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The (Well) Informed Piano: Artistry and Knowledge

The (Well) Informed Piano: Artistry and Knowledge

by Miguel G. Henriques


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The (Well) Informed Piano addresses the technical, musical, artistic, ethical, and philosophical issues in piano methodology. Adding a new perspective and approach criteria to piano methodology, this book is essential reading for musicians, teachers, scholars, and music students. This text maintains continuity with the major contributions of Ludwig Deppe, Tobias Matthay, Grigory Kogan, Heinrich Neuhaus and George Kochevitsky.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780761860952
Publisher: UPA
Publication date: 03/16/2014
Pages: 226
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Miguel Henriques, music scholar, enjoys a successful professional career both as a concert pianist and as conductor. He studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and earned a Master’s degree in piano performance at the University of Kansas. He has been a professor of piano at the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa since 1990.

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The (Well) Informed Piano

Artistry and Knowledge

By Miguel G. Henriques

University Press Of America, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 University Press of America, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7618-6096-9


Operative Thoughts

Units and Wholeness

This chapter sets out a collection of thoughts and ideas of subjective or philosophical content, whose usefulness, in the context of the artistic profession, must be understood as non doctrinal in nature, but rather as a framework of thoughts that foster logical and comprehensive coherence to choice and decision making. The understanding of this philosophy may be completed with chapters "The consciousness of love," p. 155, and "Thomas Bernhard's spheres in The Loser," p. 161.

In the world we know, the idea of unity coexists with one of diversity, i.e., multiplicity of units and parallel paths. When we observe the complex organisation of matter, we find that science has been able to divide it into smaller and smaller particles. This reinforces the idea that everything that exists is infinitely divisible. According to it, all entities, even those identified as individual, are formed by clusters of other units, from whose cohesion they depend. Man, for example, is an individual, a set of organs, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms and particles; at the same time, he is also a biological species that inhabits the planet Earth, which in turn is a component of a star system and a galaxy, belonging to a universe that probably belongs to a multiverse, and so on. Among others, time is another entity whose scale can be infinitely divisible, i.e., there is no universal time but an infinite number of times corresponding to an equivalent number of dimensions. This idea, incidentally, is easily understood when we compare the life span of living beings, plants and insects. Also with regard to the human species itself, the chronological coexistence of different cultures and civilisations illustrates the relativity of time as a concept. When one speaks of time, one speaks of speed: If yesterday man still believed that light-speed was the fastest possible, tomorrow, who can guess what will be the speed limit, if such one exists?!

What is absolute in human moral judgment? From a so-called universal standpoint, are man's individual anxieties as relevant as the motivations that drive an ant to carry the food supply to its nest? To this ant, how relevant is the legal and moral paradigm system of a foreign species? On a cosmic time scale, how important is the history of our planet, this tiny speck of matter on which "muddy" surface we have evolved?

A fantasy

Considering the universe we know as the last possible unit, it is, probably, an idea conditioned by the fact that, today, it is not yet possible to see beyond its limits. "Experiencing" the hypothesis of other dimensions is our fantasy's privilege: a clash of scales not necessarily overwhelming or oppressive. Inspired by the individual organisation in parts or particles of everything that is known – be it modular, cellular, or atomic – I am tempted to imagine a continued expansion of this structural concept to dimensions beyond what we today call universe.

This thought leads to the notion of permanent interdependence. The unitary entity, being a constituent part of something, is itself composed of parts. Consequently, each part also possesses features that, at its scale, confer significant coherence to it. Therefore, the appropriation of the whole implies that it holds absolute cohesion between its components. When such union exists, its sum becomes qualitatively more than a simple modular unit. When the alleged entity is nothing else but a cluster of modules, this means it does not enjoy completeness. Everything that is whole is based on laws of relationships and interdependencies from its components, which determine their motivation of being together. This motivation, this essential concept is what enables its clear identification, its distinct nature. That is all that matters. There is no need to assign, to lend or to add any additional meaning. This idea boils down to the very reason or functional logic of the "thing," whether it is a part or a "whole."

I would like to reinforce the idea that this discussion is not intended to be a substantive philosophical speculation. Its purpose is to serve as a frame of thinking, which, at least at an empirical level, appears to be complementary and inclusive, and may promote reflection, both aesthetic and operational.

Throughout history confrontation between the perception of what surrounds us with the non-perception of everything else, has led Mankind to seek "comfort" in imaginary constructions which, inevitably, are confined to its cultural and intellectual limits. Rather than to predict, explain or understand the possibility of other worlds unimaginable to us, this exercise of faith limits itself to reduce the concept of the universe to the logic of a human drama, which ultimately serves as protection against existential angst.

Given the impossibility of rational comprehension of what transcends our perception, it is worth to remain lucid, attributing proper relevance to what actually affects us, while, by means of contemplation and sense of humour, we make room for healthy integration of that "something" that escapes us, that time and dimension we shall never know. Even so, life can be beautiful and "fun."

