Tag Archives: Piano

Creative Juice #93

Creative Juice #93

Wonderful articles that will leave you inspired.

Creative Juice #86

Creative Juice #86

Indulge in the arts:

My Love/Hate Relationship with Rachmaninoff

My Love/Hate Relationship with Rachmaninoff

Once again I am working on the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# Minor.

I first “learned” it as an eighth grader. I was never able to play it fluidly, instead stopping over and over to decipher the ledger lines. I think Sister Mercy, my piano teacher, decided the most merciful thing to do was assign me a different piece.

I revisited it every few years as an adult, resolving that this time I’d master it, but finally giving up.

It’s now come into my hands again, and I alternate between loving it and despising it.

If you don’t know the prelude I mean, here it is, from a piano roll Rachmaninoff created himself; the visual is the actual sheet music.

The piece has three sections: a slow introduction, a frantic middle section that moves in triplets, and an ending similar to the beginning that is marked tempo primo, although Rachmaninoff’s piano roll plays it faster.

Years ago it occurred to me that I could listen to the piece on YouTube. I was shocked to discover that the melody of the first and third sections in not the bell-like chords, but the deep bass octave three-note motifs. Each of those sections also includes a run of nineteen overlapping chords, in which the right thumb sometimes crosses over the left, then under the left.

The agitato section in the middle has the most beautiful Russian harmonies in chromatic arpeggios—that is, they’re beautiful as you’re learning them at a slow tempo. Played as intended, the first notes of each triplet form a step-wise motif of four or two notes; the rest of the notes disappear in mud.

Mom's piano

The final section recalls the beginning, except it’s more complicated. Now the pianist must read four staves instead of two, and the third staff changes from bass clef to treble clef and back to bass clef again. Each hand plays four-note chords that are quite discordant. I often recheck my chords only to find that I forgot about an accidental that occurred earlier in the measure, but sometimes the sour-sounding notes are absolutely correct. Some of those chords are virtually impossible for a small hand to play—a wide stretch between the second and third fingers, with an e# next to a f# with the index finger and thumb in the left hand. Honestly, who writes chords like that? To understand how I feel, look at the drawing of the hands below Rachmaninoff’s name in this illustration.

I think you need a creative solution to playing these impossible notes:

(Actually, I am impressed that Joo can even correctly position those sticks.)

Have you mastered the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# Minor? Do you have any tips for me? Please share in the comments below.

Creative Juice #62

Creative Juice #62

Thirteen articles to help you get your creativity on:

  1. Cute little paintings.
  2. A trip to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
  3. What playing the piano does for your brain.
  4. Wildlife photography in black and white.
  5. Beautiful waterfalls.
  6. Lovely ceramics.
  7. What happens when you let seniors wear costumes for ID picture day.
  8. I love this artist’s sketches.
  9. Award-winning quilts. (Click on the small images for enlargements.)
  10. Instead of aimless surfing, read these websites to increase your knowledge.
  11. Quotes to ponder.
  12. Amazing paper sculptures by Nguyễn Hùng Cường.
  13. Something you can do to exercise your creativity.

Vladimir Horowitz, Master Pianist

Vladimir Horowitz, Master Pianist

Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, in the Ukraine, on October 1, 1904. His father was an engineer. His mother and sister, Regina, were pianists, a brother, Georg, a violinist.

His family recognized his musical talent early. When he was three years old, his mother started teaching him piano at home; formal training began at age six. He studied both piano and composition at the Kiev Conservatory, and in his early years leaned more toward composing.

The political upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution cost his family most of their possessions, and in 1917 (at age 13) Horowitz began playing piano recitals to earn money to help support them. He gradually gained a following, and after his successful 1922-23 season, he went out on a 70-concert tour, playing 200 different works.


Vladimir HorowitzIn 1925, Horowitz was granted a student’s visa for foreign travel, but on arrival in Western Europe, he ignored schools and instead embarked on a two-year concert tour of Europe, winning positive reactions from audiences and critics alike. Next, Horowitz traveled to the United States under the sponsorship of impresario Arthur Judson. Early in 1928, Horowitz played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham.

In 1933 Horowitz met his future wife, Wanda Toscanini, after an invitation from her father, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, to be the soloist in the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto. They married the same year.

Horowitz quit the concert circuit four times, between 1936 and 1938, from 1953 to 1965, from 1968 to 1974, and from 1983 to 1985. “For me, playing the piano is the easiest thing in the world,” he said in 1975. “It’s all the things around playing that drive me crazy.” On another occasion, he said: “I could play every day. It is the moving that is the big deal for me. I have to take my own cook because I can’t eat hotel food.”

In addition to the cook, he also took along a machine to purify water. “Every place has a different kind of water, and I don’t want foreign chemicals in me,” he explained.

When Horowitz did play on tour, he required that his personal piano from his Manhattan living room accompany him, and stipulated that concerts were at 4 P.M. and only on Sunday. Advance teams redecorated his hotel rooms to make them more like his own home.


Horowitz receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President and Mrs. Reagan.

Critics sometimes complained his highly-personalized interpretations ignored composers’ intentions, but Horowitz was not overly worried by these accusations. “When I sit at the keyboard,” he said, “I never know how I will play something. The head, the intellect, is only the controlling factor of music making. It is not a guide. The guide is your feelings. Chopin never played his own pieces the same way twice.”

Another time Horowitz said: “I am a 19th-century Romantic. I am the last. I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake, you hear it. But the score is not a bible, and I am never afraid to dare. The music is behind those dots. You search for it, and that is what I mean by the grand manner. I play, so to speak, from the other side of the score, looking back.”

Of his art, Horowitz said, “The most important thing is to transform the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument – a singing tone is made up of shadows and colors and contrast. The secret lies mainly in contrasts.”

In the last four years of his life, he performed in a much-publicized tour of the Soviet Union, performances in Europe and America, and recorded compact discs, videotapes, television programs, and films.

Here is Horowitz being interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes:

I remember as a teenager and young adult watching his performances on television. He is one of my very favorite pianists.

Vladimir Horowitz passed away on November 5, 1989, at the age of 85.

Information for this article was taken from his obituary in the New York Times by Bernard Holland. For more about Horowitz, see this article by Mary O’Connor.


How to Practice the Piano: Doh! Dohnányi

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.



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.

Video of the Week #76: I Wish I Could Improvise Like This

Video of the Week #76: I Wish I Could Improvise Like This

Video of the Week #71: When Your Dreams Come Crashing Down on your Hand

Video of the Week #71: When Your Dreams Come Crashing Down on your Hand


Video of the Week #70: If I Had Room for Another Piano…

Video of the Week #70: If I Had Room for Another Piano…

…this would be it.

In the Meme Time: Full Palette

In the Meme Time: Full Palette

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