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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.

Review

"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
Format:Paperback
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
Format:Hardcover
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
Format:Hardcover
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.
Was this review helpful to you?
5.0 out of 5 stars A very helpful book Nov. 10 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
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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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent and Lucid July 29 2002
By Rolf-Peter Wille - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
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).
Rolf-Peter Wille
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a real gift July 12 2001
By wyy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
During the years that I had been very fortunate to be able to study with Mr. Berman, 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, but 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 via piano playing. "Notes from the Pianist's Bench" is warmly recommended without any reservation.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very helpful book Nov. 10 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Piano Book of our Own July 12 2001
By vadim serebryany - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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. Books like Neuhaus' "The Art of Piano Playing" and the two or three others which, together with Berman's "Notes from the Pianist's Bench", make up the highest achievements in this field of study, serve to represent the musical preoccupations of a particular era, just as the finest pianists of a given era do the same through their performances and recordings. Perhaps in another twenty or thirty years a new generation of pianists will once again need their own book on piano playing and teaching which addresses their unique preoccupations. Until then I am certain that "Notes from the Pianist's Bench" will serve as an invaluable guide to students, teachers and even professional pianists of this era who are interested in better understanding the best examples of performance practice in our time and the timeless art of piano-playing.
Vadim Serebryany, pianist
5.0 out of 5 stars A Truly Empowering Read March 8 2013
By E. Nessman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In the past, I borrowed this book from the library and gleaned a lot of understanding about *how* I had learned to produce various tones on the piano. It was so exciting to put *words* to the sounds and techniques with which I was already familiar! Then I ran out of time and returned the book to the library without finishing the book..... *sigh*

Today, I finally began looking for a copy for myself because I am now teaching, and I would like very much to finish reading this amazing book. The portions of this book which I have already read were surprisingly helpful, and I'm hoping that at least portions of the rest of the text are half as insightful, if not more.

Yes, this incredible text helped provide specific, historical terminology to name and explain some of the various techniques which I had managed to duplicate, but which I was not full master over because I did not fully understand *how* I was doing *what* - I just knew that, with practice over the course of time, I could, through trial and error, finally produce the 'just right tone' that I was looking for when I was polishing a piece. Now I can simply listen to a line and determine if it needs more of a German touch, a French touch, and/or etc., and apply my will to apply the related technique. Then voila!, the desired tone comes ringing out of the piano!

Now, again, I have not read the book in its entirety, so I do not know if the text covers other techniques (*such as* the proper use of the elbow, and/or the most effective techniques in producing a smooth and flowing crescendo and/or decrescendo, and/or etc. - some of which I was taught by a piano teacher here or there, and some of which I discovered on my own). However, I'm not sure that any text will cover *everything!* (KWIM?)

But back to the example of French and German touch, in the case of 'subtle' tone differences produced specifically by the German and French touch, I can personally attest that those tonal differences, are not only real, but they relate specifically to the *overall* tendencies of German and French music. e.g. - a German clarinet produces a darker tone than a French clarinet. The difference in the tone of a French clarinet and a German clarinet is not highly notable to many non-clarinetists, but clarinetists not only know about the differences, but also have strong preferences about them. (personally, I am both a pianist and clarinetist; and personally, I prefer the German sound and wish that Americans typically used the German clarinet system; but, hey, my family background is German, though I'm from the U.S. myself, so I'm not surprised that I prefer the German sound overall - and yes, a clarinetist who is using a German clarinet can produce a brighter sound by altering his/her mouth-muscles and wind-support 'just so' as well; and vice versa).

Furthermore, it should not be surprising that German music is indeed darker in mood, thought, and intent. In the same way, it should not be surprising that French music is indeed brighter in mood, thought, and intent (and might I add, it is much happier....). Anyone who is familiar with German literature knows that it is darker in mood, thought and intent; and, likewise, French literature is brighter in mood, thought and intent. Of course those are generalities, but the French would be hard put to find as much written literature about the darkest sides of death as can be found in German literature (though that is only one example of the dark German approach and the relatively lighter side of French life, living, literature and music).

