Eloquent and Lucid

Rolf-Peter Wille's review of ''Notes from the Pianist's Bench'' by Boris Berman

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Eloquent and Lucid

Rolf-Peter Wille

Imagine you are a piano student playing a Haydn sonata for your professor. In the slow movement your teacher conjures up a Classical opera aria as an illustrative example, complete with specific characters, and even ventures to invent an imaginary reconstruction of the opening: "Dio, che guar - da [rest] tut - ti gli~a - man - ti [rest] …" Chances are that you are among the lucky chosen ones in the class of famous Russian-American pianist
Boris Berman.

Your level of playing (and your budget) do not allow you to study with a professor of international stature at Yale University? There is no need for despair. Professor Berman has crystallized his most nourishing ideas in an astonishingly eloquent and lucid manner. "
Notes from the Pianist’s Bench" is his highly informative, rational book of advice geared to the undergraduate and graduate piano student. Unlike those dry and overblown piano methods of early German theorists (Deppe, Breithaupt, Tetzel, Martienssen) Berman’s prose is striking a perfect balance between the philosophical and the practical, between the erudite and the anecdotal, the comprehensive and the concise, imagination and realism, elementary and advanced; and it can definitely be comprehended by the educated layman, last not least thanks to the many highly appropriate musical examples.

Unlike Heinrich Neuhaus, the legendary Russian teacher of Richter and Gilels, who opens his "
The Art of Piano Playing" with a deliberation on the artistic image (idea, vision), Berman’s musical notes do not drop too far off the pianistic bench in the first part of this book. In fact he starts there where most diligent students hopefully find themselves presently: in the pratice room. But what a practice room this is! While yours (and mine) consists of four naked white walls with a big black piano in it, Professor Berman’s practice room is a laboratory of experimentation and consideration. His enormous experience in performance practice, spanning all styles from harpsichord to Cage, allows him to approach a topic from several angles at the same time. Berman is especially afraid of exaggeration and dogmatic advice and believes our faults to be the extension of our virtues: "My biggest hesitation about writing this book has been a fear that my advice will be misinterpreted or carried ad absurdum. Guided by the teacher, a young musician must learn to use common sense, both in making interpretive decisions and in deciding on appropriate physical actions to realize them."

Naturally this approach should be recommended to the modern passive student craving for simplistic recipes and instant solutions. Berman: "Being a good student is not as simple a task as one might think. The objective of one’s studies should be to become an artist, not to perpetuate one’s status as a student. With some students I have the feeling that they fall in my lap as a piece of clay: ‘Here I am, mold me.’ In some cases such an attitude is a reflection of the individual’s general passivity, and in others it comes from being accustomed to spoon-feeding by their previous teacher."

It is quite obvious that Berman himself is familiar with the specific cultural background of ethnically diverse students. Consider his lesson to a student from Beijing who lacked an understanding of polyphonic texture: "[…] I made the analogy with perspective in painting, but this concept was completely unfamiliar to her, probably because she did not have much experience with Western-style painting. To make my point, I showed her two pictures of birds, one a Chinese drawing and the other a Western landscape. I asked if she could tell me which birds in the first picture were closest to the viewer. That she was unable to do so was not surprising, because perspective was not a component of the artistic system of the picture. The student had no problem in answering the same question in relation to the second picture. Then I tried to explain how the Western artist created the impression of certain objects being farther away than others by making them smaller in size and—very important—more blurred than those in the foreground. In music, I said, we also present the background smaller (that is, softer) and more blurred (that is, less articulated)."

To the advanced reader the unusual degree of common sense in Berman’s carefully calibrated advice may sometimes appear "over-informative." Too much neutrality can obscure a powerful vision. There are moments, I feel, where too much common sense can be an obstacle to the creative initiative of a sensitive student. Neuhaus observed that young pianists of genius go through phases of exaggeration because they have to experience the range and the limitations of their power. But these shortcomings are more than made up for by the second part of the book ("Shaping up a Performance"). Some of the real gems of the book are hidden in these chapters, especially Berman’s adaptation of
Stanislavsky’s psycho-technique and "unbroken line" to musical performance.

I strongly recommend this book to the amateur. If you are a professional it is a must read.

A substantial interview with Boris Berman can be read
here (by Daniel Mateos Moreno in Spanish).

In case you haven’t read them, I’d like to draw your attention to two other books in this field: Russell Sherman’s "
Piano Pieces" (aphoristic reflections ‘laden with culture and atmosphere’) and Seymour Bernstein’s more methodical "With Your Own Two Hands" (emphasis on practicing and discipline).

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