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The Necessary Tools for a Career in Music

Posted by on November 28, 2015. 0 comments

College athletes with the sole goal in life of playing in the NFL or the NBA are probably setting themselves up for failure. However, athletes that are prepared to play several sports, coach, train teams, and run sports-related businesses are equipped to succeed in their careers, regardless of the circumstances. Thousands of music students every year enter the best universities and conservatories with a similarly improbable goal in mind: to join one of the top orchestras or to become a famous soloist, yet the odds of attaining a full-time position in a good orchestra or being able to make a career of touring and playing concerts exclusively are astronomical.

There is a demand for musicians and music educators in today’s economy. A well-prepared musician can make a decent living and the idea of the “starving artist” is a myth, perpetuated by unrealistic expectations and inadequate preparation. As with any other career, an adequate preparation is essential. It’s not enough to attain a suitable level of skill in performance and teaching abilities but one has to engage in multiple aspects of musical life.

I believe that even today, in most institutions, the skills most critical to a successful musical career are grossly neglected, if not outright ignored. Many instrument teachers’ approach can be reduced to “learn this piece and eventually play it very well, then learn a harder piece and eventually play it very well…” repeated from the moment a student enters school until they graduate. They’ll even actively discourage students from getting too involved in other courses lest it take away valuable practice time — especially common with pianists, who don’t have the time in the orchestra to balance out the many hours spent as a shut-in. The result of this teaching approach is a student that can play a handful of works but with no guarantee that the student understands the process involved in learning them. The student can’t communicate the process to others and ultimately will not have the means to find an audience for that handful of works. In the real world, this is close to useless.

When I know a student is going to pursue a career in music, it makes an enormous difference in my teaching approach. It becomes my responsibility not only to help those students learn a handful of pieces, but to give them the other necessary tools for a career in music. Most of the time, this results in a greater emphasis on often neglected aspects of a pianist’s education, such as sight-reading and singing, harmonic analysis, improvisation and accompaniment. This will necessarily take time away from the “learn a handful of pieces very well by drilling them repeatedly” aspect of traditional piano teaching.

I propose that, to build a career in music, musicians should strive to be as diverse in their knowledge as possible. They should be able to read music fluently, improvise, arrange and have at least a functional knowledge of conducting, composition and performance in more than one style; every musician should have at least elementary keyboard abilities and every pianist knowledge of vocal technique. More important than “playing a handful of pieces very well” is learning to learn, so one can pick up any piece of music quickly and perform it confidently on stage — in real life, you seldom get a semester to learn your repertoire. Every musician should be a competent teacher and be familiar with diverse pedagogical methods and the appropriate material for different age groups and types of students. They should be able to work with other people, as part of a team in smaller ensembles or under a director in bigger groups. Musicians should be able to express themselves in writing, speak in front of an audience, and use the Internet, notation software, and recording software competently.

My own musical education was of the traditional kind. Although I was lucky to have very good teachers, my instruction was always limited to playing the works I was assigned, and then learning some new ones. I was lucky in one sense: I had to support myself through school. That meant that I played trumpet in several orchestras, salsa bands, mariachi ensembles and on the street; I played piano in a dance studio, pretended to play jazz in restaurants, and accompanied church services; I directed ensembles and taught students of all ages; I had to take every job I could get, regardless of the time I had to learn the music, and adapt for each situation and audience. Looking back, every single one of those experiences has been as useful, if not more, than the handful of pieces I learned in school.

How I Used Jazz to Teach Myself Mozart

Posted by on June 8, 2014. 0 comments

In October of 2013 I performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 with an orchestra in northern Mexico, the Orquesta Filarmonica del Estado de Chihuahua. This particular concerto is among Mozart’s most popular, frequently performed works, and I was concerned with finding ways of bringing something entirely new to my performance. Since there is no cadenza by Mozart available for this concerto, I initially decided to compose the cadenza. This cadenza was the result of hours of improvisation during practice. Since I never wrote it down, it preserved a certain flexibility that allowed me to create variations for specific passages while retaining the underlying framework. In a way similar to jazz improvisation, there were countless “licks” that I could play for a particular section that would be true to the style and work in my cadenza’s framework. For example, a four-measure ascending line connecting the end of the main theme with a long trill on the dominant could take the form of a chromatic scale, a broken V7 arpeggio, or more complicated elaborations using different types of ornamental notes.

