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Crash Course: How to Teach Piano Online

What you have been wondering and perhaps worrying about for many years is suddenly upon you. The question was if online piano lesson are worth it and if so, how to get started? Now there is no more time to ponder, this week you will be teaching all your piano students online!

This article is under preparation but since this is an urgent time for most of us to skill up, we are publishing the draft.

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Let us know how things are going for you at the moment by post your experiences, suggestions and questions in the comment field at the bottom!

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While you could spend the remainder of this school year investigating and planning for the optimal way to teach piano remotely using various online tools and adjusting your educational approach and content accordingly, it will still not be close to a physical lesson. But online teaching will have both advantages and disadvantages, and as a piano teacher your creative and pedagogical skills will surely help you make the most of the advantages.

This article covers many obvious things, but the aim is to quickly introduce you to the current consensus around the basic concepts of online piano teaching and not least, to help you get your online teaching started today!

Are you ready for the crash course?

Level 1: Just do it!

The best piano lesson?
The lesson that actually takes place. (Any lesson, physical or online is better than a cancelled lesson.)

The best technical devices and equipment?
The stuff you and your students already own.

The best platform?
The one you and your student already use or can easily start using.

The best outcome?
You assist and inspire as many of your students as possible to continue practicing during a time of social isolation.

We suggest that your main goal for the first week is to get started immediately with what you have. Follow up each student’s progress and encourage them to continue practicing.

What not to expect at this level:
– Good sound quality
– Sharing sheet music and annotations on screen
– Multi camera setup
– Working with tone quality
– Giving detailed feedback about interpretation
– Introducing new complex concepts and techniques

Problems to accept:
– You cannot play together due to the time delay (often up to 1 second).
– Quality of the video call may vary and you might have to disconnect and use an alternative platform during the lesson.

A minimal setup
Since your highest priority is to connect and communicate without too much preparation and practical problem solving, we suggest you get started with this simple setup.

Devices and platforms

Both you as a teacher and your students use the following:
– A smartphone, tablet and/or laptop that you already use
– Facetime, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, Snapchat etc.

Since all your students are likely not using the same platforms you should install and setup accounts on at least two different platforms.

Facetime – often decent quality, but can only be used if both you and your student have Apple devices. It is simply a video call.
Skype – quality can be very varying due to wifi connections etc. You can keep up the conversation between lessons in the chat where you can send text, sheet music, assignments, images and video etc.
Zoom – similar to Skype but as a dedicated online conference and education solution, it has features for scheduling lessons. Most students are not familiar with it and you will be more locked into a “walled garden” compared to the other platforms.
WhatsApp – many users have it and as with Skype you can share different kinds of content.
Snapchat – since most kids use it, it is good to have as a backup solution.
Voice call – a simple phone call should not be underestimated. It is the clear winner in terms of accessability and if you know your student well, you can easily conduct a useful lesson that keeps the student on track.

Instruct the student to place the smartphone in a vertical (portrait) position at the end of the keyboard. Attach it with adhesive (e.g. Blu Tack) or tape.

You can also opt for horizontal video, but you need to decide which of the two to use. For smartphones with small screens, vertical as in the picture above is recommended but if you both use laptops, horizontal is the natural choice.

As a teacher it is useful and practical to use two devices. For example a smartphone for the video call and a laptop for keeping notes in an e-mail or shared text document.

Turn of any sound enhancements, auto mic adjust and “mirror image”.

Planning and following-up

As an alternative or complement to the student’s physical notebook, use either one e-mail (that you both keep replying to between lessons) or a shared Google Doc file. Before the lesson, list the following:
– Lesson time
– Your accounts on the various platforms and the preferred one for this lesson
– Lesson content in bullet form

During the lesson you can make notes for the students and finish by setting up the time and lesson content bullets for the next lesson.

Quick tips:

– Follow the same routines as your physical lessons.
– Have simple goals with each lesson.
– Look at the camera to create a sense of eye contact with your student.
– One thing at a time. Do not talk while you or the student is playing.
– Real-time instructions or counting the beats while the student is playing are delayed, which will be very distracting.
– Give more responsibility to the student. For example let them make notes in their score or judge for themselves if the balance between hands is good.
– Keep in mind that a significant part of the gains with having a piano lesson is that the student keeps practicing to prepare for the lesson and get a new assignment to continue practicing.

Getting to work

Before you quickly jump in, a word of warning:
You will probably need to install new apps and software, sign-up for new services, and encourage your students to do the same. Be aware that depending on your circumstances and experience there may be online security and privacy issues that you may need to consider carefully.

