Gloss you desire.  Do you require a faster attack, a higher attack, a more brilliant mallet, a more compressed sound?  Experiment extensively and define your choices as specifically as you can.


Defining the Pedaling

Debussy is the third of the three pedal liberators, preceded by Beethoven and his pupil’s pupil, Liszt.  Gamelan, essentially a pedaled Art-form with its ringing metal chimes and gongs, finds an ideal translator in Debussy. 

The sustaining pedal, only occasionally surfaces completely in this four-and-a-half-minute work.  It begins with the pedal fully depressed.  Inside that outer 10% layer of watery haze, the pedal operates in much the same way as it would for any other work.  The tricky part in Debussy and Ravel is to maintain the long notes while subtly grading and clearing the local texture.  Debussy often requires low bass notes, as in our excerpt, to ring for several measures; the uninitiated might infer that the pedal should be left floored, but this makes for a muddy texture. 

Debussy forces you to attain a virtuoso right foot, as well as ultra-sensitive ears to overtones and undertones.  After working out the pedaling of a work of Debussy or Ravel, any other repertoire you approach will have matured in terms of its pedaling and sound.

Play through the eight-bar excerpt, being aware of your pedaling choices, not only where you consciously change it, but every miniscule gradation.  Write your pedaling into the score with as much precision as possible, trying to achieve at least ten depth-levels of pedal.  Rid your mind of the idea of the pedal as a vertical tool – it paints beautiful, long, detailed mountainous and cavernous landscapes.  Because the pedal can never be used outside the framework of time, it is ever horizontal.

Here’s my pedaling of the first four bars of our excerpt:


I begin with a slowly descending pedal over the first beat.  This allows for a clear initial attack and helps differentiate the colors and overtones of the first two open-fifth gongs.  Visually and sonically, it conjures up a slow descent into a distant realm.  I then let it rest fully depressed for a beat and a half, soaking in the oriental perfumes.  The third chord, just after the third beat, is an ondine-like spray that beckons a clearing of the air just afterwards, so I slowly raise the pedal over the last beat and a half of the first measure to 50%.  Don’t venture further than this or the listener may be jolted by too clean a texture. 

Immediately after the downbeat of the attack of m. 2, I descend quickly to 100% again to recapture the simple fullness of the open-fifth fundamental gong, and then immediately begin raising the pedal until about beat 3 to nearly 10%.  This slow change of depth over beats 1 and 2 has a similar but opposite of the pedaling in the same beats of the first bar.  (This is effective, of course, only if you hold both of these chords in your fingers.)  I then descend very rapidly to 100% again for the ondine splash, after which I again raise the pedal slowly to make the colors purer and leaner.  

On the downbeat of m. 3, I come up to 100% for my first quick breath of fresh air.  This is possible by giving extra presence to the open-fifth chord, which briefly distracts the ear from the loss of overtone haze.  I then plunge immediately to 100% and let it rest there at the ocean floor for nearly two full beats, and then let it ever-so-slowly rise up to 70% by the attack of the downbeat of m. 4, after which it plunges again to 100%.

The last pedaling is perhaps the most interesting.   Over 3 ½ beats, it slowly rises to around 50%, creating the effect of a mist burning off in the morning sun.  Notice the sharp ascent just after the attack of the final l.h. eighth-note, preparing another delicate gasp of air on the following downbeat.

A word of warning as realize my pedalings and create your own: when making even minor adjustments, take care not to lose the fundamental tones and overtones of the long notes (as it’s not possible to hold them in the hand, their sustenance depends on the pedal) or clear away too much of the combined overtones or do so too obviously as to kill the mood.

Debussy indicates that an occasional use of the Una Corda Pedal (2 Péd.).  The soft pedal is one of the least dependable aspects of the modern Piano.  Often it’s called for when it’s not really necessary or appropriate.  It can usually be as effectively realized by changing the mallet, dynamic, and/or energy of the stroke.  The effect should always be respected, but not blindly.

