Vladimir Horowitz – A Genius Without Taste?

I had a number of different piano teachers throughout my life. Darryl Rosenberg, the great interpreter of John Cage and Morton Feldman, was one of those whose teaching and playing was truly inspiring. Unfortunately, that was the exception. Most teachers during my university years followed the doctrine of “We know EXACTLY today how <fill in composers name> has to be played!” There was one ‘right’ way, and only one, of playing Beethoven, or Bach, or Brahms. Anything not written down, any freedom from the score whatsoever, was to be mocked and punished.

I will never forget the day when we had Prof. Vassily Lobanov as our guest for one concert. I listened to his playing, completely blown away by his musicality and pianistic brilliance. After the concert I met my piano teacher, who exclaimed “I cannot believe that anyone could play that bad!!!” Needless to say that I was shocked by his statement – it would seem so unfair!

This incident made me remember other remarks I had heard from our esteemed teachers over and over again and hadn’t paid much attention to. About Arthur Rubinstein, whom I adore more than any other pianist: “He is one of the worst pianists ever, he never practiced and played too many wrong notes!” About Evgeny Kissin, also one of my favorites: “He can’t do anything than play fast!” About the wonderful Helene Grimaud: “She is totally crazy!” And about Vladimir Horowitz: “He was a genius without musical taste!”

For quite some time I assumed that those remarks were really just hidden jealousy. None of the people making those remarks had a career anywhere close to the musicians they were rambling about. Certainly that’s part of what it was, but there is more to it. A book, ‘Remembering Horowitz’ by David Dubal, opened my eyes to the root cause of the irritation I was seeing evidence of.

Perhaps a more obvious example of what is happening here can be observed when people claim that Michael Flatley cannot dance. This ridiculous statement usually comes from Irish dancers, and what it really means is: Lord Of The Dance is show dancing, not traditional Irish dancing. For many Irish dancers, the traditional way of dancing is the ONLY way of dancing. You are not supposed to move your arms or your upper body, allowed dance moves are well described and are the basis for all major Irish Dancing competitions. There is not a lot of room for artistic freedom. Lord Of The Dance would most likely not reach the second round in any major Irish Dancing competition.

Likewise, Horowitz, Rubinstein and others are examples of of way of piano playing that is simply no longer in line with the expectation of the majority of musicians. Horowitz lived in a time when this expectation began to shift. For the generation that came before Horowitz it was completely normal that the pianist was an interpreter, not just a narrator or executer. It was expected that the pianist would use the composition and add his very personal view and taste to the music, taking lots of freedom from the written score. Today, that has become unthinkable, at least in the field of ‘classical’ music.

The greatness of Horowitz, besides his brilliant technique, was his overwhelming musical personality. I certainly don’t agree with every single of his interpretations, but all of them are inspirited, nothing is done merely for show. Horowitz has my greatest respect, quite to the contrary to some of today’s heroes who stick to the written score and play lots of correct notes while forgetting to make music along the way.

By the way: a contemporary example can be witnessed tomorrow in Munich, a musician that I believe Horowitz would have deeply admired: Cameron Carpenter, who does with the organ what Horowitz did with the piano. If you want to get a feeling for what Horowitz meant for his time, go to one of Carpenter’s concerts, and you will understand.

Kind regards!


Ralf Gabriel


The Art and Science of Stage Presence

When I started playing concerts – at the age of 12 – I experienced something most performers know: being anxious before going on stage. As a pianist I was in a pretty easy situation though: you’re on stage with a really big instrument, and you’re mostly not looking directly at the audience, both of which makes it possible to just blend out the scary aspects and concentrate on what I love – playing music.

When I started performing as an Irish dancer, that tactics didn’t work anymore, mostly for two reasons: 1) Now you are directly facing the audience, and 2) body language now naturally is an essential part of your performance, whereas as a pianist your body is (or should be) the least important part of your performance. I was no longer 12 years old, and I started dancing with many years of stage experience, therefor I was not afraid of going on stage; I knew I was well rehearsed and prepared. But still, when looking at videos or pictures of myself dancing, something was wrong. I did all the right moves, but somehow I wasn’t performing.

Gyula Glaser, a wonderful Irish dancer and a brilliant dancing teacher whom I had the priviledge of working with, gave me a tip that he himself had used and that proved to work for me very well. He said: “Before you step up on the floor, any time, every time, in training as well as during a performance, you put on a pose that involves your whole body. You stand upright, shoulders back, head up high, big smile on your face. You hold this while you concentrate mentally. With some practice, this becomes your natural state of full concentration and maximum preparedness.” I tried this and I was totally amazed about how big the difference was when looking at newer videos: suddenly I was performing! Plus, I was more concentrated which improved my dancing technique.

