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- your guide to the classical piano world.
Vexations – Was Igor Levit’s Lonely Stroll Too Long?

In a bid to raise awareness of all musicians who have been silenced by the coronavirus pandemic, finding themselves suddenly out of work, pianist Igor Levit performed Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations in a 15-hour long virtual performance on May 30.

Watch the complete recording of the livestreamed event >>

The inhuman marathon challenge ”doesn’t feel like a ‘nuisance’ or ‘torture’ to me, as the title would suggest, but rather a retreat of silence and humility. It reflects a feeling of resistance”, Levit said prior to the performance. However, after the session he said: “I got so tired that literally my fingers stopped moving… Maybe a chord came a second late, but nobody died because of it. I’m OK with that; it’s part of the performance.” Levit continues; “That’s why it feels right to play the Vexations right now. My world and that of my colleagues has been a different one for many weeks now and will probably remain so for a long time. Vexations represent for me a silent scream.”

The event was massively noted by the international press:
The Gilmore
NY Times
The New Yorker

Vexations – a mysterious piece

Vexations was written in 1893 and the manuscript score is just four lines of music. No instrument is indicated but it is probably intended for harmonium or piano. The score also includes a mysterious inscription for the performer: ”In order to play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”

The minimalist composition is the first known experiment in organized total chromaticism and continual, unrelieved dissonance with no obvious sense of direction or tonal centre. It is the first piece to explore the effects of boredom, even of hallucination, both on the performer and on the audience.

Vexations – PDF piano score to download:

Santiago Rusiñol, Portrait of Erik Satie Playing the Harmonium, 1891.

The meaning of the work is unclear and has been widely debated, and it has been theorized as a private joke, as a theoretical experiment and even as a response to failed love. Even though Erik Satie composed Vexations circa 1893, the work was virtually unknown until an associate of Satie brought it to light in 1949.

Historic performances

The world premiere which took place in 1963 at the Pocket Theater in New York City, was organized by avant-garde composer John Cage and performed by a team of 11 pianists dubbed “The Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team” playing in twenty-minute shifts. That first performance lasted nearly 18 hours and 40 minutes and has become the stuff of legend. The New York Times wrote: ”Whatever it was, it made musical history.” The Pocket Theater in 1963 offered no Green Room and the event was casual. Some players even left at one point to have dinner in Chinatown.

The John Cage team during the 1963 performance of “Vexations” at the Pocket Theater in New York.

Contradictory to Satie’s instruction “to prepare oneself beforehand…”, the piece is often performed by a team of pianists sharing the task. In an earlier solo attempt in 1970, pianist Peter Evans nearly lost his senses while attempting all of “Vexations” on his own. He quit after 595 repetitions and was said to have experienced evil thoughts and visions. Mr. Evans later claimed that pianists who take on the piece “do so at their own great peril.” Some call the piece dangerous and evil. Many pianists believe from performing the piece, that the material mystically somehow defies memorization.

840 times of what?

Although the inscription suggests how to prepare if one would play the motif 840 times, the score contains no repeat signs or da capo instructions that indicates that the piece should be repeated. But if one insists to take the “840 times” suggestion seriously, what is then the word “motif” referring to? A motif is usually a shorter musical enitity than a “theme” but in this case it seems most reasonable that the “motif” is the 13 beats long “theme”. In the score this motif exists in three differently arranged versions and, if played in tempo 40 BPM, each version of the “motif” takes 19,5 seconds. Consequently, a “complete” performance takes around four and a half hours.

Cast your vote!

Have Cage, Levit and others misinterpretated the instruction regarding the “motif”? What do you think?

Please vote and post your comment below!

The "motif" that is suggested to be repeated 840 times most likely refers to:

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Talking Bach with Pianist Ramin Bahrami

Iranian pianist Ramin Bahrami is considered one of today’s most interesting interpreters of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. A regular performer at Cremona Musica, Bahrami and flutist Massimo Mercelli presented works from their latest CD, “Bach Sanssouci”, on the Decca label. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell was happy to get the chance to talk to the inspirational performer.

Rami Bahrami plays Goldberg Variations in Parma, Teatro Regio, April 2019


Piano Street:  Through your recordings you have gone through almost all keyboard music by Bach. Such a giant project makes us think in terms of a statement. How did your relation with the Leipzig master start and with what means have you created your own unique ”Bach universe” on a map counting many stellar performers over the years?

Ramin Bahrami: I was 5 years old when I heard Glenn Gould – the great Canadian pianist – for the first time and I immediately fell in love with Bach and Gould’s way to play this wonderful music. With Bach’s music I began my mission as a musician. Bach is for me not only the greatest composer ever – he is also a master of life and harmony: he is the fifth evangelist!

PS: When we perceive Bach’s music the polyphony is an unrivaled factor – his friend Forkel observed that Bach saw music as a conversation between human voices. His music sounds good on any instrument. Which specific qualities can be found in the flute sonatas?

RB: In the flute sonatas and generally in all Bach’s melodic lines you have beauty and grace. He is always very elegant and refined. He reflects something very Italian and with German rationality.

PS:  When we start working on a Bach piece, which should be our best approach? Should we start with the polyphony, melodic lines, articulation, harmony, or sound? Can you tell us how you prepare?

RB: The first approach – not only in Bach – must be the emotion, the feeling, and the human side of the composition, and thereafter of course all other elements, like melodic lines and different voices, harmony, polyphony, and natural sound. But the first step is always to understand the “Affektenlehre”. My personal approach begins with love and concentration and I try to discover the principal character of the music.

PS: Highly evident when hearing interpreters playing Bach is the concept of rhythm and the variety of different approaches. Bach’s friend Forkel wrote about how captivating Bach’s own playing was in this sense. This makes us think about the dances and the Suites. How would you elaborate on this important factor in Bach’s dance forms?

