Pianist Phillip Kawin on Teaching, Analysis, and Performance


By Colin Clarke


Pianist Phillip Kawin has been interviewed in Fanfare before, so I’m concentrating here on his previous disc (Beethoven Variations et al, MP001), any updates on his thoughts on the Schubert disc, and plans for the future. I’m intrigued by Kawin’s website’s description of a highly individualistic pedagogical approach that champions the mastery of creative tone production and the advanced principles of sound pianism. It also leads nicely into my first question.


What do you think it is that marks out your approach to teaching?


One of the most important things is my philosophy and approach to sound, tone color, inflection, harmony, and rhythm. I have been told by various people that I am innovative. I do not take things for granted and I question everything. This has opened the door to many new discoveries that have benefited both myself and my students. For example, I created the five melodies: five distinctly different approaches to melodies on the piano. They include standing, hanging, caressing, clinging, and floating. Each of these approaches is used to create a different quality of sound, touch, and color. In the Schumann “Des Abends” from my recording, maybe three or four are used within one phrase, and one often uses two approaches simultaneously with both hands. (The right hand is played using a standing melody which produces direct sound, while the left hand is hanging or caressing, depending upon the context.) It is important to both question and know the how and why in one’s musical and pianistic language.


I’d also love to know some examples of how you apply technique to this, as I’m sure would all pianist readers of Fanfare.


Technique literally comes from savoir faire, or knowing how to do something. It is a broad concept and encompasses a synthesis of different elements, including various kinds of gestures. For example, one of my guiding principles is the use of opposing motions. This gets back to nature, the body working in pairs. When you walk, your left foot goes forward while your right arms swings and vice versa. Opposites attract; many people play the piano like they have two right hands or two left hands. The hands synchronize very naturally when one uses opposing motions and breathe like two lungs. This in turn enhances control and freedom at the keyboard. Wrist, hand, arm, various finger strokes, weight distribution, speed of key descent, release, and the use of impulse are also important elements. It is also necessary to understand the structure and physiognomy of the hand. Basically, when one plays the piano we have longer and shorter fingers. Depending on whether we are going from a short to a long finger, or a long to a short finger, the motion of the hand may change. Posture, arm alignment, and breathing while one plays are also organic components in this equation. The ultimate challenge is how to simplify and unify these elements into one cohesive language. As Rosalyn Tureck once said in a masterclass, “Simplicity evolves out of complexity.”


Do you think orchestrally when you play? (This is an approach I know Alfred Brendel has written upon at length, imagining a certain instrument’s characteristics while playing a melody or theme on the piano.)


Yes, I absolutely do think orchestrally and of emulating the timbres of different orchestral instruments, whether it is violin, cello, flute, bassoon, French horn, or simply the sonority of an orchestra (tutti) in chordal textures. There are many melodies, such as in Mozart and Schubert, which I approach more vocally. Both instrumental and vocal approaches are important and indispensable tools of musical expression.


There’s also the way that each composer has his or her own sound. Indeed, there are even characteristic sounds to each composer’s voice-leading—Schumann sensuous, almost; Prokofiev more rigorous; Schubert almost exploratory. Would that be fair to say? In which ways do you vary your tone production from piece to piece?


Depending on the composer and style of the music, one needs to cultivate the sound and means of expression. Prokofiev must be incisive, chiseled, and sharply defined, yet his lyricism is fragile. In the first movement of the Seventh Sonata, the non-legato, quasi-staccato touch is very important for articulation, whereas in the second movement of this sonata, I often use hanging, caressing, even clinging approaches in order to bring out the melodic line and to render the sonorities most effectively.


By contrast, Schumann needs more depth in the sound, a roundness as well as a direct speaking quality in the melodies, which often necessitates the use of the standing approach. There are many colors which require artistic and sophisticated pedaling. Schubert on the other hand is full of tonal and rhythmic inflection, nuances and subtlety. It is more vocal and involves caressing rather than striking the key. One really must draw the sound out of the piano, not push the sound into the instrument. As one of my teachers Adele Marcus would say, “One should always play with the piano, not just at the piano.”


How would you trace the influence of your teachers in how you play (and teach)? You have a great lineage: Which bit of it makes you the proudest? And which teacher was the most significant in your musical development? (The two may be the same, but are not necessarily.)