Though I have not finished reading Berman's text to date, I have read at least portions of this text which relate to the various tones produced by different 'touch'-techniques. My own *piano* playing illustrates quite clearly the *various* differences possible between the French and German sounds (as well as other 'touch' techniques). Though I am a slow reader at the keyboard (because my eyes do not converge, so spatial processing is not easy for me), I am gifted with touch/tone/mood/timbre on both the piano and clarinet. Since reading quickly cannot be my forte, I naturally gravitated towards polishing pieces as fully as a body could in order to find a niche in the musical world. Learning to really polish a piece in detail is most certainly a rewarding approach to piano playing in particular, though it is rewarding in the playing of the clarinet as well.

I can personally attest to the depth of satisfaction that comes from turning a phrase just so, and from taking a generally 'darker' line and brightening it up with a bit of French touch (and vice versa), all at the 'just right moment' and to the 'just right' degree.

As far as teaching 'touch' using the terminology in this text, as just one example, let me submit the following:

One day I was reading a book in the parlor at my church while a high school senior who enjoyed playing and composing was goofing around on the baby grand in the same room. His 'goofing around' expressed significant originality and balanced lines which showed a good deal of promise, but he had a tendency to undersupport his tone.

I asked him if he would be open to suggestion, and he openly said that yes he would be. I explained first of all the difference between German and French touch and suggested he begin by working with German touch. While he played on, I returned my focus to my book. After a while, I began to feel as though the air was leaving the room. I really felt a bit suffocated! Why? Because he was playing a light hearted American style with *nothing* but German touch. The tonality was much too dark, even on the lightest of notes - leaving the music lacking the ease and lightheartedness that it needed; so I spoke up again, suggesting that his playing now needed to be lightly modified. Overall, the German touch had done him a great deal of good, but he needed something......, and, since I had felt a bit suffocated, I suggested that he needed to let a little 'air' into his tone - not precisely the French touch, but 'air' just the same. He responded that he did not know quite what I meant. I simply responded that his ear was quite sensitive to music, and that if he went home and listened to some music which was at least in a similar style, he would hear when the 'air' was allowed into the music, and then he would figure out just what to do.

Sure enough, I turned my focus back to my book while he fiddled around at the keyboard. After just a short while, he hit upon just what I had suggested he needed to find (he didn't have to listen to anyone else play, he just needed to bring his own attention to the music he was playing in order to 'hear' the tonalities that were 'off' and 'heavy'. Then, once he heard what was wrong, he corrected the issue without any trouble - and I would presume that what he did was some modification of the French touch.)

At that point, I looked up again and said, "There it is! That's the air you needed! Now the music is not overly Germanic, and it has the nice American fluidity that it needs. I am much more comfortable listening to your playing before. When you were playing at first, the music was insecure, so I was uncomfortable; but now your playing is solid and the listener feels safer. Further, the excellent tone carries your ideas more effectively without the heaviness that *just* the German touch produced. Well done."

His response included the following, "Well, I figured that less was more, so I was holding back rather on purpose." I suggested that *with* the German touch, he could play even more quietly, therefore offering even 'less', but that he would do it in such a way that the listener did not need to wonder *if* he would play the note, and therefore, that sort of 'less' would be ***more*** (more of everything, more musical, more secure, and etc.).

I'm not sure what all conclusions he came to about the subject, but his playing never left me wondering *if* he was going to get a note played on time and/or at all ever again. Instead, his playing was more sensitive and more solidly expressive than when I first heard him playing in the parlor that one day. Yes, his 'less' was 'more', even in the lightest of lines.

He needed nothing else from me (at least, not for the style of music he was inclined to play - .... so I never offered advice again). However, sure enough, he moved on to study composition in college (and is doing quite well, I might add).

It is very satisfying having simply helped him along his own journey. If my having read Berman's text did nothing else for me, that alone would be enough....., but now that I have time to devote to reading this text in full, I'm hoping that there will be many more treasures to glean and share.
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