Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Master class, finally

When the AMSF master class with Brian Ganz was first scheduled in February, it was snowmageddoned out; then when it was rescheduled in the spring Brian had a death in the family, and it had to be canceled again. It finally took place this past Sunday. It was bracketed by one of the hottest July 25ths on record and a short but incredibly destructive storm, which hit right in the middle of the class, causing the power to go out -- but our hosts cranked up a generator and lit some candles, and we kept going.

In any case, Brian was exactly as I remembered him from almost 30 years ago when he accompanied some of my student recitals: warm, enthusiastic, full of fanciful but helpful imagery, and extremely knowledgeable about music and the piano.

They put me first -- perhaps because I was playing the easiest piece, the Brahms Op. 118 No. 2. I played from memory, and it went well except for the pianissimo hymnlike section in the middle, during which I realized I had hit the sostenuto pedal instead of the una corde pedal, and it threw me off and I messed up the second phrase of it.

The things Brian talked about were understanding how Brahms developed the music, asking questions like, "What makes this version of this theme different here?" He talked about "juxtaposition," by which he meant playing related sections of music side by side to make these kinds of comparisons. He also talked about voicing, and suggested practicing something he called "ghost playing": sounding only one voice while lightly pressing the keys of the other notes without having them sound. He mentioned something suggested by his teacher Leon Fleischer when he was studying the opening of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto: imagine you have two cherubim, one tucked under each arm, and they are blowing on the keys.

The musical analysis he suggested is actually something I tend to do automatically, but it was nice having it reinforced. Any advice on varying touch, though, is really valuable; the piano's weakness as an expressive instrument is its percussiveness and the tendency for playing to be plunky. The ghost-playing technique is very difficult, requiring a lot of control, and it's something I'm definitely going to start practicing -- just a bit at a time, though.

In the interests of confidentiality (because I don't know how they would feel about having their performances analyzed on the Internet), I won't go into detail about the other five people who participated. Let's just say that they played interesting pieces and were well prepared. I also applaud the intrepid audience (including my husband), who sat through 3 1/2 hours of master class and were still awake at the end.

The buffet afterward was excellent, conversation was lively. So all in all, a good experience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What I've been working on

I haven't been describing my practicing for a while because there hasn't been all that much to worth reading about, although I HAVE been practicing. I make it a point to play the piano at least a little bit every day unless I'm sick or traveling and not near a piano.

So my lineup on the piano has been stuck on the 3 Bs:

Bach, WTC I/19 (A major)
Brahms, Op. 118 Nos. 1, 2, and 3
Beethoven, Sonata Op. 2 No. 3 in C major
Scales and arpeggios

I've been working on the Bach for more than three months. The fugue in this WTC set is particularly difficult. As I've mentioned, the theme is always introduced in stretto with another voice (i.e., they overlap). It is also a jumpy theme, built on a broken arpeggio, so it's almost like two voices in itself. It starts with a single eighth note followed by three eighth-note rests, which I'm finding hard to bring out. I've resorted to punching at it in an attempt at staccato, which then leads to rushing, which then leads to a tangled train wreck.

Here's Rosalyn Tureck, playing it very slowly (I think too slowly, though of course it's beautifully clean):

And here's Kenneth Gilbert on the harpsichord (I like the tempo of the fugue much better in this version):

In the past week or so, I have finally been able to play bits of it from memory. I have memorized the prelude. I'm certainly not giving up on it. My experience with learning these fugues is that there is a certain amount of time (maybe a few months, at my practice rate) in which it seems I will never be able to play whichever one I'm working on, but then there is a breakthrough and it's suddenly in my hands.

The Brahms is developing. I am going to play 118/2 at the long-postponed masterclass with Brian Ganz next week. I had thought about maybe substituting another piece, but decided to go ahead with this one because it's the most polished piece I have at the moment. I have been working on 118/1 on and off for more than two years, and it still seems so hard to me, though I'm not sure why. It's short (only two pages), and not complicated. Maybe it's all the arpeggios. I recorded myself once a while back, and noticed that the left hand and right hand were not in sync -- the left was always a little bit behind. Frustrating!

Here's someone named Peter Rösel playing it very nicely (don't know what's up with the Classical Greek pose later in the video):

The Ballade, Op. 118/3, is awkward all over the place, but I think I'm finally getting it. I have it almost memorized, and I'm working on building up speed while playing it cleanly. It's difficulties involve mainly the thick chords, with harmony changing almost every beat in a fast tempo. As I mentioned some months back, when I was in college I used to sit on the steps in front of the music building waiting for orchestra rehearsal to start, and someone would be practicing this piece in the classroom directly above the entrance. I admired it then but never imagined I would learn it myself.

The Beethoven sonata, by contrast, is much simpler than any of the above, so it's been fun. There are a few tricky technical bits, one being the first theme, with the little double-thirds trill. When I worked on this piece briefly when I was 17 years old, I asked my teacher how in the world you could learn to play that, and he basically said, "Practice." So, I've been practicing. It's still not 100%, but it's somewhat better.

