In my sophomore year I decided to learn properly how to play the piano. A music student in the same dorms recommended her teacher who lived nearby. I rang the doorbell. To me at nineteen, Mme. Alice Carrard was as old as only piano teachers can be and, after we chatted for a while, she gave me two tests. For the first, she sang a note and asked me to sing it. For the second, she asked me to extend my right arm, imagine I was holding an apple, and to then lower my arm and raise it again. I didn’t think I passed the first test and didn’t understand the second but she took me on as a pupil anyway.
It was an honor as Perth had only three piano teachers of Alice’s calibre. Adam, a fellow pupil I later got to know cheekily suggested it was because my first beard probably reminded her of her son Sandy, a nuclear physicist and violinist who lived on the other side of Australia. I never saw the resemblance. That’s him in the photograph below the proto-Cubist portrait of Alice.
I soon found out about the apple. I was to not use my elbows to move my hands to or from the keyboard, but to always use my shoulders (to raise the elbows to raise the forearms to raise the wrists) to position my hands where they were needed. I learned that a pianist using their body like this makes a different sound. They don’t make huge or florid movements in apparent expression or lunge at the piano in sudden and dramatic displays of apparent emotion. Instead, they produce a very clean and crisp sound that suits Bach and Bàrtok and other highly structured music. It’s the way James Rhodes plays Bach and Piotr Anderszewski plays everything.
Alice was one of Australia’s living treasures. Born in Hungary in 1897 and a child prodigy, she studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music under professor István Thomán who had been a protégé of Franz Liszt. In or around 1915, Alice was instructed for a year by Béla Bartók. Were I to have become a great concert pianist, people would have noted my distinguished pedigree and been quick to acknolwedge the source of my talent. It didn’t happen. A necessary condition for greatness is the ability to communicate it.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. During one lesson as I was butchering some Schumann etude, Alice put her hand gently on my wrist to pause me and said, “Gràhàm, do you know you will never be a concert pianist?” I don’t remember my answer but I do remember being shocked. I’d always thought that with sufficient time and application (ok, neither of which I had) it would be possible. Somehow though, I knew she was right.
The key was always in the front door lock and students would quietly let themselves in and wait on the divan for the lesson before to end. From that divan, I saw Alice instructing in French some Vietnamese girl perhaps ten playing Debussy etudes. Another time I saw her ask some angelic Polish boy which Chopin nocturne he’d like to learn next and, when he suggested whichever, Alice replied “No, you cannot play that until you have been in love!” One fateful day, I went in and sat down and David Helfgott was preparing for some upcoming concerto competition or performance, Alice playing the orchestra part on the MUSICA teaching piano, and David on the STEINWAY adjacent. In the middle of some passage Alice made him stop. “No David no – you must knit the notes together more!” David repeated the passage, knitting the notes together more, but again she made him stop. “No David – I said knit the notes together more but you must leave some air between them!” And I sat there as, dammit, he repeated the passage knitting the notes together more and leaving some air between them. So yes. I knew.
I continued with the lessons but we spent less and less time at the piano and more and more time in her kitchen. Alice would rummage through the refrigerator for little tupperware containers containing things like ox tongue slices we would have on rye bread with avyar, accompanied by her special mix of six parts dry vermouth and one part sweet, funneled into a gin bottle and kept chilled in the fridge door and shakily poured into squat, thick-stemmed sherry glasses of a style popular in the 1970s. Afterwards, we’d sit beneath the almond tree in the middle of her garden, she’d bum cigarettes and we’d smoke until the next student arrived.
I’ve made it sound like the music was incidental but it wasn’t. For my first lesson, I was told to bring a copy of the Bartók-Reschovsky Piano Method . You can still buy it.
It contains graded piano exercises that begin as basic as you can imagine but are already training ears and brains as well as fingers. I can still hear them.
I remember this next page well. It was the first time I could concentrate on expression and not having to worry about getting the notes right. I was to later master a couple of pieces from the Magdalena Bach Notebook, most notably Minuet in G, but these two pieces were my finest moment.
