Wednesday, February 27, 2019

New (to me) Fingerings in Chopin

I feel like an old dog who is having to learn a paw-ful of new tricks.

After playing this Chopin piece on and off over the past 15 or so years, I'm realizing that some of my fingerings just don't work. Well, I realized it long ago, but I'm accepting it now. And I'm starting the long road of changing the fingerings that have been imprinted on my brain all this time.

First, we have the octave-jump that appears a couple of times on the first page, and a couple of times at the end (sorry, I don't have measure numbers at hand):

Do you see that "1 5" there? Basically, I use my 5 finger for the lower F, use 1 an octave up, and then do a quick switch from 1 to 5 while keeping the F pressed down.

I can do this quite well at a slow tempo. When I speed up, however, I let up on the higher F just a bit, and I end up playing two short F's in succession--one with the 5, and one with the 1.

It's always been like this. It's always been a toss-up as to whether I'll play it correctly, or not.

So I decided that the fingering needs to change. I have two options:

  • 5 on the lower F, then 1 on the higher F, and then cross over the 3 to get to the B-flat
  • 5 on the lower F, then 5 on the higher F
Here's option 1:

The downside here is that it's slightly awkward for my 3 to reach over after stretching from 5 to 1.

Here's option 2: 

The downside of the second option is that the second F's volume will be harder to control because I'm jumping up with the 5. But I've decided (for now) that that's my preferred approach. That way I can hold the higher F down as a half-note. (Though it probably doesn't matter, since I'm using the pedal. And it's hard to tell anyway why Chopin put a half note there, because it doesn't completely make sense.)

Fingering change number 2 is in the sotto voce section, where the octaves are playing the melody:

Do you see how the high notes of the octaves alternate between 4 and 5? Well, I've been playing all of the octaves with my 1 and 5 fingers, jumping around. It hasn't sounded bad because the pedal makes up for the fact that they're not totally legato, but still ... I've realized that I will have more control over the tone and phrasing if I use 4 instead of 5 in some places.

This has been a big change. I have to focus so hard on the new fingering that my left hand loses its place. I may end up going back to the 1 and 5 approach for every octave, since it sounds fine that way ... but I want to try this.

It is so strange, after playing this piece all these years, that I am still developing such simple things as fingerings. I'm working on a few other, "higher-level" things as well, of course. I am so close to having this one "performance-ready." Though I will probably always find something new in this piece to work on!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Not a Great Week for Practicing

We all have them--those weeks where you just can't seem to get to the piano to practice much more than the major/minor scales and arps. This week has been one of those weeks. I'd looked forward to practicing on Friday evening after work (which is my usual pattern), but something else came up--I can't remember what it was, but I remember calling my husband to see when he would be home, and complaining that I hadn't had a single chance to practice.

And then Saturday was just busy, busy, busy. On Sunday, I had my first volunteer piano "gig" at a local assisted-living facility where I'll be playing every couple of weeks. I hadn't practiced in three days, and it felt like it had been three weeks. Still, it went pretty well, and everyone seemed to enjoy the music. It's a high-end facility and I was half-expecting a grand piano, or at least a nice upright, but it was a Yahama keyboard with non-weighted keys. So that took some adjustment. I've gotten spoiled with my Henry.

I did get to work on Chopin last night. My piano teacher said that we really shouldn't start the Beethoven sonata (I think I want to do Op. 2, No. 1 now!) until I "finish" something else, so I've devoted myself to the home stretch of the Chopin. I have a piano lesson today, and I'm hoping we can spent the brunt of it on Chopin. I am ready to get that one in the books.

Of course, there's the issue of memorizing it, and then of playing it for the recital in April ... but I think I'll be okay there. I've memorized it before, so I don't think it will be a stretch to get it back into the old noggin again. In fact, I won't be surprised if it's still there.

Time to get to work--day-job work, that is. I'm going to go for a run at noon, but I'll try to grab a few minutes after that for some scales.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

I (Stevie) Wonder Why I Dance When I Play

It's time for me to address something I've never addressed. It's something I've thought about, but never too seriously. But I think I'm at a point where I need to think about it.

I dance with I play. Call it channeling Stevie Wonder, but I sway and rock and move. Even worst, my body contorts a little bit, sometimes in ways that aren't all that attractive. When I see other classical pianists play this way, I find it distracting, and it sends out a (however unconscious) message that the performance is about the performer's emotional state, rather than about the music itself.

It's an unconscious thing with me. I only know that I do it because I've been told, sometimes in painfully polite terms. Once, after playing my Bach C#-major prelude and fugue for a class, one of the visiting professors asked, "Do you suffer from back pain?" He went on to say that I looked uncomfortable when I played.

No, I'd actually been extremely comfortable and very much "into" what I'd been playing. But my body contorts and I'm not sure what to do about it, other than force myself to think about staying still.

I do the same thing when I sing. My voice teacher has called attention to this fact, explaining that all of this upper-body swaying is not helping my voice because it is keeping me constantly off-balance.

My response: "Was I swaying?"