Here's a performance by Daniel Barenboim that is very much how I hear it (but wow, vertigo-inducing camera work here . . .). The first movement hangs over into a second video because it's longer than 10 minutes:

Those are a lot of videos for one post! One of these days, I'll record myself some more so I'm not depending so much on YouTube for entertainment around here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Practical creativity (a tribute)

I first was introduced to the work of Harvey Pekar in 2003, when the movie "American Splendor" came out. For those who might not know, he was a writer who had the brilliant idea of using the comic book form as serious essay and autobiography, with a little humor thrown in, too. Even though he had no drawing ability, he developed a way to work with artists who did to create his stories, beginning in the 1970s with R. Crumb. This evolved into a series of comic books titled American Splendor -- an appellation both ironic and heartfelt.

After I saw the movie, I read a couple of the book-length collections of American Splendor and developed an appreciation for Pekar and his achievements. On the one hand, he depicted the little everyday happenings of his life -- going to a boring job day after day, buying groceries, finding an apartment, fixing a car -- but at the same time, he was celebrating their beauty, and their sheer American-ness. Many have described him as a depressed crank, but I think he was just telling it like it was. He styled himself as full of problems, but really, he was a remarkably intelligent person living the life of an ordinary human being.

Although he kvetched about his job as a file clerk at the Cleveland, Ohio, VA hospital, he also appreciated it and stayed there until retiring at the age of 62. The job grounded him, provided a living wage and sense of security that enabled him to indulge in his creative pursuits on his own time. His third marriage, to a fan, endured and ultimately settled into what seems like a happy home life. A native of Cleveland, he lived there all his life and expressed a real love for the place. In addition to writing American Splendor, he was a respected jazz and book critic and continued to keep irons in the fire (an ambitious blog project, an opera).

Call me crazy, but I find him an inspiration: This is someone who was able to survive and not only keep plugging away at his creative work on his own terms but send that work out into the world and turn it into something concrete and real that communicated with many other people.

Harvey Pekar died yesterday at age 70. From one of the commentors on the article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Unlike some basketball player that just left, the loss of Mr. Pekar is a major loss for the city and literature. RIP Harvey
A very good obit here, from the Guardian.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drop the needle quizzes

For the generationally challenged, the "needle" here refers to a phonograph needle. A "phonograph" is kind of like those things DJs use to make scratchy noises at dance clubs (do they still do that?), except we used to use them to actually listen to music.

In the olden days in music school, teachers would turn on the phonograph and drop the needle on the "record" (you know, those round things made of vinyl) at random, and students were expected to listen to a snippet of something and either identify it or describe what they thought it was. In my later years in school, the technology moved on to cassette tapes (um, plastic tape coated with magnetic material containing the recordings wound on tiny spools in little plastic cases). I spent the entire 15 or so years I was in music school learning how to do this. It was part of the doctoral exams I took. I don't remember what pieces they used, but I did pass the test.

I mostly use this skill now to impress my husband when we're riding in the car with the radio on. "Tchaikovsky, 'Swan Lake,'" I'll say, or "Howard Hansen," or "Mahler symphony -- not sure which one," and almost every time, I will be correct. Some of it is just recognizing the actual piece, but part is also being able to place a style chronologically by noticing the instrumentation, texture (chordal, contrapuntal, etc.), and style. Most composers also have a signature riff that they always use -- a melodic turn, a chord progression, a rhythmic pattern.

Beyond its utility as a parlor (or car!) trick, I know there must be something useful about this, too. Maybe it's simply being able to listen carefully enough to distinguish different types of music, which probably helps in understanding, which ultimately helps in playing. In the confusing world full of all kinds of sounds, part of being a musician is being able to listen and discern one from another.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Real live practicing!

Well, actually, if you didn't catch it before midnight on July 4, you missed it.

Valentina Lisitsa is a wonderful pianist with a secure and relaxed technique. She concentrates on the solid, muscular romantics -- Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann. I had a chance to hear her live and attend a master class with other amateur pianists* a few years ago, and it was fascinating to watch and listen to her demonstrate and explain how to achieve something technically, from a legato line to double trills -- and in a completely matter-of-fact way, without pretensions.