The soft pedal is as often abused as the damper pedal, even more so.  It’s the friend of the unskilled, the fearful and the shy.  I’ve seen countless concerts where the left foot was glued to the soft pedal the entire evening, depressed partly or fully for minutes at a time.

Only use the soft pedal for very special, calculated effects, not as a cover-up or a security blanket.  Check your effects on the Piano in the hall before the performance to make sure you can get the effect you seek.  As a rule, be prepared to achieve every effect you want without the soft pedal, and only move your left foot to the soft pedal when you intend to use it.  You’ll be more physically balanced if your left foot is farther back. 


Linking and Separating

Linking and Separating involves Pedaling, Rubato, Color Differention, and Dynamic Delineation.  However, its most important aspect is Energy organization and purification.  I usually begin with the smaller gestures and move outwards into larger gestures.  One of the most common problems I deal with as a vocal coach is singers trying to make a long phrase without acknowledging its inner gestures.  If you seek the noble, arching gesture, don’t think it can be achieved with a bulldozer.  As you purify and tighten the small gestures, the larger ones often come of their own. 

I find that gypsy-izing rhythms heightens their innate qualities and tightens small gestures mentally, emotionally and physically.  Simply make the short notes shorter and the long notes longer, such that the short notes feel more like grace notes.  Within each compressed rhythmic unit, don’t allow in any unnecessary energy.

Here are the third and fourth measures of our excerpt with the smallest gestures in the r.h. circled:


Play all of the sixteenth notes very quickly, as grace-notes.  After compressing the individual gestures like this, play them again normally and naturally and you’ll discover that the energy has less static and flows more effortlessly. 

Next, group small gestures into larger ones, in twos, threes or fours, so that the point where the energy turns is focused and refined. 

The first turning point in the third measure comes on the third beat, here marked by a dotted line:



It’s very easy to let the energy at a turning point become static or harden into a mental, emotional wall; the energy must remain fluid.  To break this wall, or keep it from ever forming, it helps to rush the tempo around the turning point.  This forces the linking energy to become more concentrated and malleable.  Play it again naturally, without rushing, and you’ll discover that the gestures link and separate more clearly and effortlessly. 


After the underlying energy skeleton has been thus solidified, work through the other main aspects of Linking and Separating – Pedaling, Rubato, Color Differentiation, and Dynamic Delineation. 


Defining Rubato

One of the defining features of Gamelan music is its steady, flowing rhythm.  Debussy, on the other hand, defines his textures by the fluidity of the beat.  It’s no accident that his orchestral masterwork depicts the ocean.  Still, Debussy uses a fairly steady beat when it serves his purposes.  In our excerpt, you should try to achieve the affect of a steadily flowing, timeless beat that breathes and is never pushed.  Within this definition lies a great deal of leeway. 

Play it through noticing all of the tiny liberties you take.  Try notating them with forward and backward arrows in your score.  When the tempo remains steady, even for only a beat or two, there are no arrows.

Don’t confuse straight Rubato arrows with arched Direction arrows.  The concepts are quite different, although they often convene.  It’s when they don’t match, or even run opposite one another, that I find most fascinating.  It’s similar to Direction as it relates to crescendo and diminuendo – it’s more common when forward motion parallels crescendo and backwards motion diminuendo, but music often demands otherwise.  Many phrases lead into an intimate or reserved climax in diminuendo (yet it should be noted that few phrases taper in crescendo…). 

Often, to make an important statement or arrive at the climax of a phrase requires extra time – backwards motion – yet forward Direction.  Arriving to an Energy Pillar, again, usually happens in some form of crescendo, but occasionally in diminuendo. 

Here are the first four bars of our excerpt with Rubato arrows and Direction arrows:


It’s tempting in a piece like this to be drawn in by the lotus floating in the water surrounding the Pagoda, and play in a continuous ritardando, always on the back side of the beat.  This may make the work feel timeless to you as you play it, but I can assure you that the audience will feel it instead as endless.  For every flower you smell, breeze by seven or eight.  Thus, if you choose to savor the first three notes of the Soprano melody in bar three, even ever so slightly, let the rest of the phrase float along with less importance, carried on the wind.  This is true of virtually every ritardando as well – when it’s over, move forward boldly and immediately!

In bar seven, the same Soprano melody of bar three is overshadowed by a new melancholic melody in the Tenor.  I allow these two measures (as well as mm. 9-10, outside our excerpt) to be slightly slower in tempo in order to let them speak out seriously, but then I immediately take back tempo in bar eleven, restoring the equilibrium.  These are minor variations in tempo that the listener will feel but not notice.  The interpreter on the other hand needs to become aware of even the most miniscule alterations of tempo so as to be able to manipulate them and not exaggerate them.  An occasional check against the metronome may increase awareness of your effects.

Remember that Placement, whether Free Placement, Vertical Hierarchy or Reverse Hierarchy, is the second aspect of Rubato and Tempo Modification the third.  Mastering Rubato means mastering each of the three individually and then mastering how they combine.  Timing is of the essence!  So often, everything seems to line up perfectly but the effect fails to reach the listener – the problem might very well be that it was simply poorly timed. 

One of my teachers took a hard-line on poor timing – If you play one note late, the rest of the notes in the entire composition will be late!  I thought him a madman at the time, but sometimes it really does have that effect.  You can lose the listener by drawing out a phrase or section too long.  He begins to daydream, and by the time he wanders back, he’s lost the thread and the entire performance has become meaningless.


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

There are many ways to approach the Talea in the excerpt, depending largely on how literally you wish to depict the sound of a real Gamelan orchestra.  The root of the word gamelan means hammer – should it be represented as such or be allowed to be transformed?  The Piano itself is not unlike a Gamelan ensemble. 

Debussy is very specific about touch, giving every note a rather precise touch indication regarding dynamics, articulation, and phrasing.  Yet the pedaling is left up to the player, and the demands of the notes themselves regarding pedal length usually imply long pedals. 

This brings us to the heart of Wet Talea – when the pedal is depressed, are you required to make an effort with your fingers to respect the touch indications, or is it enough for those indications to simply sound as notated?  The answer would seem simple, but since Debussy has already implied that the pedal be depressed for long stretches, do his articulation marks apply to the actual desired sound, or to a certain type of finger touch within the pedal?

The answer is elusive.  When do his slurs refer only to phrasing, when to legato, and when to both?  Let’s examine the score for a moment.  In the first measure, the first chord cannot be held longer than about two beats as notated because the l.h. then needs to pass over the r.h. to play the third chord on the and of the second beat.  Should it be released to the pedal immediately, or after a beat or two?  I play it as a Gong, released immediately to ring in the pedal.  The second chord could be held in the fingers for the full duration – should it be held with the fingers or released to the pedal that Debussy clearly intends by the whole-note chord on the downbeat, which cannot be held in the fingers?   I play it like the first, releasing it immediately to the pedal. 

Now in the second half of the first bar, we have our first slur, implying a legato phrase.  Above the top G-sharp, he places a tenuto mark, implying that it should be held in the finger, at least long enough for the effect of tenuto to enter the sound.  To play these three chords with a real finger legato, crossing hands in tempo, would be awkward, although playable.  I doubt he intends them that way, but I do think he intends them to sound smooth, connected, and somewhat melodic.

The third measure presents a more pressing question:  should the slurred r.h. melody be played with a finger-legato or simply sound legato?  It’s easy to hear it as a Gamelan melody, hammered out as on a Xylophone or Marimba, yet if Debussy wanted that, would he not have written a staccato mark over each of the notes, or written martellé?  None of these are obvious choices.  Personally, I try to achieve the individuality of each attack with a non legato touch (and pointed mallets), while respecting the legato intentions by thinking legato and letting the pedal to the actual connecting.

Each interpreter has to come to his own conclusions as to how to interpret Debussy’s intricate but sometimes cryptic interpretive indications.

Play through the excerpt becoming aware of your own Talea choices.  Are you achieving contrast between layers and within layers?  Are you aware of how you’re releasing notes, varying the speed?  Mentally notate the length percentage of each note and the speed of its release.  Experiment with various possibilities, then rework your intentions and realize them.


