Tag Archives: Composers

The Red Priest

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The Red Priest

On March 4, 1678, in Venice, Italy, a little red-headed boy was born, and was immediately baptized by his midwife, though the exact reason for the haste is no longer remembered. It could have been because he was such a sickly little infant; or it could have been due to the earthquake that shook Venice that day.

It’s likely that the condition which afflicted him was asthma, but it didn’t prevent him from exercising his gifts, particularly his musical ones. Fortunately for us, he learned to play the violin and to compose music, because he was Antonio Vivaldi.Vivaldi; the Red Priest

He also studied for the priesthood (possibly the result of a deal made by his mother with God during the ordeal of delivering him in the midst of the earthquake) and he was ordained in 1703. He became known as the Red Priest because of his vivid hair, which ran in his family.

Vivaldi was granted a dispensation from saying daily Mass because of his ill health. Instead of parish work, he accepted the position of Master of violin at an orphanage, Ospedale della Pietá (Devout Hospital of Mercy). The boys at the orphanage learned a trade; the girls studied music, and the most talented were invited to perform with the orphanage’s famous orchestra and chorus. Over the years he was assigned additional musical duties at the orphanage. He was devoted to the girls and composed a large body of work for them, including sacred music, such as this Gloria:

His relationship with the board of directors of the orphanage was often contentious. His contract had to be reviewed and renewed every year, and one year the board voted 7 to 6 against him. Vivaldi freelanced for the year, and the next year the board voted unanimously to hire him back, apparently recognizing his valuable contributions to the girls’ education. Again, lucky for us, because he continued to compose beautiful music for them.

Perhaps Vivaldi’s most famous work is The Four Seasons, a group of four violin concertos. Here is Summer, with soloist Mari Silje Samuelsen:

At the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from various European royalty. In addition to more than 60 pieces of sacred music, he also wrote over 500 concertos, 46 operas, 90 sonatas, and assorted sinfonias and chamber music.

In his later years, Vivaldi’s work fell out of fashion, and he fell on hard times. In 1740, he relocated to Vienna, hoping to receive financial support from Emperor Charles VI, but the Emperor died before that could happen. Vivaldi died in poverty on July 28, 1741.

“Cessate, omai cessate” performed by countertenor Andreas Scholl:

This is a “Best of Vivaldi” two-hour playlist. I have embedded it to start with his Concerto for Two Horns. (You can also watch it on Youtube navigating from the description below the screen; then you’ll be able to read the names of the selections. Click “Show More.”)

Franz Schubert

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Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert (January 31, 1797 – November 19,1828) was an Austrian composer of the late Classical and early Romantic eras. Despite his short lifetime, Schubert created a vast quantity of compositions, including more than 600 vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of piano and chamber music. His most famous works include the Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (Trout Quintet), the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished Symphony), the three last piano sonatas (D. 958–960), the incidental music to the play Rosamunde (D. 797), and the song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (D. 795) and Winterreise (D. 911).

Born in the Himmelpfortgrund suburb of Vienna, Schubert’s musical gifts were evident from an early age. At the age of five, Schubert began to receive regular instruction from his father, and a year later was enrolled at his father’s school. Franz was given piano lessons by his brother Ignaz, but they lasted for a very short time as Franz surpassed him within a few months.

His father gave him his first violin lessons when he was eight years old, training him to the point where he could play easy duets proficiently. Soon after, Schubert became the student of Michael Holzer, organist and choirmaster of the local parish church, who did not give him any real instruction, as the boy already knew anything he tried to teach him. The boy seemed to gain more from an acquaintance with a carpenter’s apprentice who took him to a neighboring piano warehouse where Schubert could practice on better instruments. Franz also played viola in the family string quartet, with his brothers Ferdinand and Ignaz on first and second violin and his father on the cello. Schubert wrote his earliest string quartets for this ensemble.

Young Schubert first came to the attention of Antonio Salieri, then Vienna’s leading musical authority (and rival of Mozart), in 1804, when his vocal talent was recognized. In the meantime, Schubert’s genius began to show in his compositions; Salieri instructed him in music theory and composition.

In November 1808, he entered the Stadtkonvikt (Imperial Seminary) on a choir scholarship. There he was introduced to the overtures and symphonies of Mozart, the symphonies of Joseph Haydn, and the overtures and symphonies of Beethoven, a composer for whom he developed a special admiration.

At the end of 1813, Schubert left the Stadtkonvikt and returned home for teacher training at the St Anna Normal-hauptschule. In 1814, he entered his father’s school as teacher of the youngest pupils. For over two years young Schubert endured the teaching profession for which he cared little. He continued to take private lessons in composition from Salieri, who gave Schubert more actual technical training than any of his other teachers, before they parted ways in 1817. His teaching job and private musical lessons earned him enough money for only his basic needs. Schubert’s unhappiness contributed to his depression, from which he suffered throughout his life.

In 1821, Schubert was granted admission to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as a performing member, which helped establish his name among the Viennese citizenry. He gave a concert of his own works to critical acclaim in March 1828, the only time he did so in his career.

Schubert

Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder

In the midst of this creative activity, his health deteriorated; Schubert confided to some friends that he feared that he was near death. Some of his symptoms matched those of mercury poisoning (mercury was then a common treatment for syphilis, suggesting that Schubert suffered from it). At the beginning of November, he again fell ill, experiencing headaches, fever, swollen joints, and vomiting. He was unable to retain solid food and his condition worsened. Schubert was only 31 years old when he died.

Appreciation of Schubert’s music while he was alive was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased significantly in the decades following his death. Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and other 19th-century composers and performers discovered and championed his works. Today, Schubert is ranked among the greatest composers of the 19th century, and his music continues to be included in popular repertoire.

Brahms

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Brahms

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, the son of Johann Jakob Brahms, a musician. His father was his first music teacher, instructing him on violin and cello. He studied piano with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel, who complained that the boy “could be such a good player, but he will not stop his never-ending composing.” At age 10, Brahms made his debut as a performer in a private concert. Brahms’s parents disapproved of his early efforts as a composer, feeling that he had better career prospects as a performer.

From 1845 to 1848 Brahms studied with Cossel’s teacher, the pianist and composer Eduard Marxsen. Marxsen had been a personal acquaintance of Beethoven and Schubert, and admired the compositions of Mozart, Haydn, and J. S. Bach. Marxsen taught Brahms the works of these composers and ensured that Brahms’ own compositions were grounded in their musical traditions.

In 1850 Brahms met with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi and became his accompanist. Reményi introduced Brahms to “gypsy-style” music such as the czardas, which was later to prove the foundation of his most lucrative and popular compositions, the two sets of Hungarian Dances (1869 and 1880).

Johannes Brahms, composer, Romantic, music

Brahms at age 20

In 1853 Brahms and Reményi went on a concert tour. In late May the two visited the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim at Hanover, who had earlier impressed Brahms with his rendition of Beethoven’s violin concerto. Brahms played some of his own solo piano pieces for Joachim, who recalled fifty years later, “Never in the course of my artist’s life have I been more completely overwhelmed.” Thus began a lifelong friendship.

Brahms visited Düsseldorf in October 1853, and, with a letter of introduction from Joachim, was welcomed by Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Schumann, greatly impressed and delighted by the 20-year-old’s talent, wrote an article entitled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”) published in the October 28 issue of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik citing Brahms as one who was “fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner.” Schumann’s endorsement led to the first publication of Brahms’ works.

In February, 1854, Schumann attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. He was rescued, but due to extreme psychiatric impairment, he was committed to a sanatorium near Bonn (where he died of pneumonia in 1856). To be of help to the family (including Robert and Clara’s seven children), Brahms moved to Düsseldorf, where he supported the household and dealt with business matters on Clara’s behalf. The doctors at the sanatorium would not allow Clara to visit Robert until two days before his death (due to his unstable condition), but Brahms was able to visit him and acted as a go-between, carrying notes and messages back and forth. Brahms developed deep feelings for Clara, who to him represented an ideal of womanhood. In June, 1854, Brahms dedicated to Clara his Op. 9, the Variations on a Theme of Schumann. Clara continued to support Brahms’s career by performing his music in her recitals. Their intensely emotional, though platonic, relationship lasted until Clara’s death.