1. Try out two different video call platforms and practice your app skills (chat, post a file or image).
2. Figure out how to position/mount your device(s) and work on your filming skills (switch between front/rear camera etc).
3. Set-up a shared document or e-mail for each student with the content mentioned above and send it over to your students.
4. Read this article and this to have a better chance to avoid embarrassing beginner mistakes. Prepare your family members if you are teaching from home!
5. Wait for your first call!

Level 2: Adjust your content and method

When you have been able to connect and communicate with your students in real time you will probably see obvious room for improvement in many areas. Your priorities will depend on your situation, so need to evaluate your experience from level 1 in order to set up your prioritis for your next steps as an online piano teacher.

While a very reasonable reaction is to start thinking about improving the (sometimes terrible) sound and video quality with better technical equipment, consider that it is not only you as a teacher that need a better camera, microphone, tablet etc. but all your students also need to level up their gear in order for you to benefit from it.

Instead, your time is now probably better spent to pragmatically consider which type of lesson content and methods are the most effective and useful in this new situation.

You may now need a good service for publishing and viewing videos privately. YouTube is the superior market leader for two reasons: it works great and it is free. Get an account and consider asking your students to do the same if you want them to send/share videos.

Here are some thoughts to get you started:

“Flipped classroom” approach
Give students material to learn on their own (video courses, printed material, apps etc.). During live video lessons you assist them by helping to solve the problems they have encountered.

“Video exchange” approach
The student is asked to record a video of their piece or other assessment and send it to you. You can get back with written comments in an email, or with a short video clip with comments and instructions. Videos recorded and posted will almost always be of considerably better quality than a real-time video call.  It is not unrealistic to assume that the student might be even more motivated and dedicated to playing well in the video recording than when just practicing for the ordinary lesson.

Here are more invaluable tips about content, techniques, and routines for online piano teaching that has recently been shared on YouTube by piano teachers.

Top Music: 5 Quick Tips for Producing Video Piano Lessons Online

The Clarion Clavier: How and why I teach piano lessons online through Skype

Curious Piano Teachers: Your Essential Guide to Giving Online Piano Lessons

Helpful articles to read:

Clavier Companion: Teaching in the time of Covid-19

Tim Topham: On How to Maximize Your Effectiveness When Teaching Lessons Online

Color in my piano: Teaching Piano During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Level 3: Improved Technology

Now you are ready to explore the many ways of improving the technological side of your online teaching.

While you can quite easily gear up to deliver impressive multi-camera lessons with great sound on a budget below $3.000, before you jump in, take a moment to consider a few things:

– You can not expect all students to invest in quality gear. They may still use their smartphone with a small screen and poor audio (both microphone and speakers).

– If your online lessons are too impressive, it may not just be the temporary solution that you had in mind. Students and parents will get used to the new situation and it is easy to imagine that they will in many cases prefer and require online lessons even when the period of social distancing is over. Are you really ready to give up physical lessons?

– Just to physically set up the technical gear for high-tech multicamera lessons does take time. If you use a proven setup that you have been working with before, you should still expect an hour to get camera stands, mic placement, hdmi adapters, audio mixer, camera angles, device charging and a lot more to be in place. Unless you have a dedicated online piano lessons studio where you can keep the setup intact over time, you may have to spend a lot of time rigging up and down.

If the above points cannot hold you back, get started by listening to some piano teachers with long experience in this area that we have found sharing their tips on YouTube:

Josh Wright: 15 Tips For ONLINE Piano Lessons (filmed during COVID-19 quarantining)

Hugh Sun: How To Teach Online Piano Lessons

How to Teach Online Piano Lessons


How to Keep Your Piano Keys Clean from Viruses?

The current Coronavirus pandemic brings questions to the fore about how to eliminate the spread of infectious and harmful microorganisms in our teaching or practicing spaces. One of the most burning ones is what can be done to sanitize or disinfect piano keys without harming them. Piano manufacturers advise against using any form of alcohol, but what’s the alternative? And during an ongoing pandemic when public health have higher priority than material concerns, do we need to re-evaluate the advice?

This article is updated regularly with the latest advice based on what’s know about Covid-19.
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Occasionally, we all carry viral and bacterial pathogens on our hands, disease-causing organisms that are likely to end up on keyboards. As a consequence, pianos in teaching and practicing spaces, played on by many different people, risk contributing to the spread of diseases.
If teaching, it is obviously a good idea to require effective hand washing or sanitizing before and after anyone plays your piano. But this will not help against, say, any coughing or sneezing that may happen during a lesson. And when faced with a new instrument not knowing who has played it before you – what can you do to sanitize the keyboard before touching it?

Alcohol based disinfectants

The most efficient disinfection would generally be to use some kind of alcohol such as rubbing alcohol or denatured alcohol (methylated spirits), but be aware that this could damage the keys. It’s especially risky on an older instrument with ivory keys. But as a matter of fact, both ivory (a natural polymer) and synthetic polymer key surfaces can become discolored or cracked when exposed to alcohol or other harsh chemicals used in disinfectants.