Last week, she set up a webcam and did a live stream of her practicing for a week. I'll give you the link here, though there's not much to see at this point:

She described it this way:

Hi everyone :-)
I thought it kinda cute to let those of you who are curious - (or upsed at me not responding to messages on Youtube , Facebook etc LOL ) inside my practice studio.I am going to run live webcam for next 7 days-'till July 4th midnight to be exact.
I will be working on my recital and cocnerto programs that I will have to perform next month. I have 55 pieces to work on!!!!!!
Seriously. Some of them I have to revive ( like Chopin Etudes or Brahms #2)more than half is absolutely brand new . I am going to practice as usual -@ 13-14 hours a day., from around 9-10AM EST to midnight. Nothing exciting otherwise:-)
I was only able to see a little of this, though over the weekend I left it on for hours and listened to it in the background while I was doing other things. It was extremely interesting to hear how she went about drilling these pieces for many hours. She played small sections -- maybe eight to twelve measures at a time -- and cycled through them over and over with just a brief pause between reps. If something wasn't completely clear, she would do the section slowly once or twice and then back at tempo again. She always had the score up on the piano, and occasionally she stopped and wrote a fingering or note in the music. No metronome. No sitting and meditating.

Among other things, I thought about the intense boredom of this kind of practicing for the musician -- balanced, of course, by the knowledge that if she doesn't do it, the performance won't be secure and she won't be able to express what she wants to express, and won't be fulfilling her professional duties, either. As my first piano teacher always said (and wrote in my lesson notebook, in big letters), "In repetition there is security!!!"

Amateurs and nonplayers are dumbfounded by the "13 to 14 hours a day," but divide that among 55 pieces, each at least five minutes long, most more, and you end up with, what, about 15 minutes per day for each piece -- not much time at all. Perhaps enough time to make sure everything's in place in a piece already learned.

*I played in this class, an embarrassingly mediocre rendition of a Chopin Mazurka (Op. 6 No. 1). Pictorial evidence:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Instrument comparison: Piano versus cello versus . . .

I've been thinking lately about the differences between playing the piano and playing the cello (as my poor cello sits in a corner while I practice the piano). I came up with a list of my pros and cons:

Piano vs. cello:
  • It's a complete experience -- I do not need to depend on anyone else to play something. Think about it: On an instrument like the cello, you can spend years learning a piece, but then when you are actually preparing to perform it, you get what amounts to a few hours to coordinate with an accompanist, orchestra, or ensemble, and you are pretty much dependent on their level of expertise for the final result.
  • Vast choice of music (Chopin!). A lot of music has been written for the cello, but the literature is miniscule compared with what is available for the piano. Hundreds of pieces by Bach alone! And a large proportion of the piano literature is iconic, containing many monuments to civilization, or at least to Western art music.
  • Much more intellectually challenging. Even for the simplest piece or improvisation, the pianist needs to understand harmony and voicing (emphasizing one line more than the others). When you get into a four-voice fugue, or the thick chromatic harmonies of the Romantics, there is a world of mastery to challenge you. To really play a piece well, you need to memorize it (even if you don't ultimately perform from memory), and memorizing all this complexity takes you to a seriously higher level of mental acrobatics than memorizing anything on the cello.
  • Don't have to carry it around. You would be surprised how limiting the cello's size is on a day-to-day basis. It's small enough to carry, but too large and heavy to just sling on your back. If you want to travel with it, you either have to drive or buy a seat for it on the public transportation of your choice. It's not so easy to just take it to work for an evening rehearsal, so I always end up taking time off to go home and pick it up, or having to come up with complicated plans so I can get from Point A to Point B with the darned thing.
  • Preparation for playing is easy: Just sit down! For the cello, you have to get it out of the case, tune it, find a chair, make sure your endpin doesn't slip, get your music stand situated (and if you're using one in a concert, figure out where to place it so you can see the music but it doesn't get in the way; one of my cello teachers called the music stand "the fig leaf").
Cello vs. piano:
  • Does not require as much practice time. This makes it an excellent instrument for an amateur musician. Now of course, you could spend endless hours on it, but for even above average competence, the minimum necessary practice time is  much less than what you have to spend on the piano.
  • More of a social experience (because it does require collaboration). This is really good from a reality-check standpoint. I know I tend to get twisted up in knots about my playing when I don't have any interactions with the outside world. When I'm practicing the piano and don't play for anyone else or get any feedback, I can either under- or overestimate how I'm doing. When I play the cello in a chamber group, or even in an orchestra, I get an instant reality check both in terms of what I'm hearing and reactions of the other players. There is also a "greater than the sum of its parts" effect: In good circumstances, all of those human brains working toward the same thing can create a better musical experience than just your lone brain.
  • More directly expressive -- you actually touch the strings and feel them vibrate. You really do feel more like you are singing and like the instrument is part of you than when playing the piano, which tends toward the percussive and mechanical (though it doesn't have to, of course).
  • Always perform on the instrument you practiced on (as opposed to the piano, when you generally do not). This is something that gives you more control over what comes out at a concert.
  • You can tune it and do basic maintenance (change strings, adjust the bridge) yourself. With the piano, even when playing on your own instrument at home, you are somewhat at the mercy of piano technicians and tuners.
I think this covers the basics, at least in terms of my opinions. I'd be curious to know if any readers out there have thoughts on this.

For fellow statesiders, I hope you're enjoying the holiday today!