Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Piano's funniest moments - cartoons, parodies, and rhapsodies - Beethoven and Liszt!

Roll over Beethoven!
Rowan Atkinson (b1955) (also known for his character Mr. Bean) is miming the Beethoven Pathetique sonata - (1st movement) and Moonlight sonata (3rd movement) on Youtube. And what a phenomenon, over 2 million hits!

Dudley Moore's (1935-2002) Beethoven Parody. Read more about Dudley Moore on the piano street blog.
If you like Dudley Moore's playing see my previous Blog link Piano Legends: Dudley Moore - a tribute

I found this duo from watching them on the Pianomania movie scene on Youtube. After finding out the castlist I tracked them down, they are known as the IGUDESMAN & JOO duo. And they name Dudley Moore and Victor Borge as their inspiration! They are both classically trained and met at the prestigious Yehudi Menuin school in Surrey, UK.

Rhapsody - Raspberries

Victor Borge (1909-2000) performs the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2. I was reading from his biography on wikipedia that Mr. Borge started learning the piano at the age of 2, and that later his teachers included a student of Liszt as well as Busoni's student (Egon Petri). 

Tom and Jerry playing the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 piano. This video, which won an Oscar in 1946 inspired Lang Lang.
See my blog entry - Inspiration from the Cat playing the piano!....Lang Lang did!

Last but not least, follow the link to our next funny animated piano video:
Bugs Bunny Playing the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in C# minor

Monday, 28 March 2011

Piano Masters: Gyorgy Sebok on the Bach-Busoni Adagio - Toccata and Fugue in C, BWV 564

Pianist Gyorgy Sebok, was a music professor at the University of Indiana. He studied in Hungary at the Franz Liszt Academy with legendary composer, pedgagogue Zoltan Koldaly. He disucsses his feelings and emotions
during the second world war, of being in fear of his life and also of suffering. He then performs a truly emotional storytelling of the Adagio from Bach-Busoni's transcription of the Tocatta and Fugue in C major, opus BWV 564. The piece is a transcription by Busoni of Bach's original organ work. After his introduction, it is performed Eglise d'ernen 1997. A truly haunting and emotionally deep performance, Bravo Maestro!

Further reading:
Gryorgy Obituary

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Piano Legends: Dudley Moore - a tribute

Dudley Moore, CBE portrait [source: wikipedia]
The 27th of March, 2011 is the 9th anniversary of Dudley Moore, CBE's death. A comedian, pianist, composer and all around loved entertainer. Dudley Moore was a very talented musician, he won a scholarship to study organ and composition at Oxford University.  I include some videos of his pianistic skills combining comedy and virtuosity! Enjoy.

Here's Dudley Moore's Beethoven Sonata Parody

A biography on Dudley Moore

Dudley Moore was influenced by Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, here he is performing a Gershwin Medley

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Play it again, Mr President: The Statesmen Pianists

There's a great article Famous People who Played the Piano  from the website. The article mentions politicians, but also includes famous actors and scientists.

Two US Presidents played the piano to a high standard: Harry Truman
Harry Truman at the Whitehouse (
 and Richard Nixon - here playing his own composition

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice performs a piano Brahms quintet for the queen in 2008. Read the Daily Mail's article covering the performance. Her counterpart in the UK William Hague,  Foreign Secretary started playing the piano when he stepped down as leader of the conservative party according to this 2003 article in the Guardian: William Hague - the piano years

Ignace Paderewski, Polish Prime Minister in 1919, and a student of the great teacher Theodor Leschetizky (who also taught Schnabel) performs the Hungarian Rhapsody (clip originates from "The Art of the  Piano"). I'm quite familar with one of his legacies - the Paderewski editions of Chopin piano works.

Then there are the hobbyist statesmen - pianists. Here's Vladimir Putin singing and playing Blueberry Hill on the piano.

Perhaps a little more accomplished is Germany's oldest living Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who released a CD of Mozart and Bach Piano Concertos in 2008 coinciding with his 90th birthday.

Monday, 14 March 2011

7 Tips to play Stephen Foster's Camptown Races [ABRSM grade 1 piano]

Those of you who have seen The King's Speech, will in no doubt recognise the Stephen Foster's American folk song Camptown Races, which the King sings in order to overcome his speech impediment.

Photo: Camptown Races [Credit: jimmywayne (Flickr)]
My 5 year old daughter is learning the piece, which is on the Associated Board Royal Schools of Music [ABRSM] Grade 1 piano repertoire list.

So I include tips of best practice to help you with this piece:

1) This is a folk song afteral, so Get a feel for the character with this Johnny Cash video:

2) Understand the piece - read it's background and lyrics on Wikipedia.
3) Pentatonic scale - the key is Gb - let's immediately reduce the complexity by knowing that all notes in this piece will fall on black notes.
4) Rhythm - this is the most complex aspect of the song. Break the piece into quavers (4 in a bar)  instead of counting in crotchets.
5) Coordination: Make sure you know each hand separately in the correct rhythm
before joining the two hands together.
6) Staccato - make it Bouncy: have a bouncy sound for the staccato elements - make sure you have light relaxed wrists and curved fingers on the black notes (no flat fingers)
7) Marcato section - in the bass clef. This needs to be a different and strong character, I get my daughter to play it imagining singing "I'm the Big Bad Wolf" to this particular phrase.

Here's Alan Chan (no relation) on Youtube performing the piece. My observations and improvements of his performance below.
I think Alan plays the piece fairly well with a good tempo, to improve - perhaps more lighter touch, more dynamic contrast, and the rhythm needs to be tighter at the end.

Here's an excellent and faultless  performance of the piece by PianoPalace on Youtube: .

