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.

I am an amateur pianist

To be frank, if I had a life plan, the reality did not exactly align with it. What this means is I didn’t comply with society’s expectations for me (to bankrupt myself buying property in a property boom in Ireland, effectively) and I only got around to buying my own piano when I was 49 years old. I started hiring one about 4 years before that. So for a good chunk of my life, I assumed that as soon as I bought an overpriced house in Ireland, I would wander down to Pianos Plus and buy a piano too. Something to play until I had saved up the money for a grand piano, probably a Kawai. They have nice grand pianos.

The holy all of that is that for most of my adult life, I didn’t play the piano regularly. I played pianos in piano shops. I was too scared and shy to play them in railway stations, such that the first time I did was emotionally a big thing. I chose the Gare du Nord to do it as well. For some reason, I’ve always been afraid of disturbing people. I’m not sure why. Plenty of people disturb me. Anyway, the frank end all of this is that I’m never going to be a concert pianist and people are never going to be discussing my habit of wearing trainers and a Christian Dior dress on the stage of a concert hall. I don’t know how Yuja Wang plays the pedal with high heel shoes. That aside. I do want to play as well as I can and that means pushing myself.

One of the other things I put myself through were work recitals and there, there were a lot of people who clearly played classical music better than I can. There are a couple of reasons for this but the clear one is they played more than I did. I’m not saying I want to catch up but I will say this: if I play more I will get better.

There is a lot of material about getting better at the piano on the internet. None of it is really obviously pitched at me or people like me.

Most of what I find on the internet – with some notable exceptions – assume one of two things:

  • I am a complete and utter beginner
  • I am a full time student with aspirations of being a full time concert pianist playing all the great concert halls.

There are different impacts for both assumptions:

Complete and utter beginner

Here’s all the stuff you need to learn how to read music. Here are easy arrangements of famous pieces of music. Here are cheat sheets so that you can get away without practising that much. Here are crappy videos so you don’t even have to learn how to read music in the first place.

Full time student who is the next Evgeny Kissin

You have all the time in the world to engage in reading crap tonnes of things, practice 12 hours a day, create practice journals, bullet journal planning, learn every study written by Chopin plus the Liszt transcendentals.

I am none of these people.

Seriously. I would suggest that the following is more likely to be true: I’m not a complete beginner. I also have a full time job that often spills over into more than full time. There are days I have worked pretty much 12 hours. I spent a good chunk of my life dealing with household management. For any adult, especially people who have kids or pets, there is not 24 hours in every day. I sometimes have to get up at 5.30 to go on business trips. I get home at 8 or 9pm. Around that, I have to eat, clean. All that.

What I am saying is that for people like me, we’re looking for a little organisational help which does not involve spending ages in personal piano administration. I do not want to spend time doing lots of planning in advance of a practice session. Right now I’m trying to correct fingering for one bar of Bach. I don’t need to write a paragraph or a bullet point on this.

I probably need a teacher but without cleaning up my work schedule it’s going to be difficult (it’s coming though, oh boy is it coming).

So, yeah, I intend to avoid the YouTube videos that tell me to spend time I haven’t got over planning one line objectives: Play this piece properly.

That aside, I want to mention that there are a couple of actual teaching accounts which focus on technique and clue you in for how to play particular pieces. So special mention to the online teachers who assume you can organise yourself but if your objective includes dealing with the polyrhythms in Debussy and Brahms, here’s some support. Kudos thus to ToneBase, Josh Wright Piano, Denis Zhdanov, LeCheile music, Pianist Magazine

That being said, Pianist Magazine ran a competition for amateurs and wrote a piece on a review of their competitors and how many of them had full time, often highpowered jobs. They focused a bit too much on the music/maths link for my liking.

I suspect the vast majority of people who buy that magazine are people who are not full time concert or otherwise pianists. In many respects, it’s the people who love pianos, the sounds pianos make and they sounds they can make with pianos who are where the money is in the piano industry.

More people like me, I guess.

