Happy Holidays from my Violets

The weather has been shifting up and down this past week – with yesterday breaking a 130 year old record by hitting highs like 25C. Felt more like spring than winter to be quite honest. It is now dipping back down to cooler (and more normal) weather. My piano doesn’t quite take to these shifts in the weather but my violets seem to love it! I caught them blooming today with more flowers than ever before. ­čÖé

Happy Holidays from my Violets!

In full bloom, December 2013.

In full bloom, December 2013.

Music Journal: Fall 2013

A little over a year ago, I made a little list of pieces that I was working and categorised them accordingly: performance-ready, developing, super new etc. It’s really interesting to go back and see how these lists develop over time, and how plans change. In the earlier list, I had put a few pieces in the “on my plate for the future” and it turns out I ended up learning only one of those! All the rest of my pieces have turned out to be dark horses. Things I found by coincidence and loved them, and then just decided to play them.

Here’s an updated list with my musical goals for the winter and spring. ┬áThese include polishing up recently memorised pieces, reworking some older ones, and looking ahead to see what to learn next!

Polishing:

Mozart Sonata k.576: Allegro

Almost there, almost there… is what I have to keep telling myself with this one. In an earlier post on the learning process, I outlined the general stages of learning I go through with a new piece. Right now, I’m at the last stage with this one – which is pretty much playing it 500 times to get it all smoothed out, fine tuning interpretation and details. Mozart has so many details…. SO many details, and it can be quite taxing to keep track of the notes, the voices and his zillion details at brisk pace. Phew!

This was my first piece with Mozart and I absolutely loved the learning process. I can’t say it was easy because it certainly wasn’t – but it was….fun! And it almost feels like a bit of Mozart’s cheery personality accompanies you while you work through the difficult passages that always sound easy and end up having the most complex patterns. It’s as though there’s a wicked Mozart grin as one looks at the passage and goes… “oh….. OH…..” before readying oneself for a good hour of figuring it out.

Goal: Focus away from speed and onto the details and precision of playing, bring out a more smooth oil-like continuity in the piece.

Developing/ Memorising:

Bach Partita in e minor, Toccata

This one is certainly one of those dark horses I mentioned. After having more or less memorised the first movement of the Mozart Sonata, I began the second one. What made sense logically somehow didn’t click for me in the playing. At the time, I found myself unable to work through and memorise the piece – it simply refused to stick. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last year, it’s to be flexible and know that things don’t always go according to plan. Well, the plan was to learn the second movement right off the bat and it clearly wasn’t working.

So I switched gears and looked at Bach – he’s always been fantastic at being a grounding influence for me and I just fell in love with the partita. The fugue portion of the Toccata was complex but awesome. So I decided to work on it about 2 months ago. It’s been amazing. There is no such thing, for me, as an “easy” Bach piece but this one just came more naturally than others. Or maybe I should say that I was really motivated to practice. Now, I’m almost done memorising the entire fugue portion. Hopefully, by the end of this month I’ll have memorised the piece and at that point, I can write out my thoughts on learning it.

Goal: Complete memorisation, work on bring out voices in the difficult areas, start thinking about interpretation.

Performance pieces:

Chopin Etude op. 10 no. 9

This is one that I’ve played since last year but it’s constantly growing and evolving in different ways. My fingers’ flexibility for this piece comes with a certain amount of maintenance and if I don’t play this often enough it will rust like an unused bicycle left in the rain.

Goal: My goal for this is to bring the kind of precision I’ve learnt from playing Mozart to this piece. I’d like to sound cleaner, cooler, and crisp with no doubts as to what note is struck where and when.

Brahms Intermezzo op. 118 no.2

My introduction to the wonderful world of Brahms, and I think one of my all-time favourite pieces. Sadly, when I don’t play this piece for weeks, I’ve often noticed that my memory of it dodgy and I’ve begun to wonder if its because it’s somehow been tied to muscle memory rather than the intellectual level.

Goal: Rework memorisation technique and remove any memory doubts in this piece.

Scarlatti Sonata k, 27

This is such a beautiful piece that I have strangely fallen out of love with. As a result, I get bored when I play it and thus play it badly. There’s a point where my mind is ahead of my hands because the piece is not theoretically, very complex. And perhaps that has put me off a little bit. But until I have actually played it perfectly – or pretty close, I have no excuse to ignore Scarlatti.

