Mozart: the ultimate challenge

Having just posted a video on learning and teaching the B-flat Major Sonata, K570, I found myself thinking more about Mozart’s music: its challenges, and its rewards.

It took a long time before I became ‘comfortable’ learning and performing Mozart. Even as a fairly adept young professional, I steered away from programming Mozart in recitals; I knew I wasn’t doing the music justice — especially the slow movements. I’m more confident now (after playing Mozart for half a century!) but I still feel that Mozart starts out easy, gets harder the more I work on it, and then — if I‘m lucky — starts to sound and feel gracious, graceful, and easy again.

I still find Mozart challenging to teach. There are a plethora of details to absorb (voicing, pedalling, ornamentation, phrasing, pacing, articulation…) yet playing Mozart well involves transcending those challenges, so none of them actually draws our listeners’ attention. I think that, though the details can be taught, putting them together into a convincing whole is a real test of a student’s musicality.

That sense of the ease and inevitability in Mozart’s music is eloquently discussed in a new biography I’m reading. Mozart: the reign of love, by Jan Swafford, is a thorough and entertaining look at Wolfgang’s life, loves, and music. I recommend it. And when you get to page 420, feel free to listen to this. It’s my live recording of the slow movement from the C Major Sonata, K330. Some of my favourite music.

Sonata in C Major, K330, second movement: Andante cantabile, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Jamie Syer, piano. Live performance at the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Alix Goolden Performance Hall, Victoria, British Columbia.

sight-reading matters

If you’ve watched my sight-reading video https://vimeo.com/528132450 you may be interested in a list of the suggestions there, including some things that I only referred to in passing. These are things I’ve found useful — both to my students, and to myself.

MOVE YOUR EYES TO LOOK AHEAD

Get past the challenging spots, and especially be determined not to let your eyes get stuck at the end of a line, or other visual division point.

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE SCORE

Looking up and down between the music and your hands, really slows down your sight-reading. We actually have a ‘lower peripheral vision‘ which means that we can see where our hands are (sort of) without taking our eyes off the music.

LEAVE THINGS OUT

Learn to see what’s important and what’s not. It does take practise to not play something that you see in front of you.

MAKE IT UP

Particularly if you’re sight-reading a popular song, which you know. Use your ears as well as your eyes, and make it sound ‘right.’ Don’t get stuck with what’s on the page.

FIND A REASON TO SIGHT-READ OFTEN

Give yourself a chance to get better; it will happen more quickly than you might imagine.

MAKE SIGHT-READING OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOURSELF

Here are suggestions I didn’t get to in the video:

• you’re a parent with a kid learning the violin or the clarinet? Sight-read their accompaniment, or learn to play it.

• you sing in a choir? Sight read the music, or the accompaniment.

• you’ve got a kid brother or kid sister also playing the piano? Say YES when your piano teacher asks if you’d like to play a duet together

• you’re in your high school band? Ask your crush if they’ll play some music with you. Get your music teacher to find music for the two of you, or search online.

• you’re in college, studying music? Never say no to chamber music or accompanying, even if you think you don’t have time.

• you’re in college, not studying music, just playing piano for fun? Go to the music department, and read the notice board until you find someone who’s looking to make music with someone at your level.

• you’re an adult learning to play the piano, or improving the skills you have? Ask your teacher if there are any other students (kids or adults) at your level, who want to play piano duets.

KEEP GOING!

Once you’ve started to play, be determined to maintain the rhythmic beat. You can always go back and check on the hard spots later.

FIND SOMEONE TO PLAY WITH

It could be a singer, a piano duet partner, another instrumentalist … sight-reading is much more fun together with someone else.

If you’re isolating because of COVID, and you can’t find a duet partner, why not record one part of a duet, then sight read the other part, as you play along. Try recording without a click track!

What are your favourite sight-reading techniques, which I’ve missed mentioning? Leave a comment and let us know.

welcome!

I’m glad you’re here.

This site is a place for me to share some things I know about playing and teaching classical piano. And a place for me to work through things I’m still learning, too — because this business of piano playing is never ‘finished.’

My intention is that the videos, blog posts, and whatever else shows up here is useful not only for piano students, but also for piano teachers. In fact the idea of helping teachers through the thickets of classical piano is something I’ve been involved in for quite awhile: ever since I was in charge of the “Teacher Training” program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. That program was begun by two peerless teachers: Winifred and Robin Wood. I had the great privilege of working as a colleague with Winifred Wood during my eight years in Victoria.

I’ve been influenced by many other fine teachers, as well. And although we all pass on to our students the best of what our teachers have given us, we also pass on ourselves; each of us is unique as a teacher.

Even if we consider ourselves students, rather than teachers, the idea of being “our own best teacher” is one of the ways towards real progress as a piano player, as a musician. I think that the best is to be some mixture of “student” and “teacher” and the audience I have in mind are piano players who are interested in both — even if our primary, or only, student is ourself.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. You’ll see we’re just getting started, with lots of content still to come. I’m open to your comments and suggestions, too; after all, it’s always nice to know that someone out there is listening.