New [to me] sheet music (3)

I found myself myself in a secondhand bookstore today looking at their sheet music collection. It was…disappointing in a way but exhilarating that two second hand bookshops in Brussels have sheet music. Today, you were quids in if you played the violin, the electric organ or the clarinet. Actually I assume that if you play the clarinet, it must be quite wonderful to fall over the odd bit of clarinet music anywhere, nevermind a shop more used to selling fiction and comic strips.

Anyway, times were thin on the piano music but I picked up two pieces, one being a duplicate (of more anon) and the other being by Guastavino whose music I had to order specially lately (I haven’t started the piece yet). He is not yet out of copyright but is difficultly in print. I’m not sure what this will be like but I bought it anyway.

New to me Sheet Music
Bailecito by Carlos Guastavino

What struck me about it was that each page was stamped with what looks like a publisher’s mark.

Anyway. I have it.

As a teenager, aside from Rach II, a couple of pieces of cinema music seared through my mind, one of which was Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto from the movie Dangerous Moonlight. As I mostly found classical music through figure skating at that time, I assume that’s where I picked that up from. Anyway, we found a recording, probably on Naxos at some point, but the sheet music eluded me for years and years and years and years. In fact, I only picked a new copy of it sometime in the last 2 years since Pointe d’Orgue became known to me (one of the two sheet music shops that I trust in Brussels. I ordered the Guastivino mentioned above from the other, Brauer. I know them both. Anyway, Pointe d’Orgue had the Adinsell so after a near 25 year search I had it in my hands.

One of the fascinating things for me with orchestral piano music is that you can get lots of it and it all has an accompaniment for a second piano or is a reduction for 2 pianos. So the Hummel I picked up last week was a bit of a novelty. Anyway, today’s haul includes Warsaw Concerto, or more specifically, Concerto de Varsovie, solo piano.

New to me Sheet Music
Warsaw Concerto, French publication, Richard Adinsell

If you’re looking for a good recording of it, I’m inclined to suggest Jean Yves Thibaudet. You can have a listen on Youtube here.

Jean Yves Thibaudet pushing out into the dead of night

Actually, I went looking for a trailer for the film Dangerous Moonlight which I have never seen and instead, I found this. The music is very clearly the star and yet, it’s completely different to any recording I have ever heard of it.

If you want to read more about the movie, you can find it here.

Anyway, they cost almost nothing. The total I spent in the shop was 5 euro 50 cents and in addition to the sheet music there was a kids book and a how to draw ballet dancers book.

When I got home I went to my “keep these safe” documents where I thought there was a copy of the piano solo of the Legend of the Glass Mountain by Nina Rota. Apparently I have put it somewhere even safer.

This is something I’ve been looking for almost as long; and I found a copy of it in the Sheet Music Library in the Central Library in Dublin about 30 years ago having searched for a while for it. No dice but I seemed to acquire a photocopy of it. I never got around to learning it but it’s still on my TBL list. I see a copy of it on eBay though which will post to Belgium so I am going to rectify that.

I’m interested in second hand sheet music sources. Point me at them.

New sheet music

I went on a shopping spree today. I wanted to buy the Goldberg Variations – one of the things that Vikingur Olafsson succeeded in making me do was decide I wanted to learn some of them, with what time I don’t actually know but hey, I can read them anyway. I also wanted to buy Un Sospiro by Liszt – I’ve seen a couple of videos of people trying to learn them lately and I realised it is a truly lovely piece (I must have heard some serious butchering as well. In fact, I have a shopping list of music I want to buy for which I don’t have the time to learn, I’m struggling with my current set pieces and also, there’s a monumental amount of other stuff going on.

So I walked to the shop, and spent money. They had one copy of Goldberg (it’s probably popular at the moment for one reason or another).

More sheet music
A pretty blue book of Bach music.

And I found one copy of the Three Concert Etudes which gave me Un Sospiro. I don’t expect to touch this for a while, but hey, it merits reading and occasional experimentation.

More sheet music
Mount Liszt

I came across a video of Helene Grimaud, aged about 18 years ago (so recorded on 4:3 TV back in the day) rehearsing the piano part of Schuman’s first violin sonata. I liked it and while I have no handy violinist, I still wanted to learn some of it. They had it, past tense because now I have it.

More sheet music
An essential ingredient is lacking but so what.

They also had some Barenreiter anniversary specials – both they and Henle seem to be celebrating birthdays at the moment – so I picked up their collection of selected Brahms pieces.

More sheet music
I like Brahms, don’t you

I tend to pick up collections like this for “sight reading practice” which usually turns into “oh this is a nice Waltz or other, I should actually learn it rather than butchering it for 10 minutes”. We will see how it goes.

A few weeks ago, I found a shop selling second hand sheet music and had a flick through it and found one single solitary copy of the Hummel piano concertos for solo piano. I haven’t examined it in detail, but I assume it is just the piano part and if I want to play it with an orchestra, I’m on my own babe. But it is a thing of beauty.

More sheet music
Elitist secret music

I mean, isn’t the engraving gorgeous? I have one copy of Solveig’s Song which is recent but also beautiful. Oh I know the Henle blue covers are classy and stylish and all that, but seriously, some of the older designs are just more…beautiful. I could almost frame either of them (and since I somehow have two copies of Solveig’s, I actually could frame that one).

Anyway, since I bought the Rameau a while back I’ve not actually worked on learning stuff. I just blew my mind on stuff I already knew or arranged myself when testing the piano emulation software last week. Need to get back to work.

Record releases of note this week

I don’t intend to turn this into a regular feature but two records dropped yesterday which are probably worth your time.

Goldberg Variations – Vikingur Olafson. Vikingur extracted a 5 star review from the Guardian for his last live performance of these in London which is quite an achievement. It’s worth catching his social media clips actually talking about this recording because he achieves something which other pianists don’t. He places the music in the context of dreaming and backs it up. Variations 7 and 9 so far stand out.

Chopin Etudes – Annique Goettler. Annique Goettler runs the YouTube channel Heart of the Keys which is one of my go tos for feeling part of a piano community online. She’s been working on this project for a long time, the launch concert was 6 October (last night per my writing date) and one noteworthy comment from one of her local papers was the pointer at how many young people attended that concert.

Public Pianos – Heuston Station

I haven’t passed through Heuston so much lately so I did not realise the piano had been replaced. The new piano is still an old piano, but in some ways, it is an interesting piano. I’m not sure how old it is, but it’s a Zimmerman upright piano.

Station pianos
Piano in Heuston
Station pianos
Manufacturing sign – Gebr Zimmermann

If I have a few minutes, and the piano is free, I tend to sit down and play it, by way of encouraging the appearance of pianos. So here we go. I had a few minutes

March of the King of Laois, arranged Lynch

I wasn’t very inspired but this is one of the ones I tend to play if I want to check out the piano. To be fair, the piano is reasonably in tune (well done John Murphy), The right pedal seems a bit locked which is a pity.

You can still buy brand new Zimmermann pianos – the brand is owned by C. Bechstein – and for a while there definitely was a dealer somewhere in Dublin. They are nice pianos in my experience.

Pianos I have loved

I grew up with an English upright that had, I’m told, been restored before it was bought for my sisters. I decorated it myself when I was about five, using the chimney of my dolls house. It had a handy little nail in it which I could use to make marks on polished wood. I drew a house. I had more faith in my art skills at the age of 5 than I did for the subsequent 40 years. And probably more, let’s be honest.

Anyway. My life was upright pianos for most of my childhood. My teacher had an equally old piano; I think it might even have been older than ours, and to be frank, I don’t remember it having a brand. I think the wood had a polished banded pale gold pattery. That there were special pianos knocking around is something I didn’t really realise until I was 13 or 14 and read a book called A Genius at the Chalet School. The genius in question was an orphaned teenager who happened to be a gifted pianist. Her father had died, leaving her to some cousin or other as her guardian. She didn’t really integrate well with the teenage children of her guardian because she was, not to put too fine a point on it, a gifted pianist, and frankly, obsessed, possibly unhealthily so. She was sent to the Chalet School because they would work with the whole piano thing. Her cousins’ school put a limit of two hours on extra curricular activities, of which they considered music to be one. The Chalet School facilitated four hours of practice and ensured she had a decent teacher which was jolly good of them.