Over time, I grew discontent with playing the same cadenza repeatedly, especially since my improvisatory excursions in the practice room continued to yield interesting ideas and a more fulfilling experience than my “written-out” cadenza. Through repetition, my cadenza had grown stale and uninteresting to me. My purpose in composing the cadenza was to imbue the concerto with spontaneity, to embrace the juxtaposition of an improvisatory cadenza and the rigidity of classical form. By fearing the uncertain and performing only the most successful versions of my cadenza repeatedly, I was taking away from my performance. To remedy this, I decided to improvise a new cadenza in every performance; I decided to confront my fear of the unknown and embark on a search for freedom in playing this music. Essentially, I took my practice room improvisations to the concert stage.  I consider improvisation in 18th and 17th century keyboard music as one of the most exciting, largely unexplored areas of piano repertoire and performance and was very excited when my friend, conductor Armando Pesqueira, agreed to accommodate my urge to improvise on the spot. This was the result:



To prepare for improvising in front of an audience, I had several lessons and conversations with jazz performers. I am currently based in Western Michigan University, home of some of the most exciting jazz musicians performing today and they were an invaluable resource. The differences between improvising in jazz and Mozartian style quickly became apparent; jazz has a high tolerance for inaccuracy and a low tolerance for the unoriginal, completely the opposite of improvisation in the Viennese classical style. I also came to realize that there is an enormous difference in the performance experience of inserting different interchangeable “licks” into my already established cadenza framework, as a jazz player improvises on a given melody or progression, and creating a new framework for each performance. Improvising a cadenza would be as much about improvising a balanced large-scale form, with its tonal centers and modulations, as it would be about improvising at the small scale.

For my improvisation, I set a limit for myself: I would only improvise in complete adherence to style and performance practice, working within the limits of the instruments and techniques of this particular period; no octave passages a la Liszt or jazzy extended harmonies for me. Improvising in a classical, Mozartian style requires an abnormally high degree of accuracy and adherence to style in the harmonic and melodic movement, balanced forms and gestures, and respect for performance practice guidelines. Finding practice strategies that would not encourage me to repeat the same material every time was a fundamental problem. The goal was to attain higher degrees of freedom with the material every time.

I talked with various jazz musicians about their practice and teaching methods and used these to teach myself over the course of several months. I began by studying other cadenzas for this and other Mozart concertos – often from recordings since they are frequently performers’ own compositions and not publicly available – and then worked to replicate them as closely as possible. Transcribing these cadenzas by ear and replicating them helped immensely, and I can understand why transcribing solos by ear is such an important part of jazz pedagogy. In the process, I isolated specific licks that were characteristic of the style, that appeared repeatedly in different works and cadenzas. What do I mean by a “lick”? This is also an idea taken from jazz. A lick is a stock melodic pattern or phrase fragment. Jazz musicians will often learn these licks and study how other musicians use them in their own improvisation, gradually evolving their own musical language. This is a common jazz lick:



I also found several licks in cadenzas of other classical concertos. I used the ones that I found most attractive and experimented with them. Doing this helped me gain insight into certain characteristics of the different material in the concerto that I had overlooked before. For example, Dinu Lipatti’s cadenza in the extraordinary 1950 recording highlights the contrapuntal relationship between the main theme and the characteristic arpeggio sequence that connects the second theme with the coda; Mitsuko Uchida’s 2012 recording begins the third movement cadenza with the “B” theme of the rondo-sonata, illustrating how that theme can be adapted freely to virtually any common classical chord progression. I also improvised countless variations over the framework of specific themes, chord progressions, or accompaniment patterns and often used jazz-specific pedagogical methods such as playing fragments of the melody and improvising new endings or beginnings, inserting rests and stops at different places, or experimenting with inserting sections from one part of the work into other parts of the chord progression.

