Read CHAPTER V - ARTISTIC ASPECTS OF PIANO STUDY of Great Pianists on Piano Playing‚ Study Talks with Foremost Virtuosos, free online book, by James Francis Cooke, on ReadCentral.com.

HAROLD BAUER

THE IMMEDIATE RELATION OF TECHNIC TO MUSIC

“While it gives me great pleasure to talk to the great number of students studying the piano, I can assure you that it is with no little diffidence that I venture to approach these very subjects about which they are probably most anxious to learn. In the first place, words tell very little, and in the second place, my whole career has been so different from the orthodox methods that I have been constantly compelled to contrive means of my own to meet the myriads of artistic contingencies as they have arisen in my work. It is largely for this reason that I felt compelled recently to refuse a very flattering offer to write a book on piano playing. My whole life experience makes me incapable of perceiving what the normal methods of pianistic study should be. As a result of this I am obliged with my own pupils to invent continually new means and new plans for work with each student.

“Without the conventional technical basis to work upon, this has necessarily resulted in several aspects of pianoforte study which are naturally somewhat different from the commonly accepted ideas of the technicians. In the first place, the only technical study of any kind I have ever done has been that technic which has had an immediate relation to the musical message of the piece I have been studying. In other words, I have never studied technic independently of music. I do not condemn the ordinary technical methods for those who desire to use them and see good in them. I fear, however, that I am unable to discuss them adequately, as they are outside of my personal experience.

THE AIM OF TECHNIC

“When, as a result of circumstances entirely beyond my control, I abandoned the study of the violin in order to become a pianist, I was forced to realize, in view of my very imperfect technical equipment, that in order to take advantage of the opportunities that offered for public performance it would be necessary for me to find some means of making my playing acceptable without spending months and probably years in acquiring mechanical proficiency. The only way of overcoming the difficulty seemed to be to devote myself entirely to the musical essentials of the composition I was interpreting in the hope that the purely technical deficiencies which I had neither time nor knowledge to enable me to correct would pass comparatively unnoticed, provided I was able to give sufficient interest and compel sufficient attention to the emotional values of the work. This kind of study, forced upon me in the first instance through reasons of expediency, became a habit, and gradually grew into a conviction that it was a mistake to practice technic at all unless such practice should conduce to some definite, specific and immediate musical result.

“I do not wish to be misunderstood in making this statement, containing, as it does, an expression of opinion that was formed in early years of study, but which, nevertheless, I have never since felt any reason to change. It is not my intention to imply that technical study is unnecessary, or that purely muscular training is to be neglected. I mean simply to say that in every detail of technical work the germ of musical expression must be discovered and cultivated, and that in muscular training for force and independence the simplest possible forms of physical exercises are all that is necessary.

“The singer and the violinist are always studying music, even when they practice a succession of single notes. Not so with the pianist, however, for an isolated note on the piano, whether played by the most accomplished artist or the man in the street, means nothing, absolutely nothing.

SEEKING INDIVIDUAL EXPRESSION

“At the time of which I speak, my greatest difficulty was naturally to give a constant and definite direction to my work and in my efforts to obtain a suitable muscular training which should enable me to produce expressive sounds, while I neglected no opportunity of closely observing the work of pianoforte teachers and students around me. I found that most of the technical work which was being done with infinite pains and a vast expenditure of time was not only non-productive of expressive sounds, but actually harmful and misleading as regards the development of the musical sense. I could see no object in practicing evenness in scales, considering that a perfectly even scale is essentially devoid of emotional (musical) significance. I could see no reason for limiting tone production to a certain kind of sound that was called ’a good tone,’ since the expression of feeling necessarily demands in many cases the use of relatively harsh sounds. Moreover, I could see no reason for trying to overcome what are generally called natural defects, such as the comparative weakness of the fourth finger for example, as it seemed to me rather a good thing than otherwise that each finger should naturally and normally possess a characteristic motion of its own.

