Brian Ganz Master Class, May 15, 2011

by Florence Rollwagen

Master Class Participants

Raye Haug, Rob Beers, Judith Block, Brian Ganz, Sue Suffae, and Nancy Currier


The first performer of the master class, Sue Suffae, played Bach's Italian Concerto with fine technique that was clear and even. Brian used Sue's performance to discuss the Italian style as contrasted with the German style. Since Bach and Scarlatti were both born in the same year but have very different styles, it is important to distinguish between them when playing. Brian invented the word "syllabification" to describe Scarlatti's work, just slightly non-legato to make the notes distinctive. This can be accomplished by practice that emphasizes every note, then every other note, then every fourth note, etc. Using the weight of the arms and swinging into the piece can yield a jewel-like tone. Hold the notes together to create a "sound picture" and to think vertically.

Nancy Currier played an interesting Kabalevsky piece, the second movement of the Sonata No 3, Op 46. In contrast to the Bach, this is a horizontal piece with long (cantabile) lines and arched phrases. Because the melody is shared by both hands, Brian suggested playing just the melody, without the accessory notes as if one was playing on a single violin string. This piece is a very "non-syllabic" work. One of Brian's suggestions was a familiar one: "ghost playing", where the pianist strikes the keys but doesn't sound them (harder than you would think!). This technique allows the player to clearly distinguish melody from accompaniment. To help control anxiety during performance, it can help to think actively and vividly while practicing, concentrating on notes and harmony.

Raye Haug played the first movement of the Sonata 1, X, 1905 by Janacek. This is a highly emotional piece, describing events during a protest rally in which someone was killed. The subtitle is "The Presentiment", which sets the stage for what is to come. The rhythm falls in 6 beats, then 4 beats, creating an emotional tension. In order to bring out this rhythmic subtext, Brian suggested speaking the rhythm while playing to create the tension between the hands. In addition, discover what is happening for the first time, such as the crescendo to silence that occurs at the end of the first section. Interestingly, in the middle section, which sounds like program music, it's important to bring out the counterpoint to add interest and to keep the section from sounding repetitive. Brian also suggested that this section is purposefully non-active, which is not the same as boring.

Rob Beers played Brahms Op 118 No 6 beautifully and with feeling. Brian suggested that he slow the tempo and feel the spaces between the notes. These silences are particularly moving and incredibly difficult to pull off. As preparation to playing soft and legato, practice loud and staccato, practicing differently for each passage. As a tempo check, Brian suggested comparing similar sections to make sure they are at the same tempo. Subdividing the beat is often a great way to avoid rushing. In terms of approaching a piece, Brian stated that while the notes are sacrosanct, dynamics are more flexible, and the pedal is most subject to performance conditions. He suggested feeling the stretch silences for emphasis and placement of notes.

Judith Block

Brian Ganz studies Beethoven score with Judith Block


Judith Block played the second movement of Beethoven's Op 10 No 3 with great depth of feeling and control. She adopted a horizontal approach at the piano, using arm weight to control an unfamiliar piano. Brian suggested that keeping movement understated maintains the suffering and pathos of the work. Brian also distinguished between finger pedal (where the player holds down one note briefly while playing others) and foot pedal making sure that clarity is not obscured. Brian again emphasized the spaces between the notes to add emphasis without increasing tempo or volume. He stated again, as for Bob, that pianists should not be too didactic about tempo.

At the end, Brian treated us all to Chopin's Third Ballade (from memory, of course). . . and it was wonderful!

AMSF is grateful to Carol and Rich Barth for hosting this master class.