Thursday, July 18, 2013
Tenth Interview – On Pianism, Pianos, Practise & Pianists
A subject of this interview is pianism. Should I repeat the definition?
OK, we agreed that pianism was a noun, being either, the artistry and technique of a pianist, or the performance by a pianist as in an evening of first-rate pianism.
Yes, and ...
... the practise and study of the piano and its music.
All right, well we were discussing before many subjects that relate to pianism focusing on the choice of a piano, the choice of a repertoire, the abilities of the player, the kinds of practise sessions, with some practical observations. What are these like for you right now?
Well, laughs the choice of a piano was certainly on my mind as I went back down to New York the first of last November  and earlier this last Spring.
How many stores did you see during these trips?
Only two, Faust Harrison and Beethoven's.
Faust Harrison had some fabulous pianos, they always do. In November, they had a “perfect,” and I mean it, Steinway C, which is hands down my favourite of all Steinway's scale designs. Now, I know what I'm going to say about pianos this time is informed by that great experience I had there with Sara Faust conducting an impromptu master class / piano lesson. It laid bare the conditions under which a pianist, at whatever level, and we'll discuss that a little too, should choose one's piano, the kind to choose and why and so on.
You mentioned playing from Schumann's Fantasie Op. 17.
I don't have it down yet.
Well OK, but you said that somehow you felt that the people at these stores reacted positively to it.
Yes, but they are used to hearing many fine pianists down there. I think they appreciate it, but that's why we try and play these pieces in part; they represent the greatest pianism on some levels.
You posted several pages here about various pianists, you want to discuss them?
They each represent a kind of direction in pianism that is going on these days. George Li was added to the list. This young man, off to Harvard / NE Conservatory, certainly deserves his own page, and he too fits into a certain pattern for pianism.
The pianists you chose were ...
Before getting to them, let's get back to my trips to New York and those pianos down there.
Both stores had lots of good high end product, but again what kind of piano are you or should you be in the market for?
You think it matters?
I do. I think it matters because it's a way of staying honest with oneself. It would be different for instance if a pianist relied on other people's pianos all the time as many in fact do. I knew someone once who had studied all of the Beethoven sonatas and played them on a Wurlitzer spinet!
How could he do some of that ... ?
Yeah, I know, some of it he just couldn't do on that piano, but I had him play the same thing, the end of #30, at an electronic keyboard and he knew what to do.
Shaking his head
Well, piano availability or not is a fact of life for many pianists. Many can only afford some crappy old piano or a cheap electronic keyboard.
You don't like them.
No, they don't represent real pianos to me, but then again my friend's Wurlitzer spinet really doesn't either.
OK, so the pianos.
At Faust Harrison, you'll find the Mason & Hamlin B. This is a 5'4” piano, the strongest brand new baby grand on the planet right now with a fabulous new action. This is a perfect gem of a practise piano, the scale is excellent all the way down, remarkable for a piano this size.
So compared to a car would this be ?
.... like an American tribute to a Porsche sports car, maybe something with all wheel drive and possibly a hybrid, gull wing doors, etc. I mean, Mason & Hamlin pianos have an almost symphonic quality to their sound, perfect tone all the way up and down the piano and touch that is an extension of your slightest whim, this piano would be every bit as good on a stage in a top tier jazz club, as it would be in your studio or living room.
... and of course they have much more.
Oh yeah, they have much more. Faust Harrison's inventory at any time is among the deepest in the business.
I spent a lot of time looking at uprights there.
Didn't you go there looking for Hailun pianos?
Yes, but they didn't have any of the new ones yet. I spent most of my time there looking at uprights.
Not everyone can use a grand. Some of us live in tight spaces and there are plenty of decent uprights around now that I'd have no trouble recommending to anyone.
OK, did Faust Harrison have any uprights?
They have some of the best. The two I recall playing both had gorgeous tone and touch characteristics. One was a Bechstein, the same model Debussy used to write all his music. Believe me, you can get this piano to do anything. Schulze Pullmann, an Italian company started there by some Germans after the war, make some beautiful pianos, and then so does C. Bechstein. But at Beethoven's one would find Yamahas, either lightly used or reconditioned, in any case from what I observed, all were in excellent shape. They also had a few other contenders from China including Hailun, which sounded and played fine, except that ergonomically, the piano somehow didn't fit me.
Well, it's really important to feel comfortable sitting at a piano. You have to have a situation where you can read the music easily, which is different for each of us, and that you are sitting at the right height relative to the keys. It's very important to know how to find one's optimum seating position, which promotes the best posture long term and that's going to be different for each of us. It's why I recommend adjustable benches if you can have them.
So you consider these upright pianos to be ?