The Dry Pedal – Finger-pedaling

Dry Debussy doesn’t quite exist, yet Dry Pedal still plays a very important part in Debussy, and precisely because such constant veiling in the pedal is required.  The texture must always remain crystal clear, never muddy or murky.  This can only be achieved with subtle pedalings within pedalings, without ever losing the notes that count most.  Many highlighting pedals required a good and wet Dry Pedal underneath to make the effect realistic.

Take away the pedal completely and see how closely you can achieve your pedaled intentions without pedal.  Only when you become comfortable without pedal should you begin adding it in again.  Notice the added dimensions your playing takes on. 

Relax the finger-pedaling, striking a balance between normal playing, and finger-pedaled playing.  Now try to think of the finger-pedal in the same way as the sustaining pedal.  Imagine that you can depress it 10%, 20%, 50%, 100%, at any given time, depending on the effect desired.  Sometimes the real pedal and the dry pedal will work in parallel, but more often they will contrast one another, creating effects that could be achieved no other way.  A multitude of effects are now at your disposal. 


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

Debussy seems to have taught students to play from the key-surface.  Whether he meant this for only certain effects or as a constant is hard to determine.  Let’s say he meant it as a constant – should his wishes be respected?  Where does composition end and interpretation begin? 

Interpreters and composers would likely have widely varying opinions about this.  Remember that composers are rarely the best interpreters of their own works.  Often interpretation marks they’ve put into their scores represent their own inferior interpretational skills.  Blasphemous!  And seemingly impossible, yet so. 

How could a composer not be the best interpreter of his own works?  And I don’t simply mean best performer, as if the only reason he fails to be the best interpreter is because of a flawed technique or a personality that doesn’t lend itself to the stage.  I’m speaking on a much more basic level.  Penetration of a score is a separate Art-form from its construction.  Composition is not an abstract Art-form – it’s linked to the means of performance, to the specific techniques of the instrument for which it’s composed or arranged.  A composer is often capable of crossing the bridge separating composition and interpretation, completing the entire journey.  But composition doesn’t require the composer to be able to successfully cross the bridge, either virtually or practically, and certainly not on a superior level. 

Because this real gap exists, composers often make mistakes in interpretational indications in their scores.  A composer’s less-than-ideal understanding of an instrument may not allow him to write ideally for it.  Is it unreasonable to imagine that a great interpreter might be able to improve upon a score, in terms of interpretational markings, and even perhaps occasionally upon the notes themselves?  I leave this to your consideration. 

As you consider Height’s vertical and horizontal applications in light of Debussy’s views on Piano Technique, know that you’re justified in using Height however you like, in order to serve your interpretation of the work.

Height is one of the primary ways to achieve Gloss.  Height without Depth creates a delicate, precise, somewhat superficial sound, a color that works beautifully throughout Pagodes.  Experiment on your own with constantly varying Height levels to achieve a convincing interpretation.  Play from the key and from inside the key for contrast.

Experiment combining Height with the Four Mallets, one at a time, then in various combinations.


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

Depth might seem the antithesis of a struck, gonged reality, but Depth is simply the following through of a stroke.  If you hit a gong, would you stop at the surface, or round out, letting the gong absorb your weight?

Explore the possibilities of Depth in our excerpt, letting every note pierce the key-bottom.  At first, it may feel heavy or forced, but then it becomes natural and feels lighter in the arm.  Once you’ve achieved Depth, you may want to take some of it away, but I doubt you will ban it completely, even from this airy, watery, ringing excerpt. 


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

As a child, I took occasional lessons from a Professor who liked taking scores along with him into the mountains on hiking trips.   At the time, I thought he was just trying to find an excuse not to do real practice.  Pagodes might be better understood in such a setting, sitting outside a monastery hidden deep in a mountain forest.  Finding unique, inspiring places to study scores can sometimes expand your mind to the possibilities of all that the Art of Piano embraces.  Likewise, just as composers take inspiration from Art, Dance, Literature, and Poetry, practice is usually most productive when balanced with a healthy intake of Life, and Art.

