Article by Anoush Tchakarian, 8/12/2015
“No one can make an educated decision about the instrument that they want to study without hearing it played beautifully!
Students need to hear instruments played to their absolute, full potential, both before choosing it and also during their weekly study.”
- Anthony Mazzocchi, author of The Music Parents’ Guide
Often when I assign works by Johann Sebastian Bach to my students, regardless of age and level of progress, I am met with mixed reactions of fear, poorly disguised disappointment, sighs, and frowns. When I first started teaching young children, some of them already had encountered J.S. Bach as part of their training, and with a very few exceptions, all disliked playing his works. When I asked them why they had this attitude towards one of the greatest composers, the overwhelming answer was “. . . Too hard to learn and memorize.” To the kids who actually learned and performed Bach, I directed my second question: Well, after you learned it, didn’t you love playing it? Most of them answered with a frank and short “No.” At first I found this disheartening.
When I was a young student, I went through Bach’s two-part, three-part inventions, his short preludes and fugues, and later on his Well-Tempered Clavier Books I and II, French Suites, and Partitas, and loved every single one of them. Quite often I sight-read Bach and asked my teachers to play particular works by him, with which I easily fell in love. Thanks to my father, whose never ending love for music prompted non-stop listening to recordings and radio, I listened to music almost endlessly. Also thankfully Bach was a requirement at my school and nobody could get away without covering most of his Well-Tempered Clavier Books prior to graduating. This developed tremendously my touch, phrasing, attention to detail, and understanding of polyphony, and helped me develop the necessary skills for interpreting other genres, especially the rich multi-voiced layered structures that we find in Brahms, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and the list goes on.
After meeting this initial resistance from my students regarding Bach, I decided to set on a mission to make Bach appealing and loved. One of my first steps was personal demonstration. When I assign Bach, I always sit in front of the piano before students and parents, and play through the assigned work, trying in the best possible way to convey his ideas. I noticed that this started to make a slight difference. In addition, I will recommend to the families to get recordings of particular performers, listen to his cantatas, or simply check the local listings of WQED radio (Sunday Baroque gives a great opportunity to hear great performances). I tried my best to persuade both students and parents of the tremendous benefits that come from learning and performing Bach. From developing greater dexterity to strengthening their ability to focus. And if all else failed, I occasionally simply insisted: “Johnny (and Mom), you are going to finish working on this chorale because it is beautiful. And I won’t let you go before you hear and feel the beauty and put the thought into it.” The looks and ill-attempted protests I get after sentences as such I cherish the most. My second step was and still is, to keep my smart technology handy and send them a performance or recording info. Not necessarily of the same exact work (most young kids have assignments from the Anna-Magdalena Notebook), but another one of Bach’s which I believe will benefit them most.
The choice for my playlist is of the acclaimed Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt’ lecture/demonstration DVD Bach Performance on the Piano. This DVD could be easily found for purchase through her website (or on amazon.com) or on YouTube. She is the leading performer of J. S. Bach and an exquisite pianist. I would like my students to pay particular attention to her touch and phrasing, as well as her flawless ornamentation. When most students listen to her interpretation, the overwhelming comment is how she sings on the piano, her cantabile. Her masterclass is a great guide and tool not only to students, but pedagogues alike. I picked Bach’s Two-Part Invention No. 1 in C major BWV 772 since it is one of the pillars of standard repertoire for every piano student.
My second choice for the playlist is a young Yuja Wang performing Carl Czerny’s Etude Op. 849, No. 2. Czerny’s etudes (and unfortunately not only his technical studies) are often met with pure boredom and eye rolling. But when performed by a kid (Wang is currently one of the leading concert pianists and an amazing performer touring around the world and performing in the best venues) puts it in perspective how necessary and crucial technical studies are to develop better and safe technique. It helps children to identify themselves with other young pianists and it helps them to see how much they can achieve by dedicating time, practice, and patience to the piano. Etudes are inseparable part of the piano training. Yes, they can be quite monotonous at first, but down the road the complex ones by Chopin, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff await us! They tackle various techniques and issues that will be met in the repertoire, as well as prevent injuries when executed correctly and under the expert supervision of the teacher. In this particular video, Yuja Wang seems and sounds comfortable and confident. She looks like she is having fun. Let’s have fun with these scale patterns and eventually our fingers will become as independent and dexterous as possible. Even if we aren’t having fun with Czerny, Cramer, or Duvernoy, it might be a good idea to pretend that we are, since stage appearance and presence are crucial parts of our beloved art. Being in a particular character is part of the game.
And speaking of character, the last video of Prokovief’s Peter and the Wolf illustrates best theabilities of different instruments to paint a picture, tell a story, and create characters with different colors, timber, and rhythmic patterns. It challenges kids’ imagination and engages them on another level of listening carefully and recognizing the various instruments. It will help young pianists to imitate these different timbres on the piano, encourage them to “paint” a picture, tell a story, and play with dynamic levels when on their instrument. After all, who doesn’t like a great fairy tale or making up stories? I know I do, and I am not the only one out there. Many kids when first heard that piece made immediate connection with the movie A Christmas Story. Isn’t it fantastic when the arts unite?
When it comes to recommend performances to help my students, I tend to recommend recordings of the legendary pianists of 20th century such as Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Artur Rubenstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy. Younger pianists who I often recommend are Valentina Lisitza, Evgeni Kissin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yefim Bronfman, Lars Vogt, Helene Grimaud. Fortunately for us Bronfman, Grimaud and Thibaudet visit Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra quite often, and are part of their calendar of events. A must see local pianists are David Allen Wehr and Natasha Snitkovsky, who are world renowned artists residing here. We are very lucky in having Pittsburgh Symphony, Chatham Baroque, and other acclaimed ensembles in our area, which bring great guests artists and delight us with outstanding performances.
I would recommend “a must” performances based on the repertoire being performed and who (in my modest opinion) would be the best for that genre. For instance, if Thibaudet performs Ravel’s Concerto in G major or any of Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos, or Bronfman plays Prokofiev’s or Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, or Hewitt Bach’, these are recitals not to be missed. Most of the above performances and recordings are available through companies such as ArkivMusic and/or Amazon. Students find easy access through YouTube, but I would always insist on attending live performances, and purchasing great performances. These recordings will be cherished for years to come and will give a well-rounded basis in performance practice to every young pianist. Inspirational live performances give indescribable experience and are an important part of the development of every young aspiring musician.
1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAeLjliS1LY Bach, Invention No. 1 in C major
2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GII-j-6f4LY Czerny, Etude Op. 849
3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcQyE0hAXSQ Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf