Music Excellence Project
Master Class in March

Sony CSL launched the Music Excellence Project in August 2020 (Press Release). The program is the world’s first holistic piano study program that combines physical and arts education in supporting young musicians. The Academy Program aims to enable students to seek excellence in musical expression and the sustainable development of skills as they pursue artistic maturity (About the Project).

In March, the second master class was held. Haruka Takasaka, a music writer, reported on this lesson.

Physical Education and Arts Education: A Vital Harmony

Musical technique is nothing more than the means of turning the ideas in our minds into sound. Perhaps you can touch the keys of a piano with perfect technique, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t bring the richness of the music off the page.

This is often taken as a warning against piano instruction that focuses on technique. But of course we don’t mean that technique isn’t necessary.

World-class pianists[s/p?] have talked about how, when they want to express the ideas in their head through music, it is the technique drilled into their heads since early childhood that allows them to move their fingers exactly the way they want. It is vital for a pianist to have both an individual sound informed by a rich aesthetic sensibility, and the technical skill to create it.

The Musical Excellence Project is a program that offers pianists aged 10-19 these two types of education—physical education and arts education.

What makes it somewhat different from typical piano training is that it uses scientific analysis of how the brain and body work to increase physical and mental strength; this seems to us to be a more effective way of doing things. To this scientifically minded guidance, we add the artistic guidance of Professor Dina Yoffe, a world-renowned pianist. And thus our “vital harmony” is created.

 I observed lessons that Prof. Yoffe gave to the project’s inaugural class, who began their studies in August 2020.

Lessons from Dina Yoffe: Do not overlook the emotion of a single sound

Due to the coronavirus, Prof. Yoffe was not able to come to Japan, so her lessons were held online, just as they were last December (in months where Prof. Yoffe does not give lessons, assistant instructors give face-to-face lessons once a month).

 

In the lesson space in Tokyo, we have three microphones, and cameras installed on both the left and right sides of the piano[s/p?], in order to ensure we capture the fingering of the lower notes. Prof. Yoffe’s lesson room is also equipped with speakers and microphones set up by the project. It is an online learning environment that wants for nothing.

On this occasion, I observed the lessons of two of the nine first-year students.

Yū Matsuoka

We begin with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, No. 11. Professor Yoffe doesn’t want to start playing right away. First, she wants to discuss.

Prof. Yoffe
“You must understand what Bach means by the notes he writes. Then you can determine the appropriate tempo and articulation.”

Prof. Yoffe emphasizes that when you actually play, it is crucial to articulate each note, and connect it to the next note. She offered patient guidance, as long as it took (!), until the student was able to use her fingers to create the right sounds.

 Next up was Chopin’s Études, Op. 10, No. 10.  Prof. Yoffe listened to Matsuoka’s performance and made the following observations:

Prof. Yoffe
“Make sure to incorporate the noted articulations properly. Of course I can give you advice about how to express what is written in the sheet music, but ultimately, that’s your job.”
“Listen to your own performance. Act like you have four ears!”
“Some people say the Japanese have poor expressivity, because they are shy. But it’s just you and Chopin here. That’s all that matters. What do you need to be shy for?”

After receiving this guidance, Matsuoka’s performance changed dramatically. The beginning and the end of the lesson sounded like two different pianists.

 

Tomoya Otaki

Otaki’s lesson also began with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier: Book I, No. 13.

After listening to the performance, Prof. Yoffe asked, “What does the first fugue theme make you feel?” It’s a short phrase, just a few notes, but as the professor says, do not overlook the emotion of a single sound. She makes him repeat the phrase again and again until he gets it right.

Prof. Yoffe
“You probably think this style of performance is overdoing it, but it’s important that you learn it, so that you can do it when you want to.”
“To play Bach, you must understand the Baroque style. Please look up some Baroque art online. By conjuring up those images, you begin to understand Baroque artistic expression, that rising and falling of notes.”

The following day, they worked on the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 10. Prof. Yoffe listened to a performance of the piece, and offered the following comments:

Prof. Yoffe
“Musically, your style of expression is totally correct, so let’s turn to issues of technique. You are doing some things well, but you’re off here and there. So how can we improve the parts that aren’t working? We can’t go through measure by measure, but I want you to reflect the issues I’m talking about through the entire piece.”

Prof. Yoffe then offered Otaki advice on the necessary improvements to technique, including how to position his body for good finger movement, how to place his arms and elbows, and how to eliminate the tension in his left hand. Dr. Shinichi Furuya was observing this series of instructions, and he gave additional advice regarding the points Prof. Yoffe raised from a different perspective, based on his scientific understanding of the body. It was impressive to watch!

***

Scientifically minded advice fosters effective growth

Essentially, Prof. Yoffe helped the students realize what their mistakes were, and why they were making them.

And while Prof. Yoffe is an experienced teacher, she is ultimately an artist. For issues that can be difficult to put into words, it is also important to offer scientifically minded guidance. We believe this approach offers a more effective way of solving challenges.

Furthermore, before and after the lessons, each student undertakes an assessment of performance skill using the Physical Education for Artists Curriculum (PEAC) developed by Sony CSL. Using a wide range of data, including each keyboard strike broken down into a thousand discrete moments, this program can visualize the touches and analyze the postures and movements of a performance.

Ms. Kimoto, a student, measuring her performance technique.
Physical Education for Artist Curriculum(PEAC)

 

Ultimately this means we are recording the changes in the students’ physical attributes over their year of lessons. Through the collection of this data, the students will not simply see how they have physically changed—we will be able to discover for themselves more effective ways of learning the piano.

What results will we see a few years down the road? The long-term prospects are fascinating.

2021/04/30
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