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4/25/2017 - Highlights from "Reflections from the Keyboard"

A few months ago I wrote a blog post highlighting some great quotes from the book "The Great Jazz Pianists", which is a collection of interviews with many of the all-time great jazz pianists. A similar book, featuring interviews with many of the all-time great classical pianists, is David Dubal's "Reflections from the Keyboard". Dubal, a great pianist in his own right, is also a renowned writer on the classical piano tradition, most famously for the comprehensive "The Art of the Piano". I first read through "Reflections from the Keyboard" about ten years ago, but recently revisited it and felt a newfound appreciation for the wisdom in the interviews. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Claudio Arrau on Prodigies:

"So many child prodigies get stuck in a certain moment in their development, the moment of transition from intuitive to conscious playing. That's the dangerous time."

When I first read this quote in my early twenties, I remember thinking that Arrau's description of this transition as "dangerous" was likely an exaggeration - Is it really dangerous to develop a complete level of consciousness concerning your playing? It would certainly be difficult, and likely stressful, but dangerous?

In fact, I wasn't even convinced that this transition was necessary. Especially when we are young, musicians that are "intuitive" seem to have the upper hand. Those of us that lack "talent" seemingly fall behind the natural, "intuitive" musician, who is born with a gift that we don't understand and simply admire from a distance. These musicians can just naturally play - why would their approach ever need to change, or transition into "conscious" playing?

Now, revisiting this quote after ten years, the wisdom in Arrau's humble warning rings completely true, and "dangerous" is clearly not an overstatement. No matter what successes a musician might happen to have at a young age, they will inevitably reach a moment when things stop working as well - when they apparently play the same way as they always have, but audiences don't react the same way they did ten years ago, or their performance opportunities dwindle. Here the crisis begins - first they might blame their audience for being unappreciative or uneducated. Then they could also shift the blame to themselves, suddenly imagining their own lack of talent.

In any case, to be suddenly thrown into this state of confusion is dangerous. When confronted with the harsh realities of just how little meaning our music has to the world at large, it's natural to be thrust into a state of loneliness, cynicism, and depression, and from here brash decisions can be made - decisions ranging from the self-defeating to the self-destructive. I believe that a large part of the "transition" that Arrau is referring to in this quote is how a musician handles this inevitable realization.

I'll likely have a different understanding of this quote every decade. My new question about it is concerning the "moment" of transition: can our musical awakening truly be traced to a "moment", and is our musicianship ever completely at an arrival point of completely "conscious" playing? Although the year of this interview isn't specified, this book was published in 1984, so if it was conducted within ten years of publication, Arrau would have at least been in his seventies. Perhaps at that age he arrived at such a point - it certainly sounded like it: Claudio Arrau - Beethoven Sonata no. 32

Glenn Gould on Practicing:

Gould: "These days and throughout my professional life, indeed, I've practiced only on and if-, as-, and when-needed basis, and only for the purpose of consolidating a conception of a score --- never for the sake of contact with the instrument per se. . . When I record, I deliberately cut off all contact with the piano about forty-eight hours in advance of the first session, and when I arrive at the studio I never touch the piano until the engineers are ready and somebody announces, "Take One.". . . "Take One" is often the best thing we do because the mental image is at that point the strongest and least subject to contradiction by the reality of an improperly adjusted instrument, or whatever.

Dubal: But this presupposes that one has a very specific and very secure conception of what is involved in playing the piano.

Gould: Oh. Absolutely. It presupposes that at some point, one has hit upon precisely the coordinates that are involved and then frozen them, stored them in such a way that one can summon them at any time. What it all comes down to is that one does not play the piano with one's fingers, one plays the piano with one's mind. If you have a clear image of what you want to do, there's no reason it should ever need reinforcement. If you don't, all the fine Czerny studies and Hanon exercises in the world aren't going to help you."

Hard to believe that a pianist that plays with such clarity and precision is not an incessant practicer. In fact, in his own terms, outside of what sounds like basic note-learning, he's a deliberate non-practicer. Whether his claims are exaggerated or not would need to be evaluated by a primary source. To me it sounds like to "hit the coordinates" of piano playing in such a reliable way must have taken years and thousands of hours of practice.

But if we take Gould's claims at face-value, his deliberate lack of contact with the instrument before "Take One" indicates a priority on spontaneity over traditional preparedness. This spontaneity imbues a sense of life in the music that the listener can feel. It's safe to say that many of Gould's studio recordings have this quality of being "alive". Take for example his Sinfonias (here's #1 in C Major) or Brahms Ballades Op. 10. (He specifically mentions this Brahms recording in this interview as having been recorded with his minimal approach to practicing.) Gould seems to know that he can most reliably generate this energy if he hasn't touched the piano in a few days. If he's not surprising himself, then the listener's surprise will also be limited, and the performance will lack vital liveliness.

