Chat ideas

I have blocked my right ear lately – I know this is too much information and yes I have drops and yes I enjoy the absolutely awful sensation of them. Nevertheless, the last time this happened I wasn’t playing the piano.

So practice today has been pretty challenging as only one of my ears is working.

I had some empathy for Beethoven and I am terrified about losing my hearing.

On the practice front, it has been mixed these last two days. I dropped out of Platinum back to Gold on Saturday night in the Tonic Community. Not a disaster but currently I am second which means I will be probably on my way back up on Saturday. The issue here is that I won’t have a piano on Sunday, Monday and most of Tuesday. So I don’t even have to guess but I’ll be staying exactly one week in Platinum again. Last week was the lowest amount of time I spent playing in quite a while.

Mostly today was marked, in addition to half deafness, to having the craziest memory issues that I’ve had. They kind of started on Sunday at some stage, so that the two main pieces that I know more or less by heart were just into roadblocks on occasion. Milne is almost ready though so out of the 4 exam pieces, 3 of them are usually under reasonable control so only the CPE Bach remains to control. That has been challenging with a memory that is just laughing at me.

I will see Alice Sara Ott in concert on Thursday this week (so yeah, I may run out of practice time and not make Platinum after all).

On Reddit there is someone learning Rach 3. He’s 6 years younger than me and he has always wanted to play this. I get the motivation; I want to do it with Rach 2. It’s likely to be a 10 year project if I do it. There are bits I want to have a go at in both it and Rach 4. But I need to do effective planning skills and decision making and I give a pretty decent chunk of that to work. That pays for all the music I buy. And will pay for my grand piano when I buy it. I should blog about those dreams again. I don’t regret letting that last one go but at some point I will want to buy one.

And there are some opening themes in Brahms I that are talking to me at the moment.

It’s 1040 on a Monday night. Really, I should be in bed. But I worked from home today and that disrupted my view of myself and my little world. I did get to practice at lunch time though which was nice.

20240224 Practice Diary

Last week was busy and yet, I some how managed daily practice until yesterday. They were just short practices which is a pity.

Last week I got myself into the Platinum League on tonicapp, which was great while it lasted. I immediately ran into a week that was several late evenings at work, one choral concert, one day hiking in the countryside. Most days I barely made 20 minutes at the piano. The plus point is that I made it at all.

In short, I only did the four exam pieces I was working on and I looked at two Clara Schumann pieces for reasons outlined below as well. For the exam pieces, the CPE Bach is coming on, faster than I expected but I doubt it will be ready by end of April. The other three pieces are close to done. I still make mistakes with the Mendelssohn, and with the Rebikov. But both of them are memorised and the Milne piece is almost memorised although I still haven’t decided if I would use it with or without the sheet music when playing the exam.

I really like the CPE Bach even as my fingers trip over themselves. I am way short on speed of it, but half of it is more or less memorised to support dealing with the speed that it should be played at. If I get a reasonable run at it today, maybe during laundry, then I might have it all memorised by the end of the week when I will blow my practice schedule again by not having enough access to a piano for a few days.

20240217 Practice Diary

Another week has rolled by and I have done various things, that matter to me, if not to the wider world.

I went to my local stationery Mecca and picked up another 2024 planner. Into this I am now writing a few words daily about the practice, and tracking the pieces I play each day especially of the ones I want to play for an exam that seems far away in my mind but which was pencilled in for 6 weeks’ away. So that’s not looking great.

I’m having some memorisation problems with Mendelssohn and Rebikov. When I get the Rebikov correct, it is absolutely gut wrenchingly beautiful to play. I haven’t yet played it on an acoustic piano but I have a one in ten chance of getting it right when I play it. The same is true of the Mendelssohn. I know every part, can restart from multiple places but I rarely get a clean run through. This is frustrating because I have known to play every part of that for about two months now. I can’t remember when exactly it went clean for the first time. Neither piece is consistent.

I gave this some thought yesterday after 30 soul destroying minutes. There’s a fingering issue in the Rebikov which is improving every time I play. For the Mendelssohn, it’s a pure memory issue. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on practice lately and the advice, in the best way of things, is completely contradictory. You see advice to focus on one particular aspect of playing, to avoid mindless repetition when setting up practice points. You see advice to practice until you can’t get it wrong, but not to repeat infinitely. This is completely contradictory.

