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Comments from Ernest Empson

photo of Ernest Empson

These all too sparse notes were written down in the 1960s, after lessons with Ernest Empson. How I wish I had taken many, many more; but such are students — they think they will remember for ever! Mr Empson, as I still think of him, created a very special feeling of reverence for the music while he taught and I have long been grateful to have had the opportunity of studying with him. Bear in mind that these are my own poor attempts to record what he said. His own use of language was far more elegant.

• Ah — I can hear that you are more genial when you play like that.

• Don’t play like a student — be an artist!

• It is a great art to be able to pour affection into a long work.

• You do not fluctuate your tone enough.

• This is a chord that should catch at the heart. Don’t play it in a flabby way — play all the notes.

• I always got a telling off if I played any note without substance and a real ‘core’ to the sound — whether it was in a pianissimo accompanying figure or a melody note. He hated ‘wishy-washy’ playing in any form.

• The fingers should taste all the notes in the chord. “Taste the harmony.”

• Read Maeterlinck's essay, The Intelligence of Flowers. Your fingers should find their way to the sounds like roots find their way to water.

• Melt the chords together with the pedal.

• Let the sound push your foot up.

• Use less and less pedal as you play lower on the keyboard.

• You are too rough. Do not poke and jabb at the keys — let the music shape your hand.

• The music makes the muscles — not the other way round. Do not control the music or make it conform to your technique, the music should control and automatically adapt your technique to its specific needs.

• Let the music shape your hand. (I’ve quoted it already — but it’s well worth repeating.)

• Rubinstein said that he did not play with his hands or his arms, but with his body. The entire muscular conditions should arise automatically within yourself with the musical conception.

• You should still be able to interpret when you cannot remember a piece properly or have not touched it for a long time.

• Every note should be a departure for the next.

• Liberate the arm.

• Schumann was the greatest of the Romanticists.

• When someone rides a horse, he does not force the animal to adapt itself to his movement, but adapts himself to synchronise with the movement of the horse.

• Don’t play softly by stiffly trying to control your fingers, but just use less weight from your memory of the amount of tone it will produce.

• Feel the sound flowing down your arm like water. To play louder or softer, adjust the nozzle. Soft, fast playing is like a fine spray.

• Every note should be as good as any other. You should be able to finish on any note.

• Don’t weigh the arm down when a note or chord has been played.

• Godowsky breathed out the music as he played.

© Richard Beauchamp — July 2009

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