Some time before Christmas, this cropped up on my youtube recommendations.
We don’t get Pianist Magazine here and being somewhat concerned about moving, I tend not to go for postal subscriptions. But I figured I had a couple of trips to Ireland so if I got lucky, I’d pick up that magazine and if not, I’d do a one off online order for it. I liked that piece a lot. It seems I like certain waltzes as my queue of music to learn includes a Sib waltz and there is the ongoing behemoth Valse Fantaisie and I’ve got a transcription of the Masquerade Waltze by Khachaturian as well.
But I have no hope of actually learning any of these things without a bit more work.
2018 had some high points. I performed in public again for the first time in a few years; I played a few beautiful pianos, some more than once. I fell in love with a Steinway; I won’t ever be able to afford it. And I built this site with a view to working harder. Some of the work happened but not regularly, so objectives and goals were either not met, or were interrupted.
So for 2019, the overall objective is to get more work done, more technical improvements, and a couple of pieces finished or pushed forward. There are two big pieces I want to learn which are challenging and long term projects.
Ballade No 1 in G Minor – Chopin
Valse Fantasie – Glinka/Gryaznov
Less hard pieces
Valse Triste, Sibelius
Sur Le Fil – Tiersen
Valse d’Amelie – Tiersen
Nocture in C#m – Chopin
Christmas Tree – Ribokov
From a technique point of view, I have some Hanon and Czerny to work on. After that, no skillset issues – keep practising sight reading and relative pitch exercises and continue auxiliary reading.
5 December, concert at work. I volunteered despite the fact that the previous time I did it, I had been terrified. In a way, I did it because it did terrify me. I sometimes wonder about my motivation.
I sit at the piano; in this case, a rather lovely K Kawaii which I imagine is around 20 years old. The previous time I did this, my hands shook so much I could not fix them; this time, they shook too. But this time, unexpectedly, I could control them. It transpires that talking, however briefly, to an audience, goes a long way towards soothing my nerves.
I was looking for some choral music today, a piece out of Mors et Vita which I have already loved. Unfortunately I find it hard to find stuff on Google Music sometimes and a search brought up a load of Faust but no Mors et Vita. There aren’t too many recordings of the choral version of it lying around although an orchestra transcription pops up now and again. This is what I was looking for:
It is a great recording. Well worth buying. Michel Plasson did some great stuff with Gounod – I think it’s his recording of Faust I have too. Anyway the choir kicks in after about 2 minutes. Absolutely great stuff. I know this is a piano blog but seriously, you need to have an open mind.
However, Google did reveal that there was a new album of piano music by Gounod lying around, by Roberto Prosseda. I’ve been listening to it since I switched away from the Pearlfishers by Bizet this evening and I have to say it is gorgeous. From the opening La Veneziana, to the variations on Bach’s Ave Maria.
I’m not sure what sort of piano they used for the recording Prosseda seems to use some historic instruments and this has very much the feel of una corda. In particularly, I like this piece here:
It’s the opening track on the album and rather gorgeous. I’m tempted to go looking for it. ETA: Sheet music is here.
During the year, I volunteered to play at a concert of international music, just a couple of pieces from my home country, and following that, I now occasionally get invited to play again at regular work concerts. I love the idea; I’m not always around but I want to do it because the first time I did it, I had a major attack of the nerves at the keyboards, and it did not go as well as it could have, compared to rehearsals.
So really, I need to do it more often, to cater for dealing with stage fright.
The run up to Christmas sees an interest in Christmas music, and so, I was looking at Christmas carols from Ireland. There are actually very, very few carols in the Irish tradition. A good chunk of the ones actually in Irish are basically translations.
The best known of the Irish carols is probably the Wexford Carol – everyone has had a go at it (there’s a particularly interesting version involving Alison Krauss, for example). It is sometimes called the Enniscorthy Carol as well, another town in the Wexford area. In the Irish language, we also have Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil. After that the options are a little limited.
The Wexford area, however, has another set of carols, which are very tightly bound up in a local tradition. They are called the Kilmore Carols and they are song in the church in Kilmore every year. They used to contain large chunks of Yola, which is a local English dialect, although that has been standardised to some extent, in the intervening years. They have been sung in that church every year since the 1700s and they are sung by a choir of six men. That choir, since the 1700s, has always included at least one member of a local family line. According to research I have done, they used to be sung in most churches in the Wexford area as an annual Christmas habit.