A video by Amy Cuddy deals with this phenomenon from a scientific perspective and explains, interestingly enough, that the primary reason this works is not the enhanced concentration. It’s actually the pose itself! It’s that feeling of openness and strength that it ignites in us. Watch her as she explains this in a fascinating speech on TED channel:

As a stage performer, using a pose alone I believe would not work for me. Without linking pose and concentration, I first use the pose, and then just before I go on stage I concentrate which tends to destroy the pose – when we concentrate we tend to make ourselves small. Concentration for many people, me included, is the opposite of performing. Linking a pose to a mental pre-performance routine is important because it automates the entire process: whenever I concentrate, I automatically enter my performance pose, and vice versa.

Kind regards!


Ralf Gabriel

Cover Versions: Michael Jackson and Cirque du Soleil

In my last blog post I wrote about songs and artists that cannot be covered. Unfortunately I recently got one more proof point with the ‘Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour’ of Cirque du Soleil.

Visiting Cirque du Soleil has been on my wishlist for quite some time, ever since I had seen some really fascinating shows from them on TV. And Michael Jackson – I grew up with his music but only started to really understand his genius once I myself started dancing some years ago. So, Cirque du Soleil and Michael Jackon combined, that sounded just like the perfect show to go to, which I did some days ago.

Maybe my expectations were too high. I expected all the artistic and show elements that made Cirque du Soleil famous and special, the dream-like atmosphere, the light and sound, the story-telling. Some of this was certainly there, but the show really focuses on dance choreographies to a selection of Michael Jackson songs. And dancing, even more than singing, is an area where Michael Jackson was so far ahead of everyone else and so special that the bar is set extremely high.

I watched ‘This Is It’ a number of times and was fascinated by the dancing of the entire cast, but I believe this worked because Michael Jackson was there himself and so the crew had the direct inspiration and he had full control. Don’t get me wrong, the Cirque du Soleil dancers are very good dancers, but it’s just not close enough to the level of perfection of ‘This Is It’, and so to me the show was just ‘nice’ and not ‘great’.

I wonder if any of you went to this show, and would love to hear what your feedback is. Did you like it? What did you love most?

Kind regards!


Ralf Gabriel

Cover versions–Amelia Lily and Queen

There are some songs that cannot be covered. They are too great, too special, the original artists are so exceptional that any attempt to cover them is doomed to fail, which they regularly and frustratingly do. All of Supertramp falls into that category, also a lot of Sting. And most decidedly ‘The show must go on’ from Queen. This song is so intense, Freddie Mercury sings it with such passion and simplicity, and it is so closely linked with his personal destiny. When I see singers trying to cover that song I feel sorry for them because there’s simply no chance for success.

Or so I thought. What I found on YouTube the other day took my breath away. It is one of those rare gems that sometimes pop up in casting shows: Amelia Lily. Her first appearance on X Factor already had been pretty amazing. Her cover of ‘The show must go on’ in a later episode is sensational.

Not just due to her qualities as a singer – at just 17 years of age she is already better than the majority of pop stars we hear on the radio every day. Such a lovely voice, both strong and powerful as well as soft and flexible. Just listen to that word ‘score’ in the second line (“‘abandoned places, I guess we know the score”) where for a brief moment she produces a wonderful vibrato and an almost operatic voice!

What makes this cover version so great is the way she makes this song her own. When listening to her there’s no comparing her version to Queen, her voice to Freddie Mercury. It is truly her song, her story, her performance. It brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it. So, here you go:

If that emedded video won’t play, try this link instead: http://youtu.be/KzLmpAjaHiE


And for some newer material, try this wonderful song ‘Blue’: http://youtu.be/vbtTnmap0D4

With kind regards!

Ralf Gabriel

So how do I write music?

Since I started writing and publishing music, a lot of people have asked me this: “How do you write music? Where do you get your ideas from?” This is a very personal question, and you will get a different answer from every composer you ask. For me the answer has two parts: Creativity and Skills.

The creative part starts with finding the initial spark: a melody, a rythm, a specific sound quality, whatever it is. My inner world is full of music all the time, sometimes it’s entire Bruckner symphonies, sometimes its just fragments of something, and every once in a while it’s something new. I am actually not searching for these sparks, they are all around me and it’s a question of listening, of paying enough attention.

Many of these musical sparks don’t develop any further, but some of them stick – they won’t leave my inner world, they keep playing, keep changing, start developing, and I literally start falling in love with them.

From this point on skills are involved. I will write down these sparks and start working with them. This process is like getting to know someone you just met. You observe, listen, interact, you find out what this person is all about. Same thing here: I try to find the right instrument for the new melody, the right percussion set for this rythm. I start playing around with it, changing tempo, instrumentation, musical form. And I always must listen to what the musical material wants me to do.

I firmly believe that music is all around us, it has a soul, it has an existence of its own, and our job as composers and musicians it to connect the two worlds together. We are servants of this music. We do not own it, it is a gift that we are allowed to discover and share.


Ralf Gabriel