Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pianos and piano people

Yesterday, after a quick rehearsal of the Milhaud that I'm playing with the chamber orchestra I'm in, my husband and I jumped in the car and drove up to Philadelphia for an afternoon and evening of playing pianos and talking about music and many other things with a group of people I've gotten to know from several piano-related internet forums. We gathered at the Cunningham Piano Company showroom in the Germantown neighborhood, which is full of historic sites and buildings dating to the 17th century.

The first event was a lecture by Indrek Laul, the president of the current incarnation of Estonia Pianos. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned rehearsal combined with holiday traffic, we arrived just at the tail end of his talk, which I am sorry to have missed. I have met Laul a few times but have never heard him speak at length, or play the piano. We were at least in time for a sandwich lunch buffet generously provided by Rich Galassani, proprietor of Cunningham. After lunch, we watched an energetic presentation by pianist Hugh Sung, who has a lot of irons in the fire related to using new technologies for playing and teaching the piano (which you can read about at the link I've provided).

Rich gave us a tour of Cunningham's workshop, in a separate building, where they rebuild and repair pianos of all sorts. Both of the Cunningham buildings are old and interesting, with large rooms, high ceilings, and worn wood floors. This narrated slide show created by the Philadelphia Inquirer provides an accurate portrayal of what we saw yesterday:

Cunningham Pianos slide show

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with impromptu performances by the attendees, ranging from a full-fledged reading by Joe Kubera of a piece written in the 1990s (I didn't note down the name of the composer, but we all gathered around the piano and watched the score as he played, which was interesting) to scattered attempts by the rest of us to recall once-known pieces. All were met with friendly approval. Rich had asked me to bring my cello, but I decided against it after I weighed the logistics of hauling it around against the probably short time I would be playing it, adding in the element of not really having anything ready that would fit in with the piano-centric occasion.

These piano parties (I've been to about a half dozen of them since I've been involved with the online communities) are really a good way to get a taste of performing without having too much riding on it. It's especially fun at a place like Cunningham's, when there are multiple good pianos to choose from. Because of Laul's presentation, an Estonia 190 that is identical to the one we have in our house was impeccably tuned and set up in performance position, so that was the piano everyone played on. It was somehow gratifying to hear how good it sounded and how much everyone liked it. We also spread out and tested most of the other pianos on display, including several digitals (a digital harpsichord was interesting, though the keyboard was too short for playing Bach).

Home again, I feel re-inspired about playing music. I've been feeling discouraged lately. My practice log is showing me how little time I've been spending on the piano. I think I can do better, and I feel a renewed energy to try. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Catching up + what I'm playing this week

I haven't written one of these in a while, mainly because I haven't been working on anything new or interesting. It seems like I've just been treading water, doing the minimum, aside from preparing Brahms Op. 118 No. 2 for the recital last week.

But there are a few things to report:

On the cello:

The last orchestra concert of the season is coming up in a few weeks. We are playing a Johann Strauss II overture (the "Gypsy Baron"), the Mendelssohn violin concerto, one movement of a symphony by a local composer, and Darius Milhaud's "La création du monde" (Creation of the World). This last has generated some excitement in the orchestra because (1) it's a chamber piece (i.e., one on a part) and (2) it's got "jazz" in it (i.e., a saxophone instead of a viola, lots of seventh chords, a spot of ragtime). But in my opinion, it's not a particularly interesting or clever piece of music; it's more of a curiosity. Even with the chamber scoring, the texture is thick and muddy. I spent a few hours this past week practicing my part, but at the rehearsal yesterday, it was obvious that no one will be able to hear me in all the murk. Ah, well; I will do my best.

