Master Class with Brian Ganz

January 14, 2018
by Sarah Aderholdt

Brian Ganz once again kicked off the Special Events season for AMSF on Sunday, January 14, at the home of Tom and Raye Haug. Last year when writing about Brian's Master Class, I quoted from an article in the Washington Post concerning Brian's knowledge of Chopin. "There isn't much about Chopin that Brian Ganz doesn't know. The pianist has explored the nocturnes, the etudes, the sonatas and concertos and the rest in concerts, master classes and recordings for years now. His delight and wonder in this music seem to grow, apparently without bounds, as time goes on." This year, I decided why not tap into that knowledge and have an all Chopin master class. What resulted was a Chopin marathon of six performances.

Harriet Kaplan began the afternoon with the Nocturne in C# Minor, Op. 27, No. 1. Brian commented that her playing showed "sensitive and lovely phrasing." He asked Harriet if she was happy with the right hand sound. Brian thought the melodic lines could be bolder. He stated that the weight of the arm needs to swing rather than fall into the key. He also mentioned that Harriet might be using the una corda (soft pedal) more than needed. He asked her to try the approach he was suggesting of swinging into the key. Brian also asked about the meaning of cantabile, noting that the piano is a percussive instrument. He suggested that cantabile means to make the piano sing. The essence of cantabile is the ease with which the sound greets the listener. In order to make the piano sing, a performer must apply the weight of the arm when playing.

Brian then explored with Harriet what was happening harmonically. The piece is in C# Minor, which is the V7 version of F# Minor. It goes all the way to F# and then backs away. Chopin loved exploring modes, as in the mazurkas, especially Phrygian and Lydian modes. Brian asked Harriet to try to create different qualities of sound with different amounts of wrist swinging into sound. He suggested that Moszkowski Op. 97, No. 7 as a good exercise for strengthening bridges, (the knuckles across the hand).

In the section morked by ritenuto, Brian was not sure whether Chopin knew what ritenuto was. He wanted Harriet to make it slower and then make it bolder and bolder. He explained "Put as much as you can behind each chord." Last, Brian discussed interpreting from grievous to transcendence.

Amy Kett followed Harriet's performance with the Barcarolle. Brian remarked that it was lovely playing and that Amy's performance demonstrated that she really knew the piece. He observed that Amy used her upper body to get a big sound. Amy replied "my heart was really beating and my knees were shaking. [It] sounds a lot better in the shower." Brian asked her to speak about her comment. His solution for performance anxiety or nerves is to "be prepared." He suggested that one should perform as often as possible, even as much as once a week, at least in an informal setting. Doing so will "blitz the issue." Because it is mostly about experience, experience, experience. Those feelings [of nerves or anxiety] instead of feeling uncomfortable will feel necessary. He also suggested working with one' breath. "Make it your spiritual path. Playing the piano is my spiritual path." Brian noted that the famous Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, called it "leaning into the sharp points." One can use it as an opportunity to grow. Even though you might be terrified, it can be experienced calmly. Brian loved the fact that Amy looked up. He thinks it is a very important part of performing. He thought it demonstrated a trememdous joy in her playing.

Brian then went on to explain the flexor and extensor muscles, a theme he would return to several times during the afternoon. For every limb we have, there are two sets of muscles--the extensors, which pull the muscles away, and the flexors that pull the muscles toward the body. Flexors are bulkier. Brian observed that Amy played too much with extensors. When it is easy, you know you have it. If it feels hard, it requires more ease practicing. Try practicing by stopping at different "nodes."

Brian also observed that Amy extends a lot with the thumb. As a consequence, he explained, the thumb needs to be strong. He suggested a product called "Theraputty," which can be ordered online. There are six different consistencies, and one should start with the weakest when starting the exercises. Brian further observed that Amy was almost hyper-extending her last muscle. Some fingers were extended while she was using flexors, making them unavailable for playing. This tendency will hold her back and could keep her from reaching the next level. "But," he also emphasized, "there is no way to play something wrong." Brian once asked a composer friend "do you want me to do it the way it's on the page?" The composer answered, "Do it exactly the way I asked you, unless you think of something better." Brian's point was that one should make sure to play with intention. Always give what the composer writes a fair chance.

