One of my favorite aspects of attending conferences is the opportunity to sit in on masterclasses. There is always so much to be gained from listening to excellent young pianists and observing very experienced teachers work with them. It’s amazing how much more alive this piece of music became as the contrasts and characteristic of each variation was more fully understood and captured!
Peter Mack, NCMT is the teacher for this advanced masterclass. He began by cheerfully greeting the audience and then sitting in the audience while the first student played Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, WTC 11, BWV 889 by J.S. Bach.
After her performance, he began by stating that he wanted to talk about a general idea of what he would like to hear differently, then he would deal with specific details. The piece could be fast and nervous, or slower and questioning. Most 12-year olds like fast and nervous. However, he added, “I am no longer twelve.” He said he preferred a somewhat slower and more questioning sound. Peter encouraged her to imagine that she had never heard or played the piece and then convey that she was wandering and looking around.
With a very encouraging, enthusiastic, but specific style, Peter continued to work with the young pianist, providing her with many vivid illustrations and analogies to help communicate each concept. He worked with her briefly on how to approach the piano at the beginning of her piece and stated, “You have the opportunity to create the mood before you play the very first note.”
If you can do it, Peter Mack likes to hear a continuity of tempo from the prelude to the fugue in this set. He worked extensively on the voicing of the melody and suggested that whenever the imitation of the theme is identical between the hands that the student actually play the theme in each hand simultaneously. This allows for continuity in the way that the theme is voiced between the two hands.
Peter demonstrates the drama of the opening theme of the fugue. There are three things, and only three, that we can control as pianists:
1. How fast the key goes down.
2. How long we hold it for.
3. When we let it up.
Very often we spend all of our time thinking about how the key goes down, but very little about how we come off the key. He went on to reference a remark made by Ingrid Clarfield in regards to rests. She said, if you cut a rest too short people say, “She has no sense of rhythm.” If you rest just the right amount of time, they say, “That’s very nice.” If you hold the rest just a little long, they say, “Oh, she’s SO musical!”
The second student played Robert Muczynski’s Desperate Measures, Op. 48 (Paganini Variations). After congratulating the student, Peter told the student that he has never played this piece but has taught it quite a lot. When one teaches a piece a lot he has very fixed ideas about it. However, he said he heard some things that he has never heard before but really liked. He thought, “I like that; I’m going to steal it.” Other things he heard and didn’t like so much, so he thought, “That’s not so nice; he can keep that to himself.” 🙂
Peter began by asking the student which word in the title was most important. Variations. One must have an overall concept of the piece and the character he wants from each variation. Surprisingly, he then went on to comment on the sweeping hair style of the student. Although it is very fashionable, he doesn’t like it because it obscures his eyes.
He encouraged the student to make the character of the opening come more alive. Then he asked the student to determine which note of the phrase is most important while the audience listens closely. When the student plays a second time, the audience is instructed to clap on the note the student determined most important. For the first attempt at carrying this out, the audience clapped at all different places. Peter commented that if the student had indeed chosen a most important note, he was keeping it to himself. When we tried a second time, almost everyone clapped at the same place, but Peter noted that it was a different note than he would have chosen. Not that one is necessarily right and the others wrong, but just different. He would choose the non-home key to create a point of climax.
With lots of visual and aural imagery, Peter continued to guide the student to make each variation more musical. This creates a musical story, and is far more interesting than a mechanical interpretation of staccatos, slurs, etc. To practice drastic dynamic changes, think of keeping the next dynamic a secret and practice stopping in between the changes. Also, use your body movement and posture to help capture the contrasts.
In a nutshell: Give a student a general idea of what you want to hear from the piece, then hone in on specific details.