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Josef Lhévinne - Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing

Sixth and Last Section in a Remarkable Series of Educational Conferences With The Distinguished Virtuoso
JOSEF LHÉVINNE

“In the final discussion of this series it may seem wise here and there to recapitulate some of the principles already enunciated. Let us discuss, however, for a few moments, by way of an interlude, the all-important matter of memorizing music. The custom of playing everything by memory is of comparatively recent introduction. Very few musicians at the time of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven ever thought it necessary. Just as at the present time it has come to be the custom of certain orchestral conductors to dispense with the score, it gradually became the thing to appear in concert without the printed notes and very few artists of any considerable standing have played with notes to any extent during the last twenty-five years. I am told that Pugno, the French pianist, did employ them in America.

“There can be no question that the act of turning pages in full view of two or three thousand people may well disturb the atmosphere of the concert room. It is therefore considered indispensable to memorize. This does not mean, however, that one should essay to memorize the entire musical literature as some students elect to do. Learn those things that are necessary, that will be useful. Do not tax the memory.

People Who Memorize Readily

“Do not place too much stress upon those who memorize readily. Some people seem to be gifted with a kind of mental glibness. They make their mental photographs with a kind of cinematographic rapidity; and the impress is likely to disappear quite as rapidly. If you find that you memorize slowly, do not let it bother you. I have found that the students who depend too much upon their natural gifts in memorizing make many mistakes. Their memories are neither reliable or accurate. When they need their memories most they fail them. I say this purposely because I know that a great many students have a terrible struggle in the matter of memorizing. Stick to it. The more effort you put in your memorizing the firmer will be the impression upon your brain negative.

“Memorize phrase by phrase, not measure by measure, The phrase is the musical unit, not the measure, unless the phrase lengths happen to conform to the measure lengths. The thing to remember is the thought, not the symbols. When you remember a poem you do not remember the alphabetical symbols, but the poet’s beautiful vision, his thought pictures. So many students waste hours of time trying to remember black notes. Absurd! They mean nothing. Get the thought, the composer’s idea; that is the thing that sticks.

“For the same reason that one should memorize by phrases, one should also have a firm grasp of the elements of harmony to memorize well. Chords are musical words. The arrangement of chords is not as arbitrary as the arrangement of words in a sentence, but the sequence of chords in harmony is an immense help to the memory.

“In my own case my memory seemed to be asleep until I was twelve years old. Then I memorized only with the greatest difficulty. Now, by dint of great experience, I memorize very easily. It is all a matter of persistence, time and training. It is for such a reason that I would encourage all those who are now having a struggle with memorizing. What you do memorize, memorize well. There are amateurs who seem to be able to play the greater part of the whole literature of the piano from memory, but who do not play any one piece really finely. Of course, the concert pianist has stored away in his subconscious mind literally millions of notes. He makes up his programs for a season—if he is called upon to play a certain concerto he has not played for some time, he practices upon it and it comes back to him with a readiness dependent upon the thoroughness with which he originally learned it.

The Daily Practice

“Daily drill in memorizing, if only just a little, is better than studying memorizing now and then. It is the regular practice that counts.

“Four hours a day of practice is good measure. Over- practicing is just as bad as under-practicing. It should be the younger student’s aim and desire to get done with technic as soon as possible. There is no short cut. One cannot go around or under the mountain. One must climb straight over it. Therefore in the earlier lessons more attention must be given to technic than in the later lessons when a really masterly technic has been developed. The trouble is that most students seem to look upon it the other way. Two hours a day for those who are not advanced in music (not beginners by any means) are not too much for technic. I do not see how one can climb over the great mountain of modern technic at a less speed than two hours a day. Otherwise, they would be old men and women before they could hope to compare with others in these days of enormous technical competition. Everybody knows that technic is only a means to an end; but without this means one does not reach the end. There may not be anything very beautiful about the great, grimy engine of an automobile; but if one would get to the journey’s end—to the dreamland of wonderful trees, gorgeous flowers and entrancing beauty—he must have the means. You must travel just so many scale miles, and arpeggio miles and octave miles before you arrive at the musical dreamland of interesting execution and interpretation.

“Always divide your practice periods. Do your technic at one time and your pieces at another. Approach the two sections with different aspects.

“Avoid worry and distractions of any kind when you are practicing. Your mind must be every minute on what you are doing, or the value of your practice is lessened enormously. By intense concentration, love of your work and the spirit in which you approach it, you can do more in a half hour than in an hour spent purposelessly. Do not think you have been practicing, if you have played a single note with your mind on anything else.

“When you practice in the right spirit you don’t know what it is to get tired. I often practice three and four hours and hardly realize that I have been practicing at all.

Secure Variety in Practice

“Variety in practice is most important. Repeating monotonously over and over again in treadmill fashion is the very worst kind of practice. It is both stupid and unnecessary. Take the scale of C. It may be played in hundreds of ways, with different rhythms, with different speeds, and with different touches. The hands may be varied. One hand may play legato and the other staccato. Practice in this way, using your brains and your ingenuity, and your practice will not be a bore to you.

