Chamber Music and European Piano Practice

(Another DTM missive for my NEC jazz piano students.)

Over the decades I have learned a great deal from the friendly genre of chamber music.

As we all know, European classical solo piano repertoire is incredibly difficult. Even playing a “simple” two-part invention by Bach at a professional level requires a major commitment to study and practice.

There’s a bit more wiggle room in chamber music. The great composers knew they were writing for musicians reading through the music in an intimate space. A lot of preparation was not expected. In Mozart and Beethoven, it is usually easier to play the piano parts of the violin sonatas than the standalone piano sonatas.

The act of “sharing the job” is warm and fun. In the ultra-connected/disconnected internet age, it feels more and more relevant to just make some live music together with like-minded pals whenever we can. Last week violinist Christine Wu and I read through Beethoven and Tchaikovsky for a few of her friends in a kind of impromptu salon at her home in Santa Monica. The power of the great composers came through and it was a memorable night for everybody.

The song repertoire is vital. I’ve spent hours and hours of my life playing lieder with whomever was at hand. My first wife Karen Goldfeder was a good singer and we went though a lot of Charles Ives together. The solo piano repertoire of Ives is forbidding: I can’t think of a single Ives piano piece that is suitable for an amateur. But the big volume 114 Songs is a stunning dictionary of modernist composition, with many pieces that are approachable for a relatively inexperienced accompanist. We also did a certain amount of Samuel Barber, another important American composer whose easiest piano writing is found in the accompaniments for his celebrated songs. (FYI, if you want to sound more like Keith Jarrett, check out Barber’s Hermit Songs.) Going back, lieder by Schubert and Schumann is a must for any basic comprehension of the 19th century European style, and operas by Bellini and Verdi were the pop music of the day. (Only good things happen if you are lucky enough to play through opera excepts while accompanying people who can really sing them.)

During my abbreviated college career I performed Pierre Boulez’s Dérive with a pick-up NYU ensemble. The experience almost killed me but I definitely learned something! (That was 1992, and the piece was written in 1985: A rare example of working on truly “new” music.) In the mid-’90s I performed Beethoven’s last violin sonata with Jacqui Carrasco and rehearsed Schoenberg’s marvelous Book of the Hanging Gardens with Jennifer Lane. Carrasco and Lane were professionals, I wasn’t on their level, but I asked questions and followed along as best as I could. Eventually with Mark Morris around the turn of the century I played some pretty big pieces with some pretty big names.

You might say all this has nothing to do with jazz, but I’m not sure. Whenever I get a call for a jazz gig they know I’m a quick study and a sympathetic listener. Some of those skills were acquired working on chamber music, not at a jam session.

At any rate, I see all sorts of musicians walking around the NEC halls with string instrument cases and opera scores. Good-natured and willing pianists are always in demand…

I guess I’m a good sight-reader, that’s what everybody tells me anyway. However, sight-reading is not always that valuable as the stakes get raised and one wants to play at a professional level.

Indeed, I have learned that many excellent classical pianists are not very good sight-readers. They need to look at the score slowly and learn it note by note. In the end, that’s what all professionals have to do: Deal with each and every note. A friend asked Marc-André Hamelin how he learned so much music, and he said, “One note at a time.”

Sviatoslav Richter (another pianist with an extraordinarily large repertoire) said that while he was learning music, he didn’t bother turning the page until he could play the pages in front of him perfectly. When I read that I felt a wave of shame, thinking of how many pages I had turned too quickly in my life. Well, we all can’t be Sviatoslav Richter, of course, but that comment did slow me down a bit.

My teacher John Bloomfield uses the word “program” for keyboard choreography. It’s an awkward, unspiritual word. It would be so great if the message of the composer could just travel into our soul, enabling us to play hard music while riding a wave of inspiration.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. You need to sit there and learn it note by note, “programming” the notes into your brain and body.

Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has asked me to join him in a concert of chamber music at the Seattle Symphony next year. In addition to being a great musician, Derek is a really cool person and gave me a helpful lesson on orchestration when I was working on my first original orchestral work Concerto to Scale for the American Composers Orchestra. It’s going to be a full program in Seattle, including Derek’s own SchiZm and Leonard Bernstein’s early Clarinet Sonata.

My wise teacher Sophia Rosoff didn’t like people to practice too slowly: she wanted her students to begin with an outline more or less in tempo and fill in the notes. That’s a wonderful way to work on standard tonal repertoire, but when confronted with a contemporary atonal score, one simply must begin note by note. If there are hundreds of atonal notes, you forget them as soon as you learn them. I do, anyway. It’s so frustrating! You kind of learn the notes of a phrase, then the next day it feels like you don’t know them anymore, that you are looking at the same piece of abstract music that you never heard before.

I have found the metronome to be of considerable value when learning hard music. Start slow and go slowly faster. The click is just a way to keep you focused. A kind of “trick” I devised is to play through everything — everything that really moves, anyway — in the piece at the same slowest speed. Then you go back. You’ve already kind of forgotten the first page, but confronting it again in a mechanical way starts to push it back further into a more secure part of the brain.

I like to lay out single sheets of the whole score whenever I can, so I can move from front to back without turning pages.


