Piano Masterclass by Dr Azariah Tan



This afternoon’s Piano Masterclass by Dr Azariah Tan is the first in the Yamaha Piano Recital & Masterclass Series 2019.

With his achievements galore, Dr Azariah Tan (whom I shall refer to as Aza for the rest of this post) really needs no introduction. Hailed as Singapore’s Beethoven, he was diagnosed with congenital bilateral sensorineural hearing loss at age 4. He has only about 15% of his hearing left, and will eventually become deaf. It is all the more remarkable that he was so impressive at today’s masterclass.

The first student played Chopin’s Nocturne, Op 48 No 1. I’m amazed that Aza could hear all the details and the nuances executed. Even more impressive is when Aza sits at the piano to play and demonstrates what he means when he talks about mood (gloomy, sadness, funereal, or a calm and soothing atmosphere as well as agitation, turbulence, trepidation, and passion). I love the expressiveness in the slow passages, the different colours between the two hands (dark sound in the left hand and more ringing in the right hand), the change in mood brought about by a modulation, and bringing the juice out of the chromatic scales. Aza also explains about the effectiveness of using gestures (for example, hands coming up to take a rest), of using different fingerings to give different effects (the 4th finger is more expressive than the pinkie) and the avoidance of sudden changes in order to keep a more even sound texture. Also touched on are matters of tempo and rubato, and the use of the pedal. It is such a joy to watch him explain and demonstrate on the piano how to maintain balance between the melody and the thick chords, and how to keep them capped under a certain level of sound. All these, and so much more, from someone whose hearing is much more weaker than mine!

The second student played Copland’s Cat and the Mouse. It is an interesting piece, but one that I know that is beyond me. There is story in this piece of music, and the way Aza interprets it makes it even better. Right from the opening notes, there is the feeling of anticipation. There is an element of surprise and unexpectedness. The eerie kind of sound could be brought out more effectively with unusual gestures. I really enjoyed Aza’s demonstrations of how the mouse peeps out of his hole, tip-toeing away and got noticed by the cat, how the music becomes sinister when the cat chases the mouse that runs in one direction then another (how this is brought out by playing the two times with contrasting dynamics: sforzando and pianissimo), how there’s a bigger difference between the two (or even that there are two cats, fighting). The effect would be funny, clownish or even silly with sarcasm (there could be ‘punches’ and a special crescendo). I’m mightily impressed by the way Aza explains about making the sounds come out of the piano, and how balance should be made by concentrating more on the top notes in the upper register and making the left hand not just softer but also dashing. Then there is this passage “where nothing much happens on a hot Singapore afternoon”. Still, the music needs to be shaped. Then a strange augmented chord occurs, depicting something strange and bizarre, before going back to a relaxed F Major. I’m more than impressed with Aza’s explanation of the difference between piano (delicately) and piu forte! The story could be told more effectively through gestures too. The melody should be brought out and time kept. A little pedalling would help to bring out the brilliance of sound. Aza recommends “going a little crazy here”, imagining all the broken furniture and porcelain vases and so on. Yet there’s a surprise at the end. (Is the mouse dead? Or has it walked away?)

With both students, Aza invited questions, but only the second one did. He wanted to know how better he could play with more contrasts, and Aza replies that pedalling would help in creating a bigger sound and changing colours. He also gives an insight into the dynamics: the cat requires big gestures and is heavy, while the mouse is nimble and light. He suggests using the fist to play heavy notes (and demonstrates more than once, to my delight).

It may have been only one hour, but tremendously enjoyable and inspirational. I look forward to his upcoming recital in June with Clarence Lee (who’ll be conducting a masterclass tomorrow but which I unfortunately cannot attend because of my commitment to the Poetry Workshop at the NLB), Gabriel Hoe (whose performance after today’s masterclass is sorely missed due to a prior commitment) and Song Ziliang (whom I last heard several years ago).

Piano Masterclass with Clarence Lee


I was thrilled when a friend informed me of an impending piano masterclass with Clarence Lee, whom I’ve always thought of as Singapore’s answer to Lang Lang. (He was the stand in for the international superstar pianist throughout the rehearsals for the Sing50 concert to celebrate Singapore’s 50th National Day in 2015. It must have been one of the many memorable moments for him as a pianist; one other being the commencement in 2012 where he graduated with First Class Honours and was awarded the coveted Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal. He was also the class valedictorian and was asked to perform with his academic dress on. But I digress.)

The Masterclass (held yesterday afternoon) was organised by MW Fine Arts Academy, and the husband-and-wife (Vincent Chong and Khong Shok Meng) team was very efficient in answering my queries about my attendance as an observer. Shok Meng also printed for everyone an almost-complete set of scores for the day’s repertoire. (I guess, due to some copyright laws and her teaching commitment, she couldn’t be expected to print the complete set. And I’ve never attended any masterclass where any score was provided; I always had to bring my own and sometimes had to do without.) Again, I digress.

The day’s repertoire include Liebestraum No 3 in A flat by Liszt, Selling Sundry Goods by Peixun Chen, Cat and the Mouse by Aaron Copland, Ballade No 4 by Chopin, The Harmonious Blacksmith by Handel and Jardins sous la pluie by Debussy. Some of the points highlighted were:

  • There is so much adrenaline before a performance, there is a need to calm down and focus, be comfortable and relaxed before starting to play;
  • Practise slowly first (remember that scores are an added security, not an added distraction); ;
  • Practise without the pedal first (Finger pedaling is more important than the foot);
  • Think of the piano as an orchestra to know the best way to make the different levels and textures;
  • Think like a computer software (hence have to know a lot of things, like the range of the instrument and the room);
  • Know the structure (think of the whole piece like chapters with a climax, where “the floodgates open” at “a point of no return”);
  • Have to convince the audience to believe in what you want to say, so need to turn up the energy and be less humble; (Here, Lee demonstrates and talks about how Lang Lang is a very good pianist and is so successful because he always gives 300% in his performances, notwithstanding the exaggerated articulations. The performer has to exaggerate because the audience always feels less. The piano is like a filter for emotions, so what comes out is only 75% – just listen to any recording of Lang Lang. I may add that anyone who disagrees had better play the piano better than Lang Lang!)
  • Have to be very sensitive from the first note to the last note of the piece; any change (even subtle ones) in harmony or register should be reflected through the sound;
  • There’s no one method that works with everyone; each must adapt to suit his style and needs;
  • Scales and arpeggios are very important, like vocabulary in a language; (I totally agree! I used to warm-up by playing scales and arpeggios for 45 minutes before playing my pieces and got all sorts of weird looks and comments from friends; was I glad to hear that Lee used to warm up by playing scales and arpeggios for an hour!)
  • The difference between a good pianist and a very good pianist is that some don’t do enough or are not sensitive enough;
  • The secret is what you hear in your head;
  • A pianist is a magician who creates the illusion that the sound is growing;
  • The piano is very easy to learn but very difficult to master; (This I can’t agree more!)
  • The ear is a very personal space to listen to the various levels of dynamics;
  • A good pianist should do everything with sound; a performer tries to make the audience feel;
  • Focus on the foundation, not the architecture;
  • Make sure everything is well pronounced;
  • Set realistic goals (do it painfully slow at first; trying to reach the top too quickly would result in disappointment and depression);
  • Tempo choice : think like a singer! (“If you can’t sing it, then don’t play so fast.”)

I gained a lot more insight than the twenty points listed above. What I like best is that “When you are the pianist, do the way you like it. Some may like it, some may not. But the pianist can go home feeling good. Don’t try to please people. Be convincing. Be what you like; put your personality into the music.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the masterclass, including all the “tricks” and “secrets” shared. In fact, Lee mentioned that he may one day write a book along the lines of ‘100 Tricks on How to be a Good Pianist’. I can’t wait!

Piano Masterclass with Prof Tang Zhe

I received an exclusive invite to a masterclass at the Steinway Gallery held this afternoon at its showroom at Ion Orchard with Prof Tang Zhe, a Steinway Artist.

The masterclass was conducted on a Steinway SPIRIO, and the evening concluded with a special performance of the Yellow River Concerto by Prof Tang with the SPIRIO playback. This was what enticed me to attend, despite my painful right arm and shoulders.

The repertoire for the masterclass include

1) Sonata for Piano No 18 in D Major K576 “Hunt” by Mozart

2) Berkovich’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini

3) Ballade No 3 in A flat Major Op 47 by Chopin

4) Prelude in C sharp Minor Op 3 No 2 by Rachmaninoff

The first thing that struck me about this masterclass is that it is conducted in Mandarin. This is the first time a piano masterclass is conducted by a professor from China (Tang Zhe is one of the judges for the Steinway Competition now underway). Also, three of the four pianists are from China and two of them own the Model B and one the Model D.

It is one of the most interesting piano masterclasses I have attended. Prof Tang’s mannerisms, gestures and expressions remind of my favourite pianist, Lang Lang – very lively and animated. (I’ve watched clips of his masterclasses, in English and Mandarin, on YouTube many many times before.) Since it’s unlikely that I’ll have the opportunity to attend a masterclass by Lang Lang, and I have no idea when he’ll perform in Singapore again (I was so upset when he cancelled his concerts in Nov last year, for which I paid Cat 1 tickets), so watching Prof Tang up close is the next best thing.

I like the analogies Prof Tang used, especially that of a chicken pecking. The simple exercise on coordination between the two hands was fun too. Prof Tang is from the school that believes that a pianist’s body language must also convey a message (such as anxiety, reluctance, warmth, grace and beauty); it should not be merely the fingers playing. I support this view (as opposed to some who think that pianists should not move too much or use gestures and facial expressions to convey the message in the music). It is not the first time that the importance of the position of the feet is pointed out (and demonstrated), but it’s the first time it was done with humour and the first time I heard the recommendation that shoes (and not slippers or sandals) be worn during practices.

I was impressed by all the pianist, especially the petite 9-year-old girl who played the Paganini. What puzzled me was that she could perform flawlessly such a difficult and demanding piece, yet she had no clue what a waltz was, and she didn’t know the time-signature of the music she was playing. How did she accomplish that?