My Liszt Sonata is still strangely imbued with The English Patient, which sat on the piano and kept me company during practice breaks while I first studied it seriously.  


Imagining Real Orchestration

Listen to Debussy’s La Mer.  How would he orchestrate Pagodes?  What solo instrument, for example, would take the Soprano melody in measure three?  I imagine the Flute, here, echoed two bars later in the same melody by a solo Oboe.  In bar seven, I hear a solo Clarinetist, pp, accompanying an English Horn, mp, in the Tenor melody, tenderly, stoically.  In the beginning, I give the accompaniment note-for-note to Harp.  In the first two bars, I double the Harp in the Basses, divisi, pp, on the low B and F-sharp, and the Cellos, divisi, on the higher B and F-sharp.  In measure three, I punctuate the downbeat with a distant gong, ppp, and I divide the Cellos in four to cover all four notes of the l.h. chord, doubling them on four French Horns. 

Here is the excerpt orchestrated, all instruments notated in the key of C for easy reading.  Instruments usually read an octave or two higher or lower than actually written, such as Double Bass, Piccolo or Glockenspiel, are notated as well as they sound.  The only clef other than the bass or treble clefs is the alto clef, for Viola.  This is all meant to help less experienced full score readers.


Mine is but a simple sketch to inspire you to imagine your own orchestration.  Read through the score several times, internalizing it and singing the parts.  Now begin conducting it, as you continue singing along.  It’s in a simple 4/4 (down, left, right, up) with no real subdivisions, so it doesn’t present any serious problems from a technical point of view. 

Simply begin by envisioning your Debussian Orchestra around you.  How are the Strings seated?  Where are the Winds, French Horns, Brass, Percussion, Harp?  Who’s first chair in each section?  Once you’ve located everyone, invite their attention, raising your arms embracingly, breathe, give a simple, precise, predictable, upbeat to the Basses and Gong, and you’re off. 

At first, use only the right hand, cueing the soloists simply with eye contact a beat before each enters. 

Once you’ve conducted your way through it several times and have developed a clearer mental hearing of it, bring the score to the keyboard and transcribe it into

your fingers as realistically as possible.  This is a strict orchestral reduction, meaning that I’ve limited myself only to the notes in the original Piano version.  So as you re-transcribe the orchestral version for solo Piano, you’ll simply be playing the original notes, but try to show the specific colors of the orchestration.

What changes would you make to my orchestration?  Make any changes you like and continue orchestrating the following six bars (mm. 9-14), then work through the same process again.

The Four Principle Mallets and the Four Physical Levels

Play through the excerpt focusing on which mallets you’re using.  Is there room for improvement?  Experiment.  Debussy adapts particularly well to the sides of the fingers and the fingernails.  Gong sounds can be realized with the bone on the outer side of the first joint of the thumb.  Penetrating Horn-like sounds work well with the pointed tip of the thumb, just beneath the nail, supported by the second finger. 

The Four Physical Levels are essentially an extension of the Mallets; they put the mallets in motion and back them up.

Work through the excerpt focusing only on which Physical Levels you’re using for each note.  Experiment combining each of the Physical Levels with each of the Mallets throughout the excerpt to become more aware of how they interact, and of the varied color possibilities they offer you.  Make adjustments.

Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

Be sure to include both Michelangeli and Gieseking here!

The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

The passive nature of Debussy makes you hesitant to use any force, which can make your energy pathways weak. Also, the pianos and pianissimos need to be solidly connected to the arm.  Using Hammers and Chisels for a little while will bring you closer to the music.

Also, remember that a Gamelan Ensemble consists primarily of hammers hitting slabs or sheets of metal.  Perhaps Hammers and Chisels are not so out of place.

Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

What could be more Zenful than a Buddhist Gamelan Orchestra?  Buddhists often use percussive sounds to pierce the mind, cleanse the soul.  They don’t suffer from the same Jane Austenian sense of what’s genteel and appropriate.  Open your mind to alternate realities of sound perception.

In Korea, I accompanied my wife to Mass and was shocked to hear the congregation called to prayer several times by a Gonglike sound straight out of a Buddhist Temple.  The clash of cultures was beautiful!