I do it when I write, too. When I'm really into writing, I start rocking and swaying. I guess maybe it's the whole creativity-as-religious-experience thing, and yes, it's great that I feel art with such intensity that it courses through my entire body, but ...

It's got to stop. Or at least I need to learn to control the outward expression of it.

I want it to stop. Not only do I not want my body to distract an audience from the music, but the swaying is hurting my piano-playing as well. As with the balance-thing in voice, it's hard to play with consistent weight on the keys when you're constantly moving.

This may require me to make some videos of myself playing (which I will not share here!). Because I don't realize what I'm doing, I'm not sure how to stop. I think I may try to channel Horowitz, who remains to still that sometimes his hands don't even seem to be moving. But I think will be the best first step to learning to control the unconscious movement.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Listening to Schubert

It's been a while since I've listened to someone else besides myself playing the Schubert Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 2, so I watched/listened to a few YouTube videos this morning. I just wanted to remind myself of what this piece is supposed to sound like--the tempo, the phrasing, and particularly the ben marcato section. I'm never quite sure how much emphasis I should give to the triplets in the middle of each measure. Here are a some examples:

So I watched, and listened. I won't share the videos here, but there are some interpretations--the ones that are more rubato, the ones that are played too fast or too loud throughout--that I'm not crazy about. Others--particularly the Horowitz--are the gold standard. Of course Horowitz is the gold standard. And his triplet sections sound ... simultaneously tossed-off and glittering, rumbling and sparkling. And they each sound a little different from the others; there is no single "sound," but a variety of them, sort of like light shimmering on a lake creates no single image of "light," but a million different ones that result in the single picture.

Sounding like Horowitz. And sunlight shimmering on a lake. That's what this middle-aged mom sets her sights on.

Yes, just a middle-aged mom and an amateur pianist who has practiced seriously for just a handful of years (four years in college, a few years in my 20s, ages 34 through 37, and then now). But I feel like the world of piano is opening up to me again. I've worked hard in these four or five months that I've been taking piano lessons again. I have my contrary-motion major scales up to 80, my contrary-motion minors up to 72, and the arpeggios ... heck, I can play the arpeggios at any speed I want and they just sort of happen under my fingers.

And the pieces that I've been picking up--the Chopin, the Bach, and the Schubert--they're sounding quite good. None of them at speed yet, but I will get there. More importantly, the scales in the prelude are even and motoric, and the lines of the fugue are clear and distinct. The nocturne is sounding as good as it ever did--better, I think. And the Schubert--oh, the Schubert! How I love playing the Schubert! The notes are there, and now I'm experimenting with the dynamics, all while increasing the speed by a single  metronome notch each practice session.

I'm in the middle of the journey, and the destination is still a good long ways away. But I can't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Schubert Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 2 - In-progress recording

Just thought I'd share this (sadly out-of-tune) recording of the Schubert Impromptu. I don't have it to the goal tempo there, and I won't for a while, as I'm working my way up very slowly. This recording has a few mess-ups, but not too many. My favorite part is that last 30 or so seconds.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Exciting News!

Yesterday, Carol (my piano teacher) suggested that I begin learning a Beethoven sonata.


Twist my arm, Carol! I'd wanted to bring the same thing up to her, but I didn't want to be presumptuous. Beethoven sonatas are hard. Even the easy ones are hard.

When I was in college, I played the first and second movements of Op. 10, No. 1 in C minor. The plan was to master the third movement (all three, actually) my senior year and play it, along with a few other pieces, for my senior recital. Alas, I had some health issues that year and ended up having to withdraw from my first-semester classes, and then I missed about three weeks of second semester, plus May Term. In the end, I barely had enough hours to graduate on time, much less play a planned senior recital of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and more.

That was a bit of a digression, but it's all to say that I do have some experience, however miniscule, in the world of Beethoven sonatas.

So now the question is: Which sonata should I learn?

I asked Carol if there was one she would recommend for me, and she pretty much said, "Nope. Just pick one that you love."

Ah! The choices!

These are the ones that I love and think would be do-able, considering my current skills:

  • Op. 2, No. 1 in F minor
  • Op. 10, No 1 in C minor (the one I started all those years ago)
  • Op. 13 in C minor ("Pathétique")
  • Op. 14, No. 2 in G major
Which one should I choose? Here are my thoughts:

Op. 2, No. 1
This was Beethoven's first published sonata. It is, in some ways, a tribute to Mozart, with "quotations" of a sort that hearken to some of Mozart's melodies. At the same time, it has Beethoven's emotional intensity. It's also one of the less-difficult sonatas and could be a good one for me.

Op. 10, No. 1
I loved this sonata when I was learning it, and I still love it. It's tempestuous, it's beautiful, it's challenging, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to play. As with some of the other pieces I'm working on, I have a desire to go back and finish what I started all those years ago. At the same time, I'd like to start something entirely new.

Op. 13 ("Pathétique")
Oh. This one. Pathétique is, hands-down, my favorite of all the Beethoven sonatas. It's also his most popular, so I wondering if I'm being a little cliché in wanting to learn it. Not that I care ... but the thought did cross my mind. This one is the most difficult of the candidates on my list, and, to be honest, I'm downright intimidated by it. This one is on my "Piano Bucket List," and I know I want to work on it someday. Is now the time?

