The importance of listening to great pianists

English: The only known photograph of Frédéric...

The only known photograph of Chopin; Image via Wikipedia

Recently, I had a lesson with an adult student who was returning to the piano after a long respite from formal study.  She had kept up her skills by sight reading, so we didn’t have to remake the wheel, so to speak, when she started with me.  She’s strongly drawn to Romantic pieces, so I gave her Chopin’s Posthumous A minor waltz (No. 19 I believe) largely because I had the music onhand already.

She  learned the first section of the waltz and played it for me, and in discussing the work to be done, I mainly focused on hand balance and a sense of phrasing.  Though technically  proficient, the student needed to bring out her right hand much more.  I think that in learning the piece she had probably tended to overemphasis the left hand simply because there is a lot more going on in the lefthand, even if the music itself is meant only to add support to the melody in the right hand.  This is a common problem for many intermediate students but can be remedied by drawing attention to it and inviting the student to do some active listening.  In discussing this hand balance and active listening, I suggested that we listen to a few performances, so she could contrast it against what she thought it should sound like and what she was actually playing.

That’s where YouTube can really come in handy; I was able to find several performances of this piece.  However, to my surprise, the student had not been taught to really listen to the playing of other pianists, and in fact, could not readily tell me when a performance was bad.  I was shocked because I had taken it for granted that a student at her niveau would be familiar with referring to other performances and use them to inform her playing and would also be at least somewhat adept at distinguishing good playing from bad.  To address this, we listened to several different examples and discussed what we liked and didn’t like about each one.  After a few comparisons, she began to be able to hear things, both good and bad, about the playing.  So, as an assignment I gave her some of the following clips to listen to and asked her to take notes on what she liked and didn’t like in detail, on what she found particularly interesting or effective about the performances, and on which performance she liked the best.

Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin.

Image via Wikipedia

I also contrasted it with some of those made-at-home performances that I think are less successful:

To be fair to these musicians, they are not professionals and many are quite young, so the comparison is a bit harsh.  People playing at home on keyboards cannot begin to compete with professionals on Steinway grands recorded by professionals.  Additionally, these young musicians have probably not had enough time to think about music and listen to enough music in order to truly perfect these pieces.  I’m confident that one day, they will be able to attain the level of some of the performances above, and I am not trying to discourage them by including them in the less successful category.

Each of these musicians do things I like, and some of the professionals do things I don’t like, but I do definitely prefer the performances in the first group.

Ashkenazy’s is probably my favorite.  He also happens to be the most well-known of the pianists featured here.  Unfortunately, this waltz is a bit obscure and not easily found on YouTube, so I did not find a lot of greats playing it.  Anyway, Ashkenazy really manages to evoke images and feelings with his playing.  Listening to his performance, I think of a Victorian lady sitting at a window seat looking through lacy curtains and a beautifully landscaped lawn and garden where the sun is shining vibrantly and well-dressed gentleman are strolling arm in arm with ladies with parasols.  In other words, Ashkenazy’s playing evokes something.  Additionally, in my opinion, he chooses the best tempo and strikes a wonderful balance between legato, singing lines and the use of a slightly detached sound.  I find his dynamic choices to be very effective and somewhat unexpected.  His use of rubato is also quite wonderful.  (For a definition of rubato, click here).

So please listen!  And tell me what you think!  Who is your favorite?  Who is your least favorite?  Why?

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Filed under performances, practicing tips

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