We are incredibly fortunate at Millers to be put in contact with some truly amazing musical personas and personalities. Many have come by our showroom to indulge in all things piano and to share ideas and new approaches to music. One such example of this recently was the wonderful Nils Franke, a German-born pianist with a specialism in performance and performance pedagogy, Nils has a highly extensive career and has helped edit and publish over twenty publications for Schott Music International and Wiener Urtext in the last Decade.
We sat down with Nils to discuss his works, with a particular focus on the likes of his Urtext publications, who they are perfectly suited for and how you can use them to help further your own piano playing and musical understandings.
Nils father was a broadcaster and musical journalist with a specialism in the classical genre and in particular, that of lesser known composers. Nils explains how his father adopted a fascinating approach to classical music discovery:
“He had this wonderful equation that most of the major composers only write 5% poor music and 95% masterpieces, minor composers on the other hand, typically write 5% masterpieces and 95% of their material is typically lost or forgotten. It is that 5% that I am interested in looking for.”
It is clear that Nils has continued this thought process into his own career and in particular, his own fascination lies within the pieces by the likes of Beethoven, Liszt and more that are generally regarded as either unfinished, scribbles or simple doodles.
“I started to track many composers' early works and what I call their ‘binned collections’. These are essentially outtakes or short pieces that were never prepared for publication. Often they are just scribbled in a diary or piece of paper, but some of them are really revealing about the composer's actual intentions and their writing style.”
Nils continues to explain how it is these miniature and shorthand pieces that allow us to dig further into the composers lives and how students who are around the grade 3-6 level can use them as fantastic learning tools today. Even going as far to say how they allow for an almost improvisational approach to classical music, which many often see as a more restrictive genre of piano playing.
“I thought it would be a good idea to present pieces that are really aimed at the learning stages as opposed to full blown compositions that students find more difficult.
For example, I recently did a first recording of a Beethoven piece and that had only been discovered the month before amongst his notebooks. It was just a little 16 bar phrase, but it had no dynamics, no articulation, nothing but the notes. I find that incredibly interesting for students because classical music can often be incredibly restrictive and often just tells us to play things in a very particular way. For example ‘Play an accent here or play this as a legato or staccato.’ there is very little other thought that goes into the piece.
I like the fact that there are no overbearing performance indicators and it is probably the closest you get in classical music to being able to improvise freely like you do in pop and jazz.”
The approach Nils takes in his Urtext publications follows this idea of musical creativity extensively and for the most part, they are primarily designed to allow the student (and hopefully the teacher) to have open ended conversations about musical interpretations to deeper understand the composer. Nils explains how one such unfinished piece by Liszt has been left intentionally unfinished and the Urtext essentially leaves the final few bars open to interpretation for the student, allowing them to either finish the piece themselves using Liszt's writing style, or even forming their own ending.
In a short sentence, Nils sums up the approach: “The message is simply: Go ahead and play.” We think there’s something quite poetic about that.
How Can Urtexts Benefit Your Piano Playing?
Urtext publications are in their purest form, the earliest form of a text as established by linguistic scholars as a basis for variants in later texts still in existence. This allows students to study the pieces in their ‘truest sense’, or as the composer meant them, offering further insight into the minds of virtuosos and musical masters. Nils however has adopted a particularly unique approach and many of his publications instead revolve around a theme, such as contemporary composers, classical or romantic.
Each publication then focuses on 3 key composers and is aimed around the grade 3-6 levels, with indications of what ability and standard of play they may be suitable for. Nils is particularly conscious of not sticking only to the mainstream or better known pieces and is keen to always include at least one ‘odd one out’ of the featured composers.
“I like rummaging through composers to see who is not just the mainstream repertoire, I think it gives the students more opportunity to express and explore the genre without just sticking to the well known material.
The quality indicator for me has always been, when a student leaves a lesson or room, or practice session, can they now do something they couldn’t do before? Or have they learned something new? no matter how big or small, if the answer is yes, it’s a success.”
Plans For The Future:
Of course, the wide world of music is ever changing and Nils’s work is also ever developing, in particular he notes that his current work is a paper that focuses on the intricacies of Beethoven’s life, but as a teacher and his approach to teaching his students.
“He was chaotic, very inspirational and had never learned the art of teaching as we learn it today. In his time it was the art of doing.
For example in Beethoven’s case, it has turned out that he was rather unreliable at showing up and he didn’t really teach in a traditional sense, but he taught expression over all else. My findings have shown that he wasn’t as interested in your fingering, or the detail of the piece, but he was very much a big picture teacher and was more focused on the overall impact of the piece so in that respect, he taught the way he played.
He was never bothered by duff notes and making a mess of things, but it was always about the expression.”
We are incredibly excited to see Nils’ work when it is published next, for example he is also working on a publication and paper that outlines the sensational work across three centuries of female composers. We would highly recommend exploring the ranges for yourself to lose yourself in a new approach to music. Interested in learning more about Nils work or his publications? Explore his website here:
Looking for more musical horizons to tread, explore our blog for more tips and tricks to enhance your playing, or our sheet music selection both online and in our Cambridge showroom.