Thursday, October 7, 2010

FLASHBACK - Teaching Tiffany

(The first part of this post was written in 1996.)

Working with special-needs children can be a rewarding experience, and one that private music teachers seldom enjoy. In our endeavors we often seek out the most talented and work with them to achieve their highest potential, eliminating the ones we may consider the less gifted in the interview process. I learned this through personal experience, and feel compelled to share my story of how I met one special child, and how we have touched each other's lives.

When I interviewed for a teaching position at First School of Music in LaGrange, Georgia, the director asked me the usual questions about my background, degrees, and teaching experience. One question stood out in my mind during the interview, and I saw the relevance of the question later.

What is one goal that you have set for yourself as a teacher? What one thing would you like to say that you have accomplished?"

I had two answers in my mind to that question - one is to see my name in print as a composer, and the other is to take a young student with only a left hand, and teach them from the beginning to play piano. Realizing that this man would rather hear the less self-centered answer, I voiced the latter.

I remember his surprise at this statement. In fact, I elaborated on my answer somewhat defensively, reminding him that there was, in fact, a large body of music for the left hand alone that is rarely performed these days. At any rate, and more important to me at the time, I was hired in January of 1990.

Sometime in May of that year, I was called back into the office by his secretary. Would I consider taking a girl, from a musical family, who had no fingers on her right hand?

Without hesitation I said yes.

Tiffany was ten years old. She was a bright and intelligent girl, with a very positive outlook on life and a very mature attitude about her handicap. In fact, she has never considered herself handicapped. Being born without fingers on her right hand had never stopped her from doing other things little girls do - one does not need fingers to dance, or to sing. And she learned to tie her own shoes, to jump rope, to cheer, and to march in her high school drill team, spinning a flag mounted on a specially-fitted pole.

When I first assessed her musical situation, I found that there was quite a lot to work with. Her mother had studied piano throughout high school and could have majored in piano, but chose elementary education. Her older sister Maria had studied piano and voice for a few years, and the two sisters had studied tap and ballet. She had read through her sister's beginning piano books, and from this had already acquired a basic knowledge of what the keyboard is and how it is laid out. The church that hosts our music school, First Baptist of LaGrange, has an excellent music pre-choir program, "Young Musicians". Here the children learn basics such as note names, clefs, and how to direct and clap rhythms. The years of dance lessons had paid off with an excellent sense of internal rhythm, and gave her the self-confidence to move gracefully around the keyboard.

In the very first lesson I learned that this girl could already reach a tenth in her left hand. Years of making one hand do the work of two had given her a large, strong hand that is very flexible. She does have a nub approximately one-half inch in length, where her thumb would be, and a smaller one for an index finger. Although there is bone or cartilage here, these "fingers" are not moveable.

I was unable to find and purchase one of the "standard" one-hand method books such as the Olson or the Riccardi/Vela due to the short time period between the interview and the time we began lessons. So we started with the Alfred's Basic Piano Library, progressing rapidly, playing as much as possible with the left hand alone. As much of this book consists of pieces where the left imitates the right, or vice versa, she would merely play both halves with the left hand, moving up or down the requisite octave. This worked all right for a while until we hit that little milestone, "Rockets" and "Sea Divers", where the hands played together. I showed her how to read both clefs and play the whole thing with the left hand, she showed me how she had already figured it out at home with both hands.

"But it will sound choppy", I said. I already had it in my mind that she would drop her "thumb" on each note, rendering a sound like a xylophone, with no concept of legato.

"Not if I do it this way". She then played the piece with both hands, dropping arm weight into each right hand note, and connecting each note with "quarter-note" dabs of pedal. Syncopated pedal, the kind we struggle to teach to ten-fingered children.

Balance between hands? No problem. Arm weight in the right hand coupled with finger strokes in the left produced an ideal balance for pieces at this level. Left hand melody? As a last resort, she would cross hands, right over left. All the shifting and moving she was doing from the very first lesson gave her an excellent sense of "keyboard geography" and she was never tied down to one hand position or that tyrannical middle C.

After a month or so of lessons, I could see where this was heading. Although I still wanted her to concentrate on her left-hand-alone pieces, she stubbornly worked on whatever she could find with single-note right hand parts. We found much rewarding music out there with this texture, or that could easily be adapted. For example, a four-note chord for two hands such as C,G in the left hand and E,C in the right could be easily and consistently played C,G,E in the left and C in the right. The tenth posed no problem; she could already reach a white-key tenth at this early age.