His large choral work A German Requiem is not a setting of the Catholic Mass for the dead. An agnostic and a humanist, Brahms instead selected his text from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. An early version of the second movement was first composed in 1854, not long after Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide, and this was later used in his first piano concerto. The majority of the Requiem was composed after his mother’s death in 1865. The complete work successfully premiered in 1868 and went on to receive critical acclaim throughout Germany and elsewhere in Europe and Russia, essentially giving Brahms worldwide recognition.

Brahms’ life was marked by professional and personal drama. For example, the premiere of his First Piano Concerto in Hamburg on January 22, 1859, with the composer as soloist, flopped. Brahms wrote in a letter to Joachim that the performance was “a brilliant and decisive – failure…[I]t forces one to concentrate one’s thoughts and increases one’s courage…But the hissing was too much of a good thing…”  At a second performance, audience reaction was so hostile that Brahms had to be restrained from leaving the stage after the first movement.

In 1860, in the debate on the future of German music, Brahms attacked Liszt’s followers, the so-called “New German School” (although Brahms himself was sympathetic to the music of Richard Wagner, the School’s star). He objected to their rejection of traditional musical forms and to the “rank, miserable weeds growing from Liszt-like fantasias.” The Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ridiculed Brahms and his associates as backward-looking. Brahms henceforth avoided public musical controversy.

In 1859 Brahms asked Agathe von Siebold for her hand in marriage. The engagement was stormy and soon dissolved, but even after Brahms wrote to her of his love and longing for her. Though they never saw one another again, Brahms later confirmed to a friend that Agathe was his “last love.”

In January, 1863, Brahms met Richard Wagner, for whom he played his Handel Variations Op. 24, which he had completed the previous year. Although the meeting was cordial, in later years Wagner made critical, even insulting, comments about Brahms’ music. Brahms still maintained a keen interest in Wagner’s music.

In 1880, the University of Breslau offered Brahms an honorary doctorate in philosophy. Hoping to avoid public fanfare, Brahms responded with a letter of acknowledgement. However, conductor Bernard Scholz, who had nominated him for the degree, informed him that protocol required a grander gesture of gratitude. “Compose a fine symphony for us!” he wrote.

Brahms, a well-known joker, orchestrated a medley of student drinking songs he called the Academic Festival Overture, which, along with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, is played for graduation ceremonies to this day, as well as in concert.

The commendation of Brahms by Breslau as “the leader in the art of serious music in Germany today” led to a harsh comment from Wagner: “I know of some famous composers who in their concert masquerades don the disguise of a street-singer one day, the hallelujah periwig of Handel the next, the dress of a Jewish Czardas-fiddler another time, and then again the guise of a highly respectable symphony dressed up as Number Ten”.

Brahms held a deep reverence for Beethoven; in his home, a marble bust of Beethoven looked down on the spot where he composed. Brahms’s First Symphony bears a strong resemblance to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The main theme of the finale of the First Symphony is reminiscent of the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, a resemblance Brahms acknowledged. In 1876, when the work was premiered in Vienna, it was hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”.

In the summer of 1896 Brahms was diagnosed as having jaundice, but later that year his diagnosis was changed to cancer of the liver. He passed away on April 3, 1897.

JohannesBrahmsJohannes Brahms, both a traditionalist and an innovator, is considered one of the greatest composers of the Romantic period. A confirmed perfectionist, Brahms destroyed many of his works and left others unpublished. He wrote for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, and voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. Brahms wrote settings for piano and voice of 144 German folk songs, and many of his lieder reflect folk themes or depict scenes of rural life. Despite his mastery of large, complex musical structures, some of Brahms’s most popular compositions during his lifetime were small-scale works that were readily playable by amateur musicians at home, such as the Hungarian Dances, the Waltzes for piano duet (Op. 39), and the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. He worked with some of the leading performers of his day. Many of his works are staples of the modern concert repertoire.

Information for this article was taken from Wikipedia.

Click here to read about the correspondence between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.

Mozart, the Boy Wonder

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Mozart, the Boy Wonder

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756. He was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. His elder sister was Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed “Nannerl”.

