The Zen of Harpsichord Playing
laying the harpsichord dynamically and with full emotional expression is my passion in life. Developing the ability to do this has been a journey over several decades which has taken me through many enriching experiences. These include a detailed study of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach, building a French double manual harpsichord in my twenties, and my recording projects which include music of Louis Couperin, Jacques Duphly and J.S. Bach. I have both a liberal arts and a conservatory education, but the most valuable revelations have come after my formal education. It is through the long hours of practice alone with my harpsichord and intimate acquaintance with the literature written for it, that I've made the most profound musical discoveries.
The harpsichord is unique among string instruments - indeed all instruments excepting the organ - in that it has a fixed dynamic level as a starting point for the player. This attribute can be looked upon as a limitation or an advantage, or both. François Couperin, one of the greatest composers for the harpsichord, said this: "The harpsichord is perfect in its range and brilliance, but since one can neither increase nor diminish its tones, I will always be grateful to those whose magnificent artistry, supported by good taste, can make this instrument capable of expression." It is my artistic goal to always be working toward this "magnificent artistry" that Couperin refers to - a difficult goal to achieve, but extremely rewarding.
To play expressively, less is more. An analogy to unexpressive playing, is to imagine a person reading or telling a story in a monotone voice. This is where the Zen comes in: the less energy one uses to work the key levers (which control the jacks, which in turn work the plectra) the better chance one has of having control over the pluck of the string; within that place are infinite choices the artist can make. The movements one makes in an average harpsichord piece should be rather small and subtle, and it is only through this kind of practice that a player may gain the key to the next door, and the next, until one no longer thinks about playing the instrument, but is able to transcend any physical obstacles to "singing" what is felt emotionally.
I teach many students here in San Francisco, and it is this essence which I try to verbalize from the very first lesson. My studio is a large Victorian parlour with lots of wood, high ceilings and no rugs. The acoustics of this room are essential to my work, and that of my students while they're here.The parlour also serves as an informal salon for occasional musical gatherings.
My performances bring me full circle in the practice of my art. The participation of a listening audience is a wonderful and fulfilling part of the process, and those in the room become part of the sound itself.