Notes from the Pianist's Bench

Notes from the Pianist's Bench

by Boris Berman

Paperback(Second Edition)

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A master class on piano performance and pedagogy from the world-renowned concert pianist

In this newly revised edition of a comprehensive guide to piano technique, performance, and music interpretation, renowned performing musician, recording artist, and teacher Boris Berman addresses virtually every aspect of musical artistry and pedagogy. Ranging from such practical matters as sound, touch, and pedaling to the psychology of performing and teaching, this essential volume provides a master class for the performer, instructor, and student alike. It is also available as a multimedia e-Book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300221527
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/28/2017
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 842,146
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Boris Berman is chair of the piano department at the Yale School of Music and a Grammy Award-nominated recording artist who performs as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. He conducts master classes throughout the world.

Read an Excerpt

notes from the pianist's bench

By Boris Berman

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08375-0

Chapter One

sound and touch

Many issues are important in shaping the pianist's skills. Technique, rhythm, memorization, and repertoire are among them and will all be discussed in this book. I would like to begin, though, with a topic that is frequently neglected by teachers and students or that receives only perfunctory attention: sound. For music, this omission is as strange as ignoring color in visual arts, or body movement in acting. Sound production should be considered part of technique in a broader sense, for technique is much more than the ability to play notes rapidly and evenly. On the rare occasion when sound production is discussed, it is often reduced to such platitudes as "It must sound beautiful," "Sing!" or "Change the color." Instructors rarely give advice on how to achieve a beautiful sound, what to do with the hands or arms to make the piano sing, or what one needs to do physically to create the sensation of a change in color. I believe that the teacher must be specific to meet the needs of students who seek more practical guidance on these matters. Over the years, I have developed a way to deal with this issue. Before presenting it here, I would like to offer a few caveats:

1. Although I find it actually quite easy to teach the basics of sound production, these skills usually do not "stick" to one who is indifferent to quality of piano tone, or to one whose ears do not crave a particular kind of sound. In short, you cannot refine your touch without refining your ear. I am referring to two kinds of "musical ears." One is the "subjective ear," the pianist's image of the kind of sound he would like to produce. The more specific the image, the better the results will be. The other is the "objective ear," which refers to the musician's ability to monitor the sound that actually comes from under his fingers. Objective listening is a perennial goal, a life-long battle, for a musician always tries to listen objectively to his own playing but never fully succeeds. The pianist cannot do meaningful work without learning to listen intently and tirelessly to every sound he produces on the piano (more about this in the chapter on practicing).

2. Often overlooked is the need to work on an instrument that responds sufficiently to the nuances of touch. (No electronic keyboard will do, I'm afraid.) Chopin apparently had this opinion because, according to his student Karol Mikuli, in the master's house "the pupil played always on a magnificent concert grand, and it was his duty to practice only on best quality instruments." As Russian pianist and writer Grigory Kogan put it: "The pianist must be able to play on any piano, but he must practice only on a good one."

3. The pianist may be tempted to look for sound of absolute beauty that fits all occasions. I often tell my students that there is no such thing as beautiful sound; but there is sound appropriate to a particular style, piece, or passage. (To be sure, there is such a thing as ugly sound, and the pianist should know how to avoid producing it.) Sound that suits Rachmaninov would feel out of place in Mozart, and vice versa. In fact, sound can and should be used as a tool of stylistic definition. Stylistic awareness, expressed in the choice of tempo, rhythm, phrasing, and articulation that the performer considers appropriate to the style of a work, should incorporate the notion of a proper sound.

4. Even a two-year-old can produce the "right" sound occasionally, but it will be a sound, a single note. Only a well-trained pianist can produce a second sound to perfectly match the qualities of the first. It is crucial for pianists to have the ability to sustain a certain type of sound for the length of a passage or a phrase and to change it at will.

When pianists talk about beautiful sound, they usually mean a singing, long-lasting tone that reveals as little as possible of the piano's inherently percussive nature. Even in the relatively infrequent instances when composers highlight the instrument's percussiveness (examples that come to mind are Bartok's First Concerto and Stravinsky's Les Noces), the pianist should not be indifferent to the quality of sound; he should aspire to emulate the brassy resonance of a gong or the powerful combination of dryness and resonance of African drums, rather than a clatter of kitchen pots.

