Saturday, June 23, 2012

Lessons 7, 8 and 9

I did not write entries for these as times were really busy at school. Will post more:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Practice Techniques

These are techniques I collected from various piano forums.

From one member of PW:

1) Octave displacement: Practicing passages that are in the outer extremities of the piano in a more comfortable octave, and then moving them back to their original location. This was helpful when I was trying to master the final tremolo in the Prelude from Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel.

2) Random measure practice: Looking at the number of bars in the piece, and selecting a random number between 1 and that number, and practicing it. Being familiar with starting at almost anywhere in the piece speeds up and solidifies the memorization process.

3) Two-note slurs: I’ve found that in my zeal to emphasize the first note of a two-note slur, I often play a wimpy second note that doesn’t sound fully. To remedy this, I have found it is useful to pick a specific volume for the second note, practice it without the first note, and then play it is written.

4) Identifying what makes a section challenging and isolating the problematic spots: instead of trying to play through the entire passage in one fell swoop, it is better to pick two or three notes that are challenging, practice them slowly, and then put the passage back together.

5) Tapping the RH notes on the palm of the LH hand, or vice versa. This is helpful for discovering places where I’m using too much arm weight and pressing into the keys. Tapping out passages on wood surfaces is also a good idea – wood is a wonderful resonator. My teacher and I often do this and compare how her “taps” sound different than mine.

6) Slow practice.

7) Practicing without the pedal in pieces that require a perfect legato is a good way to check if the notes are smoothly connected.

8) Using a recording device and listening critically to one’s playing.

From another member of PW:

1. Memorizing the left hand alone.

2. Changing the rhythm of difficult passages from what is written to different rhythmic patterns. Similarly, changing the placement of the beat and off-beat.

3. Starting at random places in the piece - from memory.

4. Memorizing chord progressions or phrase-starting notes away from the piano.

5. Checking Youtube to verify that I am reading the piece correctly - note-wise and rhythm-wise. Then staying away from Youtube until I've developed an interpretation.

6. Learning from Urtext, then, well into the process of learning, comparing my interpretation to a heavily edited version. I usually stick with my ideas, but it is an interesting exercise.

7. Asking my teacher where the difficult places are and learning those first, very, very slowly.

8. Learning the piece from the beginning and from the end and working towards the middle.

9. Practicing with no pedals.

10. Practicing in my head, sans piano.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lesson 6

More Debussy! I learned the 3rd prelude (Le vent dans la plaine) from book 1 and this is what we worked on this time. We spent some time also talking about arpeggios (arpeggi?).

1) Debussy Prelude: I used the pedal to create that wind-like effect for the accompaniment (this was discussed at our previous lesson). That was all good. In measure 3, I ws giving the first Bb staccato an emphasis but I was told not to do that as the melody really only starts with the 32nd note (Eb). I was asked to use firmer fingers for the downward cascade of chords in m9-12 as I was too loose (and hence got a sloppy sound). That suggestion immediately set that part right.

On the second page, I had difficulty with hitting the left hand notes of m16 (Gb and Bbb) accurately. The hands tangle up there and are in quite an awkward position. I was playing the left hand above the right hand there and so that angle wasn't working for the top notes of the left hand. A simple suggestion from the teacher worked wonders: "slip the L.H thumb underneath the R.H 2nd finger since that 2nd finger isn't playing any of the notes there". I am now able to play that part fairly accurately. I employ similar strategies throughout in such awkward situations and that works well to solve angle and position issues.

We spent some time on page 4 as this was something I had learned since the last lesson. The problem identified here was that the melody I played with my left hand in m36 wasn't as clean as what I played in m44. He had me play m44 first, followed by m36. I couldn't get them to sound the same. I went back home and tried working on it and found that my fingering was the issue there. I had adopted a fingering that I thought was the easier one but the fingering given in the Henle actually started working well with some effort. This was when I again started tucking fingers underneath inactive fingers of the other hand. So I'm happy to say that I've solved most of my technical difficulties on that page as well (at least in concept.. just needs some more practice (repetitions) before I get where I want to be with that).

Crescendos like the one in m37 should be honored. So there should be a rise and then a fall.. and then a rise again through those chromatic figures.

We then spent some time on m49. I was making too much of a bump in the sound there trying to execute those small cresendos in the left hand. He made me practice that leaving out the left hand top notes.

Final measure: let pedal go to clear out the notes from the previous bar (except the Bb that is held) and reapply pedal for a final solitary bass Bb to end the piece (since a huge rest is notated in the treble clef!).