So the advice isn’t really helping. I will confess though that over the past month or so, these pieces, together with the Bach that I set aside, got the bulk of my time until this week. What I think I need to do is to do one single run through of both every day, warts and all, so that I don’t forget everything about them. But they will not form the bulk of my practice for the next week or two. I want to finish CPE Bach’s Solfeggio and find tactics to get past the shaky points of memorising E Milne’s Indigo Moon. I like the piece enough, but I can’t see myself playing it too often after the exam. Apart from that, I will start looking at some music by Clara Schumann as Tonic has a related challenge coming up and then I will be starting Cyclopes by Rameau and June by Tchaikovsky before the start of the summer. So much for the planning.

On the Milne piece, it has moments of sounding lovely, it has moments of not sounding like a human being is playing it at all. I have most of it memorised in pieces; the fitting together is catastrophic, there are pieces where I need reinforcement. I am questioning whether I want to learn it by heart at all and if it would be safer to keep the sheet music with me. I have not found a story to tell with this piece of music and with a name like Indigo Moon it should be possible. You wouldn’t know it but there is a gondolier in my minds eye, along with the canals of Venice when I play Mendelssohn.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the CPE Bach is coming along a lot faster than I really expected. It’s not anywhere close to being ready for The Audience to hear it (just some poor victims tuning in on practice streaming) but I pieced it together yesterday – this is way ahead of schedule and can now work through both pages. It being the weekend and not late at night, I have the opportunity to do some metronome practice. This is demonstrating to me that I will have a lot of problems bringing it up to a consistent speed without constant metronome practice as I try to ensure the piece fits together coherently. But despite the fingering misses (and this tends to be where I come a cropper), I really enjoy playing/practising this piece.

The sheet I have calls for Prestissimo. I am a long way short of that at the moment.

I think the only other piece I touched regularly this week was JS Bach Prelude in C Major from WTC I. In truth, I love the piece, I love how it sounds when I get it write. But because it is so easy to ready, it is beyond difficult to memorise; It doesn’t get the time because it was really only something I picked up because the Invention in E Major was causing me so difficulties. It eventually goes into the 40 pieces list which is running behind.

One of the things I need to make more time for also will be technique, especially some scales for the pieces I am doing next year. D Flat Minor is hanging over me with the nice Mr Rachmaninoff. So I will add that to the list that I have being tracked and we will see how that goes.

On no isolation

I signed up for Ray Chen’s Tonic App sometime last year but I didn’t get it working for myself, possibly because I got nothing much working for myself and I focused on music theory last year to deal with the gateway Grade 5 for the ABRSM plans I have.

But I started using it to track practice before Christmas and it is handy enough for accountability there (a bit like the exercise things are on Apple Fitness). I worked myself up to the gold league a few weeks ago and it’s marginal but I might make a step up this week as well.

The part that has surprised me this is not the fact that it tracks my practice streaks (currently on 9 days in a row and the fact is, travel has tended to seriously disrupt that for me so this is really good going for me) and keeps me mostly on board there. The unexpected plus point is listening into other people. There are names I am starting to recognise, sometimes because I know that they are working on something or other. I know that we are all in different timezones.

I grew up more or less isolated doing music when I was a child. The teacher had other pupils, of course she had but we never really built much of a community. It didn’t bother me at the time and I also grew up enough in an era where I just wasn’t aware of certain things. Fame was on the TV, I didn’t know that Juillard really existed. There was no IMSLP. There was no instant access to pieces of music that you wanted to learn. I got to learn what the RIAM reckoned I should be learning. All due respect to them but not a lot of it appealed to me, especially not the Bartók.

I never really got to hear other people practising. I’m 51 years old now and I am listening to people of all ages practising pieces in various levels of difficulty and knowledge. What I have learned is that I’m not any worse than the vast majority of people. It might not make sense but I assumed that because I felt certain key skills were weak for me, the effort I had to put in to learn pieces was probably disproportionate. I no longer think this. I hear dozens of other people repeating bars, crashing their fingers on the keyboard when things go wrong, other people talking to themselves. And because they are part of a community, they are sharing information, advice and encouragement.

I sometimes wonder if this is what it would have been like somewhere like Juilliard or Curtis. I wonder what it might have been like to have the dream to go one of these places, and be part of a mutually supportive community.

There are a lot of things that I wish had existed for me when I was 15 years old. Tonic is one. IMSLP is one. YouTube is one. Instead, I had the Great Composers on cassette which my mother collected when I was about 10 years old. It was my only access to a wide variety of classical music. Even now I am thankful for it.

But mostly, I wish I’d been inspired by people like Daniil Trifonov when I was about 11. The nearest I came was Evgeny Kissin when I was 21 years old at which time I had no piano.

The two pieces of music I bankrupted myself to buy as a teenager were Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and the Grieg in A minor.

