T. E. Carhart. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. Th
T. E. Carhart: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. The hidden world of a Paris atelier.
United States: Random House / United Kingdom: Chatto & Windus (hardcover) and Vintage (softcover) / Canada: McArthur & Company
Extract with kind permission of T. E. Carhart and the Publishers
Re–entering the world of the piano as an adult gradually brought me a series of revelations about the practice of self–discipline, none more telling than when I witnessed the methods of two acknowledged masters in the field. During the first several months of my lessons with Anna I rediscovered the simple joy of having a teacher. There are people in this world who are true autodidacts at the keyboard but they are rare, and I knew that I was not one of them. With the exceptions of composition and improvisation, playing music is a strange mixture of a given structure – the score – and one's creativity in its interpretation. Being able to play all of the notes is just the beginning; the real work is in adding your own self –transparently to the composer's intentions. To return to this discipline as a grownup was deeply humbling but strangely exciting, too. Only a teacher can provide the push that allows the infinite perfectibility of music to take flight.
In my first few months of lessons Anna was both reassuring and demanding, focusing on fundamentals before worrying about the challenges of interpretation. My sight–reading was terrible and my knowledge of the relationship of the major and minor keys virtually nonexistent. Still, my hands seemed to have a memory of their own, so that I played certain exercises and passages with an assurance that I didn't realize I possessed. It was a strange, disquieting experience to be unable to recall skills I had mastered long years before while other elements reappeared with a facility that surprised me.
From the outset Anna had me practice a series of exercises that aimed to relax my shoulders, arms, and hands, and that depended on my having what she called a 'natural posture' when seated at the keyboard. These she referred to as 'Peter's exercises' and soon I learned that they had been developed by Peter Feuchtwanger, a wellknown teacher in London whom Anna revered. The exercises had principally to do with consciously relaxing the arms and hands, and then, as Anna put it, 'throwing' the fingers at the desired note.
Superficially they were simple – the notes were easy enough to play – but everything had to do with the quality of the movement: a sudden explosion of energy, the launching of the hand, and an immediate return to a centered repose. Seen this way, they were extraordinarily difficult for me to master. I would anticipate the movement and tense my arm for it; Anna would stop me each time, grasp my arm, and shake it lightly until the muscle relaxed. 'Rest, throw, rest!' she would chant, but reaching the initial rest was tough going. As I performed the exercises regularly, however, I began to understand how they were designed to undermine the kind of strained anticipation that so often accompanies us to the keyboard, and I came to appreciate their value in changing a habit that must have established itself in me as early as Miss Pemberton's.
At the close of one of my lessons Anna told me that Peter would be coming to Paris the following month to conduct a workshop for three days. In the music world this is called a master class, a special form of teaching where an acknowledged expert gives lessons back–to–back over several days and the sessions are open to all of the students and, less frequently, to the public. She said that it was premature for me to take part as a student but that I would be welcome to sit in as an auditor. Over the next several weeks she occasionally asked for help with translating from the English various faxes that she received from him, and so it was that I learned the biographical outline of this teacher whom Anna only half jokingly referred to as her guru.
He was discovered as a self–taught prodigy in his adolescence and studied with some of the greatest pianists of the day – Fischer, Gieseking, Haskil – before going on to a short and brilliant career of concerts. Since then he had devoted his life to teaching and was highly regarded as an original mentor for many concert pianists. He'd written, 'There are many ways of doing things, but there is always one way that is natural', and this seemed a perfect summary of the philosophy Anna was trying to instill in me.
The workshop was held on a long weekend – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – and fifteen of us assembled at Anna's small apartment for the day–long sessions around the venerable Bechstein grand. Peter was a tall, slender man with the mien of a sage: his features were fined, almost severe, but their angularity was relieved by enormously expressive eyes that danced behind thick glasses and a half–smile that flitted periodically across his face in a mixture of bemusement, curiosity, and fun.
His perfectly straight spine gave him an air of great dignity, but when he moved his arms a fluid quality to his gestures surprised and delighted me, as if a tree trunk had sprouted wings. His age was impossible to determine (I guessed sixty): sometimes he looked old and even wizened, but the next moment he would assume the energetic movements of someone twenty years younger and his features become pliant and youthful–looking.
The master class began at nine and we found seats on the couches and chairs drawn up around the room facing the piano. My friend Claire went first – she played several preludes and fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier – and we listened attentively as she interpreted the score with Peter seated to one side following on his own sheet music. She hesitated or missed notes in a few rough spots, but overall it sounded convincing and conveyed real beauty. When she finished we applauded enthusiastically and Peter rose silently from his chair and placed his score on the adjacent pile of sheet music.
He began by asking Claire a few questions about how long she had been working on the piece, why she had chosen it, and the like. He told her to take several deep breaths and once she had relaxed a bit he asked her to repeat one of the sections. Now he stood behind her and before she had gone very far he stopped her and said, 'We must work on your arms.' He talked about the need for elliptical, relaxed movements of the hand, a natural fluidity with no preparation. Conservatories too often teach preparation, he said, so as not to hit the wrong note; ironically, preparation causes tension and we miss the note. 'Natural movement is riskier,' he acknowledged, 'but life is risky and music is an element of life, so it is risky, too!'
Peter asked Claire to play some forte chords from the score, giving her specific advice about how to move her arms and hands to achieve the desired tone. 'The faster you open the hand, the more forte the sound. You see? You want quick, relaxed movements with absolutely no preparation. It should be like a chameleon catching a fly.' He then took Claire's arm in his hands and shook it lightly, much as Anna had shaken mine.