Disinfectant wipes, warm water, or vinegar?

Some piano teachers wipe their piano keyboards with various disinfectants after each student. Is this because they are unaware of the risks of damaging the instrument, or is it that they see no alternative? Or that they have done so for years, and found that the potential health benefits outweigh the potential risks for the instrument?
Some recommend using a solution of water and vinegar, but science is still very scarce on vinegar’s effectiveness as a disinfectant. Clearly, it’s not nearly as effective as chemical products. And you need to allow at least a half-hour of exposure. Also, one would think vinegar a more gentle alternative for ivory keys, but this is not the case. If your keys are plastic, vinegar won’t hurt, but when dealing with ivory, avoid it altogether.
If you want to be really gentle on the keys, you could simply wipe them down with a damp cloth (NB. damp, not wet – nothing spells destruction for a fine instrument like moisture damage). This will not kill viruses and germs but hopefully removes them physically. It’s far less likely to damage the keys than disinfectants, but probably less effective.

The polymer chemist’s approach

John M. Zeigler, Ph.D., a polymer chemist also interested in music, has tackled the problem of disinfecting piano keys safely in his article “Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio”. Zeigler found that certain disinfecting wipes (with so-called ‘quaternary ammonium chlorides’ as active ingredients) should be safe for use on piano keyboards, because they contain mostly water and only a very small amount of the disinfectant. Nevertheless, he recommends wiping with a damp cloth afterward to remove disinfectant residues. He also issues a word of warning: Unless you can understand the nature, chemical reactivity and purpose of the label ingredients for a cleaning product, avoid using it on your piano.
Don’t forget to wash your hands!

New recommendations from PTG

Piano Technicians Guilds has recently published the document “Covid-19 and Piano Care”.
Their general recommendations are:

  • Use alcohol-based disinfectants, do not use bleach-based disinfectants or any product containing citrus.
  • If using a spray or liquid bottle, use a disposable towel like WYPALL L30. Put the disinfectant on the towel and not the piano.
  • After use, immediately put the towel or disinfectant hand wipe in the trash and wash your hands as the CDC recommends. Do not use reusable towels or cloths which could spread germs to your kit or the next customer.
  • Always follow up with a dry towel and never leave any liquids on the piano or keys.

What about coronavirus specifically?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives, on their page Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) > Clean & Disinfect, the following advice that can be relevant for disinfection, not considering possible harm on musical instruments:

“Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.”

“For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.”

To summarize

It’s not as easy as you might think to find a quick, effective way to disinfect or sanitize the keyboard, which is also completely safe for the piano keys. At the end of the day, the best recommendation would probably still be for everyone to wash or sanitize their hands carefully, both before and after playing, since it’s unlikely that any keyboard will be 100% virus-free. While playing, avoid touching your face, picking up your phone, etc. Add to this a wipe down the keys with a simple damp cloth before and after every playing session.

For a more thorough disinfection of the keyboard, you could go about like this:
1. Wipe the keys with a cloth dipped in a solution of soap and warm water and wrung out well.
2. Remove soap residue with a damp cloth.
3. Use some kind of trusted disinfectant with a low concentration of the active ingredient.
4. Leave disinfectant residue for 30 seconds to a couple of minutes before removing it with a damp cloth.

Links and resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) > Clean & Disinfect

BBC Future: Covid-19: How long does the coronavirus last on surfaces?

BBC News: Coronavirus: How to clean your smartphone safely
(Gives a hint about how effective soap and water is on coronavirus.)

Steinway Los Angeles recommends 70% alcohol to clean the keys.

Steinway & Sons main Facebook page recommends hydrogen peroxide.

“Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio” by polymer chemist John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.

As user ardith in Piano Forum points out, it is difficult to get a clear answer about what chemicals to use.
Do disinfectant chemicals such as isopropanol damage piano keys?

Related reading:

Coronavirus Etude – A New Viral Piano Piece
A classic viral piano piece, “Dusting the Piano” has finally got a follow-up. While Dusting the Piano should be managable for players of ABRSM grade 1 and suitable for performances during less critical times, the new Coronavirus Etude is more complex (around ABRSM grade 5) and aimed to be more effective against viruses.

Reader question:

How do you keep your piano keys clean?
Please post your reply below!


The Thelonious Monk Journey – Interview with pianist Jed Distler

Fearless Monk is an album completely dedicated to compositions of the great jazz icon Thelonious Monk by pianist Jed Distler, whose insights as classical music critic have been held in high regard by both musicians and fellow writers for decades.