Each professional pianist has (or should have) endured long and often frustrating hours in the practice room looking for his own way of producing this beautiful, long-lasting sound. We are all different physically, and for this reason every pianist develops his own strategy. The multitude of approaches and their combinations, however, can be reduced to two generic types. My late teacher the wonderful Russian pianist and pedagogue Lev Oborin defined the polarity of these physical approaches as sostenuto and leggiero. I prefer using the English words "in" and "out." Both of these ways of playing, as we will see, share a common goal: to mask the most treacherous, dangerously telling moment-that of the actual attack, when the hammer hits the string.

Eloquent imagery has been used to describe the "in" kind of sound production. Rachmaninov talked about fingers growing roots in the keyboard. Joseph Hoffmann said that the sound should be produced as if there were a very ripe strawberry sitting on a key and you had to push through it. These images imply two important features of the "in" type. One is the deliberate speed of the process: the slow pace at which the roots grow, and the unhurried tempo at which the strawberry must be penetrated to avoid a messy keyboard. The other is the continuous quality of the process; the roots grow without stopping at a certain point. The "in" type, then, is based on a slow immersion in the keyboard: the action continues even after the sound has been produced, as if the moment of attack were ignored. The weight brought into the key stays there without being released; it is then "poured" into the next note of the phrase.

The "out" type is quite the opposite. The sound is produced by a quick stroke, as if the finger left the key even before the sound could be heard. Obviously, if the note has to be sustained or connected to the next, the finger does not leave the key. But most of the weight is gone; only a vestige remains to hold the key down. This type of action is similar to playing the harp (is not the piano essentially a horizontally placed harp?). The harpist strikes and then escapes the strings almost before the notes are produced, otherwise the sound is dampened by the fingers. Or think about the way the percussionist plays the tam-tam: the performer never leaves the mallet pressed against the instrument. After striking the tam-tam he pulls the mallet out of the way, allowing the instrument to resonate without being obstructed.

Playing this way, the pianist should not direct the movement downward into the keyboard. Rather, he should employ a circular (tangential) motion, as if passing through the key but not stopping. Once again, the action is similar to the circular motion used to pluck the harp, strike the tam-tam, crash a pair of cymbals-or play baseball or tennis. In the sports analogy the tennis racquet and baseball bat pass the point at which they strike the ball, continuing in a circular motion (called follow-through). The pianist directs the motion toward himself as if he were "grabbing" the sound from the keyboard and bringing it out.

Some pianists prefer to move the hand forward rather than toward themselves. Konrad Wolff describes Artur Schnabel's playing in this manner. Schnabel may have learned it from Theodore Leschetitzky, whose other student (and one-time wife), the legendary Russian pianist and teacher Anna Esipova, recommended: "Place your hand on the keys, form the chord, and move the hand as if pushing a drawer into a desk." What is important to me is that both this motion and the "out" way as discussed above do not aim vertically downward but touch the key at an angle. Both motions can be described as caressing; they both allow the finger to glide along the key. I find it more practical to move the hands toward me instead of away from the body because in the latter case the the piano's name-board restricts the movement on the far end. More room exists between the keyboard and the pianist's body.)

These two types of sound production, the "in" and the "out," almost never appear in their pure form; rather, there are countless combinations of the two. Different national schools have shown preferences for one or the other: pianists of the Russian school have favored the "in" approach, while those of French or German musical descent seem to have preferred the "out" way of playing. (I use the perfect tense here because the current cross-fertilization of traditions has left hardly any national school untouched by other influences.)

For me, it is important to use different kinds of sound for different types of music. A work of introverted character, such as Brahms's Intermezzo op. 119, no. 1 (Ex. 1.1), may benefit from an "in" approach, while more outspoken, extroverted music, like the beginning of Chopin's C-Minor Nocturne (Ex. 1.2), asks for the "out" stroke. Many pieces can be presented equally convincingly using either of these approaches-Chopin's F-sharp Major Nocturne, for example (Ex. 1.3). The pianist who is conversant with both may choose the one that seems more appropriate.

At times the pianist may wish to imitate the sound of other instruments, especially when trying to realize an orchestral reduction at the piano. The airy sound of the French horn, as in the beginning of the orchestral part of the B-flat Major Concerto by Brahms (Ex. 1.4), will be better rendered by the "out" stroke. The warmth of the strings in the excerpt from Liszt's First Concerto (Ex. 1.5), on the other hand, calls for the "in" approach.

