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The History of the Piano

November 17, 2012 at 7:46 am

The clavichord

The Clavichord: 1400′s – 1500′s


Chronologically the oldest clavichord was often known as either monocordium or monacordo, the earliest use of the term ‘clavichord’ dates from 1404. Clavichords may be “fretted” (each string-pair being struck in succession by differently-placed   tangents), or ‘unfretted’ (in which each string pair gives only one note). Players on unfretted clavichords were able to accommodate pieces in distant tonalities. Fretted instruments were more limiting. The player can produce a vibrato by varying the pressure of his finger on the key as he holds it down. This was one of the factors contributing to the significant role which the clavichord played in home music making over a period of several centuries. The oldest surviving clavichord, built by Domenico da Pesaro, is from the year 1543.

The harpsichord

The Harpsichord:   1500′s – 1600′s


At the time the clavichord was being used the harpsichord, spinet, and virginal were also being used. In the more advanced designs the makers attempt to offset this disadvantage by adding such things as an extra manual (keyboard), extra sets of strings, lute, harp and buff stops and 16, 4 and 2 octave couplers. In appearance the harpsichord foreshadows the wing-shaped, wooden-framed grand pianos of the late 18th century. Depressing the key releases a cloth damper from the string, raises the jack and forces the plectrum past the string, plucking it. A release mechanism lets the jack return to the rest. The sound lasts while the key is depressed, but decays quickly. In the hands of a good player, sophisticated legato (joined) andstaccato (detached) articulation are possible. In the more advanced designs the makers attempt to offset this disadvantage by adding such things as an extra manual (keyboard), extra sets of strings, lute, harp and buff stops and 16, 4 and 2 octave couplers.

The Spinet

The Spinet:   1500′s – 1600′s


The spinet was another form of early domestic harpsichord, replacing the virginal. The spinet differs from the harpsichord not only in size, but also in that its keyboard is located on the long side of the instrument, like the clavichord, the spinet once enjoyed a great popularity as a home musical instrument.  German spinets of the 16th-century tended to be rectangular in design. Early 17th-century Italian ones were five or six-sided.

The Virginal

The Virginal:    1400s – 1600s


In a treatise of about 1460 the virginal is identified as “having the [rectangle, box-like] shape of a clavichord and [traverse] metal strings making the sound of a [small] harpsichord”.
The instrument was intended originally to be either placed on a table or held in the lap.

Cristofori Pianoforte

Pianos or Piano Fortes:   1700s to today


The first known grand pianoforte with a hammer action dates back to about the year 1709. Bartom(m)eo Cristofori (1655-1731), Italian musical instrument maker and curator of the collection of Prince Ferdinand dei Medici in Florence, had been experimenting with his invention since about 1690.

Cristofori built about twenty instruments of this type. Referring to its most outstanding characteristics its capability of producing any desired fine degree of dynamic modulation, he dubbed his invention the gravicembalo col piano e forte ["(hammer) harpsichord with soft and loud"] the source of the later term “pianoforte “still in customary use during the nineteenth century but today usually further shortened to “piano.” In Italy itself, Cristofori’s new instrument never caught on. In later years, Cristofori himself finally gave up in designation and went back to building normal harpsichords. Jean Marius’ clavecin à maillets (“hammer harpsichord”), his first instrument built in Paris in 1716, and Christopher Gottlieb Schröter’s hammer-action model, developed in Dresden in 1717, possibly inspired by the pantaleon, both suffered similar fates.

 

 

German built grand piano

German Piano Builders
The world’s first successful pianoforte manufacturer in Germany was the renowned harpsichord and organ builder Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg (1683-1753). In possession of detailed information concerning the Cristofori hammer action, he continued experimenting systematically’ with the design, improved on it and spent the rest of his life building a whole series of pianofortes and grand pianofortes which caused a sensation everywhere and laid the foundation for future developments. His work was to prove an inspiration to European piano builders for generations to come, down to the present day.

Erard piano - French piano builder

French Piano Builders
In France we find a similar decisive role being played by the Alsatian musical-instrument maker Sebastian Erhard. Upon emigrating from Strasbourg to Paris in 1768, he Gallicized his name to Sébastian Érard. Among the other nineteenth-century manufacturers of grand pianofortes worthy of mention were Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) and his son Camille, also in Paris. Because of their “singing” tone, their instruments found a wide distribution and were especially preferred by Frédéric Chopin. Today the original companies of Érard and Pleyel no longer exist. From 1970 through 1993, Schimmel produced the instruments bearing these brand names.

Square Piano

Square Pianos
An already sophisticated ‘square’ piano by Johann Socher, in Sonthofen, Germany in 1742, is the earliest surviving example of the type.
From 1742 on, Johann Socher in Sonthofen, Germany was manufacturing square pianos with a hammer action, and particularly by the renowned piano builder Christian Ernst Friederici (1709-1780) in Gera, who made instruments for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Leopold Mozart. 
The production of square pianos continued into the latter half of the nineteenth century, among the more important manufacturers being Steinway & Sons in New York and Helmholz in Hanover.

 

 

An early upright piano

Upright Pianos
From 1800 on, influenced by the upright grand models, we find an early form of our modern upright piano gaining an ever wider distribution. Among the first attempts along this line were the cottage pianos of Robert Wornum, the cabinet pianos of John Broadwood and the portable grand pianoforte of John Isaac Hawkins in Philadelphia, as well as the upright pianos of Matthias Müller in Vienna and Érard and Pleyel in Paris and the console pianos of Jean-Henri Pape in Paris, creative manufacturers to whom the piano industry is deeply indebted for their important contributions toward the development of the upright piano as we know it today.

Seiler - Modern Day Upright

Modern-Day Grands and Uprights
The middle of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the end of the square pianos and the upright grands. In both Europe and America we find these two instrument types gradually’ declining, although square pianos continued to be produced in America until about 1880. 


How to Truly Listen: Evelyn Glennie

October 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Dame Evelyn Glennie’s music challenges the listener to ask where music comes from: Is it more than simply a translation from score to instrument to audience?

The Grammy-winning percussionist and composer became almost completely deaf by the age of 12, but her hearing loss brought her a deeper understanding of and connection to the music she loves. She’s the subject of the documentary Touch the Sound, which explores this unconventional and intriguing approach to percussion.

Along with her vibrant solo career, Glennie has collaborated with musicians ranging from classical orchestras to Björk. Her career has taken her to hundreds of concert stages around the world, and she’s recorded a dozen albums, winning a Grammy for her recording of Bartók’sSonata for Two Pianos and Percussionand another for her 2002 collaboration with Bela Fleck.

Her passion for music and musical literacy brought her to establish, in collaboration with fellow musicians Julian Lloyd Weber and Sir James Galway, the Music Education Consortium, which successfully lobbied for an investment of 332 million pounds in music education and musical resources in Britain.

Watch her here:

http://www.ted.com/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen.html

….or read the transcript:  

I’m not quite sure whether I really want to see a snare drum at nine o’clock or so in the morning. But anyway, it’s just great to see such a full theater, and really I must thank Herbie Hancock and his colleagues for such a great presentation. (Applause) One of the interesting things, of course, is the combination of that raw hand on the instrument and technology, and of course what he said about listening to our young people.

Of course, my job is all about listening, and my aim, really, is to teach the world to listen. That’s my only real aim in life. And it sounds quite simple, but actually it’s quite a big, big job. Because you know, when you look at a piece of music — for example, if I just open my little motorbike bag — we have here, hopefully, a piece of music that is full of little black dots on the page. And, you know, we open it up and I read the music. So technically, I can actually read this. I will follow the instructions, the tempo markings, the dynamics. I will do exactly as I’m told. And so therefore, because time is short, if I just play you literally the first maybe two lines or so. It’s very straightforward. There’s nothing too difficult about the piece. But here I’m being told that the piece of music is very quick. I’m being told where to play on the drum. I’m being told which part of the stick to use. And I’m being told the dynamic. And I’m also being told that the drum is without snares. Snares on, snares off. So therefore, if I translate this piece of music, we have this idea. (Music) And so on. My career would probably last about five years.

However, what I have to do as a musician is do everything that is not on the music. Everything that there isn’t time to learn from a teacher, or to talk about, even, from a teacher. But it’s the things that you notice when you’re not actually with your instrument that in fact become so interesting, and that you want to explore through this tiny, tiny surface of a drum. So there, we experience the translation. Now we’ll experience the interpretation. (Music) (Applause) Now my career may last a little longer!

But in a way, you know, it’s the same if I look at you and I see a nice bright young lady with a pink top on. I see that you’re clutching a teddy bear, etc., etc. So I get a basic idea as to what you might be about, what you might like, what you might do as a profession, etc., etc. However, that’s just, you know, the initial idea I may have that we all get when we actually look, and we try to interpret, but actually it’s so unbelievably shallow. In the same way, I look at the music; I get a basic idea; I wonder what technically might be hard, or, you know, what I want to do. Just the basic feeling.

