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Dancing at the Piano: On Technique & Transcription

Q&A Interview with Dan Sato

2/5/2021 • Reading Time: 15min

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About Dan Sato

Fueled by a mad yet pure love for the art of piano-playing, Dr. Dan Sato enjoys a colorful career as a concert artist, scholar, educator, and chamber musician in the highest demand. Possessing an "exuberant spontaneity, deep conviction, and serious compositional understanding,” he specializes in transcriptions for solo piano. Dan has given world premieres of two major adaptations of works by Ravel: the Second Suite from Daphnis and Chloe transcribed by world-renowned virtuoso and scholar Vincenzo Maltempo, and his own transcription Introduction and Allegro, which will be discussed below. In the near future, he will be presenting a solo recital program composed of orchestral literature associated with the major repertoire of the Ballets Russes.

Q&A Interview with Maryam Raya

Your early training was not only in piano, but also in ballet, which seems to greatly inform your approach to piano playing. Please elaborate on those early experiences. 


I began dancing when I was four, and I often joke that I was tricked into it. My parents took me to observe a class and all the girls there seemed to be having a great time moving to music, so how could I say no? (Contrary to that logic, however, I never had an interest in clubbing.) I somehow danced until the beginning of my senior year of high school. I was not gifted with the physique, nor the physical talent of moving my body in dynamic ways. My biggest issue was the sadly lacking range of motion in my hips and ankles no matter how many hours or different kinds of stretches I attempted. It was frustrating, to say the least, to not be able to emulate the great dancers I watched religiously on videotapes; I even had ‘mixtapes’ of my favorite dancers’ performances (of standard variations). That sad feeling was amplified exponentially when the season of emotional tornados (AKA puberty) was layered on top of dancing with forced technique six days a week. All that said, I like to think that I still was an expressive dancer, if anything. I knew the importance of style and nuance and how that colored the overall impression of the executed techniques. I also liked analyzing virtuosic jumps and turns by watching videos in slow motion, but my body certainly betrayed me. 

 

The fruits of my reckless practicing appeared in the form of tendinitis in my ankles and knees, which I still suffer from during certain weather. I was also severely nearsighted by the time I entered high school, and I was only able to discern my classmates at the ballet studio by the blurred outline of their physique and physical mannerisms. Thankfully, all these struggles cultivated my analytical eye for physical habits and stylistic awareness, and my knowledge of music was broadened, too. In hindsight, ballet classes were also the first places I heard transcriptions. During classes, I unknowingly heard excerpts of many classical masterworks that accompanied our barre exercises (for example, I did not know for years that one excerpt was the development section of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto), so I thought every piece in existence was fair game for pianists. Also, a side note related to my ‘ballet years’ was my commute to the dance studio. The very unreliable public bus system often took an entire recital’s length to get where I needed to be, and that allowed me to listen to recordings intently in order to escape the boredom of waiting. Before attending music school, I thought I would be far behind the continental Americans who I presumed to be much more aware of all things music, so I read and listened to a lot of music; I then discovered that I was the nerd when I finally got there…

Numerous piano works invoke dance directly. We briefly discussed Stravinsky's Petrushka in the context of Alexis Weissenberg's fabulous playing (together with fabulous videography, which I will link at the end of our interview). That being said, choreography is involved in all aspects of piano playing, as well as in all aspects of great pianism. How does approaching a work from a choreographic perspective make piano playing "easier", physically?

 

Things feel ‘easy’ when I know exactly how I should move (i.e., pacing and vertical/lateral/diagonal momentum) and in what sequence. I believe that unhealthy tension creeps in when those elements are not painstakingly worked out. The mind and body must be equipped with well-defined maps and strategies to successfully realize the musical expressions that reside in one’s imagination- otherwise, we may never know reasons for our problems (God forbid anyone makes an excuse that it is due to their “lack of talent!”). I did not properly think about ‘choreography’ until I was 19. I visited my mentor, Dr. Frank Heneghan at the New Orleans Piano Institute to work on the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Concerto. I vividly recall him telling me after my first slop-through that my “virtuosity was naïve.” Those simple words hit the nail on the head. He taught me that by always “putting my fingers where they need to be,” (©2008 Frank Heneghan) I can play every note the way I intend to - yes, I asked myself too, “Could it really be that simple?” In addition to this, I was taught very strictly to establish a healthy relationship with the keyboard where I only exert as much impulse as the keys require, which means governing and knowing the amount of speed and mass to be delivered into the keys. This brings me to mention my pet peeve about the popular prescription of ‘arm weight’, which in my view only hinders tone and overall facility. I dislike that word because it insinuates a primarily downward motion with an excessive piling of body weight that harms the arms that support it. I insist that pianists must play with the keys and not at them. If one is in balance with the keys, stress in all aspects of playing will reduce dramatically.

