I had the goal of finding a significant model for the theme of “balance”. I thought it was the 5 regular “Platonic solids”. They are totally regular and balanced anyway you look at them. To accomplish this, Buckminister Fuller’s Synergetics was on my “to read” list. The book, however, is like a long lasting sucker: It is so big and intense, that you can only take one lick at the time. Then, I had a dream about a humming bird. Shortly afterward, we went to Oquaga Lake’s setting in the Catskills. There, I met the Oquaga Spirit, as she called herself.
The Humming Bird of my Dream Makes Itself Known on Oquaga Lake
Our family started going to New York’s Catskills for five months; from May to October. My wife, Sharon, and I, did our featured shows twice weekly. I was also the house pianist. Spring fed Oquaga Lake has a spiritual presence. On the products page on DSOworks.com, I have my book of poetry:T he Oquaga Spirit Speaks. The spirit was originally a female from the matriarchal Lennie Lenope tribe. The tribe is a branch of the Algonquins. There is still some controversy over the meaning of Oquaga. Most recently an e-mail contact told me that Oquaga is a Mohawk word. It means “land of the wild grape.”
The resulting 100 page poetry book has poetry with pictures. It is available through DSOworks.com for $2.99. I priced it that way to make the spirit’s words affordable. Shortly I will post on youtube samples of me reciting the poetry. This excerpt below is called “The Oquaga Spirit”.
Doris and Scotty called
With an invite to Lake Oquaga
I met the spirit on walks
That lead to the words of this saga.
I played the piano at night
And afternoons on the boat.
But in the mornings I’d stroll,
And the Spirit would be afloat.
The poetry has several references to the humming bird including,”Ivy Towers.”
They perch on the porch
Hidden in the flowers;
Gazing down at us
From their ivy towers.
Of every size
From the humming bird
To the owl so wise.
Maximum stretch for the piano is essential. There seems to be very few ideally sized hands. Short fingers make wide stretches on the piano difficult. Playing closely with stubby fingers is difficult. Wide palms slow down tucking the thumb under for scales or arpeggios. My instructions through piano lessons has helped many of my students understand how to get the most out of their reach.
ROBERT SCHUMANN’S UNSUCCESSFUL SURGERY
There are ways to overcome inherent difficulties without going to extremes. An example of going to extremes involves Robert Schumann, the composer. He thought that surgery would correct an inherent difficulty: Fingers four and five work best together. It’s difficult to move 4th without the fifth finger. These two weaker fingers share a common tendon. Unfortunately, his surgery did not work.
ONE MAN TOOK A SMALLER PIANO WITH HIM
Another method to acquire maximum stretch for the piano is the piano itself. Josef Hoffman took his piano with him on concert tours. His piano was specially designed for small hands: The distance from key to key is shorter.
I, having a small to medium sized hand, invented a five finger stretch. In all my years of playing etudes, I’ve never encountered this idea. I feel this is an essential exercise for anyone who shares my hand limitation: Some composers, for example, Sergei Rachmaninoff; had hand huge hands. With small hands, that creates difficulties. I call my exercise, simply: The Five Finger Stretch. It stretches the webbing of the fingers by fifths and octaves.
HOW TO PLAY THE QUICK AND EFFECTIVE 5 FINGER STRETCH
Here is the finger sequence for the right hand by fifths and then by octaves. It ascends and then descends based on the solfeggio notes of the one octave C major scale. By fifths we have: 1-2-3-2; 1-2-3-2; etc. then 3-4-5-3, 3-4-5-3 etc; then 2-3-4-3; 2-3-4-3. The fingering up and down the scale are reversed for the left hand. Then I use the octave stretch with the following fingerings: 1-2-5-2, 1-2-5-2; and secondly, 1-3-5-3; 1-3-5-3. By note we have: c-c’-c”-c’; d-d’-d”-d’. This stretch encompasses two octaves.
The exercise is no guarantee that the small handed person will be able to play Rachmaninoff. However, it will stretch your hand to its maximum. Important: Should you experience fatigue or pain in your fingers, stop. Shake your hands and fingers out. Only play this exercise if you feel stretching without pain. How about the size of Rachmaninoff’s hand?
Look to the past to face the future with absolute confidence. The very thought has a built in paradox: How can looking backwards get you ahead? Yet, this is exactly what happened in the musical arts of France in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th centuries. In my opinion the action of looking backwards to go forward took the extremely brilliant mind of Claude Debussy as well as his contemporary composer friend, Maurice Ravel and others. I have been reading and studying L’art de Toucher Le Clavcin by Francois Couperin. It was first published in 1716. I feel that in some ways, it lays the groundwork for the impressionistic movement. Of course, the harmonies of impressionism differ dramatically from the Couperin’s earlier prototype.
Debussy is not the man who would be king:
He is the king!
One extremely important instruction that Couperin offers today’s performers of Debussy involves dynamics. That is, whether or not to play loudly or softly in a particular musical passage. Couperin writes in his musical treatise that it is up to the composer to make the music louder or softer by the notes on the page. For a louder section, he places more notes in his chord or musical passage. For softer passages, notes are be removed. Melodies were often supported by thinly realized harmonies. This helps in making subtle playing even when many notes sound at once. Old keyboards did not play louder and softer by degrees: They could only contrast loud and soft by use of a special pedal. According to Couperin, the quantity of notes that sounded at once made the volume. This kept both vulgar and excessively loud playing to a minimum. My teacher learned these techniques from Alfred Cortot in the 1920’s, and I offer piano lessons which offer these techniques.
Today’s pianists, by and large, overplay the compositions of the impressionistic composers. For the most part,the sound of the music takes care of itself by means of the extra notes that that Debussy or Ravel wrote into the musical score. I have been preparing one hour of the of Debussy’s music to be available on this website. In doing so, I have discovered a hidden technique that Debussy used. Its purpose was to tell the pianist what note or chord to emphasize. Also, the absence of the use of this device meant to play the notes or chords in a gentler manner. Since beginning this project, I have nothing but awe for the genius of Debussy. In my humble opinion, I think he was not only had a totally brilliant mind, but he was a great, great innovator with good taste. I cannot describe the wonderful feeling I have anytime I get even a tiny insight into what Debussy had in mind in his music. Stay tuned for more Debussy and Ravel blogs.
Preludes set the musical tone of an event be it a wedding, church service or a concert. But what is not known to most people is that n the baroque era, around 1700, a keyboard soloist would play a prelude while the audience was settling down, i.e. before the program of the concert actually started. While patrons were still finding their seats, keyboard player would improvise flashy runs and passages on the spot. The audience marvel at his talent thus peeking their interest in the concert.
TESTING THE INSTRUMENT AND THE ROOM
The prelude gave the performer the opportunity to check:
The acoustics of the room and
The resonance of the instrument. Thus, if the instrument had short sustaining power, he would play trills and tremolos faster.
And that he had to play slow pieces at a faster tempo.
The Prelude also served the purpose of allowing the performer to judge the action or response of the keys.
If the acoustics of the room were dead, the soloist would quicken the tempo. If the acoustics were live, he would observe slower markings. In effect the soloist did the sound check; thus acting like a modern day sound engineer. If my reader would like to know more about what performers did before electrical sound engineering I recommend reading Francois Couperin (1668-1733) in his L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin , published in 1716.
Francois Couperin author of L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin
PRACTICING CHOPIN’S PRELUDES DAILY
For years, I’ve kept a log of my piano practice and still do. The Preludes by Chopin are regular part of my warm ups. I choose three. The first emphasizes work with the right hand. The second emphasizes the left. The third works both hands equally. Chopin was a great fan of Johann Sebastian Bach. In writing his Preludes, Chopin chose Bach for the model. As Bach wrote preludes in all the key signatures, so did Chopin. Chopin’s 1st Prelude is a stylistic copy of Bach’s 1st Prelude in Book I of the Well Tempered Clavichord. Both hands interlock in the continuous motion of 16th notes. Chopin, however, gives this prelude beautiful melodic import. This characterizes his then newer style of writing music.
