Snippets July 2023

Diversions from the plan

One of the reasons I want to fix my sightreading is so that I can also speed up the rate at which I learn. There are a couple of pieces which I am looking at picking up pieces, some of which are also future projects but I am not urgently looking to finish them – I will take little extracts here and there. Amongst the pieces currently on my list for snippet learning are

  • Rachmaninoff – Lilacs
  • Brahms – Opus 118/2 – Intermezzo in A major. I love this. There is an extract of the Tonebase tutorial for this by Seymour Bernstein and Garrick Ohlsson. I would kill for a recording of Garrick playing it. It’s just a complete punch in the gut and I feel so lonely listening to it. But Helene Grimaud has a great recording of it. I have started looking at a clip out of this and I really like how it makes me feel.
  • Chopin Barcarolle in F sharp. I’m so not a fan of this key but on my to do list there’s a torturous piece in D flat so this is mildly troublesome in comparison.
  • Nyman; The Heart asks pleasure first. I don’t know why I’ve a yen to play around with this.

Pianos and social media

There are a few piano forums around the place, PianoWorld and Piano Street being two. And there is r/piano on Reddit. I spend a lot of time on that one because I mostly read it on my phone and the other two aren’t really that friendly on a phone browser.

The thing about the online world, is you get a lot of trollery, and you get a lot of people making odd claims. Fantaisie Impromptu by Chopin is somewhat of a lightning rod for them. I started playing piano when I was 10 years old. I was not totally focussed on it in that I had school, dancing lessons, badminton, choir. My music teacher might tell you I was her best pupil ever; I’m not sure I was her most talented, but I was definitely very, very diligent. Very diligent. I mean, I practised. I tended to get distinctions in exams apart from an accident with the RIAM syllabus one year. At no point, however, were we ever going to discuss the question of Fantaisie-Impromptu or that I might approach it. I owned the sheet music of Rach 2 from the time I was 14 but that was purely indulgent on my part.

But there are a lot of threads for people who appear to be either humble-bragging, or seeking some sort of validation. Like they want to prove something or impress people. So a lot of people are “I learned this from synthasia” or “I’ve only been playing 3 years” or god forbid “3 months” and I can play Fantaisie-Impromptu”. I tend not to believe these stories but I’m interested in the context they operate in. How hard is this, if I can play this, am I able to play the hardest of Chopin’s Etudes. I have been playing 2 years and here’s my Rachmaninoff.

Or, how long will it take me to learn Ballade No 1 by Chopin, I can play Liebestraum 3 by Liszt”. It’s interesting but realistically, if you’re asking these questions, you probably can’t actually play it properly. It’s again like, people want to impress other people or themselves. They are interested in how hard it is (and therefore how proud they should be of being able to play it). But pieces come and go, I learned Fur Elise 15 years ago and I wouldn’t say I can play it now. I have to wonder, what are they trying to prove/achieve/impress? Most of these pieces are journeys and sometimes it’s not the right time to set off on them (if you have short fingers is it ever the right time for Rach?). I don’t know how many people like practising – I like being able to play pieces which is why I keep some pop repertoire on hand to play if people ask for something – but if you don’t acknowledge the effort that goes into learning pieces but are focussing on how much you can impress people by being able to knock out some hard Liszt or Ravel but then humblebrag that you started learning before breakfast…it’s a problem. In short, I see questions about difficulty coming from people claiming the kind of skills that would allow them to answer their own questions which leads me to question the claims. There are a lot of them lately.

By the way, Daniil Trifonov released a fantastic recording of the Fantaisie-Impromptu in 2017. You should check it out if you have a moment.

Autumn Leaves – Rebikov

It’s after midnight on a Friday night in Brussels. It hasn’t rained much today, but I napped this afternoon which tends to wreck in terms of sleeping. This is one of the reasons I have a digital piano of course (money being the other primary blocking in point in terms of a big acoustic piano). I played, late.