In the moment of the performance I was constantly thinking about the large-scale form of my cadenza. My practice methods helped me build up hundreds of licks (most interchangeable with any other Mozart concerto), accompaniment patterns, and chord progressions that would help me go from one key to another or develop a particular theme. This allowed me to focus more on where I was going and how I was going to get there than on the mechanics of a specific passage. My main concern was making decisions on the fly about which keys and themes I wanted to visit, following through without embarrassing myself, and then finding ways to return to the original key’s V7 chord to queue the orchestra’s entrance. It was an incredibly exciting experience, a rush that I have rarely experienced when playing classical music in the traditional way.

During the performance, there were two sensations that I’d never experienced before and that I’ve tried to recapture every time I’ve performed since. I felt a connection to a common language from which all improvisers draw. As I performed, I remembered other cadenzas I’d transcribed, all the other music I had studied, and I drew from it for my own performance. I have felt this connection to history and to other performers in the practice room, but never to this degree in a public performance. I also felt a sense of  physicality, an idea of space and a freedom to move about that space that I had not experienced in traditional performance.  Each new theme, chord, or tonal area was a physical location, a room or landscape, and, as I played, I felt that I began at a point in space and visited different rooms, moving away from my tonal center and then returning home. I can honestly say that I am a different musician thanks to this experiment and I highly recommend it. It allowed me to abandon many of my fears and take part in an expansive and free form of musical performance to which I had closed myself before.

Teaching my two-year-old, Part 1: Black, White, Ssshhh!

Posted by on February 15, 2013. 0 comments

If you have never seen a piano keyboard what immediately catches your eye?

That there are white keys and black keys.

Even if you don’t know what they do, it is easy to understand that the white keys and the black keys are different from each other. All you need to know is black from white, something that most toddlers know by the time they’re two years old. The same cannot be said about many other aspects of the keyboard, which require knowing left from right or more complicated spatial reasoning.

The first thing a child will learn about the piano is that pressing the keys makes noise. Noise versus quiet is a good starting point for a game. You can play it with flashcards or with a sheet of paper (I prefer a single sheet of paper because it mirrors the act of reading sheet music better.) Make a drawing that means “noise” (for example, lots of squiggles) and one that means “quiet”. Then practice making lots of noise or lifting your hands and being quiet when you point to one or the other.

At this point, the student only needs to keep track of two elements: “noise” and “ssshhh!”

Making the transition from banging on the keys indiscriminately to finding and playing specific keys can be a struggle. Putting stickers on the keys is a common approach, but it carries its own set of problems. I prefer to start with the things that are immediately obvious about the piano and gradually work our way to specifics, one element at a time. Showing the difference between black and white keys is a great next step because it only requires adding one more element to what we already know.

First, we practiced playing only white keys or black keys at one time, so I could make sure that my kid was ready to understand the difference between them. Then we composed our score:

We already knew the difference betwen noise and quiet, so now we have two categories of noise: black-key noise and white-key noise, represented by the white and black circles. Whenever we got to a red circle, that meant “Ssshhh!” (put your hands up and be quiet!) As you can see by our sheet music, I drew the first few circles and then my kid took over. Once we had our sheet music, we started to play.

I would point to a circle and we’d do it together. Hold down the sustain pedal for each “event” (and remove it for the moments of quiet). After our first run-through he was the one playing and I was only pointing at circles. By our third run-through, he was reading the sheet music on his own:

At this point, a student is keeping track of three elements: “white”, “black”, and “ssshhh!”

What’s our next step?

