Learning a New Piece

Ernest Schelling

Preliminary Study

In studying a new musical composition experience has revealed to me that the student can save much time and get a better general idea of the composition by reading it over several times before going to the instrument. While this is difficult for very young pupils to do before they have become accustomed to mentally interpreting the notes into sounds without the assistance of the instrument, it is, nevertheless, of advantage from the very start. It saves the pupil from much unprofitable blundering. To take a piece right to the keyboard without any preliminary consideration may perhaps be good practice for those who would cultivate ready sight reading, but it should be remembered that even the most apt sight readers will usually take the precaution of looking a new piece through at least once to place themselves on guard for the more difficult or more complicated passages. By forming the habit of reading away from the piano the pupil soon becomes able to hear the music without making the sounds at the keyboard and this leads to a mental conception of the piece as a whole, which invariably produces surprisingly good results.

The Technical Demands of the Piece

“The next consideration should be the execution of the right notes. A careless prima-vista reading often leads the pupil to play notes quite different from those actually in the piece. It is astonishing how often some pupils are deceived in this matter. Until you have insured absolute accuracy in the matter of the notes you are not in condition to regard the other details. The failure to repeat an accidental chromatic alteration in the same bar, the neglect of a tie, or an enharmonic interval with a tie are all common faults which mark careless performances. After the piece has been read as a whole and you have determined upon the notes so that there is no opportunity for inaccuracy from that source you will find that the best way to proceed is to take a very small passage and study that passage first. For the inexperienced student I should suggest two measures or a phrase of similar length. Do not leave these two measures until you are convinced that you have mastered them. This will take a great amount of concentration. Many pupils fail because they underestimate the amount of concentration required. They expect results to come without effort and are invariably disappointed. After the first two measures have been mastered take the next two measures and learn these thoroughly. Then go back and learn measures two and three so that there may be no possibility of a break or interruption between them. Next proceed in the same way with the following four measures and do not stop until you have completed the piece.

This kind of study may take more time than the methods to which you have become accustomed, but it is by all means the most thorough and the most satisfactory. I found it indispensable in the preparation of pieces for public performances. It demands the closest kind of study, and this leads to artistic results and a higher perception of the musical values of the composition being studied. Take for instance the C Major Fantasie of Schumann, one of the most beautiful and yet one of the most difficult of all compositions to interpret properly. At first the whole work seems disunited, and if studied carelessly the necessary unity which should mark this work can never be secured. But, if studied with minute regard for details after the manner in which I have suggested the whole composition becomes wonderfully compact and every part is linked to the other parts so that a beautiful unity must result.

Formal Divisions

“Many works have formal divisions, such as those of the sonata, the suite, etc. Even the Liszt ‘Rhapsodies’ have movements of marked differences in tempo and style. Here the secret is to study each division in its relation to the whole. There must be an internal harmony between all the parts. Otherwise the interpretation will mar the great masterpiece. The difficulty is to find the bearing of one movement upon another. Even the themes of subjects of the conventional sonata have a definite interrelation. How to interpret these themes and yet at the same time produce contrast and unity is difficult. It is this difference of interpretation that adds charm to the piano recitals of different virtuosos. There is no one right way and no one best way, but rather an indefinite margin for personal opinion and the exhibition of artistic taste. If there was one best way, there are now machines which could record that way and there the whole matter would end. But we want to hear all the ways and consequently we go to the recitals of different pianists. How can I express more emphatically the necessity for the pianist being a man of culture, artistic sensibilities and of creative tendencies? The student must be taught to think about his interpretations and if this point is missed and he is permitted to give conventional, uninspired performances he need never hope to play artistically.

The Touch Required

“In studying a new piece, as soon as the style of the piece has been determined and the accuracy of the notes secured, the pupil should consider the all-important matter to touch. He should have been previously instructed in the principles of the different kinds of touch used in pianoforte playing. I am a firm believer in associating the appropriate kind of touch with the passage studied from the very beginning. If the passage calls for a staccato touch do not waste your time as many do by practicing it legato. Again, in a cantabile passage do not make the mistake of using a touch that would produce the wrong quality of tone. The wrists at all times should be in the most supple possible condition. There should never be any constraint at that point. When I resumed my musical studies with Paderewski after a lapse of several years he laid greatest emphasis upon this point. I feel that the most valuable years for the development of touch and tone are those which bind the natural facility of the child hand with the acquired agility of the adult. To my great misfortune I was not able to practice between the ages of twelve and eighteen. This was due to excessive study and extensive concert tours as a prodigy. These wrecked my health and it was only by the hardest kind of practice in after life that I was able to regain the natural facility that had marked my playing in childhood. In fact I owe everything to the kind persistence and wonderful inspiration of M. Paderewski.

The Right Tempo

“The right tempo is a very important matter for the student. First of all, he must be absolutely positive that his time is correct. There is nothing so barbarous in all piano-playing as a bad conception of time. Even the inexperienced and unmusical listener detects bad time. The student should consider this matter one of greatest importance and demand perfect time from himself. With some students this can only be cultivated after much painful effort. The metronome is of assistance, as is counting, but these are not enough. The pupil must create a sense of time, he must have a sort of internal metronome which he must feel throbbing within all the time.

