Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bach project update

It's been a while since I posted a new recording, and here's why. I've been working on the C major set from WTC II since last fall (after making the video of the G sharp set from WTC I that I mentioned here, and which I believe will be posted soon). I played the C major for my new teacher in January, and right away he zeroed in on my excessive forcefulness. It's excessive because not only is it not needed to produce sound, it strangles and deadens the sound that is produced, and it also works against speed and flexibility. So he has been working on getting me to use the least amount of force necessary. The goal with Bach, he says, is more transparency and a more dancelike approach. This has been the theme of my lessons these past few months.

I don't disagree that my teacher is correct -- or at least, that this is a valid point of view. I also agree completely that the fact that I can't play this way is a weakness that is worth examining and rooting out, but this change of touch does not feel natural. Although I can stutter out a performance of the C major prelude and fugue, it's not very convincing. I'm still attempting to put these changes into practice. I could slap together a recording, but I keep hoping things will come together and that I can make something that will be significantly different from, and better than, what I have been doing.

And then a few weeks ago, we started working on the D minor set from WTC II. This is one of the more charming sets of the whole 48, with a sparkly prelude and a sinuous and spare fugue, so I couldn't say no to it, even though starting another before I come to a resting point on the preceding set is something I've tried to avoid. On the other hand: This is actually a reworking in that I learned the D minor set when I was first getting back to playing the piano, about 6 years ago; also, I'm curious to see if I can work on two sets at the same time with positive results.

Between all this and practicing the cello, and of course going to work every day, the weeks have been whizzing by before I even know it. However, I have been practicing every day -- although most days don't end until after midnight -- so I do feel I'm getting something out of this. Sometimes these opportunities come up and you just have to go for them, ready or not.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

More practice experiments: Woodshedding

Image from Wikimedia Commons
The term woodshedding came from the practice of taking children out back to administer some primitive discipline on them (try not to think about it too much, please). Musicians use it to describe giving the same treatment to recalcitrant notes. Faced with a page or two of 32nd notes in a sprightly tempo, woodshedding is what one inevitably must do.

The Tchaikovsky "Pezzo Capriccioso" is receiving some of this. I keep trying to come up with creative ways to train my hands to do what they need to do. I've done all of these:
  • started very, very slowly with the metronome and moved it up a notch or two at a time, then moved it back down;
  • played rhythms (dotted, triplets);
  • emphasized a different note in each group; for example, I play the passage once with an accent on the first note in each group of four, then the second note, and so on; and
  • played without any rhythm, just listening to tone and intonation.

The past couple of days, I've tried something else: I play a small group of notes up to tempo, then stop, repeat as needed (playing slower, with rhythms, etc.) until that group is clean, and then move to the next group. Then join two groups together. This is really effective, I'm finding. It forces me to listen to each note but also gives practice in playing up to tempo. It also pinpoints exactly which groups are most problematic.

As for the lyrical sections, I am working on being more elegant. What helps me with this kind of thing is imagining I'm playing the passage in a string quartet. Somehow, this grounds me in a way other ideas do not. Maybe it's because I've spent so many years of my life playing chamber music and living for those moments when the cello must shine -- instead of being frightened, I anticipate them eagerly.

So -- just some notes from the woodshed. Hope I don't end up with a bunch of sawdust at the end.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Practice experiments

Last night I tried something enabled by the magic of 20th-century technology (yes, we did have this back then, too). I recorded myself playing the Tchaikovsky and then played it back while accompanying softly on the piano (and, when it was too hard to hear that way, on the cello). This, I have found, is an excellent way to hear if my pacing and rubato and other tempo-related things are going to work, especially with orchestra. I found there are places I'm taking time where I shouldn't be. I also, of course, could hear where I need to work on my intonation.

A big issue was my unevenness of tempo in the 32nd-note sections. Tchaikovsky marked this "Non cambiare il tempo"; that is, whatever tempo you use to begin the tragic and lyrical opening of the piece needs to also work here. I began this section way too slowly (erring unpleasantly on the side of caution). I obviously I don't have the tempo set in my bones.