Interspersed among the exercises were snippets of theory for instructors to explain in detail. The Circle of Fifths describes how the musical keys are all related and parts of the same thing. It’s the reason why, in movies at least, when the singer asks the pianist “Do you know such and such?” the pianist always replies, “In which key?” A couple of times I’d seen Alice launch into some piece that was by no means anybody’s standard number only to say “Oh, wrong key!” and begin again. She was seeing structures I wasn’t.
I could however, still appreciate that the atoms and molecules of musical beauty had a higher level of organisation that was able to be comprehended, even if not by me. I still treasure these memories. I am still sensitive to piano music and the enjoyment it can bring. I still suspect the foundation of beauty has something to do with the underlying structures of elements. And more than ever I appreciate what Messrs. Bartòk and Reschovsky did when they converted their knowledge of the piano into a book on how to teach and learn how to play one and, not only that, foster an awareness of what can be done with one.
Bartók was to do it all again on a much grander scale with The Mikrokosmos that ranges from Book 1 and its simple exercises and basic musical effects to Book 6 with its fiendishly difficult and complex pieces sometimes played as concert encores. I’ve only just become aware of a method behind the names Bartók gave his 153 exercises.
- Book I names such as #16: Parallel Motion with Change of Position describe what the hands are doing but, very soon, names such as #25: Imitation and Inversion begin to describe what the notes as well as the hands are doing.
- Book II names such as #54: Chromatics describe more complex things the notes are doing.
- Book III names such as #72: Dragons’ Dance introduce yet more complex effects as well as associations to go with them.
- Book IV names such as #104a: Wandering through the Keys give associative names to what is being done.
- Book V names such as #135: Perpetuum mobile still contain associations but they are now completely secondary to the effect.
- Book VI names such as #142: From the Diary of a Fly are illustrative but absurd while others such as #143: Divided Arpeggios, #144: Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths or #145a: Chromatic Invention (III) are just names of effects we think of as “abstract” only because we don’t yet have any associations for them.
- 1. Six Unison Melodies (I)
- 2a. Six Unison Melodies (II)
- 2b. Six Unison Melodies (II)
- 3. Six Unison Melodies (III)
- 4. Six Unison Melodies (IV)
- 5. Six Unison Melodies (V)
- 6. Six Unison Melodies (VI)
- 7. Dotted Notes
- 8. Repetition (1)
- 9. Syncopation (I)
- 10. With Alternate Hands
- 11. Parallel Motion
- 12. Reflection
- 13. Change of Position
- 14. Question and Answer
- 15. Village Song
- 16. Parallel Motion with Change of Position
- 17. Contrary Motion
- 18. Four Unison Melodies (I)
- 19. Four Unison Melodies (II)
- 20. Four Unison Melodies (III)
- 21. Four Unison Melodies (IV)
- 22. Imitation and Counterpoint
- 23. Imitation and Inversion (I)
- 24. Pastorale
- 25. Imitation and Inversion (II)
- 26. Repetition (II)
- 27. Syncopation (II)
- 28. Canon at the Octave
- 29. Imitation Reflected
- 30. Canon at the Lower Fifth
- 31. Dance in Canon Form
- 32. In Dorian Mode
- 33. Slow Dance
- 34. In Phrygian Mode
- 35. Chorale
- 36. Free Canon
- 37. In Lydian Mode
- 38. Staccato and Legato (I)
- 39. Staccato and Legato (Canon)
- 40. In Yugoslav Style
- 41. Melody with Accompaniment
- 42. Accompaniment in Broken Triads
- 43a. In Hungarian Style (for two pianos)
- 43b. In Hungarian Style
- 44. Contrary Motion (2) (for two pianos)
- 45. Meditation
- 46. Increasing-Diminishing
- 47. County Fair
- 48. In Mixolydian Mode
- 49. Crescendo-Diminuendo
- 50. Minuetto
- 51. Waves
- 52. Unison Divided
- 53. In Transylvanian Style
- 54. Chromatics
- 55. Triplets in Lydian Mode (for two pianos)
- 56. Melody in Tenths
- 57. Accents
- 58. In Oriental Style
- 59. Major and Minor
- 60. Canon with Sustained Notes
- 61. Pentatonic Melody
- 62. Minor Sixths in Parallel Motion
- 63. Buzzing