On Sightreading

One of the gaps I identified for myself at the start of this more recent piano journey was sightreading. I suppose in part, it was because I wanted to read music as fluently as I read English. This might be unrealistic; I’ve been reading English since I was three years old and that is now a frighteningly long time ago. But arguably, my sightreading is weaker than I would like. I imagine a world where I can read anything I want up to and including Chopin’s third Sonata which is the apex of my ambitions, apart from buying a Steinway B, that is. But I struggle with sightreading, especially lefthand because I learned treble clef a couple of years before I learned bass clef. I struggle with ledger line notes too.

So I did what any sane person does when they want to get better at something. I searched sightreading on YouTube and disappeared down an increasingly disappointing black hole. There is a huge amount of advice out there from people telling you how you can sight read better. What most of them have in common is that they are targeted at people who know absolutely no music theory at all, have no basis in reading at all. I suppose it’s the easiest place to start with pedagogical stuff on sight reading. I’m not the target audience. I realised I was not the target audience because once you got past the names of the lines on treble and bass, there was an emphasis on understanding the length of notes. I know this. Understanding intervals: I know this. Understanding key signatures. Come on!. I know most of these too. I know that five sharps tells me it’s B major or G sharp minor. I’ll possibly draw them in the wrong order but interpreting them, I get there.

So what I’ve come to understand is that I’m a better sight reader than I gave myself credit for. Still not good enough but the hints around knowing how to read are unrealistic for someone who actually knows how to read; the point is to read more and more and get faster. When you see discussions about this on Reddit, the advice is that it is a numbers game. I read a piece by Elissa Milne a few weeks ago where she noted that in general, the higher some of her students went in the graded music education system, the worse their sight reading got for the simple reason that they weren’t doing enough of it. I’m not a fan of the Numbers Game but in general, she came up with a plan to increase engagement of students and to get them to sight read a whole lot more. That’s the 40 piece project that I have going in the background (see here). I’m not really on top of it because I don’t always have the music to hand and practice time has been thin on the ground these last couple of weeks. But I have done some things outside the scope of the exam pieces I’m working on. There has been some Beethoven, some Shostakovich, some Haydn, all composers that I don’t regularly touch. I have worked on a couple of pieces by Beethoven – the infamous Bagatelle that everyone knows, and I intend to learn the second movement of Shostakovich’s piano concerto no 2 and one of his waltzes. I have sheet music for both. Haydn I tend to bypass.

Of the pieces that are being worked on for repertoire, there is Handel’s Sarabande and Variations, and Prelude in C Major from Bach’s WTC. I’m not a fan of Bach senior but there are some glorious things knocking around. I also have Siloti’s transcriptions of some of Bach’s stuff. So I may adjust the list currently here to take account of other things I want to learn.

I started learning CPE Bach’s Solfeggio during the week to replace the List A Bach that I wanted to abandon. It’s astonished me how much easier it was to sight read than I expected. I’m assuming that part of it is linked to the short pieces I work on now and again and that this has helped a lot. So yes, in short, it’s a numbers game.

20240210 Practice Diary

This week, on Tonic, I was in the Gold list having gotten myself promoted a couple of weeks in a row. Now, playing with the big boys and girls. The ones who clearly don’t have full time jobs. * rueful smile.

I haven’t done today’s practice session yet so who knows this could change after I have done it. It was at best a mixed week. I missed at least one day because I was at a concert (a good reason, you would admit). But I also started a new job and much to my surprised this has resulted in me getting home later rather than earlier. I didn’t have so much time to practice, and also not so much time to listen in to other people practising.

So, in terms of what went well: the Mendelssohn is getting slightly more security; it’s not where I want yet but okay, there are no obvious weaknesses except when I am tired. The Rebikov is now more or less internalised but in some odd hybrid short/long term memory mess. This means some times I can play it under finger without one error; last night I spent a lot of time again trying to render a section of fluent, a section that I know intelleuctually in my mind but my fingers take on crab like features of their own and I watch as a C sharp/A figure turns into something akin to a diminished chord undescribed in no music theory text book; a flow of notes that my wrists do not wish to play even as I know in my mind what notes they are. More work is required. Nevertheless, despite being the last of the pieces I started learning, it is the second closest to ready.

For Elissa Milne’s Indigo Moon, I have struggled to memorise this. I would like all four pieces to be memorised so there’s work to be done here. I didn’t touch this for several months (and it shows) but although I can’t play it fluently at all, it is in reasonable health for the effort it got. With both Rebikov and Mendelssohn demanding less time over the coming month or two, I expect this to be okay as it was fluent at one point. The shapes are broadly okay for my fingers.

