I’ve always regarded people who play more than one instrument with some wonder. Playing multiple instruments seems just as heroic as speaking several languages or playing different varsity sports, so I jumped at the chance to profile Harriet Kaplan, a trained cellist who also takes adult piano lessons. Intriguingly, Harriet has been making a self-directed study of what many, Chopin and Debussy amongst them, regard as one of the most fundamental collections of classical piano music, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
Tell us how you got started on the piano and cello.
At the age of 5, I basically taught myself to play the piano from method books used by my older sisters and didn’t start formal lessons until I was 9. The teacher didn’t bother with student recitals, so I didn’t learn anything about performing or how to go about preparing until I started the cello at age 12. Piano fell by the wayside, and I went on to major in cello at college. I attempted a few restarts over the years, but it wasn’t until about 8 years ago that I took up the piano again in earnest. I’ve had some lessons here and there as an adult, but mostly I have been my own teacher. I recently began taking adult piano lessons from Matt Harre, the founder of Musicalfossils. com, that have been wonderful so far. They are transforming my physical approach to the piano.
I was intrigued to see that you are making a systematic study of the Bach preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC).
This may sound sacrilegious to some, but the WTC is my exercise book. Mechanical exercises like Hanon started to seem like waste of my limited practice time, so I decided to work my way through the WTC instead. I haven’t had much of a system; I just choose one that appeals to me and then work on it until I can play it fluently from memory. The memory part is because I find I don’t really know a piece until it is memorized. Memorization does not come naturally to me, so the challenge is also a way to stretch myself.
Bach wrote a prelude and a fugue for each key in the circle of fifths. The difficulty with the fugues is that they have multiple voices. The way I work on the fugues is first to learn each voice separately and then practice them in as many combinations as possible (1 with 2, then 1 with 3, then 1 with 4, etc.). When I put the voices together, I play as slowly as I need to until the piece comes together.
Other things I do: decide on fingerings as soon as possible and write them down; divide the piece into small sections and practice each section separately; find the most troublesome places and take those apart note by note until I can play them. I find this type of work meditative and Zen-like and rarely boring.
How does your pursuit of the piano influence your occupation as a cellist?
I’m not currently working as a full-time professional cellist. I do play the occasional gig, but for the most part my day job frees me to be selective and only play the cello when and where I like. A side effect of my piano explorations has been a rekindling of my interest in teaching, something I did quite a bit of through most of my college years. I am currently teaching the cello to an adult student, which has been very enjoyable, and I am searching avenues for taking on more students as time allows.
Playing classical piano music has given me more patience for practicing the cello. I am more willing to take things apart and figure out exactly what needs fixing so that I can be precise. Also, the cello feels so much easier than the piano; partly this is because I have spent so many more years of my life on the cello, so it is more natural to me, but also there is the obvious fact that you have to learn a lot more notes on the piano.
I am more able to enjoy the simplicity of the cello line now that I am getting my complexity fix on the piano every day. What I like about playing the piano, aside from its huge repertoire and the sonorous and tactile enjoyment of it, is that it is self-contained. A cellist depends on other musicians to be able to play almost anything, whereas a pianist is limited only by her own skill and initiative.