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):