Anyway, all of that tedious detail aside, while her father was still alive, some teacher had told her father it was a good time to get her a good piano. He bought her a Bechstein.

I had never heard of a Bechstein but I assumed it was one of those grand pianos I occasionally saw on television. And now, I dreamed of seeing one, maybe even playing one.

It is far from grand pianos I was raised, to use a common put down in Ireland. Moving swiftly onwards. When I was about 15 years old, I went on a trip to London with my cousins and one of the touristy things we did was go to Harrods. They had expensive pianos. Life changingly expensive pianos. I’m not going to go all communist on you and talk about the evils of capital but in 1988, a half sized grand Bechstein in Harrods cost £24,500. I had just coughed up 14% of my total assets at the time on a copy of Rach II in Boosey & Hawkes so a casual piano purchase was off the table.

But the piano was beautiful. It was truly beautiful and they allowed me to play it. I was a lot worse at playing the piano at the age of 14 than I am at the age 50 (stands to reason), but I was able to understand why Nina, the girl in the book, played a Bechstein. It was truly a good piano.

At some point, I will re-write all this into a piece about children’s books that tangentially feature the playing of piano, the fact that they were written in the context of the British class system but that’s not what this story is about. The truth is, a Bechstein in Harrods was the first grand I ever played. My cousins thought I was nuts to touch something that cost as much as a house in Ireland did at the time. Now that I think of it, houses cost more than a Bechstein these days.

Since then, I’m not sure how many grand pianos I have played. I’ve a good idea of the different builders I have played. I’ve played another few Bechsteins, in piano dealers in Ireland, the UK and I think also Germany. In particular I played one of the pianos that occasionally goes to the Royal Albert Hall. It was a beautiful piano, no doubt about it.

Possibly the most beautiful Bechstein I played was not the concert grand in a dealer in London, or the salon sized grand in Harrods, but a rebuild of a piano in a cabinet which I think date from 1882. It’s such a long time since I have seen it, I’m no longer certain of the date. It was in Pianos Plus in Dublin for a good while, and I played it most times that I went there.

But Bechsteins are not common as they used to be. Absent going to a C Bechstein showroom (I think the nearest to me now is the one in Paris which I skipped on a very hot day when I knew my fingers were not going to cooperate), I don’t get a chance to play them very often unless happenstance.

I’m not afraid of asking if I can play a piano in a piano shop and this means I have played quite a lot of pianos depending on opportunity. I spent a couple of years looking for a Fazioli because I had heard so much about them and in the end, went into a dealer in London (I may be dreaming here but I think the same dealer had the concert Bechstein that I played) and found a concert sized Fazioli, had a good with it, and did not get on with it at all. I was surprised and a little disappointed.

I’d heard so much. I can’t exactly explain what didn’t click. Mostly, it’s a question of feeling, how your body responds to the vibrations of the strings. But it was just one of those things. My local piano shop got a brand new salon sized one at some point, and it was a superlative piano. There was maybe only one or two other pianos I have played that were better than it, one is the 1882 Bechstein I mentioned above. The other was, somewhat unsurprisingly a Steinway D.

The plus point about the smaller piano is there’s an outside possibility you could eventually afford one. I still haven’t. The things I loved about the piano included its resonance – notes took an extraordinarily long time to fade away and you could do very interesting things given how sensitive the hammers were. I haven’t played that piano for a few years because I moved away but it’s definitely one of the best pianos I have ever played. Would I buy it? It depends on a lot of things. I don’t think it would be a safe apartment piano for me because I would never be able to give it full welly, as it were.

The very best piano I have played was a 15 year old Steinway Model D.

Steinway Love
Steinway. Current lords of the grand piano world. I got to play this a few times (honestly, every pianist should make friends with their local piano shops), and I also played a couple of brand new Model Ds in another nearby Steinway dealer. I get kickback from this but this is the only piano model that I would buy sight unseen brand new. I’ve played several and all of them have been excellent pianos. The slightly older one shaded it.

I’ve been told that if you order a Steinway D, you go to Hamburg to choose your own instrument; I dream of doing this. This, of course, is a totally unworkable dream given that NOWHERE I have ever lived even had a room for this.

