Archive for the ‘practicing’ Category

teachers and students: transmission versus copying

March 30, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

Gustav Leonhardt’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Ciaccona

Musical transmission is a well-explored topic in the history of Western music. In a rare filmed appearance, pianist Edwin Fischer recited, more than explained, how it works: “Beethoven instructed Czerny how to play the Well-tempered Clavier; Czerny taught it to Liszt; Liszt taught it to Eugène d’Albert.” The clip is part of the documentary “The Art of Piano” (found at 1:07:31 of this YouTube video). To complete the lineage for the benefit of readers of our time: d’Albert taught Fischer, who was endorsing his then-new recording of Bach’s WTC.

In addition to being a great-great-grandpupil of Beethoven, Fischer was also a celebrated teacher. His statement about the musical lineage that authenticated his way of playing Bach can be seen as a statement about pedagogy rather than a display of vanity. It tells us that by the mid-20th century, the idea of a student imitating the example of his teacher was considered more than just valuable in a general sense.

To Fischer, the transmission of skills, knowledge and values from teacher to student in an unbroken tradition was profoundly meaningful: the essence of why one became a pupil, or later a teacher. This idea is not new. In France in the 1670s, J.L. Le Gallois suggested the same pedagogy of learning by imitation in his famous praise of Chambonnière’s way of playing: “in order to learn the pieces of each master, it is necessary to study them with the same masters who have composed them, or with their best pupils.”

For a student of harpsichord in Amsterdam in the 1980s, however, learning by imitation was not normally considered an option. On the contrary. (more…)

time management II

April 29, 2009

The magic ingredient of the method outlined in my previous post is boxes. If we create boxes of time, we can fill them with concentrated activity. If, on the other hand, we have a luxurious chunk of unstructured time ahead, we likely will fail to fill it with anything more elaborate than an occasional morsel of activity (or chocolate).  To be sure, if one, for example, has the task of reducing a book manuscript by 15.000 words in two and a half days, without throwing out all the good stuff and creating a mess with the footnotes and cross-references in the text, the only thing one needs to do is to sit down and do it. The boxes will be five: one workday, one short night, another workday, another short night and a frantic print-out wrap-up, topped off by the ride to the post office to get the final manuscript out of the house. While I have been in such situations, they should not be called normal. Also the required energy level is nothing one should try to mobilize on a regular basis – it cannot be good for one’s health. In normal circumstances, we’re given choices for our activities – and so we choose.

The act of preparing a new piece of music offers too many choices. Most of them can be justified in some really good way. For example, if we hate working on some easy passages, we can claim that some really difficult stuff needs a lot of training first. Conversely, the inclination to jog through a piece without bothering about the difficult passages can be excused because one needs to get a grasp of the structure before one dives down into the details. One can keep practicing the exposition of a sonata, fooling oneself with the belief that the recapitulation is very similar. One can skip the minuets of a suite until the last minute because one might be able to sight-read them, unlike some other movements.  All these evasive moves can be summarized in two words: sublime dawdling. (more…)

time management I

April 23, 2009

In early spring, perfectly timed with the snow that paralyzed the south of England for a few days,  I introduced myself at the music department of the University Southampton – a first move in connection with my post-doc research project which is up and running as of 15 March (see a short abstract under the “research” tab). One of the questions I heard was how I combine playing and research. One could add, “how do I manage to write blog posts about either activity?” A look at the frequency of my postings during the last half year provides the answer, “hardly at all.” The rest is time management, to be attempted again every new day. The following posts are about this topic.