Aesthetics as a manifestation of in-depth experience

Until now, I never felt hindered to interpret and adopt, comprehensively and positively, Nietzschean concept of life as an aesthetic phenomenon, despite his obsessive pessimism. Also in a personal perspective, the Socratic postulated meaning of life as the pursuit for knowledge is considered as another manifestation of man's privileged aesthetic sensibility: life as an individual movement in a human scale space of time, where the encounter with Beauty, Knowledge, and The Other may occur and enlarge the experiential scope.

Being small does not mean being nothing. The "mission" I admit as desirable (if we can manage), is to add something significant to the experience of The Other, whether Beauty, Love, or Knowledge. The irrelevance of our individual and collective existence does not discredit the experience of Beauty. It exists, even if only enclosed in Man's ephemeral History. Surely, it is insignificant in the universe's drama, but it is significant for us. Today, with all the scientific knowledge, and despite the respect due to everyone's sensitivity, the claim of finding justification to the world's existence looks at least as something "naïve." As a matter of fact, the only decisive cause-effect event is the one when we were born, fruit of our fathers' union.

We were born with our mother. We grew up learning the limits of the unit we are: free and independent beings that live and die physically separated from each other, all alone. In the experience and memory of this growth (which ends only with death), we can find all the Knowledge, Beauty and Love heritage that motivates us for today and tomorrow.


In many moments of my teaching activity, I have felt the need to convey to young people the idea that we are like those Russian dolls, the famous matrioskas of all sizes that fit inside each other. Within us live all the people we were in the past. And also the lives of all whose love helped us growing. It is not a lost treasure: parents, siblings and friends can be found always inside of us, in our body, in our memory. Life is objectively an individual experience, but not necessarily a solitary one, even when the presence of the ones we love is no longer possible.

The first serious step towards finding balance, which, unfortunately, just a few recognise as "happiness," is to recognise and "integrate" physical loneliness as a permanent reality. The "encounter" will only be possible if preceded by separation. Accepting the unsafe condition and limits of our lives frees us from the pitfalls that equip the survival instinct. For example, the exercise of power is no longer the inevitable poison that inexorably destroys any dream of utopia. Only this acceptance, this self-pacification creates psychological readiness to appreciate the full value of communion.

Becoming "one"

Becoming "one" is the main thrust generated by the survival instinct. This essential condition with which nature pervades us, if understood as a "healthy" provocation for our own ennoblement by way of curiosity and emotional and intellectual growth, it can serve as the philosophical core and comprehensive tool for all artistic improvement work.

Artistic communication

One must recognise that insecurity and lack of affection is part of everybody's vulnerability. Even though "rationalised," the feeling of loneliness may show up around any corner. This fragile existential condition creates the essential motivation for artistic communication, whether in terms of creation/interpretation, whether for its enjoyment. The artist is both a beneficiary of this experience—as he enjoys the attention of his audience, expanding his own existence—and a supplier of this vital energy to be shared with those willing to receive it. Life as an aesthetic phenomenon thus includes spaces where communion of aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional enjoyment is possible. This is one, of the greatest privileges of our profession.

In this perspective, along with many other ethical and professional ones, the artist has a philosophical and social responsibility. The satisfaction of this need to express himself requires an evaluation, with humbleness, of his role as a catalyst, not only of his own life, but also especially of the lives of others. "Touching" the other is an enormous privilege and a great responsibility.

Also for this reason, the quality of this communication is crucial. To be true it has to be whole and sincere. We return thus to the concept of unity. Here, not in the sense of physical loneliness, but rather, as something that is unique and genuine; something which one offers and receives; something that is capable of infinitely "uniting" other beings alike. For its optimisation concur, above all, its strength, substance as well as the cohesion of its communicative gesture, i.e., it is essential that what is "said" produces relevant meaning and it is "understood," preferably not by one, or by a part, but, if possible, by all who intend to listen.

The united gesture

This motivation underlies the demand for artistic unity and cohesion of the musical discourse, whether at the compositional or the interpretative level. Essentially regarded as a communicative object, the artistic gesture produces an effect which will be the more comprehensive the more reunited it will be. The assessment of its "beauty" will have more chances to receive a unanimous reaction when its outline is unequivocally clear.

Interestingly, this criterion should be applied to the entire intellectual, emotional and physical performance process. The participation of these three dimensions of the body, as a single operating plastic instrument of musical materialisation, should reach maximum cohesion and unity.

This is how success is attainable in any artistic creation or performance. All professionals in this area, creators and performers, find themselves in the same track: the work must be (re)created focused on its morphological, formal, objective and subjective integrity.

Mirrors games

The communication process is achieved by the sender's physical expansion through sound and body language. This produces signals of known meaning, which are collected by the receiver's mirror neurons, and that trigger stimuli, associations, ideas and feelings of similar meaning. This is the original factor, which may lead to a genuine experience of communion. Everything indicates that this neural mechanism is the ground that made possible, among others, verbal and musical language.

