Friday, April 30, 2010

"Where do you play?"

I get this question a lot. I'm never sure how to answer it.

I could say, "Mostly in my basement," which would be the truth. But I'm sure people really are asking where I perform, and I give my usual equivocating answer about freelancing, a couple of amateur groups, and so on.

However, most of what I consider my important music making is done in my basement, with my piano. "If you play the piano and no one listens to you, are you really playing?" I'd like to think I am. I've tried sending my recordings to family and friends, and I post some of them here, but I get little reaction so it's hard to tell if anyone actually listens to them. It's also a little remote, and definitely not the same as giving a live performance.

My husband keeps urging me to find a teacher and really pursue piano study. I feel like I am really pursuing it. I've made so much more progress and learned so much more in the past 5 or 6 years when I've been working on my own than I ever did when taking piano lessons. But I also feel that learning to play an instrument requires three basic things: absorption of knowledge (whether imparted by a teacher, by books, or by observation), practice of the mechanics, and performing. Though it's certainly true that a crucial part of the equation is the amount and quality of individual practice, lessons fulfill both the first and third aspect, and all are about equally important. None means much without the others.

Many adult students don't want to perform because they hate the fear and anxiety that are involved, but I believe it's crucial to do it -- because isn't that the whole point of playing? That is, music is meant to be listened to. You also discover how well you really know something when you play it front of someone else. It's also a form of communication, which I find sorely lacking in my life (even with all the blogging, tweeting, and facebooking going on everywhere).

I would like to play the piano someplace in addition to my basement, but I have not figured out how to go about it. I joined the Adult Music Student Forum a couple of years ago, fully intending to perform as much as I could, but somehow it never works out that I have time to either attend an event or to prepare for it. I've played at only two events in the entire time I've been a member. I've hesitated to arrange for lessons because I don't know how to find someone who's both simpatico (i.e., someone who is both kind and knowledgable -- IOW, a good teacher!) and who is willing to teach an adult student.

And so I continue to waffle and wait. And play the piano in the basement.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Two concerts

As I've mentioned, I don't attend a lot of concerts, but this past week I went to two.

The first was last Saturday, at An Die Musik in Baltimore. This used to be a "record" store with a nice small performance space on the second floor; the emphasis now seems to be more on the performance space, though the store is still there (selling CDs), along with a reception area in front that also serves as an art gallery. The performers were 10 college students from Penn State who study with Enrico Elisi (here's a link to his student performance web page: Piano Studio Projects), and they played a selection of Chopin's Nocturnes. I found it really enjoyable. There were a few lumps and bumps as well as obvious nerves, but I like hearing performances that are musical but not entirely slick. The piano there is a gorgeous Mason & Hamlin. I generally am not a big fan of this brand, but this one sounds lovely. My favorite player was a young woman named Clare Wang. She had a nice, full sound and played with real assurance.

The second concert was last night, at Strathmore: a recital by the great pianist Mitsuko Uchida. She is a powerhouse in the music world, and deservedly so. She is a real intellect with a strong personality and huge technique. Last night's concert included Mozart K 310 (the A minor sonata) and Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze and Fantasie. The Mozart I'm extremely familiar with, both because I have listened to her recording of it many times and because I've learned it myself. The Schumann pieces are difficult and rather knotty works, full of musical allusions, autobiographical references, and in-jokes. I need to listen to these a lot, I think, to really appreciate them.

But it was a great concert. For each piece, Uchida bounded onto the stage and started playing, not giving the audience any time to rustle their programs (though they did so anyway). That hall is so big that the piano could get lost, but she projected a full sound. The last movement of the Fantasie, in particular, was stunning.

So, lots to think about. So much to learn, so little time.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tracking practice

I'm still plunking away at the piano, doing a little bit every day. A few weeks ago, I started two new things: practicing two scales every day (major and parallel minor, including arpeggios) and keeping a practice log. For the log, I jot down what time I practiced, for how long, and what I did. I think it will be interesting to see how it adds up over time. I don't want to make this too elaborate because I don't want the record keeping to affect the process.

So for example, here's my log for last week:

Sunday, 4/11: 3:30-4:00 p.m.
Brahms 118/2 - recorded
Scales - E flat major/E flat minor

Monday, 4/12: 5:15-6:00 p.m.
Scales - D major/ D minor
Bach prelude [WTC I  A major] - sections back to front, slowly, faster
Bach fugue - first two sections, HS/HT [hands separate/hands together]

Tuesday, 4/13, 3:00-5:00 p.m.
Brahms 118/2 - played through for tone and phrasing
Bach fugue -  by section, different speeds, VS [voices separate]/HS/HT
Bach prelude - by section from end to beginning, different speeds, HS/HT
Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3 - 1st movement - spots
Scales - D flat major/C sharp minor

Wednesday, 4/14 [no time recorded]
Scales - C major/C minor
Beethoven - 1st movement, sections slowly
Brahms 118/2

Thursday, 4/15, 10:45-11:45 p.m.
Scales - B major/B minor, quarter note = 50 (16ths, triplets, 32nds)
Brahms 118/3 - slowly, sections, HS/HT
Brahms 118/2 - play through
Bach - play through

Friday, 4/16, 11:30 p.m. - 12:15 a.m.
Scales - B flat major/B flat minor
Bach fugue - last 2 pages, sections, VS/HS/HT, slowly
Brahms 118/1 - play through under tempo
Brahms 118/2 - play through for tone, etc.

