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A special lesson with Maestro Jens Nygaard

I had the great fortune to work with Maestro Jens Nygaard for several years. I've never met a musician that made a stronger impression on me. I had one or two more conventional private horn-lessons with him, and while they were tremendously informative and inspiring, the moment that will stay with me forever is when I observed him practicing before a perfomance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".

Jens Nygaard had been a child prodigy, trained at Juilliard to become a concert pianist. Around the turn of the milennium, however, when he scheduled himself to solo with his own orchestra, the Jupiter Symphony, in the famous showcase by Gershwin, he had not appeared regularly in public at the keyboard for decades – his conducting and teaching was occupying all his time.

Several mornings I arrived early for rehearsal and got to observe his routine at the piano: At first he would let his hands fall – seemingly at random – on the keyboard in 10-note chords. The sounds were mesmorizing, yet I could recognize no patterns or method, and the process went on for a long time – maybe 20 minutes or more. After this exercise, he started playing scales. Both hands were used, but one hand would play sixteenths while the other played triplets and then switch. He started at the third or at the tenth, depending on which hand got which subdivision (playing triplets for 3 octaves and sixteenths for 4, then return down). The tempo was slow but flowing and the evenness of both tempo and dynamics was astonishing. After going through all twelve scales, I expected him to be satisfied and move on to something else, but he would simply continue and I could sense the deep satisfaction he himself got from this exercise.

I don't remember if I asked him about his practice or if he offered his explanations unsolicited. It doesn't really matter – I always found him most generous in sharing his insights. He told me that putting his hands in comfortable, varying positions and "liberating the vibrations" from the instrument had to be the first step. (I can not guarantee that "liberating the vibrations" were his exact words – perhaps this is my interpretation of his words.) The physicality and tactile sensations were primary – I don't know that he was listening to himself in an active way, just "feeling" the keys. The incredibly ringing sounds that resulted were a by-product. As far as the scales go, he called the state that he entered his "Buddhist Funk". He was getting the "kinks out of it" and making his movements – even the most minute movements – as efficient and "well-oiled" as possible. And there you have it; practice as meditation, healing, religion.

As for the performance: It was stupendous! This piece is so often a glitzy, virtuosic showpiece – all shiny surfaces and impressive fingers. Jens' performance was a deep, spiritual message with sounds that I have never heard coming out of any piano before or after.


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