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#1375902 02/16/10 08:04 PM
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Reflecting on the past few weeks, about what I have consciously and unconsciously set out to do regarding pianism and the study of piano compositions, certain perceptions may be of value to others along a similar path.

The current phase of interest was spurred along by a chance meeting after a concert last summer at the Newport Music Festival. The pianist Agustin Anievas, had performed a heroic recital featuring the Schumann Fantasie Op 17, and the complete Chopin Etudes Op 10. Having met on a few previous similar occasions (I heard him for the first time play the Brahms' Handel Variations), I thanked Maestro Anievas for playing the Schumann, a piece I have always liked, despite, at that time, my rather cool reaction to much of Schumann. He reacted by intimating that we had certain friends in common in New York City (the proprietors of piano row along W. 58th) who had heard me play and he believed that I could learn the Fantasie. He said it took him nine months to learn it and that he could devote 90 more years to get out of it all that was there.

So I ordered the Henle edition of the music and began listening to as many recordings of the Fantasie as I could find. I knew that the first movement would be a killer, that the second was also very demanding and that of the three movements, the third was going to be the easiest, so I determined to start there.

The procedure I have made myself go through in order to learn a new piece has really paid off. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to have operations on my eyes to remove cataracts and really improve the efficiency of my vision, despite being limited to what can best be described as a kind of lower resolution. Not only do I no longer wear glasses, but my visual acuity for sight reading music has drastically improved. Now, this is not to say that I can sit down and just read off and play at full gallop anything put before me. I've known such as can do this in the city and elsewhere, so my abilities are far below these. Nevertheless, there is a process that I have following and thinking about the music I've chosen to pursue and what the end of it shall be, and it seems worth sharing.

The first rule is to devote scheduled sizeable chunks of undisturbed time to piano practice. I guess an hour a day is a good start. At this time, I play maybe two to three hours, but as you'll see, I have things in mind. If you cannot or will not devote the time to seriously pursue pianism it may actually fall from you, that is your interest may wane and your love grow cold. Because, make no mistake about it, for a dedicated pianist, even those few who are gifted and yet say they hate their gifts (Josef Hoffmann), their pursuit is about something that is among the greatest passions in human life, yes, even love. So in order to have the experience of this love, one must nurture it with dedicated time.

Secondly, one can flit about the repertoire, opening this or that volume and sight reading aimlessly, and a lot of people do this. But really you must settle on the task of learning a particular piece so that you could, as Anievas did, play the music as they say "from memory" or "by heart." To really know something "by heart" implies certain depth of musical knowledge and experience and I want to discuss several levels of that experience:

The determination to settle on a particular piece may be, as it was in this case, by direct recommendation, or it may be based on a particular pianist's interests or gifts. Regardless, once settled upon, then it is necessary to adjust oneself for the most effortless processing of the musical material. You may decide to try to learn Schumann's Op 17 or his Op 28 Romances. Both I have set as targets. To date, I have the last movement of Op 17 pretty much learned, and the famous F# major Romance Op 28 #2 down. I don't play either of them quite like others play them. What I'm going to try and do in the next stage, which I call "sculpting a piece" is to make them sound both more impressionistic and symphonic, taking advantage of Schumann's rather superb use of dynamics, to bring out all the melodies and counter-melodies, as if sound painting with piano tones.

I had to come to grips with Schumann. I didn't really know that much about him, so I had to do more research. I started listening to most of the piano music from Op 1 through Op 28. I sensed that Schumann was quirky and quixotic, didn't mind borrowing from Chopin and others, was sort of a bridge between Beethoven and Brahms.

In the process of making my decision to pursue certain pieces, all of Op 28 for example, I was forcing myself to listen to these pieces repeatedly whenever I was engaged in doing something else. I would usually do this even before I sat down and tried to play the music at the piano. I heard each of these pieces so often that I could reasonably play them back in my head.

I fought certain inclinations to regard some of the passages as ... unattractive or ... awkward. I would get over it, get used to it and learn from it. This is about the hardest lesson any amateur musician must learn; one has to learn things one initially may not like, care for, be frightened of trying to learn, etc. etc. We all have our hang ups. The reason this is important is that no matter how any piece is written, there is after all always the particular pianist and their own personal experiences of life, resonating with the music they are performing, on a particular piano, in a particular state of tune and before whomever is listening and the possibility existing of the individualistic yet universal performance of a particular work.

So after one has gotten over one's petty contempts, the next thing is to get properly seated at one's piano and with the music open begin to have a look at it. For those with less experience, who are not dashing sight readers clumsy of precision, etc., of particular concern when reading is NOT TO MAKE ANY MISTAKES. Don't stop aghast and tell me that's impossible. I know it is. But we are just starting. Go slow enough that you don't make any mistakes. Go back and start again, as many as a dozen times if necessary, so that you and your fingers get the notes exactly as they are to be played, if not yet at tempo, at least in correct arrangement. Now, you will probably be playing and sight reading the same phrase or page or piece slowly for a while, maybe eight to ten times easily.

Don't force yourself past your endurance. These pieces are hard, some are downright killers requiring you to do certain delicate things a certain way. It takes practice. What you're doing by the very careful method is like carving a statue out of a good piece of marble. You have the design in front of you. You are called upon to learn the design so that you can execute it through yourself and your instrument, and to do that in your own way from your own perceptions.

These days things like this seem tall orders. But they are really what makes life worthwhile. Why shouldn't they be taken seriously? And once one has made a commitment in time especially, but also to a chosen repertoire and begins the process, it should enliven the rest of your non-musical life.

So, from the very start, don't make mistakes, because once made, the body has this terrible memory problem to resolve. Since you didn't stop right away and play it right, you will have to unlearn the wrong way first, a big waste of time. Easier to tell this to an adult too than to a child, so it is just as likely for a person taking up the piano in their twenties (as did Paderewski) as for someone taking it up from the age of five, to become sufficiently good at piano playing to enjoy it and perhaps share some of that joy with others.

Then don't take a bigger bite off than you can. When you first start learning a piece you may only have been able to read correctly through a measure, a six bar phrase, half a page, before deciding you've had enough. That's fine, but you'll come back to it on your next scheduled hour, perhaps tomorrow.

You take up the balance of your allotted time by playing through pieces that are further along this very clear and slow process. Perhaps you are adding or restoring an old piece to your repertoire, something you used to play years ago. You run it through the same process. How long as it been since you forced yourself to read through that piece spotlessly? Doing it tells you right away how well you really knew the piece, how you probably played something wrong before and differently, etc.

The polishing stage is where you can get off sight reading and just play from memory. Some people have this phobia about looking at the keys while they play. Get over it. There are no hard rules that apply to performance that say that one must never look at the keys while playing. It's hard enough. If looking at the keys helps you then that's what you're going to do rather than look at the printed notes. Where particular leaps or breaks are required, you probably will have to look and make certain that you learn visually or otherwise where those landing notes are on the keyboard. It's part of it.

A current repertoire should be a program of maybe an hour's worth of music which you can play "by heart." Now face it folks, how much piano music is the uninitiated likely able to stand? An hour's worth should be sufficient. So I have decided to tackle the Schumann works mentioned. What else and to what object?

Well folks, I have something to prove, to myself and others, that involves developing a romantic repertoire. So who is connected with Schumann? Earlier I said he was sort of a bridge between Beethoven and Brahms. So I've chosen to add a piece by Beethoven, Andante favori WoO 57, which he originally submitted as the second movement of the Waldstein sonata. His publisher said it would make the work too long. But I sort of agree with Beethoven that the piece really does belong there and if one hears it without interruption one notes that the end of the Andante favori begins the present second movement of the sonata, which would thus become the third movement and the present finale, the fourth movement. So I almost have this one down too, after maybe a month's work. And I'm really saying that I didn't spend a lot of time on it, but rather time spent not making any mistakes, reading it as well as I can and getting my fingers to do exactly what was required. I also believe that adults can do this a lot better than most children.

So then, between the Beethoven and the Schumann, I'm inserting the Impromptu Op 90 #3 of Schubert, because there is sort of a connection between all of these composers through these works. They are all Andantes and the Schubert Impromptu (F#) is really in the same key as the Schumann Romance (G flat). By the way the three romances played without interruption also flow right into one another.

One of the outstanding hallmarks of the romantic tradition was removing clean breaks between movements in longer compositions. I'm planning on adding all the Op 28 romances to my repertoire for earlier public performance than the Op 17, which is going to take me longer to learn than it did for Maestro Anievas. I have already made sizable forays into the first and third romances. They each present many challenging problems, each to be solved carefully and with particular attention to learning the notes correctly, what they are, how it feels, how they fit into the sequence with the rest of the notes. Then later after I have read through the music at least a dozen times playing all the notes correctly, I can begin to get off the launching pad; play the music without the score.

The first few times one does this carefully, with the score open, and the very first time you are aware of a mistake, you must go back and do it again until you get it right. You still don't read the score as much as you may look at the keys while you play. You're going to do this at least a dozen times. All this repetition is going to make other members of your household ... a little disturbed, like "play something else" etc. You just have to do it until your goals are met.

Once you have gotten away from the score and really know how to play the piece without any mistakes, then you can refine your performance, the sculpting. Now it is tempting to want to rush ahead and sculpt before one has learned the model of all the required notes. In addition to the aforementioned pieces, I am doing some Chopin, some Mendelssohn, some Brahms and some Grieg. Some of the things in the Grieg for example are so evocative that one just wants to cast hazard to the winds and get into the polishing stage when one hasn't yet wrestled the gemstone free of its surroundings.

Now regarding the sort of raw geology of the romantic period, we have these collections of romantic pieces rather than books of preludes and fugues or books of keyboard sonatas. Among the four great romantic composers, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, all born within a year or two of each other, we have notable collections. One of these is the Songs Without Words or 48 pieces in 8 books by Felix Mendelssohn that summarize a good deal of his particular piano style. Another is at the other end, the 66 Lyric Pieces in 10 books by Edvard Grieg. I could have chosen to learn just a few scatted around each of these tremendous collections. Instead I have determined to concentrate on Mendelssohn's first set, Op 19 and Grieg's Op 54, many of which he orchestrated. In Grieg's case, there is an added marvel; the very first of his lyric pieces and the very last are directly connected, so it might even be appropriate to begin a Grieg set with the first one and end with the last one. I have yet to decide.

Of the Brahms, I'm probably just going to resurrect a scattering of Intermezzos from the various Op 116-119 range.

Any way I look at it, I'm certain to have at least an hour's worth of music to play before too long. Then what?

Well, they have a nice piano in a school here in town. That's a start. I'll make some recordings, probably do a few recitals. I usually like to do the same program for three consecutive days. Maybe I'd do it in three separate venues. Don't know yet.

I'm suggesting of course that many more people out there could be doing this with a performance in mind at the end of it. The performance is a time of sharing. You aren't up there trying to show off. You don't require anyone's personal approval. You don't particularly care whether the music you've chosen isn't to anyone's cup of tea. What you're doing is offering bread upon the water, food for thought, placing yourself in the position of being a vehicle, a servant of the music.

During the sculpting phase you were developing awareness of piano tone, of dynamics, or the strength and weight of each phrase, structure, gesture, episode, melody, harmony and rhythm. Form is still there through all these pieces. Mendelssohn's wonderful Op 19 #5 is a miniature sonata allegro form. But these pieces involve moods too, yours as well as your audience's.

I intend on making many successive passes through the romantic literature. The ideas connected with the concept of "romantic" are directly related to story telling and song singing (sing songing too maybe) that are involved with an escape from the present workaday realities into a make believe fictional world. I find it incredibly interesting that people the world over are so willing to use references to thoughts and feelings associated with completely fictitious renditions of reality, especially when making some of the most important decisions of their lives, such as whom they will marry, have children with, etc. Romantic love is after all the stuff of heroic adventures and tall tales. The music that goes with it is projecting images of realms that are make believe. What then, one may ask, were the sonatas of Scarlatti about, or the preludes and fugues of Bach, that necessarily makes them so much more realistic? What were those pieces about if not just some other verity that may not be emphatically real either?

Before romantic love: was it better when people were forced into arranged marriages? Even for a man with my limited vision, it may not have been for me. But my reasons may not have been whether the person inspired me to heroic ardor or impossible feats, but for those as simple as "she just doesn't turn me on." But most people didn't bother to question what they were forced to do. Romantic love was a luxury.

It is partly that romantic piano literature offers us these rare moods, allows us to more fully appreciate piano tone, convey those things to others. But it is also likely that in the process of getting to know more of this vast repertoire, I will be getting to know myself better, be able to tell others my unique story through these pieces which maybe they have heard played before by someone else, who had their own story to tell.

It is then like that; to choose the pieces, to work an them to make them your own, to play them "by heart" to yourself and to others. Then to renew the process and do it again and again on a regular basis. What if dozens, nay hundreds of amateur pianists did this?

