"Tones have their own language"
The pianist and university teacher Yuka Schneider on the piano's manifold timbres.
In 2020, the Association of German Music Schools (VdM) published statistics showing the most popular musical instruments played by children and young people. With over 160,000 students, the piano is clearly ahead of the guitar with 30,000 keyboard enthusiasts. At Bergische Universität, Yuka Schneider, a pianist by training, has been teaching the enormous range of this instrument, which was not always as we know it today, since 2011.
From 54 to 88
88 keys comprise a full keyboard, but it wasn't always that way. "In the beginning, when the piano was developed, in 1701 or so, there were 54 keys," Schneider recounts. "Then, over time, that was expanded to first 61 and then 73 keys." Various composers also made requests and composed their works accordingly, she reports, so that since 1890 there have now been a constant 88 keys. "88 keys is seven and a half octaves. That's the maximum that people can perceive as intervals, both in depth and in height," Schneider knows. You can still hear slightly higher tones, but they are perceived as a beep.
Practicing is a standard task for musicians
Yuka Schneider studied at the Staatliche Musikhochschule in Cologne, Wuppertal. "Back then, of course, you had to practice a lot - that's part of studying," laughs the native Japanese, who sometimes played for ten hours during her intensive study phase. Painful fingers were never a problem, she explains, but at some point the head just wouldn't take it anymore. "The best I could do was practice for two hours in the morning, then, after a break, another two hours, and the last two hours in the evening. The most important thing was always the two hours in the morning, because that's when you're really fresh. It's not only the athletic aspect, when you play many notes in quick succession, but above all the mental performance, you're constantly thinking. You can't keep that up for several hours in a row." Today, she takes a more relaxed view of it all, saying, "I'm in my professional life, I have a family, and there's just not as much time as there was when I was a student. Today I also use the time between my classes, so if I have 15 minutes of breathing space, then of course I practice. I've also learned over time that you don't always have to practice for two hours completely, because that's a luxury at some point. Even short periods of practice can be very effective."
Japan and classical, European music
Schneider already grew up with European music in her native Japan. "It was nothing special. I belong to a baby boom cohort, and there it was normal for every child to learn an instrument. Therefore, piano, violin or something was never exotic." On the contrary, he says, because Japanese instruments can't be used to represent everything. "They have very specific sounds and scales. You can't cover everything with them. Children's songs, for example, are difficult and it would be very tedious to rewrite everything for these instruments," she explains. With European instruments, she says, you can perform songs, pop songs, etc. more quickly. "I myself don't know Japanese instruments at all, they have a different notation, so you need completely different notation and different sequences of notes that you have to learn extra." In the 20th century, it could be seen that the European achievement of classical music was strongly received in Asia. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and even Wagner are enthusiastically celebrated by Asian audiences today. But where does this enthusiasm come from? Schneider explains it on the basis of the country's 200-year isolation. The Edo period played a major role in this. Between 1603 and 1868, Japan was ruled by the so-called Tokugawa shoguns. For almost 250 years there was the longest peace in Japan, but there were no outside influences. Christianity, which had already brought church music with it through missionaries, was banned. "When the country finally opened up again, everything came at once, so to speak," Schneider relates, "including music. People were really hungry for new influences because everything was forbidden. They absorbed everything and accepted it immediately, because when you've lived in this closed environment for such a long time and weren't allowed to get to know anything, you don't necessarily have a critical attitude toward new things. And that's how the European music of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc. became established very quickly."
Chamber music - communicating musically with each other
At the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Mannheim, Schneider completed further postgraduate studies in piano chamber music and lied composition and took part in many master classes. Chamber music fascinated her the most.
"Chamber music for me is an experience of communicating with each other, a conversation," she says, and that begins in the rehearsal phase and ends in the performance. "As a pianist, you're always spoiled for choice. There are so many pieces for solo, you could also make music well on your own. We don't have a problem with a repertoire, but I realized at some point that my strength is to express myself better when I play with others." The interpretation of the pieces always depends on the respective partners, and the phase of life a musician is in is also a crucial factor in the realization, he said. "In chamber music, the partners complement each other, and I love that. There are rehearsals where they discuss an insane amount, and that's nice, too. It's a pleasure to get going with your fellow players and complement each other, you play freely and interpret, you respond to each other's playing."