In addition to the D, I have played a bunch of other Steinway grands, several Model Os of different ages, a couple of Model Bs and one Model C. When the time and money align, the likely battle could be between a Model B and a similarly sized Fazioli. As this is not the budget zone I am operating in at the moment, I need to temper my desires.

Aside from the Steinways, I have played at least one Boston, also salon sized, I think maybe 2m or the closest size. It’s a beautiful piano but this doesn’t totally surprise me because they are built by Kawai,. and I like Kawai pianos.

I have played quite a few Kawais, including one Shigeru Kawai (beautiful piano but not quite for me). I’ve played various ages from brand new to around 30 years old. I’ve played them in Dublin, Belgium and Luxembourg. Mostly, I have expected that when the time comes, I might find myself with a Kawai, again depending on budget and space. For a while, I preferred the older ones; now it will be a question of an individual piano. They are solid and reliable. They have a beautiful touch. I’m saying this because I have also played Young Changs (not for me) and also, I have played a few Yamahas.

The Yamahas have been an interesting mix. By default, I would say that Yamahas and I do not get on very well. I find them to have a very heavy action in general and I struggle to get a soft note out of them. They are physically more demanding to play than almost every other piano I have ever played. That being said, I have played two really beautiful C3s, one in Germany, one in Ireland. The one in Ireland followed a conversation with the piano salesman in Pianos Plus who told me there was one I should nevertheless have a go with; it had just been voiced by their technician and he had done an exceptional job on it. This was true. At that point in time, that Yamaha was as perfect a piano as I had played at that time in my life (but it couldn’t compete for my heart with the 1882 Bechstein).

Other pianos which I have played include a couple of Schimmels (nice pianos and I would love to visit their factory) and two pianos with French names, an Erard and a Pleyel, both of which I think were built in Germany. I wasn’t, to be honest, all that lost about either of them. They looked the part but did not really feel the part. I also have played a couple of Hanlets, one on French about 30 years ago, and one in Belgium about 25 years ago. They were nice pianos but not life changing.

For a long time, the main “big four” piano that I had not actually tried was Bosendorfer. This is another piano that comes with a huge reputation and I have so far only played one. I did not feel at ease with it and I’d like to play some others, maybe a very big one, and a 1.7 or sized one. I don’t have a Bosendorfer dealer near me so I think this will be a while.

Most recent “new” pianos that I have encountered are a couple of Belgian designed pianos. I’ve played a few Doutrelignes; there are two in the airport in Brussels and if they are free and I have time before my flight, I play them. They are lovely pianos; they have a gorgeous sound and from a keyboard action point of view, they are close to the top in my experience. I occasionally meet one when I hire a practice room at my local piano shop. I like them. Part of the deal with playing some Doutrelignes is that you are in a shop that has a Chris Maene straight strung piano, and yes, I have played it. What I will also say is I would like to play it a lot more. It generates beautiful heart moving vibrations. I needed to be alone with it.

The closest I have come to buying a piano is something I hadn’t previously heard of. I came across a prewar Ronisch. I loved it on first play. I can’t tell you why; it’s a prewar piano which means two pedals and ivory keys. It was not a very big piano but it has a beautiful soul. In a way, I think it reminds me of the 1882 Bechstein I mentioned about 90 minutes ago when I started writing this. I did a little research on the brand when I got home and one of the lovely selling points for me, at least, is that Rachmaninoff used to play one.


The piano itself plays beautifully but that little snippet of information, well “chef’s kiss”. His is now in the Rachmaninoff museum at his old summer house. Such a pity it’s not likely I will get to visit it any time soon. I am still reflecting on this.

And by the way, currently my own piano is a Kawai digital CA59. I love it because it allows me to play any time I like. Even if I eventually buy the Ronisch, or a Steinway B, I will keep it for that pleasure.

Piano dealers of note:

  • Kleber Luxembourg
  • Pianos Plus Dublin
  • Maene Brussels
  • Steinway Paris
  • Marcus Hubner, Trier
  • Jacques Samuel Pianos, London
  • Hanlet, Brussels