“It is differences that count in art, not similarities. Every individual expression is a form of art; why not, then, make an artist of each finger by cultivating its special aptitudes instead of adapting a system of training deliberately calculated to destroy these individual characteristics in bringing all the fingers to a common level of lifeless machines?

“These and similar reflections, I discovered, were carrying me continually farther away from the ideals of most of the pianists, students and teachers with whom I was in contact, and it was not long before I definitely abandoned all hope of obtaining, by any of the means I found in use, the results for which I was striving. Consequently, from that time to the present my work has necessarily been more or less independent and empirical in its nature, and, while I trust I am neither prejudiced nor intolerant in my attitude towards pianoforte education in its general aspect, I cannot help feeling that a great deal of natural taste is stifled and a great deal of mediocrity created by the persistent and unintelligent study of such things as an ‘even scale’ or a ‘good tone.’

“Lastly, it is quite incomprehensible to me why any one method of technic should be superior to any other, considering that as far as I was able to judge, no teacher or pupil ever claimed more for any technical system than that it gave more technical ability than some other technical system. I have never been able to convince myself, as a matter of fact, that one system does give more ability than another; but even if there were one infinitely superior to all the rest, it would still fail to satisfy me unless its whole aim and object were to facilitate musical expression.

“Naturally, studying in this way required my powers of concentration to be trained to the very highest point. This matter of concentration is far more important than most teachers imagine, and the perusal of some standard work on psychology will reveal things which should help the student greatly. Many pupils make the mistake of thinking that only a certain kind of music demands concentration, whereas it is quite as necessary to concentrate the mind upon the playing of a simple scale as for the study of a Beethoven sonata.

THE RESISTANCE OF THE MEDIUM

“In every form of art the medium that is employed offers a certain resistance to perfect freedom of expression, and the nature of this resistance must be fully understood before it can be overcome. The poet, the painter, the sculptor and the musician each has his own problem to solve, and the pianist in particular is frequently brought to the verge of despair through the fact that the instrument, in requiring the expenditure of physical and nervous energy, absorbs, so to speak, a large proportion of the intensity which the music demands.

“With many students the piano is only a barrier a wall between them and music. Their thoughts never seem to penetrate farther than the keys. They plod along for years apparently striving to make piano-playing machines of themselves, and in the end result in becoming something rather inferior.

“Conditions are doubtless better now than in former years. Teachers give studies with some musical value, and the months, even years, of keyboard grind without the least suggestion of anything musical or gratifying to the natural sense of the beautiful are very probably a thing of the past. But here again I fear the teachers in many cases make a perverted use of studies and pieces for technical purposes. If we practice a piece of real music with no other idea than that of developing some technical point it often ceases to become a piece of music and results in being a kind of technical machinery. Once a piece is mechanical it is difficult to make it otherwise. All the cogs, wheels, bolts and screws which an overzealous ambition to become perfect technically has built up are made so evident that only the most patient and enduring kind of an audience can tolerate them.

THE PERVERSION OF STUDIES

“People talk about ‘using the music of Bach’ to accomplish some technical purpose in a perfectly heart-breaking manner. They never seem to think of interpreting Bach, but, rather, make of him a kind of technical elevator by means of which they hope to reach some marvelous musical heights. We even hear of the studies of Chopin being perverted in a similarly vicious manner, but Bach, the master of masters, is the greatest sufferer.

“It has become a truism to say that technic is only a means to an end, but I very much doubt if this assertion should be accepted without question, suggesting as it does the advisability of studying something that is not music and which is believed at some future time to be capable of being marvelously transformed into an artistic expression. Properly understood, technic is art, and must be studied as such. There should be no technic in music which is not music in itself.

THE UNIT OF MUSICAL EXPRESSION

“The piano is, of all instruments, the least expressive naturally, and it is of the greatest importance that the student should realize the nature of its resistance. The action of a piano is purely a piece of machinery where the individual note has no meaning. When the key is once struck and the note sounded there is a completed action and the note cannot then be modified nor changed in the least. The only thing over which the pianist has any control is the length of the tone, and this again may not last any longer than the natural vibrations of the strings, although it may be shortened by relinquishing the keys. It makes no difference whether the individual note is struck by a child or by Paderewski it has in itself no expressive value. In the case of the violin, the voice and all other instruments except the organ, the individual note may be modified after it is emitted or struck, and in this modification is contained the possibility of a whole world of emotional expression.