Good luck, it's a tricky piece!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Tamas Vasary - Masterclass - Lisztomania 2011

77 year old pianist Tamas Vasary, won the Franz Liszt competition at the age of 14 in 1948 gave a masterclass at the Lisztomania festival, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Liszt - at the Royal College of Music. I summarise his main points below.
Tamas Vasary giving a masterclass in Hungary

A good pianist requires

  1. Hands
  2. Head
  3. Heart (most important)

Poetry - music as art therapy
The pianist as artist aims to express feelings, emotions, and the poetry of the music. Strive to find the poetry, story behind the musical notes. Your ultimate aim in music is to make your audience forget about their daily lives, their troubles. In essence, then you become a channel for messages [from the composer] to make people forget their sadness. Art you cannot teach, but what you do is you open doors to the art through insights. On artistic and emotional integrity -don't just imitate another performer; be true to how you feel with the music, also if your teacher tells you an emotional approach to piece of music and its something you don't feel, forget about the teacher!

Playing the piano as a keyboard instrument - know how your instrument works or you may loose the conceptual connection of your playing with the instrument: the piano is one of the few instruments where you don't actually see where you play (as opposed to the violin, flute) the keys basically works like a see-saw, you depress the key and the hammers strike up. He compared playing a key on a keyboard to a tennis raquet for a tennis player. Another analogy used is when you strike a piano key, it's hitting a ping pong ball without seeing where the ball goes.

General picture of Tamas Vasary lecturing
Technique vs. Expression 
Tamas has ajudicated throughout his lifetime on over 300 competitions. Of the attributes accuracy/precision vs emotion, poetry and expression; he clearly chooses the latter. A criticism Tamas of purely technical players who lack expression- is that they make you fall asleep. Competitors are so concerned with accuracy of the notes in competitions that they can't relax and therefore lose the expression.

  • Pedalling - Horowitz was a master of it! 
  • Making the piano sing - by slow attack upwards and forwards of the hand, never a sharp downward attack.
  • Gestures -make your hands act out the character required - like in the example of a storm or lightning - this requires a fast attack, get the musical character gesture right (without worrying too much about accuracy initially). 
  • Tension in the fingers is detrimental for playing because all the energy is directed to the fingers and not into the piano. 
  • Hand position - ready position should be like a cat or lion ready to pounce onto the next note, or attack. 
  • Staccato playing - it's still a melody, but separated
  • On pianisimo (pp) like a whisper
  • Rests - playing rests are difficult

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Tips to play Chopin's Nocturne in C Minor Opus 48 #1

Following my blog on the 13th January 2011:  Lost and Found Chopin Nocturne Youtube Tutorials - Cm C#mI want to offer further insight into the Chopin Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48 #1.

A postgraduate at the Royal College of Music studying his Masters in Music in piano performance who has performed the Chopin Sonatas has indicated to me that this nocturne is one of the most difficult Chopin pieces he's seen, "monstrously difficult". The level of this piece is LTCL - or licentiate of the Trinity College of Music performance level. This equates to the final year of an undergraduate performance at a music conservatoire. Wikipedia has a wonderful overview of the Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48 (numbers 1 and 2), and a great introduction to the structure of the piece. And from the article we learn that the piece is in ternary form, A-B-A. 
  1. A Lento 
  2. B Piu Lento - (Chorale)
  3. A Doppio movimiento
This is a piece with great technical difficulty that it's beneficial to observe a pianist performing it on Youtube. Firstly you can observe on Youtube Jane perform the piece very slowly to observe her finger and hand movements.
Here's Valentina Lisitia performing the piece on Youtube. Time indices: A: (0:00 - 2:09) B: (2:10 - 4:12) A:(4:13 to End)

A - Lento Opening Tips 
  • Understand the harmonic structure by playing the chords by themselves
  • Connect using the pedal the semiquaver bass progressions to the quaver (pedal once more)
  • Grace notes and ornaments - play these melodically (not strict time as in the classical style) and alter the expression everytime. 
B Piu - Lento Chorale 
  • Use the soft pedal 
  • The top line must be heard and played legato
  • left hand spread chords - experiment but here are some ideas -  (i.e.) G-D-B- you can either break up the chord into two positions (fingers: 5, break hand then both 2nd and 1st finger). C-G-E-G (fingers: 5-2-1-2)
  • Connect the top note of the right hand to achieve a legato effect.
Valentina Igoshina performing the Nocturne in C Minor Opus 48 #1.

A Doppio movimiento
I found this section by far the most difficult section of the nocturne.
  • You must have in mind the first A section and how clear the melody was. 
  • You are trying to recreate this clarity with the added complexity of chords in the right hand. To achieve this, play deep into the key with the chords whilst keeping the hand supple to keep the accompanying chords softer, keep the top 5th finger strong so that the melody line can be heard above.
  • Watch out for the quick sudden crescendos that occur in one bar, make sure you play this as if you're singing it, not like a sudden massive increase of volume.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Beethoven piano sonatas guides

As part of the Beethoven experience on the BBC website in 2005, Matthew Rye wrote a synopsis of each Beethoven sonata on the BBC Radio 3. It's a great way to get an overview and context of the sonata if you're studying them.

Let's take one of the sonata's I'm currently studying, Sonata in C Major, Op.2 #3. Here's a Youtube recording of Daniel Barenboim performing the first movement:

I knew the sonata was written in Beethoven's earlier period in Vienna, and logically the synopsis refers to the influence of the Vienese great composers Haydn and Mozart. The first movement according to the synopsis was an elaboration of a quartet (as exemplified by the 4 part texture in the opening) he wrote in Bonn in his youth? Wow! now that's illuminating as it gives you a perspective in how to approach the piece in study, practice and performance. Thank you BBC!

Additional BBC Radio 3 articles: