How to touch a piano key, and enjoying some dissonant music

by Rob Tiller

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Last week I had my first piano lesson of the new school year. Olga was back from concertizing in Moldova and serving as artist-in-residence at a piano camp in Tennessee, and ready to get to work.

We started with Debussy’s Second Arabesque. I learned the flowing First Arabesque a few years back and continue to discover new aspects of it, and thought it would be fun to add the Second, which is ripply and jumpy, to my repertoire. Here’s a link to an interesting recording of the piece by master himself.

Olga thought there were some fundamental problems. We ended up working for perhaps forty-five minutes on how to touch the keys and play a single short phrase. It was difficult! Not difficult to make the basic tones, but rather to play them with exactly the right weight and color.

For starting the sound, we talked about leaning in with the body, the action of the wrist, the positioning of the elbow, the role of the index finger and the middle finger, the role of the thumb, starting to sink into the key, finding the bottom — all with exactitude. We also discussed ending the sound with similar precision. It was daunting. You might have thought, as I did, that I should have learned the best way to touch a piano key long ago. But then I had a minor epiphany: it takes years to get the foundational physical and mental skills to play one note on the piano really well. So I’m finally really getting started.
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We also worked on a section of Rachmaninoff’s Elegy, a hauntingly melancholy piece, and began Chopin’s famous Fantaisie-Impromptu. The FI is a show piece, with a fast beginning section based on a 6 (left hand) against 8 (right hand) polyrhythm. The slow middle section is one of Chopin’s most luxurious melodies. Here’s a link to a performance that I liked by Horowitz. I got Olga to play it for me to get some new ideas of the kind of rhythmic flexibility that might be possible.

Later in the week I read a piece by my friend Michael Tiemann on (where I am also a moderator and contributor) promoting open source music. Michael is passionate about music and open source, but I didn’t think his analogy to open source software really worked. Music in the great European tradition has always been open, in the sense that anyone can get the score and fashion their own interpretation. Each musician has access to the composer’s code. It’s hard to get much freer (in the sense of liberty, not beer).

In other musical news, for months I’ve been filling my ears with Mozart’s operas when I travel and each morning when I exercise. But it’s good to try new things. Recently my friend John G gave me a CD of Arnold Schoenberg’s piano music performed by Pollini. Schoenberg was a pathbreaking modernist with his 12-tone system that largely eliminated conventional melody and assured extreme dissonance, which I have always found more interesting in theory than in listening.

But I really liked a lot of the piano music. It is dissonant, but also very expressive – not completely different from Debussy’s later work. Here’s a link to Pollini playing Op. 11, No. 2.

In fact, I ordered the sheet music for Drei Klavierstucke Op. 11, and read through some of it. It would take a lot of work to really play this music, and even after that, a lot of listeners would hate it. I’ve got plenty of other musical projects at the moment, including Liszt’s gorgeous Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, to keep me busy, but I may take on some Schoenberg one of these days.
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