Great jazz records are often produced similarly. One example that immediately comes to mind: for the "Kind of Blue" sessions, Miles Davis' quintet didn't see any of the music until the day of the session, and most of the takes that made the record were firsts. But not to say that they were unprepared - that band had been performing for a year before the session, and each musician had certainly "hit the coordinates involved" in their personal instrumental and improvisational approaches. But there's more than skill that makes that record timeless, there's a spontaneity and openness involved that will inspire listeners for all time, one that nobody can "prepare" to create, whether you're playing Bach or a blues.

Gary Graffman on Horowitz's Pedaling:

"Horowitz is a master of pedaling in the large hall. When I played for him in his living room he asked me if I would be pedaling differently in Carnegie Hall. He then demonstrated certain pedalings that he felt appropriate to a big hall, especially the blendings of harmonies. And I remember saying to him, 'It sounds like the tonic and dominant are practically on the same pedal.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'but this only happens in the living room, not in the great hall.'"

This reminded me of an eye-opening (ear-opening?) piano lesson that I had while I was a student at NYU. I was working on the slow movement of Bach's "Italian Concerto", and my teacher was describing to me in detail the physical feeling of how to create legato phrasing on the piano. He explained that you needed to connect the bottom of the first key to the bottom of the second key, and only release the first key after the second has sounded. As I did this very slowly between two notes, I asked my teacher, "Isn't this blurry?" to which he replied, "What you call 'blurry' I would call 'connected'."

And this is the dilemma of legato phrasing on the piano - an instrument in which a true legato is impossible. There is basically a spectrum with blurriness on one end, and separateness on the other, and the degree to which they are combined creates legato. This is especially a dilemma when attempting to blend chords, and the pedal becomes of primary importance here, possibly even more than our fingers. Add to this fact that every piano is different, and every room is different, and you can clearly see the depth of the art of pedaling. We tend to focus on great pianists' fingers, but much of their sound actually comes from their feet!

Vladimir Ashkenazy on the Soviet Union:

Dubal: Is this the reason you entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in '62, after you were already a celebrated artist? Was there pressure from the government?

Ashkenazy: "Yes. The minister of culture called me and said that unless I participated in the Tchaikovsky Competition, I might as well forget about my career altogether, and I would not go abroad again. So I had no choice. You think that what is printed in your newspapers about the Soviet Union is just American propaganda. But having lived in the West for nearly twenty years, and have read all the Western newspapers, I must say that it is nothing of the kind. It is all truth, though only one-tenth of the truth of what is happening in the Soviet Union."

The 20th century yielded a staggering number of brilliant Soviet composers and pianists: Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Gilels, and this is just scratching the surface! But Ashkenazy's first hand account of the Soviet regime's authoritarianism reminds us of the dark side of a triumphant musical tradition. Perhaps the brutally high standard we associate with the Russian piano school is related to the brutal regime under which that tradition was born.

Andre Watts on Performance:

"If your performance communicates, 'I'll show you,' then everything goes haywire."

To perform effectively requires a very delicate psychological balance. Watts, in this quote, describes the pitfalls of an overly ego-driven performance. If you intend to communicate "I'll show you how good I am!" for example, your performance will at best be shallow, at worst be a train wreck. But, on the other hand, a certain degree of confidence is necessary to perform effectively. You do have to believe in yourself as a performer, especially if you want your audience to believe in you. This is the elusive balance that a performer needs to find - right in the middle of selfless humility and unabashed confidence.

Andras Schiff on Conductors

"Today we have the jet conductors who fly from one orchestra to another. And do you know that most of them hate concertos? It's the thing they concentrate least on. Think of it: I work on a concerto for years, and the conductor looks at it for five minutes before the rehearsal, if ever. It's really scandalous."

I was recently reading "Absolutely on Music" and Seiji Ozawa mentions this as well, but his numbers are a little less extreme: "In the case of a concerto. . . the conductor begins working on it maybe two weeks or so before the performance, but the soloist can be reckoning with it for six months or more."

I would compare these "jet conductors" of the classical world to star soloists in the jazz world. Often when a big name soloist is hired as a guest in a band, they will just look at the music for a few minutes before rehearsal, or even a few minutes before the show, whereas the person who wrote the music might have been preparing it for months or years.

I wouldn't say that this is "scandalous" though. These "jet conductors" or "star soloists" are highly skilled and very busy professionals who need to budget their time carefully. And typically guest soloist work, and apparently guest conductor work as well, just doesn't require much preparation. Excepting of course the preparation that their life in music has provided them.

Ivo Pogorelich on Talent

"To be an artist requires more than talent. You need to have a bit of the soldier in you, not just for the performance but for facing all those who smile at you, but who speak behind your back."

