Rada Bukhman, a Vancouver-based piano teacher with native Russian roots, has produced a 212-page soft cover volume that entices with its interspersed selections of compositions at various learning levels.
The text offers a variety of fascinating topics, “Developing Initial Musical Skills: on the Nature and Development of a Musical Ear, on Rhythm, Preparatory Stage, Sight-Reading” and continues with “The Means of Expression in Performance: Sound production, Dynamics, the Art of Phrasing,” etc. among a plethora of compelling instructional headings that follow in a well-organized sequence.
Rather than retread specific areas covered by Ms. Bukhman in her volume, I asked her to respond to a series of inquiries that arose from my exploration of her book.
SK (Shirley Kirsten): Is there a Russian School of Piano Playing, and if so, what exactly is it? Nikolai Lugansky, a student of Tatiana Nikolayeva, for example, said the following when asked the same question:
“It is difficult to describe, but the piano is not a knocking instrument (perhaps he meant percussive), and you must always try to play a melody as if you were emulating the human voice.”
Rada Bukhman: Before answering your question, I would like to define the meaning of “Russian School of Piano Playing.”
Many musicians stress the word “playing,” while for me, it is the “school” that’s important. There is no such thing as Russian piano playing, but there is definitely the SCHOOL.
The singing tone cannot be related to Russians only. The majority of Old Russian masters who impress us with their singing tone have a Western European background. Russia developed slowly: the Rubinstein brothers opened their music conservatories in Moscow and Saint Petersburg only in the second part of the 19th century. By that time Europe produced quite an impressive number of amazing pianists- Talberg, Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, Clara Schumann, Brahms.
While I don’t believe there exists a Russian way of playing, I do recognize the Russian School of Piano teaching – the method historically proven by raising generations of accomplished musicians. I would like to avoid over-generalizing by implying that all Russian teachers are excellent or that only Russian teachers are great. However, in Russia there was a very well-defined organizational structure and pedagogical strategy, both aimed at children. This is something I miss in North America.
In regular Russian music schools children had quite a few courses additional to specialty instrument study. These included solfeggio, theory, and music literature. Students were expected to participate in a choir and to play in the orchestra. The schools provided general musical education on a very high level. Many of these graduates continued professional studies in musical colleges.
There were also special music schools meant for gifted children, which Lugansky himself had attended. Teachers in those schools were both exceptional musicians and great performers. Therefore, the students were taught refined musical taste and a high level of musical understanding.
These teachers had developed the core of the method that we now call the “Russian Piano School.”
One of the most important features of the School is the development of the piano apparatus based on a serious foundation of musical and medical knowledge. It is a well-known fact that many pianists suffer from all kinds of professional traumas due to inappropriate training in childhood. It is vital, therefore, to understand how our body functions. It’s also important to know which movement best suits the desired articulation, particular tone…. Then instead of hours of repetitive practicing one can achieve quality results much faster and be injury-free.
The standard set in schools for gifted children was extremely high. It demanded the embrace of art as a whole. The best Russian teachers expected children to explore music, visual art, and literature. This is another major feature of the Russian School.
The teachers were also unique, and worked day and night. I should mention that the only motivation they had was love for the students and for the music. I have read memories of a principal of one of those schools, where he shared his admiration for old teachers who voluntarily worked long hours and weekends.
Nowadays music teachers have to be business-oriented; it makes the teaching process totally different. You would not imagine someone working additional hours with a private student unless paid extra. The same is the case in contemporary Russia. These extra lessons cost money, and the rate is not low.
It’s ironic, but the terrible economic and political conditions in the Soviet Union motivated artists to work with greater enthusiasm, because the only sanctuary for real freedom and spiritual happiness was their art.
Consequently, only during the first half of the 20th century had Russia produced an enormous amount of extraordinary musicians.
SK: In the Russian tradition of teaching piano, what is the physical route to producing a legato (smooth and connected) singing tone? And what role does a supple wrist play in developing a molto cantabile. (very singable sound)
Rada Bukhman: Legato is a more audible phenomenon than physical. It is sort of an illusion. First of all, one should be talented enough to imagine and to hear this type of sound internally. Another important thing is to control the sound. We often play legato using pedal for connection in situations when physical legato is impossible. It is crucial to build smooth dynamical change from sound to sound creating an illusion of legato.
In the book I introduce the melodic exercises which aim to teach how to play legato with dynamic development. It motivates children to control the decay of each sound and initiate conscious transfer from one sound to the next.
Physical legato definitely is a very important skill and it depends on proper use of pianistic apparatus. The singing sound physically depends on proper touch of the fingertip and on a masterful distribution of weight of the arms on fingers, while moving from key to key.
