Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Slow progress, or the magical powers of lack of speed

Over the summer, I spent several months flailing at Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3, his grand C major sonata, learning the notes but not playing them very well. When I finally buckled down and started practicing the Beethoven at a relaxed slow tempo (not painfully slow, but slow enough to attend to every note), it got better miraculously, in just a session or two.  This sonata, for those not familiar with it, is written in a virtuosic style, almost like a concerto. It's Beethoven at his most cheerful, as well as Beethoven showing off his chops. There are both pianistic and compositional flourishes throughout. The main theme is particularly devilish because it features four 16th notes played in thirds in the right hand on the third beat of the first and third measures. It doesn't look like anything much, but it's quite difficult because it forces you to play these rapid notes in thirds with emphasis on the fourth and fifth fingers -- the weakest ones -- right at the beginning of the piece. Also, the Allegro con brio temp compounds the difficulty.

I may have mentioned that I worked on this piece a little when I was 17 with a teacher I had for only a short time. He assigned it because I had worked on Op. 2 No. 2 for years on end with my previous teacher, so with his logical Germanic mind, of course I needed to continue with No. 3. I struggled with those first measures. When I asked him how one could possibly play them, he said, basically, "Practice." I finally gave up on the piece because I could not play those measures. Well, I didn't know how to practice then -- but I do now.

My fancy-pants ABRSM edition by Barry Cooper helps. Back when I didn't know any better, I was using Schirmer, which is chock full of horrible overedited anachronistic markings. I'm pretty sure they had those first measures slurred. Cooper points out that the 16th notes are actually NOT slurred into the two eighths at the end of the first measure, nor are the eighth notes slurred into the second measure. So if you play this figure fairly crisply and separated, it not only sounds better but is easier.

My slow practicing is also soothing all the muscles and tendons in my overstrained right wrist. Shortly after I began working on this sonata, I started feeling a lot of pain there -- not carpal tunnel type pain, but a definite and severe pain on the outside of that wrist. In the week or so that I stopped trying to force it in a fast tempo I can't play yet, the pain has eased.

So -- here's to slow progress, though I continue to wonder why it's so hard to make myself do it.


pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

It's more fun to play it fast, but so much more rewarding to play it slowly. Glad your wrist is happier for it.

Harriet said...

It's actually more fun for me to play things slowly. I can hear and feel so much more. But there's some nagging sense that I need to practice fast to (a) be able to play it fast and (b) to get more notes into a shorter amount of time! But this is generally not productive.

I think practicing slowly allows your brain to really process everything it needs to remember so these things become automatic.