The highlight was of course Prof Tang’s Yellow River. It was not the first time I witnessed what a SPIRIO could do, but this time I was tempted to ask about the price. I thought I might as well find out the amount I’ll have to top-up if I trade-in my Model S. Alas, the price is definitely beyond reach and my humble abode cannot accomodate its size, even the smaller O Model. Well, it shall remain a dream…

Piano Masterclass by Shaun Choo

I first watched Shaun Choo perform about a decade ago, when he was 15 or 16, at a local piano competition. At that time, he was doing his piano diploma in Austria. A couple of years later, he returned for another competition. I then met him at a musical soiree (in which he also performed), some months before he had to enlist for National Service. I attended his first recital at the Esplanade Concert Hall in June 2014. Besides his YouTube videos, I’ve not watched him play until today (although, strictly speaking, he was teaching more than performing).

Shaun is a judge for the Junior and Intermediate categories of the ongoing competition held at the Nayang Academy of Fine Arts. I was an observer at this afternoon’s masterclass conducted by Shaun.

The first to play was 9-year-old Kayden, with the well-known Fur Elise by Beethoven. I have played this piece for more than four decades, but I doubt I’ve ever played as well as Kayden, not to mention Shaun (who played passages while demostrating, which he did quite often).  I’ve learnt in 40 minutes a lot about pianissimo, colour, intensity, control, sound, direction, phrases, rhythm, fingering, wrist and arm movements, hand position, shape, support, airiness, dialogue, tonality, tempo, pedalling, direction etc. I must revisit this piece very soon, to do it some justice.

The 10-year-old Jolene impressed me with her Chopin Waltz Op 64 No 2 and Mozart Sonata in D Major (1st Movt) K 311. Again, there was a lot of demonstration from Shaun. I’ve also played both these pieces before, but not as well as Jolene.

a) Chopin’s Waltz – There were also a lot of pointers on pedalling, sense of continuity, balance between the two hands, rubato (is in the RH & LH gives the pulse), balance of sound in all the notes, how to inject charm and charisma, the need to breathe and sing, the essence of a nice colour, the degree of intensity and so on.

b) Mozart’s Sonata – Again, there’s a lot of demonstration and pointers: how to be active and not passive in the delivery, how to bring out Mozart’s charms, the appropriate use of strength when playing, how to produce a compact sound, the need to always sing (even at pianissimo), how there’s no place for hiccups but the delivery should be smooth and melodic, the importance of the control of sound, the balance between the hands, active phrasing and the need for several colours.

Though I found out later that both Kayden and Jolene did not make it to the Finals (he was awarded a Certificate of Participation and she a Silver), I was not surprised (because there are simply too many talented children around) but still suitably impressed!


Andras Schiff Piano Masterclass


Awarded a Knighthood for Services to Music by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in the 2014 Birthday Honours, Hungarian Sir Andras Schiff is a world-renowned and critically acclaimed pianist, conductor, pedagogue and lecturer. His Piano Masterclass, held on the afternoon of Day 3 of the Performer(‘) Present Symposium, drew a packed hall. It was indeed a privilege to be among the observers, and it must have been an unforgettable experience for the three students who played Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

Beethoven : Sonata No 28 in A major, Op 101

I. Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung: Allegretto, ma non troppo

II. Lebhaft, marschmasig: Vivace all marcia


Sir Schiff’s first comments about the Year 4 students’ playing was “Very good, Very very good” and felt that “the problem is the second movement is too beautiful”. So he decided to work on this movement first. He implored the student to think of this movement as a painting and asked her what a marsch is, before explaining that it’s military but had a different meaning in Beethoven’s time. On the need to concentrate on the sharpness of the small notes (for eg a semiquaver should not be played like one of a triplet of quavers), he likened it to parachuting from the air, and promptly proceeded to demonstrate how to sit down and breathe before playing. He emphasised on the need for the notes to sound, and they are not there just to make a noise.  The bass is the foundation but a balance must be found in the right hand, especially since the little finger is the weakest. The strength would come from the rhythm.

There is also humour (eg the trills) which is not normally associated with Beethoven. The tonality here is important. It is in F major, while the sonata is in A Major so the relationship must be explored. Also, the music then moves to B-flat Major, which is yet another relationship. Other details to be observed include the importance of phrasing (“Think of the cello”), articulation (especially the semiquavers), dynamics (“When Beethoven writes p, it’s not pp; even when it’s ff, sing it”) and tempo (“Beethoven didn’t write a new tempo”).

A phrase that was oft repeated was “Just playing what is on the page is not music“. Sir Schiff demonstrated by playing passages of beautiful cantabile  while articulating the notes. He also mentioned more than once, “Don’t worry about the metronome, because a human being is a breathing creature. If you need to take a breath and lose a hair of a second, so what?” He advocated playing short notes after a long one (eg a pair of semiquavers after a dotted crotchet) like a pendulum, comparing it to the nursery rhyme Are You Sleeping.

A new figure (eg in the left hand at b 70) is another concept of breathing. Within the big line, great care must be taken with the small articulation: it’s better that the phrasing of the two voices be independent. The three-bar thrill adds colour to the music, as do the bass (from b 84) which gives the impression of life from far away.

It is only at this point that Sir Schiff went back to the first movement. What is unusual here is that it is improvisatory (like Schumann later) and magical. The opening expresses dedication (“Empfindung” refers to an innermost feeling that is cosy and poetic) and is somewhat lively; it is a deepest feeling that is untranslatable. (“The closest is to imagine a poem.”)

