Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On the building and deterioration of piano technique

I was never a great pianist. I wanted to be, but I started too late. I took my first piano lessons at thirteen years old and didn’t get serious until high school. There are very few great pianists who started lessons later than six. Paderewski, who started seriously at twelve, comes to mind – and in terms of technique he was never in the top echelon.

Piano technique is mostly in the brain: It’s the neurons which transmit signals to the nerves that fire the muscles in the fingers, arms, and feet – the reading center of the brain is also engaged when site reading. (Disclosure: I have never been a particularly good sight reader – I always study the score laboriously in advance before I sound it out on the piano.) Thus, with the proper training, anyone can become a competent pianist unless there is a disabling physical condition. Getting beyond the level of competence is another matter. If I had started lessons earlier, I might have been a great pianist. But there are many pianists who are technically and musically wonderful yet have difficulty eking out a living – let alone going on to a noteworthy career.

What is technique? The casual listener might think of technique as the ability to put the right finger on the right note at the right time. But there is oh so much more: Pedaling, dynamics, tone production, playing off a hall’s acoustics. Really, technique is the ability to physically project one’s musical thoughts through the instrument – whether that be the piano, violin, vocal chords, or conductor’s baton. Of course, that presupposes that the performer actually has his/her own thoughts about the music, rather than the recycled thinking of their teacher or the recordings they’ve listened to.

History is filled with pianists with remarkable technique. Relatively few of the great pianists, such as Schnabel, experienced frequent technical lapses. The list of octogenarian classical pianists is impressive as well. But while pianists are luckier than singers – as fingers hold up longer than vocal chords – very few, such as Earl Wild and Vladimir Horowitz, retained a large percentage of their technique into old age (and no one with ears and objectivity would pretend that either played on the same level in their 80s as they did in their 40s – whatever the increase in musical perception). Too many have had careers limited by occupational injuries, such as Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher – the latter has made a recent recovery. Some, such as Josef Hofmann and Ervin Nyiregyhazi had a hand in destroying their own abilities. Others, like William Kapell and Glenn Gould, died relatively young and did not face the ravages of age or physical breakdown. There is also the question of mental deterioration, including Alzheimer’s.

Then there is my own case. From the mid-1980s to the end of the 20th Century, I worked intermittently at the piano. Life often got in the way: For a time, I didn’t have access to an instrument, so I had to use practice rooms. In 1987, I had a household accident that required surgery on my right arm and it was in a sling for a while.

Technically, I peaked around 1998-99. At the time, I was working in a piano store which had very little traffic and a generous selection of printed music, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I also had a piano in my apartment: first a console I inherited from my mother, then a small grand I refurbished. My technique was never super-human, but I could play the opening measures of Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise honestly, without using the pedal to cover insufficient fingerwork – even some famous pianists have been known to bluff this passage. I could also give a passable rendition of Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor. But my life outside music was empty, I had few real friends and no one to love, and I would lay awake at night in despair. So, the piano was really all I had.

My departure from the piano business in 2004 marked a precipitous decline in my technique – particularly until 2007, when I purchased a decent Yamaha digital. Even then, my practice time was but a fraction of what it was in the late ‘90s. With that in mind, do I regret leaving the piano business? No. Most of the time there I was broke. Without leaving for greener pastures, I would never have been able to afford the life I have now: the home, the travel, the very pampered dog.

Despite having a digital piano and a home of my own, there are limitations on my practice time. I have a house to clean and improve, meals to cook, a dog to care for, and a life that includes a wonderful spouse. There is also my continuing quest to put the rest of my body into shape. These days, I’m at the piano a maximum of a few hours a week – and there can be weeks that pass without my touching the keys. Do I regret any of these choices, given the reduced quality of my playing? Not for a moment. To be blunt, the piano is a part of my life, but it is not my life.

The above was confirmed to me Sunday morning, when Daniel and I spotted a piano showroom at Eton Collection in Woodmere. I didn’t have the slightest desire to go in and try the instruments.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Two views on Church/State Separation

Here's the result when Church and State are not separated. Click to enlarge.

Whose vision do you endorse?

Fitness Quest: Fluctuating downward

Spring is here! Actually, it has been here for several weeks in fact, if not on the calendar. My weight, which fluctuated for two months between 212-214#, is now from 209-211. Several times in the last month, I have fallen off the wagon – only to get on again. The most egregious was last Sunday, when Dan & I went to Mr. Hero. Dan had never been there before, and I had last been there in 2002. I could virtually feel my arteries clogging up as I chowed down on the Cheesesteak sandwich – meaning I also broke my pledge against red meat. Despite this, I have been able to fit into an old pair of jeans for the first time in years.

3/20/2012 210 #

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My review of the 50CD Mercury Living Presence set

I received this spectacular set the same day as the rather disappointing Horowitz DVD box. WOW! This has to be heard to be believed.

Click here to read and rate my review.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My review of Sony's 6 DVD Horowitz set

Sony has issued a six DVD set containing most, but not all, of Vladimir Horowitz's filmed appearances. While it's convenient to have so much Horowitz material in one set, I am rather disappointed at the quality of the picture. In this day & age when old films and TV shows are made to look brand new, more could - and should - have been done. I've grabbed a few images for comparison:

Right-click to open in separate window:

Above is a screen grab from the Pioneer DVD of Horowitz's 1986 Moscow concert, issued in 2000. Note the relatively sharp details, for example, the floorboards. This DVD was taken from the laserdisc, which was mastered from the original videotape.

Here's a screen grab from the new Sony issue - colors bleed and details are less apparent. This appears to have been taken from a second generation videotape. Note also that the top & bottom of the image have been cropped.

