Monday, September 28, 2009

What I'm playing this week

I'm still working hard on the Chopin Nocturne so I'll be able to record it in two weeks. I did my first test recording, and it wasn't terrible, so I'm hopeful it will come together. I also have parts of it memorized.

When I start working on a piece, I go through it and find the most technically challenging sections and practice those first. Such a simple approach, but it really works. It is expounded on in a classic book for amateur pianists: Playing the Piano for Pleasure, by Charles Cooke, who wrote for the New Yorker magazine. It was published in 1941, so in some respects it is dated, but the overall advice is excellent, and given in the droll New Yorker "Talk of the Town" style. I first read this book when I was a teenager and my mother checked it out of the public library. I remembered it over the years, and finally bought a copy five or six years ago.

A few key concepts:
1. Choose pieces that are within your grasp as an amateur. There's so much out there that even though you can't play Rach 3, you won't be bored.
2. Practice the hard parts first. Cooke used the metaphor of "setting fractures": If you find the weakest spots and practice them the most, they will end up being the strongest spots.
3. Memorize everything, and try to keep a minimum of pieces in your current repertoire so you have something you can play for people -- but only if they ask!

I mentioned this book once to a professional pianist friend, and she made a face and said, "I hate that book." Whatever. I can see its worth, despite pianist snobbery.

One of the best tools I've ever used for practicing, btw, is this little digital recording device: Zoom H4. It's small and light, with the microphones built in, so all you have to do to record something is turn it on and press a button. Then you can load the files onto a computer and listen to them. My favorite way to use it is to practice something to a level at which I'd consider performing it and then record it. I learn right away what needs fixing -- both because it serves as an audience (bringing on performance nerves) and because I can listen to the resulting recording objectively. It's almost better than having a teacher.

In this nocturne (Op. 27, No. 1), there's a stormy middle section that's meant to be played fairly fast. I zeroed in on that right away, and started practicing it with the metronome, trying to arrive at a tempo that would convey the agitato mood but that I could still play cleanly. The outer sections feature a flowing bass line with wide jumps and quick chromatic shifts. This I also turned into a mini-etude. Those are the immediate difficulties. The other point I'm working on is making the tempo changes -- the accelerandi and ritardandi -- sound natural.

I'm still working on the C-sharp major Bach prelude and fugue. I'm having trouble making myself practice it slowly; I get impatient and am thinking about my limited practice time and start rushing through it, and then I make too many mistakes. The reason I say "too many mistakes" is not just because it offends the gods of music but because once you make a mistake several times, it becomes ingrained and takes much more work to eradicate than if you had played it correctly from the beginning. I tried to record this last night, too, but the fugue fell apart.

I started practicing the other two Gershwin preludes this past week. I found this review of a CD of Gershwin music: "George Gershwin: The Original Manuscripts" played by the pianist Alicia Zizzo. I thought the following was interesting:
The three Gershwin Preludes have been much played in their original piano versions, and in innumerable transcriptions for various instruments. (I once played them in a recital in college.) Who knew that Gershwin - inspired by his main influence, Chopin - originally planned to created a parallel set of preludes to Chopin’s 24 (which had been in turn inspired by Bach’s)?  He was going to dub it The Melting Pot.  In his premiere performance of 1926 Gershwin played not three but five preludes. One was later used as a song and another became the opening of the last movement of his Concerto in F.  Zizzo gives us eight separate tracks here, though some are as short as :27. I never realized that the second and third Preludes had special titles: Blue Lullaby and Spanish Prelude, respectively. 
Many students play the second prelude, because it's slow and much easier than the other two, which seemed impossible to me for so long. I'm psyched that I can now actually figure out how to play them.

No comments: