Monday, November 26, 2012

What I'm playing this week: Change of course

At my piano lesson a few days after I wrote my previous "what I'm playing this week" post, I broached to my teacher the idea that perhaps I was working on music that was too hard for me. I've sensed from him that he hasn't been entirely convinced that I should be working on all of this stuff but that he didn't want to discourage me, either. I felt this particularly with regard to Kinderszenen; that is, I know he had some specific reasons for starting me on "Of Strange Lands and People" and a few of the others, but he wasn't enthusiastic about my continuing with the whole set though he didn't say so specifically.

And then he told me to work on the Brahms Op. 118 No. 1, and the shit hit the fan. This piece has highlighted my weaknesses as a pianist, as only Brahms can do: the big chords, wide jumps, and wall-of-sound washes of arpeggios, against which the pianist has to bring out the melody and make it expressive. I attempted this piece on my own a few years ago without much success, and this time around it has again been a struggle. It's hard to say whether I even like it or not; maybe I do in the sense that a gymnast likes her routine on the parallel bars -- not necessarily something you'd do for fun, but something that advances your technique and lets you show it to the world.

Anyway, the upshot of our conversation was that I have dropped the Schumann and Chopin for a while and am working only on Bach and Brahms (this piece plus Op. 116 No. 6 and 117 No. 2), plus a new piece: the Preludio from Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. I could see instantly why he chose it: It has the same big leaps and balance issues as the Brahms but is much, much simpler musically. (He also told me to stay away from YouTube and use my own imagination to come up with an interpretation.)

So that has been my task for the past couple of weeks. The big technical challenge for me is to learn how to let go of notes once I play them. My instinct (and I suspect this is probably common for a lot of people) is to hold onto everything even after it has sounded, even though this is often counterproductive. Once a note sounds on the piano, the only thing that affects its continued sound is the pedal; your hands have nothing to do with it after the hammer hits the strings. If you play a big chord, for example, and continue to press down the keys with the same force, your hand is in a position of tension, and it's also more difficult to move to the next note. But at the same time, one's instinct after grabbing something with effort is to hold onto it. Thus, quite a bit of retraining is involved here. We'll see if I can do it.

I also started another Bach prelude and fugue, the C minor from WTC I. I learned this set five years ago and never recorded it, so it's good to relearn it. I don't exactly feel "finished" with the D minor set, but when would you ever? I was able to play through both the prelude and fugue very cleanly and from memory at my last lesson and even got a couple of  "good"s from my teacher, so not so bad, right? Maybe I will try to record it again so I can compare it with my previous version.

On the cello: I am contemplating how best to proceed. Stay tuned.


Nancy M. Williams said...

I haven't tried Brahms yet, Harriet, but I can only imagine. Congrats on your progress on the D-minor from the WTC. That is quite an accomplishment. I think you hit a nerve center with this article--how many of us are working on music that is too hard?

Harriet said...

Some days I think EVERYTHING is too hard. :)