“Our sole means of expression, then, in piano playing lies in the relation of one note to the other notes in a series or in a chord. Herein lies the difficulty, the resistance to perfect freedom of which I have spoken before, the principal subject for intelligence and careful study, and yet so few students appear to understand it. Their great effort seems to be to make all the noise in a given series as much alike as coins from a mint. They come to the piano as their only instrument, and never seek to take a lesson from the voice or from the other instruments which have expressive resources infinitely superior to those possessed by the piano. The principal charm of the piano lies in the command which the player has over many voices singing together. But until the pianist has a regard for the individual voice in its relation to the ensemble he has no means with which to make his work really beautiful.

“There is a great need for more breadth in music study. This, as I know, has been said very often, but it does not hurt to say it again. The more a man knows, the more he has experienced, the wider his mental vision in all branches of human information, the more he will have to say. We need men in music with big minds, wide grasp and definite aims. Musicians are far too prone to become overspecialized. They seem to have an unquenchable thirst to master the jargon and the infinite variety of methods which are thrust upon us in these days rather than a genuine desire to develop their musical aims. Music is acquiring a technology as confusing and as extensive as bacteriology. There seems to be no end to the new kinds of methods in the minds of furtive and fertile inventors. Each new method in turn seems to breed another, and so on ad nauseam.

“Among other things I would suggest the advisability for pianists to cultivate some knowledge of the construction of their instrument. Strange as it may seem, it is nevertheless a fact that the average pianist knows practically nothing of a piano, being in many cases entirely unaware of such simple things as how the tone is produced. The function of the pedals is as unknown to them as geology is to the coal heaver. This ignorance leads frequently to the employment of motions and methods that can only be characterized as ridiculous in the extreme.

MUSIC FIRST, THE INSTRUMENT AFTERWARDS

“From the manner in which many ambitious and earnest students play, it would seem that they had their minds fixed upon something which could not be conveyed to the world in any other form than that of the sounds which come from the piano. Of course, the piano has an idiom peculiarly its own, and some composers have employed this idiom with such natural freedom that their music suffers when transposed for any other instrument. The music of Chopin is peculiarly pianistic, but it is, first of all, music, and any one of the wonderful melodies which came from the fertile brain of the Polish-French genius could be played upon one of many different instruments besides the piano. The duty of the interpreter should surely be to think of the composition as such, and to interpret it primarily as music, irrespective of the instrument. Some students sit down before the keyboard to ‘play’ the piano precisely as though they were going to play a game of cards. They have learned certain rules governing the game, and they do not dare disobey these rules. They think of rules rather than of the ultimate result the music itself. The idiom of the Italian language is appropriate here. The Italians do not say ‘I play the piano,’ but rather ‘I sound the piano.’ (Suono il pianoforte.) If we had a little more ‘sounding’ of the piano, that is, producing real musical effects, and a little less playing on ivory keys, the playing of our students would be more interesting.

VARIETY THE SPICE OF ART

“It can hardly be questioned that the genesis of all musical art is to be found in song, the most natural, the most fluent and the most beautiful form of musical expression. How much every instrumentalist can learn from the art of singing!

“It is a physical impossibility for the voice to produce two notes in succession exactly alike. They may sound very similar, but there is a difference quite perceptible to the highly trained ear. When a singer starts a phrase a certain amount of motive power is required to set the vocal apparatus in vibration. After the first note has been attacked with the full force of the breath, there is naturally not so much weight or pressure left for the following notes. It is, however, possible for the second note to be as loud, or even louder, than the first note. But in order to obtain the additional force on the second note, it is necessary to compensate for the lack of force due to the loss of the original weight or pressure by increasing what might be called the nervous energy; that is to say, by expelling the breath with proportionately greater speed.