However, that is simply not enough. And I think what Herbie said — please listen, listen. We have to listen to ourselves, first of all. If I play, for example, holding the stick — where literally I do not let go of the stick — you’ll experience quite a lot of shock coming up through the arm. And you feel really quite — believe it or not — detached from the instrument and from the stick, even though I’m actually holding the stick quite tightly. By holding it tightly, I feel strangely more detached. If I just simply let go and allow my hand, my arm, to be more of a support system, suddenly I have more dynamic with less effort. Much more. And I just feel, at last, one with the stick and one with the drum. And I’m doing far, far less.

So in the same way that I need time with this instrument, I need time with people in order to interpret them. Not just translate them, but interpret them. If, for example, I play just a few bars of a piece of music for which I think of myself as a technician — that is, someone who is basically a percussion player … (Music) And so on. If I think of myself as a musician … (Music) And so on. There is a little bit of a difference there that is worth just — (Applause) — thinking about.

And I remember when I was 12 years old, and I started playing tympani and percussion, and my teacher said, “Well, how are we going to do this? You know, music is about listening.” And I said, “Yes, I agree with that. So what’s the problem?” And he said, “Well, how are you going to hear this? How are you going to hear that?” And I said, “Well, how do you hear it?” He said, “Well, I think I hear it through here.” And I said, “Well, I think I do too — but I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on.”

And so we began our lessons every single time tuning drums — in particular, the kettle drums, or tympani — to such a narrow pitch interval, so something like … that of a difference. Then gradually … and gradually … and it’s amazing that when you do open your body up, and open your hand up to allow the vibration to come through, that in fact the tiny, tiny difference … can be felt with just the tiniest part of your finger, there.

And so what we would do is that I would put my hands on the wall of the music room, and together we would “listen” to the sounds of the instruments, and really try to connect with those sounds far, far more broadly than simply depending on the ear. Because of course, the ear is, I mean, subject to all sorts of things. The room we happen to be in, the amplification, the quality of the instrument, the type of sticks … etc., etc. They’re all different. Same amount of weight, but different sound colors. And that’s basically what we are. We’re just human beings, but we all have our own little sound colors, as it were, that make up these extraordinary personalities and characters and interests and things.

And as I grew older, I then auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music in London, and they said, “Well, no, we won’t accept you, because we haven’t a clue, you know, of the future of a so-called ‘deaf’ musician.” And I just couldn’t quite accept that. And so therefore, I said to them, “Well, look, if you refuse — if you refuse me through those reasons, as opposed to the ability to perform and to understand and love the art of creating sound — then we have to think very, very hard about the people you do actually accept.” And as a result — once we got over a little hurdle, and having to audition twice — they accepted me. And not only that — what had happened was that it changed the whole role of the music institutions throughout the United Kingdom.

Under no circumstances were they to refuse any application whatsoever on the basis of whether someone had no arms, no legs — they could still perhaps play a wind instrument if it was supported on a stand. No circumstances at all were used to refuse any entry. And every single entry had to be listened to, experienced and then based on the musical ability — then that person could either enter or not. So therefore, this in turn meant that there was an extremely interesting bunch of students who arrived in these various music institutions. And I have to say, many of them now in the professional orchestras throughout the world. The interesting thing about this as well, though — (Applause) — is quite simply that not only were people connected with sound — which is basically all of us, and we well know that music really is our daily medicine.

I say “music,” but actually I mean “sound.” Because you know, some of the extraordinary things I’ve experienced as a musician, when you may have a 15-year-old lad who has got the most incredible challenges, who may not be able to control his movements, who may be deaf, who may be blind, etc., etc. — suddenly, if that young lad sits close to this instrument, and perhaps even lies underneath the marimba, and you play something that’s so incredibly organ-like, almost — I don’t really have the right sticks, perhaps — but something like this. Let me change. (Music) Something that’s so unbelievably simple — but he would be experiencing something that I wouldn’t be, because I’m on top of the sound. I have the sound coming this way. He would have the sound coming through the resonators. If there were no resonators on here, we would have … (Music) So he would have a fullness of sound that those of you in the front few rows wouldn’t experience, those of you in the back few rows wouldn’t experience either. Every single one of us, depending on where we’re sitting, will experience this sound quite, quite differently. And of course, being the participator of the sound, and that is starting from the idea of what type of sound I want to produce — for example, this sound.

Can you hear anything? Exactly. Because I’m not even touching it. But yet, we get the sensation of something happening. In the same way that when I see tree moves, then I imagine that tree making a rustling sound. Do you see what I mean? Whatever the eye sees, then there’s always sound happening. So there’s always, always that huge — I mean, just this kaleidoscope of things to draw from.

