Allen Reiser - Publications

Allen Reiser writes a pedagogical column "Sound Thoughts" for A.P.T.A.'s (Alberta Piano Teachers' Association) quarterly newsletter - "NEWS AND VIEWS". It is amied at giving teachers hints and pointers about teaching repertoire. The following is from that column and appeared in the Winter 2005 issue, Vol. XII #2.

A Repertoire Masterclass with Allen Reiser


Walter Niemann, (1876 - 1953) was an important musical figure in the first part of the past century in Germany. A noted pianist, (he left behind an extensive repertoire on piano rolls), composer, (his works number over 100 Opuses and include such ambitious undertakings as a much-touted, virtuosic transcription of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony), musicologist, and critic, he is perhaps best remembered today as a prolific 'House' editor for Peters Edition, (his editions, notably of Schubert and Mendelssohn, are still standard fare), and for a solitary collection of small piano pieces entitled "In Children's Land", Op. 46, published by Peters in 1927. This collection, aimed at the junior-intermediate level of piano student, consists of 19 pieces with descriptive titles, written in a mildly impressionistic style, albeit in a relatively (for its time) conservative harmonic language. At least six of these pieces are real gems, and this collection should be in every piano teacher's library.

The ninth piece in the set, The Little Mermaid in the Shell, is an evocative, and singularly delicate piece, never rising above the upper limits of the pianissimo range. It is an excellent piece for training young ears to listen for, and produce, minute variances of dynamics. Its two main hurdles which must be overcome to produce a truly ephemeral and shimmering performance are touch and pedaling.

First, touch. With much impressionistic music, "the medium is the message" holds absolutely true. The type of sounds produced take equal if not greater precedence than any emotive considerations, due to the pictorial and atmospheric character fundamental to this style. If the right sounds are not produced, the right atmospheric picture will not be produced, and the performance will fall short, regardless of how intense or sincere the performer's emotive involvement is.

Here, the right hand melody can easily be projected with an active wrist which pushes up and forward slightly on most longer melodic note to produce the tone. This motion can be abandoned when softer notes are required. In bars 1, 3 and 5, etc., beats one and three can receive this wrist motion and beats two and four need not have it, thus creating a subtle two-note slur inflection. In bar 2 and 4, etc., the wrist motion can be applied to beats one, two and three, with beat four being allowed to relax somewhat. For the wavelike arpeggios (bars 9, 11, 13 - 16, etc.), the touch will be different. They have a nice pointillistic shimmer when one plays with a slightly off-the-key finger stroke, thus giving a slight 'ping' to the sound. This is especially appropriate at the tops of the arpeggios, where the dynamics are slightly stronger. Bars 10 and 12 can be more muted, played with a weight touch, fingers right on the keys.

The left hand figure which provides both harmony and a suggestive, watery, wavelike undulation, is tricky to play soft enough. Here, the student should keep the fingers close to the keys, trying to avoid lifting the hand or arm, which would produce an inappropriate accent at the start of each 3-note slur. To play as soft as possible, the performer must get used to feeling the weight of the key and responding with no more than a matching weight. This takes real concentration and practice.

Second, pedal. The hardest thing here is not deciding where pedal changes should occur, indeed, these are fairly obvious. Instead, the task is complicated due to two factors: the left hand does not play on the beat (a 16th rest takes the place of a note), and, most pedal training coordinates the pedal with the left hand. In this piece, that causes students to want to lift the pedal with the first 16th note of each left hand group, instead of with the on-beat rest, which results in a blurring of harmonies from beat to beat. The solution is to patiently train the student to lift the pedal on the 16th rest and place it down again with the first left hand 16th note of each beat. The downbeat of bar 9 has to be treated the same way, with the pedal coming up on the first 16th of the bar (a tied note) and going down with the 2nd 16th. Bars 9, 11 and 21, will all have only two pedal changes, one on the downbeat and the other on beat four. Bars 13 - 14 can be taken in one pedal as can bars 15 - 16. Bar 23 can also be taken in one pedal. Bar 22 will need a pedal change on beats one, three (again requiring the student to change the pedal on a left hand rest) and four, if the harmony is to be respected. In bar 24, allow the pedal to come up for the rests, to give space between the rolled chords. The rest of the piece will have pedal changes on each beat.

The last finicky details to be conquered here are the playing of the mordents and the rolling of the final chords. For the mordents, the best fingering is 2-4-3, and it will require much practice to make it smooth. Remember to have the student play the mordent at a relaxed speed in slow practice, otherwise it will 'choke' when it is all speeded up. I have my students practice all tiny ornaments such as this separately, doing the following combination ten times: - 2 x slow, a bit firm, fingers slightly lifted, 1 x fast, light with fingers close to the keys. The rolled chords need to have beautifully evenly spaced notes, and sound best when not hurried. Again slow practice, listening to each note while developing control over the speed of finger descent, is essential.

Once the matters of touch and pedal are comfortable, the student can begin to develop an artistic performance. The key here is subtlety at all times in the gentle rise and fall of the dynamics. Give the piece space by allowing the phrases to breath. In the central section, the longer, 2 octave arpeggios can have larger crescendos. The four bars of shimmering arpeggios, bars 13 - 16, should not be hurried, but allowed to unfold with beautifully spaced and matched 16ths. The composer's two rallentandos give relaxation and should slacken considerably. How does one communicate the pause over the rest at the end? After the final arpeggio, keep the hands suspended motionless in the air over the keyboard for a good five seconds to encourage the audience to listen to the silence.

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