The key is to add other elements gradually. For instance, we can add “loud” and “soft” playing, play with durations (with bigger and smaller circles), or we can play in different registers using  four elements: “tweeting birdies”, “mewing kitties”, “barking doggies” (top, middle, and bottom registers), and “ssshhh!” As we combine all the things we know, things can get complicated very quickly. For example combining register with black and white keys yields seven different elements to identify in the sheet music:

1. High-register black keys

2. Middle-register black keys

3. Low-register black keys

4. High-register white keys

5. Middle-register white keys

6. Low-register white keys

7. Ssshhh!

Hearing everything in staccato.

Posted by on May 21, 2012. 3 comments

Playing the piano is easy: you press a key and a note comes out. Toddlers can play the piano, cats can play the piano… you can drop a shoe on the keyboard and it will play the piano. This is what makes the piano so universal: anyone can play it immediately.

It’s easy to forget that other instruments aren’t as welcoming. Other instruments need pushing, pulling, blowing, and squeezing in order to produce and maintain sound. String players spend weeks learning how to hold their instruments properly and most people can’t get a clean musical note out of a wind instrument on their first try.

Duck playing piano

Anyone, or anything, can play the piano.

However, the fact that the piano is easy to play can work against us. For any other instrument, holding a musical note takes effort; there is air or bow movement that must be maintained until the note ends. Pianists can fall into the trap of just hitting the note and forgetting it. After all, you press a key and a note comes out.

Many piano teachers try to solve this by having students follow through with their arms after pressing a key or pressing down on the keyboard in a kneading motion (one of my teachers called this “chewing on the keys”) — some even recommend shaking the finger on the key in a bizarre imitation of vibrato. While these movements can help, exaggerating them can lead to problems with technique. Furthermore, mechanically none of this makes sense; that is simply not how pianos work.

The problem boils down to a bad habit present in many pianists: hearing everything in staccato. When notes don’t require an effort to sustain, our minds can become lazy. We stop following the notes in our minds. We stop singing along with them, leading them and releasing them properly. We end up only listening to the note’s attack, resulting in typewriter pianism.

There is no set of movements that can cure hearing everything in staccato. While they can be helpful in teaching children, the goal should be to teach that a piano can sing, that notes don’t stop after you press the key. Often, we mistake this for teaching the movements themselves rather than what they are for. To make the piano sing, the change begins in our heads, not in our hands. You will never make the piano sing if you hear everything in staccato.

Short Practice Bursts.

Posted by on April 8, 2011. 2 comments

The educational system in which I was brought up encouraged “cramming”; that is, waiting until the last possible moment before an exam and then trying to cram all the information into your brain in one sleepless night, usually fueled by coffee and sugar. At exam time you’d then vomit all this information back out, probably never to remember it — or use it, for that matter — ever again. Clearly, this doesn’t work in the same way with a musical instrument, or at least not very well. A professional could probably get away with it once in a while, but having to deal with students that try to practice this way is extremely frustrating.

The times I’ve had to cram like this for a concert have been pretty uneven. It worked for me with Gershwin, since it ended up being more improvisatory and spontaneous because the interpretation wasn’t too grounded and overly drilled. On the other hand, it was a complete disaster when I had to do it with Brahms. In both cases, the notes left my head almost as fast as they went in, I wouldn’t be able to play a single note of either of those pieces right now, even with a gun to my head.

Getting a student to practice consistently is a familiar problem for most teachers, maybe because this cramming habit is ingrained in many children. When I get absolute beginners in my class I recommend that they practice in short sessions of 10 minutes, two sessions per day. Every day. There’s the key: every single day. Even a single daily 10-minute practice session each day is better than skipping a couple of days and then undergoing a two-hour practice marathon before the lesson. Getting this practicing habit across is a recurring problem when teaching children, and a big headache for most teachers.

A typical method, making the parents supervise the kid and sign a practice sheet of some sort, doesn’t always work. And it doesn’t work because of one simple fact that anyone teaching children knows:  parents lie. They’ll sign knowing full well that the child didn’t practice, or they’ll do it without actually checking to see if he did; they’ll bargain with the kid and then, for some reason that I’ll never understand, lie straight to your face: “he practiced so much this week!”

