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Notes from the Pianist's Bench [Paperback]

Boris Berman
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 8 2002
Internationally known as a concert pianist and highly respected as a piano teacher, Boris Berman here offers a fascinating exploration of both piano technique and music interpretation. Berman combines explanations and practical advice with anecdotes about students, colleagues, and former teachers, along the way providing many insights into the psychological aspects of performing and teaching music.

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The shelf of helpful and practical books on piano study is not a full one; perhaps only the books by Josef Lhevinne and by Artur Schnabel's student Konrad Wolff belong there. But Boris Berman has now added to it. Berman has taken on the difficult aspects of playing the instrument and has succeeded in several areas. Setting up opposing ideas--sostenuto versus leggiero playing, fidelity to the score versus personal interpretation--he sends pianists to the instrument with a heightened awareness of what the body wants to show us. Berman is big on images (useful ones, by and large). He talks about the importance of breath (far too rare in piano lessons) and is good on the relation of finger stroke to dynamic level. He offers one fine exercise for voicing of chords and another--a long scale in diminuendo--for finger control. A chapter on time falters a bit on tempo--lots of examples but few concepts--but covers the idea of inner pulse and subdivision of the measure in an exemplary way. Readers will want more help on fingering, but that is probably impossible in book format. There is a good deal of common sense on phrasing and repeated insistence on informed rather than mechanical practicing.

For a pianist with a performing career in Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, Berman has a surprising amount of respect for the printed scores, and his background in early music comes through several times. At the end, he continues into performance (lots of ideas from the acting teacher Stanislavsky here) and includes a welcome chapter on teaching. This is, in fact, a book to use with your own teacher--ideas about "out" stroke, sustained relaxation ("both impossible and unnecessary"), and wrist height could be dangerous if misunderstood--but it will be provocative. Many musical examples, admirably proofread and helpfully cross-referenced, are included. --William R. Braun --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"A very instructive, imaginative, and stimulating book." -- Radu Lupu

"Pianists will value Berman's stimulating and personal thoughts and will appreciate the opportunity to learn from this contemporary artist." -- Choice

"Readers who want to become better pianists will welcome Berman's master class. Highly recommended." -- Library Journal

"The book is neither too elementary nor too advanced for any pianist, piano teacher or piano lover. It is informative, inspiring, and entertaining." -- Claude Frank

"What makes Mr. Berman's book so persuasive and enlightening is his understanding that there is no one 'method' of teaching music - each relationship with a student is a process of discovery for teacher and student both." -- Emanuel Ax

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent and Lucid July 29 2002
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!
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Piano Book of our Own July 12 2001
Very often when musicians, especially performers, attempt to write about music they lapse into a pseudo-poetic and philosophical tone that, although seemingly charming to the uninitiated, remains unworthy of the serious scholarly and academic environment to which the musical community, particularly in North America, aspires. To offer one example I shall quote one of Mr. Berman's illustrious predecessors - Heinrich Neuhaus:
"polyphony expresses in musical language the highest union of the personal and the general, of the individual and the masses, of Man and the Universe, and it expresses in sound everything philosophical, ethical and aesthetic that is contained in this union. It fortifies the heart and the mind." - The Art of Piano Playing
This is a lovely sentiment, to be sure, but what does it actually mean? Mr. Berman, to his credit, avoids such purple prose in his book. He provides us with an objective and highly informed guide to dealing with the issues that arise in attempting to teach or play the piano and the wealth of great music written for it, as seen through the eyes of one of his generation's most respected pianists and teachers. Of course my purpose here is not to criticize past books on the subject, or even to compare them in any detail. As Mr. Berman himself illustrated in a memorable seminar at Yale University, changes in pianists' approaches to a given body of music cannot be seen as developmental in a scientific sense. It is not that one generation of pianists has more insight into a given piece than did the preceding generation, but simply that each generation has a slightly different set of musical priorities which govern the kind of information they seek out about a piece and the way in which they choose to apply it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars a real gift July 12 2001
By wyy
During the six years that I was very fortunate to have been a student of Mr. Berman's, I found the countless lessons and the experiences of hearing his concerts to be constant sources of ideas and inspiration. Personally, "Notes from the Pianist's Bench" not only crystallized and revived a lot of the ideas for me, it also offered me much needed inspiration since I began working independently. The chapters included in the part titled "In the Practice room" ought to be very helpful for any practicing pianists; Mr. Berman's insight into the piano technique, whether it concerns sound and touch, or articulation and phrasing, is always incisive and realistic. I personally find the advice offered in the second part of the book titled : "Shaping Up a Performance" to be particularly indispensable. Chapters such as "Technique of the Soul" and "The Art of Teaching and the Art of Learning" are genuine, thoughtful gifts from an artist. Mr. Berman has shared with us in his book a refreshing and intriguing landscape of music-making. "Notes from the Pianist's Bench" is recommended without reservation.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A very helpful book Nov. 10 2000
By A Customer
This book is extremely helpful for advanced piano students looking for some concrete advice on how to make the difficult transition from student to musician. The extent to which Mr. Berman has considered every aspect of playing the piano and being a musician is a great inspiration. I imagine that even someone who might disagree with any of his statements about physical technique or performance issues will gain a lot from reading this book, because it touches all these areas very intelligently and makes the reader really think about his or her own feelings on the subject. In short, READ THIS BOOK if you are at all curious about the tremendous scope of things a pianist must face in order to become a true artist.
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