It’s easy to get the notion that American pianist Jed Distler is everywhere. Called by the New York Times; ”a witty, genial and adventurous pianist and composer”, Distler has premiered works by Frederic Rzewski, Lois V Vierk, Wendy Mae Chambers, Simeon ten Holt to name a few. He also launched a project with all the songs of the jazz icon Thelonious Monk in a unique concert and has also conceived ”100 Portraits for Virgil”, the first complete performance of all the Virgil Thomson piano portraits in a one-day multimedia festival. We also know Jed Distler as an ardent radio host and producer at ”Between the Keys” at WWFM.org.

At the last fall edition of Cremona Music, Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell was happy not only to hear Distler perform from his Thelonious Monk album ”Fearless Monk: 29 Songs by Thelonious Monk”, but also to sit down and talk to the multifaceted musician.

Piano Street: Jed, you have a background in jazz and contemporary classical music and as a composer. You were asked by legend Bill Evans to transcribe his solos for publication and you also produced a book with Art Tatum transcriptions. So when approaching Thelonious Monk’s material, which was the driving force in you; the pianist, composer or the transcriber?

Jed Distler: That’s a great question. Let me give you a little context: The Evans and Tatum books were straightforward, note-for-note transcriptions taken from recordings, as accurately as I possibly could do them at the time. When I transcribed Evans’ solos for French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s 1997 release Conversations with Bill Evans, it was a mixture of straight ahead transcriptions with selections that used Bill’s voicings, yet were more freely edited in terms of structure and duration. In that case, my experience as an arranger was just as important to my transcribing skills.
By contrast, I did NO transcribing whatsoever for my Monk project, although I do retain Monk’s original voicings in certain instances, albeit as the basis to embellish or embroider with my own material, such as in Locomotive or Coming on the Hudson.
So what was the driving force? Overall, the composer in me, in terms of the big picture (pacing, running order, etc.). Yet each song on the CD and in my performances hopefully showcase a different side of me. For the most part I’d say that the composer in me dominates, or, more accurately composer/arranger, certainly in the songs where there is no improvising in the traditional “theme and variation” template. Within these, I might improvise embellishments differently each time, but the basic structure is notated, or, at the very least, fully formed in my little brain.

PS: Since you completed your Monk project in 2012 it has taken you all over the world for performances. However, your way into Thelonious Monk´s music and playing style has not been straight or born from an ambition to absorb and imitate the artist. Can you tell us about your fascinating journey?

JD: When I was 14, a friend and I spontaneously went into New York City, and went to the Village Vanguard purely by chance, no planning at all. It happened that Thelonious Monk was performing. I only knew Monk’s music casually from a few recordings, and they had not particularly impressed me. We descending the Vanguard’s staircase. My only memory of Monk’s playing that night was that he seemed diffident, uninvolved, plunking a few notes here and there. It basically went in one ear and out the other. The following year, however, I heard his earliest trio recordings for the Prestige label, and I loved them right away. I never aspired to play like Monk, but many aspects of his composing and pianism intrigued me, and still do.
I definitely went about my Monk project looking for ways to reimagine each song, although, in certain cases, I do play them pretty close to how he did. However, I certainly did LEARN each Monk composition “straight” before I went about arranging, or, more accurately, “de-ranging” it!

Thelonious Monk

PS: Can you tell us about the journey?

JD: Back in 2011 my first wife died after a long illness. During her last months, I thought about how I would continue on, trying to reinvent my personal and musical life. I deliberately regressed, growing my hair, traveling, and, most importantly, going back to my youthful roots in jazz, which I had never really done in public since focusing on contemporary classical music as both performer and composer. I started sitting in at local jam sessions to see if I could still play jazz. To my surprise, I could hold my own, but what was coming out was not the usual derivative “fake Bill Evans, fake Oscar Peterson, fake… well everybody” of my past.
Instead, I seemed to be merging jazz song structures and jazz time keeping with my own compositional voice. It felt great and sounded fresh, at least to me! So I decided that I needed to make a big artistic statement as a performer that would get attention, after those last few years of enforced retreat. I remembered a three-CD set by Alexander von Schlippenbach called Monk’s Casino, where he and his musicians basically played Monk’s complete songs. I thought to myself, why don’t I play the complete Monk in a single solo piano concert?

PS: So, how did you approach the material?

JD: I started working on a few songs, and gradually I began putting my arrangements together as a continuous entity, where one song flowed into the next, with one intermission. I didn’t improvise on each and every song, of course. Some songs lasted but a few seconds, but that would buy me time to stretch out and improvise on certain songs where I thought it would be nice to do so, such as Blue Monk and I Mean You. In one instance, I took (I think) six blues “heads” and I simply played each one straight at a fast tempo, once or twice through, connecting them in medley style. That took care of six “songs” in a couple of minutes!