By the age of 14, Tiffany had performed on a regular basis for her church, had some success in local high-school level competitions, and in November of 1994 performed a full-length solo recital, receiving some newspaper coverage for her efforts.

Practicing the Scriabin Nocturne, 1997

Obviously, there are pieces in the repertoire she will never play, but as I have told her several times, "you will never be able to play the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, but neither will I!"

A favorite high-school war-horse was the Mendelssohn Song Without Words, op. 102 no. 4 ("The Sighing Wind"). Surprisingly few modifications were necessary; she could play the sixteenth-note accompaniment up to tempo with the left hand. The stretto-like section near the coda is played with a very active left hand, omitting only a few right-hand double notes (most of which are duplicated at the octave in the left hand) and playing the black-black augmented seconds in the right hand with the fleshy part of her hand.

Our teacher-student relationship hasn't always been rosy; she could go through of mood swings like any other teenager. But she was constantly an inspiration to my other students, who understand that she is "special". (Of course, all of my students are "special", and I make an effort to express that.)

Those Ravel and Prokofiev concertos never became a reality for her. But she did learn the Scriabin Prelude and Nocturne, and performed the Nocturne in many recitals and competitions.

Yours truly with Miss Troup Teen, January 1996. 
Yes, she played the piano for her talent presentation.
Yes, it was the Mendelssohn.

In fact, one competition was a "high point" in my teaching career.  In the fall of 1997 she entered a piano competition held in conjunction with a "literary-meet"-type academic competition at Gordon College in Morrow, Georgia.  The repertoire requirements were rather simple: the contestant had to play two classical pieces, and one had to be memorized.  Tiffany played her warhorse (Mendelssohn "The Sighing Wind") and a piece I wrote for her, "Seaside".  My piece was what I would describe as a twentieth-century barcarolle, with a little syncopation, but certainly not on the level of what one would find in a Gershwin, or even Ginastera, composition.  (Not to mention Nikolai Kapustin.) Not that I compare my oeuvre favorably with any of these, but I do consider my work to be "classical" in style.

The judges disqualified Tiffany, claiming that "Seaside" was not classical.  I guess I was not dead enough or European enough.  I was certainly white enough, but one out of three was not sufficient for them.  Comments on the score sheets ran the gamut from "this is not classical" to "you should play something like Bach or Mozart".  Seriously.  In other words, the judges did not even take the time to look at her hands (to see her fingering, perhaps?  Or to see if there were what they might perceive as flaws in her technique?) because if they had, they would have noticed she was quite a few digits short of a full hand - something which certainly did make performing Bach or Mozart a problem.  (Actually, two years prior she did perform the second movement of the Mozart Concerto in C, K.467 in another competition - alas, without success.)

This incident set us both back.  She lost interest in performing for around six months, and I stopped writing for about the same length of time.  But she was determined to try again the next year - her senior year, the fall of 1998.

In the brochure describing the rules, there was some sort of ADA paragraph stating that "physically challenged students with special needs may contact the organization if there are certain circumstances", or something like that.  At my urging she wrote them a letter stating that she was a "one-handed" pianist entering the piano competition, that she was aware of the repertoire requirements, but due to an unfortunate incident the prior year she wanted the judges to be aware of her situation.

She had prepared the Scriabin Nocturne for the Left Hand, op. 9 no. 2, and the Mendelssohn.  (That piece did us lots of good over the years.)

First came the Scriabin, which she performed with score, open only to the page containing the cadenza.  It was memorized, but she needed a little "crutch".  No mishaps whatsoever; it was arguably her best public performance of the piece. 

Then came the Mendelssohn.  There were two judges.  As soon as she started playing, one judge kept her face buried in the score (perhaps to see if she left anything out?), and the other judge rose up out of her chair, evidently to see how Tiffany was doing what she was doing!  Tiffany played beautifully - the best she had ever played in a competition.  When she stood up and bowed, she held up her right hand before she left the stage.  Perhaps the casual observer thought she was making a fist, but I didn't care.  She knew, I knew - and the judges knew.  She got first place.

Playing one of the Moszkowski "Teacher and Pupil, op. 97" duets
on her high-school senior recital, May 1999.

