Friday, 24 December 2010

Russian Piano School: Masterclasses downunder covering Rachmaninov, Chopin, Scriabin and more!

Thanks to my friend Ian Bennett who recommended TheMusicPage website, which streams live and archived video content of musical performances. As well as recorded performances, I also came across some piano competitions as well as masterclasses. I find the following masterclasses fascinating as both of the piano masters are schooled in the Russian School of Piano, and give an insight into the Russian method which according to Stefan Kutrzeba in short emphasizes:
  • The artistic IMAGE-MAKING instead of  looking for nuances...
  • The active INTONATING instead of  playing by heart...
Both Masters, note, currently teach in Australian and American conservatories respectively.

The first masterclass, I came across was presided by Oleg Stepanov, who studied under Lev Vlassenko at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, won the Liszt International Competition in 1956 (Stepanov has dedicated a piano competition in his memory)

  1. First is Chopin Ballade #1
  2. (55 minutes) Scriabin Etude in D Sharp Minor
  3. (83 minutes 18 seconds) Rachmaninov Moment Musicaux #4 in E minor
The second masterclass was run by Boris Berman, who had the same teacher that Vladimir Ashkenazy had, and also studied at the Moscow Conservatory.
  1. Beethoven: Appasionata Sonata
  2. Rachmaninov: Moment Musicaux #1, #2
  3. Schubert - First Klavierstucke 
The video player is slightly fiddly (smallish buttons) and the quality of the video so so, but the content's great! 
All masterclasses were held at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Ian Hanger Recital Hall.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Entendre la différence! Hear the Difference! Active Listening (Aural Masterclass 1)

Piano pedagogue Sylvia Yee recommends developing active listening. And I agree that
one should always strive to develop a finer ear, which will inevitably benefit your playing. Afteral, if you can't hear the difference in nuances, you will not be able to play the difference! So listen to the same piece performed by different pianists. And here is where active listening comes in.

For this explorative excercise, I've chosen the Beethoven Opus 13 in C Minor Pathetique Sonata - adagio cantabile performed by 3 different master pianists (Glenn Gould, Wilhelm Kempff, and Vladimir Horowitz).
You can either listen to a segment if you really want to focus on a piece (say 30 seconds) or the entire piece.

Glenn Gould

Stage 1 Listening
1) Listen generally without any preconceptions. Make notes of what you think about the music.
2) Listen to the melody line, usually in the soprano line
3) Listen to the bass
4) Compare the dynamics - loudness and softness of the piece. Also listen to crescendos and decrescendos. Does the performer build up to a climax effectively?
5) Character of the piece? What is the essential character of the piece. Is it one of playfulness or humour, or sadness and longing?

Stage II Listening
5) listen to the sensitivity or emotional content of the piece - is there a central theme to the feeling evoked in the piece?
6) What's the tempo like or pacing. Does the pianist employ rubato (ebb and flow) effectively?
7) Phrasing - listen to the musical phrases, just like musical sentences. How do they differ? Are they very legato or very short. Do the phrases connect to each other and transition to other phrases to evoke a cohesive  
story? How are they different, what is the difference?

Wilhelm Kempff

Stage III Listening

8) Colour/Color - using harmony - or different chords create color, how the pianist brings out these textures creates mood or sound colour. 
9) Context, now compare this piece to other similar pieces by the same composer or another composer. For example for Nocturnes, you could not only listen to other Chopin nocturnes, but also listen to John Field and Poulenc's nocturnes
10) Artistic license: What is the pianist doing to bring out his own unique style or playing into the music. Does it sound Glenn Gould, for instance, sound like he's playing Beethoven in the style of Bach?  

Vladimir Horowitz

Friday, 3 December 2010

Youtube's Top 5 Piano Artistes

Subscribe to me on YouTubeIn my piano journeys around Youtube, in search of inspiration, a performance as a starting reference to a piece I'm learning, or even merely for enjoyment. I come across, some great piano videos. The videos are quality in terms of playing, sound recording, video production and clarity and are active. So I'd like to share them with you below. They are listed in order of video upload views on Youtube. As a youtube pianist myself , I find their videos a source of inspiration and a standard to aspire to.

Valentina Lisitia (Chopin, Rachmaninov and many other composers)
Video Views over 17 Million times! 

Valentina is an Ukrainian Pianist based in the US. Here's one of her early videos performing La Campanella.

Cubus (Mozart, Chopin to French  [Duvernoy] and Russian romantic period [Vladimir Rebikov*])
Video Views: 4.3 million
Video Index:
I found Cubus' youtube channel when I was searching for the keywords "Chopin Playlist" in youtube. He plays well on his digital piano, but just Watch his luminescent hands! What a true piano artist in every sense! Enjoy.