Next he flattened Claire's hand gently, uncurling and lengthening the fingers so that they extended well on to the keyboard. 'We must all forget those old, ridiculous rules, such as "Use your fingers pretending they are little hammers" or "Play the piano as if you were holding an apple in the palm of your hand"!' You don't want to lift the fingers to hit the keys from above, he said. Rather, the fingers are like extensions of the keys, elongated and fluid in their movements. He instructed Claire to play a passage with these ideas in mind and there was immediately a different quality to the tone she produced.
Peter worked closely with Claire on trills and embellishments ('Add ornament, then take it away: a room full of people can also be very pleasing when they leave'); alternative fingerings ('The most dangerous thing is "finger memory"; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn't matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly'); and avoiding accents at the bar measure ('Call me "Professor No Accent"! As Schnabel said, bar lines – like children – should be seen and not heard').
After she played a final page of the score with an entirely new nuanced phrasing, Peter thanked her for the 'lovely reading' and complimented her on the progress. Collectively we breathed out after the intense focus of the preceding ninety minutes. Anna's small living room was now transformed from.. a classroom into a party venue and a half–dozen conversations erupted loudly as drinks and refreshments were passed around. Those who had yet to play worried out t loud about their level of preparation, while Claire herself radiated relief, satisfaction, and joy.
I wondered at how easily Anna's unremarkable apartment in this modest suburb had been transformed. The mere presence of her Bechstein changed the level of the proceedings, for it corresponded perfectly to the caliber of Peter's teaching. A lesser piano would have altered the mood, as if some part of a player's problems could be ascribed to the instrument's limitations, but the Bechstein forestalled that logic. It was as good as a piano could be; the rest was up to the player.
Four participants played each day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The level of playing ran from gifted amateur to concert artist, but Peter's approach was uniformly serious without being rigid and he adapted his comments to the person at the keyboard. He spent considerable time on each student's individual issues and his methods varied according to the particular needs of the moment. 'What was the composer trying to say with this piece?' was a frequent refrain, and he used every kind of insight to get closer to the answer. Sometimes it was an extraordinarily specific historical development that governed the style and for a few minutes Peter would hold forth on the composer's influences. 'You must know Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's work to approach Haydn properly.
In his sonatas, Haydn combines the northern German school of counterpoint with an Italian singing line and gradually the two styles become indistinguishable. You should try to hear that.' On other points his comments, although steeped in history, were more prosaic, reminding us that composers were people, not gods. Chopin played very little in public, he told us, and he always played very softly. Rather than because of any inability to produce loud tones, as it has become popular to believe, this was clearly a choice. He preferred his Pleyel to the pianos of Erard since for him the Pleyel was beautiful only when played softly and with subtlety. Of Erard, Chopin said, 'Everything always sounds beautiful, so you don't have to pay as close attention to producing a beautiful tone.'
Humor frequently cut through an over–serious atmosphere, as when Peter told the story of Ravel's impatient comment to a pianist practicing his Pavane pour une infante défunte: 'Madame, c'est l'infante qui est défunte, pas vous!'
Tolerant, even indulgent, he still objected with good–natured irony when someone made the mistake of not taking the music seriously. One of the students played through a Granados suite and suddenly stopped, rather than continue with the repeats. 'Le reste, c'est pareil,' she announced offhandedly. There was a moment of absolute silence in the room as Peter feigned horror before he pounced. 'The same? The SAME? Do you think this is just a case of a VCR on fast forward? If Granados wanted a repeat, he did so for a reason, a reason that makes musical sense. A repeat is NEVER "the same". Let's look at the score, shall we?'
Another student played several wrong notes in a reading of a Schubert dance and moaned, 'Chez moi je ne fais pas d'erreurs!' Peter at once responded, 'I'd like to see this magic piano where no one plays wrong notes! Actually, getting all the notes right isn't the point – it's how you express the music that counts. Find me a piano that does that for you and I'll believe in magic.'
Certain of his dislikes inevitably became apparent over the three days, most often mannerisms he attributed to the distorting lens of the modem era. One habit that particularly irked him was the tendency to play things too loud. Playing a passage marked crescendo as loudly as possible was for him the great cliché of the last one hundred years. Several times he worked carefully with students on creating a forte that had a beautiful tone. In order to produce those nuances of tone, he returned to his fundamental principle of playing With a natural movement. He likened it to the rhythm and variety of speech where timing, intonation, and gestures mean so much and come naturally to us.
During lunch Peter regaled us with anecdotes, as when he heard Rosalyn Tureck, one of the great Bach interpreters, play the clavichord. 'At first it was almost inaudible, a whisper in a loud world. It was like entering a darkroom, we had to give our senses time to adjust.'
This reminded him of the discussion between Wanda Landowska and Rosalyn Tureck as to whether the piano was a suitable instrument for Bach's music or if, as Landowska contended, only the harpsichord was appropriate. 'You play Bach your way,' she announced to Tureck, 'I'll play him his way.' An amusing bon mot, Peter acknowledged, but he pointed out that Tureck's view has come to prevail.
Over the weekend an intimacy developed among the group that made it hard to let go as the master class wound down on Sunday afternoon. This was very different from the recitals that I had for so long found distasteful and, while I was not yet confident enough in my playing. to prepare a piece for others, for the first time I itched to give it a try. I was intrigued later to discover that he uses this same method, particularly his exercises, to coach some of the world's foremost concert pianists.
Everyone at Anna's was motivated to improve his or her playing, and each had chosen this forum and this teacher to move things along. Peter approached playing physically, almost as if it were a kind of dancing at the keyboard with the upper body, and this demanded the concentration and the suppleness of a gymnast. With this he combined his highly personal philosophy of music, firmly based on what we know about the composer's own intentions, and the result was something astounding.