Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tempest 3rd movement fingering

After listening carefully to the Andras Schiff lecture on this sonata (, I think I want to play those opening left hand arpeggios exactly as notated by Beethoven: no/very little pedal, the second note tied. I'm leaning towards a new fingering now: 5-3-2-1 for the first D minor arpeggio and my earlier 5-1-3-2 for the A major. I think this works the best. Will update this post if this changes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lesson 2

I had my second lesson today. We talked about many important concepts. I played the third movement of Beethoven's Sonata in D minor ("Tempest"), Op.31, No.2. I chose to play this movement because I've been highly confused about how exactly to play it. I used to play it with a weird fingering that my teacher in Vienna had introduced to me as the simplest (it wasn't all that simple, I had put in a decent amount of work to get that under my fingers). Everybody I play it to here disagree with the fingering and for good reason. I used 5-1-3-2 for the left hand D minor arpeggio at the very beginning. Some teachers don't mind it as long as this doesn't introduce unwanted accents (usually the 3rd finger in my case). I recently attended a masterclass organized by a local music school where the teacher asked me to try a different fingering: 5-5-2-1. We talked about this fingering today for about half an hour! Here is a summary of everything that we talked about today:

1) Fingering: 5-5 is inherently jerky and choppy. Its just technically difficult to play that arpeggio evenly at the required tempo with 5-5. Now Barenboim does it, but then Barenboim does many things that I probably can't do in my lifetime :P, so I'm not going to concern myself with that. My teacher uses 5-2-1-2, a very manageable fingering at higher speeds.

I was slightly reluctant to let go of the 5-5-2-1 fingering. I'll explain. First, the function of that arpeggio is just to be in the background. It doesn't need any expressive exaggerated motions of any kind. Its a simple arpeggio according to my teacher (which is why he uses the simpler 5-2-1-2 fingering). That, I agree with. However, Beethoven put in a tied note, tied with the second note of the arpeggio and notated the first note with a downward stem. In some editions, the first note even appears with a staccato. So I argued that the second note was somehow more important to Beethoven. My teacher agreed with that argument and said that the argument was a valid one. I loved the fact that he didn't impose his interpretation on me. In fact, he said that I was the one who had to make the decision, given that the argument was a valid one. What he said next was really the key: The question however still remains if one wants a strong accent on that note or if one would still want a smooth soft arpeggio there, maybe with a subtle break between the first and second notes. This will preserve the required character of the allegretto (see later).

I think I like this idea very much. I would love to be able to play a light floating left hand arpeggio with an ever so slight emphasis on that second note. Now, the 5-5-.. fingering also allows me to achieve that tied note with the finger. However, the pedal is already in use and so that isn't crucial. The 5-5 transition also introduces a strong accent on the second note, which I'm sure with a lot of work can be done away with. However, it is a lot of work (and is probably work worth doing but lets think about this some more). The other issue with using 5-5 is that due to it being more difficult inherently, there may be compromises in the tempo that the piece starts in. Though it is marked allegretto, we don't want it to be too slow. Too fast is bad too (most people play it too fast). If we start too slow, we are going to have to come back to the same slow tempo for the repeat, and right before the repeat is a section that has a forward moving alternating dark and light character. The contrast in tempi is going to be too big. So we want to avoid starting too slow.

How do I practice the 5-5-2-1 fingering? Here are some ideas we worked on today:

a) Cross over the right hand over the left to play the lowest note of the arpeggio and play the others with the left. Achieve a smooth sound. Pedal after the first note. This will teach me what the target sound is. Then try to achieve that sound with only the left hand (5-5-2-1).

b) Sing the right hand melody, and play the accompaniment using the above cross over first. Then sing and play the accompaniment with only the left hand (5-5-2-1).

c) Then play as written.

Though we worked on this particular fingering today, I think I will explore my teacher's fingering and determine if that makes better sense.

