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October 25, 2002

Piano students given a chance to learn from a master

The notion of a master class isn't exactly relaxing. Imagine taking a music lesson from a stranger. Now imagine playing your lesson piece from memory in front of an audience. The master class experience has the potential to combine the two things many musicians fear most: public performance and heartless criticism. Even the name sounds intimidating, as though some tyrant with superior knowledge of the instrument will ruthlessly expose the musical shortcomings of his underlings.

Luckily, events run by the University's Music Department don't work that way. On October 17, when Ball State's music professor Robert Palmer gave a piano master class, Fulton Recital Hall felt intimate and informal. "All right, folks, let's get started," he said with a big smile, loping across the stage like a game show host. Having played earlier that day at the Fulton Noontime Concert, Palmer was obviously pleased to be discussing and dissecting music, not simply performing it himself.

All four students chose hefty works from piano literature, and everyone played admirably. Although there is no undergraduate performance concentration, Thursday's students had the confidence and intensity of music students. There were no memory slips, no egregious wrong notes, and no half-baked performances. At a class led last year by pianist Alexander Tselyakov, the Russian master later referred to one of the participants' performances as "the unfortunate case of the boy with the Scriabin." While I doubt he would have been so cutting, Palmer did not have an occasion to make such a remark.

David Choi started the class with the first movement of a late-Beethoven sonata, Opus 101 in A major. Palmer felt that the slow, quiet passages needed more character. About one particular passage, he was moved to remark: "A good composer never writes the same thing three times in a row." (Implying that one shouldn't play three phrases identically.) However, Palmer was very impressed with the maturity of Choi's interpretation, which matched the nature of the piece itself.

His work with the next student, Alice Sheu, was especially interesting. Sheu chose Chopin's second scherzo—a piece "the whole world knows, that topped the charts in 1830." Because I knew the piece better, I found myself more judgmental of Sheu's playing than of the other students'. She needs to be more lyrical, I thought; she doesn't have enough power in those big chords of the opening motif. In fact, Palmer brought up these same issues. He worked with Sheu on the first measures of the piece, telling her not to "be so nice" with the opening chords. He also commented on melody line in the subsequent section: "This must be one of the longest phrases ever written for piano!" he said, and he helped her bring it out. Finally, he suggested a method to practice the fast left-hand accompaniment (because "it's so much fun to think up practice techniques"). Palmer told her she should practice with her hands crossed. "Just do that for the next nine hours," he laughed. Even after a half-hour, Sheu's Chopin had improved exponentially.

Joy Chen followed Sheu with the last movement from Beethoven's Sonata in C major (Op. 2 No. 3). In marked contrast to the sonata Choi played, this piece is Beethoven at his most jocular. Here, Palmer dealt with the intellectual as much as the technical. About the final bars, he asked: "A major? Are you kidding me? From C major? But the last joke's on us," he continued. Beethoven gets us back to the tonic. From the theoretical as well as the interpretive side, Palmer's teaching was solid.

Finally, the small audience had the chance to hear a more modern selection—relatively speaking—when Tim Splain played Debussy's "L'isle Joyeuse." In his critique, as well as mentioning posture and rhythm, Palmer played word games with the piece's title: "You don't want the tsunami effect here," he said. "You have to make sure the Hurricane Tim doesn't arrive."

"Yes!" Palmer would exclaim, when the students responded to his instruction, "that's it!" If it was difficult for him to remain enthusiastic for the full two hours of the class, he never showed it. When it was possible, he lectured to the audience as much as the pianists themselves. Master classes can be dull for the non-participants; Palmer, with his goofy style and ability to laugh at his profession, tried his best to keep the audience—which consisted mostly of other pianists—engaged. For the most part, he succeeded. On those age-old topics of rhythm and counting, tone, and phrasing, he managed to maintain a quirky wit but still get the message across. These things are vital to music.

Unless the Music Department snags a name-brand pianist like Murray Perahia or Alfred Brendel, it's unlikely the next master class will pack Fulton Recital Hall. I can only hope the next class will have similarly diligent students, and that it will be slightly better attended. Don't worry; the master doesn't bite.