Speed, Weight and Compression

Play through the excerpt, observing your choices regarding Speed, Weight and Compression.  All three have a place in Debussy, as do all their combinations.  Experiment with various possibilities and notate new choices into your score.  Realize them.

Now look back through all the previous filters and ask yourself how Speed, Weight and Compression interact with them.  Remember that no filter is an island unto itself – they’re all interconnected.


Debussy is nearly as melody-centered as Chopin.  Just look at his early works, such as Claire de Lune and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.   The melody should sing out in a clear, natural way. Veiled, but not hidden or watered down.

Etch it out first in a bright f using Hammers and Chisels, then let it return to its normal state.  Super-melody is about you – where are you focusing your mind, body and emotions?  Prepare yourself to inhabit the same space as your listeners.

Variation V

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


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

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

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


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

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




Defining the Color Levels

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

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

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

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


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

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

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

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



Applying and Removing Gloss

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


Defining the Pedaling

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

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

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

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


Linking and Separating

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

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

All punctuation should be placed deliberately before being read naturally.


Defining Rubato

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

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

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


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

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

Create a rich tapestry of touch.


Height and Depth

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

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

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


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

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

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

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

So how’s it coming along?

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

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

What, here, now!?

Why not?

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

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

A crowd was gathering.

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

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

She grew impatient, cutting me off.

David, SHOW ME! 

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

No!  Here, NOW!

She had the patience of a toddler.

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

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

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


Imagining Real Orchestration

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

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

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

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


Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

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

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

What Piano-playing is all about.

The Four Principle Mallets and the Four Physical Levels

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

Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

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

The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

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

Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

I leave the Samurai’s sword in your hands.

Speed, Weight and Compression

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


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

Playing Blind

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

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

I see only the reflection of my shadow.




And the end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.

- T. S. Eliot


If you’ve made it this far, you’ve walked the journey that I’ve walked hundreds of times throughout my life, and continue to walk.  If you’re like me, you may often have had the sensation of walking sideways or even backwards more often than forward.  But remember that the pathway to mastery is never a straight line but a spiraling, meandering one, lined with a forest of tall pines, such that you rarely catch a glimpse of the peak you’re aiming for.

You may have many more questions now than you did when you began.  If so, you’re growing and making progress.  But I also suspect that you’ve gained greater vision and knowledge of the path you’re on, and I’m sure that your fingers testify to the orchestral knowledge you’ve gained and to your increased command of phrasing and the flow of energy.

Bulow, the first time he presented Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin, had rehearsed his orchestra relentlessly, demanding that everyone memorize his part.  He commanded the ushers to lock the doors once the performance began so that no one could enter or leave in the middle.  After the applause died following the final movement’s “Ode to Joy”, he lifted his baton and started over, from the very beginning.  He knew that the audience would appreciate it more the second time through, once they’d gained familiarity with it.

While this is not Beethoven’s Ninth nor I Bulow, I wish I could now lock the doors.  Instead, I simply invite you to stay and turn back to the Preface at the very beginning and work through this manual again from cover to cover.  The second time through you’ll learn things that your mind was not ready to fully understand the first.  The third time through, if you’re the persevering type (!), certain concepts will have become long self-evident, as if you’d always possessed them.  My hope is that, over the years, you might pull it down off your piano-side bookshelf often and consult it.

I am on the same journey, and this is my guide as well.


When an ordinary man attains knowledge, he is a sage;

when a sage attains understanding, he is an ordinary man.

~ Zen Saying




~ End of Part IV ~


Four and fifty years

I’ve hung the sky with stars.

Now I leap through –

What shattering!

– Dogen (1200-1253)




When the student is ready,

the teacher will appear.

– Zen proverb


Zen and the Art of Piano is dedicated to my first piano teachers: Patricia Reeve and Robin McCabe.

Many teachers try to shape you into their image; each of these extraordinary mentors guided me toward an understanding of myself, to a musical language that only I could speak.


I owe everything to my teacher

because he never taught me a thing nor explained anything to me. 

– Zen Master