So all of my performances are based on entirely what I experience, and not by learning a piece of music, putting on someone else’s interpretation of it, buying all the CDs possible of that particular piece of music, and so on and so forth. Because that isn’t giving me enough of something that is so raw and so basic, and something that I can fully experience the journey of. So it may be that, in certain halls, this dynamic may well work. (Music) It may be that in other halls, they’re simply not going to experience that at all and so therefore, my level of soft, gentle playing may have to be … (Music) Do you see what I mean? So, because of this explosion in access to sound, especially through the deaf community, this has not only affected how music institutions, how schools for the deaf treat sound — and not just as a means of therapy — although of course, being a participator of music, that definitely is the case as well. But it’s meant that acousticians have had to really think about the types of halls they put together. There are so few halls in this world that actually have very good acoustics, dare I say. But by that I mean where you can absolutely do anything you imagine. The tiniest, softest, softest sound to something that is so broad, so huge, so incredible! There’s always something — it may sound good up there, may not be so good there. May be great there, but terrible up there. Maybe terrible over there, but not too bad there, etc., etc.

So to find an actual hall is incredible — for which you can play exactly what you imagine, without it being cosmetically enhanced. And so therefore, acousticians are actually in conversation with people who are hearing impaired, and who are participators of sound. And this is quite interesting. I cannot, you know, give you any detail as far as what is actually happening with those halls, but it’s just the fact that they are going to a group of people for whom so many years we’ve been saying, “Well, how on Earth can they experience music? You know, they’re deaf.” We just — we go like that, and we imagine that that’s what deafness is about. Or we go like that, and we imagine that’s what blindness is about. If we see someone in a wheelchair, we assume they cannot walk. It may be that they can walk three, four, five steps. That, to them, means they can walk. In a year’s time, it could be two extra steps. In another year’s time, three extra steps.

Those are hugely important aspects to think about. So when we do listen to each other, it’s unbelievably important for us to really test our listening skills, to really use our bodies as a resonating chamber, to stop the judgment. For me, as a musician who deals with 99 percent of new music, it’s very easy for me to say, “Oh yes, I like that piece. Oh no, I don’t like that piece.” And so on. And you know, I just find that I have to give those pieces of music real time. It may be that the chemistry isn’t quite right between myself and that particular piece of music, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to say it’s a bad piece of music. And you know, it’s just one of the great things about being a musician, is that it is so unbelievably fluid. So there are no rules, no right, no wrong, this way, that way.

If I asked you to clap — maybe I can do this. If I can just say, “Please clap and create the sound of thunder.” I’m assuming we’ve all experienced thunder. Now, I don’t mean just the sound; I mean really listen to that thunder within yourselves. And please try to create that through your clapping. Try. Just — please try. (Applause)

Very good! Snow. Snow. Have you ever heard snow?

Audience: No.

Evelyn Glennie: Well then, stop clapping. (Laughter) Try again. Try again. Snow.

See, you’re awake.

Rain. Not bad. Not bad.

You know, the interesting thing here, though, is that I asked a group of kids not so long ago exactly the same question. Now — great imagination, thank you very much. However, not one of you got out of your seats to think, “Right! How can I clap? OK, maybe … (Claps) Maybe I can use my jewelry to create extra sounds. Maybe I can use the other parts of my body to create extra sounds.” Not a single one of you thought about clapping in a slightly different way other than sitting in your seats there and using two hands. In the same way that when we listen to music, we assume that it’s all being fed through here. This is how we experience music. Of course it’s not.

We experience thunder — thunder, thunder. Think, think, think. Listen, listen, listen. Now — what can we do with thunder? I remember my teacher. When I first started, my very first lesson, I was all prepared with sticks, ready to go. And instead of him saying, “OK, Evelyn, please, feet slightly apart, arms at a more-or-less 90 degree angle, sticks in a more-or-less V shape, keep this amount of space here, etc. Please keep your back straight, etc., etc., etc.” — where I was probably just going to end up absolutely rigid, frozen, and I would not be able to strike the drum, because I was thinking of so many other things — he said, “Evelyn, take this drum away for seven days, and I’ll see you next week.”

So, heavens! What was I to do? I no longer required the sticks; I wasn’t allowed to have these sticks. I had to basically look at this particular drum, see how it was made, what these little lugs did, what the snares did. Turned it upside down, experimented with the shell, experimented with the head. Experimented with my body, experimented with jewelry, experimented with all sorts of things. And of course, I returned with all sorts of bruises and things like that — but nevertheless, it was such an unbelievable experience, because then, where on Earth are you going to experience that in a piece of music? Where on Earth are you going to experience that in a study book? So we never, ever dealt with actual study books. So for example, one of the things that we learn when we are dealing with being a percussion player, as opposed to a musician, is basically straightforward single stroke rolls.