This leads us to the Bachs, Johann Sebastien and his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel. Invention in E major is out (I have no idea but it really wasn’t coming for me at al) and Solfeggio is in. The read through for that went okay, and the chunks of it getting touched in practice is about half the piece. This is a piece that I absolutely have to memorise – I cannot read at Prestissimo velocity – and it is a piece that demands work with a metronome. It is nowhere close to written speed and that will be a while. But it altogether feels more realistic than his father’s easy training piece. It will also feed into the Rameau I have lined up for after.

Outside that, there were two or three other pieces this week. Reddit’s Piano Jam for the month had a small waltz by Shostokovich so I read that through, and I’ve also been working on the infamous C Major prelude that is Fur Elise-sque in its popularity with being hacked to pieces and murdered screaming. I’m influenced by Alexandre Tharaud’s carefully pedalled recording. I am happy with how this is going although strangely enough I struggle to memorise it. But it is very easy to read. And just because I was super angry about the Bach invention last week and needed something more motivational, I have Handel’s Sarabande on the go, also easy to read, but I haven’t tried the couple of variations yet.

At some point I need to write a piece on sightreading and discuss all the can’t lose hints I keep seeing.

BRU: Flagey Capucon and Trifonov

Back in June, when I was at Kissin, I was browsing the upcoming dates for Flagey and noticed that Messers Gautier Capucon and Daniil Trifonov were coming to play some Rachmaninoff in February. It seemed a long long way off last June but the day finally arrived on 7 February.

I’m going to be frank here: Daniil Trifonov is, in my experience, the best live concert pianist bar none at the moment and I’ve seen Yuja Wang, Lang Lang and Evgeny Kissin and Daniel Barenboim and Khatia Buniatishvili. So I would go to watch him playing variations on a nursery rhyme or any of the pieces on my 40 pieces learning list. Gautier Capucon plays the cello which isn’t really my instrument but I seriously appreciated his daily pieces during Covid and I cannot deny that he is a superlative musician. I had wanted to catch him live for a while. So, concert date was basically a marriage made in heaven.

The programme consisted of Debussy and Prokofiev sonatas in the first half, and then Rachmaninoff in the second half. I am not at all familiar with either of the first half sonatas, which is my own fault. They are beautiful and contrasting in style; to my mind rather mournful. The playing was masterful – there is something very special about how Trifonov balanced the depth and might of the Model D Steinway to allow the cello to sing. I enjoyed it very much but really, I was there for the Rachmaninoff more than anything. It was on a far higher plane than either of the two first half pieces. I read a comment once that Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata was not really a cello sonata as such, but a sonata for piano and cello. I tend to agree with this, especially after Wednesday night. I think the piano part could stand alone as a sonata in its own right; it has also many, many little sketches that you find littered around his concertos. Quotes, if you like.

On Wednesday, the two musicians played as equals. Where in the Prokofiev and Debussy, the piano very much tended to the accompaniment, in the Rachmaninoff, it was an equal partner in the endeavour. I loved it. Everyone around me loved it. I resolved to find the sheet music because I wanted to learn it.

There were two encores, Vocalise by Rachmaninoff and the Dance of the Knights by Prokofiev. The latter was particularly striking – I would like ot learn that too but it’s not something that my precious little Kawai digital will be able to fit. I’m also not sure if there’s a piano transcription currently available. I need to check.

With all due respect to the cellists amongst us, for me the highlight was the piano playing. I first saw Trifonov playing Rach 2 about 7 years ago in the Philharmonie in Luxembourg – I had no idea who he was but I would go to any concert of Rach 2 that I happen across. He does things with a piano that I lack the capacity to describe; but he makes me feel, oh how he makes me feel. I was so glad I did not miss him this time (I wound up on a waitlist for him last year). I really hope next year he comes back and plays a concerto with one of the orchestras here in Brussels. I would love to see him in that context again. Gautier Capucon will be back to do a masterclass at the Elisabeth Chapel in Waterloo in March.

All told, a wonderful evening. For the Rachmaninoff, Gautier has a recording with Yuja Wang. It is beautiful but far from being the same experience; the piano is some steps back and of course, nothing matches the sound of a grand piano in the flesh.

Exchanging Bachs

I’m tired of Bach’s two part invention in E major. It’s not coming right for me; it’s lagging far beyond the other three pieces that I am doing for the Grade 6 ABRSM and the more I work on it, the more dispirited I feel.