Interpretations reflect colors and feelings
"What's fascinating to me is that a song, in its brevity, can express so many colors and feelings," Schneider says, pointing to the extensive possibilities for interpretation. Songs themselves are a bit more difficult to interpret, he says, because you have both music and lyrics. "Lyrics are not as clear there as sounds. There are classic lyrics that don't clearly show whether a woman or a man is saying the words. Also, you can't necessarily understand irony or sarcasm in lyrics right away," Schneider says, explaining the dilemma. "Sounds, on the other hand, have their own language. That's where the possibilities for variation come into play." Music is always evolving, she says, and almost all the pieces Schneider has played in her life have sounded different. "That's where age also plays a role," she explains, "when you're in your early 20s, you have so much energy. When you get older, you feel different and the energy is different then, too. My old notes that I used in college all have annotations from me. And when I look in there today, I understand what I meant then, but I think about it differently now."
Schneider's wish for students: Bring flexibility
She has taught piano at Bergische University since 2011. Her students are not trained as pianists, but work as future music teachers* at schools. "There are students who study with a narrow view because they only like classical or only pop. That's fine and they can also implement their priorities later, but they have the opportunities at university to get to know everything first." That's why, first and foremost, the musician wants an open and flexible attitude toward the subject. "I always try to offer a range from Baroque to today, and I always want the students to be willing to want to get to know it all. If the openness is there, you can learn." She is critical of online offerings, which have also increased in music in recent years, because you also have to deal with the historical sheet music. "Especially in classical music, there are so many interesting compositions and that doesn't only work through the ear, you also have to get to the written compositions. These basics are important when you work in school later on," she emphasizes.
Duo and quintet
In addition to her teaching activities, Schneider also plays in two formations. With concert singer Nelly Palmer, she has already presented several programs in which they combine well-known classical compositions and unfamiliar works, which they present under such inspiring themes as dream journey or water. In the corona time the possibility arose to play in a newly founded quintet. Under the name 'klanghoch4' the pianist forms with a bassist, a soprano, an alto and a tenor. They already presented a first foretaste last summer in an open-air event with love song waltzes by Johannes Brahms.
Brahms always and Beethoven more and more
When asked about a favorite repertoire, Schneider can think of many composers and different reasons. "What I've always loved as a musician is Brahms," she says spontaneously. "As far as playing the piano, I really enjoy playing Mozart; it's easier to teach that one, too. With Brahms, I'm still struggling with how best to get the full, beautiful sound across. That's still a lot of work when playing, getting to grips with this composer. Turn-of-the-century music is also very fascinating and easy to convey. You can tell the composers want to set out, but don't know exactly where yet." In general, she is partial to all kinds of music, but admits that techno and any kind of pop music don't appeal to her personally. Another classical composer, on the other hand, has become increasingly important to the professional musician in recent years. "The older I get, the more brilliant I find Beethoven. He is undoubtedly an important composer for classical music even in my studies, not to say he is one of the most important. He also draws on the development of instruments. In his 32 sonatas, for example, you can see and hear how the instrument has evolved over time. It's quite incredible that someone who also had such a difficult life created such enormous profound music. That fascinates me more and more. I can't even name a specific piece, but Beethoven is getting stronger and stronger."
Highlight was a Fazioli
Schneider has been exposed to many venues and instruments over the years during various engagements. They don't always fit together. If the room is too small, a concert grand often seems out of proportion, and playing the other way around isn't necessarily fun either. "But at some point I resolved not to judge a concert by the quality of the instrument, because that is our fate as artists. We have to cope with the instruments on the spot and make the best of them. Even in these cases, we have to create an interesting concert," she says determinedly.
Nevertheless, one particular concert in Weimar remains in her fondest memory. "Once I played a Fazioli (Italian concert grand) and that was really a treat," she enthuses in closing, "you could just play, it was like butter. That was a moment where I was totally gobsmacked. High register or low register, it was brilliant, never sharp, never too loud, never too soft, I could do everything pianissimo and it worked. That was a privilege."
Yuka Schneider has been teaching piano at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal as a full-time, artistic teacher since the summer semester of 2011.