(Now we move ahead to 2010)

Many years have passed since the first draft of this article (intended to be submitted to Clavier Magazine) was written. Tiffany is now a young woman living just outside of Baltimore, Maryland.  In June of 2008 she married David Cole, a multi-talented musician who serves a church there as organist-choirmaster. She is now a radiographer, but obviously music is still very much a part of her life.  "As far as my music, I currently sing in a community chorus, "Masterworks" and in our church choir and play in the handbell choir (I play the higher, lighter bells by placing my entire hand in the loop of the bell handle)"

Working with Tiffany unleashed a creativity that had lain dormant for ten years. In fact, she became my muse, as I worked to come up with pieces that she could play, given her physical limitations. The challenge of “slow single-note right hand with a more complex left hand” inspired me, and then other pieces came to mind, to bring out the strengths or improve the weaknesses of other students. Since I wrote my first piece for her, "A First Nocturne", to date 79 more have followed.  Tiffany credits me with "giving her music" - taking her on as a student when no other teacher would take the challenge.  I credit Tiffany with singlehandedly unlocking the creativity that had lain dormant in me for ten years, and enables me to continue to write pieces for my students - many of which have been performed by students, and even some professional pianists.

Tiffany and me at her niece's christening, June 2006.

And one of those pieces I wrote for her DID get published – the very first one. If one opens a copy of “Learning Piano: Piece by Piece” by Elyse Mach (Oxford University Press) and turns to the "Repertoire" section in the back, one sees “A First Nocturne” by Rick Robertson – and at the upper left corner of the page above the title, it says…

“For Tiffany Oliver”.

The beautiful bride, June 2007

Monday, October 4, 2010

Another side of yours truly

Some of you know that I "dabble" in composition.

In my college years  (Jacksonville State University in Alabama), I actually entered the MTNA College Solo Composition Contest and won at the state level (Alabama) and at the regional level (Southeastern).  With no composition lessons.  My piece was a piano sonatina, my "opus 9" at the time.  I played this sonatina at the 1980 Alabama Music Teachers Association Convention, held on the Auburn University campus.  This work was dedicated to Susie Francis Dempsey, my piano teacher during my undergraduate years at JSU.

After that, I took a few composition lessons, which did not work well for me, and partly as a result I wrote nothing for ten years.  (More on that later.)

When I returned to piano teaching in 1990, I began to shift my focus from avant-garde works that leaned heavily on serial techniques and/or shifting rhythm (or what I thought were serial techniques) I realized that what I really needed to write was music for the developing piano student.  (More on that later, as well.)

Here is a video of yours truly in a performance of "Nuit d'etoiles", a wisp of French Impressionism that I wrote in 2009, during the week of my 49th birthday.  It is dedicated to pianist and teacher George Mann, who has performed one of my compositions, "Arietta", in many recitals.

I promise not to trouble you with too much of "my" work, but I am more than a little proud of this particular one of my "children".

Whatever happened to that sonatina?  It was a four-movement work.  I scrapped two of the movements, and the first and second movements were kept and compiled with the third movement of my high-school work "Mirror Images, op. 1" to become my "new" Opus 1, "Three Moods for Piano".  These three short pieces are the earliest things that I wrote that I feel still stand up pretty well.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"A Century of Romantic Chopin" is now available at the Marston site

The must-have CD set for piano lovers everywhere is now available.

First, I will place here the announcement that Gregor Benko posted to Internet piano groups, because he can describe this historic set far better than I can:

*** *** ***

The web site gives the complete track listings and liner notes, including mini-biographies of the 65 pianists appearing in the compilation.  All of Chopin's etudes are represented, as well as a selection of preludes, mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, ballades, and scherzi, each performance conveying a personal approach to the music.

Some of the recordings will be familiar to piano lovers because of their legendary status, while many others are delightful (or infuriating, depending on your attitude) surprises, taken from concert performances and out-of-print recordings.

There are some incredibly great and almost unknown recordings, such as the "live" broadcast performance of Moriz Rosenthal in an (almost-complete) Largo from the B minor Sonata, the double-thirds Etude in a "live" broadcast performance by Josef Lhevinne, a previously unissued A minor Valse from a 1979 concert by Horowitz, an Op. 42 A flat Waltz by Arthur Loesser (one of the earliest electrically recorded discs ever made), and Zadora's transcription of the Minute Waltz from a "live" recording by Cecille Staub Genhart, one of the great but unknown pianists whose work is rescued by this set.