2) The next comment was that I need to start feeling 1..1..1..1 rather than 123123123 because the harmony changed every 1 measure. So that's the appropriate rhythmic feel, not three. The singing helps with that too.

3) We then discussed what "allegretto" means. Allegretto (slower than the allegro) is not just a tempo, it is also a character. Allegretto implies graceful and charming (which is why the opening had to be light and graceful, with only half pedaling..not heavy footed pedaling).

4) Pedaling: The teacher told me that he had gained a lot of knowledge about pedaling from Nadia Reisenberg but had never mastered the pedal as much as she did. Josef Hoffman was known for his mastery of the pedal. Nadia Reisenberg once said to my teacher that she had a Ph.D in pedaling because of her teacher. My teacher opened up the piano today and talked to me about the various sound colors that both the damper pedal and the una corda pedal could produce.

The beginning of the piece, as described earlier, needs to be light. Heavy footed pedaling is to be avoided. A half-pedal will achieve the required sound. By keeping the dampers closer to the strings, maybe even touching the strings lightly, resonance is decreased and so the sound is kept light. (However, this depends on the piano and how well regulated it is, etc). The darker sections need a fuller pedal for greater resonance. He also showed me how the pedal is more like a dimmer switch instead of a regular on/off switch. So for the beginning left hand arpeggio for instance, pedal halfway after the first note and gradually bring up the foot towards the end of each arpeggio figure so that the first note of the next measure is clear.

5) After the tumultuous and dark bass D minor theme is played (measure 31), the C major pattern that I played was too light and playful. It needed to retain that dark character. So I played it heavier and with more seriousness.

6) He got me to play the chords (measure 42) before the "epileptic" forte section (43-47). Those harmonic resolutions needed to be clearer.

A long pedal needs to be used in the "epilectic" forte section. Also, without actually doing a crescendo, it should actually feel/sound like a crescendo (no point doing the exact same thing repeatedly over and over again.. it is not interesting musically). The long pedal helps with that as well.

The "epilectic" (not an allegretto character here!) forte section now needed to make way to go back to the graceful and light allegretto character starting at measure 48.

7) The dark/light alternating development section (starting measure 95): The light (p) section (95-98) needs to be legato and the pedaling needs to be lighter too. When the first dark arpeggio (G minor) comes in (99-102)), use heavier pedal. Also "think" dark.

8) Measure 110-118: The left hand is the leader here. Practice this section by playing a singing/legato DARK left hand, and by playing softer (but not too soft) accompanying chords in the right hand.

Measure 119-125: The roles are reversed now. The right hand is the leader. So practice this as above, with the right hand playing legato and left hand with accompanying chords. Make sure the pedaling is right, you don't want to pedal during the three note groups, you need to pedal on that first note of the measure and slowly come off it towards the end of the three note groups.

9) B flat minor section (starts measure 150): The crescendo needs to start small, and develop over a long time, so be careful about not getting too large too soon.

This sums up the second lesson. I felt like we talked about very useful concepts about interpretation today and this lesson was very useful. At the end of the lesson I told him that I had been working on the same pieces for a long time now and was getting bored. I told him that I hadn't played Debussy (or for that matter Schubert or Schumann or any of those great composers) so far. I have the Preludes and he asked me to learn I and III followed by IV in book 1. If I wanted to start working on some Chopin, he suggested that I look at one of the ballades EXCEPT the 4th one.

Lesson 1 (A new beginning)

I started lessons with a new teacher on my birthday. He is a Juilliard graduate and was a student of Nadia Reisenberg (whose teacher was the great Josef Hoffman). So I'm extremely proud of my newly acquired lineage! He is a professor of piano at the university.

In any event, none of that really matters.. what matters is that I loved my first lesson. The second lesson was even better. In this post, I intend to summarize my first lesson, for my own records. If you find it useful, that's even better!