Tempo, meter and rhythm are important here: what happens at the pause? What does 6/8 time mean? The rhythm of a quaver following a crotchet should be highlighted. Sir Schiff proceeded to demonstrate all these by playing the entire passage.

In the Development section, Sir Schiff reminded the student not to play slower at p passages and to note that small motifs are Beethoven’s technique of composition and that the art of the return to the Recapitulation is not shortening it. Hence the melody (from b 80) is endless and care must be taken on balancing the 9 notes between 2 hands, not playing loudly, but with most weight from the upper arms and shoulders for gravity until the epilogue which is the Coda (at b 90).


Schubert : Sonata in A Minor, D.537

I. Allegro ma non troppo

schubert-537After listening to this Year 2 student play, Sir Schiff’s first remark was “You should not forget to dance!” and he proceeded to demonstrate on the piano how the music should dance. This piece is like dream vs reality; the rhythmic figure is like “Am—sterdam”, and where there is dissonance, the pianist must feel the tension (eg chords in b. 3, 8 & 13). It was such a joy watching Sir Schiff playing (b.14-20) – his fingers were literally dancing on the keyboard! He went on to explain how the notes at b.20-26 should sound like the village bell (especially not slowing down at b.26) and how the repeated F’s (staccato quavers) in the bass (b.28-31) are like heartbeats, while the right hand flows. It is important to listen and not play on automatic pilot! (For eg, by taking a llittle time at places marked with accents.)

One of the cliches in piano playing is that the two hands are always together. It should not be so together because it’s not how the physiques are. One has to play transparently. Of coure, this will get the student in trouble with teachers, critics, jury and competitors but it doesn’t matter. (After all, Sir Schiff attracted attention in the spring of 2011 because of his oppostition to the alarming political developments in Hungary, and in view of the ensuing attackes on him from some Hungarian Nationalilsts decided not to perform again in his home country!)

The liebe (German for song) in b. 61-64 denotes love. Bar 65 is a violent wake-up: it is forceful, so it will not be played so together (“like karate chop“) because it’s not nice. Sir Schiff again demonstrated and referred to the recordings of Bela Bartok on how not to play two hand together. To be too precise (meaning, too German) is merely playing what’s on the paper. The gestures , such as exclamation and passages such as those in b.85-90 should be thought of like strokes of the bow on the viola – gently pulling it, with cantabile in the right hand (where the little finger has to sing) and articulating the staccato triplet of quavers in the left hand. From the most magical moment (an A minor chord in A-flat major) till b.105, Beethoven becomes a little generous. Sir Schiff demonstrated by playing the passage while explaining the differences between the styles of Vienna and Hanover : both speak German but there are differences in dialect and accent; one would call the other sloppy. It’s very subtle and not so proper.

There are also light moments during the class, such as when Sir Schiff (after demonstrating how to let the fingers fly over the keyboard in an arpeggic passage of demi-hemi-semiquavers) asked the student, “What’s so difficult about that?” This passage comes just before the Coda in b.175. As is typical of Schubert, the ending is very sad, with a lot of feeling.


Schumann : Fantassie, Op 17

I. Durchus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen

schumann-17As is often the case, the most challenging piece of the day is this piece that is so beautiful that it has to be kept together and can’t be let to go to pieces. The Year 4 student chosen to play this was definitely up to the challenge.

The tempo marking of fantastisch means ‘fantastically’. Though it is in Sonata Form, the middle section has a legend, and it has a Coda. It is in C Major, but the first time there’s a C Major chord in root position is on the last of the 15 pages! Pedalling is necessary here despite the rapidity in the bass because the left hand quavers should not be too clear throughout. Vorzutragen indicates it’s a colourful dream. When Schumann writes a little ritardando, it means a tempo next. The pianist has to be organised (“This is not a fantasy“). There shouldn’t be too much ritardando because it loses momentum. The pianist “has to raise her blood pressure” as the music soars: the acciacaturas must be sharper, and the double dotted quavers must be given emphasis with a short demisemiquaver that follows, like a “painter with a big brush”. There is no democracy here; some notes are more important than the others. The bass is important and must be shaped.

It was a sight to behold when Sir Schiff hummed, conducted, gestured and made comments like “Good”, “Move” during the student’s accomplished playing! His fingers glided over the keyboard ever so smoothly when he demonstrated passages that are sentimental or colourful.

Schumann is known to be crazy as he had a split personality, so his music is a mixture of lyricism, masculinity and feminity. Again, Sir Schiff played a long passage to show the dialogue taking place – carressing the keys with calmness before going back to the fiery passage. Then he expects the student to do the same, telling her that she “must play the gentler passage with feelings of I Love You, You Love Me”!

The tempo of Im lebbaften is lovely. Again, Sir Schiff played to demonstrate the syncopated passage. Watching him, I was lost in the moment. Schumann is telling us something in the section marked Im Legenden – it is something from the olden times, like a legend. (Eg “Once upon a time, there was a princess…”) We need to imagine a romantic time in the medieval ages where there were no smart phones etc. While playing this passage, Sir Schiff narrated: “Once upon a time, there was a king and he had three daughters…” and went on to explain how to change from an Ancient mood to a Bartok sound (by emphasising the octaves). He demonstrated and played on the piano a lot and it was such a joyful experience watching as he continued, “He’s telling the story and then the poet speaks; then comes a mysterious section and a battle scene; the princess had been abducted! And the young prince is coming to save her. But it ends in a tragedy… But courage returns,” and Sir Schiff played passionately again.

