What can a non-musician learn from a master class in piano?

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How could someone like me, who can’t play a note, benefit from attending a Master class for prodigies, conducted by a musician who studied under a piano teacher who was a classmate of Rachmaninov? This past Saturday, my wife and I attended such a class taught by Alexander Braginsky. My wife is studying piano at MacPhail Center for Music. That is how we discovered this gem of an event, and many other classes and concerts MacPhail sponsors.

It was enjoyable and the recitals by the students were beautiful. They are all teenagers, except one, who is 11 years old. They played with skill and demonstrated talent that was incomprehensible to me. I wondered what, beyond the listening, I could get from this class other than the pain of watching these youngsters sweat under the scrutiny of a master?

The first young lady, Jasmine Lim -age 11- played beautifully. She didn’t miss a note as far as I could tell. When she finished Dr Braginsky said; “That was really very good.” He asked; “What emotion do you feel this Chopin Nocturne is communicating? “

“Sadness?” she said.

“That is good. I agree.”

For half an hour they went back and forth on their pianos, searching for the emotion of the work, using pace and softness to bring across the somber and sometimes anguished feeling.

Next. Charlie Bremer performed a Beethoven sonata , another somber piece that alternated between very sad, soft, grieving notes and strong angry notes. Braginsky termed the instruction on the score for the very quiet notes, pianissimo. “You know, there is another way to interpret this instruction. You may think of this as an instruction to play with emphasis. Not more volume.” So he and Charlie worked on translating quietness into emphasis, not loudness (Forte). “You will get emphasis by relaxing more. Breathe,” Braginsky added.

Braginsky looked at the audience and said, “You know, this is a common problem for musicians: they don’t exhale. It is very important to breathe.” Over his 30 minutes, we saw Charlie, under the glare of 60 onlookers, begin to relax and play with emphasis. His body language changed from leaning into the piano in jerky movements to sitting back and moving his hands smoothly across the piano in a kind of gentle Tai Chi-like flow.

Isabella Dawis played a flawless Bach piece in three short movements. Braginsky said, “You know that was very good, but we can always find something to work on.” He concentrated on her first movement, the introduction. “It is important how we introduce things,” he said. “You know, Bach music is like a jazz composition — it has a beat, a tempo. Listen for the tempo Bach wants.” Dr. Braginsky asked her to play the first movement all the way through while he accompanied her with occasional hand claps; clap-clap-clap-clap, to keep her and all of us conscious of the beat.

Greta Bauer (no relation) played what appeared to be a difficult Schubert piece. She played well, but even to my unsophisticated ear, I could hear one or two short stumbles.

When she finished, he said, “You played that very well. But I want you to know something and we all should remember it. When we play, we make mistakes. Everybody does. We should not judge the quality of the playing by mistakes. This is why many musicians win competitions even though they may have made mistakes.”

As I said, I don’t play the piano and I am not a musician. But as we left and headed to our car, I couldn’t help thinking that no matter what we play or play at, there were some valuable lessons from that piano class on Saturday.

Also, you may want to note the names of these four musicians. Don’t be surprised if one or all of them shows up on the international concert scene.

Call the MacPhail (612.321.0100) and get the schedule of these great recitals, concerts and master classes. It is amazing what greatness and joy exists among us on any given day if we search for it. They are offered often free or for a small amount.

Paul Bauer is a management consultant and freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.

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