Some of the formerly unknown great recordings include two Etudes each by Sidney Foster and Arthur Rubinstein and the F minor Nouvelle Etude from a concert by Robert Goldsand, unearthly beautiful performances of Nocturnes by Raymond Lewenthal and Francesco Libetta, red hot live performances of Ballades 1 and 4 respectively by Earl Wild and Jorge Bolet, an astonishing group of Preludes from a 1966 concert by Guiomar Novaes, and a haunting Mazurka played at the last public performance by Joseph Villa.

"Live" recordings that will raise eyebrows include the B minor Scherzo by Natan Brand and the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne played by Thomas Manshardt in very free style, as well as the Tarantelle from a concert by Shura Cherkassky.

Perhaps few have heard of Antonietta Rudge, another of the great pianists of the last century whose work is little known, nor have many known of Karl Ulrich Schnabel's fascination with the third
Scherzo. Included in the set are commercial recordings that had never been issued before by Simon Barer and Lubka Kolessa, as well as formerly issued but obscure recordings by Geza Anda, Alexander Brailowsky, Marcel Ciampi, Arthur de Greef, Samuel Feinberg, Grigory Ginzburg, Youra Guller, William Kapell, Nikolai Orloff, Antonietta Rudge, Walter Rummel, David Saperton, Irene Scharrer, Ann Schein, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Jan Smeterlin, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Evgeny Svetlanov, Magda Tagliaferro and Michael von Zadora.

We have all heard early music specialists etiolate music on "authentic" pianos, but few have heard an actually beautiful romantic performance coaxed from those intractable boxes of strings under low tension; so be prepared for a very pleasant surprise in hearing Fania Chapiro play the Op. 62 B major Nocturne on an 1820 Broadwood pianoforte.

Not to be missed is Alicia de Larrocha's performance of the Op. 32 B major Nocturne, a recording made when she was nine years old, proving that great musical talent is inborn, at least in her.

Well known recordings by Arrau, Backhaus, Cortot, Friedman, Gieseking, Godowsky, Hofmann, Koczalski, Levitzki, Lipatti, Ohlsson, Pachmann, Plante, Renard, Rosenthal, Solomon, and von Sauer are also included.

At the end of the fourth CD are found eight "Historic" recordings by Busoni, Grunfeld, Michalowski, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff, as well as Paul Pabst's two 1895 cylinders (the earliest surviving recordings of Chopin) and the incomplete Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne performed in the freest possible style by Bela Bartok, recorded in 1939 on a piece of recycled Xray film.

The liner notes by Harold C. Schonberg and Frank Cooper are fascinating and controversial.  As co-producer I have heard from several people who purchased the set, and as expected, each and every one of them disagrees with a few of our choices, but all (so far) have loved the compilation and found it to be immediately an essential cornerstone of their recordings library.  Everyone has
complimented us on the handsome appearance of the set, on the superior transfers, and for having the idea in the first place.

Gregor Benko

*** *** ***

I will add a few personal remarks. 

First, let's review (and paraphrase slightly) a statement that Benko made at the very beginning of his announcement - that in this set "each performance [would convey] a personal approach to the music". 

A vast majority of these performances do not convey what we might consider to be "proper Chopin style" today.  But these performers lived closer to Chopin's time than we do, so who is to judge?  In fact, three pianists represented in this set (Aleksander Michalowski, Moriz Rosenthal, and Raoul von Koczalski) studied with Carl Mikuli, one of the best-known pupils of Chopin, and it is not too unreasonable to hope that perhaps they have some of Chopin's musical DNA.  (Mikuli also edited the "complete" Chopin works, still available in the US from G. Schirmer and some volumes reprinted by Dover.)

There are a few more pianists with some Chopin lineage.  Another Chopin pupil, Georges Mathias, taught such notables as Isidor Philipp and Raoul Pugno, both of whom unfortunately left us only a few scarce recordings. Alfred Cortot studied with Emile Descombes, who is alleged to have been a pupil of Chopin.