When Nannerl was 7, she began keyboard lessons with her father, Leopold, who was a composer and musician, while her three-year-old brother looked on. Though she was very talented, it was soon apparent that Wolfgang was even more so. Wolfgang quickly learned how to play and by the age of five was making up his own pieces, which his father wrote down for him. When he was eight years old, Mozart wrote his first symphony, most of which was probably transcribed by his father.

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Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Mozarts spent several years traveling around Europe. The child prodigies, Wolfgang and Nannerl, performed at multiple royal courts. During this trip, Wolfgang met a number of musicians and acquainted himself with the works of other composers. A particularly important influence was Johann Christian Bach, whom he visited in London in 1764 and 1765.

The Mozarts on Tour

The Mozarts on Tour

After returning with his father from Italy in March of 1773, Mozart acquired a position as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. The composer had a great number of friends and admirers in Salzburg, and had opportunities to work in many genres, including symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, masses, serenades, and a few minor operas. Between April and December, 1775, Mozart developed an enthusiasm for violin concertos, producing a series of five (the only ones he ever wrote).

In August 1777, Mozart resigned his position at Salzburg and in September ventured out once more in search of employment, with visits to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris, and Munich. While Mozart was in Paris, he wrote his A minor piano sonata and the “Paris” Symphony (No. 31). Meanwhile, his father hunted for new opportunities of employment for him in Salzburg. Mozart reluctantly returned to Salzburg in January 1779 and took up his new appointment.

In March, 1781, Mozart was summoned to Vienna, where his new employer, Archbishop Colloredo, was attending the celebrations for the accession of Joseph II to the Austrian throne. Colloredo simply wanted his musical servant to be at hand; but Mozart had a different agenda. He wanted to audition for the Emperor.

Mozart

Archbishop Colloredo refused to permit Mozart to take on outside jobs. Mozart attempted to resign as the Archbishop’s musical director and was refused. The following month, permission was granted, but in a grossly insulting way: the composer was dismissed literally “with a kick in the arse”, administered by the archbishop’s steward. Mozart moved to Vienna as a freelance performer and composer.

His new career in Vienna began well. He performed often as a pianist, notably in a competition before the Emperor with Muzio Clementi on December 24, 1781, and he soon established himself as the foremost keyboard player in Vienna. He also prospered as a composer, and in 1782 completed The Abduction from the Seraglio, which was a huge success. Performed throughout German-speaking Europe, the opera established Mozart’s reputation as a composer.

Mozart fell in love with Constanza Weber, and they were married August 4, 1782. The couple had six children, of whom only two survived infancy.

In 1784, Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna, and the two composers became friends. When Haydn visited Vienna, they sometimes played together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart dedicated six quartets to Haydn.

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From 1782 to 1785 Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. The concerts were very popular, and the concertos he premiered at them are still performed regularly.

With substantial returns from his concerts and elsewhere, Mozart and his wife adopted a rather extravagant lifestyle. They moved to an expensive apartment, and Mozart bought himself a fine fortepiano and a billiard table. The Mozarts sent their son Karl Thomas to an expensive boarding school and kept servants. They saved nothing.

Around the end of 1785, Mozart moved away from keyboard writing and began an operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. 1786 saw the successful premiere of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. The opera Don Giovanni premiered in October 1787 to acclaim in Prague. The two are among Mozart’s most important works and are mainstays of the operatic repertoire today.

In December 1787, Mozart finally obtained a steady post under aristocratic patronage. Emperor Joseph II appointed him as his “chamber composer.” It was a part-time appointment, and required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls. This modest income became important to Mozart when hard times arrived.

Toward the end of the decade, the Austro-Turkish War caused the general level of prosperity to decline and the aristocracy could no longer support music. Mozart and the other musicians in Vienna found fewer performance opportunities and commissions. The arts struggled.

Mozart’s last year (until his final illness) was a time of great productivity. He composed a great deal, including some of his most admired works: the opera The Magic Flute; his final piano concerto (K. 595 in B♭); the Clarinet Concerto; the last in his great series of string quintets (K. 614 in E♭); the motet Ave verum corpus; and the unfinished Requiem.