A couple of weeks ago, the group I'm in with some of my neighbors played at a cafe for three hours. It was a typical background music gig, with people eating and talking while we were playing. It certainly wasn't the best we've ever played. A couple of the others were very unhappy about how they played, but I wasn't upset about it. It was hot in there, and noisy, and were cramped into sitting in a row on a little platform where we couldn't see each other. We also played quite a lot of music. To make it anywhere near perfect, we'd have had to spent much more time on it than we did. It's not like classical music, for which some diligent practicing on one's own is more than enough prep for a gig like this. To play music like this -- our assortment of folk, jazz standards, and Beatles tunes -- well requires many hours of working things out in the group. We just don't have the hours for it, not to mention the collective skill level.

Anyway, here's a sample, warts and all:

All of Me

On the piano:

I'm continuing with practicing two scales (parallel major and minor) most days. I spend about five minutes at a time on this, and I've been enjoying it (a back-to-my-roots kind of thing, I think).

Bach, WTC I/19 (A major): This has been slow going. The fugue is especially difficult because there's a lot of stretto (voices come in before other voices finish their statement of the theme -- basically, they overlap, as shown in the link). This makes it harder to keep the voices mentally untangled.

Beethoven, Op. 2 No. 3, Sonata in C major: As I've mentioned before, this is not terribly difficult, but it is long. With my time limitations, five minutes seems about the most I can learn at one time, and each movement of this sonata is longer than that. But there are some things I love about this piece: the way it sweeps up and down the keyboard, the very Beethovenian twists and turns among key centers. It's also great as a technical study because it has a little bit of everything.

Brahms Op. 118: I'm pressing on with these, working now on Nos. 3 and 4, making slow progress. No. 4 is especially dense and odd, almost Baroque in its knotty textures.

Chopin Nocturne Op. 62 No. 2: I've been working on this a little bit. I had one or two extremely good practice sessions on the difficult middle section a few weeks ago, but I set it aside to concentrate on the Brahms.

So there you have it -- some of what I've been up to.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Piano recital -- done!

Even though this isn't the first time I've played on a piano recital, it's one of very few if you consider all the years I've been playing. My nerves were mostly focused on wondering how nervous I would be. I decided to not try to play from memory, and I think that was a good decision because I was able to enjoy the experience of performing and take many more chances than if I were worrying about whether I was going to have a memory lapse.

What sealed it for me was that I wasn't able to practice much yesterday. There must have been some bad pollen blowing through town; something, in any case, was making my eyes sting and my head heavy, so I practiced just a little bit and went to bed early. I woke up this morning feeling fine.

I did some careful practicing this morning: I spent more than an hour working through the piece backward, measure by measure, while looking at the score. This helped me reconnect with playing and reading at the same time,  and it also reinforced my knowledge of how the music flows from one measure to the next. Doing this made me feel much more secure about using the music after spending the past few months playing the piece from memory every day. The other seven people playing on the recital all used music, too, so I didn't feel that bad about it.

The piano was a decent 9-foot Steinway grand. It had a very light action (i.e., it was very easy to press the keys down) compared with my Estonia, so that was one reason for some of my clunkers -- where on my piano, I can brush against a key and it will not sound, on this one, everything sounded. It also seemed much louder and brighter than my piano, so I think I sounded harsh when things got loud. If I'd had 15 minutes to practice on the piano and get used to its quirks, I might have played better, but that's how it goes at these things.

Overall, I had fun playing in front of an audience, and I got a lot of compliments afterward. My husband recorded it on his cell phone, but it's not a great recording so I won't post it.

Here's a picture, though:

Friday, May 7, 2010


I went out on a limb and offered to play the Brahms on an Adult Music Student Forum recital on Sunday. So I've been practicing it quite a bit this week, mostly very slowly (i.e., setting the metronome to 56 = eighth note and working up to full tempo a few notches at a time). I'd say it's still not 100% secure, so I'm thinking it would be best if I don't play from memory. This feels like a cop-out, but I want to have a pleasant experience here! (I did play it from memory on the recording I posted here, btw, but of course that wasn't in front of an audience on an unfamiliar piano.)

If I do use the music, that means I need to practice it with the music, which means I need to make a copy so I don't have to turn pages. This is why it's better to play piano music from memory -- it gets complicated.

So off to practice some more . . .