Jackie Zins performed next with Chopin's Nocturne in C# Minor, KK IVa No. 16. Jackie's son asked her to learn this piece which is featured in the movie The Pianist because it is the only classical piece he likes. Brian began by saying, "This is a hard piece to pull off. It carves out an interior world and you have to be immediately in that world." He thought Jackie's performance was very convincing and beautiful. Chopin wrote this piece as a gift for his sister. He didn't call it a nocturne. It is named for the tempo--Lento con gran espressione. He wrote it shortly after he left Poland for good in 1829. He had just written his F Minor concerto and there are excerpts from all three movements of that concerto in this piece.

Brian asked about tension and defined it as "any contraction that is unnecessary to perform the task that you are performing. Then he worked with Jackie on reducing tension in her shoulders. He demonstrated an exercise of contracting and lifting shoulders and then letting air out, lowering shoulders and pantomiming playing. He suggested the 10% treatment. Set a timer and try to spend the first minute aware. That is the technical issue. The musical issue is getting more on the top voice. The top voice should sing. As he has discussed in previous master classes, he talked about ghost playing as a way to tackle voicing issues. The note goes about halfway down. He joked, it "would not be an AMSF master class without a little ghost playing." In final work with Jackie, Brian focused on making a distinction between the triple piano section which comes back as sotte voce.

Francoise Straver-Postic performed the Nocturne in C Minor, No. 21, Opus posthumous following Jackie's performance. Brian commented that it was "lovely and very expressive." As he did with other performers, Brian discussed nervousness, mentioning that being nervous is totally normal. He asked Francoise if she had tried performing the piece for others. Brian stated that the most important coaching he could give to the group was to suggest that everyone play for people before they actually perform. He plays pieces at least a dozen times before he even takes a piece into a safe place. He suggested having friends over or using the opportunities of ASMF. Brian asserted that one can probably play 100 times perfectly at home. But playing outside of home is an altered experience. Before he plays at Strathmore, Brian plays between five and ten preview concerts. He stressed that you need practice many times in that altered state. He stated that when you feel the presence of the listener as inspiration, that is the highest level of performance. "If you feel like you are alone, that is not the highest level." He mentioned a quote from Frederick Buechner to further illustrate this point: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Brian observed that Francoise also used extensors more than flexors. Brian also worked extensively on pedaling with Francoise--finger down, foot up. He suggested that Hanon exercises and scales would be helpful, and he suggested that she strive to play a perfect scale with no blurring of notes.

Janice Rosen followed Francoise, playing the Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4. Brian worked with Janice on achieving a delicate left hand with a singing melodic tone in the right hand. He suggested that Janice practice hands alone and talked with her about her procedure for doing this type of practice. He discussed legato and espressivo lines. The idea behind legato is that as soon as one note goes down the previous note goes up. Chopin's slurs are often long lasting. In the classical era, it was conventional for composers to break a slur--not because of the way piano works, but because of the way strings work. As with other participants, Brian worked with Janice on extensors and flexors with the aim of achieving a healthy sound on each chord. He suggested practicing with left hand, then with right, then emphasize left, then emphasize right, then play with both, letting your mind go where it wants.

Yukiko Takedai closed the afternoon with Sonata No. 2 in Bb Minor, Op. 35, 1st movement. It is one of the hardest pieces Chopin wrote. Yukiko struck a good balance between the melodic line and the tricky left hand. After noting that Yukiko started out in the wrong octave, Brian again recommended performing a lot to make friends with this altered state [of performing]. "It's like scattered light gradually becoming laser like." He quoted the jazz musician Miles Davis, "do not fear mistakes there are none." If you start out with wrong octave, don't act like it is a mistake. "If you don't let on, no one will know." Again Brian stated, "You are giving the audience an experience of the intention of the composer." To illustrate his point, he Had Yukiko start with the wrong octave and not correct it, but go on. "Nerves will become your friend and not your enemy." Brian used Yukiko's performance to discuss the two traditions for the repeat. The second is to repeat to beginning which makes more sense harmonically. After a discussion of the development section, Brian moved on to another of his favorite topics. How's your music theory? Brian, a self-described "music theory nerd" is adamant that we understand the language of music. The more we can understand the language, the more we can understand what the composer intended. In Chopin's recapitulation, he leaves out the first theme and deviates from the traditional sonata form. Brian remarked that Yukiko is a natural musician. But his main coaching advice for her was to make things that are unconscious conscious and intentional. In order to guide the listener through the expression of sonata form, the performer's conscious knowledge is paramount.