“Puppet State” from SchiZm is about as hard of a thing as I would accept to play at this stage of my development. It’s not atonal, but the chromaticism is constant and the registers and references come from every corner. My beginning game plan is to learn everything at eighth note = 100. This is incredibly slow, but the notes are the notes, they have to be acquired by hook or by crook. I play through everything at 100 until I have it, then move the needle to 110 and start over at the beginning.  Then 120, 130, and so on.

I never touch the damper pedal during this part of the process. Pedaling comes later. We are just getting the notes now, each one nice and firm, with no hesitation. (There’s a video of Hamelin practicing the Rachmaninoff Bb minor piano sonata without pedal.) Finger legato is also overrated. One must be able to play all over the keyboard with no pedal and no legato and still be making the basic, correct “sound” inside the instrument.I try to catch the articulations and dynamic shapes, but I’m not making music yet, I’m just acquiring the innards of the piece.

puppet 1Puppet 2


puppet 3puppet 4puppet 5

Quick voice memo recording of these two sections of “Puppet State” at 100. (Wow, I’m really ahead of the click, but I refuse to get self-conscious about these one and done refs. I’m just showing you how I work, these are not good “takes!!”)

An hour later, after 110, 120, 130, 140, 150, 160, 170, 180, and 190, I’m at 200:

And eventually 250:

Back in the day, some jazz pianists had great trills: Art Tatum and Fats Waller come to mind. That isn’t really case anymore, at least as far as I know. At least for me, trills are the final frontier. Over a decade ago, I said to myself, “To hell with it,” and started drilling trills whenever I could. Sophia Rosoff didn’t have much to say about them, but John Bloomfield has been helpful. Never lacking in chutzpah, I also once asked Ursula Oppens  how to practice trills. (The long trills in her recording of Alvin Singleton’s BluesKonzert are tremendous.) Ursula looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Go slow.”

Derek texted me about “Puppet State,” “Just do what feels natural, I won’t troll your trills.” Thank you. But I want to do a good job, and as far as I know the only way to deal these trills is to program them: work them out to the note and practice slow to fast. John Bloomfield has made me aware of how good trills needn’t be so fast if they are even, and, to his point, on the great recording of “Puppet State” by Derek and Christopher Taylor, Taylor “only” plays five strokes on each of the opening trills.

(Digression: I wrote above that, “Even playing a ‘simple’ two-part invention by Bach at a professional level requires a major commitment to study and practice.” Ornamentation is one thing that makes Bach inventions so hard. John taught me that slower trills are fine if they are even. The famous D minor invention is not so difficult until the long trills, which hang us all up at first, but John suggested that sixteenth triplets are fast enough. I was initially surprised, that seemed awfully slow to me, but he turned out to be right. If you accept the triplets as fast enough then you can enjoy playing through the whole piece without panicking about how fast Glenn Gould’s trills are or whatever. Quick voice memo recording:

By the way, while the sound should be even while playing a trill, the mechanism of the arm and fingers should fluctuate with rotation, in and out, and up and down. Don’t practice trills stiffly with just your finger strength, that’s a sure-fire way to get hurt.)

As a chamber music pianist, it’s very important to get a sense of the parts played by the other musicians. Another thing I will do while learning “Puppet State” is to play along with the recording. There’s no way I dare show up to the first rehearsal with Derek without having gotten somewhat comfortable shadowing his record first. When working on the Brahms violin sonatas for a recital with Johnny Gandelsman a couple of years ago, I played along with several different recordings. When Johnny and I eventually rehearsed, I knew the violin part pretty well.

Jazz musicians are familiar with using software like Amazing Slow Downer and Transcribe for learning celebrated solos by the masters. However these tools are also helpful for learning the notes of hard notated music. If I had had Amazing Slow Downer when learning Pierre Boulez’s Dérive all those years ago, it would have made the job so much faster!

Voice memo of playing along with the two phrases “Puppet State” at 68% tempo. (Of course I’d be using headphones while doing this on my own.) It’s early stages yet, I have a few months to work up the whole thing at full speed, thank goodness. But I’ve found the the bigger the “buy-in” I do at the start of working on a piece the more fun it is as I go along. (Leaving it until the last minute is not advised.)

The first part about this post was about sight-reading, the second was about the slow grind. Probably most contemporary musicians have to do both. When I worked with Mandhira de Saram of the Ligeti Quartet in London recently she told me, “We spend our time either rehearsing something a hundred times or sight-reading.”

Again, one could ask, what the hell does all of this have to do with jazz? Well, it seems to me that part of what has been happening in the current scene is the full-on appropriation of European-style modernism. If Tyshawn Sorey or Anna Webber calls you for a gig, they might be calling you because they’ve heard you can deal with a complex piece of notated music.

At any rate, in my own career, doors have opened because I was curious and willing to work on whatever challenges were offered.

One last thing that I’ve found helpful: Often the hardest material in the score is not at the beginning, but towards the end. Working back to front can be a fresh mode of approach. You begin acquiring the DNA of a composition at its thorniest, and then the early stuff is not so hard. This is how I learned The Rite of Spring for The Bad Plus: I began with the last movement and went backwards. In performance I always had the reserves to drive home the final furioso because I had worked on it the longest and knew it the best. (This is how I’m learning the Bernstein clarinet sonata for Derek, I’m starting with the coda.)

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