Like that. And then we get a little faster and a little faster and a little faster. And so on and so forth. What does this piece require? Single stroke rolls. So why can’t I then do that whilst learning a piece of music? And that’s exactly what he did. And interestingly, the older I became, and when I became a full-time student at a so called “music institution,” all of that went out of the window. We had to study from study books. And constantly, the question, “Well, why? Why? What is this relating to? I need to play a piece of music.” “Oh, well, this will help your control!” “Well, how? Why do I need to learn that? I need to relate it to a piece of music. You know. I need to say something.

“Why am I practicing paradiddles? Is it just literally for control, for hand-stick control? Why am I doing that? I need to have the reason, and the reason has to be by saying something through the music.” And by saying something through music, which basically is sound, we then can reach all sorts of things to all sorts of people. But I don’t want to take responsibility of your emotional baggage. That’s up to you, when you walk through a hall. Because that then determines what and how we listen to certain things. I may feel sorrowful, or happy, or exhilarated, or angry when I play certain pieces of music, but I’m not necessarily wanting you to feel exactly the same thing. So please, the next time you go to a concert, just allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber. Be aware that you’re not going to experience the same thing as the performer is.

The performer is in the worst possible position for the actual sound, because they’re hearing the contact of the stick on the drum, or the mallet on the bit of wood, or the bow on the string, etc., or the breath that’s creating the sound from wind and brass. They’re experiencing that rawness there. But yet they’re experiencing something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound is actually happening. Please take note of the life of the sound after the actual initial strike, or breath, is being pulled. Just experience the whole journey of that sound in the same way that I wished I’d experienced the whole journey of this particular conference, rather than just arriving last night. But I hope maybe we can share one or two things as the day progresses. But thank you very much for having me!

 

 

Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen

October 2, 2012 at 9:48 am

In the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency among young pianists has seemed exponential. The new generation that can play anything includes Yuja Wang.

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Felix Broede/Deutsche Grammophon

THE latest young pianist from China to excite classical music audiences and earn raves from critics is the 24-year-old Yuja Wang, a distinctive artist with a comprehensive technique. That Ms. Wang is already a musician of consequence was made clear this year when Deutsche Grammophon released her first recording with an orchestra: performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Second Piano Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The conductor is Claudio Abbado, no less, a towering maestro who is extremely discriminating in his choice of collaborators.

Ms. Wang’s virtuosity is stunning. But is that so unusual these days? Not really. That a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.

The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in sports. The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister’s time.

Something similar has long been occurring with pianists. And in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential. Yes, Ms. Wang, who will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall in October, can play anything. But in China alone, in recent years, there have been Lang Lang and Yundi Li.

Russia has given us Kirill Gerstein, born in 1979, the latest recipient of the distinguished Gilmore Artist Award, whose extraordinary recording of the Liszt Sonata, Schumann’s mercurial “Humoreske” and a fanciful piece by Oliver Knussen on Myrios Classics was one of the best recordings of 2010. In June Mr. Gerstein made his New York Philharmonic debut at a Summertime Classics concert with a boldly interpreted and brilliant account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But don’t let his probing musicianship distract you. He is another of those younger technicians who have figured out everything about piano playing.

A couple of weeks ago, during the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music in New York, the 20-year-old Daniil Trifonov, fresh from his victory at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, showed astonishing skills in works by Scriabin, Chopin and Liszt. He has a poetic side that needs developing. Still, this young man is a formidable virtuoso.

What long-term effect this trend will have on the field is not clear. Classical music is facing its share of challenges, including declining appreciation of the art form among the general public, and not all segments of the audience are noticing the breakthrough in technical accomplishment that is apparent to insiders: pianists, concert presenters and pianophiles. Because so many pianists are so good, many concertgoers have simply come to expect that any soloist playing the Tchaikovsky First Concerto with the New York Philharmonic will be a phenomenal technician.

A new level of technical excellence is expected of emerging pianists. I see it not just on the concert circuit but also at conservatories and colleges. In recent years, at recitals and chamber music programs at the Juilliard School and elsewhere, particularly with contemporary-music ensembles, I have repeatedly been struck by the sheer level of instrumental expertise that seems a given.

The pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard, said in a recent telephone interview from California that a phenomenon is absolutely taking place. He observes it in his own studio.

When the 1996 movie “Shine,” about the mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, raised curiosity about Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Mr. Lowenthal was asked by reporters whether this piece was as formidably difficult as the movie had suggested. He said that he had two answers: “One was that this piece truly is terribly hard. Two was that all my 16-year-old students were playing it.”