*Who is Rebikov, I wondered....
“Rebikov was already a forgotten figure by the time of his death at age 54. He was bitter and disillusioned, convinced wrongly that composers such as DebussyScriabin, and Stravinsky had made their way into public prominence through stealing his ideas. Ironically Rebikov is best known by way of his insubstantial music in salon genres. Rebikov's role as an important early instigator of twentieth-century techniques deserves to be more widely recognized.” (Uncle Dave Lewis, Allmusic) [Source: Wikipedia]

Anderson & Roe Piano Duo (classical creative reinterpretations) from Star Wars, Piazolla, Saturday Night Fever.
Video Views: Over 3.2 million video views

Bach Scholar
Video Views: 3 million
ragtime, classical, blues (Bach, Scarlatti, Scott Joplin, Czerny, and others). Also has some interesting video tutorials on how to play ragtime. It looks like he's also performed every Scott Joplin piece too!
Youtube Channel:
Video Index:

Tzvi Erez (Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach)
Video Views: 2.5 million
Video Index:
I found Tzvi's Erez version of the Chopin Military Polonaise as a guide for when I was learning it for the Kemble Chopin Competition. Here, however is Tzvi playing a Satie piece.

Josh Wright Piano - Advice on piano technique from memorisation, phrasing, to getting that pearly sound.
Video Index:
Video Views: 7000

Let me know if you find any other quality Youtube Piano Artistes out there!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Piano virtuosity tapas? Kaleidoskop, and what a Kaleidoscope!

Wow, I discovered this video recently performed by pianist Jennifer Lin in Monterey, California in 2004, and wasn't sure what the piece was -

It contained so many familiar elements, but seemed to change as if you were switching tv channels from one to the next,  it wasn't until pianist Jennifer Lin at the end mentions that is Josef Hofman's Kaleidoskop, which happens to be opus 40, #4, which makes sense, it's a mixture of virtuosic works and perhaps favourites of Hofman. 

If you can identify all the influences in the pieces do leave a comment!?

"Everyone can be moved" - Benjamin Zander on music and passion

US based conductor, Benjamin Zander, a student of Benjamin Britten, illustrates music and passion, how classical music is for everyone, and that everyone can be moved by classical music.  Benjamin uses an example of
Chopin's Prelude in E minor opus 28, no.4 [which starts at time index 7:00].

Andras Schiff Beethoven Sonata Lectures (podcasts)

There are some great resources on the Internet if you can find them that is. In September 2008, Andras Schiff gave lectures on each of the Beethoven Sonatas at Wigmore Hall. You can download these podcasts as MP3s, or listen to them streamed through your web browser.

 The lectures an essential resource for the grade 8 or pianist preparing for a performance diploma because they bring great insight into the character and context of each sonata, and also give ideas for interpretation and musical expression for each sonata.

These lectures are great to prove a point in interpretation, and a good starting point in your studies of Beethoven. And as a last resort, an ally if you're up against an examining board as was in my case last year. In my performance diploma exam, I contested a point made by an examiner on the Pathetique Sonata, which stated that the repeat in the first movement should go to the Allegro section (as is convention) and not to the grave (beginning section). So according to Schiff, this interpretation of repeating back to the grave gives the first movement a larger sense of scale and proportion which Schiff was inspired by the performance style of the great Rudolph Serkin (also Freddy Kempf advocates this interpretation too).

 This point is raised in Andras Schiff's lecture, which I referred to with full reference to the Guardian newspaper website.  My appeal was upheld affording me the professional dignity and confidence to write this blog today, sparing me any further condemnation of arduous repeats.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Inspiration from the Cat playing the piano!....Lang Lang did!

I'm not talking about those funny cats playing the piano on Youtube. How do you engage young children to want to learn the piano? Communicate to them in a genre familiar to them, with characters they know well. In this instance, it's Tom and Jerry, and the short film is called "The Cat Concerto". As my children 2 year old calls it, "Cat playing the piano." It was so popular and acclaimed at the time that it won an Academy Award (Oscar) in 1946 for best short subject: cartoons. Lang Lang credits this cartoon for inspiring him to learn the piano starting at the tender age of 3.
Here it is, Tom plays Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #2.

And the knock on effect? About 25-40 million people in China have been inspired to learn the piano, following in Lang Lang's footsteps according to the article "Yes, China's got talent – but that's not enough" from the Observer on 14 Nov 2010. Deservedly, Lang Lang was listed in 2009 Time Magazine's Top 100 Influential People in the World.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Dear Mozart...reading composers' private letters online

The Gutenburg project puts free out of copyright books in a digital format available to view online or download as an ebook (to your kindle perhaps). Books range from the works of Jane Austin, the Bible, Sun Tzu's Art of War, to Machiavelli's The Prince.