 

It is very fitting that you mentioned the Weissenberg ‘music video’ of Petrushka because the recording process of that film is related to how I studied the techniques of great pianists. In that video, Weissenberg famously performed on a silent instrument to acquire creatively angled shots, synchronized with a previously recorded audio track. The untrained eye cannot notice that due to the realism of the relationship between the physical action and the resulting sound. Before YouTube became a vast resource for historical video recordings, I either acquired files from P2P file-sharing platforms, collectors’ forums, the university library (borrowed with my mother’s employee ID), and an incredible TV program called Classic Arts Showcase. I obviously enjoyed them thoroughly for what they were, but after the interpretations were aurally etched into my memory, I muted the videos to see what exactly caused the beautiful sounds to flow from the piano. 

One example is THE recording that inspired me to dedicate my life to the piano. I go further by saying that it took only one note to changed my life. My first exposure to Vladimir Horowitz's playing was through a compilation that included tracks from his famous Moscow recital and as I listened to the Liszt Petrarch Sonnet 104, and he played the most heart-embracing, tender G-sharp that left me in tears. It was the first time music made me cry by the sheer magic of sound (and not some extramusical association like teenage heartbreak), and this happened while I was on the bus to ballet class! I decided then and there that my life would be well-spent if I could one day learn to conjure that sort of sound at will. This event took place well before I was able to soberly understand that sound was produced by a combination of physics and imagination. I could only make sense of it then as sorcery capable by one of the greatest pianists in history. A few years later, I finally got a hold of the Horowitz in Moscow VHS and immediately fast-forwarded to the Liszt. It truly was shocking to see the incredibly peculiar, yet logical, stroke that involved extending his finger very far in towards the fallboard and lowering the key most delicately.

It’s one thing to approach piano playing a certain way, and quite another to teach that approach to others. In your teaching experience, how does a choreographic perspective make a new piece easier to "grasp" (pun intended)?


I have been a phenomenally lucky student of music to have studied with, or gained advice from, a whole spectrum of teachers. They gifted me tools to digest music in ways that I could consider as both objective and subjective ‘truths.’ I am most often channeling musical advice I inherited from my high school teacher, the late Prof. Peter Coraggio, and technical analysis from Dr. Heneghan. During the very brief period that I studied with Prof. André Watts, I learned how meticulous attention to microscopic details yield the most spontaneous-sounding and uniquely heartfelt performances. Along with Prof. Watts, I could never immediately emulate the sounds demonstrated by Prof. Kevin Kenner. The tones they produced were so saturated with intent, and I was often reminded of how generic and superficial my conceptions were.

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Despite being so blessed with teachers, I have always been a clumsy pianist, and due to that rather fatal flaw, I spent years solving problems and analyzed them until I could explain and help others in similar need. I always hated the feeling that I was not special like major competition winners or virtuosi from the past. I thought that it was supremely unfair if I could not be a good pianist if I had ten fingers and a brain like any of those ‘celebrities.’ My obsession with getting over my physical limitations made me into a rather square musician for a while – one professor I had for a semester said to me after a recital run-through, “Dan, I think there might be something missing from you as a person to be playing that way.” Needless to say, I do not feel inspired to communicate with that professor anymore – the person may have been correct, but there is always a better way to say things.

