Notes from the 1998 World Piano Pedagogy Convention: Russell Sherman, Masterclass on Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso

Piano technique is a matter of "simplification, abbreviation, finding the most minimal or economical motions necessary to do the job."

World Piano Pedagogy Convention Notes

Notes by Brent Hugh
Assistant Professor of Piano
Missouri Western State College Department of Music

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These are part of my notes from the 1998 World Piano Pedagogy Convention.

I am not fast enough at note-taking to produce anything like a verbatim transcript of the session--in fact, only a very small percentage of the notes could be considered exact quotations of the session. Rather than a verbatim transcript, consider these notes to be my own personal thoughts, reflections, reactions, interpretation, and commentary to the ideas and examples given by the session presenter.

Wednesday, October 21st, 1998

Russell Sherman


Mendelssohn, Rondo Capriccioso

Sherman likes the very last phrase of the andante (before the scherzo) to
have a prophetic quality, foreshadowing the Scherzo.

On some occasions, he likes to have a time difference between the melody
and accompaniment.  They don't necessarily have to come exactly together,
and it can be a way of showing nuance or expression, to have different
musical elements offset from each other a little in time (BTW, this trait
was abundantly evident in Sherman's own performances).  However: In *this*
Scherzo, this sort of expressive device is out of place.  The hands must be
exactly together.

The temptation (again, in the Scherzo) is to play the downbeats very
clearly.  Notes on the other beats (offbeats) become vague and not as
clear.  To help this, he recommends practicing with accents on all
different parts of the beat.  For instance if we have running 16th notes in
6/8, then we can think of them in groups of six 16th notes.  So you could
practice a section once with the accent on the first of the six 16ths, once
with the accent on the second of the six, then accent the third sixteenth,
and so on, until the accent has been placed on every possible sixteenth.
This strengthens and clarifies the weak beats.

Also, play an even 16th note passage in rhythms ("long-short long-short
long-short," or "short-long short-long short-long").  When playing in these
rhythms, you are probably accenting the long note. It is more important,
however, to *hear* the long note clearly, than just to mindlessly *accent*
it.  This is an excercise in *hearing* as much as working the physical

He likes exercises along the lines of Isidor Phillipe, but made from the
material of the student's music.  I.e., hold two notes of a 5-note chord
(say, fingers 2&4) while playing the other notes (fingers 1,3,5)
repeatedly.  Then switch (hold 1,3,5 while playing 2,4).  Do all various
combinations.  Don't do each one for a long time, but just a few times
until it's mastered and then go on to another combination.

Ex: In this position:    B E G# B 
                         1 2 4  5 (RH finger)

he has the student hold 1-5 and play 2 4 2   2 4 2   2 4 2.

Then hold 3-5, play 1 2 1 2 1 2
Then hold 1-3, play 2 5 2 5 2 5 etc.

(Editorial comment: This sort of exercise can be extremely dangerous and
should be approached with some caution!)

When passing the thumb under, this particular student is lifting the elbow
quite a bit (like a chicken flapping its wings).  The elbow *should* move
and lead the hand.  But its movement should be minimized--it shouldn't be
flapping like a chicken.

Piano technique is a matter of "simplification, abbreviation, finding the most
minimal or economical motions necessary to do the job".

Another contrasting view (quoting Vladimir Ashkenazy): "Piano technique is
rhythm." By this he means, the ability to hear precise subdivisions of
rhythm.  For instance, when playing 16ths, you would be aware of the
further smaller subdivisions of 32nds, 64ths, etc.  You would know and
control precisely where, within this detailed web of rhythmic subdivisions,
the notes you are playing fall. For instance, are you pushing or dragging
the beat slightly?  

Sherman has the student play various hand positions (finger groups) within
the music as clumps or clusters.  

Fingering should not be "random".  Decide on a definite fingering and stick
with it always--like "training a dog" (and we know how many ill-trained
dogs there are in the world!)

Sherman never practiced scales or other special technical exercises when
young.  He was taught that "the technique was *in the music*" and your best
use of time is in practicing and perfecting the technical difficulties as
they appear in this actual music, as opposed to spending hours on mindless
and disembodied technical exercises.

--Brent Hugh
MWSC Department of Music