MUSCULAR AND NERVOUS ENERGY

“The manifestation of nervous energy in this manner is quite different from the manifestation of muscular energy, although both are, of course, intimately connected. Muscular energy begins at its maximum and gradually diminishes to the point of exhaustion, whereas nervous energy rises in an inconceivably short space of time to its climax, and then drops immediately to nothing. Nervous energy may be said to be represented by an increased rapidity of emission. It is what the athlete would call a ‘spurt.’

“What I have said about the voice applies equally to all other instruments, the piano and the organ alone excepted. It is obvious that the playing of the wind instruments must be subjected to the limitations of the breath, and in the case of the violin and the other stringed instruments, where the bow supplies the motive power, it is impossible for two notes played in succession to sound absolutely alike. If the first note of a phrase is attacked with the weight of the whole bow behind it, the second note will follow with just so much less weight, and if the violinist desires to intensify any of the succeeding tones, he must do so by the employment of the nervous energy I have mentioned, when a difference in the quality of tone is bound to result. The pianist should closely observe and endeavor to imitate these characteristics, which so vividly convey the idea of organic life in all its infinite variety, and which are inherent in every medium for artistic expression.

PHRASING AND BREATHING

“It would take a book, and by no means a small one, to go into this matter of phrasing which I am now discussing. Even in such a book there would doubtless be many points which would be open to assaults for sticklers in psychological technology. I am not issuing a propaganda or writing a thesis for the purpose of having something to defend, but merely giving a few offhand facts that have benefited me in my work. However, it is my conviction that it is the duty of the pianist to try to understand the analogy to the physical limitations which surround the more natural mediums of musical expression the voice and the violin and to apply the result of his observations to his piano playing.

THE NATURAL EFFECT OF EMOTIONS

“There is another relation between phrasing and breathing which the student may investigate to advantage. The emotions have a direct and immediate effect upon the breath, and as the brain informs the nervous system of new emotional impressions the visible evidences may be first observed in the breathing. It is quite unnecessary to go into the physiology or psychology of this, but a little reflection will immediately indicate what I mean.

“It is impossible to witness a disastrous accident without showing mental agitation and excitement in hurried breathing. Joy, anger, fear, love, tranquillity and grief all are characterized by different modes of breathing, and a trained actor must study this with great closeness.

“The artist at the piano may be said to breathe his phrases. A phrase that is purely contemplative in character is breathed in a tranquil fashion without any suggestion of nervous agitation. If we go through the scale of expression, starting with contemplative tranquillity, to the climax of dramatic intensity, the breath will be emitted progressively quicker and quicker. Every musical phrase has some kind of expressive message to deliver. If a perfectly tranquil phrase is given out in a succession of short breaths, indicating, as they would, agitation, it would be a contradiction, just as it would be perfectly inhuman to suppose that in expressing dramatic intensity it would be possible to breathe slowly.

“In conclusion, I would urge students to cultivate a very definite mental attitude as to what they really desire to accomplish. Do you wish to make music? If so, think music, and nothing but music, all the time, down to the smallest detail even in technic. Is your ambition to play scales, octaves, double notes and trills? Then by all means concentrate your mind on them to the exclusion of everything else, but do not be surprised if, when, later on, you want to communicate a semblance of life to your mechanical motions, you succeed in obtaining no more than the jerky movements of a clock-work puppet.”

QUESTIONS IN STYLE, INTERPRETATION, EXPRESSION AND TECHNIC OF PIANOFORTE PLAYING

SERIES III

HAROLD BAUER

1. What is the nature of the technical study done by Harold Bauer?

2. Should immediate musical results be sought in technical study?

3. Upon what principle is expression in art based?

4. Is the utmost concentration necessary in all piano playing?

5. How may the piano become a barrier between the student and musical expression?

6. In what spirit should all studies be played?

7. Is the piano an expressive instrument?

8. Should pianists acquire a knowledge of the main feature in the construction of their instrument?

9. How may variety in piano playing be achieved?

10. How is phrasing related to breathing?