Saturday, 4/17
9:30 a.m. - Brahms 118/2 - play through
1:00 p.m.  - Brahms 118/1
11:00 p.m.
Scales - A major/A minor
Bits of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin 62/2

I think this will be helpful, though I don't know exactly how. Maybe it will help me see patterns. Sometimes I think not having a set practice time is a big problem, but then other times I think it's good, because I'm not programmed to play the piano only at a certain time every day, with every element in the same order.

If anyone is wondering how I can practice at midnight without disturbing anyone: I have a practice room in the basement with a door on it. Although the piano can be heard throughout the house, it's filtered and muted. My husband says it doesn't bother him. (He can listen to the stereo while I'm practicing, and though I can hear it, it doesn't bother me.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Brahms Op. 118 No. 2

I am having a great extended weekend. My workplace decided to close today and tomorrow because downtown DC is going to be a mess for commuters, with the summit on nuclear weapons being held not too far from where I work. And we're having beautiful spring weather on top of it.

So I finally was able to buckle down and record Brahms Op. 118 No. 2.

Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 in A major

I consider this still a work in progress. I'd like to figure out how to make the bass line less relentless without destroying the pulse. I'd like everything to be more legato. I think I'm on the right track with this, though.

I did a little YouTube research last week to hear how real pianists interpret this piece. This was the weirdest one, IMO, clocking in at almost 9 minutes (most performances are 5 to 6 minutes):

One of the commenters (though I usually don't read them -- YouTube comments generally range from worthless to offensive) described the tempo as "rubato on crack." Everything is so stretched that I think you really lose the line. It's also very percussive, oddly enough, with some notes randomly bashed out. Maybe a pianist of this stature plays this way to show that he's thinking outside the box -- way outside!

I think that whenever you learn a piece like this that is played so much, you need to ignore the fact that thousands of other people have played it before you (and will do so after you) and just listen to the piece on its own merits and, ultimately, use your own judgment about it. The end result may not be startling, but it will be true to your taste and to your feelings about what the composer intended.

Anyway, time to go out and enjoy my day of freedom.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Back in the saddle, or this and that

We had our first orchestra rehearsal this morning for the next concert. I have not been practicing the cello for the past month (just playing once a week or so), but the music for this is very easy, so it wasn't a problem. I think playing the piano keeps the music-related synapses in my brain firing; being able to pick up the cello after not playing for a week and having it not sound bad is due to a combination of intellectual knowledge and muscle memory and something creative. This is not a terribly interesting concert: It includes von Suppé's "Light Cavalry Overture," the first movement of the Grieg piano concerto (with a high school age kid playing the solo), a concerto "attributed to" Haydn for two horns, and two of Grieg's Norwegian dances; a children's choir directed by the conductor's wife will also be singing a few numbers. But it's about my speed at the moment.

I don't know why I'm not feeling interest in the cello right now. Perhaps it's because I have such limited time to pursue my hobbies, and I only have so much energy to expend. Or else it's just a continuation of my love/hate relationship with the whole cello experience. If someone asks me to play something specific, I can generally muster the enthusiasm necessary to prepare and do a good job, but if I'm just floating along, self-directed, it's hard to get motivated.

The piano master class that was supposed to take place next weekend has been canceled yet again; the teacher has had a death in the family and will be out of the country. But having the deadline has been good for me in terms of providing incentive to really learn the Brahms. It's really been kind of a rush, finally memorizing this piece after all these years of stabbing at it ineffectually. I'll try to record and post it here soon.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Finally, some Bach

Here is a mostly clean performance of the Prelude and Fugue in C minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II:

Bach, WTC II/2

Again, this falls far short of what I imagined -- but at least I tried. My idea originally was to record both pieces in one take, but I could not do it without having at least a minor crash somewhere or other, so I recorded them separately and then joined the two together. Other than deleting some silence before, between, and after, and normalizing, I did no editing.

I started working on these pieces in the middle of November 2009, so it has taken me four and a half months to get them to this point -- just two pages of music. Sigh. One thing I found surprisingly difficult was doing the repeats in the prelude; it was hard to concentrate equally on both iterations.

The mood, I finally came to realize, should be autumnal for the prelude and wintry for the fugue, but I don't feel I convey this very well. Let me know what you think!