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How to Play Unmeasured Cadenzas (Chopin, Liszt)


You’ve probably seen this in a lot of Chopin and Liszt compositions. Instead of having measured notes, there are a ton of very tiny notes that on the surface might not make much sense at first. You’ll have ridiculous combinations like 11 notes against 6 – which simply can’t be divisible in any precise way. So how do you play these passages and what do they mean?

 

In the video example above I use the beginning of the B-flat minor Nocturne of Chopin. Right at the start of the piece (the second statement of the theme) has a section just like I’ve described above. There are a whole bunch of notes (11 against 6) that are not divisible. So how do you play these passages?

 

The best way to practice these sections is to try to find the closest measured way you can play it. The first thing you should do is divide it out as close as it mathematically can work. If you play it as measured as possible – trying to find places where you can put in the extra notes – you will start to get a better feel for the passage. You might notice that playing these passages measured will result in a passable sound but it’s not exactly accurate and it may not sound very fluid. When played correctly, these unmeasured cadenzas are almost like improvisations and that’s the feel and sound you want to achieve.

 

The next step after you’ve broken these passages into a measured approach is to loosen it up a bit. Get used to playing these cadenzas measured and from there you can start to break them up and make the sound a bit more fluid. The final product doesn’t have to be mathematically perfect; the goal is to create a musical feel. The left hand should maintain the pulse and the right hand should be able to play with freedom – like an improvisation. Keep working on this until you get a result that sounds natural.

 

If you have any more questions about this topic, or any topic at all, please contact me directly. Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729.

You’ve probably seen this in a lot of Chopin and Liszt compositions. Instead of having measured notes, there are a ton of very tiny notes that on the surface might not make much sense at first. You’ll have ridiculous combinations like 11 notes against 6 – which simply can’t be divisible in any precise way. So how do you play […]

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Can You Strengthen Your Hands With Mechanical Devices?

 

This question is very important because it’s something we all consider from time to time – using shortcuts to gain traction in our development as musicians. The thought of using a device outside of playing music to improve as a musician might sound attractive, but is it really effective? And more importantly, is it safe?

 

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of this question is Robert Schumann. Schumann went through painstaking efforts to try and strengthen his fingers (his fourth finger specifically) using different devices he created. He ended up with disastrous results; he destroyed his hands and was unable to perform ever again. Schumann was a little unorthodox with his techniques in strengthening his fingers but it’s a cautionary tale for all of us.

 

Are there any devices you can use today that will safely enable you to strengthen your fingers? Yes but they won’t be the ultimate solution to your problem. When I’m on vacation sometimes I will bring some stress balls – those spongy balls you can squeeze in your hand to alleviate stress – that will allow me to keep my hands in shape when I’m away from the piano for an extended period of time. However, these won’t necessarily increase your hand strength to the point of making you a better pianist. However, it can help you to maintain muscle tone when you are away from your instrument. Make sure you find something that will create some resistance for your hands but not something that will involve a lot of stress or pressure on the muscles in your hands, wrists or arms.

 

There is no substitute though for simply practicing and playing your instrument. Sitting at your desk and squeezing a stress ball will not make you a better pianist. If you practice your music consistently you won’t need to strengthen your hands as it is something that will occur naturally over time.

 

It is a good idea though to have something in place when you leave your instrument for an extended period of time. Be careful not to jump right into virtuoso music as soon as you get back on the piano – you could end up seriously injuring yourself! This is where something like the stress balls can help keep up your strength even while you’re away from the piano.

 

I’m interested in everyone’s suggestions for keeping your hands in shape. If you have a special routine or maybe even a device that you use we would love to hear about it. Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

  This question is very important because it’s something we all consider from time to time – using shortcuts to gain traction in our development as musicians. The thought of using a device outside of playing music to improve as a musician might sound attractive, but is it really effective? And more importantly, is it safe?   The first thing […]

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Can You Still Buy Pianos with Real Ivory Keys?

This is an incredibly involved and complex subject that we will continue to reflect upon. The short answer to this question is no, you can’t buy new pianos with ivory keys anymore. They have been outlawed on new pianos since the 1970s in the United States although some European manufactures continued to offer ivory keys on select pianos into the 1980’s.