PS: How did you work while in recording the album?

JD: For recording my Monk interpretations, however, producer Virko Baley wanted to approach my project a different way. Rather than think about reproducing my complete Monk evening as I’ve done it in concert, he suggested that I record each song individually, although certain “medleys” were retained. In the process, I spontaneously rethought my approach to certain compositions. Most of them amount to short arrangements, almost like bagatelles, although there are a few vehicles for more extended improvisation. We wound up with a good two and a half hours of music, from which Virko asked my to select around 77 minutes worth for a single CD; the remainder we could offer as download extras.
So not only did I select my particular favorites, but I also put a lot of thought into running order, amount of time between selections, and so forth; in other words, creating a smaller version of my Monk program, and with a different overall trajectory. I performed this smaller version for a High Definition live concert webcast from Las Vegas as an adjunct to the studio recording (which also took place at Doc Rando Hall at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas), albeit with a few additions and re-orderings.

PS: I guess this has created an opportunity to create different sized concert programs.

JD: Yes, so now when I perform my solo Monk program, I have several options: either all the songs, or half of them but often in longer renditions… it still adds up to 90 minutes of music onstage. Or in a recital, I might include a twenty minute Monk group alongside contemporary classical selections.
Although my interpretations speak for themselves, if you check out my Fearless Monk CD, my booklet essay describes them in detail. Some pieces are specific stylizations: for example, I treat Monk’s “Reflections” in the manner of a loping swing ballad in the manner of pianist Ellis Larkins, while “Brilliant Corners” is all brooding left hand tremolos and the melody slowly sung out in the manner of one of the darker Shostakovich Preludes. On the other hand, “Criss-Cross” imitates no one, it’s pure Jed Distler abstraction! “Let’s Cool One” is transformed into a silly children’s television theme that quickly materializes into some frighteningly intense counterpoint. I impart very different characters to three blues selections: “Misterioso” is all polyrhythmic counterpoint, “Blue Monk” maintains a basic shuffle rhythm against lots of quirky syncopations, while “Straight, No Chaser” is just me letting loose, starting with a single improvised line to which another eventually is added, and the textures slowly fill out and build. In certain ways I’ve used Monk to create my own autobiography at the piano, reflecting my creative life as well as the music that shaped me growing up. Except I’m still growing up at 63!

PS: You are very creative person and we will have a chance to hear more about you as a radio person and critic here on Piano Street in the near future. Which projects are you working on now?

JD: As a pianist, I’m embarking on a cycle where I perform each of Mahler’s symphonies and major works in piano four-hand transcriptions, each symphony with a different collaborator. This should take me around ten years to accomplish, God-willing. I just had a first reading of a new chamber opera called Tools, and my librettist Luigi Ballerini and I are now making revisions and looking for presenters. The big piano composing project is a series of 1,827 Bagatelles of various lengths, with each bagatelle dedicated to a different pianist, composer/pianist, or close colleague. I’ve completed around 400 so far, but the project will be presented complete in 2027, to mark the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s death, hence the 1,827 amount, corresponding to 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death. The pieces can be played separately or together, in any combination, small or large. I consider the Bagatelle project my gift to our piano community, as a way to connect everyone. As I get older I seem to be befriending more and more pianists, composer/pianists, piano mavens, piano connoisseurs, piano concert presenters, piano label producers and piano manufacturers, and I want everyone I meet to get to know and love each other!


Listen to the album at bandcamp.com:
Fearless Monk: 29 Songs by Thelonious Monk

Jed Distler’s piano piece “Birthday Bagatelle” from 250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven:


News From the Past: Can We Play Like Schubert Did?

Christina Kobb is a Norwegian pianist and researcher, specializing in Viennese fortepiano performance. Her research now focuses on practically reconstructing piano technique from the early romantic era. How did Schubert, Chopin and the other masters manage before the free-arm-technique became the norm?

It was different 100 years before when Mozart was making a world tour as a youngster. Instead of being hunched over the piano crashing one’s weight down upon it, performers were required to sit ramrod straight and keep their arms and elbows at their sides. Most playing was finger-driven with supple wrists that were raised and lowered with great delicacy. Tchaikovsky’s racing octaves, Rachmaninoff‘s gigantic block chords and Liszt’s monumental tonal constructions were notably absent from pieces composed at that time.

Christina Kobb, who is heading up a project to promote 18th-century playing, such as might have been practiced by Mozart, notes that it is easier to play running 16th notes faster. It’s also simpler to play chords more accurately and smoothly. She maintains that pianists should, at the very least, familiarize themselves with the techniques to get better in touch with the thoughts and aspirations of the composers of the time.

Piano Street met up with Christina to talk about her research.

Piano Street: Since we last spoke about 18th century piano playing your continuous research has been dealing with the execution of basic motions in piano playing from the early 19th century. Can you tell us a little bit about your work?

Christina Kobb: In 2008, I began my PhD project on historic performance practices at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. I had already been specializing in historical keyboard instruments for several years, and was eager to understand more about piano playing in the 1820s – one of the most successful decades in the history of the piano! In a quest to find out more about how Beethoven, Schubert, Hummel and other great pianists of the early 19th century may have played, I studied the piano treatises of this time. Penned by leading pianists like Johann Nepomuk Hummel, these pedagogical works offer insights into ideals and preferences for performance. What I did differently than most other researchers, however, is that I focussed on the instructions for basic body posture and arm/finger motions.

PS: Which were your conclusions?

At first, it seems rigid and exaggerated to follow obsolete rules like sitting bolt upright, keeping the elbows close to the body while playing and moving the fingers only from the middle of the finger. Nevertheless, since even my very first attempts produced a much better tone in the fortepiano – and even in the modern piano. In the years since, I have reconstructed the basic piano technique described in Viennese sources of the 1820s and used myself as a lab rat by retraining my body to comply with the old instructions. Most interestingly, though, these changes have also encouraged a change in how I play the music – even how I shape each phrase. To me, this is the most fascinating discovery: How a pianist’s body, hand and finger motions directly translate into sound. Does this mean that I now play exactly like Beethoven? Probably not! However, one might well argue that a piano technique reconstructed from the sources of his day will bring us much closer to the ideals of his time than what any modern piano technique will.

PS: When listening to historical instruments performances, I have a feeling that we forget the professional and social context of the keyboard player. The ”concert pianist” – in the sense that one player is on stage playing works by other composers – isn’t really invented until Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Also concert halls were smaller. Which were the requirements for functioning as a pianist performer in the 1820s?

CK: I love this question and your very good point, which I find is asked way too seldom! The problem is, unfortunately, that I do not have a satisfactory answer. But to name a few things – firstly, it would have been unthinkable to play just one instrument. Professional musicians could sing, conduct and play strings and keyboard instruments. Secondly, the theoretic schooling was extremely thorough (in the German-speaking area), and the integration of aural skills a matter of fact. Just think about it, many composers never got to hear their greatest works! Yet, they knew exactly how it sounded and how to orchestrate. Their musical imagination must have been so fine-tuned and highly developed that we, “mere pianists” of today, would probably be regarded amateurs in their eyes. To make it as a pianist composer in the 1820s, you would have to compose pieces in your own unique style, and sell copies of the scores to your fans – who would do their best to play it at home. And to really win the hearts of your audience, you had to show great improvisation skills. It was highly valued to create something for the moment – be it in improvisation or in the rendering of a composition. But sadly, the art (or even attempt!) of touching the listener is often lost in modern music making, even on historical instruments. Personally, I find this loss far greater than missing a few slurs or playing a “wrong” ornament. Lack of emotional depth makes us lose interest in actual listening. It would be both historically correct and of timeless value to re-emphasize touching performances of classical music!

PS: How can ”modern piano playing” benefit from knowledge about old style piano playing?

CK: First of all, playing historical pianos makes us aware of diversity of sound. This is quite an experience, compared to the current “standardized” sound resulting from the Steinway-dominated market. Nevertheless, we all know that a piano can sound strikingly different under two different pairs of hands. How a piano is played is at least as important as how it is built. Pianists nowadays typically play with much weight, passion and brilliance, – qualities encouraged by big concert halls, large sonorous grand pianos and modern repertoire. Nevertheless, the core repertoire of most pianists (and most concert programmes) still tends to be classical and romantic piano works. The intimate feeling often required in these pieces thrives on a lighter touch, elegance of phrasing, exploration of sound colours and softer dynamics. My reconstruction of the old Viennese piano technique offers all of this, and can, to a great extent, be used in modern piano playing as well. Knowing how piano playing once looked like, and what kinds of sound and phrasing it fostered, will enrich interpretation. Performing solo piano works is demanding, and we need all the tools we can get! I do hope that my research can make people aware, once again, of what we have nearly lost, and use it to create more beautiful, more interesting performances. I should also mention that one important bonus of the upright posture required in 19th-century technique is disappearing pain. Unfortunately, many pianists struggle with arm and back pains, and I was no exception. However, a decade of improving my posture seems to have solved the problem completely! Good posture simply allows for more practice without ruining your body.

PS: You have investigated historical piano playing and the development of the piano as an instrument is a consequence of how it was needed to be played. In your opinion, what was gained and lost in our musical conception during the trip from the fortepiano to the modern concert grand?

