Becoming an Artist, Part 8: Tools for Success

It’s really wonderful how a good teacher can give you just the right tools to enable you to play better. Recently I was fortunate to be able to work once again with Pawel Checinski , who was visiting from Chicago. I played for him a little and then we got to work. He primarily focused on helping me come up with a decisive interpretation, achieve a singing tone, and use arm weight to produce a lovely sound. 

I had been struggling with the memory of the Bach Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911, often getting lost in Bach’s many statements of the theme with its variations. Pawel encouraged me to draw a roadmap of the piece as a way to hang my memory on the over-arching structure. I made a mental note to do this following my lesson with him. He then began to nitpick some individual elements, encouraging me to listen and bring out individual voices within the first page, which is in the style of an improvisatory toccata. He wanted more definition in the line, more of an arc, more interest created by growing in volume at the approach to a cadence. His instruction wasn’t just to make everything crescendo to a point, but to make me think about where I was going with the line. He wanted me to do something as opposed to just pressing keys down on a keyboard. He was concerned about bringing out individual voices as they entered the picture. He wanted me to draw tension to the entrance of each new voice. And more than that, he reminded me that it was not enough for the voice to enter, but then to have something to say-even if it was just holding a note for two beats; it’s still had to have presence. 

Piano is such an interesting art. Whereas ballet is concerned with the physicality of movement, playing the piano involves both physical movement and the aural aspect of creating a beautiful sound. It is possible for a pianist to sit and play a piece physically while not even really hearing what she is playing; kind of like when you speak to your children while they are watching TV-they are aware that a voice is speaking, but feel no need to focus their mind on what is actually being said. This is so easy to do at the piano, to relegate it to a mere physical task. It often takes a teacher, who is not involved in the physical effort of playing the notes, to hear what is happening musically with the line and to point out what is lacking in movement or interest. 

The second thing we worked on was achieving a singing tone. For the opening theme of the fugue, Pawel had me sing for him. He wanted to know what I thought the line should sound like. He then had me play the same line on the piano, and he stopped me and commented that I played it completely differently than I had sung it. I tried again, listening to myself more carefully as I played. Again, I did not achieve the same result as when I had sung the line. So I stopped and thought about how I had sung it and what notes I had put a little more weight on. We then moved on to the second entrance of the theme, accompanied by the original voice, which dances around the theme in a counter melody. Bringing this variable in resulted in my neglecting to sing the theme as I had done earlier. Now my challenge was to try and manipulate the two voices in such a way that I could stay true to my original interpretation of how the theme should be sung. As you can imagine, the more voices you add, the more things are going on in music, and the more effort is required to sing the theme as it should be sung. 

The third tool that Pawel handed to me was the idea of arm weight. His goal was for me to achieve a more beautiful tone when I press the key - and that is exactly what I was doing: pressing the key, using only my fingers to bring forth sound. What he wanted me to do instead was to transfer the weight of my forearm into the key by means of the finger. This has to happen without me locking my shoulder and breaking the expression of the sound. 

These concepts, in the space of a two hour lesson, can start to seem so nitpicky. And in fact it took me a couple of days to process the information and consider how I was going to apply it to my pieces. It wasn’t so much a conscious processing as a brain dump of words onto a paper, and letting Pawel’s words sort of marinate for a couple days. But then it was time to work, and the thing with tools is that you can pick them up and use them in a variety of applications, in this case, a variety of songs. These are universal tools for the pianist. Every great pianist has a definite interpretation of the piece he is performing; every great pianist develops a singing tone that makes the music interesting to the listener; every great pianist uses his arm weight to achieve a beautiful tone. Of course, every pianist has a unique personality and even differing technique-that is to say, different ways of working on these concepts and using these tools. But it is a continual process of growth, and I find it so valuable to work with a teacher like Pawel who seems to be able to pull just the right tools out to further me on my journey of becoming an artist.

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