I go into M. Wittenburg's office for my piano lesson. He was late as usual, flying in the door with his Styrofoam coke cup and white paper bag of fast-food lunch. He typed madly on his computer for a few minutes, and then seated himself in his wooden rocking chair beside the piano. He apologized that I had to use a chair today; his piano bench was being used by the opera tonight.
My hand/finger drops were much improved, he said. The whole idea of relaxing, thinking about where my finger was going to land, and then entirely forgetting about it was working. And what did I want to play today? I open Debussy's 'Des pas sur la neige', or Footprints in the Snow, and proceeded to play, not having any real idea of how it is supposed to sound. He stops me after the second measure. My tempo is off, the triplet rhythm needs to be stretched, and the mezza di voce observed.
Take two. 45 seconds and six measures later, I must stop. My pedaling musn't blur the line. Pedal only on the half-note. I try again. Now I am pedaling too deep, and stop for a short discussion on pedaling. I never knew that pedaling could be so involved. There are at least three levels of pedaling. With every piano you must find the point at which you can cut the sustenance, but still leave a note sounding without cutting all the sound and making the disagreeable 'wonk' noise. Oh, and this studio I should always use the left pedal if the music is marked pp. That way one is able to play p, and allow the pedal to do the rest of the work.
Take three. I am still trying to figure out the pedaling, and come upon a beautiful lyrical line in the left hand. It is rich with all the longing and retenu of Debussy, and even though it is a single melody line, I promptly butcher it. If I get up for just a second, he'll show me something. I hear him play it exquisitely, passionately. Now it is my turn. I should think of this as a cello line. . .the chord being held in the right hand is the rest of the string quartet. Right. It is all about the weight and depth of the arms and shoulders which makes the deep moving line. In fact, one of his profs at Eastman actually shattered his thumb while playing a slow Beethoven sonata movement, all due to the weight with which he played the chord. How ironic that a pianist, whose hands are the most precious thing to them, should shatter their thumb while playing their instrument.
The very next measure brings mental disaster. My hands aren't big enough to play the interval of a 10th, and so I must roll it. But the top note must end exactly with the bass note, so as to give the illusion that I have played it all at the same time. Oh, and my pedal shouldn't change because of the whole note chord that is being sustained throughout the measure. But on the second beat of the next measure I need to clear the pedal so that the bass note is heard before descending to the next chord. My brain is beginning to suffer overload at this point. Left pedal...don't pedal too deep...relax the hands...lean into this note...we have a crescendo...keep the line moving...think cello...don't pedal...barely lift...stretch the rhythm...don't be in a hurry...A flat, not A natural...how can I be working this hard when I'm only playing four notes at a time!
An hour and a quarter later, I have worked through the first page, and have spent the majority of the time on about 10 measures. My perfectionism was kicking in, and I was getting frustrated with myself for not 'getting it'. Wittenburg was never phased, however. He just said 'do it again', and told me the philosophies of technique. He said his job is to teach me not necessarily the music, but the philosophy, and then I can apply it to any music I wish.
He ended the lesson by translating the French phrase in the beginning of the piece, which was to the effect that the rhythm was slow, frozen, and sad. Quite appropriate for Des pas sur la neige. So the notes should really be played like they are frozen, almost stuck in the snow. Poor notes.