I was very fortunate to have been exposed to a broad and eclectic training. However, it also posed the challenge of my having to sort out a lot of things for myself. I had several important influences. The most far-reaching in terms of shaping my repertoire and musicianship was Dora Zaslavsky Koch, my mentor at the Manhattan School of Music for many years. Madame Zaslavsky cultivated my development by instilling in me the importance of expressing and communicating emotion through music. Nothing was ever without purpose or empty at the core. Everything had to have meaning; she used to often say: “I am trying to teach you how to say something, dear.” Dora talked a lot about sound, and that one has to develop a love of the sound, as well as cultivating a real sense of touch in the fingertips. She also discussed her studies in the grand tradition with such artists as Harold Bauer, the legendary English pianist, and Wilhelm Backhaus, the great German pianist. I am probably most proud of my lineage to German (Bach, Beethoven, Schumann) and Viennese (Mozart, Schubert) music. This was most significant in my development, although I was certainly exposed to Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Prokofiev, and other composers.


Also, there seems to be a Cortot streak through your lineage. through your studies with Cortot’s associate Jules Gentil. What do you admire about Cortot’s playing? What made him special, do you think? There was a certain poetic freedom there, would you agree?


Yes, there is a Cortot streak in my background through my studies with my teacher at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, Jules Gentil. Professor Gentil had been a teaching associate of Cortot’s for approximately 30 years, I believe. He told me many interesting anecdotes about Alfred Cortot. The most important thing I learned from him was how much inspiration of the moment and projection play a role in music and performance.


When Cortot was 17, he played for Anton Rubinstein, the great Russian pianist, who told his teacher Louis Diémer that it was not enough to be very musical, but one needs to bring the music to life, to recreate it like hearing it for the first time. I admire Cortot’s sense of spontaneity, and his nuances were magical. There was poetic freedom, imagination, and a kind of special inspiration in his performances.


And how does analysis come into this? And do you expect your students to be well-versed in musico-analytical methodology?


The three main elements of interpretation are intuition, deduction (analysis) and insight. Analysis plays a vast and pivotal role in developing the sense of musical structure, harmony, and form. There are many kinds of analysis that can be effective, depending upon the context of the piece. I employ harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic skeletonizing techniques. These are most helpful to gain deeper insight into the mindsets of composers and their intentions. One needs to analyze the music by deconstructing and eventually reconstructing the piece. I teach my students how to practice skeletonizing techniques and, yes, I do expect them to be well-versed in terms of what you call musico-analytical thinking.


So, you start with the Beethoven Variations on God Save the King (Queen/Monarch). Why this set?


I love the Beethoven variations! I chose the God Save the King Variations in particular for several reasons. The piece is very concise and contains a wide diversity of moods. It is charming, elegant, humorous, and expressive (the Fifth Variation in C Minor is beautiful and sublime). Yes, there is a noble quality to the theme, but it should not be pompous. I also saw the possibility to add some of my own embellishments on the repeats of the principal theme in the opening of the piece.


Do you think Beethoven’s Variations are underplayed generally (excepting the “Diabelli,” of course)?


Yes, I think Beethoven’s Variations are underplayed in general, except for the 32 Variations, the “Diabelli,” and to a lesser extent the Eroica Variations. Pianists really should explore the other, less-familiar pieces. For example, I recently heard the Rule Britannia Variations (WoO 79), which I enjoyed very much and have never heard publicly performed.


In your interview with Richard Wenn for your Schubert disc, you say that dynamics in Schubert can be interpreted less literally than in Beethoven. I’d like you to expand on this a little in terms of Beethoven, and also to explain how Schumann and Prokofiev figure in this scale. How should one approach dynamics (and other markings, for that matter) in both of these composers?


I feel the dynamics in Beethoven serve a somewhat different function than they do in Schubert. In Beethoven, there are more frequent uses of subito pianos, subito fortes. The dynamics are more angular than they are in Schubert, creating dramatic contrasts through sudden extremes. In Schubert, there are so many pianissimos and pianississimos that one cannot take them so literally, as my dear colleague Karl Ulrich Schnabel used to say. Beethoven’s use of dynamics is more closely intertwined with the harmony and the modulations, making them feel more an integral part of the structure, rather than being atmospheric as they are in Schubert. I believe the dynamics and integrity of rhythm in Beethoven are sacrosanct and must be uncompromising.


As for Schumann, there are other priorities that should take precedence. It is not primarily structural music; there is much more license and freedom—story-telling aspects due to literary influences, plus color and creative voicing of inner lines, particularly in the left hand. There is a lot of polyphony in Schumann, as in the canonic imitation of the melodies at the octave, though often times they are not played together. Prokofiev’s music is highly polyphonic, yet it contains its own Neoclassical elements. It needs to be approached with precision in terms of the accents, dynamics, rhythmic intensity, and tempo indications.


The coupling of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” with Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata is very understandable, as they are (arguably, perhaps) hewn from the same cloth, albeit cloth stitched by different generations. Would you agree?


Yes, the Beethoven Sonata op. 57 and the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 both contain a similar fate motif, as David Dubal pointed out in a conversation resulting from my first CD. It is a strong unifying link between the two.