They are all practise pianos by definition. You'd usually only think of a live performance on a grand piano, although some of the uprights can sound well enough in a small space, they really can't fill an auditorium the way a concert grand can, especially in the bass registers. Of course you can do a lot with electronics and amplification but ...
That's cheating! Laughs
So these uprights are still important to consider by far more people than they often are. Their actions are getting better relative to grands too. Fandrich & Sons vertical action is the equal of any grand action and his uprights are gems.
You got to see some of those out in Washington last year too, didn't you?
Yes, and got to hear my nephews play them too, which was even better. We even had one of them play the same piece on an upright with the Fandrich action and one without it and you could absolutely hear the difference.
But, you think there are other uprights ...
I still think that Fandrich & Sons has the best upright action in the best upright pianos on the market, hands down. If one is really picky in regard to piano tone and action, and one wants or needs an upright due to space considerations, Fandrich & Sons would be my first choice.
All others seek Yamaha?
Or a half dozen other brands, Schulze Pollmann definitely being among them.
But that by no means relegates them to ...
Well, here we come to another question, one regarding motivation. Just what is the purpose of pursuing pianism? For some it is like a duck to water, once encountered it was an instant fit, some are extraordinarily talented; they have no difficulty with reading the music, they face no difficulty with dexterity or other physical limitations that would make playing a piano difficult or impossible. The vast majority of players are occasional players who take up the piano for their own amusement. Most of these have professional careers or are otherwise interested in other things.
You told me once of that fellow at the NE Conservatory ...
That was another lifetime ago.
Yes, but it still fits. He said that many professional musicians were actually trained in other fields and even played at a professional level as amateurs.
There is only one arena where there is a basic difference between a “professional” and an “amateur” and that is that the former has an agent. This was made absolutely clear in Norman Lebrecht's work.
So most people who are active in classical music, even if they are getting paid, are amateurs?
Compared to the remunerations for “stars” they are. This is a serious problem for music and musicians that can only be made better by frank discussions; are these “stars” really worth the money?
I really want to steer the discussion back to pianos for a moment. So you advise people who want a piano to look at good uprights first?
Definitely. Then if they decide they want a grand and can afford it, and most of us eventually do, then one is faced with the obvious; what grand piano makes the most sense for me to own long term?
Some get into it for the “investment” angle.
Not a wise move. People involved in the investment business are used to seeing return on value written everywhere and attempt to apply it to all their purchases. Should something one buys that has some utilitarian value, like a candlestick for instance, increase in value at least 3% per year, as some of them believe? This is tying everything back to money.
Yes, but people buy Steinway because it has the name.
And that name is probably worth $100 million all by itself. It doesn't mean that there aren't other considerations when buying a piano. There are many fine piano makers that have product every bit as good as Steinway's.
What do you think about the recent news concerning Steinway?
It's essentially “taking it private” which is a good thing. It has a better chance of survival that way.
You know they're giving up their 57th Street location?
... and Beethoven's is moving too. So New York is constantly trying to reinvent itself. We can thank Isaac Stern and others for saving Carnegie Hall, which is in the neighbourhood.
Anyway, getting back to pianos.
Never consider it an “investment.” These are essentially machines that eventually need repair and restoration, although that can be after 30 to 60 years of use. Some pianos, as is well known to dealers and technicians the world over, are terribly abused. Many were built during the heyday of piano making before the advent of radio and these were in many cases built of shoddy materials. These are almost never worth considering.
Like your friend's Wurlitzer spinet.
If it doesn't impress you just the slightest bit to play something simple on it, then you wont want to sit down for the long hours it takes to really get good at it.
You told me about wandering through Beethoven's attic of second tier grand pianos on your last visit.
It will be interesting to see what Beethoven's becomes in their new location, whether they have a comparable area. I'll certainly find out. Beethoven's attic, their upstairs, there is where often one found some sleepers. These are pianos that are not always in suitable prep, they aren't supposed to be, as it wouldn't be worth their while, they aren't what most who enter the Manhattan showrooms, are looking for. I suspect most were obtained in trade in. But among these are where a lot more people need to be looking.
You mentioned a nice Baldwin grand.
Yes, from the 1930's I believe, maybe a B, so it was made in their Cincinnati factory. I could tell that it was an extraordinary Baldwin. And you could have had it for little. A potential buyer sees something like this and what they should have in mind is what a technician can do with it to bring it up to where it can shine. Plan to spend several hundred dollars on piano technical work while you save tens of thousands of dollars on the piano.
So if it was that nice, why wouldn't you have it?
I owned a Baldwin L for many years, and as they say, been there, done that. But that does not mean that I hold Baldwin in low regard. Anything they made from the mid 1950's on back, is better than average and occasionally well above average.
Has your opinion changed regarding baby grands?