There has already been an onslaught of quips amongst pianophiles about "what should have been included".  The title of this set is NOT "A Century of The Greatest Chopin Performances".  Certainly many pianists (and possibly a few trained seals) have given better performances of the Chopin Etude in C Major, op. 10 no. 7.  But Francis Plante was pushing ninety when he recorded it, and he was born ten years before Chopin died, and possibly could have heard him play live.  Several benchmark performances were not included because they are so easily found elsewhere, and one that arguably "should have been included" was bettered here - by the same pianist!

The Josef Lhevinne recording of the "Thirds" etude, op. 25 no. 6, has long been the unassailable standard by which any performance of this piece was judged.  But Benko and Marston chose NOT to include that Victor recording, opting instead for a LIVE performance by Lhevinne from a 1933 radio broadcast. 

My personal favorite historical Chopin recording is the Ignaz Friedman recording of the Revolutionary Etude, op. 10 no. 12 - however it too is not included.  Instead, we have a live performance by Arthur Rubinstein from a 1974 recital.  Since Rubinstein gave us precious few recordings of the Etudes, I can be consoled with this - besides, I have a copy of the original Friedman 78, coupled with an equally transcendent recording of the Etude in C, op. 10 no. 7.  Same side, one take.  Correspondence with one "in the know" informed me that the the current owners of the American Victor and Columbia labels - I won't name names, but their initials are BMG/Sony - would not license material to Marston for this release.  This explains the omission of the Friedman Revolutionary Etude as well as the Lhevinne studio recording of the etude in thirds, any Rachmaninoff recordings for Victor, and many others such as Percy Grainger.

Another pleasant surprise for me was the recording chosen for the Etude in C sharp Minor, op. 25 no. 7 - the beloved "Cello" etude, and one I often perform myself.  I heard it "blind" - in the car while driving, and was amazed at the poetry, the rubato, but yet the underlying pulse.  This piece can fall into a pile of steaming emotion (and probably does often in my performances) but this recording is arguably the most beautiful recording of this etude that I have ever heard.  When I later checked the track listing, I was surprised to learn the pianist was Evgeny Svetlanov, who is now better known as a conductor.

The 1932 recording of the young Alicia de Larrocha of the Chopin B major Nocturne (op. 32 no. 1) is a high point for me, as it documents her immense talent at a very early age - nine years old.  While visiting family friend and mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia in the Odeon recording studio, little Alicia was persuaded to make a recording or two.

The playing of Natan Brand and Joseph Villa remind us that so many great talents are taken away too early, and we are fortunate to have some of their performances documented through recordings.

Sidney Foster, we hardly knew ye!  I only knew of his playing through an old Musical Heritage Society LP recording of Clementi Sonatinas (!), but his live recordings of the fourth and fifth etudes from op. 10 verge on the surreal.  I could swear I saw lightning bolts come out of my speakers.  Simply amazing, electric, pianism.  Perhaps nuclear-fission pianism.

Through the selected preludes by Mischa Levitzki we get an object lesson on how pianists "used to" perform these.  He repeats the shorter ones and varies the touch somewhat.  I confess that I have found Levitzki to be without charm in the past, these recordings cause me to consider a re-evaluation.

A few unknown names remain in my memory - Thomas Manshardt (1927-2009) for one.  This is one I will file in my "quirky historical pianists" file.  Known as "the last pupil of Alfred Cortot" (although Idil Biret is still alive, performing, and recording), he is represented here in a live 1980 performance of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne.  The playing sounds to me like that of a meandering, doddering old relic of the past, but he would have been 53 years old when this was recorded - a mere three years older than I am at the time of writing this article.  It is enlightening to hear, but it not playing that I would want to hear on a regular basis.

Few "current names" are represented, but Francesco Libetta seduces us with the D flat Nocturne, op. 27 no. 2.  This nocturne's sister, no. 1 in C sharp minor, is given an illuminating (if one CAN "illuminate" a Nocturne) performance by - of all people - Bela Bartok - an incomplete, but priceless as is, performance, captured on X-ray film.

And last, but not least, for those who have been unable to snatch up a copy of Marston's release of The Julius Block Cylinders, there are two tracks here played by Paul Pabst - recorded in 1895.  These are considered the earliest extant recordings of Chopin's piano music, and the performances hold up rather well.

Carefully researched, expertly transferred from often difficult sources, this set is a must-have for Chopin enthusiasts.  If you love the piano - if you love Chopin, buy it.