Why (not) demonstrate?


It's the routine of many piano lessons: Teacher sitting next to student sitting at the piano. One copy of the written music. Student and teacher examine it together. From time to time, teacher reaches over, or deseats student, in order to demonstrate details, or even phrases of the music. (In an unkind moment, I have called it "piano-teacher-position.") In an alternate version, the teacher occupies a second piano, demonstrating sound, techniques, … [Read more...]



P. W. -- the initials of Paula Wray McDonald, my wife, partner (and high-school girlfriend). But the two letters PW really stand for "Pianist's Wife." I am the pianist's wife, Hurrah Hurrah for the pianist's wife! Ah yes, it is a gruesome [glorious] life To be the pianist's wife. Wanda, Nela, Naomi -- that's a lineage. Helpmates, sounding boards, ghost writers, taskmasters, goads. Paula had lessons from Tracy Taub... Maxims and … [Read more...]

Arts & Crafts


I'm printing slightly enlarged versions of the pages of a score by Philip Glass that I will play at the LPR Glass-birthday event later this month. The physical resizing, repaginating, and relineating of written music sometimes makes practicing and performing easier. For a long time, this work was accomplished with photocopying, scissors, or paper cutter, and adhesive tape. The pianist Judith Gordon called it "arts and crafts." Some outsized … [Read more...]



A recording I made of Philip Glass's Metamorphosis One became the basis for a YouTube video. I never met the YouTuber who posted it, though he emailed me and asked permission. I could only tell him the rights belong to the record label, not me. It's a spare video. (There's a single image of a lake.) This music is featured in the cult-fav TV show Battlestar Galactica. And a lot of BSG fans find the video. The music's also used in NPR's This … [Read more...]

Catalyzing Adulteration


  I'm sipping a single-barrel bourbon. Rather strong. I add some drops of water, and then a few more. And the extraordinary, intense dark taste comes into sharp focus.     It's like adding adrenaline to my playing of Brahms's music in Jordan Hall. Or adding salt to soup (more if it's cold). Or adding momentary touches of pedal to an already carefully played legato phrase of piano music. … [Read more...]



In earlier museum practice, shards of ancient decorated pottery were pieced back together with missing sections reconstructed and plausible designs painted in. Missing parts of an image were supplied by restorers. As exhibited, those restored vessels had complete surface decoration. Some fragments were antique; the rest, the painted-in parts, made a whole pot look as it might have before it was broken. Today, it's more likely that the … [Read more...]



C. P. E. Bach writes in his treatise: "A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humor will stimulate a like humor in the listener. In languishing, sad passages, the performer must languish and grow sad. Thus will the expression of the piece be more clearly perceived by the listeners...." It's an old and ongoing … [Read more...]

A short history of measure numbers


  There didn't used to be any. Schoenberg was an early numberer of every bar. But, in some manuscripts, no number 13 (12, 12a, 14...)! New notated music became so particular that it needed to be possible easily to scrutinize it beginning at any measure, in rehearsal. Old music that was part of the canon got measure numbers as it was republished, after 1900. (Nineteenth-century collected works editions didn't yet include this modernism … [Read more...]



Do we covet music that signifies, encodes, or provokes sadness? As a child, when told to play with feeling Jacob Lateiner asked, "Which one?" In classical music, it does seem that emotion has come to mean sadness, or anger. When we see the marking "espressivo" we pour on the sentiment. The no-nonsense American clarinetist Charlie Russo told an over-emoting student: "Put a Band-Aid on it!" Not too many classical players explore emotion in … [Read more...]

Don’t Ask


When I was learning William Duckworth's The Time Curve Preludes, and even preparing to record the first dozen, I did not contact the composer. I didn't play for him, get advice, or even ask him questions about 2 or 3 notes that puzzled me in the printed music, a reproduction of Duckworth's handwriting. After the recording was released, I got an email from Bill, "I understand you've been playing my music..." Classical players usually seek out … [Read more...]

Sic transit pianisti


I return to Rotterdam, and it's as if no time has passed. Four years ago, I left very early in the morning, down a street with wood planks instead of a sidewalk. The construction is long finished, but I return to the thrill of that morning. It was October then too. I did a 2-day seminar in Rotterdam, at Codarts. Following that, something slightly crazy was on my schedule. I'd agreed to play, with several other pianists (Robert Levin, … [Read more...]

Piano ear


Pianists may need different kinds of hearing than what's needed to play the violin. Because the tuning of pitch doesn't require constant attentiveness -- I'm convinced there are rather good piano players who actually hear very little of what's happening as they play. More than other musicians, pianists are likely to intone or moan audibly while playing. It's pretty conclusive evidence that whatever those players hear is not objective. The … [Read more...]

Hesitant and lost


Frequently a pianist may hesitate before an important note of arrival in a phrase. Singers are more likely to stretch after they achieve the important note, hesitating to end it. (It's normal for singers to emphasize sustained vowels. Consonants can usually be prolonged only a limited amount -- even in Italian!) In scripted piano music, waiting just before important notes (especially if they are harmonically expressive) is tied in with knowing … [Read more...]