Welcome to the March/April 2018 Newsletter! In this issue:
Studio Recital Reminder
The Practice Room: How much does practicing hands separately really help?
The Concert Hall: A rare bootleg video of Ivo Pogorelich
Please note that the Studio will be closed on the following days in April:
• Saturday, April 7 (recital in Waterloo, ON)
• Saturday, April 14 through Sunday, April 22 (vacation)
I will be giving makeup lessons for those times the last week of April and the first week of May. Please contact me to schedule.
On Friday, April 6, I will be giving a lecture-demonstration of the Taubman Approach to the graduate Piano Pedagogy class of Professor Gilles Comeau at the University of Ottawa.
On Saturday, April 7, I will be performing the complete Debussy Préludes at The Music Room in Waterloo, ON. For more information please go to http://www.k-wcms.com/KWCMS
On Friday, April 27, I will be giving a masterclass at the Ottawa Steinway Gallery. Local area teachers, please feel free to send your students that would like to perform!
I’m very happy to announce that I will be giving a concert in Vancouver, BC, in July for Music Friends (www.mymusicfriends.com), a wonderful organization that arranges house concerts in the Vancouver area. Program to be determined, but it will be all-Debussy, continuing my personal homage to my favorite composer on the centenary of his death.
There is still space available for this year’s Golandsky Institute Summer Symposium, to be held July 29 through August 4 at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon. For more information please go to https://golandskyinstitute.
STUDIO RECITAL REMINDER
A reminder to all students that the Studio Recital will be held Saturday May 12 at the Ottawa Steinway Gallery from 6:30 – 8:30pm. Please make sure you have something prepared to play. It does not have to be “performance ready”, and it does not have to be an entire piece, but please come prepared to make an offering to the class. (Not a sacrificial offering, however.)
THE PRACTICE ROOM: HANDS SEPARATELY VS. HANDS TOGETHER
When students begin a new piece, or are reworking an older piece, there is often a great temptation to spend a certain amount of time practicing hands separately at the outset, and this makes sense intuitively. But what should practicing hands separately accomplish, and at what point do those returns start to diminish?
(Quick disclaimer: For those going through retraining in the Taubman Approach, this will not immediately apply, since a lot of time is devoted initially to learning the motions in each hand separately.)
Let’s begin by taking this out of the practice room and into another favorite arena of mine, the kitchen! Imagine in one pot you’re boiling pasta, and in a saucepan you’re sautéeing sliced eggplant. Now imagine stirring the pasta while simultaneously turning the eggplant. A very sophisticated version of patting your head and rubbing your tummy. Not so easy, right? But if that’s what you wanted to do, how much would practicing each individually allow you to do them simultaneously with ease?
The answer is, not much. If you’ve never stirred pasta in boiling water or sautéed eggplant, you would have to try them each once or twice and you would get the hang of it. But doing them simultaneously requires the construction of a different neural pathway than doing them separately, and because of this, practicing hands separately has limited efficacy when it comes to learning a piece.
Why is this? The answer lies in the two hemispheres of the brain. Two things need to be considered: one is that when you do something with one hand only, the brain suppresses motion to the other hand. The other is that only when you do things hands together are you engaging the corpus callosum, or the fibers that connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It is this connection that facilitates the simultaneous action of the two hands making disparate motions.
When beginning a new piece, or working out a passage, by all means, practice hands separately, so that you can determine what the best fingering is, how to apply rotation, in-and-out, shaping, etc. But once the logistics, so to say, of a given passage are worked out, continuing to practice hands separately will not help when you start practicing hands together; that’s going to be an entirely different experience. The sooner you begin to work out the complexities created by playing hands together, the more quickly you will learn the passage/piece.
Let’s look at another analogy that I think might be helpful when it comes to what you should experience when playing hands together: driving. Driving is an incredibly complex operation that involves myriad tasks: putting the car into gear, applying the gas or brake, steering, watching the road (other vehicles, lights, signs, pedestrians), continually checking one of three rear-view mirrors … the list goes on. But no one learns to drive by sitting in a parked car and practicing turning the steering wheel, then moving to pressing the gas, then the brake, and the remaining tasks in a serial way. It’s complicated, for sure, but learning to drive means doing these things simultaneously, out of necessity. At first it feels impossibly convoluted, but eventually the individual motions fold into a larger series of activities, and it feels like you’re doing one thing: driving.
When learning a piece, it’s the same thing. Unless both hands are making the exact same motions — e.g., if you’re playing a piece that consists only of a C-major contrary motion scale, which seems unlikely — you have to train in making the two hands do disparate motions simultaneously, until it feels like one thing. At that moment you have developed the neural pathway necessary to make it work, and it no longer feels like two separate activities. You’re no longer patting your head, and rubbing your tummy, you’re PattingYourHeadAndRubbingYourTummy. One thing.
The truth is, you do this hundreds if not thousands of times in the course of your day, it just doesn’t dawn on you that you’re doing two different things. Driving a car or riding a bike are good examples. Using a knife and fork. Drying your hair with a hair dryer while brushing it. Tying a shoe. Swimming. Walking and texting. (I highly unrecommend that last one, by the way, though I know we all do it.) All of these neuroligically complex things we take for granted, but none of them were completely learned one hand (or foot) at a time. (Incidentally, please don’t ask me to explain what happens neurologically with pipe-organists, who have to play multiple manual keyboards, pedalboards, manipulate hundreds of stops, etc. That’s a superhuman task that defies explanation.)
Dorothy Taubman, as usual, said it best: “If you’re practicing with the left hand alone, then the right hand alone, then hands together, you’re learning three pieces”. Who’s got time for that?
THE CONCERT HALL: IVO POGORELICH PLAYS BALAKIREV’S “ISLAMEY”
If you want to see a great example of someone who knows how to move at the keyboard — and how not to move at the keyboard — take a look at this remarkable bootleg video of the Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich from a 1992 performance at Carnegie Hall. Evidently this video was known about for years but has only recently surfaced and is, for the time being at least, available on YouTube. My friend and colleague, the pianist Zsolt Bognár, describes it thusly: “The fabled performance has finally surfaced: collectors in the 90s used to beg, borrow, or steal this video of Pogorelich playing Balakirev in Carnegie Hall in 1992, where he created a legendary furore. My teacher Sergei Babayan was present, and said the whole performance felt like a gigantic limitless crescendo. Those present reported feeling pressed into their seats.”
Islamey is a notoriously difficult work written by the Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910). Very few pianists have mastered it, and Pogorelich shows us how it’s done. The movements are fluid but ruthlessly efficient, while his torso remains grounded and centered. The control is miraculous. But beyond the astonishing technical feats he accomplishes, Pogorelich also brings to this piece an inexorable rhythmic drive that never flags nor rushes, a kaleidoscope of colours, soaring phrasing, and a sweep that will carry you away. The slow(er) middle section in particular has moments that are heartbreakingly beautiful, in my opinion.
As always, please let me know if you have any questions or comments on the Newsletter. Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!
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