 

Now if you have a piano with ivory keys manufactured before the ban of ivory there are still issues. Selling a piano within the same country will most likely not be a problem for you yet (depending on your local laws). However, if you decide to move out of the country and you want to bring your piano with you it’s a risky proposition. If custom officials find that you are trying to ship a piano out of the country with ivory keys, they can impound the piano and you may have great difficulty rectifying the situation. Generally you can’t ship a piano to another country with ivory keys unless you can prove the piano to be over 100 years.

 

Now in the United States we are facing some legislation that may further limit the selling of ivory. The department of fish and wildlife is proposing new laws that would ban the transporting of ivory from state to state on pianos or anything else! So, if you own a piano with ivory keys, or a guitar with ivory inlays, a violin bow containing some ivory or anything else containing ivory, it will become illegal to transport it across state lines. There have actually been cases of orchestras going overseas where their bows have been confiscated by customs officials for containing ivory (and these can be some extremely expensive bows).

 

If this law comes to fruition it would mean that you won’t even be able to move your piano to a different state if it contains ivory keys. This is a huge problem for a lot of people and it can be a very expensive proposition to have to replace your piano keys simply because they contain ivory. There have been raids of antique auctions and stores where officials have taken massive quantities of old jewelry, artwork, and other objects that contain old ivory. In China they have even destroyed a large number of irreplaceable pieces of art in their quest to stop the trade of ivory. This is a case of good intentions gone awry. The illegal trade of ivory is a booming industry and the attempt to stop this is by confiscating all ivory and making it illegal to transport at all. The slaying of elephants for new ivory is barbaric and it really is a problem – specifically in the domestic Chinese market. The American market is not as big in illegal ivory but it has not stopped officials from creating new laws to tightly enforce the trade and transport of ivory – no matter how old it is.

 

The sentiment of these proposed laws is in the right place but the practice is illogical. To ban the sale or transport of a piano with ivory keys – where the elephant died almost 100 years ago – seems pointless. If you feel strongly about this the only way to stop it is to write to your local officials and voice your concerns. There are many people who deal in vintage instruments, art and jewelry containing ivory watching the progress of legislation very closely.

 

Is it possible to remove the ivory from pianos and replace them with plastic? Yes; but not without some significant work. Ivory keys are typically thinner than plastic so the wood on the keys might need to be filed down in order to fit properly and you may be forced to do some key leveling and other work as well. Beyond that, the ivory keys are irreplaceable and it would be a shame to have to remove them long after the elephants died. Hopefully there is an effective way to stop the slaughter of elephants without impacting the sale, trade and transport of old objects containing ivory.

 

If you have any questions or comments about ivory keys on pianos please contact me directly Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

This is an incredibly involved and complex subject that we will continue to reflect upon. The short answer to this question is no, you can’t buy new pianos with ivory keys anymore. They have been outlawed on new pianos since the 1970s in the United States although some European manufactures continued to offer ivory keys on select pianos into the […]

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What is Counterpoint?

If you’ve studied classical music you are probably familiar with this term. Most people would associate it with the Baroque era of music and while it is certainly featured prominently in that era, counterpoint is something that permeates through lots of types of music throughout history.

 

Counterpoint is music that is built linearly. That is to say that there are several musical lines that interweave with one-another and form a coherent piece. If you have one line of music, it is simply monophonic, but once you bring in two or more voices, you get polyphonic music and the possibility of creating counterpoint.

 

However, not all polyphonic music utilizes counterpoint; for example, if you’re playing Mozart you have a clear melody and harmony. In the famous C major sonata K545 you have a melody in the right hand but only broken chords in the left hand. The left hand by itself doesn’t really have much of a melody to it, it’s simply an accompaniment to the right hand melody. The same is true in Chopin’s E minor Prelude – you have clear delineation between the parts in the right and the left hands – one is the melody and the other is the harmony which supports it. These are not examples of counterpoint even though they are polyphonic (more than one note at a time).

 

Counterpoint has at least two melodies that interweave with one-another. For example, in the Bach E-minor Toccata you have multiple parts that are played with equal importance. It switches freely between the top, the middle, and the bottom and it’s up to you as the player to bring out the most important melody wherever it occurs. Bach used counterpoint freely in his music and as time went on it became extremely complex. There are Bach fugues which have up to five lines of melody that interweave with one-another throughout the music!