In terms of style, they can be described as a combination of sean-nós and plainchant. There are snippets of them online, and the sheet music has been available for years.
I am still looking at the choice, limited as though it is, and considering which I will arrange for piano. But I am looking forward to playing them.
I woke up on Thursday to the news that Micheál Ó Súilleabhán was dead.
Micheál Ó Súilleabhán was an iconic musician in the Irish world of music. He worked his way through academia – not a route commonly followed by musicians operating in the trad genre, and he pushed the music forward in ways which I’m sure shocked many people at the time. He put out some iconic albums – for me the Dolphin’s Way was life changing.
Most of the piano players operating in trad world at the time were pretty much background fulfilling the role of a base/percussion filler. Vamping, we called it and it’s all over albums from the 1960s, 1970s, any classic céilí band album. The first person really to do anything to bring the piano to the front and centre; to make it an instrument of melody was pretty much Micheál Ó Súilleabhán. At home alone, I could not really get the hang of vamping and I didn’t see why I should. I played the piano accordion and that was a melody instrument, so why not the piano also? I’m not saying I’m groundbreaking – I wasn’t. But I did things that I heard no one else doing.
The Dolphin’s Way changed all that. To my mind, it is one of the most influential albums of Irish music of all time, and the person behind it was Micheál Ó Súilleabhán. While the Dolphin’s Way was purely piano, he had also done some work with harpsichords on earlier albums.
The piano still isn’t really a central focal point of Irish music. Maybe in a way it is too classical, and most of the training in Ireland certainly is. But the thing is, people came after Micheál Ó Súilleabhán. Caoimhín Vallely for example. And Micheál Ó Súilleabhán pushed the forward and promoted them.
He is an awful loss to music in Ireland, and he was very young when he died. I was deeply shocked by the news.
Yesterday I got to visit the friendly Model D Steinway which I am in love with but will never own so that made the day a rather lovely day. I did it early in the morning too, so it started off well.
Friday, I went to my friendly local sheet music shop. I was looking for School of Speed by Carl Czerny and if I could have found the Opus 27 C sharp minor Nocturne by Mr Frederic Chopin, I would have been happy. Instead, I picked up one of the other items on my list; the Preludes. On the downside, I have not actually had any time to do any serious practice in the past week or so and I don’t really have any major progress to report. I won’t have time tomorrow either.
I have been thinking about how I can minimise the impact of the lost days – tomorrow I will spend a lot of time travelling, for example, so how can I best use that time?
Well, I have big gaps in music theory, so I have downloaded some reference books to see about filling those gaps, and I am weak in some respects in reading music, so I have apps to work on that (it’s been effective so far).
The other thing I will want to do is finally set some goals and objectives. I have a lot of sheet music – I went to the trouble of listing the music I have here (as opposed to the stuff which is in storage in Ireland) – and there is plenty of it. I’d like to learn some of it.
I have two major targets, both of which are overwhelming jobs for someone at my level, one of which is the Valse Fantaisie by Glinka/Gryaznov. The other is Ballade number 1 by Chopin (although there is a good chance I will travel there via Ballade number 2 first). They are both big pieces of music. Alan Rusbridge talks about the time he put into the Chopin – we are talking a full year and then some. The Valse Fantaisie is an equally large challenge although I suspect it has a different set of obstacles.
But these are not good goals for measuring progression. So I bought Hanon, and now also the School of Speed and from the point of view of piano technique, I plan to work through the Hanon and Czerny on an ongoing basis.
In addition to that, I need to finalise an arrangement of some Irish Christmas Carols (Wexford Carol, I am looking at you) for a concert on 5 December, but these are not as taxing as the thing which cause me to get better at various aspects of the piano. So I am wondering about some shorter pieces.
I have had late night Arrangements with Chopin (that man….) and his posthumous Nocturne in C# Minor. I love the opening chords and when you have been spending many hours over a bunch of octaves, the accessibility of what has to be one of Chopin’s least difficult pieces from a finger position point of view (whatever about interpretation) is very welcome. Particularly if you are doing this at 1am because you’re suffering from insomnia.
So that’s on the list of targets. The other item I am reviewing with a view to putting it on the list of short term targets is Valse Triste by Sibelius. I have two great recordings of that, one by Alexandre Tharaud and one by Leif Ove Andsnes. There is some fantastic emotion in that piece. I expect it to be challenging, although hopefully, not as high a mountain as the Valse Fantaisie is.