In closing, and as a nod to all my friends on piano row in New York City and others who have gained my respect as worthy professionals in the very thin piano business, ... there are some pieces which I might like to try, which may be just a little more difficult than what I play now, which will just have to wait until I can get myself a better piano. I'm saying that this is a pretty universal condition. Those of us who start may take up the piano again as adults after many years away from it as we were given lessons as children, will soon discover that there is a frustrating difference between what we want to hear and produce and what we can with our present instrument. Very few of us out there can afford a Bosendorfer or Steinway. But very often for the purposes described here, a Yamaha, Baldwin or something else, that's durable with good piano tone, will do. The better one's piano, the better one's choice of music becomes. Without question then, there will be some pieces which I just wouldn't bother trying to learn without having a better piano. So that too should be the goal of a dedicated pianist.

More later ...

Am currently reviewing a selection of Recital 17 and am greatly encouraged by what I am hearing. I shouldn't be surprised to hear a lot of electronic or sampled pianos used. But again I reiterate, there is nothing like a real piano, and although all of us may aspire to acquire a great grand piano, there are quite a number of respectable uprights that can still teach us the music we need to know along our pianistic journey.


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Don't know about your piano playing, but you're one helluva writer. That gem stone image is superb.

I admire and respect your passionate commitment.Puts me to shame. I grab a piece of music and do my best to play it, end of story.

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Really enjoyed reading that. I played the violin for years and envied the music written for the piano during the romantic period, especially the composers who wrote more or less strictly for the piano such as Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov. Hence now, it is truly fulfilling to be playing some of Chopin's works.

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I am also very impressed with your methodology, you clearly have the discipline necessary to tackle major works.

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David,

Thankyou for sharing such a heartfelt view with us. You have reminded me that even for the best pianists, it takes time and practice....

With that in mind, I am off to do some more practice

M


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David :

We have not seen you here in a long time, except for a very few random posts. I well remember, in earlier years, how much of a regular, positive, thoughtful contributor you were to PW threads.

While I have not yet digested all of this particular post, I am not sure whether this is "advice" that you are sharing with others at any level of study or whether it is, rather, a document written primarily for your own benefit as you bring together your thoughts on your current method of practice.

I certainly think that some beginning to moderate level pianists might mistake your counsel and feel, no matter how difficult a piece may be, technically, that with your "method" of approach they could tackle almost anything in the repertoire with time and perseverance. While, on the other hand, those with some experience and study under their belt would surely see the wisdom of slow, methodical practice, slow enough to make no mistakes, I think that such an approach in the beginning stages of study might well be discouraging if not counter-productive to some students - those students who have not yet fully developed their piano work ethic.

That said, it's good to see you here again, David.

Regards,


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2010-02-17

Yes Bruce, as for "a document written primarily for your own benefit as you bring together your thoughts on your current method of practice" it had to have been one to begin with, but why not share it with others anyway?

As for "While, on the other hand, those with some experience and study under their belt would surely see the wisdom of slow, methodical practice, slow enough to make no mistakes, I think that such an approach in the beginning stages of study might well be discouraging if not counter-productive to some students - those students who have not yet fully developed their piano work ethic." You've said a mouthful.

So let's begin by suggesting that most people, in this instance especially those with any interest in learning to play the piano, have usually got a rather complicated view of the concept of "work;" work of any kind. In fact, if you'll look around, you will notice that the strongest social currents incline most not to want to work, even while they are working. The two strong currents these days are to "play" and to "spend." Somehow work gets the bum's rap and a needlessly negative view of good old fashioned honest work, and the joy and pleasure, and wisdom work can impart, is therefore lost. What you don't spend time doing, that you would really love to be doing, is also time lost.

As for the piano students I would want (I can't really speak for any other piano teachers out there), even as children, they are those who have demonstrated their interest in playing the piano by being able to improvise something on it (because to do this involves learning how to make combinations of notes sound whether one has written notes to watch and play or not), to have the hunger to know it (specifically classical music), who have perhaps heard a wide range of piano music and would like to play what they have heard, etc. It has never been my approach to scold anyone for making a mistake, but rather to draw their attention to the fact that they have made one and gently and patiently, to have the student repeat the right notes, often as many as a dozen times, until their bodies have learned the physical pattern. An aura of gentleness, rather than one of combativeness is also required, to counter the reactions some people have to making mistakes at the piano. As we all know, we will make mistakes. We'll usually know precisely what caused them and can confront ourselves with the silliness or the lack of adequate work involved and hope that we avoid further problems. But it will always be something.

The goal beyond all of this is to be able to become the vehicle through which a piece of music, known "by heart," can be presented to others, a polished performance, something that gives back to the performer as well, since as is fairly well known, many of the pieces mentioned here are capable of transporting not only the audiences, but the artist too, when properly performed.

Thanks for your comments.


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