“Practice in rhythm is something which American students in particular should not fail to secure. The student should look upon the rhythm of a piece as part of the personality of the piece. It should be marked by a strong vigorous design in the background. The Bohemians, Hungarians, Poles and the Russians seem to have an instinctive sense of rhythm. The Americans seem to fail in it. It puts me to my wits’ ends to know how to develop this sense of rhythm, which is one of the most human things in music. Playing duets helps to develop it; and of course hearing a great deal of strong rhythmic music is an aid. This can be heard in concerts and also by means of the talking machine.

“Accompanying an instrumentalist or a singer with a strong rhythmic sense is also a very good way of awakening the lethargic pupil to his rhythmic shortcomings. It is sometimes something of a shock to the young pianist to be asked to accompany such a singer for the first time. They find themselves being dragged along into new thought channels of which they have known but little.

“Rhythm should not be thought as something dead. It is live, vital, elastic. Of course, in the deadly thump, thump of the military march of the Schubert type, there is not the sprightly rhythm that one finds in a Chopin Etude. Whether the piece is played slower or faster the rhythmic design must not be obscured. It must always be there.

Acquiring Velocity

“First of all, let me admit that there does seem to be a physical limitation in the matter of velocity, and this differs with different people. It is mental as well as muscular nervous. Certain pupils do have limitations. The ability to acquire abnormal velocity by no means insures musical ability. Some pupils can play ‘like lightning,’ but can hardly do anything else well. Do not overrate velocity. Some develop it very quickly, and some acquire it only after great patience and persistence. Therefore, there is no hard and fast rule upon how to develop it. Perhaps the best general principle is the acquisition of the habit of playing with an extremely loose, floating hand. Rigidity of muscles and velocity never go together. Personally, I was always able to play with great rapidity. One of the serious mistakes that Safonoff made with me was that when he found that I could do a thing unusually well he would indulge me in it. He never gave me enough of the works in which there was no occasion for bravura, virtuosity and velocity. Develop your weak points; the strong points will take care of themselves.

The Danger of Bravura

“There is something about all of us that fascinates us with anything that is showy. When we have a piece that ‘goes off’ like a lot of fireworks, it intrigues us. Such pieces are dangerous; they lead one away from the finer side of one’s art.

“In bravura playing, the spirit and character of the piece is everything. Bravura playing is daring. One elects to play a brilliant passage, takes a chance, and accomplishes it. One is thrilled with success and then proceeds to waste valuable time in developing it to the disadvantage of other phases of technic.

“Bravura playing is also attempted all too early by students. They want to play the Tchaikowsky Concerto before they can properly play a Czerny exercise. I once found one student who didn’t know anything but bravura pieces. He was able to astonish all his relatives, but could not dream of giving a well-balanced program before a musical audience.

“Another danger of bravura is that many seem to look upon it as a kind of musical scrimmage. As the tempo and the dynamic force are increased in a brilliant passage, the notes become more obscured and confused, the octaves are mixed up and the trills mussy. Good bravura playing is just the opposite, and as the effect begins to ‘soar and resound’ there should be more and more clarity.

The Danger of the Pedal

“If there is a danger in Bravura, there is also a danger in pedaling. So much latitude can be taken in pedaling (and, indeed, who would make hard and fast rules for pedaling) that the novice uses the pedal like a kalsomine brush with which he might paint the back fence. The pedal demands study, meticulous study. It should be used with the same intelligence and definiteness as the fingers. It should be applied in the fraction of a second and released at just the right moment.

“One of the dangers is in not releasing the pedal at the right time. When to raise the foot is just as important as when to put it down. The best pedal effects in artistic playing are those in which the audience does not realize that there is a pedal at all.

“Regular pedaling (that is, when the pedal is depressed when the note is struck) and syncopated pedaling (depressing the pedal after the note has been struck) both have their uses. When playing a series of chords, use the syncopated pedaling, for in no other way can the sound be made continuous. It saves the piano from sounding like a xylophone.

“Pedaling is all in the knowing how. I employ a full pedal, a half pedal and a three-quarter pedal. In some of these effects the pedal just barely raises the dampers up from the wires; sometimes they touch slightly, producing a delightful harp-like effect. (This effect is rarely heard upon an upright piano as the mechanism is different.)

“One of the dangers of pedaling is in the so-called atmospheric effects. One knows that in a beautiful Corot painting the sharp outlines are almost nowhere to be seen. Corot, the master, lost them in a wonderful atmosphere. Thus, in certain modern works of music these outlines may be softened by the very skillful use of the pedal. There is no hard and fast rule, each phrase is a law unto itself.

“The pedaling in a Haydn Sonata and the pedaling in a Chopin Berceuse are as different as the brush technic that one would find in a pre-Raphælite painting and in a Millet. They represent different epochs and must be treated differently.

“What is so fascinating as the art of music; and how can it be approached with more charm by the individual than through the pianoforte. There is hardly anything so hideous as bad piano playing, and scarcely anything more beautiful than the masterly interpretation of a great composition by a great artist. Surely, it is worth all the study and far more, to acquire an intimacy with this wonderful instrument which brings so many of the gorgeous treasures of the tone world so near to the individual.”

 

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