As this piece was dedicated to Franz Liszt, a lot of Liszt harmony was used. Apparently Sir Schiff loves this piece very much and he played a section with the student on a second piano until he decided to move over to her piano to show her how to play “simpler”! In another section, he explained to the student “don’t play the bar line” by demonstrating. Towards the end of the Adagio section, he explained why it “Cannot be too slow, otherwise you cannot sing it” and played till the end of the piece. There was a very long applause for Sir Schiff. I hope he would return to conduct more piano masterclasses at the Yong Siew Toh COnservatory of Music.

Piano Masterclass by Toh Chee Hung


Toh is a renowned Singaporean pianist who has performed and taught in London, USA, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and the Far East. She is a regular visitor to Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Malaysia (home country of her husband, acclaimed pianist Dennis Lee, who is also an adjudicator at the Performers’ Festival). She mentored two students on Wednesday afternoon:

1. Seven-year-old Chu Ziming played the complete Clementi’s Sonatina Op 36 No 3. This is a very nice, smooth piece of music that is like breathing, like a concersation. Toh reminded the boy that he must remember to express his feelings through his touch, matching the action to the beautiful tune as playing the piano is not just doing the action. With each change of touch, tension is added; so it must be musical and gradual and not everything at once, like a punch. Toh had a way of explaining to this little boy what is meant by dolce, or a warm tone, or a marked staccato, or a legato, encouraging him to use his “secret weapons” more to make appropriate sounds. Ultimately, a pianist has to be his most attentive and severe teacher! Just trust your musical instincts and listen to yourself. Music must be natural and sincere and never go beyond what is musically reasonable. One must be really sincere talking to the piano; befriend the piano. (For eg, there are 12 E’s consecutively, but all are different: listen to the nice movements and story lines underneath the different E’s.) All actions that you have and that you do to the piano will have results. Inside the music is a whole new world to discover, just like reading: there are different ways of making a note happen; it’s what you think that’s important.

2. Loh Jia Wei gave Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 5 in C Minor Op 10 No 1 (2nd movement: Adagio Molto in A flat major) a warm glow. When Toh found out the it was Jia Wei’s 11th birthday, she started to play Happy Birthday’ on the piano and got him to continue while she sang the last two lines. Jia Wei’s father was grinning from ear to ear. (He might have been thinking: what a good choice of a birthday present for my son.)

The first thing Toh said was to quote Mozart: A lot of music is used in my rests. She then went on to explain that this is because rests are also music. Silences are the beginning of music. Special care must be taken when pedalling; this is difficult to do but it is mind over matter and intention. A lot of planning is needed to know where the journey is: the longer the line, the deeper the vision/music. The secret is to listen attentively to the balance. There are several ways of playing a legato:

  • using a pedal wisely;
  • matching one tone to the next (a constant gradation of tone);
  • listening for the tail of the tone and match it to the next (technically very difficult);
  • legato fingering (therefore planning is necessary to get the best legato);
  • quality of touch, much like portato (from the Italian portamento meaning the carrying of the sound from note to note smoothly and without any break, hence very legato and momentarily sounding the pitches in between any two indicated by the notation);
  • with the right touch, there is no need for pedalling.

Then, there is also rhythmic pedalling and syncopated pedalling; but what is important is the interesting message being conveyed. Whenever the music is in semitones, pedalling has to be used with much care.

Toh then went on to talk about the Art of Piano Playing. (The theory of how the music is put together is always interesting.) She also explained at length how Beethoven spent a lot of time on figuring out how to teach his pupils to play, how to change the quality of tone, how to articulate the touch with the control of fingers, how ornaments and  legatissimo are to be played, popular oversight of pianists, how the study of what muscle to use and what muscle not to use makes a difference to having a good temperament, how to ensure sound carries and matters of pedal skills and touch.

I felt Toh really packed a lot into her 30minute lessons. I look forward to attending more masterclasses by Toh.

Piano Masterclass by Dr Jeanell Carrigan

Dr Carrigan is Senior Lecturer in Ensemble Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (University of Sydney) and she mentored four participants yesterday:

1. Edwin Pang, a teenager who played Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasia in A Flat Major Op 61, was stopped about 10 mins into the piece because otherwise it would have eaten too much into the 30min session. Dr Carrigan’s first comments were that Edwin’s shoulders were too tight, imploring him to think about how to achieve the diversity of sound in what he was trying to do. Everything that we play has to be about the sound and concept and it’s important to analyse the structure: Why did Chopin use the Polonaise-Fantasia form? The Fantasia is freer in form. There are definite motifs and every motif tells a story; hence the need to have a definite idea of what to say about each motif. For eg, the opening has to be very grand and not just sad (it has to be more tragic). Each time a motif recurs, it may have the same character but different dynamics. In order to have a strong character, the pianist must make the audience feel what he feels.

When the Polonaise comes in, it has to be light. It comes as a surprise because nothing before that prepares us for it. The melody should sing and the accompaniment needs to be less (ie not so thick). This is especially so in the Piu Lento section which seems like a different piece altogether, with a completely different tempo. There is a change in the character, but not completely.. The top line still needs to be prominent.