In that interview with David Dubal, you cite Richter as an influence on your thinking on this piece. What was it you admired about Richter’s Prokofiev?


One of the things I like most in Richter is his non-percussive sound in Prokofiev. My teacher Dora Zaslavsky heard Richter play all of the nine sonatas in Carnegie Hall, and told me there was never one harsh sound in any of them. This leads me to another feature of his playing: His accents are more lyrical and less aggressive. They are not only about volume; in Richter’s performances they are fitted with the character and mood.


Something struck me while listening to the central movement of your Prokofiev Seventh Sonata, that I wondered what you’d do with the Eighth Sonata. It is so rarely played, yet so intensely moving every time I’ve heard it. Do you play this piece? (Richter left a great recording, come to think of it for DG in 1961.) I think I made the link because there’s a great sense of space to your performance of the slow movement of the Seventh.


Thank you, Colin, you have just given me the incentive to learn the Prokofiev Eighth Sonata! I love the enigmatic and abstract quality of this great work, and I will do my best to learn it and do it justice, as soon as I find some precious spare time!


I know Jerry Dubins concentrated on the Schubert disc almost entirely in his prior interview (Fanfare 39:5), so let’s just ask if there are any further thoughts you’d like to express about that disc, or was everything covered by the previous interview? Did my review bring up anything for you?


Your review brought up and confirmed exactly what I had hoped to achieve, namely to find the balance between the macrocosmic and microcosmic elements, while preserving the elements of variety of touch, and as you said in your review: “myriad colors” and “overarching lyricism.” This was a real inspiration.


Also, what are your musical plans for the future? The discs I’ve been sent have been great successes, so it would be good for readers to know what’s up and coming in the Kawin discography.


The next project that my recording company, Master Performers, has planned is a DVD recording of a concerto with a major orchestra, the details of which are still being worked out. I also plan to record several CDs with music of Schumann, Brahms, possibly more Schubert, and transcriptions of Schubert-Liszt and Schumann-Liszt.


What of performance—do you concentrate your performances in New York and the USA more generally?


My performance schedule varies with every season. I recently gave two solo recitals in the United States for the Drozdoff Society on the Impromptu Recital Series. My summer festival schedule takes me all over the globe. During the academic year, I have my teaching responsibilities at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, so my travelling schedule is more limited.


You’ve also kindly sent me three DVDs on the Pianovision label of your masterclasses. Can you just give me a quick background to the DVDs? And, I have to say, I am slightly surprised that the piano teachers’ conference was held in Las Vegas.


From 2004 to 2009 I gave a series of lectures and masterclasses at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference, which was held in different cities throughout the USA each year. This fantastic conference brought together the most distinguished artist-teachers from the USA, Europe, and Asia for intensive masterclasses and lectures. I recorded five DVDs for the Pianovision DVD Library—two lecture DVDs, each containing two of my original titles, and three joint masterclass DVDs with other distinguished artist-teachers: Marc Durand, Arbo Valdma, and Luiz de Moura Castro. (Unfortunately, the conference is no longer in existence today.)


What I liked most about the DVDs—and wish I had had when I was stumbling my way through piano lessons—was how to practice. It’s not just playing the piece over and over.


As I often say, practice makes permanent, not necessarily perfect. There is too much practicing that is done mindlessly, which develops bad habits. I strongly believe in conscious practice, with a clear mind, alert ears, and focused fingers.


Why do you choose the Brahms Exercises (and also the Czerny Studies, op. 740) as teaching material?


I chose the Brahms 51 Exercises because they are not dry and are what I call “musical exercises.” Some of the Brahms exercises I use are Nos. 8a-b, 24a-b, and 40a-b. They must be transposed into different keys, using the same fingering. I also created variations on Brahms’s basic patterns, and practice with various different touches. For example, in 24a-b, the two voice exercise, I practice legato and forte in the top voice of the right hand, staccato and piano in the bottom voice. It's vice-versa for the left hand: legato and forte in the bottom voice, staccato and piano in the top voice. The great teacher Leschetizky recommended learning the first three Studies of Czerny, op. 740, and transposing them into different keys. He believed they contained the essential difficulties in piano-playing. I have found them to be indispensable studies in cultivating one’s technique and pianistic command.


I also enjoyed the shared lesson with Luiz de Moura Castro, where we got to compare and contrast teaching styles. (Interestingly, I also interviewed Mr. de Moura Castro for Fanfare; see issue 39:3). What brought you two together for this?


Benjamin Saver, the executive producer of the WPPC, wanted Luiz de Moura Castro and me to collaborate in a joint masterclass, as was our tradition in the World Piano Pedagogue Conference. We enjoyed our collaboration immensely!

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