So far, we have contemplated ways of producing the sound while dealing with relatively soft music. For loud playing, I am afraid, the "in" approach almost never succeeds. Imagine a long crescendo: as we increase the speed of immersion into the key to produce the louder sound, the time between the moment of attack and the imaginary goal of the movement becomes shorter and shorter, until the two coincide. As a result, instead of masking the moment of attack we are highlighting it; the sound becomes unpleasantly hard and harsh, and immersion turns into pressure.

My solution to avoid harshness of sound is to switch to the "out" way using a "hit-and-run" approach. The louder the dynamic level is, the faster the movement should be. The chords in Ex. 1.6, for instance, are played as if being torn from the piano. (Naturally, the pedal will prolong their duration and enhance the resonance.) If the notes must be sustained, the fingers do not leave the keys, but the weight of the hands is used for the attack only, and they do not sink into the keys even for a moment. A good example of this approach is the first subject of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto (first movement) as it appears forte in the beginning of the recapitulation (Ex. 1.7).

Earlier, I was talking about the need for the pianist to have sound imagination, the refined "subjective ear." This is not enough, however, for the performer must also possess the technical ability to realize the sonorities he hears in his head. The pianist needs to know what physical actions influence sound and in what way. Here are several variables that are used in both "in" and "out" types of sound production. Some also affect other aspects of playing, such as articulation or velocity. (The real life of a practicing pianist cannot be neatly compartmentalized.) But first I would like to mention one physical constant that is indispensable for producing rich, nuanced tone: the flexible wrist. Josef Lhevinne compared its role to that of shock absorbers in a car. The wrist cushions the sound and absorbs the excess force. (Frequently the pianist uses the elbow as an additional shock absorber, as described in the next chapter.)

1. Weight. The more weight that is applied to the key, the fuller (and/or louder) the sound. The pianist needs to be able to use the full weight of his fingers, hand, forearm, and upper arm. Equally important is knowing how not to use weight when a lighter sonority is required. I often ask my students to experiment with making their fingers heavy by letting the weight of the bigger joints "pour" into the fingers (not to be confused with applying pressure), and then gradually withdrawing the weight to regain the lightness. (For the latter, imagine a vacuum cleaner being applied to your shoulder blade, sucking the weight from the hand. This image can be particularly helpful for larger-sized pianists who find it difficult to prevent the weight of their arms from participating when the music requires lightness of touch.) These experiments are important for learning one of the most necessary skills for the pianist: to let in just as much or as little of the weight as is needed for a particular passage.

Pianists who possess a delicate physique sometimes feel that they cannot muster enough weight to play a loud passage. They try to compensate by pressing into the key using the "in" touch, which is generally not suitable for forte, as discussed above. The pressure usually produces a hard, forced sound. In such cases I strongly recommend that the pianist resist the temptation to apply additional pressure. Instead, I would switch to the "out" approach and increase the speed of the stroke.

2. Mass. This variable concerns how much of the body is involved in sound production. The sound can be produced with the finger alone, or with the finger supported by the hand, or with finger supported by the hand plus the forearm, or with the finger supported by the hand plus the forearm plus the upper arm. The bigger the participating joint-that is, the greater the mass-the fuller the sound.

When we want to increase the volume we activate the bigger joints. When we want to stay at the same dynamic level, however, and at the same time, achieve a fuller sound, we seek the support of the bigger joints, rather than their overt participation. To help my students accomplish this goal, I often mention that they should develop the feeling of a "long finger" or imagine that all the "juices" from the arm are flowing into the finger. Another useful image is that of a "long neck" to help feel uninterrupted succession of muscles from behind one's ear to the neck, to the upper arm and so forth down to the finger tip. (Compare this with the "extension" principle discussed in the next chapter.) When the pianist feels the need to add air to his sound, which he experiences as excessively thin and "bony," a flexible elbow can be particularly helpful. Imagining a parachute attached to one's elbow can be useful.


Excerpted from notes from the pianist's bench by Boris Berman Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition ix

Preface to the First Edition xi

Part I In the Practice Room

1 Sound and Touch 3

2 Technique 26

3 Articulation and Phrasing 56

4 Matters of Time 82

5 Pedaling 104

6 Practicing 121

Part II Shaping Up a Performance

7 Deciphering the Composer's Message 149

8 Seeing the Big Picture 161

9 Technique of the Soul 181

10 At the Performance (and Prior to It) 192

11 The Art of Teaching and the Art of Learning 211

Notes 225

About the Author 229

Index 231

Credits 237

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