One Musical Hoagy Please?




One Musical Hoagy Please?  This blog takes a look at the timing of American musical trends. It uses the songwriter, Hoagy Carmichael, to illustrate the point. In the past, dominant melody and then dominant rhythm have taken turns in ten year periods. Individual writers here and there have written melodic works in a rhythmic era and vice versa; but there has been a ten year rhythmic cycle in public taste.

Hoagy Carmichael’s Epoch Making Song-   Stardust
One Musical Hoagy Please?  Here’s the story.An effective way to gain some insight into these cycles involves the classic song, Stardust.  It was written in the late 1920’s by Hoagy Carmichael. Hoagy made a fortune with it because of the Great Depression which began in October of 1929.

Earlier, January of 1929, Joe walks downtown, he’s upbeat because “everything’s coming up roses.” He has plenty of money, a good looking dame and one of those new- fangled automobiles. He has a bounce in his gait and moves to the rhythm of the quick step song, “Five-Foot-Two”. The last thing he wants to hear is a long- winded beautiful melody. What a damper melody is!Continue reading

Franz Liszt at the Piano

What’s Your Musical Angle?
Just as a salesman usually has an angle to sell his product, a pianist should have an angle formed by the tilt of his hands toward his thumbs not only when playing scales and arpeggios but also most of the time.  Prepared thumbs are only one of several necessary techniques necessary for playing scales effectively.

Use your thumb as a fulcrum
With you thumbs resting on the white keys, raise and tilt your hands and other fingers toward the thumbs so that while the thumb along with the first, second and third fingers stay grounded, the 4th and 5th fingers are slightly elevated as follows: The fourth finger barely touches the white key, while the 5th hangs suspended in the air ready to pounce on the key when required.  Since the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers are strong, they do not need additional strength to strike the keys, while the 4th and 5th finger do.  With the hands tilted toward the thumbs, these weaker fingers can make use of lateral motion from above to get a fuller sound.  This is essential because not only are the 4th and 5th fingers the weakest on each hand but as you will now see:Continue reading

Beethoven’s Innovative Prepared Thumb:

Mischa Kotler, David's piano instructor and official pianist of the Detroit Symphony for 30 years.
Mischa Kotler, David’s piano instructor and official pianist of the Detroit Symphony for 30 years.

Beethoven’s Innovative Prepared Thumb: Beethoven was not only the greatest pianist of his day and arguably the greatest composer, but he was also a great innovator of piano technique.   Among the techniques he invented was the “prepared thumb” for scales and arpeggios.  My piano instructors can trace their training back to Beethoven.  How?  Well… working backwards, I studied for 14 years in Detroit with Mischa Kottler.  Kottler studied in Vienna with Emil von Sauer in the 1920s.  Von Sauer studied two summers with one of the greatest pianists ever, Franz Liszt.  Liszt studied with Carl Czerny – the greatest writer of piano exercises of the classical era.  Czerny studied with none other than Beethoven, himself.

Beethoven’s Innovative Prepared Thumb: for Playing Scales

In the figure below, I share how the principle of the prepared thumb is executed in motion.   The C major scale, as played by the right hand, shows the correct fingering with the corresponding letter names of the pitches.

Letters:   C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

Fingers:   1  2   3  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  1  2  3   4   5

As you ascend the scale note by note, the moment you strike your 2nd finger on “D”, tuck your thumb under the palm of the hand to prepare to play the “F”.  The hand must be held in a high arch to make room for the thumb so it doesn’t scrape the keys below.  When you place your 3rd finger on the key to play the “E”, the thumb is already there waiting on the “F”.

As you proceed further into the scale a slight variation occurs, three notes G-A-B are played before the thumb is reused.   The thumb is tucked under in the same fashion but when you play “B” with your fourth finger the thumb does not reach the “C”.  So, the hand glides horizontally in a tiny jump to land the prepared thumb on the next “C”.  This way you prevent strain.


Playing Scales Smoothly

The prepared thumb should contribute to evenness of tone as one plays up and down the piano. Nothing is as annoying than hearing a thumb go thumping on the keys after every third and fourth finger during scale work. When playing scales, the top of your hand from its knuckles to the forearm should be still. The scale work in Beethoven’s concertos and sonatas often require  speed and fluidity.  For that purpose, Beethoven had to “build a better mousetrap”.

One Full Year of Study and Practice

Mischa Kottler told me, it takes a year of training to have good hand position.  Kottler played with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra until age 93 without injury. I have a limited number of openings for piano students in the Sarasota area. In season I play six nights weekly at the Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande Fl. If you are interested in studying, E-mail me for schedule availability.