2) We then talked about the last page of the Chopin waltz from the previous lesson. He asked me to use rotation to give the music better shape. It was sounding more like a machine gun rather than sensible groups of notes. So I was asked to practice those descending figures towards the end employing just rotation and playing just the important transition notes. I need to find the time to do that. We then talked about that final arpeggio. I had practiced this at home. So when I played it after he demonstrated the concept of getting the wrist and arm to lead the fingers, I did it (almost) to perfection. He was impressed and remarked "Either you are a genius or I am". I replied "I practiced that at home.. so before we decide if I'm a genius, let me try to ascending arpeggio because I haven't practiced that". So I played the ascending arpeggio.. it took me a few trials before I could get the optimal sound. When we were later discussing something else, he suddenly remarked "Btw, I've decided that you are the genius". I think he was half joking :P (of course), but I'll consider it a compliment regardless of whether he was serious or not! I'm no genius of course, but then, who is? I really believe that hard work is what makes geniuses. If there are genetic predispositions, I believe that hard work can overcome (or greatly enhance) that such that it ceases to matter after a while.

3) I finally played a iittle bit of the Brahms Op.118/2 Intermezzo in A. He asked me to play it more freely. He loved the p-pp transition (when the theme is repeated in the beginning). He suggested that I further amplify that effect by using the una corda pedal. We will start with this when we meet next. I'm still working on the 3rd page, just a couple more measures to go before I've learned all the notes to it.

When listening to classical music, I'm rarely moved (as in, rarely does a piece of music make me feel genuinely sad, or genuinely ecstatic, etc) but I do recognize the emotional ups and downs that the music intends to convey. However, Brahms is one composer who goes that extra bit and actually moves me. The first time I had goosebumps listening to music was when a family friend (Philip uncle) first gave me a cd to listen to. That had an orchestral version of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu. I had never heard anything like it before. That was my introduction to listening to classical music (I was already playing the piano at that time but my teacher or those around me never told me that I should also listen to classical music!).

The second time I had goosebumps listening to music was probably when friends took away my classical music cds and replaced them with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. So the first time I listened to the Floyd album "The Wall", I had goosebumps.

The third time that I recall getting goosebumps from music was last year. I sang tenor in the OSU Symphonic Choir. It was our first practice session with the conductor Marshall Haddock. Something that he did suddenly made me more aware of my singing and of the entire music. This was the Brahms German Requiem, a MAJESTIC composition. I remember almost being moved to tears while singing it.

Anyway, all I meant to say is Brahms is great! Singing off, signing off now..

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lesson 5

We've settled on a fixed time for lessons now. Every other Monday at 4pm. Regular lessons are what I missed all these years and I'm glad to have that finally! We looked at some Bartok, Debussy and Chopin today:

1) Bartok: Stamping Dance from Mikrokosmos (book 5).

My left hand was too percussive. My teacher wanted me to play it as though cellos were playing it. The very act of thinking instrumentally changed the sound of it. I used a little bit of pedal to create longer cello like sounds for the left hand. The character changes when the left hand goes to slurs in the second line. They need to be individual slurred figures (pairs). Towards the end of the first section, the last couple of accents need to be REALLY accented. The tempo can go down a bit (broaden) to emphasize that accent some more (pochiss. allarg.).

In the "Un poco piu mosso" section, towards the end, it needs to keep growing until it hits the sff. If the forte section right before the sff doesn't grow, it will actually seem like its going down (when the sff comes in). I had learned the rhythm wrong starting at the sff. That section is also slightly tricky in that I need to pay careful attention to the gradual slowing down (poco a poco ritard.) as well as the diminuendo to make sure that the "Meno mosso" section isn't an abrupt change in tempo. It needs to feel integrated and organic.

The staccatos in the Meno mosso section are pick-ups and need to be light (imagine the leg starting off pointed in the opposite direction before stepping in a certain direction in a dance..similarly, the staccato is the first preparatory motion, not a motion of its own). This section also needs to be more playful and light. The accelerando needs to be well conducted and it should absolutely be spirited in the piu mosso final section. (Teacher: "The fingers shouldn't lead the musician, it should be the other way round"). That is how such a "stomp" dance might end (on a high).

2) Debussy Prelude (Book 1, No. 3: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir): I had read through half the piece but was already facing technical difficulties in some parts and so I decided to consult my teacher on some of those. I played through it and he liked what he heard.

When playing the left hand accompaniment, I had started out dry but on getting to the second page, I resorted to using the pedal a little. He asked to me to do the same at the beginning because it was too dry without the pedal. The other important thing, as always, is to breathe before the melody enters in the second line. So remember to breathe musically!

The descending celesta like chords at the end of page 1 need to be played with flat fingers and that had an immediate effect on the sound there, I could play it exactly as I wanted to. Most of my technical issues were on the second page, with awkward tangled finger positions. MEasure 21 especially was problematic. He suggested a different fingering (from the one suggested in Henle Urtext). After working on it a bit, I think I can work with the suggested fingering in the book. It needs more work before I'm comfortable with that measure though.

