7/1/2016 was my first lesson with Prof Nikita Fitenko. He said hi to me and without wasting any time, asked me to sit down and play something. I played Schumann's Traumerei, Chopin's Waltz in E m (Op. Posth), and a little bit of a Mozart Sonata so that he could see where I was at with my playing. I gave him a list of pieces I was working on and a wish list. He looked at it and said it was all appropriate but that the Ballade might be too difficult given that it would be difficult for almost anybody. With that, we started working on it. I will list the major points made to beep this post readable and brief:
- Breathe life into the music, literally - practice breathing with the music, Chopin's slur markings are very good indications of where to breathe.
- The sound needs to be dreamy and heavenly rather than sequence of notes. Rubato is key.
- Keep hand still, and clutch the keys with your fingers - more control and contact with the keys, and helps make that "heavenly" sound.
- The analogy of gravity - going up against gravity induces tension, coming back down is on the way to relief. So for instance, when going down, unless it is marked, don't be "expressive" by going back up (crescendo).
- Practice small segments by emphasizing different voices to really know what is going on in the other voices (I currently focus only on the top and bottom voices). Once you know the voices inside out, you have more resources to really make music!
- Similarly, in the presto con fuoco section, respect the directions (gravity analogy), and play legato. Practice hands separately to do this musically and put them together.
- Don't emphasize the eighth notes too much
- Measure 95 - pause every so slightly to convey surprise. Measure 97 - The star of that chord is the A flat. Pay attention to voicing.
- In the stretto piu mosso section (measures 107-114), the right hand needs to be legato and not sounded as groups of three chords. The third must always lead on to the fourth. Similarly, work on more legato on the left. Also, fighten the audience here! This should be grand and majestic and legato!
- Agitato section, measures 168 - ..., second chord in the figure is the star. Measure 168 - long line legato. Remember to breathe with the music!
- The hand going into the piano is a thing but a grasping motion of the fingers is what establishes real contact with the keys. Also, in places like measures 190, keep hand compressed during the jumps. So after playing the thumb in an octave figure, bring it in, makes so a smoother transition to the next octave with greater control and precision. This also applies to the 13th jumps in the left hand in measure 178-179. Don't need to keep hand stretched.
- Last section - despair. So produce that kind of an atmosphere. For example, that will tell you how to (or how not to) voice the melancholy chord in measure 200 at the very end. Focusing too much on the top end of the chord will convey another sense, maybe happiness?
The main takeaway from the lesson for me was to focus on the sound, on legato lines. on rubato.. and on breathing life into the music. At the end of the lesson, Prof Fitenko said "You have the technique to play the piece, I will take you. I will help you with the music". That is exactly what I needed to hear. I do play the notes fairly comfortably (except for a few small segments which I'm still working on) when at home. However, my lack of confidence shows in the musicality of my playing, especially when playing for others. Maybe focusing explicitly on that aspect during practice will help, and the breathing will absolutely help. This month's practice will focus on breathing and musicality rather than technique. Teachers before this have also talked about breathing but I guess I never really worked on it hard enough. That will need to change.
Finally, after the lesson, he asked me to sit on the couch and he sat at the piano and gave me a mini recital. He is scheduled to play the entire set of Tchaikovsky's The Seasons in Italy in 3 days. He played the first two, and good gosh, it was a moving performance! It is probably some of the most beautiful piano playing I've listened to. If I had any doubts during the lesson about him being the right teacher for me, those were dispelled after this mini private recital! I have a lot to learn from him on producing beautiful sound on the piano.
I can only afford one lesson per month with Prof Fitenko, but I think it will be money well spent!