The wrist helps our fingers to reach the most desirable position on the keyboard. Wrist is a bridge connecting the forearm with the hand, and it contributes to a greater mobility of the hand. It helps the hand to change positions. The wrist can work as a resisting force while we are playing heavy and loud, softening the tone. Thus the wrist should be flexible but never loose. Excessive movements of the wrist may result in a professional injury; this is something to keep in mind.
SK: I notice that in one portion of your book you recommended inking a dot on the fleshy part of a student’s fingers to remind him or her of where to make contact with the key. Does this allow flexibility as far as a deep in the key approach, with longer, less rounded fingers in Largo or Adagio passages? Daniil Trifonov mentioned in an interview that he often plays with “flat fingers.”
Rada Bukhman: Inking a dot is not my invention; this was advice given by the legendary teacher Anna Artobolevskaya.
A skillful performer instinctively flattens his or her fingers for a variety of reasons. Sometimes in fast tempo as well, playing, for example, on black keys. While the finger is flattened, the distal phalanx is still a bit curved allowing touch of a key with a fingertip. In the case of legato, the larger part of the flesh is involved.
Why it is essential to teach children to touch with a tip or in other words, to grab a key with a tip? Because this skill is not innate to us. This skill has to be nurtured, sometimes for years.
Professor Mikhail Voskresensky, who has been teaching for many decades in the Moscow conservatory, once said to me: you should feel as if you’re holding the keyboard with your fingertips. In other words, one should imagine that the grip of the keys should prevent keyboard from falling on the floor. When this feeling is established, one is free to experiment with colors of tone.
SK: What is the value of playing detached notes, before exposing a student to legato playing?
Rada Bukhman: Legato is the most complex skill. Playing non-legato establishes the foundation for movement and touch. It motivates to play with a full arm, realizing the unity of the different parts of the piano apparatus; it teaches to immerse the finger to the end of the key bed. In my book you will find exercises for circular movements of the arm, necessary for establishing the habit of transferring the hand comfortably.
SK: Your teacher antecedents go back to Heinrich Neuhaus who taught Richter and Gilels. What was the main dimension of his teaching that was passed down to you?
Rada Bukhman: I am still learning from my former Moscow teacher, examining her video recordings. Richter and Gilels are not very good examples of Neuhaus’s art of pedagogy because they are geniuses, not to mention that Gilels can hardly be considered a pupil of Neuhaus.
My teacher, Lidija Phikhtengoltz, who was student of Neuhaus from the age of 14, explores his musical principles more obviously. She was always touched following her performances when somebody would say that it is apparent that her teacher was Henry. She has a refined musical taste, expressive natural phrasing, and a deep understanding of a composer’s language. Pay attention to her logical gestures (there are no unnecessary movements). When she was performing, it was always sincere and truthful. From her I learned appreciation for the quality of the sound and the importance of musical taste.
SK: One of the strengths of your book resides in its inclusion of repertoire that you recommend with tie-ins to your whole technical/musical approach to teaching.
Were these pieces you were given to study as part of your training in Russia?
Rada Bukhman: I was searching for repertoire in all possible internet libraries; additionally I wanted to incorporate the material which would be new for teachers and students. I was using the Nikolaev book in my childhood, which is translated into English. However, I found it impossible to use most of its content. I managed to combine well-known music like the selections from Children’s cycles by Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Maykapar with the music that has never been published before in North America. For example, my book includes pieces by Russian prominent composers such as Sviridov and Lokshin. For the part of the book called “Development of Piano Apparatus” I was searching for pieces that would correspond to each technique.
SK: Could you describe the specific teachers who most influenced you and why?
Rada Bukhman: My learning experience is a combination of skills I acquired from very different but unique musicians. All of them contributed to my musical development tremendously. However I feel that teaching young musicians continuously makes me a better musician and performer.
SK: How is your book set apart from other piano instructional materials on the market?
Rada Bukhman: My book is both an exploration of the method and repertoire. The method is a pedagogical tool for teachers interested in learning the “Russian way” of building the piano apparatus. I offer an explanation of the nature of pianistic movements as well as a strategy to follow while working with beginners. I explain in detail the order of techniques introduced and how all exercises have to be performed, from an audible and physical perspective.
By using some of the exercises one can help more advanced students who suffer from inappropriate initial training. Additionally, I touch on every aspect of musical development of the child. That makes my book different from other children’s piano methods.
(I offer free consultations via Skype to new owners of my book who would like to have more detailed explanation of the book’s themes)