PRELUDES OF THAT ARCH MUSICAL INNOVATOR, CLAUDE DEBUSSY
For centuries, preludes were written as absolute music. Absolute music is defined as music that is meant to be free of any extra musical implications. As absolute music, preludes were simply intended to be played as an introduction to a longer work. That was it. In his preludes Debussy changes tradition in a humorous manner. He numbers each Prelude with Roman numerals on the title page. Innocent enough. However according to the Paris edition by Durand et Cie. copyright 1910, he broke the tradition.What he did reminds me the surprise toy that we used to find in boxes of Cracker Jacks. At the very end of each Prelude, he zings you with a descriptive title! Thus, for example when we play Prelude X, we think that that is all we are playing. But at the bottom of the last page, we learn that we have really been playing, La Cathedrale engloutie (The engulfed or sunken Cathedral). I know that Debussy had fun with this intentional reversal.
I’M WORKING ON ONE HOUR OF DEBUSSY’S PIANO MUSIC
I’ve been practicing to make a recording of 60 minutes of Debussy’s music. What a task! He was a first place award winning concert pianist. That fact together with his avowed goal of braking all previous rules as much as possible makes him very difficult to play. His rule breaking, I must admit, is always in good taste. My teacher, Mischa Kottler, who studied in Paris and Vienna in the 1920’s (see blog) wanted me, with one of his last wishes, to give a Debussy concert. I have upped my practicing for this purpose. I’m finding out that 3.5 hours daily is not enough. I’ll have to up it even more; or, it will not happen. Keep watching for my hour on the web site of recorded Debussy. I’m determined.
The genius of Claude Debussy is difficult, but yet important to try to follow. Playing piano provides the pathway to orchestral composing; as the sound range of the entire orchestra is covered by the span of its 88 keys. Claude Debussy, at age 9, followed this path under auspices of a pupil of Chopin. He was not satisfied, however, to merely play the piano and win honors and prizes; he also wanted to search for a new sound for music.
A MUSICAL PATRONESS TO THE RESCUE
The genius of Claude Debussy needed a believer.. Enter Mme. von Meck, the rich patroness of Tchaikovsky. She took it upon herself to finance Debussy’s trip to Russia and Asia so that he could discover the new sound he was looking for. It worked. He absorbed the music of the gypsies, Russian folk music, as well as the musical palettes of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Balakirev. Thank heavens for those who support composers. They have made much of the music that we enjoy today possible.
DEBUSSY WINS THE PRIX DE ROME
The genius of Claude Debussy went on to win the highest European prize for composing- the Prix de Rome. On returning to Paris, he aligned himself with poets and painters who had already partaken of the new impressionistic rage that began in France during 1880’s. The goal of impressionism was to give a sense of what was seen but for only for a fleeting moment. In art this resulted in vague shapes and lines which were often blurred. Musically it gave an “on the spot” impression of how a person feels. At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, Debussy further grew in scope by studying vases from Japan and the music from Java.
FINDING NEW WAYS TO COMPOSE MUSIC AFTER WAGNER’S TRISTAN & ISOLDE
In his quest to find new ways to write music, the genius of Claude Debussy also used the old Medieval modes; as well as the pentatonic and whole tone scales. He heard these novel scales in Russia and at Javanese concerts. Whenever possible, Debussy avoided the old major and minor scales. Debussy especially disliked the music of Wagner. Whenever he felt Wagner’s influence entering one of his compositions, he would strike the notes and say: “There’s that old devil again.” Wagner had carried the music of the Romantic era as far as it could go. This happened in his opera Tristan and Isolde, produced in Munich in 1865. Almost the entire 2nd and 3rd acts of the three act opera, are an “unending love duet” in which virtually every motion of love from tenderness to grandiose passion are sung. After Wagner’s opera, music needed a new direction.
