Truly A Master's Class

Review by Jodi Lipson

Love of music is at the core of Brian Ganz's playing and teaching, and that intense emotion resonated during his January 28 master class with members of the Adult Music Student Forum.

After spending the afternoon with Ganz, it is clear why this concert pianist is in demand as a teacher at the Peabody Conservatory, St. Mary's College, and Catholic University. He enhances the strongest and strengthens the weakest points of a student's playing.

"I was halfway through your piece when I realized I better start thinking of something to say, because this is a master class. I was just enjoying it so much," said Ganz at the end of Forrest Jabir's Arabesque No. 1 by Debussy. Ganz did, however, find something to add to Forrest's exquisite performance. He turned to a heavily chorded section in forte and asked Forrest to push the piano. Yes, push! The piano can take the weight of us sinking into the keys, swinging into the chords, using not just our fingers, but our arms and bodies, to create the sounds and convey the emotions the composer intended.

Brian complimented Raye Haug's performance of Beethoven Sonata Op. 31, No. 2 Adagio, saying, "You're such a sensitive musician." But he improved even her performance. Beethoven crescendos don't always go where you expect them to go, he reminded us. The composer pulls away at the last minute. "He's the premier slapstick musician, constantly faking out his listeners," Ganz said. Highlighting an example from Raye's piece, he asked her to play the phrase the way other composers might write it, taking the crescendo to its natural conclusion. She played that a few times. "Now, with that in your ear, shock us," he urged. When she then played the crescendo as requested it did, in fact, shock us because we were led to expect a fortissimo, but she produced a subito pianissimo instead. The audience broke into applause. "It's like a wine taster clearing the palette with water," said Ganz, explaining our delight.

"Learn as much as you can about your piece," Ganz urged. After Sue Suffae's performance of Chopin Mazurka No. 17, Op. 24, No. 4 in D flat major, Ganz commented on the "extraordinary melody." He also provided some historical context for Sue's piece, explaining that after Chopin left Poland to live in Paris, he wrote many Mazurkas, a dance of his native Poland. Perhaps a yearning for the homeland left behind produced the "moan" so many of these Mazurkas seem to possess. As a whole, they are "desert island classics" for Ganz, for they explore "exotic and bizarre states of mind." There are frequent changes in mood, and nostalgia is pervasive.

Ganz then turned our attention to the dance and rhythmic aspects of the Mazurka. The dotted rhythm in three-four creates a skip-hop, which he expertly demonstrated in dance. With that, Sue skillfully played a skip-hop rhythm that would have had Chopin's audiences tapping their toes.

Alice Stark played a Rameau Gavotte and Variations from Suite No. 2 in A minor, another dance, with clarity and brilliance. Ganz said that for this type of piece, he tapes himself playing and then tries to dance to the piece. "Then I find out what works and what doesn't work," he said. Ganz encouraged Alice to tape herself and then dance to it. ("Only the dog can watch that," she laughed, glancing at her fianc.)

Brava to the rest of the master class participants who were also able to incorporate Brian's suggestions on the spot: Tom Haug (Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 32, No. 10), Cathleen Kelly (Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 3), Jodi Lipson (Beethoven Sonata No. 8, Op. 13 "Pathetique" Grave, allegro molti e con brio), and Carolyn Stayman (Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu).

Here are some other strategies Ganz shared with us.

Perform once a week

Even if you have to ask a friend to sit down and listen to a piece. Need we say more? If AMSF members continue filling up the informal, cadenza, and formal recitals, we'll just have to add more! Or consider calling a fellow AMSF member and getting together informally and briefly to listen to a piece you are preparing. People can look through the membership directory to see who lives close, for instance, or make arrangements with people they meet at events.

Momentum, not Perfection

Let go of perfection. If you make a mistake, let it go. Don't correct it. Be 100 percent committed to momentum, and then mistakes hold no power over you. "Mistakes will run and hide if they don't get respect," he said. ("OK, they don't always disappear," he conceded when pushed.)

HATT Technique:

Play it Hands Apart Then Together. Of course, many of us do that to learn a piece, but Ganz urges use of this technique even after a piece is learned. You then have the context ready in which to put the detail. Relearning the piece hands separately is the detail. Being able to play it hands together is the context. If you have a problem, isolate it. Play each hand very consciously to know the notes, understand what that section is doing, and what you are having trouble with. THEN put the detail into the context.

Groove It

Another way of achieving confidence in performing is to try to become aware of something vividly while you are practicing. Be very intense about this. Do this over and over again so that you end up cutting a groove or making a path in your mind, like a groove on a record disk. THEN, completely let it go so that there is nothing you are trying TO think about AND there is nothing you are trying NOT to think about. The "groove," or imprint, will take over when performance time comes.

Ghost Play

To practice subduing one voice, "ghost play." Ghosting means playing that voice alone but only pressing the key before it sounds. If you hear a sound, let up a bit. Then add the other voices, still ghosting.

Take Your Time

Feel like there is always time enough for everything. This doesn't necessarily mean playing at a slow tempo. Just don't convey to your audience that it is rushed or strained. What we are thinking about comes out in our playing. If we feel comfortable we will convey that to our audience through our performance.

Step Back from the Score

Step back from the score (the actual practice work you do) to have a better understanding about what you are playing, by doing some research into the various words/terminology used in the score. Learn about the context in which the piece was composed: form, historical setting, composer's life.

See the Forest along with the Trees

Sometimes there are so many notes that they get lost in the forest. Pare down the piece so you play only the harmonic structure even to the point of using block chords. Listen to each pulse of this structure and then when playing all the other notes, bring out this structure.

Carry on a pencil conversation with your piece

Listen to what's new, what's different. Then mark up your score. Write something about each measure. Where are the forks in the road-similar patterns that lead one way and later in the piece lead another way-leading to two different choices? Or a sequence that is played first loudly, then quietly. Really hear it.

We were fortunate, at the end, to hear Ganz play two Chopin Preludes (Op. 28, Nos. 20 and 7) and a Ballade (No. 1 in G minor). Clearly he listens to each note, each phrase, where a sequence leads, dynamic distinctions. "I had never heard music like this," said Libby Francisco. "I have never FELT music like this."

Thank you, Brian, for a master class masterly taught and for the warmth and grace you brought to us.