CK: The question of changes in musical conception is probably the most important question, and the instrument change may only be one indication of the overall change in aesthetics.

I’m afraid we have lost improvisation, and with it, the touch of creation while performing. We have gained standardisation in keyboard building as well as in playing, but sadly, lost delicacy and nuance, as well as clarity of tone and phrase. We might have gained exactness in the metronomic sense, but I’m afraid we have lost rhythmic definition and the ‘speaking qualities’ for which renowned masters of the fortepiano once were known. Intimacy was lost with the big concert halls – volume was gained in the attempt of filling them.

For me, so enthralled by 19th-century music and pianos, I must admit that I feel we have lost more than we have gained. But even so: During all of this, we have really established the piano as a solo instrument as well as the instrument for music lovers all over the world. This is something that Mozart and Beethoven could only have dreamed of! For us pianists, it is a major gain that so much of the music we play is commonly known. And if we really want to, we can bring back the elements that have been lost and bring about a new era of beauty in piano playing. I do think it is possible, even on the modern piano – which I attempt to demonstrate in this video:

PS: Thanks for the conversation and good luck with your continuous work!

CK: You are welcome!

Read more on musicandpractice.org


Nelson Goerner – Exploring the depths

Nelson Goerner is a sort of ‘rare bird’ on the concert platform. Each of his concerts is a unique experience. His most recent CDs featuring major works by Brahms, Godowsky and Paderewski are simply breathtaking. Eric Schoones met him in Groningen to discuss his recordings, his views on his artistry and about Maria Tipo, with whom he studied.

Goerner grew up in San Pedro, a small town near Buenos Aires. He was a prodigy who taught himself to read and write before he was three years old. When he was seventeen he played for Martha Argerich and, with her help, gained a scholarship in Europe. On her advice he went to Maria Tipo, by then already a legend, for further instruction. He won the Concours de Genève and eventually even took over Maria Tipo’s class at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève. At the invitation of Daniel Barenboim he recently also taught for two years at the Barenboim-Said-Akademie in Berlin. But Nelson Goerner’s focus is primarily on giving concerts – much to the delight of his audiences.

– Maria Tipo wasn’t unknown in Argentina.
– No, she was an icon, and played everywhere – not just in Buenos Aires. When I took my entrance exam in Geneva, I immediately felt that something incredible awaited me.

– She was a very demanding teacher.
– (laughs) Very much so; all of her students were reduced to tears at some point. She was enormously critical, also of herself, and was rarely satisfied with her playing. She really liked teaching, and never forgot an appointment. We spent a lot of time together, and she really took care of her pupils. After teaching for hours she would then go and practise herself. Generous as she was; she let me play one of her concerts because, despite winning the prestigious Geneva competition, I had very few opportunities to perform at first. My career was slow to get started. She knew it would take a while before I got a proper engagement in Italy, and that’s why she let me take her place.

Nelson Goerner and Martha Argerich

– Quite unlike the teachers who alienate their pupils from concerts.
– Yes, I’d like to stress that. She put in an appearance at the concert, and also made the arranger aware that she hadn’t cancelled because she’s received a better offer or because she wanted to be rid of it. It was a most unusual thing to do. I played Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. She was very exact about the structure, the context and the dynamic construction of the fugue. Above all it shouldn’t sound like a stunt. She was a very natural pianist; just watching her play was a lesson in itself. She had an incredible legato, like a great singer, and her use of the pedal was quite extraordinary – all the critics wrote about it. She combined sonorities in a magical, very unorthodox way. ‘You have to stroke the keys’, as her mother Ersilia Cavallo always said, who had studied first with a pupil of Rubinstein and later under Busoni. Her sound was never hard or aggressive, the way you often hear today, and that’s insufferable. Listen to her Scarlatti recordings, which made her famous at a stroke in 1955. So refined – they’re really dances, and she doesn’t imitate the harpsichord, but uses all the potential of the piano, with taste, character and imagination. Every sonata has its own character.

– When I listened in on your rehearsals yesterday, I was struck by the way you work with sound relationships within a chord, between melody, bass and middle parts.
– Yes, it’s hard to make a chord sing; the balance between the various voices is so important; you train your fingers, but you train your ears even more. Ultimately you can achieve unbelievable things even on a mediocre piano, and I try to develop this sensitivity to sonority in my pupils as well.

– Your most recent CD include music by Paderewski, Godowsky and Brahms. Can you discern the pianist behind the composer?
– Always, and especially in the case of pianists like Godowsky who had such an all-encompassing technique. Paderewski was a fabulous pianist as well. His recording of his own Nocturne, Op. 16 No. 4 – which I have recorded too – is incredible, but I also admire La leggierezza by Liszt and the F minor Variations by Haydn greatly. Likewise, for instance, Grieg’s Ballade and Chopin’s Études played by Godowsky.