2. Ho Siew Ling, a young adult who played Mozart’s Sonata in C K309 (1st movement) reminded me of the time when I first played this piece as a teenager. I wish I had been mature enough to absorb what my teacher taught me because Dr Carrigan’s tips were very similar:

  • Schirmer’s is not a good edition (for eg. accents are put in where they are not wanted); always choose Urtext;
  • The tension in the fingers is a matter of the exact weight put on them and this affects the agility;
  • Use the weight from the arms for the melody and use less weight for the accompaniment. The balance is important and the left hand should not be heavy because it would be too intrusive; even then, we don’t want to use too much force in the left hand as we want only a round sound;
  • There is a certain lightness in Mozart, and the melody needs direction;
  • Think about how to approach the sound productiion: when there are repeated notes, the balance between the melody and the accompaniment and think about the Opera (drama, colour, different voices, actions); for eg, the opening needs a bigger sound (like “Curtains Up!”);
  • The ryhthmic impulse is crucial in playing clear and even semiquavers and playing into the keys;
  • When there’s a change in the rhythmic pattern, it needs to be very clear, so it’s important to keep control and not go faster;
  • Practising with a metronome is very good for discipline because it is like a subconscious and keeps in check when the mucic starts slow and gets faster. Playing with a metronome sometimes gives the pianist more security;
  • Always think about sound, balance and time. Be relaxed but keep the fingers focused.

3. Bryan Wu, a cute primary school boy, didn’t bring a copy of his scores (“because I can play by heart”) for Dr Carrigan and much time was wasted when a staff member scrambled to try to “borrow” the scores from other participants. He had chosen to play two of his Grade 5 exam pieces: JL Dussek’s Sonata in E Op 19 No 1 1st movement (Allegro non Tanto) and Evelien Vis‘  60s Swing (No 1 from Swing Rhythm). I was a tad surprised that he scored a distinction in his exam (134 out of 150), yet he didn’t even know the meaning of non Tanto (‘not too much’) or the names of the composers or the period during which the music were composed! Dr Carrigan’s comments were very general – Bryan had a good sense of rhythm, but he must realise the importance of dynamics, the balance between the hands, phrasing and pedalling. (I was also surprised the this boy didn’t know what the pedals of a piano are for!)

4. Kate Lauren Lam, a petite eight-year-old who played Chopin’s Waltz Op 69 No 1 with a pedal. Even Dr Carrigan was very impressed though she had a few suggestions to make. The first thing she said was that the most important thing in pedalling (to ensure there’s no blurring of sound) is the ear and not the foot or the fingers. She also reminded Kate that sometimes when she plays loud, she must depend on her arm weight but not forcing too much from the wrist and fingers. The arm movements would control weight, and therefore the sound; and this is also to be applied when the phrases have to be made a little different each time because doing it in different ways would mean variety in repetition. This is a technique that can be applied to any piece being played; when we have a phrase, we have to follow it all the way to the end, like having a conversation.


Piano Masterclass by Prof Erik Tawastsjerna


The moment I found out about the programme for today’s piano masterclass by Prof Erik Tawastsjerna (a Finnish-born pianist who has been Head of Piano Studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki since 1986, and who is a third-time Visitng Artist to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) at the National University of Singapore), I eagerly awaited for the day to come.

The first piece of today’s masterclass is Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K331 (I. Andante grazioso), played by a Year 4 Thai student. This piece appeals greatly to me because:

  • this is the piece Maksim performed at his concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 18 Nov 2009. To my great disappointment (because it is one of my favourite Mozart sonatas), he played with a score!
  • Somehow, YSTCM students from Thailand have always been very good, so I want to hear this piece performed from memory by a consummate pianist.

Prof Tawastsjerna’s first comment is that the student plays very musically, immediately followed by a question: What is Mozart’s style? Is it the old German style (rather literal) or the authentic performance style of Romantic pianists like Horowitz? It is therefore difficult to decide what is good Mozart style. The professor himself has a soft spot in his heart for Horowitz’s style. Basically, Romantic pianists want to create a continuous legato, like a violinist thinking of a bow. Hence he believes in using lots of pedal as the flow should be a little more. At this point, Prof Tawastsjerna plays an excerpt to demonstrate.

Prof Tawastsjerna’s second question is: What is special in this sonata? The student correctly answered that it is in Variation form and is rather revolutionary as it doesn’t have the Sonata form. Thus, Mozart is indeed a great innovator. Prof Tawastsjerna continues to ask about the theme, which is fascinating. It is like a string trio for violin, viola and cello. It is precisely Mozart’s genius that has this persistent note (E) repeated in the middle voice. This has not been done very often.

The professor then works through each Variation:

Var I : Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates how to make the slurs more clear and the need for more articulation by comparing the old school way of playing and exploring the different articulation techniques; for example, certain notes need a bit more “bite” and not just be smooth and nice. The pianist should let the body participate in the orchestra sound when there are chords like having three notes in the right hand. Next, he talks about fingering and trigger postition by demonstrating on the piano. There should be pause and drama between variations. This needs to be a bit more convincing but not too long, so as to maintain the same mood.

Var 2 : Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates how trills can be done more evenly and how perhaps it could sound a little more grazioso too, to make a contrast between the simple right-hand staccato and left-hand legato. Checking of the fingering of the scalic phrase of demesemiquavers is important to ensure greater clarity and more evenness.

