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Josef Lhévinne - Practical Phases of Modern Pianoforte Technic

 
From an interview with the Eminent Pianoforte Virtuoso
JOSEF LHEVINNE
 
(The first part of this interesting and helpful article appeared in The Etude for March)
 
 
 
Touch, Acquired and Natural
So many people seem to think that anyone can develop any kind of a touch. That is true if you mean only that anyone can play legato, staccato, non-legato, etc., but touch is largely a matter of personality. That is what makes piano-playing so infinitely interesting. The touch of my different colleagues is in most instances as definite in character as their countenances and their characters. Just as one can improve one's character so can the touch be improved.
 
All that one can do, therefore, is to try innumerable experiments to improve one's own touch. Do not, however, try to destroy your personality by trying to mimic anyone slavishly. Your charm in your playing, if you have any charm at all, is in the individuality, the personality in your playing.
 
There seemes (sic) to be an impression that a long gaunt, thin, bony hand, with very little flesh, is a good pianistic hand. Why? Goodness only knows! Of course, the hand must be large enough for the requirements of the literature, but, to my mind, the best pianistic hand is the one with good, substantial, fleshy cushions at the end of the fingers.
 
I shall never forget Rubinstein's hand. When I shook hands with him it seemed as though my hand was drowned in his. I have never seen another hand like it— so soft and supple and yet so strong and powerful. He was leonine right through. One of the reasons why he acquired a reputation for striking false notes must have been because of the great breadth of the cushions at the end of his fingers. His fingers were so broad that he used to long for a larger sized keyboard, so that his fingers would fit more easily between the keys. No one hated mistakes and false notes more than Rubinstein, and I am sure that his occasional lapses from accuracy, with which he has been credited, were due to this physiological handicap and not to carelessness as is often supposed. But even if he did make an occasional slip, his playing was incomparable and one never thought of the break.
 
It is a great mistake to practice a piece always at the same tempo. By practicing at different tempi, one can learn much. One of the things that the pianist, who is called upon to play in large halls, learns is that a piece played in a large hall always sounds faster to the audience than it actually is. This may be due to the acoustical fact that the sound fills a larger space or has to travel faster to the ears of the listeners. Or, it may be psychological in that the very fact of hearing it played with great clarity at a sufficient speed gives the impression of more speed and skill than when the same composition is played at a much faster speed so that the audience can hardly comprehend it. Again, when a piece is played too fast, there is always the danger that the nerve control will be unable to prevent the little slips that result in disaster. Therefore it is always a good rule never to play on the stage or at a recital at your full speed. Practice it privately if you will at a break neck speed, just to convince yourself that you can do it; but do not seek to bewilder the public with it. I refer to the very rapid running pieces like the von Weber Perpetuo Mobile or the so-called Minute Valse of Chopin. Let your hearers catch every note definitely and never blurred. Of course there are short passages in certain pieces, like the scales in Chopin's G Minor Ballade, mhich (sic) must be played at full speed. In such instances it is good to use the pedal, even when there are conflicting harmonies which cause a blur. The effect is then not that of individual notes but of a solid line of tone as it were.
 
When I was thirteen years of age I was selected, with a group of my fellow students at Moscow including Rachmaninoff and Scriabine, to play for Rubinstein when he visited the school. The great master had the privilege of chosing (sic) works from the following program which he might ask any of the students to play.
 
Bach, Fugue.
Beethoven, Variations Eroica.
Chopin, Three Etudes.
Liszt, Etude in F Minor.
Liszt, Twelfth Rhapsody
 
 
The conservatory authorities knew enough not to try to pander to the master by placing any of Rubinstein's compositions upon the program, as he would have been terribly incensed. He always refused to hear any of his own works. When it came my turn, he heard the first number and then insisted upon hearing the entire program. Strange to say I was not frightened, but delighted with the opportunity of playing for him. His personality was so wonderful that his very look was an inspiration. I am sure I never have played so well for anyone since then. When it came to the C Minor Etude of Chopin he shook himself like a mighty lion, and shouted, "Play it with all the fury you can."
 
It was at such a time that I understood the reason for the exhaustive drill of a man like Safonoff, whose discipline was unrelenting. He had a habit of insisting and insisting with his pupils, until they got it to satisfy him. He used to say, "Play that 3,000 times before you come again; not 1,000 or 2,000, but 3,000." He knew that, if the student would do it enough, the result would be forthcoming. In this is a note of encouragement to all students. The reason why many do not get results is that they have stopped short of enough. You cannot get the result at the end of the goal unless you go the entire length of the road to reach the goal. Students expect results with far too little work. They never came to any that way. There is a great deal of slaving in every art. The student sees only the finished product, and does not realize that the artist, who does it so easily and so readily, has spent years and years of the most heart breaking kind of grueling practice in acquiring the skill.
 
American students are noted for their willingness to work enthusiastically, but the long patient drill, the incessant repetitions, seem to annoy many of them, who fancy that success in piano-playing must come like some sudden rise in a speculative stock market, and drop a fortune in virtuosity upon them with very little effort. Such things may happen in finance, but they never happen in art. Work, work and then more WORK, of the most faithful, self-sacrificing kind, is the great secret of all for the artist. More than this, he must find joy in every moment of his work. If he has the talent, the strength and the personality, he then stands a chance of becoming successful as a virtuoso.

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