Some months ago I was speaking about the issue with the pianist Gilbert Kalish, who teaches at Stony Brook University on Long Island. He said that when Gyorgy Ligeti’s études, which explore new realms of texture, sound and technique at the piano, gained attention in the 1990s, they were considered nearly impossible. Only experts like the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard could play them, it was thought. But now, thanks to greater familiarity, Mr. Kalish said, “my students at Stony Brook play them quite comfortably.”

Expanding on this subject in a recent e-mail Mr. Kalish wrote that composers always push at the boundaries: “Someone creates a work of extraordinary difficulty that seems unplayable and then, simply because it exists (and is excellent), people rise to the occasion, and we find that it was indeed possible.”

This seems a crucial point. A reason that pianists are getting technically stronger is that as in sports, teachers and students are just learning to practice the craft better, becoming better conditioned and getting better results. But as Mr. Kalish suggests, another reason is that pianists are rising to the challenges of new music that pushes boundaries.

This phenomenon should be seen in historical context. The first several decades of the 20th century are considered a golden era by many piano buffs, a time when artistic imagination and musical richness were valued more than technical perfection. There were certainly pianists during that period who had exquisite, impressive technique, like Josef Lhevinne and Rachmaninoff himself. And white-hot virtuosos like the young Vladimir Horowitz wowed the public.

But audiences and critics tolerated a lot of playing that would be considered sloppy today. Listen to 1920s and ’30s recordings of the pianist Alfred Cortot, immensely respected in his day. He would probably not be admitted to Juilliard now. Despite the refinement and élan in his playing, his recording of Chopin’s 24 études from the early 1930s is, by today’s standards, littered with clinkers.

These days playing the Chopin études with comfort is practically an entry-level requirement for membership in the ranks of professional pianists. As if to announce himself from the outset, the brilliant Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky recorded the complete Chopin études, dazzlingly, for his second album on Erato, released in 2000.

It is fascinating to compare Mr. Lugansky’s performance of Chopin’s First Étude with Cortot’s. (Both are available on YouTube.) The piece is a study in right-hand arpeggios, which race up and down the keyboard as the left hand adds a grounding bass line in octaves. Cortot’s performance has sweep and vitality but is full of fudged, careless passages. Mr. Lugansky’s account is not just note perfect and incisive but also colorful and exciting.

There is a danger in pursuing perfection. After Van Cliburn won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition and became a household name, every young pianist saw competitions as the route to fame and success. A new generation worked tirelessly to achieve technical flawlessness. Critics found that many of these young pianists had “competition chops” but not much else to offer.

But more recently younger pianists have not been cookie-cutter virtuosos. Technical excellence is such a given that these artists can cultivate real personality, style and flair: artists like the Ukrainian pianist Alexander Romanovsky, whose 2009 recording of Rachmaninoff’s “Études-Tableaux” for Decca is wondrously beautiful, or the highly imaginative Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski, an exceptional Bach interpreter.

During every era of the piano there were players who were superb artists with more on their minds than dazzling virtuosity. You might divide pianists into two basic groups: those who have the technique to play anything and those who have all the technique they need, thank you, to play the music that is meaningful to them.

A good example of a pianist with all the technique he needed was Rudolf Serkin, a hero to me as a piano student. Serkin had a thorough technique. But nothing came easily to him, as he said in many interviews. You could argue that playing the daunting Brahms concertos and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata with the authority and excitement that Serkin brought to them was harder in a way than dashing off Prokofiev’s finger-twisting Third Piano Concerto or the mighty Liszt Sonata, pieces he did not perform.

I would place essential artists today like Richard Goode, Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff among the group with all the technique they need. Among younger pianists, this club would include Jonathan Biss, a sensitive, musically scrupulous player; and one of my new favorites, the young Israeli David Greilsammer, who played an inspiring program at the Walter Reade Theater last year in which he made connections among composers from Monteverdi to John Adams, with stops at Rameau, Janacek, Ligeti and more. He may not be a supervirtuoso. But I find his elegant artistry and pianism more gratifying than the hyperexpressive virtuosity of Lang Lang, whose astonishing technique I certainly salute.

Besides, the group of play-anything pianists, of which Mr. Lang is a leader, is getting pretty big. Among them you would have to include Garrick Ohlsson, who not only plays with resourceful mastery but seems to play everything, including all the works of Chopin. I would include Leif Ove Andsnes, an artist I revere, who does not call attention to himself but plays with exquisite technique and vibrant musicality.