Today classifies as a not particularly productive day. Missed the 7am slot (frustrating but not unusual lately). I had some time free this evening so I played random stuff by ear.
Mostly, I play piano either very late at night (thanks insomnia) or first thing in the morning, so I’m more often than not, plugged into headphones. At 7pm, I cast them off on the grounds that well, it’s not like anyone should reasonably be trying to sleep at this time. The piano sounds a lot better without the headphones. But I didn’t play especially well; this is why I prefer doing the hard graft in the mornings. My fingers hurt after a day at a computer keyboard, a day sitting down. And truth be told, my planning isn’t going that well at the moment.
I probably should do a little more planning and a little less random entertainment. Today, I played my way through the Irish stuff which is instinctive, if not second nature, Sliabh nBan now that I’ve identified the name of it. The party pieces of Trip to Ireland, Kimiad, Foggy Dew. Stuff I can play with the rhythm on Róisin Dubh. But it was more a trip to play rather than practice. I am not sure how productive it is.
I have decisions to make. There is a Christmas concert coming up which I may or may not volunteer for, and so music will have to be chosen. I will choose from the Irish repertoire because there will be other people to choose from the higher level stuff. I’ve already chosen two pieces which I will need to arrange. I’ve looked at both of them tonight but am not really sure that I have them down the way I want them to sound. So I need to think about that.
After that, one of the jobs I want to do is list all the sheet music I have to hand. There’s quite a lot. I’ve been looking for a decent sheet music manager and I haven’t really found the one I want. I don’t want to spend hours scanning music, and I prefer working with paper (Tommy Doyle talks about ForScore here and I’m really not sure). But I also don’t know how much time I want to spend typing up lists and maintaining databases. I sort of wish there was an Apple Music Match for sheet music. You know, I’d point it at my copy of Ludovico Einaudi’s greatest hits, and magically it would appear in my library. But then there is loads of other music like the stuff I download from Petrucci or Freescores or Piano Street. It’s an admin job rather than a piano job.
So yeah, that needs to be done, and I need to transcribe my own arrangements of stuff, my own occasional compositions.
Today I was looking for Christmas music from Ireland for the piano, or at least Christmas carols and I remembered that Micheal O’Suilleabhain had a piece called Oiche Nollaig which means Christmas Night. There is a very striking arrangement of it on an album called The Dolphin’s Way I think but there’s a very decent youtube video of it played by Sean de Burca.
The sheet music doesn’t seem to be available. I had a look for it.
Anyway, while I was doing that, it occurred to me that really, I know Micheal O Suilleabháin for composing and arranging and I wondered how he approached piano practice. Presumably he’s done a lot of it over the years because certain things are just really second nature to him and you don’t get there without a lot of work. I mean, my instincts to build almost anything in the keys of Am, Em, G, D, Dm, C, A and E are fairly nothing compared to some of his fun things.
I realised I did not really know how to define practice. It was much easier when I was a teenager, of course. Here’s the RIAM grade N book, here’s a bunch of scales you need to be able to reproduce. And there’s some theory you need to know. You do the grade pieces under protest. You do the scales under protest
But I don’t do the grades any more. Oh I’ve thought about it. And is it really practice if it doesn’t hurt a little? What is training really? For someone who is a composer/arranger, what do they do? How do they build their practice routine? I mean, I bet some of these guys have forgotten more music than I have ever known.
Does Micheal O’Suilleabhan spend a few hours practising his own repertoire or is that just playing for pleasure the way I see it for myself? Or does he knock out some Liszt and Chopin etudes when no one is watching?
I don’t know. I don’t even know how to imagine answering that question.
Anyway, in tandem with that, I read a rather inspiring book by Charles Cooke where he deals with restarting the piano as an adult. It was written in a very different era to mine, of course, and the exhortation to buy records (which were almost luxuries at the time) was charming in a world where all you have to do is go to Youtube, iTunes, Google Music, and find pretty much any recording you want to find, of any piece of music. Including my hated Pentatonic thing by Bartok. But Cooke had one message which is as relevant today as it was when you would be lucky if your local record store had the recording of a piece of music you were looking for. Practice.
