A Masterclass with Brian Ganz

by Carol Barth

It was a crisp, sunny autumn afternoon on Sunday, November 4, 2007, when six AMSF pianists and many observers gathered at Carol Barth's home for what has now become an annual Brian Ganz master class. Performers had carefully prepared their pieces, and they played them for Brian in a thoughtful and musical manner. Bravo to all for wonderful performances.

Participants and their pieces were:

  • Tom Haug: Debussy Hommage a Rameau, Images, Book 1
  • Gregg Riviello: Beethoven Sonata in c minor, "Pathetique", op. 13, II. Adagio cantabile
  • Donna Baldwin: Mendelssohn Andante & Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14
  • Carol Barth: Bach Prelude & Fugue No. 13 in F# major, WTC, Book 1
  • Florence Rollwagen: Chopin Preludes Op 28, No. 1 C major and No. 9 E major
  • Anne Williams: Chopin Prelude Op 28, No. 15 Db major

Again, in his usual manner, Brian Ganz delivered comments in a very positive, caring way. He is a gifted teacher who quickly evaluated what aspect of each piece he heard needed attention. After performers benefitted from specific guidance Brian offered, audience members heard more musical and polished performances when portions of pieces were again played.

Brian mentioned to Tom that Debussy didn't write for sostenuto pedal because most pianos didn't have one. He mentioned that modern listeners like cleaner sounds than did listeners in Debussy's time. It's a good idea to use the sostenuto pedal but use it rarely.

When working with Gregg, Brian asked "What is the primary challenge in this piece?" Gregg responded, " Using the 5thh finger on melody notes while other fingers handle accompaniment." Brian suggested that he ghost play, i.e., play notes halfway to the keybed, making no sound. This is a voicing exercise designed to help performers learn to use a different arm weight in different parts of the hand to achieve dynamic difference between melody and accompaniment. After practicing ghost playing, Brian suggested, relax the effort and put more weight in upper melody notes. This will achieve a more delicate sound, but melody will still sound above accompaniment notes.

Donna was reminded to use HATT (Hands alone then together) when memorizing. Brian told her that he loved the richness of sound she achieved when playing softly and suggested more volume in the louder dynamic passages. He suggested that she get physical with the piano in fortissimo passages. "It's explosive to reach fortissimo so early in a piece; this invites something massive!"

Carol learned that Bach really needs a sense of geography. Follow contours of the changes of keys even more vividly. She was advised to add some pedal as this can be used for color differences and for added legato

Brian thought that Florence could work on getting a bigger sound in her forte passages. He suggested that she loosen her shoulders and stay loose except for the moment when actually striking the keys. Breathe in and land on the piano. Let go!

Anne was instructed about differences in finger and foot pedaling when playing legato. In finger pedaling, hold the keys with fingers beyond rhythmic value. Use finger pedaling without foot pedaling for more legato. Feather pedal to achieve a different color with no abrupt breaks.

Brian ended the program portion with an exquisite performance of Chopin's Etude in Ab major, op. 25, no. 1 "Aeolian Harp." After the program, everyone enjoyed socializing around a buffet dinner.