- 64a. Line against Point
- 64b. Line against Point
- 65. Dialogue (with voice)
- 66. Melody Divided
- 67. Thirds against a Single Voice
- 68. Hungarian Dance (for two pianos)
- 69. Study in Chords
- 70. Melody against Double Notes
- 71. Thirds
- 72. Dragons’ Dance
- 73. Sixths and Triads
- 74a. Hungarian Matchmaking Song
- 74b. Hungarian Matchmaking Song (with voice)
- 75. Triplets
- 76. In Three Parts
- 77. Little Study
- 78. Five-Tone Scale
- 79. Hommage à Johann Sebastian Bach
- 80. Hommage à Robert Schumann
- 81. Wandering
- 82. Scherzo
- 83. Melody with Interruptions
- 84. Merriment
- 85. Broken Chords’
- 86. Two Major Pentachords
- 87. Variations
- 88. Duet for Pipes
- 89. In Four Parts (I)
- 90. In Russian Style
- 91. Chromatic Invention (I)
- 92. Chromatic Invention (II)
- 93. In Four Parts (II)
- 94. Once Upon a Time…
- 95a. Fox Song
- 95b. Fox Song (with voice)
- 96. Jolts
- 97. Notturno
- 98. Thumbs Under
- 99. Hands Crossing
- 100. In Folk Song Style
- 101. Diminished Fifth
- 102. Harmonics
- 103. Minor and Major
- 104a. Wandering through the Keys
- 104b. Wandering through the Keys
- 105. Game (with Two Five-Tone Scales)
- 106. Children’s Song
- 107. Melody in the Mist
- 108. Wrestling
- 109. From the Island of Bali
- 110. And the Sounds Clash and Clang…
- 111. Intermezzo
- 112. Variations on a Folk Tune
- 113. Bulgarian Rhythm (I)
- 114. Theme and Inversion
- 115. Bulgarian Rhythm (II)
- 116. Song
- 117. Bourrée
- 118. Triplets in 9/8 Time
- 119. Dance in 3/4 Time
- 120. Triads
- 121. Two-Part Study
- 122. Chords Together and in Opposition
- 123a. Staccato and Legato (II)
- 123b. Staccato and Legato (II)
- 124. Staccato
- 125. Boating
- 126. Change of Time
- 127. New Hungarian Folk Song (with voice)
- 128. Stamping Dance
- 129. Alternating Thirds
- 130. Village Joke
- 131. Fourths
- 132. Major Seconds Broken and Together
- 133. Syncopation (III)
- 134a. Studies in Double Notes
- 134b. Studies in Double Notes
- 134c. Studies in Double Notes
- 135. Perpetuum mobile
- 136. Whole-Tone Scales
- 137. Unison
- 138. Bagpipe Music
- 139. Merry Andrew
- 140. Free Variations
- 141. Subject and Reflection
- 142. From the Diary of a Fly
- 143. Divided Arpeggios
- 144. Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths
- 145a. Chromatic Invention (III)
- 145b. Chromatic Invention (III)
- 146. Ostinato
- 147. March
- 148. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (I)
- 149. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (II)
- 150. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (III)
- 151. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (IV)
- 152. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (V)
- 153. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (VI)
Anyone who can play The Mikrokosmos beginning to end will have learned how to play the piano. They will have been exposed to a wide range of musical effects the piano can produce. They will have been given an awareness of what a musical idea is and of what kind of ideas music can evoke. The Mikrokosmos is not called The Mikrokosmos for nothing. It probably does contain everything a pianist will ever need to know but IT DOES NOT TEACH HOW TO HAVE A MUSICAL IDEA. This is no failing. Leading a person to the edge and leaving them there is probably all that can be done. However, if a person has the gift of having musical ideas then all they have to do is 1) have them, and 2) reverse engineer that knowledge to develop, detail and document those ideas for others to enjoy.
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This year there’ll be no Top Ten roundup. Rather than pick favourites or rate this year’s posts, I’m happy to look down the list and remember what a fun year it’s been.
Thank you, and see you in 2018,
Is that you in the first pic? You were a beautiful lad Graham, happy new year.
Cheers Roberto! That’s that first beard I mentioned. 1975? =)
Thanks again Graham. I think the statement you made near the end of the post above: “Leading a person to the edge and leaving them there is all that can be done.” would also be an appropriate response to the question raised by your previous post, “Models of Instruction”.