 

I hope this was helpful and if you have any more questions please feel free to contact me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

If you’ve studied classical music you are probably familiar with this term. Most people would associate it with the Baroque era of music and while it is certainly featured prominently in that era, counterpoint is something that permeates through lots of types of music throughout history.   Counterpoint is music that is built linearly. That is to say that there […]

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Is it OK to Write the Names of the Notes in Your Scores?


This is a really good question and one that comes up quite often. You might think when you first start out that writing the letters of the notes above your music will help you because you won’t have to count through all the lines and spaces so you can easily identify what notes to play. What harm could possibly come from making your music a little bit easier to read?

 

You are shortchanging yourself if you do this. If you write the names of the notes in your music, you’ll never have to figure them out – and so you won’t learn to read them! You will be creating a crutch that will hinder your music reading development. Think how difficult sightreading would be if you depended upon having the names of the notes written in your music.

 

Sometimes you might have some notes that go far above the staff into ledger lines and you might be tempted to write the names of the notes in these circumstances. This creates the same problem. If you take the time to make yourself figure them out every single time you encounter them, you will eventually learn to recognize the notes and you will become fluent at reading them. If you depend upon writing the names of the notes in your score, you will come to rely on that as your solution and will not become a facile reader.

 

Now there might be occasions when you are missing notes – in this case it’s fine to circle them. Sometimes you might want to write lines in the music to know where the beats in the rhythm are as well. Making notes to help you understand your music is fine. But writing the notes in your music will hinder your progress. So, figure them out whenever you read and your facility with reading music will continue growing.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729.

This is a really good question and one that comes up quite often. You might think when you first start out that writing the letters of the notes above your music will help you because you won’t have to count through all the lines and spaces so you can easily identify what notes to play. What harm could possibly come […]

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Piano Lessons – Playing the Same Note with Both Hands


If you have played piano for any length of time you may have come across this situation. Sometimes your music will have the same note written for both hands and they are meant to be played at the same time. You might wonder how to approach this and why a composer would do this. We are going to cover both of these questions today.

 

For an example we are using the first of the two part Inventions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

 

This is a good example that shows why composers would use this method. In the case of Bach, the counterpoint illustrates this clearly. Two part inventions are simply two musical lines; there are never more than two notes played at the same time. If you look at the music you will notice that each hand plays a different melody but it comes together brilliantly with Bach’s writing.

 

Today we will be dealing with bar 13, the eighth note in the measure. This is where the first instance of this double note occurs. I suggest getting a copy of the music and following along with the video.

 

 

So what do you do when this occurs? Do you have to play the note with both hands? Actually, you only have to play the note with one hand! The reason that composers do this is to show the sensibility so you hear the connection that occurs with each voice. You will know that this note is a part of both lines and while it doesn’t require any special attention, it is important in understanding the music.

 

As you progress into later period music you will notice a lot of these double notes and while the music might be much more complex it still retains the same function as it does here. It’s a way to illustrate where the music is going and how the lines are moving. So don’t worry, you won’t have to play the same note with both hands – although you can if you want – it’s just merely a way to further illustrate where the composer is going with the music.

 

Thanks again for joining me, if you have any more questions please send them our way. I’m Robert Estrin, Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

If you have played piano for any length of time you may have come across this situation. Sometimes your music will have the same note written for both hands and they are meant to be played at the same time. You might wonder how to approach this and why a composer would do this. We are going to cover both […]

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Becoming a Virtuoso Musician Part 1 – Introduction

 

I have been asked how to become a virtuoso musician many times and plan on doing a series on the subject. This is an introduction to the topic for you.

 

You probably assume that to become a virtuoso it will take hours and hours of practice of scales, arpeggios, repertoire, playing with other musicians, sight reading, and everything else that is involved in becoming an expert in your field; but there is more.

 

When it comes to the mechanics of playing an instrument and really mastering it, there is one similarity that all virtuoso musicians share. And this doesn’t just apply to musicians – it applies to any field from athletics to architecture, the absolute experts in their fields all share this similar quality.

 

At one point in their lives they immersed themselves so completely in their craft for an extended period of time that they developed a mastery that put them on a new level.

 

What does this entail for musicians? It means taking the time and effort to immerse themselves in their craft and even if they don’t always practice intensely every day for the rest of their lives, they have gone through a sustained period of time in their lives when they practiced nearly every available waking hour developing an extremely high degree of mastery of their instrument.

 

One parallel concept is what it takes to launch a craft into space. You need to travel a certain speed in order to break through the atmosphere and escape earth’s gravitational pull. If you continue to travel at a constant speed, you could travel forever but you would never escape earth’s atmosphere. You must hit a certain speed to break through that plane and get yourself out of the earth’s orbit. The same principle applies to becoming a virtuoso; at some point you have to dedicate a significant amount of time in your life perfecting your craft and by the end of it you will have emerged as a different caliber of player.

 

It isn’t just a matter of how many years you practice, there also has to be an extended time in your life dedicated to absolute mastery of your field. I have spoken with countless virtuoso musicians, artists, and people in many different fields who have great accomplishment, and they all have this exact same thing in common. If you have any similar stories I would love to share them.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729.

  I have been asked how to become a virtuoso musician many times and plan on doing a series on the subject. This is an introduction to the topic for you.   You probably assume that to become a virtuoso it will take hours and hours of practice of scales, arpeggios, repertoire, playing with other musicians, sight reading, and everything […]

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Wood Piano Actions Vs. Plastic Piano Actions

 

This is a very interesting topic and one that is relevant to the reality of modern day piano building. There was a time when piano actions were made entirely of wood parts but with advances in technology come newer and cheaper alternatives. Today we are going to discuss whether or not plastic actions are as good – or better – than their wooden counterparts.

 

If you’ve ever looked at a piano action you notice the sheer complexity of it – there are literally thousands of parts. For centuries, piano actions were made out of wood. As time went on and plastics became better, some piano companies began experimenting with putting plastic into their actions in order to cut down on costs.

 

Early attempts at incorporating plastic parts in actions in the 1950s and 1960s – were wrought with problems because the plastic would become brittle and break over time. These piano actions can be a nightmare to work on and generally should be avoided.

 

In recent years plastics have come a long way. In fact, Wessel, Nickel & Gross have invented a carbon fiber action that has no wooden parts at all! These actions play differently from traditional actions and are very high quality and can be found in new Mason & Hamlin pianos.

 

Generally, companies started to rely on plastic parts in their actions because they are easier and cheaper to mass produce. This is not technically a bad thing but most of the companies that are cutting costs are using plastic for some parts of their actions and not all of them. This can cause problems because wood will expand and contract with changes in the weather and room climate – yet plastic will not. This can create problems in some situations with notes hanging up. If you live in a place with widely different temperatures sometimes an all wood or all synthetic action will be a better choice for you.

 

Another issue with plastic actions are new designs and technologies that require new skill sets to work with. A wood action has been the standard for so long that any reputable piano technician should be able to work with them. When it comes to plastic actions or carbon fiber actions, you might have to search for someone who is familiar with those particular actions and possibly have access to spare parts if necessary.

 

There are many great companies like Kawai and Mason & Hamlin that utilize plastic and synthetics in their piano actions and they have had great results. However, the vast majority of great pianos in the world still utilize wooden actions – such as Hamburg Steinway and Bösendorfer (which both use Renner Actions made entirely out of wood).

 

More than anything, it’s finding the right piano and action for you. You should certainly be wary of actions that mix wood and plastic in more extreme climates but overall there are new technologies available that are worth your consideration.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

  This is a very interesting topic and one that is relevant to the reality of modern day piano building. There was a time when piano actions were made entirely of wood parts but with advances in technology come newer and cheaper alternatives. Today we are going to discuss whether or not plastic actions are as good – or better […]

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Can You Replace Just one Piano String?

 

Last week we talked about how long piano strings last, today we are going to discuss whether or not it’s possible to replace only a single string. This is something I deal with on a regular basis. I have very intense practice sessions and I regularly break strings on my Baldwin SD-10 concert grand piano.