Goal: Rework and reconnect with the piece and try to figure my initial inspiration. Start out on a blank slate and work on the piece as I would an entirely new piece.

Chopin Nocturne Op. post. 72 Nr. 1

One of my oldest pieces that I think has gone through the most transformation over the years. My skill and technique has changed so much since when I first learned it, that I feel the need to go back and perhaps rework areas that I couldn’t have in the past.

Goal: Refine interpretation and lengthen the trills, work on bringing the entire piece together cohesively with the changes.

This turned out to be a fairly long post today and I haven’t even listed all the performance pieces yet! I’ll stop here for now and save what I’m looking to learn in the future for another day.

Thanks for reading! ­čÖé

Dark Humour from the Past

Today I was cleaning out some old boxes, looking to see if I had kept any of my old notes from music theory classes in college. My notes are long gone looks like, but I did find something funny (and kinda depressing) at the same time.

This snippet here is that of a piano exam I took in 2002 from the Associated Board Royal School of Music. It was before college, before I had ever practiced on a piano, and before much of what I know about piano playing today. Still, it was interesting to look at.

sightreading-fail

You’ll notice that I failed miserably in sight reading….

scales-fail

….and scales, while I did fairly well in the actual playing of pieces.

lesigh

The end of result of this combination was that… well, I don’t quite know how it never hit me before but… I barely passed the exam. ┬áThe required total to pass was 100 out of 150, and I squeaked by with a sparkling 111. HA!

It’s somewhat funny and depressing to see at the same time. Especially now that I’m doing piano full-time. There’s a strange irony that the same person who barely scraped by the piano exam 10 years ago is now playing Etudes and difficult sonatas on a lovely grand piano. Mind you my sight reading is still awful, and I would rather play Bach a million times over than do scales. But hey. It shows what a piano and some practice can do!

On the other hand I think this little bit of paper may shed light onto why people weren’t terribly encouraging of me pursuing music as a full time profession. Regardless of the difficulties of the career itself, there might have been a little bit of “Well this doesn’t seem promising! Thank god you atleast passed!”

I think it’s somewhat funny to look back onto this. ­čÖé

The Learning Process

Imagine, for a moment, that you are listening to a piece of music on the piano that you love. Either in concert, or in someone’s living room, or on an old vinyl. Many times when we hear something inspiring, we can’t help but wonder how it came about. And for me, when I am inspired by a piece, I want to learn how to play it. ┬áHow can people’s fingers move that fast? How do they make it sound like there are 4 hands on the piano when I know it’s supposed to be two??

I often thought those very same questions and many times, my answers come in the form of three familiar words: blood, sweat and tears. While accurate, they don’t really tell you a whole lot about the nitty gritty of the journey behind it.

This is what this post is about: the learning process when I pick up a new piece and begin to work on it. In the last year or so, I’ve found that there a surprising amount of structure behind it all. To quote Hercules Poirot, “order and method mon ami!” Here’s my journey and what works for me when I dive right into a new piece.

The Roadmap:

This is stage 1 where I’ve heard the piece by some coincidence, and I’ve absolutely fallen for it and simply must learn to play it. Yep, that’s not terribly new for me – it’s only happened with my last three pieces! ­čÖé So this is where I pick up the sheet music and just look at it, preferably over a nice steaming cup of tea or coffee. I find that reading the music beforehand helps a great deal before simply sitting down with it and trying it out. This helps get a feel for how the piece flows, where different sections and just generally reduces surprises. Even if reading music isn’t your strong suit, just looking at the music without the initial pressure of trying to play the right note helps get the big picture in focus.

Reading a piece is like reading a map before you begin your journey. Even if you don’t see all the details and intricacies right away, you get a general feel where you’re headed. And having that compass in the back of your mind can be comforting when the journey actually begins.

Piece by Piece:

It is extremely rare that I can simply pick up a piece and begin playing the entire thing after giving it a read or two. I’d almost say impossible, given the dismal state of my sight-reading skills. ┬áSo sometimes, it really does depend on sight-reading skills, and other times it won’t matter how gifted those skills are. There are some pieces that are simply too difficult to be read right off the bat (I’m thinking of the Mozart sonata, Chopin etudes etc etc.)

This is the phase where I slowly begin to play, learn the notes and make little sections in the piece. My code for sections in sheet music happen to be stars, not entirely sure why but there you have it. ┬áThey are critical in splitting up the piece to be more digestible. Often, these sections coincide with when the piece makes a marked change, or if it repeats a previous theme in a slightly varied fashion, or if simply there’s a particular part that is just the section from hell, and you want to separate it from the rest.

Here’s an example of making sections in my copy of a Brahms Intermezzo, op. 118 no.2:

Brahms-Intermezzo-example1

Sections really form the core of it all to me. They help with giving structure to practice – if there’s a section you’re particularly weak at, you can play it over and over and over again until you’re comfortable before moving on to the next star. Sections also help with memorisation, which can happen while practicing anyways. Splitting it up mentally early on, helps the mind anchor to certain beginnings and transitions, and it makes it much easier than looking at the piece whole and wondering how to remember all those notes.

At the end of it all ofcourse, no matter how far I’ve come in the piece, I make it a point to play from the beginning to whichever section I’m working, just to bring it all together early on. Afterall, it was written as a single piece, and not 12 sections! ­čÖé

Practice and Memorisation:

This is the part that’s always really fun for me, because this is where you begin to get peeks of how it’s supposed to sound while playing. And it can be really rewarding and exciting. Some schools of thought advocate learning just the notes first, and leaving the dynamics, pedalling and all the other details for later. That just doesn’t make sense to me. Much like how I like to bring sections together early on and play them whole, I also like to bring together all aspects of the music early on.

It’s difficult to imagine separating notes from the other aspects of music because they’re never played separately. ┬áSure, there are always the moments where there’s the one bit with awkward fingering where that needs to get sorted out before one can move further. Even then, I always think it’s a good idea to integrate as much of the details of the music (dynamics, touch, feeling) while practicing. This is the stage where things are being practiced at a comfortable pace, and the piece solidifies in the mind. Things get put into place the more one plays. and progress while sometimes slow, happens. And while the mind takes it all in, it’s important to keep it all whole and make sure all the details are correct while memorising. The most annoying in the world is to memorise something wrong, only to have to go back and undo the learning and then relearn it correctly.

An omg moment in Brahms. I actually wrote that too.

An omg moment in Brahms. I actually wrote that too.

Further along the road, when I’m more comfortable with the piece, I start thinking about how I would interpret whatever the composer is saying. Why did I choose the piece? What did I like about it that inspired me to learn it?

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is the part that the “blood, sweat and tears” alludes to. This is the phase where you’re almost there with the piece, but have to iron out a few things. It’s the last little bit that makes it perfect – or as close to perfect as you can get!

It can be surprising how much practice getting there can take. Sometimes it can take as long as all the other previous parts of the journey combined. And sometimes more. It’s the phase where everything will fall into place on occasion, and it’s exhilarating when it does. And then it goes and falls flat on you the very next moment. Often, I never know whether to laugh or cry and as I type this out, I just happen to experience this with Mozart not too long ago.

This is also when you slowly, mentally build up the stamina to play the entire piece, and perhaps even prepare to perform it in front of other people. ┬áThere’s no magic answer as to how long this stage takes, or how many times a piece needs to be played. My personal rule of thumb is that if I can see the piece in my sleep, it’s close to being done. And if someone wakes me up in the middle of night and I feel I could still play it, it’s definitely ready. (No one has tested that yet though, thank goodness!) ­čÖé

Practice is fantastic, but there are lot of elements that need to come together when learning a piece. Simply practicing over and over without any thought to the structure of a piece doesn’t always yield results.┬áPractice with thought is always better in my mind, than mundane mechanical repetition.┬áI still value all the other parts of the learning process – even my awesome stars that I make sections with. They helped me play pieces I never thought possible, or have my fingers moving in a way I never imagined, On that note, (no pun intended!) ┬ánever underestimate what practice and hard work can accomplish – they can surprise you!

Thank you for reading! ­čÖé

Hearing Things…

Last week I heard some strange resonances while playing so I stopped and isolated the keys that were doing it. It didn’t sound like an off-note or a wonky wavelength. It sounded like someone held a tuning fork on some strange frequency when I hit those keys. Very high pitched but it was as clear as day when I was playing. Can you hear it too or is it just me?