Yes and no. If you're going for the shape of a grand rather than the sound or the action, then there are certainly some tremendous grand pianos out there in the 5'3” to 5'6” range to choose from that would certainly make excellent practise pianos. But many are overlooking the space and money values an upright piano represents. Fandrich gets my top spot nod, but the Europeans and Asians certainly offer some extraordinary upright pianos. The New York stores have plenty to choose from.
Now onto practise sessions.
OK. You should visit your piano for a session at least once a day. You can make it for as long as a half hour or even less, to as long as two hours. I'm sorry, but anything more begins to start some processes in the mind and body that we do not want, a certain kind of automaton performance without cognition. Practise sessions should follow certain natural patterns. It all begins with how one sits at the piano, getting the ergonomics of keyboard, pedals and seat height just right. Then there are the types of sessions. Long sessions are where one gives oneself a concert and evaluates the performance. One may or may not decide to stop and return and rework a passage, but this usually is not the time to be doing that. Shorter practise sessions are of the sort where one is working on a particular passage. The repeats required tend to drive other people mad so it's best to choose times for these sessions when no one else is around.
You spoke earlier to me about hearing passages of music in your head while you are doing something else.
Yes, this inevitably happens to most musicians as they become involved in their music, they begin hearing it and want to respond by recreating it on their own instruments. Passages that are difficult require a process of breaking them down into their simplest parts and then often laboriously putting them back together, not at full speed at first, but later bringing the constructed parts up to speed.
So there are short practise sessions that are more like ...
... physical drills than like playing music. You sit down at the music making machine and you are drilling your fingers into performing certain kinds of passage work. Very often the only thought required is getting your mind to feel the changes in muscles in the fingers, wrists, arms, neck and back, to relax as much as possible and to let breathing be as natural as possible. There are times and places for more forceful attacks, but even so, most pianists perform these motions with too much extra muscular involvement. The natural force of gravity should be enough.
So you are saying that your practise sessions look much like these.
They are largely either “recitals to oneself” or they are specific to a particular problem posed by a particular composition. But there is a third kind and that is “exploratory reading.” Some who easily acquire the ability to read music want to spend their time plying through, or attempting to do so, as much music as they possibly can. I've known a few of these. But few of those that do this, excluding the other kinds of practise sessions, have actually buckled down to attempting to play from memory any single piece or group of pieces. That said, these are invaluable sessions for every pianist and should not be confused with sessions where one is working on a specific set of pieces for performance.
OK, then you and I were talking about performance pianos.
Well, these are the pianos that are intended for music before the public. They are meant to convey piano sound to large spaces. A piano can only really be heard well in a confined space. Out of doors, their sound seems to die away even more quickly than usual.
You have seen many of these too.
Oh yes, from the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand and the various others by Sauter (at Beethoven's), Steingraeber & Sohn (at Allegro), Fazioli (at Klavierhaus) and many fine Steinways (all of them). These are the pianos for those who have something to play. But isn't it more important for most people to find a piano on which they can learn something to play before encountering these performance pianos? If you want to take up the piano, it seems to me far better to start with a good reliable upright than blowing a huge amount of money (most of the performance pianos cost as much as a nice car or small house) on a piano whose best characteristics can only be heard in a large performance space. Yes, the big pianos are impressive. They should be. But most people don't live in houses with rooms specifically designed as concert halls. And anyway, it's about the music.
So about gaining a repertoire.
Some piano technicians I've known could actually play Chopin's fantasie-impromptu Op. 66 at full speed and perhaps nothing else. I still can't make my hands do it. Building a repertoire is about assembling something piece by piece until one has a programme, or several programmes, each an hour and a half or so long, that one can perform at will when they encounter a performance piano. You start simple and strong and build grace and agility with each succeeding piece. Some pianists stick to one composer, or just a few, like the photographer, Ansel Adams, who supposedly played nothing but Bach and Ravel. Others may play one piece by someone and that will be it. Each piece in their repertoire is by someone else. Most conservatory performance programs stress a balance between musical periods. This follows a practise going back to the early 19th century, when Felix Mendelssohn included Bach in the regular performance repertoire. Other neglected early composers would be added. Meanwhile, the 20th century now lying behind us, the various masterpieces of that era are emerging too. It's easy to say that there were far too many styles alive and thriving during the past century that a concert (or several) featuring nothing but 20th century music is certainly possible.
You'd expect to hear more of what?
You'd have to begin with those born in the 19th century; Ferruccio Busoni. Amy Beach, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Alexander Scriabin, who has certainly earned a place in the piano repertoire, Charles Ives is gaining popularity, Maurice Ravel has of course attained eternal status.
Yes, but we know of these, who of those most don't know?