I played Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847, WTC Book I. Here are the things I was asked to work on:

1) Sing the theme as I wanted to hear it on the piano. Then work on reproducing the exact same sound on the piano, without unwanted accents and other bumps.

2) BREATHE! Breathing musically helps in many ways. It helps the music breathe (because musical breathing extends into the playing apparatus and so actual physical breathing can in fact cause the music to breathe as well if done right). It also helps with focusing. If we focus on the breathing instead of somebody in the audience coughing, we would naturally be less distracted while playing. So there are multiple benefits.

3) Work on playing different combinations of the voices with the right fingering (of course). So in any given phrase, play the bass and the tenor together, leave out the soprano/alto. Then play just the soprano together with the tenor, then the soprano with the bass. (This is a 3 voice fugue, which is why I grouped the soprano and alto together as one voice). This would help us hear the voices much better and decide on the balance required. This is how he said his teachers at Juilliard made everybody learn fugues (I'm sure people do this everywhere, not just Juilliard) and so he is getting me to do the same thing.

4) Think in terms of a trio! Each instrument is equally important in a trio. My version of the fugue was "too right-handed". So I was asked to bring to the left hand the same kind of smooth and flowing sixteenth notes that I was doing with my right hand. When the right hand played it, it led the other voices nicely but when the same thing appeared in the left hand, it was suddenly in the background. So I needed to work on giving sufficient importance to all the three voices.

5) Prelude: He liked most of it, except the presto section which I played like a machine gun firing sixteenth notes. He got me to think of that section as smaller groups of notes. He got me to pause at the end of each group. That way, I learned to think in terms of groups and not in terms of fast individual notes. I worked on it at home and it sounds way better. Thinking in musically sensible units also helps with speed. So I'm beginning to understand that the first step towards solving a technical issue is to think musically. When you get that part right, the technique will follow (in a lot of cases). The other comment about the prelude was to emphasize the low G right before the presto section. So those were to be treated like pedal notes (in Bach's time, there were keyboard instruments that came with pedal controls that could be used to play basslines with the feet!).

That sums up the first lesson!

A note of thanks to Ms. Nina Polonsky, a highly sought after teacher in Columbus who I auditioned for. It was her recommendation that got me into this teacher's studio. I also thank her husband, a violinist, who came into the room to meet me after hearing me play. Ms. Polonsky wasn't too impressed, I think (because she has wonderfully talented students who are half my age), but her husband took a liking to me and put in a strong word for me. Though she shoo'ed him away from the room, I think that may have helped her form a positive enough opinion of my playing that she sent in a recommendation because she felt that this teacher (who had more adult students) would be more suitable for me.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A visit to Cunningham Pianos (Philadelphia)

I happened to attend a conference in Philadelphia. I visited Cunningham Piano and Co while I was there. Here are some pics (slideshow embedded after the text). I also have a couple of videos where I play some of his pianos. Forgive the huge flubs in my playing.. it wasn't easy to go play after 2 tiring days of listening to Psychology talks. However, the pianos sound beautiful, so do have a listen! Thanks to Rich Galassini, owner of Cunningham Pianos, for hosting us and giving us that very informative tour of the showroom and the amazing restoration facility (never seen anything like it!).

And this is my dream piano:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tempest 3rd Mvt and others

Its been a while since I blogged. Have been busy with grad school. I'm currently working on tidying up the Tempest 3rd mvt and have started working on the second movement. I should have it done by my next lesson hopefully. I have also started a Mozart sonata (Sonata no. 5 in G, K283) and have learned half the first movement. Its a delightful piece. Listen to Barenboim play this on youtube. I have to get back to work (grad school) now. More later.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847

I just got my piano tuned. Here's a quick, single take of the Bach Prelude and Fugue No.2 in C minor, WTC book 1:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chopin Etude Op.25, No. 2

I had captured a video of my practice routine. This was played at the very end, so its not perfect. I let loose at the end of the practice session to have fun with a tempo that's slightly higher than what I usually play at..and this is the result.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brahms Requiem: The Performance

Last night was one of the best nights of my life. It was a privilege to be a part of that group of people and we consider ourselves extremely lucky to have this piece of great music in our lives. I'm not going to elaborate on the technicalities of the piece as you will easily find them online. However, I will tell you that there's some very exciting stuff in it.. including some amazing fugues. Its been a while since I had goosebumps listening to music and I've almost never had goosebumps when I've been part of the music making mechanism (including solo performances or as frontman of a rock band) but last night was different. The high I got singing "Behold all flesh.." the second time (fortissimo, Mvt II), is indescribable. I'd like to thank Dr Thomas Hart and Dr Robert Ward who trained us over the past 3-4 months. Its been an incredible learning experience. My wife captured a video of most of it, except the last 15 mins when the camera ran out of storage. It was impossible to hold the camera up for the entire duration of 1h 15mins but the audio should be clear enough for you to get an idea of what it sounded like!

I have also uploaded the complete audio files. So the last bit of the concert should be available there. The audio, followed by the youtube video:

0) Beginning of concert: orchestra tuning and applause:

1) Movement I: Blessed are they that mourn

2) Movement II: Behold all flesh is as the grass

3) Movement III: Lord make me to know

4) Movement IV: How lovely is thy dwelling place

5) Movement V: And ye now therefore have sorrow

6) Movement VI: For here have we no continuing place

7) Movement VII: Blessed are the dead who in the lord shall die

8) End of concert applause

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Seat Height

I have been telling myself to saw some part off my piano bench but I've been lazy. I also knew that it was precisely the reason for my low wrists and all the related pain. I've decided to cut back on the playing until I get a saw from somewhere to reduce the height of my bench. I bought the piano from a Church and they ended up giving me an organ bench with the piano. An organ bench is usually much higher than a piano bench.

Edna Golandsky explains the importance of seat height in simple terms:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Brahms Requiem Performance

What has this got to do with piano playing? Well, we must realize that piano playing is just an instance of music making. Singing is another instance. Insights derived from each instance hold across many such instantiations and so any enlightening musical experience feeds into any activity that involves making music. I could take it a step further and say that it feeds into almost any activity in life but that would require more explanation and I don't want to go into that right now.

All I wanted to say really is that I sing tenor in the University Symphonic Choir and we are performing the entire Brahms Requiem (in English, we did a few movements in German last quarter) on the 8th of March. An hour long marathon of pristine music! It will be conducted by Marshall Haddock who is an expert in this field. We have had 3 sessions with him and he is absolutely inspiring. The importance of diction was drilled into us. A major reason for diction being so important is that we need to be heard and understood over an entire orchestra! Its the consonants that will help us there. Shaping melodic contours is yet another important aspect that we've worked on quite a bit. Its probably trivial to see now why insights gained from singing might be applicable to piano playing. Chopin, for example, held the legato of a well shaped vocal phrase as the pianist’s melodic ideal.

In any case, I'm very excited about the performance on the 8th. The experience has been very gratifying!  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lesson 2 (Fugue, Etude, Physicality)

My second piano lesson was on the 26th of February. I was extremely busy with school at that time. I'm done with that now and so will describe my lesson here now.

I started by playing the Chopin etude. I had worked on getting my fourth and fifth fingers more arm support. I messed up real bad on my first couple of attempts. The grand piano there is an old one with a somewhat heavier action than the upright that I practice on. I will describe some general issues with my technique below but before that, I will mention that the tenuto part on the last page of the etude is currently being played with a suboptimal tone. I'm playing harsh staccatos there. The teacher kept giving me an analogy of "chicken digging in the mud". She asked me to play lighter, but then I was playing too much on the surface and the resulting tone again is suboptimal in the opposite sense. So the "chicken digging" analogy does make sense.. press the key all the way down, but needs to be light. A lot of it probably also has to do with wrist/arm support again, for the kind of control required to execute a nice sounding tenuto in a "nonstandard" 5 finger pattern over black keys.