RB: I absolutely agree with you. Dance and rhythm are very important factors. He is always dancing and singing. He didn’t like too slow tempi, as Forkel wrote. John Elliot Gardiner once said: “Bach is Dance”. I think in the same way. The Bach Suites are not only wonderful selections of different dances of different countries but there is also a European Parliament in there. You can even find the Middle East nations like Persia in the Sarabande for example.

PS: You recorded the Piano (Keyboard) Concertos with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly. These are done with a ”modern” instrument and setting. Which are your ideas about performances using historical instruments?

RB: I have a very positive idea. Because if you want to have a rich idea about Bach’ s music today, you must know very well your past and all origins. You must know where you’re from. Personally I think that for transmission to modern audiences, the modern instruments such as the wonderful, dark golden sound of the beautiful Gewandhausorchester and the modern Steinway are really appropriate for the universal message of the Master. I loved very much to find a most comfortable nuance with Maestro Riccardo Chailly and his vivid intentions, and the work with the Gewandhausorchester and their modern instruments was truly fantastic.

PS: With your vast experience we must take the chance to ask you which of the less familiar Bach keyboard pieces we should look out for and play? There must be many not-so-known Bach works to discover?

RB: I suggest to young colleagues, for example: Bach’s Transcriptions of the Italian Masters, and the Keyboard Sonatas. I like very much the D Major Sonata with “la Gallina Cucca Fugue”, or the early Suite in f minor BWV 823. Aria variata alla maniera Italiana BWV 989, Four Duets BWV 802-805, Suite in A major BWV 832, Suite in e minor BWV 996, and of course other pieces. Bach is like an ocean. “Nicht Bach, Meer sollte er heissen” – “Not Bach (German for brook or stream), he should be called the Sea” – as Ludwig van Beethoven wrote about Johann Sebastian Bach.

PS: You are a prolific music personality and often appear on television, speaking about music. You are also an author of many books. Which are your quests as a writer?

RB: My principal aspiration and quest as interpreter and music divulgator is to have a friendly relationship with the public and to familiarize the young people with this immense legacy. I am only a Bach lover and I hope to see many youngsters at classical concerts. Why not at Bach evenings? It’s a hope!


Bahrami’s Bach journey on record

In 2009 Decca Universal released the 6-CDs box ”Ramin Bahrami plays Bach”, with all Bahrami’s Bach recordings up till then, including a selection of live performances and in 2010 came the French Suites. Before that, the Goldberg Variations, the seven Partitas and the Art of Fugue, released respectively in 2004, 2005 and 2007 which launched Bahrami as a popular and sought after artist. The recording of The Art of Fugue reached the top ten of pop-music best sellers in Italy – keeping this position for seven weeks. After this followed the release of ”Concerto Italiano”, with Bach works inspired by Italy (Concerto Italiano, Aria variata nella maniera italiana, Capriccio sulla lontananza del fratello dilettissimo, Quattro Duetti etc.), and in 2009 Bach Sonatas BWV 963-968 received important evaluations from critics and audience. In 2011 followed the Bach Concertos with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, 2012 the English Suites, 2013 Inventions & Sinfonias and 2014 Flute Sonatas with flutist Massimo Mercelli. That same year “Bach for Babies” was released and followed by Bach’s Musical Offering in 2015.

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/patrick

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New Feature: Live Streamed Piano Recitals

With music venues on lock down across the world and many of us spending a lot more time at home, we can now enjoy the growing supply of concerts via live stream to watch from home on our TV, computer or smartphone.

The trend took off quickly, with production values ranging from tinny iPhone videos to cinema-ready sophistication. On March 12, the day New York theaters shuttered, the pianist Igor Levit gave his first lo-fi performance from his living room, while the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra played to empty halls and audiences at home. Since then, a day hasn’t gone by without something new to watch.

Many of these online broadcasts have been more personal than a typical classical concert, with a casual dress code, pianos out of tune and imperfect production. It is a unique opportunity to hear what it sounds like when great artists are practicing at their own piano at home – perhaps a realistic chance to compare how your own piano playing is measuring up!

The new list of upcoming livestreams

Piano Street has now launced a new feature to help you keep track of upcoming livestreamed piano events. Watch the new ticker on our homepage >>

Note that all start times are given in GMT (UTC). We wish you best of luck with the challenging work to convert them to your own time zone!



/nilsjohan

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World Piano Day 2020

Piano Day, an annual worldwide event founded by a group of likeminded people, takes place on the 88th day of the year – in 2020 it’s the 28th March – because of the number of keys on the instrument being celebrated.

“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.” – Nils Frahm

Official website: pianoday.org

An exclusive broadcast from the Sydney Opera House

Introduced by Piano Day’s founder Nils Frahm, this is a celebration of the piano in all its forms with and exclusive broadcast featuring moving performances, unseen recordings and interviews.

Piano Day Playlist 2020 on Soundcloud

World Piano Day – Global Livestream

Deutsche Gramophon marks #WorldPianoDay March 28, 3pm CET, with an international virtual festival featuring performances by members of its family of artists, live-streamed on our FB and YouTube channel. The roster of stars includes Maria João Pires, Víkingur Ólafsson, Joep Beving, Rudolf Buchbinder, Seong-Jin Cho, Jan Lisiecki, Kit Armstrong, Simon Ghraichy, Daniil Trifonov, Evgeny Kissin – bringing people together through the power of music.

[Video not available]


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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!

And help spreading the information by linking to the article on:
https://www.pianostreet.com/teach-piano-online

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 off 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


/nilsjohan

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