A PREFERENCE FOR COMPLEX MUSICAL CHORDS
Debussy added to basic musical triads extensions by 7th, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. Suchcomplex chords can be heard in multiple ways. For example, C-E-G-B-D can be heard as containing a C-E-G triad, E-G-B triad or G-B-D triad. Like impressionism, the lines of definition are blurred. Impressions of several chords at the time are given. !
MY UPCOMING ALL DEBUSSY PROGRAM ON THE WEB
I am currently working on one hour of Debussy’s piano music to be available on the website. It will feature some of his most popular piano works including his Arabesques and the Suite Bergamasque with Claire de Lune. One technique that Debussy enjoyed using was a novel approach to the two note phrase. Often, like in the Prelude from the Suite Bergamasque, he tied the 1st note of the two note phrase over the barline. Then he would resolve it with the second tone on the second beat. I call this technique a delayed two note phrase resolution. The release date of my Debussy recording will be announced. My teacher, Mischa Kottler, was part of the Paris scene during the 1920’s. He studied under Alfred Cortot who founded numerous musical conservatories in Paris. Cortot edited Chopin’s music as he studied under one of his pupils. I’m practicing for the release by working in fleeting and musical blurred moments. I’m working on beautiful tone for both melody and counterpoint. Most important. I’m using shorter and marked phrases. The legato marks of most editors are incredibly long. I feel like they are the lazy man’s way of editing music.
Mischa Kottler – A visit by the legendary piano instructor. Here’s how it all started: The phone rings. I pick it up and hear, “David, this is your piano teacher, Mischa.” I was incredulous . Having left Detroit, Michigan 10 years earlier, I remembered that Mischa Kottler was in his eighties just before I had moved to Sarasota. I said to the voice on the phone: “That’s a joke. Who is this, really?”
Chopin’s Minute Waltz, with a twist … … Mischa Kottler playsRachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Movement #1 – Duration: 15:18. by Joseph …
The voice said, “Really, it’s Mischa and I hear that you have more children than I know piano concertos.”
At that moment, I knew it was Mischa because his gruff, Russian accent now matched his familiar sense of humor. To my shock, he said he would love to fly to Sarasota to visit me and my family. To which I, without hesitation, said , “Yes.” He also said he would be happy to give me piano lessons in the exchange. To which I immediately said,”That would be a dream come true!”
Mischa’s famous students
Mischa had guided the careers, at least in part, of such notables as Seymour Lipkin, Ruth Laredo, and Cynthia Raim. Mischa’s student frequently went on to win piano competitions. He even gave advice to Van Cliburn, who flew in from Texas for fingering solutions to a Brahms Piano Concerto. My father and I saw van Cliburn leave as I arrived for my piano lesson. I was told at the time by Mischa to keep Van Cliburn’s visit a secret…. which I have until now. You may remember that Van Cliburn was an American pianist who achieved worldwide recognition in 1958, at the age of 23, when he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War that actually opened the doors to better Russian-American relations. Ah, the merits of great music, well-played!
If you were accepted as a Kottler student, you might have to wait about 1-2 years just to start, his lesson time was in such demand. Even then, acceptance didn’t mean regular piano lessons. Since Mischa was the official pianist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he would tour for months.