One of the reasons why I’m not drinking ale with my colleagues in Southampton at the moment is that the new project requires an awful lot of reading – and I’ve got more relevant books than I can handle right here at home. I used to be a performance practice person with a bit of knowledge about instrument building; now I am confronted with art worlds, how users matter, the history of technology and Viennese concert life, to name but a few of the things I have to know about before I can even begin worrying about the thickness of strings and hammer heads and the correspondence of various Viennese piano firms. All this material is spread out over several horizontal surfaces all over the house, and whether it is read or not depends solely on my discipline. I need discipline to refrain from cutting the firewood in the garden first, from making another cup of coffee, from thinking that I first need to practice for one of the upcoming concerts, from sliding off into the depths and widths of the world wide web and even from doing the dishes. The problem is not so much that reading books about theory isn’t fun (I will not put a parenthesis after this statement). It is that one needs to create space for truly absorbing what one reads. In the absence of a real plot in most of these books, “stuff” tries to invade one’s brain all the time, and one’s thoughts want to wander. But the paragraph that floats past un-understood is in effect an unread one. There are hundreds of candidates for such paragraphs in scholarly books. One must resort to foolproof and simplistic methods for getting the reading done. Half-engaged scholarly reading is a gigantic waste of time. (more…)

recitatives (dry)

December 19, 2008

Most choir directors (if they are into oratorios or passions at all) conduct perhaps two bigger works each year (I’m thinking of those who also have church services to attend to, and a restricted budget). An average choir conductor can only go so far with the preparations of these concerts – there is so much to see to. Initiatives from the musicians are generally welcome, even expected. You hire a baroque orchestra – you expect that they know their stuff. Many arias go un-conducted at these events.

The cellists and organists offer a special recitative service to suit the situation. A very large percentage of our conductors rely happily and benevolently on that service: the continuo players and the singers get time for getting used to each-other’s style and for testing all the recitatives once, and that’s usually it. (more…)

balance of the hands V

March 26, 2008

Final post about handedness and keyboard technique

Continuo practicing

Depending on one’s handedness, the preparation of continuo bass lines and continuo chords calls for different approaches. Obviously, continuo is about harmonies and bass line phrasing, but in terms of performance, it is first and foremost about being together. One could describe the ideal state of mind of a continuo player as ‘being part of the music’ to the extreme. Continuo playing is not about waiting and reacting, it is about anticipating, participating and breathing. No matter what her or his handedness, if the continuo player worries about the poor performance of her or his non-dominant hand, this will likely prevent the directness (I keep wanting to write “flow,” but to be honest, I do not know very much about flow) and spontaneity necessary for a good performance. (more…)

balance of the hands IV

March 23, 2008

Part IV of V about handedness and keyboard technique

3) Learning complex passages in two hands

How do we practice a complex passage that involves both hands? I am thinking of technical writing such as in bars 60-64 in the Gigue of Bach’s fifth partita. Trying to approach such passages while comfortably relying on our dominant hand will lead us nowhere. I prepare this kind of music by first establishing in detail how both hands have to interact and trying to practice away any jerky or panicky arm or finger movement at about half tempo. Now I make extra sure that my dominant hand knows exactly where it has to go and what it has to do – increasing the security here can be compared with establishing anchor points, with memorizing the moments when the balance within the hand is perfect or, in short, with giving that hand extra authority. Now I can begin to work with the non-dominant hand, focussing on two things: agility and coordination. By first ‘grounding’ the dominant hand, I give freedom to the non-dominant hand, and eventually the passage emerges as secure and repeatable. (more…)

balance of the hands III

March 23, 2008

Part III of V about handedness and keyboard technique

I came to acknowledge the potential of my dominant hand in keyboard playing through an accident. I am posting all this partly so that others won’t need to repeat the trick I played on myself. One day, early on in my studies, in a period where I fought to overcome some invisible technical barriers through a fierce practicing routine, I got up at six in the morning and fetched breakfast. The idea was to start with my exercises at seven sharp, together with the wakeup chorus of Czerny and Clementi produced by the pianists elsewhere in the dormitory. At a quarter past six, I tried to cut the crust off a bit of elderly Gouda cheese, using a cheese plane. At 6:15:30 I was running for my medicine box: the plane had slipped and I had chipped off two of my finger tops – moderately enough not to need a doctor; thoroughly enough – as it turned out – not to be able to play with that hand – my non-dominant hand – for a month (I will stick to the terms dominant hand and non-dominant hand in order to make it easy for both right-handed and left-handed readers to wade through my text). I stopped the blood flow and kept myself from fainting, cleaned up the mess, had a quiet hour of self-contemplation, canceled my harpsichord lesson and returned to eating cheese. There is nothing so upsetting as an interrupted routine. (more…)


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