Piano songs - Pianistic skills and musical flair

When playing piano songs, how important is musical flair compared to pianistic skills and how do you go about acquiring it? The answers and more explained in this article.

Brahms' Sonata No.1 in G Major

Not being a professional musician and having only started learning the piano as an adult, I was late in discovering Brahms. But, with works such as Sonata No.1 in G Major, Op.78 and Sonata No.2 in A Major, Op.100 it was inevitable that I would find my way towards appreciating his music. Becoming a fan instantly after the first time I heard them when I went to see The Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra perform.

That was a decade ago, so when I learned Ng Chong-Lim was coming into town to play Brahms sonatas on the piano, in a duet no less, with his violinist friend Jassen it was a rare opportunity to listen to his music performed live once again.

Chong-Lim’s career as a pianist has taken him to every nook and corner of the planet. He has performed in places such as Almaty, Kazakhstan, New Mexico, USA and other exotic locations you could name in between.

Exposed to such diverse environment and cultures must have influenced his musical flair. It was evident in his articulation of the first song they performed, Sonata No.1 in G Major, Op.78.

Skills and musical flair in playing piano songs

The tones were presented in a palette of colors, from hushed to forte reproducing the notes on the printed page and simultaneously pulling the rhythm around to make Brahms sing in a manner that his music’s meaning just come through no matter from which country you are from or what language you speak.

Invoking the questions; how important is musical flair compared to pianistic skills and how do you go about acquiring it?

The definition of flair is; the ability to do something well [ref: Cambridge English Dictionary@Cambridge University Press 2018]

In piano music that means being able to articulate a song so well that it inspires and moves the listener – the end result.

Finger agility in executing the scales, accuracy in hitting the keys, tonal effects – the pianistic skills are the processes.

You can not get one without the other, therefore both are equally important.

Intellectual requirements

It goes without saying that practising is how to acquire them, but more specifically it is the experience and exposure from playing a lot of songs from different periods (i.e baroque, romantic, etc) and genres (i.e classical, pop, jazz, etc) that hones one’s flair for the music.

Baroque compositions were written during the period when the modern piano was not yet invented, the sustaining pedal did not exist yet at the time. As compensation, notes were added to fill in for the extended decaying sound that could have otherwise be put into effect by stepping on the pedal.

As a consequence, the pianist is forced to play more notes in a Baroque composition, demanding for more finger agility, stamina and mental sharpness.

To play a Baroque composition well, needless to say the standard requirements such as adept fingering, control and the rest of the mechanics are integral.
Far more important though is the intellectual requirements, such as interpretation of the piano songs, articulation of its tone and rhythm and the elusive expression of its message. These are achievable by having deep knowledge on music theory.

Exponential improvement

From my experience piano lessons are divided into the practical and music theory. By no fault of theirs students tend to spend more time on practical lessons and neglect the theoretical, myself included - guilty of the same crime. What a shame though - deep, broad based knowledge of the music theory could have improved my playing of piano songs exponentially.

The outcome of such exponential improvement was being laid bare on stage for my listening pleasure; the ebb and flow of the duo’s sonatas progressed harmoniously between the piano and violin. Jassen and Chong-Lim seemed to be playing tag with each other as they alternated to sing the melody and accompaniment through each other’s instrument.

The skills and musical flair of both pianist and violinist were obvious for the audience to witness – earned by repeated practice and study of the mechanical and intellectual elements of piano playing. Other musical instruments too I guess.

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