Op. 14 No. 2
This sonata is another of the less-difficult ones, and I'm certain it would be fun. I only know it from listening to it, but there is a great deal of humor in it--not something we typically associate with Beethoven, but there it is. I think this one would be loads of fun to perform.

Who am I kidding? Any one of these treasures would be loads of fun to perform. So which one should I work on? It's a happy decision I'll have to make. At the moment I'm leaning toward Pathétique, with Op. 2, No. 1 and Op. 14, No. 2 neck-and-neck for second and third place, and Op. 10, No. 1 right behind them.

So I guess my decision is: Do I learn an easier sonata as a kind of preparation for Pathétique? Or do I dive right into Pathétique, knowing that my technical and expressive abilities will shoot into the stratosphere as a result of my working on it--even if it takes me a few years to learn it?

I'd really like to play Pathétique. (Is it "Pathétique"? "The Pathétique?") It's on the Bucket List, right there with Liszt's "Liebesträume" and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. I already know the second movement, and the third movement isn't so difficult (I hear). It's really the first one that is most challenging.

And you know, there's no guarantee that I'll be alive even a week from now ... so I think I'm going to go with the Bucket List item. The Pathétique sonata. YOLO, and all that. Stay tuned ... I'll also probably change my mind. At least once.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Lesson Report - Arps and Bach!

Yesterday was my piano lesson. I played through the arpeggios--all of 'em!--to warm up. After that, we moved on to Bach, starting with the Prelude.

I've been working on this thing for months, and I've had the notes down for some time now. It sounds pretty good to the untrained ear, and now I'm really in the fine-tuning phase, working to have everything perfectly balanced. The scales are sounding good, and those left-hand trouble spots are not causing nearly the trouble they did before. Oddly enough, my biggest problem now is the thirty-second notes in those first few measures.

My left hand eighth notes are light and graceful, but my right hand thirty-second notes are uneven--not so much rhythmically as ... tonally? The second note will be too loud, or the third will be too soft, or ... they just sound punchy rather than smooth.

One thing Carol said was to imaging this piece is being played by a single hand, and think of a single line of sound rather than "the left hand is playing this part" and "the right hand is playing that part." So I'm going to do some visualization of that at my next practice.

After spending some time on the prelude, we moved on to the fugue, which I'm playing at about ♪=63. And guess what! It sounds great! Carol was visibly happy with how I'd played it. I've put a lot of effort into making the eighth notes detached and the sixteenth notes not detached, and the effort is paying off!

We didn't get to Schubert or Chopin because there was no time. I'm going to spend more time on those two this week so we can focus on them next time around.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Slowly and Diligently, and Bach

Once again, my failure to blog does not translate into a failure to practice. While I still have days where I don't play a single note, those days are few. Most days I'm managing to spend an hour or so at old Henry. On Sunday, I spent three. After that three-hour session, I decided that three hours of practice per day would be just about right.

Alas, I cannot beam myself back to 1989 or 2004, when I actually had that kind of time.

So I practice when I can.

I can now play all of my pieces—the prelude and fugue, the nocturne, and the impromptu—perfectly (at least when it comes to striking the right notes) ... at about half the tempo they're supposed to be.

For the next few weeks, it will be a process of diligently playing these pieces over and over again at a certain notch on the metronome ... and then moving up a notch. And playing them ad nauseam at that notch ... and then, moving up another notch. Until I can play it at my goal tempo.

It's going to be a slow but enjoyable process. Last night I practiced the prelude at something like ♪=84, playing it through eight or ten times, and then I moved it up to ♪=88 and played it half a dozen times at that tempo. I had to stop a few times to work on the left hand in measure 10, going more slowly and in rhythms, because my fourth finger kept misfiring near the end of the phrase:

The rest of the piece sounds machine-like in its evenness (I'm probably flattering myself here, but it does sound pretty even) ... all except those few notes ... some of the time. Sometimes they're perfect ... but not every time, which tells me that the "perfection" sound may just be luck. I want to know, every time I get to that part, that those notes are going to be even. I know I'll get there. It'll just take time.

There was one other part that was plaguing me in the same way, and I have gotten there:

This is the end of measure 8 and the beginning of measure 9. It's similar to the downward run in measure 10, but it's all white notes, whereas the left hand in measure 10 starts with a B-flat. Also, the LH fingering in measure 10 is 2-3-4-5, while the LH fingering here is 1-2-3-4. This particular four-note sequence has proven to be a challenge, with the fourth finger misfiring, and the 2-3-4 going to fast and falling out of step.

Alas! (Why do I feel so compelled to talk like a late 19th-century poet today?) It's no longer a problem. Lots of rhythms and slow practice (along with a daily regimen of Hanon exercises) have helped to eliminate that little problem. So I know that the measure 10 misfiring will someday be the stuff of history.

I'd planned to write about my other pieces here, but this blog post has already gone long, and it's time for me to start work. I just learned that my 11:00 meeting got canceled, so maybe I'll update the blog again then ... nah. I'll go practice!