Var 3: Again, Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates on the need to concentrate on legato playing, as Mozart wants to make a great contrast. He believes that with good pedalling and a good ear, double octaves can be played in very good legato without needing to use finger-legato much, except using the fifth finger on the white keys and the fourth finger on black keys. Here, Prof Tawastsjerna makes the student practise what he just advocated.

Var 4: This is one section that Prof Tawastsjerna believes cannot be played without pedalling as it is almost Romantic. Of course, he again demonstrates by playing.

Var 5: Prof Tawastsjerna commented that this variation (which is marked Adagio) should not be too slow as Mozart’s Adagios are unlike other compossers’. Prof Tawastsjerna again demonstrates how there’s even melody in the Alberti bass and how staccato scalic passages could be a little more playful!

Var 6: Here, Prof Tawastsjerna plays with the student, demostrating how to play piano but keeping the semiquavers active.

The second piece is Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major Op 101 (I. Etwas lebhaft und mit innigsten Empfindung & II. Lebhaft Marschmassig). Again, Prof Tawastsjerna begins by asking the Year 3 student what makes Beethoven’s sonatas so unique. Ans: It is very condensed, so full of incredible writing (he never repeats here, unlike the early sonatas); every harmony is a colour, so the pianist must play from the heart. Epic works are Beethoven’s contact with mankind, to reach people even much more. In the first movement, there is the need to articulate all the colours in the texture. It starts very simply but it’s like a full string quartet, especially with the second violin, so it must be played with soul. (Her, Prof plays and demonstrates.) The professor then goes on to explain how music in 6/8 time (like Chopin’s Ballades) should be played with feeling. The feeling could be painful.  It is not easy to play as how Beethoven wants, but we have to find a way to achieve it. (So Prof Tawastsjerna demonstrates again.)

The second movement has a melodic idea that must not be lost because of the short notes coming after the long ones (semiquavers following dotted quavers), so it is important to listen to the meloodic intervals. The passages are tricky because of the legato between thte notes and the crescendo from one note to the next. When Beethoven marks a passage sempre legato, there is even more emphasis on the melody. It would be useful to imagine a strong German man playing the big chordal passages, using the body for the big chords to build up. Beethoven never writes where the crescendos end, just like his diminuendos are not just piano.

Halfway through the Beethoven sonata, I felt a sudden onslaught of acute migraine, so I had to leave before the next piece, Brahm’s Sonata in F minor Op 5. I look forward to Prof Tawastsjerna’s fourth visit, as I enjoy both his teaching and his playing.

Piano Masterclass by Danile de Borah (29 Jan 2016)

The first Visiting Artist to conduct a piano masterclass this semester at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (at the National University of Singapore) is Daniel de Borah, a foremost musician born in 1891 in Australia. His playing is exemplary and he has a very special kind of musicianship.

Despite his relatively young age, he impressed me with his comments and interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Major, Op 10 No 2 (First Movement: Allegro).He covered a lot of ground in precisely 40 minutes! His critique of the Year 3 student’s performance was very positive and encouraging. He commented that the performance was very thoughtfully prepared, with wonderful articulation and beautiful staccatos but thought the student could exercise a little more freedom so as not to take away the joy in the music, encouraging him to grasp the humour and find the surprises and be free of the constraints of barlines or repetition of sequence.

Danile de Borah did not just talk but also demonstrated on a second Steinway grand how to use a touch less pedal and how to make the crescendo at the rising passages implicit and care a little more for dynamics. Things must be allowed to happen naturally; it is not enough to know theoretically the musical intentions. There should be a building of tension and existence, stubborness perhaps, not just playing metronomically. When an idea stretches for two whole pages (eg in the Development section), there needs to be more conviction. Therefore, the performer must have a bigger picture and not micro-manage the dynamics. Again, Borah demonstrated how to do a diminuendo from sforzando to pianissimo, just like how he demonstrated not to lose tension over the left-hand semiquavers or let the notes be distorted by the pedal. He emphasised that the pedal should be used only for valuable change of colour, for example in expressive and singing lines. In other words, the pianist should be more of a conductor to the music. Borah also showed how ornaments need to fit in the note at a certain time yet the phrase needs to be melodic, and how all these must be projected to the back of the hall. In general, the pianist needs a bit of freedom of time to express himself, to imbue a bit of texture, allowing the music to live its life a little more rather than living the ingredients on the page.

The second piece is Alexander Scriabin’s Five Preludes Op 16 played by another Year 3 student. I have never played any Scriabin and in general I do not enjoy his music, so the 60 minutes taken up here was a tad too long and thus tedious for me. Borah himself remarked at the start that he was a bit worried how the student would be able to bring out the layered textures and a sense of sophistication in such a poetic work. Much of Borah’s comments were similar to the Beethoven sonata, centering on texture, pedalling, the need to be relaxed and free. What I enjoyed was Borah’s beautiful conception and how he compared these Preludes to Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66, with demonstrations on the piano. Perhaps this segment is so lengthy because the student, a non-Asian, was more vocal and forthcoming in interacting with Borah and they spent a lot of time teaching and leqrning about technical details. The student exclaimed a “Wow!” at Borah’s playing, and so did I.

