Masterclass notes with Jeffrey Kahane

On Thursday December 1, pianist Jeffrey Kahane taught a masterclass during his visit to Salt Lake.  Four members of the Utah Symphony Youth Guild participated: Derek Banks, Alex Cheng, Sarah Shipp, and John Zhao.  Mr. Kahane made many points that can help all students of music, not just pianists, with their playing.  Youth Guild member Suzannah Rose listened carefully and took very good notes that she shares with us here.

  • When playing an etude, it is important for the performer to forget that they are playing an etude. This will help the audience hear it not as a series of difficult exercises but as a beautiful masterpiece of music.
  • Sometimes we might just play the progression of harmonies in an etude rather than (Kahane called this the harmonic rhythm), rather than an endless stream of arpeggios.  Playing the harmonic progression of chords outlined by the arpeggios, at the same tempo the harmonic changes occur in the piece, can make the etude into a song; can make it sing.  In the class, the results was amazing:  It was very eye-opening to hear the difference between the tranquil chords, and the fast-paced, exhilarating arpeggios, as they were part of the same piece of music.   Kahane described it as, “something absolutely beautiful that moves from two different planes.”
  • When playing many arpeggios, it’s important to not leave the hand in a stretched position, but instead let the thumb close in as the hand is moving up the piano to each new position for the arpeggio.  The same applies to the 5th finger when coming back down in arpeggios.
  • Another piece of advice he offered was to keep your jaw relaxed while playing.  He said that there is a direct connection between the muscles in your jaw and the muscles in your hands.  When you tense the muscles in your jaw, it affects the muscles in your hands, making them tight as well.
  • He also suggested pianists should accent the bottom note of every sequence of arpeggiated runs, and approach rolled chords with one fluid motion rather than two separate motions.
  • It’s important to give consideration to the time and style a piece of music was composed in when developing a musical interpretation. That’s an interesting balance for pianists playing on modern, heavy instruments that can produce a lot of sound, when playing music from earlier periods when the instrument was a fortepiano.
  • Dynamic markings can be interpreted in ways more varied than just ‘loud’ and ‘soft.’ There are a host of other meanings such as strong, brave, courageous, or even spicy for ‘forte,’ and gentle or calmly for ‘piano.’  We just have to use our good judgement to decide what the dynamics should mean in different musical passages.
  • Still in the context of dynamics, Mr. Kahane pointed out that “it’s not more exciting because it’s louder.” “Speak with a full voice without shouting.”
  • Kahane also commented on sforzandos, saying that sforzando is always relative to the general dynamic; they are “like sparks that poke out of the piano atmosphere.”
  • As a tip for making the chords sound less forceful, he said that keeping the wrist supple and not jamming it will help to give the passage a less percussive quality of sound.
  • Playing faster than the original tempo does not make a piece more exciting.  He said, “When you run away with the tempo, it’s not as exciting as if you held the tempo.  Speed is exciting, but the tension between what holds speed in place and the rhythm of the piece can be more exciting for the listener.”
  • Even while playing a piece written by a contemporary composer like Prokofiev, it is important to watch for opportunities to play more lyrically and less percussively.  Consider if your piece was being orchestrated. What orchestra instrument might represent different passages?  Hearing a line as if it is played by a flute for example, might help you play it more lyrically.
  • He also expressed the importance of looking for the little details that can make a difference in the performance of a piece of music, saying, “There is a dangerous point in a piece that you learn so well that you forget or overlook details.”   This was a reminder to go back and play a memorized piece looking carefully at the music occasionally to remember the details.

In conclusion, this was an excellent masterclass, where both the performers and the audience were able to increase their musical education.  We were all truly enlightened by Jeffrey Kahane’s advice and musical wisdom, as he helped with both technical and artistry aspects of the great works of music performed.

Notes taken by Suzanna Rose.

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