Practicing in short 10-minute sessions was something that I thought was exclusive to children and beginners, to hold their interest. Gradually I would get them to add a bit more practice time to each session. However, recently I’ve found that practicing in short little bursts like these gives really good results for a professional as well. It makes it easier to conserve that one thing that is so important: enthusiasm.

Lately I haven’t had a choice, it’s either practice in short 10-minute bursts or don’t practice at all. With recitals and concerts looming in the horizon, the second one is not really an option at all, unless I want to quit playing completely — by the way,  is there a term for giving up the piano? (In Spanish I’ve heard it referred to as “throwing out the harp.”) In any case, I’ve been forced to practice in a dozen little bursts each day. Either between students, or in the little while in which my 8-month baby is absorbed with some particular toy and doesn’t demand my presence.


After a few months of learning some repertoire by almost exclusively practicing in this way,  I’m pleasantly surprised with the results so far. An obvious advantage to practicing in this way is in the increased focus on solving problem spots and going straight to the point each time I sit down to play. It also probably has to do with the way the piece grows in the mind between practice sessions.  However, the main reason this has worked for me is probably more subtle; I think it has to do more with the way I end practicing each time. By practicing in short little bursts that are suddenly interrupted with a pressing matter (either a student or a baby needing his dad,) I’m forced to stop whatever I’m doing. If the practicing is going well, then I am enthusiastic and can’t wait to get started again; if the music isn’t cooperating with me that particular day then I’m forced to stop before I reach throw-the-piano-through-the-window levels of frustration.

I’m not sure it would work with everyone, and I’m still unsure about recommending it to my older students, but so far it’s been working for me. At least much better than the 4-5 hour non-stop practice marathons I’d stupidly do back in music school.

Mozart 21 and the Dangers of Overplaying.

Posted by on March 26, 2011. one comment

For one of this year’s concert engagements, I will be playing Mozart’s 21st piano concerto. This piece has a very personal meaning for me. It’s one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with the piano and with music. This will be the first time I play this concerto with an orchestra and I am very excited.

Mozart cartoon

One of my earliest musical memories is of me and my brother as toddlers dancing around while our father played a record of this concerto with Alicia de Larrocha. There were words that we would sing along to the second theme of the concerto about how “all the good little kittens were off to their beds,” (in Spanish: todos los gatitos ya nos vamos a dormir…) and when the trumpets played that little descending third that begins the theme before the coda, we would sing along: “Meaaaa-ow! Meaaaa-ow!” Now I get to practice this concerto while my baby watches from the playpen (not too long, I don’t want him getting too bored,) jumps around on his stationary jumper (louder, because that jumper is pretty noisy,) sleeps in his crib (sempre una corda e molto pianissimo,) or with him on my lap (one hand at a time and with him “playing along” with his fists — a lot of fun by the way.) I am truly blessed.

The Mozart concertos that I have played before — 9, 11 and 12 — all had original cadenzas by the composer. Since this one doesn’t, I decided to try my hand at improvising the cadenza. I am not sufficiently skilled at improvising to go out on stage and invent something completely from scratch. Instead, I decided to set up a sort of framework that I could follow, working out beforehand certain chord progressions and themes that I’d like to play along the way, but leaving enough room for spontaneity. For example, in a certain spot I could know that I want to go from C major to E minor using a certain chord progression; whether I do it playing arpeggios from the development section, or scales in broken octaves, or a sequence made out of one of the themes is up to whatever I’m feeling at the moment.

My first attempt at a cadenza went something like this: Go down along the keyboard from the I6/4 chord until I reach the bottom G. After that, I would make some sort of sequence using the second theme while modulating to E minor and then come back to G major. Play something based on the “Meaow” theme and then hit the trill and give the orchestra their cue. Quick and simple with little parts of my favorite themes from the first movement. After a while, I noticed that the beginning of the development section would be a nice way to start the cadenza, maybe changing it to major instead of the original minor key, so I added that. Then, while practicing the development, I noticed that I could cross my left hand over while playing the descending E minor arpeggios and play the “Meaow” theme over and under it, so I added that too. Every time I practiced it I would add a little more, never noticing what my cadenza was turning into.

After a month of working on the concerto, I asked my wife to listen to the cadenza. I was really quite clever: I combined themes with one another, played them in unexpected harmonies, and quoted little snippets from the orchestral part of the concerto. I showed off my broken octaves and sixths and all sorts of cool harmonic tricks I’d picked up from different parts of the concerto (especially that amazing variant on a simple progression along the circle of fifths that is right after the second theme.) So, when I was done, what did she say?

– “I liked that last part.”

– “Which part?”

– “The one where you play a scale down and then you go up again and do a trill. You should get rid of the rest.”

She was right, of course; my cadenza was a convoluted Frankenstein’s monster. Self-editing has been pretty painful now. Each section I’ve had to cut since then feels like a jab at my own ego. I think I’ve got it down to something workable now — start with the little theme the woodwinds play three times before the piano’s entrance, doing a little variation each time; then some sort of variation on the opening passage of the concerto while going up to the dominant; play one of the themes (probably the second one) on the dominant in a more risoluto character to lead into the final trill. Every time I play it I have to resist the temptation to tack on more unnecesary stuff to it again.

I have trouble with self-editing. I tend to overplay when things should be simple and transparent; I use variation when things should just repeat. I do it when I write, not knowing when to stop a sentence. I did it when I tried my hand at composition (I was a composition student before switching to the piano.)

I had this problem in my short stint as a jazz pianist in my high-school’s junior jazz band (I didn’t make the cut for the big jazz band, I was a trumpet player at the time.) There was a piano solo for me in a Count Basie standard. Each time we played it I added something new to it and, by the time we showed up to the regional competitions, it was a convoluted mess of octaves and broken arpeggios (the only technical difficulties that I could reliably do without messing them up too badly.) Back then, one of the judges from the competition wrote on his advice slip: “The pianist is way too busy, this song should be laid-back.” Apparently I haven’t learned anything since then.


Posted by on May 13, 2010. one comment

Charmes, by Federico Mompou is a work comprised of six short pieces that, as the title implies, are short little spells intended to conjure different effects: …to alleviate suffering …to inspire love … to penetrate the soul …to effect a cure …to evoke an image of the past …to inspire joy. This approach towards composition is a great example of what Mompou’s music is about. Traditional analysis brings nothing to the table, most of his works from after the 20’s are wisps of fog; scraps of melody, ostinato figures and refined harmonies which, while owing a lot to the music of Satie and his contemporaries, have an entirely different approach towards musical discourse.

Development and rigid construction are the furthest thing from Mompou’s mind –in fact, in an interview he admitted to adoring all music except for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, precisely because of those qualities. What Mompou fully appreciated, decades before John Cage talked about everything around us being music, is that every chord, every motif, every note has an intrinsic beauty and meaning that is completely independent of what a composer does with it. What results of this aesthetic is music with long ostinati, frequent repetition and in which harmony has no functional meaning, but is profoundly connected with timbre. Much like bells –which play a very important role in Mompou’s music and life– the notes in each chord and the harmonics they produce result in different qualities of tone, ranging from the tinny, metallic sound typical of minor seconds and tritones, to the full, resonant, harmonic-rich superimposed fifths and fourths.

Magic is the word that best describes Mompou’s music, a meaning to be taken literally in his 1920-21 work Charmes. But perhaps this concept isn’t so unique to Mompou. After all, the use of music for its magical properties is something that has been a part of every culture since we started walking upright. The first spell in this cycle, …pour endormir la souffrance (…to alleviate suffering) conjures up an effect that everyone has felt at some time. Music as a refuge, as a way of dulling our pain.

Contrary to what happens with the majority of serialist music, which is more interesting to analyze than it is to play or listen to, Mompou suffers from analysis. The first piece in Charmes is  just a short Debussyian fragment of a melody repeated exactly the same four times over an ostinato pattern in the left hand, with very slight coloring shifts in the harmony. While not to everyone’s liking, I find that repetition to be an essential part of Mompou’s language; here it softly nudges you over and over, subtly shifting from darkness to light. It’s like taking a beautiful gemstone in your hands and turning it, watching the light play on its surface.