This list goes on. Martha Argerich can be a wild woman at the piano, but who cares? She has stupefying technique and arresting musical ideas. I would add Krystian Zimerman, Marc-André Hamelin and probably Jean-Yves Thibaudet to this roster. There are others, both older and younger pianists. Again, lovers of the piano can disagree about the musical approaches of these tremendous artists. But that they are all active right now suggests that a new level of conquering the piano has been reached.

You could argue that younger performers are expanding the boundaries of technique in other instruments as well, especially the violin and the cello. But singers are the exception to this trend. One obvious reason is that while the instruments themselves have not changed that much in the last century, every voice is unique to a person and a body. Though there are certain time-tested principles, each singer must come to terms with his or her own voice.

With pianists getting better and better, so many are so good that, paradoxically, I am less impressed by virtuosity. Last season Evgeny Kissin, one of the most uncannily accomplished pianists of modern times, played a remarkable Liszt recital at Carnegie Hall. After Mr. Kissin’s Liszt Sonata a piano enthusiast sitting near me asked, “Have you ever heard the piece played so magnificently?”

I said that the performance was indeed amazing, but that actually, yes, I had heard a comparably magnificent performance on the same stage a few months earlier during arecital by Stephen Hough. Mr. Hough’s playing was just as prodigious technically, and I found his conception more engrossing. He reconciled the episodic sections of this teeming work into an awesome entity.

Mr. Hough is another pianist who can play anything. Join the club.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 14, 2011, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Virtuosos Becoming A Dime A Dozen.

Music makes you Smarter

October 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Music makes you smarter

How to Buy a Piano

September 29, 2012 at 8:07 am

“The piano is able to communicate the subtlest universal truths

by means of wood, metal and vibrating air. “

A few years ago, Kenneth Miller wrote a piece for Esquire, straightforwardly titled “How to Buy a Piano,” in which he rhapsodized about the instrument’s unique power and beauty.   Some excerpts eventually made it onto great-quotes.com, and from there they went viral.  Try Googling “Kenneth Miller” and “piano” now, and you’ll get thousands of hits.

The rub?… The quotes are often misattributed to a revered Brown University biologist with the same name.  That Kenneth Miller is a champion of evolutionary science and is one of this Kenneth Miller’s heroes.

This piece is beautifully written and also gives some great advice for you when you are ready to start the hunt for your perfect instrument.  If you’d like to read the original text,

click here

Kenneth Miller is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Time, Life, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Salon, Discover, Elle, More, Prevention, Ladies’ Home Journal, Reader’s Digest, Los Angeles Times Magazine, and many other publications. His beats include culture, crime, entertainment, science, religion and the environment.

Why We Teach Music

September 27, 2012 at 9:17 am

a music teacher’s creed

Music is a science.
It is exact, specific; and it demands exact acoustics.
A conductor’s full score is a chart, a graph which indicates frequencies, intensities,
volume changes, melody and harmony all at once and with the most exact control of time.

Music is mathematical.
It is rhythmically based on the subdivisions of time into fractions
which must be done instantaneously, not worked out on paper.

Music is a foreign language.
Most of the terms are in Italian, German or French;
and the notation is certainly not English but a highly developed
kind of shorthand that uses symbols to represent ideas.
The semantics of music is the most complete and universal language.

Music is history.
Music usually reflects the environment and times of its creation,
often even the country and/ or racial feeling.

Music is physical education.
It requires fantastic coordination of fingers, hands, arms, lip, cheek and facial muscles,
in addition to extraordinary control of diaphragmatic, back, stomach, and chest muscles,
which respond instantly to the sound the ear hears and the mind interprets.

Music is all these things, but most of all,

Music is art.
It allows a human being to take all of these dry, technically boring
(but difficult) techniques and use them to create emotion.
That is one thing science cannot duplicate;
humanism, feeling, emotion, call it what you will.

That is why we teach music.
Not because we expect our students to major in music
Not because we expect them to play or sing all their life
Not so they can relax
Not so they can have fun.
But so they will be human
So they will recognize beauty
So they will be sensitive
So they will be closer to an infinite beyond this world
So they will have something to cling to
So they will have more love, more compassion, more gentleness, more good–in short, more life.
Of what value will it be to make a prosperous living unless you know how to live?
That is why we teach music.


~Author Unknown

 

3 Lessons I Learned About the Music Business From Sports

August 31, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Written by Robin Yukiko – August 25th 2012 (abridged)

Before I begin, I’d like to preface this by saying that I am not athletic. I was the last to be picked in kickball and the only afterschool activity I did was chamber choir. That being said, there are a lot of things to be learned from sports that yield immediate results.