There's Arnold Bax and York Bowen, there's Alberto Ginastera, I used to know someone who made his music her speciality. Nikolai Medtner is interesting as is Selim Palmgren. Francis Poulenc wrote some interesting things. There's really so much music that's worth programming, all from the 20th century alone, that it's amazing.
So, it just matters if you decide to take on a piece and work away at it until you have it?
Essentially, yes. But there's still a lot of breaking it down, bit by bit, phrase by phrase, note by note sometimes. It's VERY helpful to play just the right hand or just the left hand, making sure that you have all the notes correct. Of course some pieces are written in such a way that you can't really do that, but where possible, you should use any technique to somehow get the notes into your mind and then down into your fingers. Again, learn to hear it first, sing it almost, before you can play it.
So again, it's pianos, practise and pieces.
That's the logical beginning and ongoing method whether one uses a teacher or not.
You want to say something about piano teachers?
For most people they could be helpful, but I would look for someone to coach you, to correct your mistakes (hopefully without marking up your music, which infuriates me), someone who will drive you forward a little, just enough until you are convinced that it really is worth it to keep practising and playing. You'll want someone who is rational and precise, who uses methods that are natural and easy rather than rigorous and extreme.
That may be a problem.
Yes, well finding rational people in any discipline is becoming rare because of the universal training everyone has been subjected to.
Very little willingness to pursue any discipline too.
Pianism has to reach beyond mere discipline if it is to succeed. It has to be approached as something that can literally change your life.
What's in store for your blogs?
The E. C. Riegel blog was down for 2 months and has come back up to receiving almost as many hits since as it received before it was taken down. We came back the first week of May and are getting hits from all over the world, particularly from Russia.
Yeah, so that one will continue. The Linton Bequest, the sci-fi adventure mystery novel I wrote a few years ago, is all up there and has had less than a third of the hits of the Riegel blog. Turns out I was wrong. More people would rather read about something that's potentially real than anything they know is intended as fiction.
It may be the times we're in.
More of the same, oh yes, the list of pianists I put up.
Well George Li is a fabulous young talent and all the world of music agents loves that.
But you think he has talent.
Oh yes, he and his brother Andrew too.
Glenn Hardy is someone I knew during college years and a little after that. I've always admired him as a musician. He was very seriously involved in building harpsichords at one time, he built many fine ones, and also studied early music, but Glenn was always attracted to the world of early jazz and related music. He actually sets about playing it as if he's playing something classical and his approach has produced many really astounding performances. He's made many CD's and I encourage all those interested in these genres to purchase them from Glenn.
And the others?
Justine Verdier is a young French pianist who has benefited from some exemplary European musicians and musical academies. She and her betrothed formed a duo and play four hand piano music in concerts around Europe. I know a few other piano duos. Whether it's two pianos or one piano four hands, the music for this genre is important and should be gaining in interest everywhere.
Violetta Egorova is a Russian pianist with both great strength for playing really demanding compositions; her Liszt is amazing, as well as the ability to coax the most haunting intentions from very soft piano music, particularly her Mozart, which she somehow makes sound as though she's playing Chopin. She spends he summers teaching music in southern Italy. What I always wish for with Violetta is that she somehow finds someone that will champion her and give particular attention to producing the best recordings possible of all her future performances. That should apply to all pianists as how they sound is part of their message.
Viktoriya Yermolyeva is someone with a rigorous classical piano education who decided to turn their attention to contemporary popular music. Anyone can tell right away that regardless of the musical content, she puts herself right into it and remarkably manages to produce an accurate distillation of each piece. We encourage all who can to support her efforts.
So you aren't one of those that insists that nothing but classical is real music?
There are those in other fields known to me that regard one form of something so superior to all others that they deny the existence of all else.
“Gold bugs” and money?
Like it or not, the easiest form of irrationality is to insist that something that exists, does not in fact exist; nothing but gold and silver is money, nothing but classical music is music. These are very similar ideas that are both contradicted by apparent reality. Meanwhile, notice how often, here and there, one hears a piano used in advertising or movies, etc. Like it or not all these venues give new life to the piano.
Thanks for this interview, hope your readers enjoy it. Anything more?
Yes, there is. As a fitting end for this interview, I offer my audience the following video performance of Franz Schubert's Fantasy in f minor D 940 played by Paul Badura-Skoda et Jörg Demus, two of my favourites from my childhood. Look then at these two old men in their 80's sitting there side by side, playing a piece they probably have known since they were young men, a piece composed by a young man who would never see his 32nd birthday, who probably wrote it knowing he was going to die soon.
Yeah, really. There is something sort of spellbinding about this. They are playing a Bösendorfer. It doesn't include the whole piece, they cut off the last of it, where Schubert has decided to close his lament with a fast scherzo in a minor key, with something faintly diabolical about it.
A means of making peace with death?
Well again, thanks for the interview, let's make the next one sooner than later.