We then spent some time on practicing the contrary leaps in measure 28 (and thereon). The key is to keep the left (and right) hand moving in. So the D flat in the left hand is just a passing tone that can be played by the second finger (as suggested in the book) as the hand moves smoothly across inwards. To practice this, first forget that D flat and just practice the two hands leaping inwards from outside so that the left hand is taught how to move smoothly and without a break. Then incorporate that D flat with the left hand second finger as the left hand takes a smooth uninterrupted trajectory inwards.

3) Chopin Waltz in E minor (Op. posth): I have been working on this for a long time now and I'm still not happy with it. So I decided get some guidance from my teacher. These were his comments:

The introduction needs to build up and then not fizz out but climax in measure 8 on a full blown forte. I had not paid enough attention to building that up. Then, as always BREATHE before the grazioso waltz begins. He liked most of it, except for the E major part (starting measure 57). It needs to be much more graceful. I could take the tempo a notch down. "Take me out to the garden before taking me back to the dance floor" is how my teacher described this part to me. It still needs a basic pulse of course, but it can be much more graceful and relaxed. Make sure you hear the B's (e.g: measure 58). A nice legato in m. 59 (and similar measures).

Again, BREATHE before the ff section begins. Note correction in m.75. I had always been aware of that different note that I had heard in recordings but I had always played the urtext. However, this other version sounds more interesting, so I've decided to play that instead and my teacher told me what notes they were. (Urtext is the boring G# -> c#, the other version is G#A#C#F# (what chord is this?) --> c#).

Breathe in 80..pause, and gracefully play the rest. Make sure you breathe in measure 108 too right before the beginning of the build-up to climax.

Finally, the E minor arpeggio. He gave me a and accurate! The trick is to use the wrist to lead the fingers. So the wrist now points to the left and the entire arm keeps moving to the left while the fingers (though slanted now because of the angle that the wrist makes) play the arpeggio real fast. Its hard to explain this in words, I'll probably update this section with a video demo some time.

I was also asked to remind him to talk to me more about arpeggios at the beginning of the next lesson. Targets for next lesson: finish learning the Debussy prelude, maybe also finish learning the Brahms Intermezzo (118/2) and that should give us enough to talk about next lesson.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lesson 4

I had my 4th lesson today, by far the best lesson in terms of a sense of achievement. My teacher also seemed happy at the end of the lesson about the fact that I had made good progress both during the previous weeks (after the last lesson) as well as during the course of the lesson itself.

The first piece I played today was Debussy's Prelude 1 (book 1): Danseuses de Delphes or Dancers of Delphi). We began by talking about impressionism (e.g. Monet paintings). The idea is to make suggestions of different possible colors. For example, Monet would paint a haystack at different times of the day to make suggestions as to how the same thing might look entirely different at different points in time. Similarly, Debussy's style of composing is one that gives people suggestions about sound color. We will come back to this later.

We then talked about tempo. I was playing it too slow and so he wasn't getting the feel of the pulse of the piece. It needed to be a slow dance, and so rather than three separate beats, it should be heard as groups of three. So I had to play it slightly faster as well as with a conception of movement from the sixteenth note of the second beat to the third (I was delaying the sixteenth note too much).

Coming back to impressionism and the suggestion of colors, measure 4 is where a full chord with a full long pedal followed by harp like descending chords appear. The pedal is held till the end of the measure. We might think its too muddy but really, that's what impressionism is all about.. sound colors, its not about individual notes. Also, the pp harp like chords are played so light that they don't really sound all that muddy if played right! The texture here is very different from the texture in say measure 21 where it takes on a much nobler and serious tone (and all this is implied by Debussy's use of registers. So pay attention to the different registers used and decide on your voicing, pedaling, etc based on what the register used SUGGESTS!). To play the harp-like chords, use a upward floating motion of the arms as well as caressing top to bottom motion with the fingers on the keys to get the light touch required. (It really does work, I think I achieved it to near perfection during the lesson, which both teacher and student were happy with!).

Measure 11: maintain a nice legato line, with the pedal held down long, lift pedal towards the end and maybe some half pedaling in measure 12.

Measure 15: Again, pay attention and play a nice legato melody (octaves). Maintain the pulse throughout.

Measure 17 pedaling: Pedal on each beat but late on the third beat to make a better line through that measure.

Measures 19-20: Each of the C octaves at the beginning of each of these bars need to go down in volume gradually. Similarly the pp chord on top also needs to go down in volume as you progress from measure 19-20.

Measure 21/22: Here is where Debussy uses the middle of the keyboard. He uses the thirds of each chord. This choice of register suggests a more noble character. Again, be extremely mindful of giving a good legato to both left and right hands here for the melody line.

Measure 23/24: Now Debussy uses 3 octave notes and moves upwards. Now this requires a different character than measures 21/22. The different character is implied by the choice of register! So now use an outer voicing, i.e., bring out the top and bottom notes.

