My Favorite Online Master Classes

I love browsing the piano master class videos on YouTube and I have a few favorites that I return to time after time. These are the great pianists and teachers who speak in more general terms about the music, concepts that can be applied to all music. Below are links to a few who have inspired me…

  1. Here is a two-part video of Rubinstein working with a student on Chopin’s g minor Ballade. Near the end of this clip he talks about nobility in music. “Music is an art of emotion, of nobility, of dignity, of greatness, of love, of tenderness….but never show-off pompousness…Liszt liked to show what he can do but there is always music behind it.”
  2. In the first part of a two-part video filmed at her former farmhouse in Portugal, pianist Maria Joao Pires talks about the bar line and how we should never hear it because it has “zero to do with the phrase.” She talks about time and space and breathing in music. Later she talks about how we must believe that “miracles can happen” because in music, they do.
  3. In this first part of a six-part video master class with Gyorgy Sebok we learn about the distinction between music told from the first person point of view and music that is an illustration of something… “when you don’t resonate but you understand.” Later he talks about how some pianists control by tension, but how he prefers controlling by freedom. Using the example of a Parisian waiter carrying a tray of soup he talks about how we can control things better in mobility. He also spends time explaining how to create the illusion of a glissando on the piano.
  4. Finally, there is the Barenboim master class six-part video series on the Beethoven Sonatas. (A complete list of the videos can be found here.) Barenboim talks about rubato, legato, how content determines speed, the sense of well-being that comes from tensionless playing, and how the performer should always go from the standpoint of the ear because the ear knows everything and remembers everything. Six hours of video and fifty years insight from Daniel Barenboim, priceless.

Happy listening!

Diving Back Into the Big Pieces


Piano (Photo credit: MagnuZ)

Somewhere along the way, in my early 20s, I made the mistake of relying on a teacher to pass down the precise details of technique, fingering, pedaling, phrasing, and ultimately interpretation as I learned new repertoire. When I got a wonderful fingering for a section of the coda of Chopin’s 4th Ballade, it was like getting a special family recipe handed down from my great-grandmother. An unusual syncopated pedaling in the last movement of the Waldstein Sonata identified me of a member of a particular teacher’s studio. Many pianists even make a game of tracing their piano teacher lineage (What a burden to have to bear!… You studied with someone who studied with someone who studied with Beethoven?)

But what happens when a student leaves the comfort of the conservatory nest and doesn’t have a teacher coaching and demonstrating the repertoire every step of the way? Are they prepared to tackle a large piece and polish it to performance level on their own?

I wasn’t. At least I thought I wasn’t.

But I did have choices. For a while I decided I’d play only “new” music, challenging technically, but less so musically because there’s no tradition to follow. Then there was the job playing popular standards in a restaurant…no quicker way to become a sloppy pianist. Once I even tried free improvisation by rolling rubber balls inside the piano…very cool, but really??

Every pianist I know has a “bucket list.” Mine includes Beethoven Op 109 and 110, Schumann Fantasy in C, Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61, Brahms Handel Variations, Schumann Carnaval, and many others. I know my 16-year old self wouldn’t think twice about tackling one of these “big” pieces. And now I’m happy to say, with a few months consistent practicing under my belt, I might be…finally… ready to put aside the doubts and insecurities that have taken root and dive back in.

As a side benefit, this experience has taught me a lesson about my own teaching. Over the past few years I’ve been demonstrating less and demanding more from my students. I’ve become less micro-managing, and hopefully better at instilling confidence as well as knowledge. My goal is that every student will want to sit down at the piano and explore a new piece of music when they reach adulthood.

That’s why this blog post from Bruce Brubaker struck a chord with me. He says:

I prefer to believe that what’s happening in a “lesson” is the scrutiny and exploration of process. That’s why very satisfying work can occur with music not known in advance by the “teacher.” All those details of enunciation, metric grouping, fingering, the pedal — are not the point. From lessons the student comes to know, as Schoenberg puts it, “… that one must come to grips with all the problems — not how to.”

When explanation and singing won’t do it and I succumb to playing during a student’s lesson — it feels like a little failure. Better for the synthesis of ideas and the grappling with issues to lead to sounds arising from within the student, the analysand.

A Lesson from Bubba

Bubba Watson signing autographs on the putting...

Bubba Watson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rather than sitting at the piano for my usual Sunday night recording session, yesterday I chose to spend time with some Peeps, chocolate bunny ears, and and the exciting finish to the US Masters Golf tournament. By now you’ve probably heard of Bubba Watson, the new American golf sensation and wearer of the Green Jacket, but you might not know is that Bubba has never had a golf lesson.

This caught my eye because as I’ve written before, I’m constantly amazed by so many of the self-taught musicians I see, especially among college age kids. They are driven by a love of music, collaborating, and composing. I know I’ll sound like a heretic by saying this… but are teachers actually needed for weekly piano lessons if the student is truly self-motivated? Wouldn’t drop-in lessons be good enough?

Watson, 33, is unlike just about any Masters champion we’ve seen…..On the course, Watson has little in common with the recent crop of factory-produced golfers, the swing machines with their swing gurus, sports psychologists and mostly by-the-book games.

He is self-taught. Self-motivated. And not afraid of self. The guy has a pink driver, for goodness sakes.

The next golf lesson he takes will be his first. His game might be reckless, but at least it is his game. He goes down swinging. Or, on a day like this, when he bags his first major victory, he stands tall swinging away…

“I don’t play the game for fame,” he said. “I don’t play the sport for fame. I don’t try to win tournaments for fame. I’m just Bubba. I goof around. I play around.” (read more here)

Besides golf, Bubba has his hand in music too. You can see him in this video  featuring the PGA Tours first and only boy band, the Golf Boys. He’s the one in blue-jean overalls.

So today, as I sat down to record the last two sections of Schumann’s Papillons, I thought about Bubba. And even though I knew I hadn’t put in the time I should have on this piece, and I’d never “studied” it with anyone, I thought to myself, “Hey, I like this piece. It’s fun to play!”

And I threw caution to the wind and came up with this.

Papillons and another book

(The second installment of Papillons is now posted on Soundcloud.  Third and final installment coming next Sunday.)

My year of piano immersion is leading me to pull out and reread some piano related books from my bookshelf. Russell Sherman’s Piano Pieces is  is one of those books that you can open to any page and find pearls of piano wisdom – everything from his thoughts on the thumb and the relationship of the fingertip to the piano key to piano competitions and pedagogy… and much more.

As I plunge ahead with my goal of recording 52 piano pieces (and pieces of piano pieces) I wonder if I’m making a mistake by choosing quantity over quality for this project.  Here’s sensible advice from Russell Sherman:

Should the student polish up a few pieces over and over again, refining touch and sensibility? Or should the student learn to deal, however conditionally, with many different pieces, augmenting repertoire, experience, and means of judgment? Quality vs. quantity, a tedious argument to be resolved in favor of productivity; i.e., a goodly amount well done, some chiseled and some not.