“Always begin your practice slowly and gradually advance the tempo. The worst possible thing is to start practicing too fast. It invariably leads to bad results and to lengthy delays. The right tempo will come with time and you must have patience until you can develop it. In the matter of ‘tempo rubato’ passages, which always invite disaster upon the part of the student, the general idea is that the right hand must be out of time with the left. This is not always the case, as they sometimes play in unison. The word simply implies ‘robbing the time,’ but it is robbed after the same manner in which one ‘robs Peter to pay Paul,’ that is, a ritard in one part of the measure must be compensated for by an acceleration in another part of the measure. If the right hand is to play at variance with the left hand the latter remains as a kind of anchor upon which the tempo of the entire measure must depend. Chopin called the left hand the chef d’orchestre and a very good appellation this is. Take, for instance, his B flat minor Prelude. In the latter part of this wonderful composition the regular rhythmic repetition in octaves in the bass makes a rhythmic foundation which the most erratic and nervous right hand cannot shake.

Rhythmic Peculiarities

“Rhythm is the basis of everything. Even the silent mountain boulders are but the monuments of some terrible rhythmic convulsion of the earth in past ages. There is a rhythm in the humming bird and there is a rhythm in the movements of a giant locomotive. We are all rhythmic in our speech, our walk, and in our life more or less. How important then is the study of the rhythmic peculiarities of the new piece. Every contributing accent which gives motion and characteristic swing to the piece must be carefully studied. It is rhythm which sways the audience. Some performers are so gifted with the ability to invest their interpretations with a rhythmic charm that they seem to fairly invigorate their audiences with the spirit of motion. I cannot conceive of a really great artist without this sense of rhythm.

The Composer’s Inspiration

“Personally I believe in ‘pure music,’ that is music in the field of pianoforte composition that is sufficient unto itself and which does not require any of the other arts to enhance its beauty. However, in the cases of some of our modern composers who have professedly drawn their musical inspiration from tales, great pictures or from nature, I can see the desirability of investigating these sources in order to come closer to the composer’s idea. Some of the works of Debussy demand this. Let me play you his ‘Night in Granada,’ for instance. The work is most subtle and requires an appreciation of Oriental life, and is indeed a kind of tonal dream picture of the old fortified palace of Moorish Spain. I feel that in cases of this kind it helps the performer to have in mind the composer’s conception and in playing this piece in public I always follow this plan.

Studying the Phrasing

“Each phrase in a piece requires separate study. I believe that the student should leave nothing undone to learn how to phrase or rather to analyze a piece so that all its constituent phrases become clear to him. Each phrase must be studied with the same deference to detail that the singer would give to an individual phrase. This is by no means an easy matter. More important still is the interrelation of phrases. Every note in a work of musical art bears a certain relation to every other note. So it is with the phrases. Each phrase must be played with reference to the work as a whole or more particularly to the movement of which it is a part.

Marking the Fingering

“It seems hardly necessary to say anything about the fingering when so much attention is being given to the matter by the best teachers of the country, but certainly one of the most essential considerations  in the study of a new piece is the study of the fingering. A detailed study of this should be made and it should be clearly understood that the fingering should be adapted to fit the hand of the player. It is by no means necessary to accept the fingering given in the book as ‘gospel.’ The wise student will try many fingerings before deciding upon the one that suits him best. Students who go to these pains are the ones who invariably succeed. Those who take anything that is presented to them without considering its advisability rarely attain lofty musical heights.

“When a fingering has once been determined upon it should never be changed. To change a fingering frequently means to waste many hours of practice. This may be considered a mechanical method but it is the method invariably employed by successful artists. Why? Simply because one fingering closely adhered to establishes finger habits which give freedom and certainty and permits the player to give more consideration to the other details of artistic interpretation.

“I ofttimes find it expedient to adapt a more difficult fingering of some given passage for the reason that the difficult fingering frequently leads to a better interpretation of the composer’s meaning. I know of innumerable passages in the piano classics which illustrate this point. Moreover a fingering that seems difficult at first is often more simple than the conventional or arbitrary fingering employed by the student, after the student has given sufficient time to the new fingering. The required accent often obliges the performer to employ a different fingering. The stronger fingers are naturally better adapted to the stronger accents. Otherwise it is best to use a similar fingering for similar passages.

Memorizing

“I should like to add a few words with regard to committing pieces to memory. There are three ways. 1, By sight; that is, seeing the notes in your mind’s eye; 2, memorizing by ‘ear,’ the way which comes to one most naturally; 3, memorizing by the fingers, that is training the fingers to do their duty no matter what happens. Before performing in public the student should have memorized the composition in all of these ways. Only thus can he be absolutely sure of himself. If one way fails him the other method comes to his rescue.

“After careful attention has been given to the various points of which I have spoken and the details of the composition satisfactorily worked out the student should practice with a view to learning the piece as a whole. Nothing is so distressing to the musician as a piece which does not seem to have coherence and unity. It should be regarded aurally as the artist regards his work visually. The painter stands off at some distance to look at his work in order to see whether all parts of his painting harmonize. The pianist must do much the same thing.  He must listen to his work time and time again and if it does not seem to ‘hang together’ he must unify all the parts until he can give a real interpretation instead of a collection of disjointed sections. This demands grasp, insight and talent, three qualifications without which the pianist cannot hope for large success.”

Questions in Style, Interpretation, Expression
and Technic of Pianoforte Playing

SERIES XVIII

Ernest Schelling

1. What should be the preliminary study of a new composition?
2. How should the mechanical difficulties of the piece be studied?
3. How may one find the bearing of one movement upon another?
4. State the importance of deciding upon the appropriate touch.
5. How may the right tempo be established?
6. What did Chopin call the left hand?
7. What is it in playing that sways the audience?
8. How should the fingering of a new piece be studied?
9. Why is a more difficult fingering sometimes preferable?
10. Give a practical plan for memorizing.

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