Measure 29: The forte chord here shouldn't be super loud, it should just be a full chord. The pedal stays then and the soft chord in measure 30 is played on the same pedal from the previous measure.

Last note: Needs to sound like a muted gong (and soft)! When taking off the foot from the pedal, if its too slow when it comes up, you will get a twangy sound. So do not be too slow while lifting up the foot.

Finally, I couldn't find the exact meaning of the French suggestions in the piece "doux et soutenu" and "doux mais en dehors". I ran them through google translator and came up with these: "supported and gentle" and "supported but outside". Soutenu also probably means sustained, according to another website which might be closer to what is meant here.

I then played the Chopin etude (Op. 25, No. 2) as I had spent quite a bit of time working on the left hand. My teacher said that it was a huge improvement over the last time. I was unhappy with how I played it the first time but as the lesson progressed, my playing got better. I had pedaled wrong the first time but when asked to play again, I did it right and he was very happy with that.

Measure 35: The chromatic motion between E flat and F flat needs to be brought out (that's what the accent's about, it is not necessarily there for an increase in volume on that "accented" note). However, don't overdo it just as yet because when the B flat minor comes in (measure 39), that needs to be further exaggerated and finally leading up to the forte section.

Measure 47: Pedal each beat separately. It is not a chromatic upwards figure that needs to be brought out like in the earlier case (measure 35). So make sure they are separated. The poco riten. that I did (to his liking) needs to go on till the end of measure 50 because this is one place where we can afford to relax a bit (and to let the music breathe a bit).

Measure 64 - end: Can slow down gradually and relax.

Just need some more practice before this is performance ready, I think.

At the end of the lesson we discussed new repertoire. Since we were both enjoying doing Debussy, we decided that we'd do some more. So I'll be working on prelude 3 from book 1 next ("Le vent dans la plaine" or "The wind on the plain"). I was also asked to work on two Bartok pieces from the Mikrokosmos book 5: No. 22 "Stamping dance" and No.48 "Jack-in-the-box"). Since I expressed interest in Schubert, I was also asked to prepare one Schubert impromptu (of my choice except Op posth. 142, No. 3). I am halfway through the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2. So I was asked to bring that in when ready as well. I will also play the Chopin waltz for him some time as that needs some help too (and I still need to finish the second movement of the tempest sonata!). Lots of work awaiting me..but all exciting and fun work!

One final note:
"I am trying to do 'something different'- in a way realities- what the imbeciles call `impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics."
- Claude Debussy in a letter of March, 1908

That Debussy hated being branded an impressionist is something that my best friend (and composition and performance major at Berklee) Deepak brought to my attention. Articles on the matter claim that though Debussy hated it, there are still very valid arguments to be made for the case that Debussy was, at the very core, influenced by the impressionist artists and writers of his times. For example, see:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lesson 3

I didn't write the blog post for this lesson immediately after because we had friends visiting. The best I recall, lesson 3 was about the importance of knowing the left hand well. One reason of course is that we tend to look at pieces as "right hand melody with left hand accompaniment" and by default, for most of us, the accompaniment is somehow "less important". This is far from ideal of course. The other purpose behind knowing the left hand well is to know the progression of harmony exactly, so that we get a sense of direction as to where the music is going harmonically. That will help us plan our dynamics and will help us play it even more musically.

We worked on the third movement of the tempest again. I showed him the fingering that I had worked on. It works well. The tied note just needs to be held the entire duration of the bar as notated (but I had misread it). So now it sounds much smoother and when the pedal comes in in bar 9, it doesn't feel abrupt. The ending note of each of the figures in the beginning also needs to be more "portato" (not too long but not too short either). In measure 23, we talked about how the motion to the sf was more of a gesture than a dynamic marking. The pedal also needs to be lifted at the end of the measure to implement the rest in the left hand while the right hand holds the tied note.

We also looked closely at dynamic changes. I had been implementing the crescendos far too abruptly. So my playing sounded like an accordion. My teacher gave me a useful guideline for smoother crescendos. Do not begin increasing as soon as you see the crescendo marking but play at the same level and then with the next harmonic change, give it more volume, then stay, then less and back to normal. So implement these dynamics at the level of harmonic changes. This is why practicing the left hand, especially as blocked chords, is useful!

So I practiced the entire Chopin etude as blocked chords and then learned to play the entire left hand all by itself. It helps immensely! I had also been struggling with the pedal. I was advised to use one pedal per measure and to slightly lift off towards the end of each measure. The left hand first note was to be more prominent. So the main task for the next lesson was to practice the left hand as blocked chords first and then the complete left hand exactly as notated. I worked on all these for the past couple of weeks and saw some good results (see lesson 4 description).