Mischa’s own legendery teacher – Alfred Cortot
A visit from the legendary Mischa Kottler. Wow! That Mischa was actually coming to stay with our family was beyond my wildest dreams. When he arrived at our home, this man at 94 years of age, sat down at our not so great piano and played Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”. It is incredibly difficult to play in tempo with single notes, but Mischa played it with double notes in 3rds, 4ths and 5ths in the right hand at the same tempo that other pianists are only able to play it one note at the time. Mischa mastered this most difficult art under the instruction of Alfred Cortot….who had studied with a pupil of Chopin. Kottler studied with Cortot at the Paris Conservatory during the 1920’s because of a recommendation from a very impressive pianist composer – Sergei Rachmaninoff. Kottler had auditioned for Rachamninoff. I was told by Kottler that Rachmaninoff said to Kottler, ” You have to go to Paris and study with Cortot.” and gave him a a personal letter of recommendation.
Another notable Mischa student – Greg Philliganes
From work with Stevie Wonder while still in his teens, to tours and recordings with Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and Toto, Phillinganes’ massive discography reads like a “Who’s Who” of pop music, encompassing four decades.
From Greg Philliganes’ interview in Keyboard Magazine
“Sensing that I needed discipline more than anything else, my Mom managed to hook me up with a wonderful teacher named Mischa Kottler. He was a no-nonsense Russian Jewish guy who could crack a pane of glass with one finger. He was a complete badass, and he cooled my attitude out immediately. I studied with him well into my teens.
What kinds of things were you studying with him?
I was studying technique and classical repertoire. He taught me a certain way of playing that I still use to this day: a sense of evenness where your wrists aren’t loose or moving up and down. It’s a totally linear way of playing, where there’s even movement in both hands so your wrists stay perfectly still. Misha would take two fingers and weigh them down on my wrists to keep them from moving. He instilled a sense of dexterity and definition in my playing. If I’m known for my speed and precision, it’s probably due to Misha more than anything else.
Now you see why titled the blog: Mischa Kottler- A Visit By the Legendary Piano Instructor
Numerous pianist-composers have written their own finger exercises. At times these exercises were performed away from the piano and were termed “finger gymnastics.” E. Piccirilli mentions in his book, Gymnastics and Massage of the Hand, published in 1914 in Rome how the conductor of La Scala, Tonassi, had seen Franz Liszt use such exercises before sitting down at the piano. A detailed description is given in Piccirilli’s book. These finger gymnastics were confirmed by a blind keyboard player, Luigi Modulo, who was the organist at S. Simon Grange. Modulo said that Liszt had shown these exercises to a friend of the director of the Institute of Padua; and that the institute produced the best students. I will deal with these forgotten exercises in future blogs.
Carl Czerny and the Beethoven lineage
Carl Czerny wrote exercise books to facilitate the playing of Beethoven; among them were The School and Velocity and The Art of Finger Dexterity. My own instructor, Mischa Kottler, demonstrated his lineage back to Beethoven and the Czerny exercises and directed me on how to play Czerny’s studies. Mischa studied in Vienna in the 1920’s with Emil von Sauer, who studied with Franz Liszt, who studied with Carl Czerny who studied four years with Beethoven himself. Beethoven was a great innovator of piano technique and passed his secrets on to his students. I know which of the techniques I employ were, in fact, used by Beethoven. I have already blogged on this website about his innovative prepared thumb and will blog about other key techniques.
Cortot’s elaborate finger exercises based on Chopin
Chopin wrote two volumes of concert etudes; his opus 10 and opus 25. They include studies in every key. We see the influence of J.S. Bach who Chopin not only admired and regularly practiced; but also imitated Bach’s use of diverse key signatures in his own compositions. After studying with von Sauer, Mischa then went to Paris to study under Alfred Cortot. Cortot, in turn, was tutored by a pupil of Chopin. When I was taught the Chopin etudes, Mischa insisted that I purchase the edition written by Cortot. I had to send my order to Paris in order to purchase it. Alfred Cortot wrote an introduction with elaborate instructions for each etude. I had to play these”pre-study” studies for Mischa as part of my “going through the mill”. For my next blog I will discuss a great study for assisting small to medium sized hands, which I invented; so, I am at liberty to demonstrate it.
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.
GOOD TIMES = RHYTHMICAL SONGS
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
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: 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.