It is indeed a fabulous resource for the music scholar and student. A look at the music bookshelf of the Gutenburg project reveals many composers letters that have been translated into English.
Mozart's Signature

The following letters are available from the following composers:

  • Beethoven
  • Franz Liszt
  • Mozart
  • Haydn

Tips for your research
  • Perhaps cross reference the year of the composition of the piece you are playing and look for any mentions of the piece by the composer himself.  
  • If the composition was dedicated into someone in mind, are there mentions of that name? 
  • What was he thinking at the time? 
  • What major life events occur within the context of the piece in question?
  • Is there an insight into the personality of the composer? 
This may help breathe some of his personality into your performance! Summon the presence of the composer in absentia.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

8 creative ways to practice away from the piano keyboard (or any musical instrument)

I'm a great proponent of living, breathing and inhabiting the music you are playing. If you are getting in a rut in your practice routine, perhaps you're trying too hard. It's time to recreate the music through other perspectives.


1. Listen to a master - find a recording of the great interpreters of your chosen piece/composer (Barenboim for Beethoven, Rubinstein for Chopin, etc.) and hear their recording. You can hear recordings on youtube, download for purchase, or even borrow it from your local library if they have it.
2. Watch a recording or live performance
Youtube is a treasure trove of recordings of the great pianists performing pieces you are probably studying.
3. Summon the composer - Watch a biopic, documentary or drama based on the composer. You'll find it brings to life the music if you understand more about the composer's life, as so much of the music reflects the personality and life events of the composer. Perhaps - has the piece itself been featured in a film -  if so, what emotions does it depict in the film? Find out for instance, from the IMDB database which Chopin pieces featured in popular film.


4. Make it your own: Hum/Sing the piece from memory. Robert Schumann says:

  • It is not only necessary that you should be able to play your pieces on the instrument, but you should also be able to hum the air without the piano. Strengthen your imagination so, that you may not only retain the melody of a composition, but even the harmony which belongs to it  (Advice to Young Musicians, R.Schumann)

5. Visualise yourself playing the piece with your inner hearing
This is one of the best ways to make a piece more musical. You will probably start creating and formulating musical phrases you may have missed in your practice.
6. Make up words or phrases to accompany the music you are playing. Especially make up words that fit the mood of the piece.

7. Analyse the score
Look at the dynamics, think about how you are playing the piece, are there any details that you are missing? Are you being faithful to the score. Read all the markings, indications, etc. What are the passages that you have difficulty memorising and break down the section you find most difficult.

8. Finger practice on the piano foreboard or a table. You can strengthen your fingers and make sure you hand is not getting tense (with webbing of the hand)and that your finger joints don't collapse, also focus on a relaxed tapping of the fingers.

Free Sheet Music! Out of Copyright and in the Public Domain

Who says you can't have something free in the age of austerity. Can't afford sheet music? Well no problem as a lot of it you can get for free! Just check out the Music International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) It's a great resource if you're away from your sheet music and need your score quickly to practice with. Granted, it might not be the exact arrangement you've bought already but it'll be close! As of 19 November 2010 it holds 78,000 scores. You can see for example - Elgar's Salut D'amour - piano solo version, piano and violin, piano and clarinet, and even the orchestral version too!
I recently performed the piece. I couldn't wait to get started so I used the free version from the website to practice with until I bought the Peters edition version..

Read about the International Music Score Library Project's history on wikipedia

Inspiring pianists: James Rhodes - Piano Man Trailer

James Rhodes is on Sky Arts Channel (available to subscribing Sky viewers). The series is called Piano Man Here's a trailer below. James is an inspiration to me, he's about the same age, changed careers from finance to concert pianism with no formal academic training in music (meaning he didn't go to music conservatory) and not your typical concert pianist. Here James in the trailer discusses the French Suite #5 in G (by Bach)and how he sees it as a love letter.

Read more articles about James Rhodes:

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

What's the Piano Sage about? Chapter 1: Bringing Music to Life

This blog will give insights into the discovery process of musical discovery and learning.

Question to the sage? can you play this piece, what's it about?
This piece is about Zulu warriors - from looking at the left hand chords
C and G, which is repeated in 4/4 time, this is basically the drumming sounds.

Lesson learned: know the background of the piece! A big clue is the title. How often does a piano learner play a piece and they don't have the spirit, swing of the piece? Is this what differentiates an etude (or study) from a musical piece? Is this technical vs musical? Too often do we learn pieces in the early grades with Gavotte or Minuet and we forget these were once dances! Ask your student would you dance to it? Does it have a pulse and a strong first beat. Demonstrate demonstrate.

Live and learn the music!