Mozart's Deathbed

Mozart fell ill while in Prague for the September 6, 1791, premiere of his opera La clemenza di Tito, written in that same year on commission for the Emperor’s coronation festivities. He continued his professional functions for some time and conducted the premiere of The Magic Flute on September 30. His health deteriorated in November, at which point he became bedridden, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting.

Mozart was nursed in his final illness by his wife and her youngest sister, and was attended by the family doctor. He was mentally occupied with the task of finishing his Requiem. (Tradition claims it was completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Despite the story suggested in the movie Amadeus, no foul play was suspected, and Mozart did not dictate passages to Antonio Salieri.)

Mozart died in his home on December 5, 1791, at age 35. In his brief lifetime he composed more than 600 works, many of which are acknowledged masterpieces of symphonic, chamber, choral and operatic music.

 

 

M is for Mozart

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M is for Mozart

Leopold Mozart, professional musician, teacher, and composer in 18th century Salzburg, Austria, had seven children, only two of whom survived infancy. He began teaching the older, a girl called Nannerl, on clavier when she was seven, with little Wolfgang (January 27, 1756—December 5, 1791), aged three, watching. Soon the little boy was picking out tunes on the keyboard, and his father played little musical games with him, encouraging him to imitate what he played.

By the time he was five, Wolfgang was composing his own pieces, written down by Leopold.

When he was six and Nannerl was ten, the family began touring Europe, with the children playing at royal courts in Munich, Vienna, Prague, Mannheim, Paris, London, and Zurich. The children became well-known throughout Europe.Mozart-1783-lange

Mozart’s first major position was as a court musician in Salzburg from 1773-1776. Later, he was court composer for the wealthy Archbishop Colloredo, a job he did not relish and was eventually dismissed from. From then on, he freelanced as a composer and a performer, supporting himself with commissions from patrons.

On August 4, 1782, he married Constanze Weber. They lived an extravagant lifestyle which they could not really afford.

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Constanze

Well versed in the classical style of Josef Haydn, he took it to its zenith with surprising harmonies and cadences. In all, he wrote over 600 compositions, including 41symphonies (the first written when he was eight), 22 operas, 15 Masses, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 17 piano sonatas, and 26 string quartets.

Some of his most beloved works:

Eine kleine Nachtmusik:

Symphony #25 (you may have to manually restart the clip at the beginning; sorry, some of the embed codes are wonky):

Symphony #40 (you may have to manually restart the clip at the beginning):

From The Magic Flute, The Queen of the Night’s aria:

Mozart's DeathbedIn September of 1791, Mozart fell ill. Sensing his imminent demise, he drove himself to finish some projects in order to provide support for his wife and their two sons. His symptoms of pain, weakness, and vomiting grew worse. His continued his final work, a Requiem paid for by a wealthy patron, on his deathbed, dictating portions to his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who subsequently completed it. Mozart was only thirty-five years old when he died.

 

Mozart’s life was fictionalized in the 1982 movie of the play Amadeus. It dwelt on a supposed rivalry between Mozart and his popular contemporary, Antonio Salieri. In the movie, Mozart dictated a portion of his Requiem to Salieri:

How to Practice the Piano: Doh! Dohnányi

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How to Practice the Piano: Doh! Dohnányi

A few months ago, while excavating long-unseen boxes in the garage of doom, I found a book of piano exercises I forgot I even had. I suspect I bought it at the suggestion of my piano teacher at Duquesne University in 1971, shortly before I transferred to a different school. I have vague memories of trying the first few exercises and being totally incapable of playing them.

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The book is entitled Essential Finger Exercises for Obtaining a Sure Piano Technique by Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960). The author, a Hungarian composer and conductor, was also a noted pianist, and became a United States citizen in 1955.

