Be it Resolved

A major focus for my New Year’s resolutions is the piano. I will be reviving a couple of challenging pieces that I learned years ago – the Berio piano Sequenza and the first movement from Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus – for performances at Penn as part of the “Eighty-Eight Lately” series, so I need to be more disciplined about practice than I sometimes am. (My performances will be guest appearances on recitals by Greg DeTurck (February 17) and Matt Bengston (February 24)).

While the Berio and Martino will obviously be my primary concern in the coming weeks, I’ve been thinking about my work at the piano in general as well. I have a large stack of exercise books (it seemed every teacher I ever worked with recommended different ones), but I will rely principally on the most succinct yet comprehensive, the Dohnányi “Essential Finger Exercises”. Regarding standard rep, I have spent more time with Bach (mostly the Well-Tempered), Beethoven sonatas, and the Chopin Etudes than anything else – certainly no surprises there – and expect to continue to do so in the coming year, though I will naturally dip into other areas as well.  Bach has particularly been on my mind lately, how I want to be more methodical in my work on his music, more thoughtful in my approach to choosing fingerings and articulations, trying to set aside the fact that I usually feel like I don’t know how to make those choices. These issues manifest with every composer, but seem especially acute with Bach. I was never taught how to choose fingerings, at least not in a systematic way, though I got some spotty hints here and there. But at least I can be more thorough in making my decisions, in not letting anything slide, except the occasional slide from black key to white! Of course, this is bound up with the mysteries of phrasing and articulation. I want to get away from the generic “legato sixteenths, staccato eighths” approach, though, like fingering, I am not too confident about how to make choices. But make conscious choices I will, and being conscious, consistent and thorough will constitute an improvement on my usual habits. It will help to be less inhibited about marking up my scores; I’ve tended to be too sparing about that, perhaps in reaction to a teacher who spattered my scores with slashes, circles, words of encouragement and criticism, visual debris that could obscure the picture of the score. Still, I’ve been told that there are first-class artists whose scores are thickly coated with an impasto of markings, providing a historical record of varied approaches to each passage.

Another strategy for being methodical with Bach is a path through the WTC that was suggested by something I stumbled across in the Hinson book on piano repertoire. I’ve never seen it, but there is a Bartók edition of the WTC that offers an ordering of the pieces by degree of difficulty. Of course there is something arbitrary about this, but still, it gives me a structure for choosing pieces on which to work rather than simply wandering through the collection at random or trying to work through the set in the chromatically ascending order in which they are usually printed. (It’s not surprising that I know the easier among first ten or so pieces in the first volume as usually printed better than any others in the set.) There’s plenty of room for argument here. For example, I find the D major in Book One easier than several pieces Bartok has placed before it. Here’s the Bartók listing:

bach listing copy



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  1. Hi, Jim. I don’t remember ever getting any coherent guidance from any teacher about fingering, and so it tended to be catch-as-catch-can—and too often it really couldn’t. Have you heard any of Don Freund’s WTC recordings? There are a bunch of them on YouTube along with his lectures on what he calls “A Composer’s Approach.” Here’s his take on the C major Fugue from Book I, as one example:

    He has recorded all of Book I on Navona Records, and is busy memorizing and recording Book II. Having grown up with Gould, I find Don’s approach refreshing, almost more like a harpsichordist in some ways, with little idiosyncrasies like the occasional 8va doubling of a soprano line an octave higher, or using the sostenuto pedal for a pedal point, not to mention a considerably less metronomic, more flexible approach to tempo. To me, he gets a certain sparkle and dance-like quality in many of the pieces. Whatever you think of his interpretations, they certainly strike me as born of an intimate knowledge of the pieces, a sense of having lived with them for a long time. You might find them intriguing, in any case.

    • I’ll have to check out Don’s recordings. I’ve looked at his lectures which are very impressive and informative, as well as wonderfully unpretentious. What does he mean by “parent and child” relationships among keys?

      • I haven’t looked at Don’s videos in a while, but my recollection is that he tends to look at the dominant as the “child” of the tonic, going away from home, and the subdominant as the “grandparent,” noting how often Bach gives a nod to the grandparent in the form of a move to the subdominant near the end of a piece.

      • Hmm, this is an alternative to my usual metaphor in Theory I, which involves going next door to borrow a cup of sugar. I suppose you are lending one to the subdominant near the movement’s close.

        Then there is the question of whether a tonicization is a committed relationship or just a fling…

  2. What works for one pianist doesn’t necessarily work for another. It has to do with hand size and dexterity, I think. I have a good reach, but my hands are average size, so I have learned that it’s ok to leave out a few notes here and there (octave doublings in the Brahms duo sonatas, for example) especially when I have to learn a lot in a short time.
    From the age of 11 until I finished my first MM, I was always working on a Bach piece, whether an invention or prelude/fugue, toccata, or one of the suites. I kind of miss it. I also studied harpsichord for 3 years in grad school and would love to get back to continuo playing, should a reasonable opportunity present itself. So much music, so little time…

    • You are so right, Susan, Bach is ever with us, and there is so much more music than there are hours in which to explore it.

      You are also right about the need for an individual approach for each pianist. It applies to fingering, of course, but also to “handing”. Sometimes in my own pieces I have worked out what seems to be the best distribution of notes between the hands and notated the piece to reflect this, but very often the performer will make change it around – which is fine, but used to surprise me.

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