The other pieces were relatively quick to learn under finger so I wondered if I might do better with a different piece. I didn’t remember wanting to do much of List A for the Grade 6 when I looked so I wasn’t totally enthusiastic. But that was almost one year ago and I’ve happened across more music in the meantime. So at some point since then, I had bought CPE Bach’s Solfeggio and added it to the to be learned list.

Is it a good idea to skip on the two part invention? Do I really want to admit to a piece of music besting me? It’s Bach – it’s supposed to be a challenge.

But there’s the question of keeping focused on the objective and the objective was not actually Bach; that was just a contribution. Something else could contribute – it wasn’t the only piece on the syllabus.

So I went and looked to see what else was on the syllabus and I idly considered some Schubert before I noticed the CPE Bach and thought, wait, don’t have I have that piece now in the the sheet music collection? I’m sure I bought it in Trier….

The effort on the JS Bach is almost certainly not wasted. It feeds through into improvements in other piano skills. The read through of the CPE Bach was joyfully straightforward. My sight reading. It’s not necessarily a difficult piece to read although it’s a bit finicky to play with the hand switching, and also, the fact that it is played at Prestissimo. But it feeds into the Rameau that I want to do next year so there is that.

This decision will probably cost me a month (not superb but still) but I’m also a lot happier to move away from a piece that was making me unhappy. And this variety of syllabus was why I chose the ABRSM rather than the RIAM when I picked back up the piano exams.

New listening

Lucas Debargue has an upcoming album of Fauré’s complete piano music. Apple has been dropping tasters and it really is rather attractive. This arrived during the week.

I already have some Fauré on my TBL list, one of the romances from Opus 17. It’s been on my list for a while (that’s Alexandre Tharaud’s responsibility) and I even have the sheet music. I think it is also on the 40 pieces list but I am working (sort of) through the easy ones, Anyway, the music for this appears to be available via Barenreiter too. I’m not sure I want to buy any more music just yet though (this does not mean I won’t).

20240204 Practice Diaries

It appears I missed last week. I don’t think last week was a good week anyway. I missed a few days but I still got myself into the silver league on Tonic.

This week hasn’t been the worst. I missed two days – the first two days of a new job. There was measurable progress. I’m working four pieces this week, with some snipping time on one other piece. There was nothing from the 40 pieces challenge.

So: Bach, my nemesis 2 part invention in E major. Light of my life, dark of my soul. This week, bar 7 is severely weakened and I am very slowly gaining ascendency. It’s far from perfect but in slow practice it is rarely wrong. At speed, it is always wrong. But that’s okay. I’ve started working on the second part and while the same rhythm pattern is to be found, it is not causing the same trouble so far. I have a way to go. What is likely to be more of an issue is the fingering on black keys. I have a lot of work to do there. I estimate it will take about a month at the current practice rate.

The Mendelssohn is more or less under control and in that zone where it’s being practice not to make mistakes in it. This will also reduce the amount of time going to it so next week I will start back at Elissa Milne’s piece.

Rebikov is heading the same way. There are occasional memory and fingering hick ups and I honestly hope my neighbours like it because they heard it a lot yesterday. I must say I like the piece a lot more than I expected when I started learning it first – it has some unusual fingering shapes but I know it has freed up the lack of flexibility in my fingers a lot. I expected that more from the Bach but it isn’t really happening. Anyway, over the next week or so, I expect the practice focus to move from getting it right to not getting it wrong. I will keep this and the Mendelssohn in regular repertoire afterwards.

For non-exam pieces, the main work is on one of Bach’s preludes – the famous one, basically. I like the way it sounds and it forces me to address how I practice – I practice to memorise, this is clear. Anyway, I’d like to finish that and add it to repertoire as well.

The open question, of course, is what I move to as the time taken by these pieces reduces and I work towards the exam rather than the learning. An obvious answer is to start looking at the exam pieces for Grade 8 which I’ve targeted before end of 2025. The one I would like to start most is Rameau’s Cyclops but I also have a map in my mind about what needs to be finished to feed into the next grade and for the Rameau I would like to be on top of the Bach. I am not on top of the Bach. For the Rebikov, the choice is either the Rachmaninoff or Debussy. The fixed pieces are:

  • Rameau – Les Cyclopes
  • Tchaikovsky June from the Seasons
  • Debussy Reverie
  • Rachmaninov, Moment Musical Opus 16/5

The obvious ones to start with are the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I will map the Debussy to Milne and the Rachmaninov to Rebikov. Tchaik builds on Mendelssohn.

I don’t want to constantly say we’ll see and depending on where they go, I might revise my planning. Grade 6 is currently pencilled in for April which, Bach pending is now realistic provided the practice schedule does not fall apart.

For January, it feel apart on the days I was travelling. I find that okay.