Practice for at least an hour every day. I pretend I do this, although real life is fighting hard against it. In theory, though I practice between 7am and 8am most workday mornings at least. The question is, how do I get best out of that time?
Cooke suggests time spent between repertoire, sight reading and technique. He suggests the bulk of time should go to repertoire and it should be repertoire you like. Maybe 10 minutes should go to technique. But that you should control the repertoire and the technique you choose to do. And if you practice for an hour daily, you will get better at piano.
I know for the last 40 years that if you practice something, you will get better at it. But I don’t know how to structure the practice really at the moment and this is something I am thinking about. I know you can’t practice in a vacuum and that you need goals and objectives. I know that I will be a year at least at Valse Fantaisie and I also suspect that one of the reasons I often default to the stuff I find easy is because I find it easy and because the rate of progress with Valse Fantaisie is glacial. Also, I am a perfectionist. Those 8 bars are hard
Also, I bought Hanon, and have found it less so much tedious and rather therapeutic.
So, I am thinking more in terms of strategic planning. I have plenty of sheet music. My daily music activities often include time on the tram working through sight reading apps. I know that’s improving, particularly on the top of the staff. Does this count as practice? Well yes, even if it’s away from the piano. I need to take account of the effort there. The bottom of the staff is proving harder and I need to move to the bass clef too
In terms of repertoire, I’d like to start AND finish something. This is probably unrealistic in the short term with Chopin Ballade No 2 and Gryaznov-Glinka Valse Fantaisie. They cast a different glow on things like Nocturne in C Sharp (posth) and the Moonlight Sonata. So I see an argument in favour of working through a challenge piece and a more accessible piece.
So, in short, for my piano practice duties, I see the following being necessary:
Technique/School of Speed (Czerny)
Repertoire Impossible Dream
Sight reading practice
Transcription of own output
After that, I can have self indulgence time. Playing the easy stuff, the stuff I already know, the stuff I want to maintain. I need party pieces and I used to play cliche Fur Elise and cliche Mozart Sonata in C (first movement). I’ll find out soon enough if they have made it to my piano music storage here but meh, cliché.
I should probably write up some goals to be honest and also, set priorities for those days when I don’t get to everything.
I moved from Dublin to Luxembourg in 2016 and part of my journey to Luxembourg took me through the Gare de L’Est in Paris. Flight to Paris, you see, and a train to Luxembourg. I had HOURS to kill in Paris, armed with quite a lot of luggage.
Gare de L’Est has a Yamaha piano, and I summoned up all my guts to play it – if you look for the #pianoengare hashtag, you’ll know that the SNCF pianos are often played by extremely able pianists and I think there is video of Valentina Lisitsa, for example. It’s intimidating and I have to be honest, I didn’t at that time, have a lot of self confidence. What I had, I summoned up and noodled at the piano for around 20 minutes before I got cold and went in search of something to drink. It was…interesting. I had not actually played the piano regularly for many years.
It’s a good piano.
I have a dreadful tendency not to be able to say no sometimes, and especially, if someone is asking me to do something which in a way, terrifies me. This year, I got asked to play piano in public-ish (how public is an even which features a bunch of your work colleagues) and with a lot of concern, I agreed. There were some limitations in terms of repertoire and eventually, having decided on some pieces, I got on and did it. I won’t say it went perfectly – I had a nervous crisis at the piano, precisely because I knew all these people. In a way, the train station pianos are easier.
But it was good for me, not least because it provides an unusual motivation to practise, and it made me think about how I approached the piano. Do I play for me, or do I want to shine and sparkle for others?
I tend to think I play for myself. That it is a self indulgence. I’d like to hope it’s one which will stave off dementia in about 40 years time (I dread aging for some reason). But I also felt that accepting the risk of doing things which scare me – like performing in public – is good for me. Not just because it motivates me to practice, but also because it motivates me to open up. Both pieces I played back in May in a work concert were arranged by me (with not one piece of sheet music to hand because that’s just not the way I work). I’ve been asked about a transcription since, and that too, has motivated me to think about how I might approach that. There is software on my iPad, but I find, I prefer to play the piano than actually sit down transcribing what I play. No matter.
The other point is that, there is a difference between the safe things I play in public (ie the things I can’t possibly make a truly ridiculous mess of) and the things that I challenge myself with at home (Ballade No 2 by Chopin). I am thinking that perhaps, this needs to change.