Substance and content

In addition to the cohesive profile of the communicative gesture, its content is equally decisive. The potential for self-identification of a specific content depends on the possibility it offers of being reflected or "mirrored" in the receiver's memory experience. Consequently, for example, a music writing, which limits itself to the enjoyment of "innocent" and repetitive sound sequences, will have fewer chances of providing a deep and substantial aesthetic experience (unless in contemplative or platonic terms). Conversely, if the speech includes energy and tension fluctuations, and if it is able to "choreograph" the intensity and questioning of life itself, the result will be very distinct. This does not mean that, in order to be appropriated by the public as "brilliant," a composition must follow a specific recipe. Still, in terms of "universal" self- identification by the public, for example, the extraordinary capacity revealed by Beethoven's music to reflect the uncertainties and conflicts he experienced throughout his life is not totally irrelevant. The wide popular identification with Beethoven's music in the last centuries can be explained by his image model of a "common" man, victim of a troubled existence, and yet able to keep his belief in life at the highest value (love) right until the end, fighting tirelessly with persistence, work, resilience, and, despite numerous setbacks, with confidence. A music that does not reflect the human contradictions can hardly leave a lasting philosophical impression.

This perspective is not intended to exclude other philosophies on artistic creation and appreciation based on different existential paradigms. However, considering the above premises, the belief that pushed forward these ethics guidelines will be more understandable. Here, it is also suggested a closure of the circle: the concept of life structure can be observed precisely in the objectives and the way they are pursued, whether in technical, knowledge or competence terms.

A common denominator

Certainly, the deepest reason that supported the implementation of this book was the possibility for sharing one's personal experience. Perhaps it might contribute to motivate the reader in his own learning of the "whole." Evidently, it is a metaphorical idea limited to what one can idealise, but it may be an adequate way to express the main lesson which life generously offered me. In the daily struggle to find something that justifies our existence, this integrationist perspective of many different factors, many realities and pluralisms, can ultimately make possible the finding of a common denominator, a global, philosophical operating system.

In general terms, it is thus described the essence of a heritage of decades of militant collecting of everything that was recognised as useful. Without claiming to have achieved "wisdom," one feels a certain softening of one's vulnerability and anxiety. Detachment from this inevitable (and even necessary) vulnerable condition made life (certainly undeservedly) more dignifying.


Issues on Music Interpretation's Ethics

Beyond the right (or need) to express himself artistically, the performer freely takes certain responsibilities which do not correspond to any universal stereotype. These commitments should be the foundation for an individualised and characterised posture, deontologically interactive with the context in which he grows.

Honour the heritage

The practice of re-creating a musical work by means of its interpretation presupposes the existence of total complicity with it, established by the interpreter, or better yet, with the author's (presumably) implicit idea. This condition implies that his performance must defend by all means its integrity.

On the other hand, if a certain musical repertoire is abandoned to oblivion, or even does not have a single opportunity to be heard, all the knowledge and artistic heritage of human civilisation is significantly injured.

Given the cultural and social nature of its service, the artistic occupation has a most relevant role. In addition to the spreading of the interest in musical art, it enriches the aesthetic and philosophical experience. The superior dignity of this mission should be demonstrated by the professional conduct of every artist.

Sympathies and antipathies

Each artist has his own sensitivity, which determines his own preferences. In this respect, a performer can afford the "luxury" of taking artistic curiosity as one of the fundamental tools of his activity, i.e., to make himself available to recreate works that he does not know, or barely knows. This preparatory attitude may be a decisive factor for self-revelation and growth. Great openness is recommended in repertoire choices, devaluing initial impressions of more or less immediate empathy, and creating space (time) for the work to prove its arguments. This process can happen fast or it may take long distressing months. If freedom is the essential condition for artistic activity, curiosity is the essence of its growth. Ultimately, it is something that does not cause damage and that has everything to offer.

Oral tradition

The study based exclusively on interpretative models copied from oral tradition is a strongly discouraged habit. First readings may be preceded by one or two reference hearings, but such influence must be abandoned immediately when the interpretative work begins.


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Table of Contents

Operative Thoughts
Units and Wholeness
Issues on Music Interpretation's Ethics
The Approach to a Musical Piece
The Performance Project
A Performance Study Syllabus
Form, Aesthetic and Style
Pianistic Technical Learnings
Sound and Concept: A Complicity
Study of Components
The Mind
Piano Practice Work
Daily Routine
Diversified Finger Exercises
Rapid Passages
Sound Quality
Other Specific Practice Work
Piano Actions Heavy and Light
The Consciousness of Love
The Spheres in The Loser
The 24 Preludes by Lopes Graça
A View on António Fragoso's Music
Piano Performance Pedagogy
An Individual Relationship
Illustrations Index
Musical Examples Index
About the Author

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