Does this music do what Mompou intends it to do, that is, “alleviate suffering”? I think it does. But that’s entirely up to the listener. While one may just hear the same thing over and over, someone else will allow himself to be swept away.

The Satie problem.

Posted by on May 7, 2010. 0 comments

The music of Erik Satie presents some very difficult problems of interpretation, especially when you consider that it wasn’t long ago that he was considered a minor composer, an eccentric that really didn’t know what he was doing. There are two reasons why Satie is so difficult to play right: the very disparate extremes of character in his compositions and the amount of trust that Satie places in the hands of his interpreters. In other words, he does all kinds of crazy things, constantly changes everything around and doesn’t give you a single clue to what’s going on.

His music can evoke both classical antiquity and a smoke-filled dingy café. It can seduce the listener at one moment and thumb its nose at him in the next. He writes delicate, refined, Schubert-like melodies that were intended for the cabaret, to be belted out by a booze-soaked, raspy-voiced singer while, for a solemn, grand-scale work like Les fils des étoiles, he fills the dissonant score with eccentric comments and a huge dedication, poking fun at the seriousness of the event.

The tempi and articulation are up in the air most of the time and the music is completely devoid of expression marks, time signatures, bar lines or tempo markings. In place of standardized musical terminology you are faced with wacky comments, such as like a nightingale with a toothache or it’s finally going to end! (that in a piece which is barely two minutes long.)

I find that the biggest problem with Satie, much like eighteenth-century French harpsichord music, is in the characterization. The pieces are increasingly fragmentary, and one has to learn to give each passage its proper character (even if it means pondering long and hard on what a “nightingale with a toothache” sounds like) without falling into the trap of bringing it all together by playing everything in the same tempo. Another problem here is that most pianists approach Satie’s music with preconceived notions about his music, failing to take into account the wildly differing changes of style from one piece to the next. The two most common approaches are “this music is too boring for an audience, let’s speed it up!” –Aldo Ciccolini is a good example of this done well– and “this music is so pretty, let’s make it minimalist” –Reinbert DeLeeuw does this in a good way, with his six-minute Gymnopedies.

The fact is that a good Satie interpretation is a very delicate thing, there’s much more to it than just picking a tempo and trying to make pretty noise. It’s all about the little nuances in the phrasing, timing and timbre. Things you pick up by knowing the composer’s life and work in-depth and, most of all, by really loving the music and being truly convinced that what you are playing is a great work of art. But be careful, there is still a trap there. By giving the music the importance it deserves, that very seriousness undermines the spirit of Satie’s music, be it in his funny moods or in his “furniture music” period. See the problem? That’s why to play Satie, what you really need is a sense of humor.


Posted by on April 29, 2010. 0 comments

One of my favorite twentieth century pieces is Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet. Playing it is grueling, mainly because it lasts almost two hours and requires a constant attention to the duration of the rests and the number of repetitions for each measure (all the durations are written out.) One little lapse of concentration in those two hours and it’s very easy to get lost and never catch the rest of the ensemble again, since it all sounds so similar –it’s also exhausting for the page turners, my wife turned the pages for me during a performance a few years ago and her back ached for a week! Feldman’s music tends to have rhythms that seem free and floating, with slow evolution and asymmetric patterns, his later music also tends to be very long.

I find that the Prelude to the second act of Le fils des étoiles, by Erik Satie has some elements that are very Feldmanesque, not a small feat considering that it was composed 100 years before Piano and String Quartet, while the rest of Europe was still playing to Wagner’s beat. The first similarity is in the character of the music; when I play the music of both composers, I feel it has a very slow, quiet evolution, as some sort of solemn ritual (which is very much in the context of Satie’s prelude.) All kinds of interesting things are happening in the music and we have time to enjoy and assimilate each and every one. The other element in common, which is much more technical, is the way they both use repeating asymmetric patterns in their music.