It is indeed unfortunate that the third student had only 20 minutes for her Ravel’s Sonatine (1905) III. Anime. The two points Borah made were again about pedalling and texture. He felt the effect could have been magical if only she had more courage to play the semiquavers with less density (the piece consists of mostly semiquavers from start to finish) as she was already very articulated and accomplished in her playing.

I look forward to the next few piano masterclasses in the weeks ahead.

Piano Masterclass by Dina Parakhina



Today’s Masterclass was conducted by a professor from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow, Russia. It was held at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the students played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21.

Liszt : Concerto No 1 in E flat

To bring home her point, Prof Dina explained, demonstrated on the piano, and hummed the theme repeatedly (I counted no less than 8 times for the first phrase and 5 or 6 times for the second phrase) to show the pensive mood of the opening bars.

She exhorted the need to “stay on top of the hill of a beautiful landscape” and to “change pedal” accordingly. It is important not to rush but “expand and enjoy” as the music needs a “beautiful, colourful, sonorous sound” like a soprano. The body should lean or push to be with the melody, like how the violin bows must be connected to produce a beautiful arch, feeling the air.

Prof Dina did not just demonstrate from her piano, but also moved to the student’s piano to show her how to draw different lengths of sound, and how to project the sonority such as likening piu dolce to a reflection or like putting colour on painting, then on top of that, varnishing. Prof Dina also repeatedly implore the student: “Imagine you have to sing this” or “Imagine this is the orchestra”. She emphasised that repeated sounds close to each other should be played differently, and went on to play in unison with the student but differently. She also commented that the playing should be consistent and convincing; it is essential to connect every sound, otherwise the music doesn’t make sense. She noted the inner parts were absent in the student’s performance and asked her to imagine the cellos were playing. Prof Dina also remarked that while fingering is a matter of individual choice, there are certain rules to ensure best results; otherwise, too much is wasted, as was the case here.

In the final section, Prof Dina singled out the grace notes. She urged the student to think of the orchestra entrance; reminding her that grace notes are upbeats and should be played using a little more ‘biting’ fingers. Here, there is crescendo everywhere and the passage should be mighty; there must be a certain way and direction, for example the sforzando must make sense. there should be no displaced emphasis but a consistency of increased intensity so that enough room is given to get faster and faster.

Due to time constraints, Prof Dina left a lot unsaid but had earlier made a lot of pencil markings in the student’s score. Even as an observer, I found this session very helpful and beneficial.

Chopin : Concerto No2 in F minor

The first comments Prof Dina made must have sounded quite harsh to the student: “the performance was not engaging, obviously mentally and emotionally struggling with stage presence; there were memory lapses and the playing was too fast. It is imperative to be clear of the reasons, otherwise there would be no chance to say certain things in the passage.”

Prof Dina emphasised that the pianist’s entrance in the first movement (high D flats in unison, after 70 bars of orchestral music) is very important so it should be even stronger to draw attention to that.

Chopin’s music require Rubato all the way and pedalling is a very serious issue here. The music cannot be neutral; it is very personal! That this concerto is written in a minor key is not accidental; it is symbolic, and more sonority is needed but Prof Dina found this student’s playing a little too shallow. (I agree.)

Any musical phrase has a musical direction, and the language of harmony is very important. Prof Dina took pains to explain the different chords, harmony and pedalling. She first asked the student: Are you in good spirits? Are you willing to work hard? She then went on to say that the student had a serious issue  of grace notes and all the directions are ambiguous. She took pains to demonstrate and explain this in length.

There is no composer like Chopin; so to be indifferent in Chopin is a sacrilege. Chopin’s music is like a personal diary and he has a very personal message that he wants to convey in his concerto so the pianist must be sincere! The professor’s advice was to pedal every single sound of the melody so that when it’s distant, it’s sonorous and when it’s near, it’s clear.

The orchestra is almost non-existant in Chopin, but they are waiting for their turns. Prof Dina had to point out so many details the student missed; she had to state the obvious because it needed to be done. It is important to note even the places where it is necessayr to take a breath! Here, when Prof Dina played the orchestra reduction for the student, she (Prof Dina) stole all our attention! There was a huge, massive difference in their playing.

Prof Dina kept imploring the student to take breaths where necessary and to analyse each phrase and to note that every single sound has meaning and expression. She again commented that the pedalling was too thick, that it should be much more economical, otherwise a lot of harmony is crushed.

Prof Dina also declared that a student must not attend class without knowing the meaning of con anima (towards the last part of the first (Maestoso) movement and Larghetto (the second) movement. She commented that the Larghetto was played too fast and hence didn’t make any sense. (I totally agree here.)

Indeed, Prof Dina was “not a nasty lady” but only wanted to “persuade the student to dig deeper and have more control”. She insisted her comments were very friendly criticisms but noted that there was a barrier that didn’t allow the student to express herself as she did not even shape the phrases.

Prof Dina’s concluding remarks was food for thought for everyone present:

Why does Chopin bother to write this or that?

Why does everybody play the E minor (first) concerto and not the F minor (today’s) concerto? (Answer: It is not easy to play the No 2.)

Chopin’s music contain ever-changing expression so it is important to LISTEN. In Chopin, all passage work is more vocal and not merely technical. One has to love music to get inspired; and not only does the pianist have to love it, she must share it with others, therefore she needs to show it.