Dreams and a new year

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.

Hard pieces

  • 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.

performing

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. 

And for that reason, I think it went well. 

Christmas is coming and with it, arranging duties

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.

The death is announced…

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.

New music and fewer excuses

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.

The current work plan can be found here.

 

Some useful Youtube links

Alexandre Tharaud – Nocturne in C# Minor, Chopin (promo for his Journal Intime Album which I otherwise like very much)

Leif Ove Andsnes – Valse Triste, Sibelius (playing notes and background extracts)

Things that scare you

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.

Music to inspire – Valse Fantaisie

The National Symphony Orchestra in Ireland have a regular season of concerts during the winter months all of which are generally broadcast live on a Lyric FM. If you’re familiar with World Concert Hall, it’s usually linked from there on the date of broadcast. One day earlier this year, I was a bit late tuning in, much to my chagrin and disorganisation, and missed pretty much most of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto (the single most popular piece of music over the life of Classic FM’s Hall of Fame). The soloist was not one I knew, but he was good enough to do an encore. He played a cheerful sounding short piece which I liked very much, so I went doing some investigating. It transpired his name was name was Vyacheslav Gryaznov. The piece was Italian Polka, and it was his own transcription. I liked it very much and I searched some more and came across a transcription he did of Glinka’s Valse Fantaisie. I thought it was fantastic.

I also figured it was going to be challenging. It is for various reasons. But it is also glorious. I love the opening chords. I love the fact that I have to work very hard at playing parts of it, in places because it is a big stretch for me. I know all about the dangers of short fingers – after all, I’ve tried and failed to play the opening chords of Rach 2m (but I don’t care. I still do it). But there is something very passionate about the opening few bars. I can play them ad infinitum on the odd occasion that I have free time enough to do it.

I ordered the music almost immediately – it is published by Schott who have an online shop – and it makes me happy that it is up on the piano. I have a lot of sheet music – and I will possibly never get to play all of it in my life.

But still.

Every once in a while, something comes along and punches you in the gut and says “this is what you want to be”. In a way that no other piece of music ever has, this piece did that. It isn’t awe inspiring in the way that Rach 2 is – it’s awe inspiring in the way it simply makes you want to play.

The Royal Irish Academy inflicted some Bartok and Kabelevsky on me when I was a teenager. I’ve never really forgiven them for that because I found both of them really unappealing and I didn’t have much room for manoeuvre on that front. I’ve often wondered how things would have been if I got more Mozart and Chopin as a teenager than a Pentatonic Tune that wrecked my head when I was about 14. And I would have loved to come across some of what Vyacheslav Gryaznov has done now, if only to be inspired to keep going.