– You say that Godowsky was always nervous at recordings.
– Yes, unfortunately there aren’t any recordings of him in large-scale works, but that applies to many artists. I never heard Arthur Rubinstein in person, but some of his live recordings give an idea of what he sounded like in real life, and I find this immediacy slightly lacking in his studio recordings.

– Therefore the recently discovered recording by Rachmaninov is also so stunning.
– Exactly, he wasn’t aware that he was being recorded. The idea that something was being set down for all eternity made him nervous too. But a recording is just a snapshot in your development.

‘I’ve already been living with Brahms’s
Third Sonata for 25 years.’

– Is that why you perform the programme of your CDs in concert first?
– Absolutely, it’s essential – not the other way around in order to sell more CDs! A CD is the result of a long process of study, searching for the meaning of every note – a process that continues in concerts too – where, if you feel at ease on stage, you find out a lot that doesn’t become apparent when practising at home. It’s the only way. I’ve already been living with Brahms’s Third Sonata for 25 years – half my life. It’s such an incredible piece; it contains everything – power, drama, youthful optimism. Brahms was still young, but already in possession of all his faculties. Moreover it’s also very original for its time.

– And still – not every recording is the result of such a long process.
– No; I played Paderewski’s Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme at the request of the Chopin Institute, where I’m a member of the advisory board, and it was love at first sight. I love playing Paderewski’s Piano Concerto, but the Variations are more profound, in a certain sense enigmatic, psychologically very multi-faceted, and the fugue is grandiose. People see Paderewski as a miniaturist, but this is something wholly different. I hope that in a modest way I can contribute to the fame of these Variations.’

– And the feeling of freedom during a concert?
– Yes, I try to achieve that in the studio too, but it’s very difficult, because at a concert you’re sharing the music with hundreds of people. That’s a very special feeling. For that reason I make as many live recordings as possible. In the studio you’re searching more for an ideal.

– Is there such a thing?
– At a specific moment, yes, but the concept keeps on developing, and that’s why I don’t like listening to my own recordings.

– At the rehearsal yesterday I noticed how a single note can clarify the structure of a piece, so that unexpected dimensions arise.
– I learned that from the great pianists such as Josef Hofmann and Ignaz Friedman. They reveal the psychological content of the music in such an immediately recognizable way, without losing their personalities and without placing their own egos in the foreground. Just recently I heard Josef Hofmann in Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. So extreme, individual and overwhelming, with a demonic power, intense lyricism, and completely in Chopin’s spirit. His pupil Shura Cherkassky was recently a role model for me in this respect.

– Many would regard it as a gamble to play Brahms’s Paganini Variations in concert.
– (laughs) And so it is. They’re notoriously difficult, but their virtuosity is not that of Liszt, who was also a performer in the best sense of the word. He makes some concessions to the taste of his time, when the piano gained its place as the king of instruments. I am totally against the view – often still encountered today – that Liszt was superficial; but unfortunately many pianists still go for superficial virtuosity.

– The same is actually true of Rachmaninov.
– You shouldn’t play the Third Concerto like a big show. Listen to Rachmaninov himself; he has so much grandeur, and it’s so noble, so rich and also so emotional. He never displays his technique for its own sake. It’s impossible to deny the truth of this role model.

– You have no time for great extravagance.
– I have learned to avoid it completely – a very important point, because it keeps you away from the real meaning of the music. You can see with the really great pianists: they don’t try to seduce the audience with grand gestures, for example. If you do that, you’re more concerned with yourself, and less with the music. Consciously or unconsciously – both are bad. I also see it as one of my duties as a teacher to make genuine talents aware of this. You must approach the music from within, I don’t decide anything from the externals. It remains an eternal quest – otherwise you just turn into a copy of yourself.

Recent Albums

Brahms: Sonata, Op. 5; Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 39. Alpha Classics 557

Paderewski: Variations and Fugue; Godowsky: Künstlerleben. Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina, NIFCCD 061

Author: Eric Schoones

More about Nelson Goerner: www.nelsongoerner.com

This article is a contribution from the German and Dutch magazine Pianist through Piano Street’s International Media Exchange Initiative and the Cremona Media Lounge.

Pianist_FC_LPianist Magazine is published in seven countries, in two different editions: in German (for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Liechtenstein) and in Dutch (for Holland and Belgium).
The magazine is for the amateur and professional alike, and offers a wide range of topics connected to the piano, with interviews, articles on piano manufacturers, music, technique, competitions, sheetmusic, cd’s, books, news on festivals, competitions, etc.
For a preview please check: www.pianist-magazin.de or www.pianistmagazine.nl


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