The focus this evening is Rebikov, the 4th piece for my Grade 6 exams. It’s been on the Grade 6 list in the past (therefore complies with the need for the self choice piece to be of equal difficulty of the other pieces). (in theory). I started it for the second time last night; truth be told the first time I looked at it, I had a LOT of problems with the left hand. Not to read, but to move between the notes with some element of grace. I set it aside. For the exam prep, I have been mostly working on the Mendelssohn, the middle of which has been causing major grief, and the Hillne which I have inexplicably completely forgotten. If you look at my goals page, you’ll see this is likely to be the last jazzy piece I do and in short, some of the styles in it are not instinctive to me. I do like how some of the chords fit together but I cannot commit them to memory and this is causing difficulty with the interpretation. I expected to be finished it and Mendelssohn’s nice Gondollied by end of July which is next Monday and I’m not there. But I also need to start the other two pieces with a little more seriousness, and the Bach is going very slowly at the moment. The Rebikov was stuck without petrol in the engine.

On second sight it does not appear to be as difficult as I imagined the first time I started it. I know that in my memory, what concerned me more than anything was the shapes I couldn’t make with my left hand. So I took the child honoured way of separating out the hands and built some experience with the right hand and that surprised me – it turned out to be surprisingly easy and it appears to have opened some doors to my mind. It has a beautiful melody, and I love the many triplets while recognising they will bring with them some 3:2 polyrhythms. But this is a journey. Then, instead of starting at the beginning with the left hand, I skipped to the last 10 or so bars, the close out. For this piece, it’s particularly beautiful and heart tugging. I get so much pleasure out of how it sounds, it distracts me from actually working on any of the rest of it.

Today, though, I bit that bullet. I’m really pleased with the progress on the opening 12 or so bars. There isn’t any consistency there, and I’m not always sure that I’m playing at my best at 11pm (if you heard my Mendelssohn just afterwards, you’d understand why I say this). Thing is, this was a desperate choice after realising some other choices (Reverie by Debussy) were probably too challenging. For the first time, I actually thought, you know, I like this. I like it enough that once this exam is done, I will keep it. I can’t say that about the Bach two part invention, not yet at least.

Rebikov has a waltz which I think is colloquially known as the Christmas Tree waltz. See here for a link to a video of it. I did actually eventually get that issue of Pianist so I have the sheets for it and anyway, I think he is dead long enough that it is up on IMSLP. It’s randomly on my learning list for when I have time and also can read music more fluently.

Gondellied, Mendelssohn Op 19, no 6

There are a few versions of this knocking around YouTube and one of them I will link below to take the blankness off the home page.

I don’t know where I came across this piece of music first; only that I liked it enough to say “I want to play that”. There is a very nice Gondola song around from Charles Gounod that is on my list also and I’ll come to that some other time.

This has turned up on the Grade 6 list for the ABRSM local examinations for the current period. It’s the primary reason I didn’t skip Grade 6 – I was learning this anyway. What is fascinating is how different the various versions of it this are. The Grade 6 prep videos (there are quite a few) are not very pleasant to listen to in the grand scheme of things – there is not a lot of softness to the playing. There’s an interesting tutorial that focuses on the rhythm. It’s one of the interesting things – I haven’t really struggled with the rhythm for this at all – but in general, if you listen to a version like Jan Lisiecki’s version, it is very soft and in the general direction of a lullabye. There’s a glorious softness of most of the track. But I tend to prefer the voicing on other recordings, like this one.

For the opening bars in particular, there is something that makes me so glad to be able to play the piano when the sound I want comes out of the piano. Something like this. There is a glorious voicing on this and the way that bars 3, 4, 5 and 6 progress just sets my heart on fire. You’ll here how I am currently get on with it on that last link. I’ve learned that instagram does not have a block so I’m going to move my piano stuff to YouTube at some stage. Must look into.

You can find the sheet music here (it’s No 6 inside the link). For the record I bought the Henle Urtext because that’s how I roll (can’t get enough of those lovely blue covers).

One of the lovely things about working on Grade 6 pieces is that they feel more or less like adult pieces, even the Bach two part invention which I have not yet conquered too much of. There’s a lot to be said for giving people the opportunity to play music they like (and not the worthy crap that people think they should play like Bartók, I’m not bitter at all).