Let me now describe some major issues with my physical approach to this piece and piano playing in general. Prior to my lessons in Vienna in 2008, I had been playing with somewhat higher wrists but had a lot of tension in the muscles in my arm. The teacher in Vienna then showed me how to use arm weight effectively and that got rid of tension completely, especially in my left arm. I can now play a very relaxed left hand. However, I believe I ended up doing too much of it and so the way I currently play, my wrists are too low. I rely on arm movement rather than active fingers. My current teacher says that I have "lazy fingers". To work on some basics then, she had me do the following:

Play a D flat major scale (or G flat). Slow and steady, with keys depressed all the way down and somewhat firm higher wrists. As you go higher up, you move to the right AND forward, not solely to the right. Similarly as you go down, go to the left AND forward. This allows you to support your fingers better with your arm/wrist alignments (try it, the difference felt is immediate). That is not the major part of the exercise though. Play hands separate, stop briefly at every note that's played by the second finger. These are black keys now. These are the hinge points where if you have the right wrist position/alignment going, you will get the rest of them right too. The key is to feel the bounce from the keybed which cannot be felt with a floppy wrist. I also felt much more secure playing with firmer and higher wrists. Similar issues were observed when I played the third movement of the tempest for my teacher:

Let me record a minor issue first: too much pedal (easily fixed). Now for bigger issues: the sforzandos are being executed very harshly as of now. That again has to do with how much I rely on my arm strength. So we worked on that a bit, but employing a similar strategy as above: wrist alignment, using the fingers more, higher wrist and hence support from the wrist. The chromatic pattern that follows the sforzando also lacked control because of the same reasons. There is yet another section in this movement that we worked on and that helped me quite a bit. Its the sforzandos that appear again in the first reprise. Here, they involve double notes (A major, D minor forte section, for your reference). My tone again was extremely harsh because I've been using too much arm strength there. I was made to play it with better finger shape and better support for those fingers. The key is to form the shape necessary BEFORE striking. Use higher and firm wrists again. Also, the double note figure that follows the sforzando double note figure also gets a forte, unlike the earlier sudden reduction in volume that I'd been doing. Major lessons here to summarize: form the shape necessary before striking, use higher firm wrists, align so as to support the finger shape formation, and use more finger work. Point to note: I do not mean absurdly high wrists when I say higher wrists. I only mean higher relative to what I do now. So level wrists towards the higher end, would be a more accurate description. Lots of reworking basics ahead!

Another extremely important piece of advice was given to me when we were working on the sforzandos mentioned above. I kept repeating the figure implementing the instructions given multiple times, in quick succession. She stopped me short and asked me to play it once and then THINK about what possibly went wrong and what possibly went well. Then play it again with a better thought out strategy. Reevaluate!Taking a moment to reevaluate is extremely important! It made a huge difference when I stopped to think about it. I got it right faster.

The teacher also suggested that I start working on the revolutionary etude, since she thought a study for the left hand would nicely complement the predominantly right hand Op 25 No 2 that I currently play. However, she asked me later if I wanted to do some Mozart and I let her know that I was VERY interested and she said that we'd save the revolutionary for later. I really want to get started on a Mozart sonata as I've never played any Mozart so far. We will also rework the Chopin Waltz (E minor, Op. Posth) that I learned in Vienna. I have a long way to go with that piece too. There are some challenging big jumps in that piece that I have not managed to secure so far. I almost forgot, the Bach fugue!