 

The idea of choreography helps because the physical element will always exist. I once childishly asked Prof. Coraggio, “What makes someone a good teacher?” He told me simply that a teacher must never be at a lesson prepared with a predetermined agenda. Every student will come to their lesson with needs that are special to them, and one must try everything in communicating a solution or strategy that would resonate with a student’s unique understanding of the world. Teachers, whether we like it or not, plant certain biases in a student’s mind about what is good or bad, but I find it detrimental if advice sets boundaries; it should, rather, liberate. Everyone has different bodies, and yet there are consistent qualities for healthy playing. It is a generalization, but pianists with virtuoso technique are quiet in their motion because neutrality of the body allows for maximum potential in any direction and in intensity. Optimal alignment can be the best thing to look for because it is also the easiest to perceive. One can assess it visually from an external perspective, as well as awareness through body-mapping. I do not like the idea of “strong” or “weak” fingers because it often promotes the wrong kind of training. I much prefer to visualize creating an environment in which muscles work minimally by properly establishing a supportive system of bones and joints.  After that is set, one would then train their brain to send clear signals for mindful coordination. These days, I am taking this visualization process a step further to imagine a technique that would make the piano ‘play itself,’ but more on that someday in the future…

 

I really like your concept of a "frame reel" when envisioning a work of music. Even the most significant length & overwhelming works of our repertoire can & must be broken down to understand them fully. It's inspiring that you think about music not only from the physical perspective but the visual one, too. Might you explain to our audience what this "frame reel" means for your own study? I think it'd be insightful for many pianists. 

 

I think that the ‘film reel’ concept works for any musician, physically and conceptually. To simplify this idea, I usually ask a student, “How would you play the best E-flat of your life using your third finger?” Then I ask them to take a mental snapshot of that ideal placement and physical feeling before returning the hand to their lap. I then ask, “Play your best F above that note you just played with your fourth and memorize how that looks.” Invariably, these two positions are subtly, but unquestionably different. After that, I ask them for the simplest way to travel from one to the other, and the mini-journey or trajectory from Point A to Point B becomes similar to what one would find on a reel of film.  I employ this tactic whenever hands seem stuck or rigid because regardless of the minuteness of distance, I need my students (or myself) to be aware of the necessity of motion between two locations. Hands simply do not warp through wormholes to travel between keys. Creating realistic expectations of what must happen between notes is essential for devising a technical strategy. If a pianist knows how to play single notes in the best way possible, and if they also know that moving is necessary, everything should be playable. (It is also important for me to think that the first 50% of each note came from somewhere and the latter 50% is going to the next event – physically and musically.) Are there ever instances of compromise? Duh, of course, but we must always respect ideals! If we strive for neutrality and balance, we can be flexible enough to accommodate excursions from comfort zones with a sense of command and flair. If I were to simplify this even further, I would say, “If it looks good, it sounds great!”

 

Related to this, piano playing is a great representation of interpreting a score. Notes on the page designate points of organization that describe when, where, and what should happen, and the “how” and “why” is the interpreter’s responsibility to decide. It can be likened to how constellations were formed; we connect the stars according to what we think we see and then try to explain the images to others. From a physical perspective, I can almost “see” the composer at the piano navigating through the passages, particularly if they provided very specific fingerings. I assume that they played them as naturally as one may pick up a pen, and I then try to make sense of it with my body.

 

I keep digressing, but I must also share how rubato was explained to me by Prof. Watts. He compared two diagrams: the first was a drawing of five or six evenly-spaced vertical lines and the second was almost identical, where the distance between the first and last lines remained unchanged, but the lines in between were ever-so-subtly displaced. In the second one, some lines were closer or farther away from one another, and these subtle adjustments created a unique rhetorical effect, especially when combined with other parameters like dynamics and articulation. These fine manipulations can be done at the micro and macro levels to create a cohesive narrative that simultaneously sounds mercurial and inevitable. Hofmann would be the perfect example of this approach as he claimed to have every detail sorted out from the first note to last as he walked onto the stage.

 

Hofmann & other legendary pianists of his stature certainly seem incredibly aware of what they are doing at the instrument. In spite of that, they make it look totally easy. It certainly makes sense when practicing to be aware of every movement one makes at the instrument. But what about performing? Is the goal of practicing to internalize it all? Or do you, likewise as in your practice, feel physically "conscious"?

 

Thankfully the ability to video-record is so accessible nowadays, and I utilize it very frequently to coach myself. While I am generally cognizant of how I play, there is always something to be caught and assessed when something feels less than ‘easy.’ In a way, I find that ‘ease’ is a very good benchmark for the minimal readiness I would like to clear before a performance. As all the greatest pianists say, one must have more technique than required for a piece. Granted, that is a very tall order when playing works like the Chopin Studies, Feux follets, or knotty (and naughty!) Godowsky passages, but I still do not want to compromise the feeling of being in command (“technique that conceals technique,” might be the best compliment for this achievement). This sense of responsibility is something I had to build for myself to combat a personal demon called Complacency, and I always must slap myself if I start uttering lame excuses for not working towards what is possible, physically and interpretively. Exercising my problem-solving skills is one major reason why I love practicing, in addition to the pure delight of music.