The other, and possibly most, annoying and boring thing I now hear that I've been doing is playing everything the same volume and timbre -- basically forte, and pressed. Got to let it breathe! It needs to have the gracefulness of "Variations on a Rococo Theme."

Ugh. Well, this is why we practice, isn't it?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pezzo Capriccioso background

I just did a quick burst of 'net research and found this on Wikipedia:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed his Pezzo capriccioso, Op. 62, for cello and orchestra in a single week in August 1887. Belying its title, this work is written in the somber key of B minor, the same key as the Symphony No. 6 Pathétique. The Pezzo is not capricious in a lighthearted sense. The capriccioso aspect comes from Tchaikovsky's fanciful treatment of various aspects of the work's simple theme. Despite some rapid passages and a turn to the major key, Tchaikovsky preserves the basic pulse and sober mood throughout the piece.

Tchaikovsky (right) with Anatoliy Brandukov, to whom he dedicated the Pezzo capriccioso.
The sobriety was a result of Tchaikovsky's sufferings with his friend Nikolay Kondratyev. Kondratyev was in the final throes of syphilis. After a brief remission, he had been taken to Aachen, Germany, where his family hoped the mineral waters there would prolong his life at least a few months. Instead, Kondratyev had taken a turn for the worse. Moreover, he proved a highly unpredictable, volatile and demanding patient, which unnerved the already death-shy Tchaikovsky. A visit to see friends in Paris—among them cellist Anatoliy Brandukov—proved only a brief respite.
All this suffering poured through the music Tchaikovsky was writing, as well.
From here: Pezzo Capriccioso

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wasn't this supposed to be fun? Or, Wake me up when I'm better

At my first lesson with this new teacher, he asked me if the exercises he was assigning would take too much time. I said, "Oh, no; I think this is something I need to be doing." He said, "I think so, too."

So here it is a couple of months down the road. I've worked on this diligently, if not exhaustively. I've graduated from one-finger exercises to scales and arpeggios (two octaves, various rhythmically related uses of the wrist vs. fingers and arm, hands separate). We've worked on five Chopin preludes, my latest Bach set, and the Chopin Nocturne I was learning before I started the lessons.

The biggest emphasis has been on playing softer. I didn't really think of myself as a loud, banging pianist, but definitely did not have the ability to create varied colors, which maybe comes down to the same thing. For just about everything I play at my lessons, I get the same comment: "Too loud."

I'm not really complaining (I hope). This is extremely worthwhile. On the other hand, if it gets to be too much of a drag, I'm going to get discouraged. Right now I'm in the netherworld between my old enthusiastic "go for it" playing and being aware of the nuance that is missing, which is frustrating. And you know, I'm aware of the possibility that the nuance will never get there. Can my muscles even do this? But I sense that they can. And then the other thing is that it doesn't have to be 100% perfect. It's not like the nuance police are going to come and arrest me if I play like too much of an amateur. I still believe that it's better to do something, however short of the ideal, than to do nothing.

In a way, this is an excellent time for me to be working on this stuff because I also am practicing toward the performance of "Pezzo Capriccioso" in June, so having  more limited time to practice the piano is somewhat of a good thing. To put it another way, the relative dullness of the one is offset by the relative terror of the other.

My biggest fear about "Pezzo" is that I will get up there to play and find myself flailing around and making a big mess of it because such virtuosic tricks should not be attempted by someone who spends 8 hours a day sitting in front of a computer in an office. I really need to banish such thoughts entirely and focus on the positive. Such as:
  • I can make a good sound on the cello. Most of this piece is more about that than about pyrotechnics.
  • The piece is only four pages long and has a lot of repetition.
  • Even in the fast sections, making up less than half of the piece, there are only about three places that are hair-raising.
  • I have more than two months left to work on it, and I can already play it up to tempo, from memory. It just needs polishing.
  • If I put my mind to it, I can do this AND have fun with it.
That last point probably holds true for the piano as well! So onward.