1.3 Context of the research

Being a pianist in the 21st century one is confronted with a plurality of styles. The keyboard music covers a period of more than 300 years. Is it feasible to acquire an (active) knowledge of the musical language of each composer within all these styles? For most of us it is too ambitious. Yet this is requested from pianists. We play Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Arnold Schönberg and George Gershwin, to name but a few different composers. In the theory lessons the different techniques, forms, harmonies and tone systems that these composers use are discussed. But how do we (performers) apply this to our main subject? Often there is a huge gap between theory and practice. In part this is a justified gap. Music theory obviously has more goals then only serving the performing musician. It is also a science in itself in which reflection on music is of historical importance and leads to new insights. Often composers are also theoreticians and Arnold Schönberg is probably one of the most important examples of this duality. On the other hand, we can state that the need to reduce this gap in conservatories is still present and probably will remain so.

The theory therefore must certainly serve the performing musician, especially in their initial years at conservatory1, preferably from the first contact with a score. To ensure that we see the score in a wider context from the beginning of our practicing, I conceived the idea not to use the score in its original form during the first weeks or even month(s) in the study process of a new work. Could it therefore be possible to create an adapted version, a kind of lead sheet with room for improvisation, reconstruction and important harmonic patterns? We could use these exercises to stimulate the pianist to improvise, think in patterns and harmonic reductions.



The creation these kinds of exercises will be the subject of my research. We will try to take a look behind the scenes, behind the notes of the composer, perhaps also with the use of some sketch material. At the moment that the real notes are being practiced, the skeleton of the piece has already been worked on extensively. Can we imagine that classical pianists then develop a set of 'tonal tools'2 from practicing on a specific piece that then could be applied as a toolbox to the following pieces they play? This is precisely the goal of a publication by Lieven Strobbe: Tonal Tools.3 He has categorized a large set of harmonic patterns to be found in tonal repertoire and then gives examples of these patterns in a wide range of keyboard repertoire. In the research I try working the other way around. We will use one piece and create specific exercises for it. After practicing a few pieces by the same composer in this way, we have a deeper understanding of the language of a composer and I assume that we will encounter similar patterns and textures. Our understanding then comes from our practical experience with the material rather than from a theory book or a written analysis.


In addition to a better theoretical insight into a score, I also expect that we experience a greater technical freedom. This assumption is based on research done by Robert Harris and my personal experience. Robert Harris researchedbrain activity4 in improvising musicians and musicians that don’t engage with improvisation and only play form scores. Harris discovered a difference in brain activity. Musicians that are not improvising mainly engage their left hemisphere but improvising musicians also use part of their right hemisphere. This hemisphere is responsible for the spatial control of the movement of playing.5 As part of an assignment for the course 'Historical Improvisation' taught by Bert Mooiman I improvised all sorts of versions at home of variations on a German folk song in the style of Mozart. I decided to write a few down in preparation for the lesson, so that I would not forget them. A few days later I played them from the sheet music and I found it difficult to play them. When improvising them, there were no technical problems but while reading them it became a different case. What first seemed natural and effortless now was a technical issue that had to be practiced. Bringing my personal experience together with the research of Harris en Kranenburg, improvisation seems to contribute to motor learning in a significant way. It therefore will play an important role in the exercises to be developed in this research.



What is new about this subject?

Studying harmonic and harmonic-contrapuntal patterns is certainly not new, but described by, among others, Gjerdingen (2007) and Strobbe (2014). What is rather new is that we limit ourselves to one piece and that we initially avoid the actual score.
6 With the outcome of an analysis we try to construct the skeleton of a specific score and by means of improvisation extend it. The skeleton will be used in the sense of exercises for specific parts of the piece. Preparing us for learning the actual notes, providing us with a look behind the scenes of Beethoven’s text. In this way our approach is different from the Kodaly approach by Zsuzsa Héjjas. In the DVD Piano Teaching for Beginners, she shows an approach similar to what I attempt in this research.7 The difference is that she does not uses any kind of score, and at the basis of her approach is singing on relative solmisation. But the act of preparation, a corner stone of the Kodaly methodology, certainly plays a significant role in this research.