Resonance 1

Perception

Yesterday, my piano finally got tuned. And the experience was very interesting since it led me to a topic I had never heard of or considered before yesterday: psychoaccoustics. This isn’t the science of sound – it is the study of the┬áperception of sound. And this distinction became all too clear to me yesterday.

The entire reason for me wanting to have my piano tuned yesterday was because I heard things that just sounded plain wrong. I heard twangs and wobbles. And certain octaves didn’t sound like they were quite octaves any more. The question the tuner and I were faced with yesterday, is how much of this was real and how much of it was in my head.

And here’s where the perception part comes in. There are days when I think piano sounds ridiculously amazing and I wonder whose instrument this is. And other days when I feel like all the off-tune notes decide to rear their ugly heads at the same time. And it all depends on my mood and perception – because the human mind is just as dynamic as the instrument itself.

I found this disturbing and intriguing all at once. Those things that sounded wrong to me didn’t seem like little things. They seemed to be miles away from what I thought they should be, and prompted me to call my tuner. And to consider that they were 1) minute little things and 2) all in my head is a little bit disconcerting. Because either I have superhuman hearing, which I highly doubt or I’m going crazy which I’d rather not be at this young age.

And as if all this isn’t enough to sort through, there was something more at the end of the tuning. After the tuning, I gave it a go and well, it was different but it was in tune. And yet, it wasn’t quite right. I stumbled and fumbled for the vocabulary to explain what I was hearing and the best I could come up with at the time was that it sounded two-dimensional. That one couldn’t touch and feel the sound … lacked depth. Yeah, I still can’t describe it terribly well I suppose.

Considering what I did hear was not┬ánecessarily┬ásimply the note being wrong or out of tune, but more the remaining wavelengths and overtones that seemed off, there is another side to the complex mechanics of sound creation in a piano. I ended up at “Five Lectures on the Accoustics of the Piano”, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this. It talks about longitudinal frequencies, which are different from the transversal frequencies that a tuner changes. I will not pretend that I understand much of this quite yet – it will take many reads and a lot of catching before I’m even close. But, for what it’s worth, it gave me hope that it’s not all in my head. And the complexity of the piano in conjunction with things like the unique character of the wood, the player and the weather makes the perception of sound, a very intricate subject.

Hello Management

Every so often, I get reminded of how sheltered from “reality” my current profession makes me. Playing piano the entire day has it’s own challenges, but it’s also a lovely escape from the harsh drudgery of more stereotypical 9-5 jobs. The result of not really interacting with anyone other than composers sometimes has me a little bubble of idealism that can get┬áunceremoniously┬ápopped from time to time.

This happened over the weekend. (If you follow me on Twitter, you’d see part of the rant there as well). I was supposed to have my piano tuned this weekend and my piano tuner unfortunately forgot my apartment number. Now, I live in an apartment building that offers a concierge service – someone to greet people, take packages for you etc. Naturally, he went to the concierge for assistance – telling them who he’d come for. The concierge were unable to help him and ultimately, the tuning had to be rescheduled.

When I went down to have a word, wondering why he didn’t make it to my apartment, things became a lot clearer. The person at the desk was unable to direct him to my apartment because apparently my name didn’t show up on their computer screen. They had the nerve to suggest I wasn’t on the lease. When I pointed out that I was on the lease, they just shrugged at their list’s inaccuracy. Furthermore, my tuner was off on the apartment number by one door. They didn’t try to call and ask if we were possibly expecting a tuner that day. Rather than apologise for the lack of service, the woman told me proudly that my tuner emailed me on the off chance that I would check my email during lunch time and waited thirty minutes before rescheduling.

So let me get this straight … she sat there and did nothing while he waited a full thirty minutes. This kind of incompetence just infuriated me. I was seething the entire day. This wasn’t a charity, she wasn’t volunteering to be there – it was her job. And there she was, proudly telling how she failed at it and how apparently she’s ok with that despite the inconvenience caused. How can people be this way?

The hubby, who has more experience restrained my anger and said “Welcome to management”. A lot of people in managerial jobs deal with this kind of incompetence and stupidity every single day – and me? Well, it just didn’t make sense in my world. Mozart ┬áand Chopin don’t let me get away with failing at┬áanything … but the ‘real world’ can be so different, I suppose.