I played the Fugue after I did the etude. Sorry for the messed up order in this write up but the order doesn't really matter. So here's what she had to say about the fugue. Fugues are of three kinds: spiritual, cerebral, and dance-like. This one (BWV 847) is dance-like. The rhythmic pattern is what holds the piece together and gives it character. So the accents on 3 and 4 drive the piece. She played the piece for me and had me clap on 3 and 4.. and it sounded very much like a nice dance. So I got back home and attempted to play it like a dance. Signing off with a video now of the attempt at a dance-like fugue (disregard the suboptimal arm movements, am working on getting my fingers to work more):


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Lesson 1

The teacher is from New York. She holds a DMA from the Eastman School of Music. She visits Ohio once a month or so. Being the first lesson, she had me play some pieces that I currently play and made some suggestions. The most valuable suggestion was about needing more arm support for my 4th and 5th fingers, especially while playing the Chopin Etude (No. 2, Op. 25). More explanation later. Some of the pieces I played along with the teacher's suggestions:

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in Cm, BWV 847. I only played the Prelude as I hadn't learned the fugue. She played a bit of the fugue for me and suggested I play the eighth notes with articulation and not detached, though the notes had staccato markings on them. I guess it has to do with Baroque interpretation. The sixteenth notes (with the same staccato markings) needed to be more detached. In any case, the pattern used for the opening theme needs to be used for all the subsequent voices. I need to learn this fugue for the next lesson which should be in a month's time from now.

Chopin: Etude No. 2, Op. 25. The main suggestion was that I needed to use my arm a little to move in the direction of the 4th and 5th fingers when these fingers were being employed. This would result in less tension in the lower forearm and below the thumb region. This would also help me get more legato. The way I'm playing now, my hand (along with the 1st and 2nd fingers) maintains its position while the 4th and 5th stretch to play the notes they are supposed to play. Instead, the suggestion is to have the arm/wrist follow the 4th and 5th fingers. I tried it, it works. I'm going to have to work this out slowly with the entire piece. The resulting sound ought to be more legato and lighter than what I produce now. There was also a suggestion to use more flesh on my finger tips to play the keys. I think I play with slightly more pointed fingers now and that most definitely contributes to the slightly harsh (sharp?) tone. So paying attention to that should also help produce a lighter tone. Another important suggestion was to play with slightly higher wrists (again, this probably helps with lightness of touch).

Beethoven: Sonata (Tempest), Mvt I. The only suggestion here was to do the drop roll in the second measure (which I was already doing) but without so much of a flappy wrist. That would help with the accents on the first notes of those eighth notes and having a relatively firm wrist would probably also help being consistent with that accent. I have been asked to learn the third movement and if possible, the second movement too for the next lesson. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to do both. Being in grad school and in a non music related field complicates matters.

Reading: I need to work on my reading skills. The suggestion is to get Music for Millions (red = easy) and practice reading everyday. Take a piece, read through it once at moderate speed. Maybe do the same piece the next day. She also asked me to find my way on the keyboard without having to look at it. So that means, I close my eyes, decide on a note to hit.. search on the keyboard with my hands till I get there, play the note. The most important part though is next: visualize the hand position on the piano as you play the note. Open your eyes now and check if reality matches what you saw in your inner eye. The other idea is to effectively use the "ridges" between keys and all of those physical features in between keys to guide your fingers to the right positions on the keys. Once this becomes second nature, sight reading becomes easier because you no longer have to look down while reading.

I also need to buy the Chopin Preludes and Etudes. The teacher thinks that those etudes would be ideal for me to do right now. I had bought the dover edition book some time ago but I donated it to the music academy back in my hometown. The teacher suggests that I buy the dover publication (which is the Mikuli edition), the same that I had bought earlier. She also likes the Paderewski edition. I didn't read too many favorable reviews of the Mikuli version online. People seemed to prefer the Paderewski edition. Mikuli was a student of Chopin's though and one would think that his edition would be the "better" one. I'm undecided as to which one to get. I might go for the Paderewski one as I managed to find the Mikuli version online (Schirmer) at IMSLP.

I will also work on the Mephisto Waltz No. 3 (a later work of Liszt's) in the near future. So that sums up the first lesson. Please leave a comment if you have a question.