This immediately reminded me of a Paul Bley quote that I referred to in a previous blog post - "The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional can survive the corruption of the marketplace."

In the music business, decisions like who to book for this show and who to hire for this band happen behind closed doors. Although someone that we meet after a show might complement us highly, unfortunately we can never know what they would say about us during this type of business meeting. There are many extra-musical factors that determine who "gets the call" - fame, look, attitude, and sometimes just plain politics dictate who will get an opportunity, leaving potentially more artistically qualified musicians behind. Often these decisions are just practical, and in time newer musicians can develop their profile and move up in the conversation.

But when you're "in the trenches" developing your profile, the business can at times feel like psychological warfare, the battlefields being maddening questions like "How can I get this person to email me back?", or "How can I get this person to hire me?" In this state, the element of survival becomes as critical as the element of talent. The arc of success is gradual, and even periods of relative "victory" are inevitably followed by periods of relative "defeat". Survival in a chaotic, competitive, and yes occasionally corrupt marketplace certainly demands strength. I would also add that it demands at least a touch of insanity.

Leon Fleischer on Teaching

"I must take the point of view that we are there to explore the music. Because if I worried for each one of them about their future (I) think I wouldn't be able to teach."

This is a healthy and honest look at the role of the teacher. Regardless of a student's skill, or ambitions in a harshly competitive environment, an exploration of music for music's sake is always enriching. Even if a student won't become a professional musician, lessons learned in the study of music transfer into other fields. Cultural and musical benefits aside, things like cooperating with a group, paying attention to detail, and working slowly and consistently towards a specific goal can often be learned more effectively through the study of music than any other way. Thinking about the realities of the "business" of music would almost certainly paralyze any teacher - it's very difficult in good consciousness to recommend a career in music to anyone! But the study of music is something that everybody can benefit from, whether or not they intend to pursue it professionally.

Rosalyn Tureck on Performance

"To my mind, a performance is the test of what you have gone through with a work in order to end up with something near your goal."

When we hear great music, it is easy to forget that we are hearing an end product. In other words, in performances that we love, we are hearing more than just the length of the concert - we are hearing what that musician has "gone through". This is why older musicians can have a magical quality to their playing, even if they may lack the technical prowess of a younger musician. In this sense, there are certain mysterious elements of musicianship that seem to only come with age.

Ivo Pogorelich on Preparation

"When I first looked at Ravel's Scarbo from "Gaspard", I could hardly read the text and I thought, 'I have to have a third hand to accomplish this!'ÉI am pleased with the outcome of the recording. But what I went through to make it happen!"

Pogorelich is considered to have a signature reading of "Gaspard". But it's inspiring to see that although it maybe looks easy for him, it's actually not at all. In fact, the overwhelming feeling that we might have when looking at complicated scores - especially one like "Scarbo" - is one that even the most experienced and virtuosic pianists still deal with. I've had a classical teacher describe to me his own process of learning new repertoire as harrowing, as if in learning new music he had no idea how to play.

Of course sight-reading is a skill that pianists possess in varying degrees, and is not indicative of their overall ability as performers. In my experience, if you spend a lot of time with one composer, it becomes easier to sight-read more of their work, but not necessarily easier to read other composers' work. For example if you've played a lot of Beethoven it might be easier to sight read other Beethoven, but won't necessarily help you read Bach, or Debussy. And Ravel is notoriously difficult to read - even Pogorelich said he "could hardly read the text" when he first looked at it.

And even for great sight-readers, memorizing, internalizing, and developing an original approach to a piece is not something that happens right away. It in fact is very difficult for even the most experienced musicians - as Pogorelich here reminds us.

Byron Janis on Critics

"Critics are amazing - only too often they are deaf. They don't hear what you're actually putting out because so often their mind is on what they expect from you. . . Although I love Beethoven and feel him deeply, a critic will kill me for it since in his mind I'm just supposed to play Rachminainoff of Chopin or Lizst. The critics are performers' natural enemies."

There are certainly plenty of performers whose careers have been helped by critics, so Janis' statement here is clearly one-sided. But there is good advice to be derived from this quote: the best way to weather the storm of criticism is to be completely apathetic towards it. Rather than mold ourselves to what we guess might earn critical success, it's best for us to simply pursue our own interests without regard to positive or negative third-party criticism along the way. This of course is the ultimate example of "easier said than done"!

Alfred Brendel on Beethoven

"In Beethoven's time there is no record that even one of the sonatas was played in a public concert."

Hard to imagine this. (And we'd have to consult a historian to validate it.) But this should be inspiration for present-day composers - even if your music isn't performed ever now, in 200 years it could become the most studied, celebrated and performed in the world.

That's it for now. Definitely check out "Reflections from the Keyboard", and feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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