Nowhere to be seen are the 1968 Carnegie Hall recital, 1978 White House recital, and the Rachmaninoff Third concerto with Mehta from later that year. There is also the tantalizing rumor that a February 1976 performance at Ambassador College in Pasadena was secretly videotaped. Thankfully, the disastrous 1983 recital in Tokyo was not included. Many items from these appearances can be found on the Internet – although not in top quality.

Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Eisenhower’s Folly

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, more colloquially known as the Interstate Highway System, is as much an immutable presence in American life today as death and taxes. It’s hard to imagine that, as recently as 50 years ago, it largely didn’t exist. Instead, Americans went about their automobile travel via a system of regular streets and state routes. As often as not, they took a streetcar or bus to work, or walked if they lived close enough – which was often the case in those days. Longer trips included the choice of a robust railway system or the increasingly popular airlines. Now, any American wanting to drive more than a few miles has the option to hop the “freeway”. If I want to go to Trader Joe’s on Chagrin Boulevard from my home in South Euclid, I can enter I-271 from Cedar Road, and exit on Chagrin (although it doesn’t get me there substantially faster). If I want to go to Lowe’s in Willoughby, I can take I-271 from Wilson Mills Road, transfer to I-90 east, and exit on SOM Center Road – this eleven mile trip involving two highway branches is an indicator of how omnipresent the IHS is.

As stated above, America already had a system of state routes by the time the Automobile replaced the horse as the transportation mode of choice. They largely paralleled rail routes. But the idea for a more extensive, federally designed highway system was bandied about starting in the 1920s. The first plans were designed in the late-1930s, starting with a hand-drawn map President Franklin Roosevelt gave to a subordinate – it contained eight superhighway corridors. Like the development of television, highway expansion came to a halt in the realities of a war-driven economy. Things really got rolling in the 1950s, when the government – flush with cash from high taxation and postwar economic expansion – had the means to make it happen. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was sold as an efficient way to transport people and goods between population/distribution points. As indicated by the name, it was also deemed vital to national defense, since military equipment and personnel could be transported more quickly in the event of an invasion. Today, of course, the chance of a “Red Dawn” military invasion of the United States is very remote. A biological, chemical, or nuclear strike is a more realistic and frightening possibility. Indeed, a biological strike could conceivably be made easier via the IHS: a terrorist with the contaminant could hop from point to point via the IHS in a relatively short time. But the concept of Russian troops storming American beachheads and parachuting into the heartland seemed very plausible in the 1950s.

In addition to income tax revenue, the system was – and still is – paid for by bonds, tolls, and gasoline taxes. If you want to complain about the high price of gas (which is much lower in the US than Europe), the gas tax is part of that price. The IHS wasn’t all built at once, of course. Construction took decades, with some planned sections never begun or abandoned in progress.

Where do we stand, more than fifty years after the Interstate Highway System was voted into existence? You can certainly get from Cleveland to Miami quite a bit faster on the IHS than you could have on the old system. But the IHS does not, by and large, distribute goods more efficiently than its predecessor: the rail system. The IHS does facilitate the transporting of some goods, particularly food, greater distances – negatively impacting local farming. So, even greater efficiency isn’t always a positive.

Of course, there are differing definitions of “efficiency” – including shortest time or least use of resources. Ton for ton, rail is by far the most fuel efficient means of transporting goods. A more robust railway system would be more efficient for transporting groups of people on trips, and bullet trains would be faster. Trains are statistically safer than cars, and use far less fuel than planes.

A half century on, the negative effects of the IHS have become apparent:

The IHS left the old state route system decimated. Businesses and even whole towns along the old highways were abandoned, mostly notably along Route 66.

The increased commuting distance (today an average of 16 miles each way to and from work) led to an increase in fossil fuel consumption - despite more fuel efficient automobiles. It also resulted in a decrease in the use of mass transportation. Outside the Northeast, buses, subways, and commuter rails are seen only as a viable way to get from one urban destination to another, but from exurb to city – not so much. The increase in gasoline consumption led to higher prices – not just for gas, but for all petroleum derived products.

Building the IHS was just the beginning of the cost factor: maintaining it has been expensive. Much of the maintenance cost has been dropped in the states’ laps, conflicting with various states’ desires to lower their tax rates to attract business. This has affected recovering rust-belt states like Ohio in particular. The full replacement of Cleveland’s InnerBelt Bridge may be delayed until 2023 due to cost concerns. 2007’s I-35W Bridge collapse in Minnesota had been preceded by warnings about its “structurally deficient” condition dating all the way back to 1990. There are so many bridges throughout the nation in similar shape that one can scarcely drive to work without fearing the worst – unless one has blocked it from one’s mind altogether. Maintaining this system has made keeping the gas tax a necessity – exacerbating high prices.

In the 1960s, the expanding IHS along with social unrest generated the perfect storm to ensure White Flight from the inner cities to the suburbs. This left the populations of cities decimated, with local governments stretched to maintain basic services – such as police and fire departments – and even infrastructure. This led to a downward spiral which made urban areas even less desirable to live.

By the 1980s, a temporary drop in gas prices led to further expansion from urban centers, beyond the inner and middle ring suburbs to more distant, exurban areas. Exurban sprawl has resulted not only in excess consumption, but social disconnect. How many Americans live in their insular fake towns, cloistered in their McMansions, and don’t even know their neighbors by name? For many, it’s enough to see that their neighbors, like them, are Caucasians who work by day and vegetate in front of the TV by night. The vibrancy and diversity of old urban neighborhoods is lost on them.

The benefit of getting from here to there faster has been purchased at an enormous cost.

Thanks, Ike!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Frothy Mix meets his doppelganger

The religious extremism of Rick Santorum and of the Taliban are merely two sides of the same coin.