 

I really enjoyed your transcription of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Where did you begin transcribing from a compositional perspective? I can imagine it's not exactly as simple as going from beginning to end! An esteemed contemporary novelist once told me that, as a general rule, whenever one writes something, any story, fact, or fiction, one would do well to start with the part that most excites you. Does that resonate with you? 

 

I first thought of playing the piece as a solo piano work in the summer of 2017, and it somehow took nearly two-and-a-half years to complete it. During that time, I would think of ideas on how to play it, but I would have to abandon the project because I would get too busy with my ‘day job’ as a collaborative pianist. To my good fortune as a lazy person, however, I had two major sources to work with (in addition to the original full score) when I created my version of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Ravel had his own two-piano arrangement and his friend, Lucien Garban produced his own solo version. I did not initially plan on making my own because I wanted to learn the Garban transcription, but I gradually became greedy with the alterations I wanted to make. In the end, I rewrote or added to roughly 90% of the work. As a fanatic for the genre of transcriptions, I have had the great pleasure of working on monstrously intricate and challenging works like Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes from Die Fledermaus, the Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser Overture, and most importantly, Vincenzo Maltempo’s solo piano adaptation of the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. After surviving works such as those, I became rather hedonistic in terms of desiring complex keyboard writing, and Garban’s solutions were too elegant for me. After all, Ravel wrote the work to exploit the possibilities of the pedal harp, why not do as much I can with the piano? 

 

I spent a lot of time reworking climactic sections (I rewrote the ending at least five times – each time reducing the number of notes) because they were the most lacking in lushness. I listened to recordings of the original instrumentation and then I would improvise potential renditions on the piano with an audio recorder turned on. I did not try to replicate the notes literally, but I attempted to translate the acoustic impression with the technical vocabulary I had. It was helpful that I played most of Ravel’s works that involve the piano (everything except the G major Concerto, Sonatine, and shorter individual works) and I was able to easily access my memory of how he wrote for the instrument. I constantly revised it until the night before the premiere when I realized that I could use the sostenuto pedal to enhance the clarity of wind parts! I had written rather simplistic transcriptions of art songs in the past, but this was the largest undertaking yet, and while I could play the ideas I had in mind, it was a bigger problem to write it down legibly and coherently. This process certainly helped me when I returned to the standard repertoire when I understood vividly what Busoni said about the printed score being a “transcription” of what existed in the mind.

Who is your favorite legendary pianist & why?

 

This is a TERRIBLY difficult question to answer because I am a collector (hoarder?) of historical recordings and I have many, many favorites. I will name my top choices first before picking one that people might not know. In no particular order, I love Samuil Feinberg, Annie Fischer, Edwin Fischer, Sergio Fiorentino, Alexander Satz, Clara Haskil, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, David Saperton, Vladimir de Pachmann, Ozan Marsh, Alfred Cortot, John Browning, Van Cliburn, György Sebők, Lazar Berman, Jorge Bolet, Abbey Simon, Glenn Gould, Josef Hofmann, Mieczysław Horszowski, Paul Jacobs, Heinrich Neuhaus, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Ignaz Friedman, Sir Clifford Curzon, and Claudio Arrau. I hope that is enough!

 

Of these, I have an intense obsession with Ozan Marsh. The first recording I ever heard of his was the Rachmaninoff B-flat minor Sonata and I felt like I was staring at the sun but could not look away. It was dangerous, overwhelming, and entrancing at the same time. His wife, Patricia Benkman, whom he met while studying with Egon Petri, was also an electrifying artist from what we can hear on the single recording available online. The range of sonority and elocution of fine details are remarkable, and the volcanic climax he achieves in the third movement with two extra measures he adds before the reprisal of the glorious second theme is one of the most satisfying experiences in life. I highly recommend reading his book on piano pedagogy, The Pianist’s Spectrum if one can find it in university libraries because it contains some of the soberest perspectives on teaching and studying the piano!

 

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About Maryam Raya

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Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.

Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.