Activity: Volleyball.
Lesson: Go for it.


My Volleyball coach in high school made a good point. If the ball comes at you, hit it. If it’s far away, run to it and hit it. If you think you won’t make it because it’s too far, run anyway because you might hit it.   If you don’t run, guess what? You won’t hit it.
It only took a couple tries before I realized the truth of this. I started running for every ball that was even remotely near me and, lo and behold, I hit some!  Me, the non-athlete!
I discovered I could apply this to other areas in life, mainly music.  Sometimes this manifests itself in just showing up. Cold-calling.  Asking a question, like “Can I play here?” or “Can I put you on my mailing list?”   Like my dad, a professional pianist, always said, “You never know what can happen when you show up for work.”  In this business, going to a club could be part of your job. So go for it!

Activity: Cycling.
Lesson: Choose your course, choose your speed.


While I was teaching in Japan near Tokyo, I was temporarily sent to a small town on Shikouku where I was given a bike to get to my classes. I went from taking the train twice a day to not going near a station for two months. Every day I rode by a koi pond that paralleled the sidewalk. I purposely built my route around it. On Sunday I rode to the next town over just to see what was there. (The answer was nothing but regrets?….No.)   I didn’t spend a lick of gas to satisfy my curiosity, only my own energy.
I realized that the amount of beauty I see in my life is up to me, as is how long I want to spend on it. On that bike, I’m in complete control of where I’m going.  I rest when I need to, and if I get lost, I find my way back.
I feel the same way about busking. How long I play is up to me, how intensely, how personal… I decide where I put myself.  I sell CDs, I have an email signup list, and sometimes I just use it as practice time.  So choose a destination and just enjoy the ride.

Activity: Walking.
Lesson: Don’t wait for a bus that won’t come.


Have you ever been waiting for a bus for too long only to discover it was cancelled? Just start walking.
I have let so many projects stall out because I was waiting for someone who kept flaking out. Let’s be honest–we usually know who they are before they disappoint us. And to be even more brutally honest – it’s most people.
The lesson I truly learned by walking is that, in the music industry, you have to keep moving. Even slow progress is better than sitting still. As long as you’re headed in the right direction, you’re doing something right.  Keep playing, keep writing, keep networking……keep walking.

Bonus tip: If you see a bus along the way, flag that sucker down!

Rudolf Serkin – a redefinition of musical values

August 13, 2012 at 9:35 am

written by Victoria Warfield, Aug.13, 2012

“I believe in a unity in music.  I don’t believe too much in style. 

If a performance doesn’t move you, it is a bad performance.”

Rudolf Serkin (March 28, 1903 – May 8, 1991 was born in Eger, Bohemia – now the Czech Republic – to a Russian-Jewish family.  He was hailed as a child prodigy and sent to Vienna at the age of 9, where he studied piano with Richard Robert.  He made his public debut with the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 12.  Later, he also studied composition with Joseph Marx. From 1918 to 1920 he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg and participated actively in Schoenberg’s Society for the Private Performance of Music. He began a regular concert career in 1920, living in Berlin with the family of German violinist Adolf Busch. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Serkin performed throughout Europe both as soloist and chamber artist with the Busch Quartet.  However, with the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933, Serkin and the Busch family left Berlin for Basel, Switzerland.

In 1933 Serkin made his first chamber appearance in the United States at the Coolidge Festival in Washington, D.C.  In 1936, he launched his solo concert career in the U.S. with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini and in 1972 he celebrated his 100th appearance with that orchestra.

The critics raved, describing him as “an artist of unusual and impressive talents in possession of a crystalline technique, plenty of power, delicacy, and tonal purity.” In 1937, Serkin played his first New York recital at Carnegie Hall.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Serkins immigrated to the USA, where he taught several generations of pianists at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

In 1951, Serkin and Adolf Busch founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Marlboro, Vermont with the goal of stimulating interest in and performance of chamber music in the United States.

Serkin was revered as a musician’s musician, a father figure to a legion of younger players, and a pianist of enormous musical integrity. He made European classical music an important part of American middle class culture throughout the mid-20th century.  Serkin played a key role in institutionalizing a redefinition of musical values in America.  Mr. Serkin had a clean attack and a firmly controlled anti-sentimental approach.  Many critics considered him profound.  He was widely regarded as one of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of the twentieth century.

He toured all over the world and continued his solo career and recording activities until illness prevented further work in 1989.

BC Lower Mainland Festival and Competition List

August 8, 2012 at 9:33 am

BC Lower Mainland Festival and Competition List

2010-2011