There is a special expression in the way asymmetric patterns and structures that are not quite perfect work. The imbalance in the music immediately calls attention from the listener and, in the hands of the right composer, it becomes fascinating.

Just as the first prelude, L’initiation is written without bar-lines or time signature and has all sorts of quirky, baffling performance indications. The first few notes of this short piece are groundbreaking:

A lot is happening here, all of it for the first time in musical history. We have a small unit which is formed by two minor chords, superimposed. The top voice then jumps up in a tritone –since the middle ages, the tritone has had strong satanic and mystical symbolism and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some sort of extra-musical significance to its use here by Satie (he did hang out with a Satanist sect for a while, after all.)  The remarkable thing about this tritone is that it does not resolve in any way, he just repeats the whole thing a minor third below and then he continues downward with the sequence at a major second. Then comes a beautiful, metallic chord moving in parallel harmony. Note his use of asymmetry, he could have built the chord using only perfect fourths but he adds an augmented fourth right in the middle of the chord. This gives the chord a kind of metallic quality, a distinctive dissonance that alters the way it rings.

Then comes the whole thing again, only transposed up by a major second. Here is another use of asymmetry; the beginning gives the impression that he will repeat the same sequence, but he departs from it in the third repetition, going down a fourth instead of a second and replacing the octave with a minor ninth. We end this section with another one of those planed quartal chords.

Satie was always credited by Ravel as being the mind behind the french impressionist movement. The role he played in the history of music was that of a great experimenter, every few works moving into new ground. Much of the best music by Ravel and Debussy –and most french composers that immediately followed– was directly inspired by Satie’s experiments. I believe that, besides the experimental nature of his music, there is great substance in what he wrote. The aesthetic of his writing is so far beyond romanticism or impressionism that it is no surprise that his music wasn’t fully appreciated until the second half of the twentieth century.

Child of the stars.

Posted by on April 22, 2010. 2 comments

Erik Satie wrote the music for a pretentious play called Le fils des étoiles (The child of the stars) by self-entitled “super magician imperator” Sar Peladan, leader of an order of Rusicrucians and obsessed with mysticism (particularly that of Wagner). This composition by Satie included incidental music for the whole play, probably scored for flutes and harps (and recently re-orchestrated for that instrumentation by Toru Takemitsu), but Satie only published the preludes to each act for piano. The prelude to act one, La Vocation, is a surprisingly advanced piece of music. 

The music is very immobile and detached, a complete departure from the prevailing aesthetic of Wagnerian romanticism –the irony of this work being used for a play for a sect that included Wagner in their daily prayers was certainly not lost on Satie. More than an homage, this piece is a rebuttal to Wagner’s musical aesthetic.

The score has no bar-lines or time signature, something that hadn’t been done since the renaissance. In this piece, for the first time in history, there is a systematic use of chords –in fourths, no less– moving in parallel motion, three years before Debussy’s famous use of parallel harmony (also known as planing) in his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Unlike Debussy which, in this period, was still using traditional harmonic functions and writing tonal music, the preludes to Le fils des étoiles are atonal and the parallel-moving tritone on top of the fourths already makes possible a proto-polytonality, due to the voices moving in completely different tonal planes. In only a few minutes of music, Satie uses harmonic techniques that were unheard of in the music of his time and predates an aesthetic that has much more in common with the music of Morton Feldman or Toru Takemitsu than with any of his contemporaries.

There are many problems with the interpretation of Satie. Many pianists fail by trying to make the music “exciting”, worried about boring their audience. Although it is also easy to lose oneself in a work that is so open to interpretation, often without time marks of any kind and with cryptic, sometimes humorous music directives such as “on the tip of the tongue.” Players often get distracted by the eccentricity of Satie’s personality and the often bizarre indications on his scores but, beyond the surface, there is amazing, revolutionary music in these still, immobile compositions.

Le fils des étoiles