 

I’ve written about preparatory exercises before. I spent my childhood working through the books of Schmitt and Hanon. So I was very distressed to read the preface to Dohnányi’s book of exercises. He says,

In music-schools piano tuition suffers mostly from far too much exercise material given for the purely technical development of the pupils, the many hours of daily practice spent on these not being in proportion to the results obtained… far too many studies and exercises are given from which only little value can be gained… before all else the amount of studies (“Etudes”) must be reduced and this can be done without harm if they are replaced by such exercises which, in lesser time, bring forth the same benefits. Finger exercises are preferable to studies (“Etudes”), if only for the reason that they can be practiced from memory, and consequently the whole attention can be concentrated on the proper execution, which is most important… a judicious choice of studies by Cramer and Bertini suffices; later, a selection from Clementi’s “Gradus” with the subservient exercises, is sufficient for obtaining a reliable technique. Everything else—even Czerny, dohnanyiis superfluous; it does not contain anything of essential importance which might not be acquired through finger-exercises, or by conscientious practicing of appropriate passages of pieces. The Etudes by Chopin and Liszt belong of course to the category of concert-pieces, and play a role as important, for higher and highest stages, as Bach’s Two and Three Voiced Inventions in connection with Bertini and Cramer, and the Well-Tempered Clavier with Clementi.

Thus, by diminishing the amount of studies (Études), time is won for repertory music, and this time can be utilised still better, if only some of the pieces (“concert pieces”) are practiced up to finishing stage…

So, according to Dohnányi, all that time I spent on Schmitt and Hanon was wasted. Funny, I found those exercises easy to memorize, due to their repetitive nature. Some of Dohnányi’s exercises, however, require me to do some analyzing in order to figure out what the pattern actually represents.

The exercises also force you to do things with your fingers that you normally don’t. For example, No. 1, one of the “easy” exercises, requires you to hold keys down with three of your fingers (on each hand) while trilling with the other two. (Schmitt also has exercises like this one.) It’s incredibly awkward at first (and for a while, until certain muscles strengthen), but it develops independence of the fingers (the ability to strike with one finger without moving another, and with any finger instead of relying on the naturally strong ones).

Piano 3One point Dohnányi makes really hits home. He says, “When playing, even the simplest of finger exercises, the full attention must be fixed on the finger-work, each note must be played consciously, in short: not to practice merely with the fingers, but through the fingers with the brain.” When we practice Dohnányi’s impossible exercises, we are building new neural pathways.

 

I used to teach elementary general music, and as a way to introduce music of other cultures and explore it more physically, I also taught my students folk dances. The fifth and sixth grade boys were less enthusiastic until one bragged he could do the grapevine step (used extensively in Greek dances) very fast, and proceeded to demonstrate. (If you don’t know what the grapevine step is, watch the video below.)

When I asked him how he learned to do that, he explained it’s a drill he learned at football practice (and all the other boys’ ears perked up). It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you can move like that, you have greater flexibility to evade those who want to tackle you.

When I returned to folk dancing about eight years ago (after a 30-year hiatus since college), I felt as though I had two left feet. I just didn’t have the coordination to do the steps. Each dance session overwhelmed me; there was so much to learn, and it was all so hard to remember. Every time I returned, I felt like I was starting all over again. But after several years of regular practice, I began to feel competent.

Until a few weeks ago.

A young woman who’d recently joined our dance group tried to teach us a portion of an Indonesian welcome dance that used mostly arm movements and claps, like this one (the video has a long intro; you may want to jump to the 2:00 mark; the segment she taught us runs from 2:25 to 2:33):

Even though she patiently showed us the motions just a little at a time, and at a greatly reduced tempo, over and over again, we very experienced dancers had great difficulty executing the motions. Why? Because it’s so different from what we’ve ever done, and it requires using portions of the brain that we don’t often utilize.

Playing an instrument is also a physical task that involves harnessing brain impulses. When we struggle to learn a challenging piano exercise, we are literally exercising the portions of the brain that transmit instructions to the specific muscles whose actions are required. We are training the brain as we train our fingers, increasing our fine motor skills, enabling the necessary coordination between the mind and the fingers that translate the notes on the page into the desired sound. The payoff for perseverance is that when we encounter a similar passage in a repertoire piece, we have a facility for mastering it.

Piano 9So is it worth it to practice exercises like Dohnányi’s, which are beastly? Yes. But I will also practice my other exercises and etudes, because I believe they are also valuable, even if Dohnányi doesn’t.

I was happy to discover that other pianists find this book challenging. Check out this forum on Piano World.

What about you? Have you used Dohnányi’s Essential Finger Exercises? What do you think about them? Share in the comments below.

Creative Juice #14

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Creative Juice #14

Fourteen articles to inspire you.