 

When it comes to piano, you should always have an experienced tuner or technician replace the string for you – unless you are well versed in servicing pianos. You must install the correct gauge string properly so it matches the other strings – you will want to make sure it’s wound tightly and that the becket (the part of the string that points out from the hole) is flush, among other issues that must be addressed when replacing a string. It’s not a job for an amateur.

 

If you’re familiar with other string instruments, like guitar for example, you know that replacing a single string can be a bit problematic. In the case of a guitar, replacing one string will cause that string to stand out from the older ones on the instrument. It will have a brighter sound and it will go out of tune much more easily than the strings you already have on there until it stabilizes. When it comes to piano, you will find similar problems.

 

Replacing a single string on a piano will cause that string to go out tune quite regularly. It will need to be touched up regularly – possibly eight to ten times before it holds a tuning. What a lot of piano tuners will do is to stretch the string a little sharp and insert a small rubber wedge to avoid hearing the out of tune string. The next time they come to tune the piano the string will probably hold pitch better and they can hopefully get the piano back to normal.

 

What I suggest for serious players is to become somewhat competent in touching up the tuning of your piano. I own a tuning hammer and a set of wedges and I constantly touch up the tuning of my piano. This enables you to enjoy your piano without having to constantly have a technician or tuner come over to tune your new strings. It’s worth learning if you find yourself breaking strings regularly. Not only that, but you can keep your piano in tune longer by touching up the tuning between piano technician visits.

 

When it comes to copper wound bass strings, there is a bit more involved. These strings are very specific and it may require you to send in the string to the manufacturer and have them send you a replication. Mapes is a great string manufacturer that provides this service. If the piano is very old and the bass strings are a bit tarnished, a new bass string could be significantly brighter than the others. At this point you might consider replacing the whole set of bass strings which could really brighten up the sound giving new life to your piano.

 

It’s not the end of the world breaking piano strings, but it requires some work and the help of an experienced tuner to remedy the situation. If you find yourself breaking strings regularly, you should consider learning how to touch up the tuning on your piano. You may also consult with your piano technician to see if there are issues with your piano that are causing strings to break.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com

  Last week we talked about how long piano strings last, today we are going to discuss whether or not it’s possible to replace only a single string. This is something I deal with on a regular basis. I have very intense practice sessions and I regularly break strings on my Baldwin SD-10 concert grand piano.   When it comes […]

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Why are Instruments in Different Keys?

 

When you think about all instruments being in different keys it can be confusing. You have clarinet in B-flat, saxophone in E-flat, and French horn in F: why are they pitched in different keys? It seems it would be better to just write everything in concert pitch, wouldn’t it? Believe it or not, it makes a lot more sense to have some instruments in different keys.

 

When you look at the family of saxophones you may realize that all the different types of saxophones are pitched differently – yet they all have roughly the same fingerings. This enables a saxophone player to move from instrument to instrument seamlessly. The saxophone is also a transposing instrument. This means that a saxophone pitched in E- flat playing a C will sound an E-flat on the piano which is in concert pitch. Many instruments are transposing instruments which do not play in concert pitch.

 

This is where it can become confusing because a conductor will have to transpose many parts of the score because an orchestral score is not written in concert pitch. He or she must know what key the instruments are in and be able to transpose the notes instantly to ensure they are correct.

 

For instrumentalists it’s much easier. They only have to play the notes as written and everything will sound correct. However, there are some instrumentalists that do have to transpose. For example, I am also a French hornist and often there are pieces written in different keys from one-another. Even though the horn is an F instrument, you will find parts that are written in D or C or E-flat or other keys, and they are forced to transpose. This happens because the horn traditionally did not have valves so the composers wrote the parts in different keys to accommodate the music. The horn player would have to add additional pipes (or crooks) to pitch the horn differently for different pieces or different movements within the same piece. These parts were written so long ago that they must be transposed today with the modern valved French horn which is pitched in F (and B-flat with a double-horn, but that’s a story for another time!)

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@Livingpianos.com

  When you think about all instruments being in different keys it can be confusing. You have clarinet in B-flat, saxophone in E-flat, and French horn in F: why are they pitched in different keys? It seems it would be better to just write everything in concert pitch, wouldn’t it? Believe it or not, it makes a lot more sense […]

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