Dec 20, 2008

Should you study from the end or not?

This week I started experimenting with the method Chuan Chang describes in his "Fundamentals..." for memorizing. The first project that I'm using his method on is Bach's Sinfonia 15 in b-minor. Chang recommends dividing a new piece in segments of a few bars, and learning each segment by first playing it in your head from the music, and then playing it on the keyboard from memory. All in 3-4 bar segments, and all with separate hands.

I started work with a small variation: I began studying at the end, working my way back to the beginning, in 3-4 bar segments. My reason to do that is that I know from experience that I have a tendency to study the beginning of a piece much better than the middle part or the end, so why not break that tendency right from the start? When I arrived at the top of the second page, I realised I had only practised the right hand part, so for variety I worked on the left hand part starting at the point where I had arrived and working my way to the end.

Working towards the end again made me realise that starting at the end has a very real risk of inefficiency in it. Each time I backed up a few bars to memorize the next (or actually previous) segment, I included a few notes of the part I just learned, just as Chang recommends. However, when that previously learned part comes after the part I'm now working on, it turned out to be very tempting to continue playing that second part, because I already knew how to play that. The result was that already in my first session with Chang's method, I learned the end of the piece much better than the middle part, and I wasted time on playing parts of the Sinfonia that didn't need as much work as the rest. So next time I'll better start from the top!

If you're disciplined enough to avoid the temptation of playing just learned parts that are going fine, good for you! Otherwise, you'd better use Chang's method the way he intended to, and that is to start working from the top. Following his method makes for some very concentrated practice time, with solid results to show for it!

Dec 17, 2008

About nerves and happiness

Last weekend my teacher had her yearly Christmas student recital. For me, this was the second time I participated in these recitals with this teacher. The first time, which was also the first time in four years that I performed in public, I was incredibly nervous to my own surprise. I wasn't really nervous before the recital, but once I started playing my hands started shaking, I had some memory lapses, and all together I made quite some mistakes that I hadn't expected to make. This was all the more surprising to me because I didn't expect to be so nervous for a relatively low-pressure event.

This second time was somewhat different. What may have helped a bit was that the atmosphere was more familiar this time, I knew most of the people that would be there, and I knew there would be good food afterwards :-). More importantly though, was that my preparation was better. One thing I did in the weeks before the recital was to check my memory by playing my recital pieces completely in my head. Any passage that I couldn't remember without being at the keyboard apparently hadn't been memorized well enough, so needed additional work. Also, any passage that I couldn't play a tempo mentally, still needed technical work.

During the recital, I still got a bit nervous in my first recital piece, and I made some mistakes that I never made before. Sure enough, this was the piece that I couldn't reliably play mentally. But during playing, I also found that the parts I had memorized and studied well, were solid enough to be able to continue playing without real blackouts. As a result, by the time I was through the first piece I was getting less and less nervous, and I could start my second piece (the first movement of Beethoven's Mondschein sonata) quite confidently.

Over the years I've been suffering from my nerves almost all the time, and sometimes it was really bad. At those points in time, I've been wondering why I kept putting myself through these ordeals. Get nervous, don't play as well as I'd like, and afterwards feel regrets about not performing up to my own standards. This time was the first time in years that I was able to feel again why I keep doing that. This time while I was playing, I was able to really listen to Beethoven's music, listen to how beautifully it was written, listen to myself creating a new performance of this sonata. I'm certainly not an exceptional pianist, far from it I would say, but I felt incredibly happy to just listen to myself recreating this music.

And that's why I keep doing it.

Dec 14, 2008

Andras Schiff talks about Beethoven

Last May, Andras Schiff gave a series of lecture recitals on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas he recorded earlier. The complete lectures are now published on the Guardian website. Very interesting stuff!

Dec 11, 2008

Why daily exercises are a good thing

I was raised as a flute player, and as a flutist I got to play a LOT of daily exercises. Moyse wrote a book with daily exercises, Trevor Wye includes them in his series on flute playing, and lots of other famous flute methods include daily exercises.

Daily exercise is a great way of building your skill. Practicing for 15 minutes a day if you don't have more time (for example, when you have a full-time day-job...) is way more effective than practicing for 4 hours only once a week. Plus, you'll probably get too tired long before you reach 4 hours, if you play only once a week!

The trick to daily exercises is to concentrate your efforts. Don't just play through a piece you're working on, but focus on the difficult parts. Even better, work on exercises to build specific skills. On the piano, I haven't found a good collection of daily exercises yet, but I'm sure there must be some very good collections in the vast piano literature. I just haven't been looking for them yet, since I only (re-)started playing the piano about 10 months ago. If you have suggestions for good, concentrated, varied daily exercises, please share them in the comments!

Dec 8, 2008

What to study when you really can't

Last week I did something very stupid: while cutting some paper for making a booklet, I cut my right index finger with a very sharp knife. At first, it didn't look like a bad cut, but in the end I had to go to the hospital to have the bleeding stopped. The effect was that I couldn't use my right hand at the piano for a week.

Initially I figured that a week of rest from the piano wouldn't really hurt me. However, I had forgotten that next week my teacher will have her yearly student's Christmas concert, and that I'm supposed to play in that concert. So she suggested that I focused on left hand exercises, for example, the left hand part of Beethoven's Pathetique. I've been trying to study that sonata some time ago, but thought it's still way too difficult for me. But this week, focusing on the left hand only, really helped to get a better grip on the fundament of this sonata. When I could use my right hand again yesterday, I found that I had made incredible progress!

Yes, I know that it's always a good idea to study hands separately when working on a new piece, and I've known that for a long time now. My experience this week taught me that I tend to start playing both hands simultaneously too early. Learning the separate hands really well before attempting to play left and right together actually works much better than I thought!

Dec 7, 2008

How I came to be a piano player

Okay, so I'm not really a piano player. At least not a professional one. But I do enjoy playing, and I try to be good at it.

As a kid, after taking music theory lessons for two years, I wanted to play the piano. But since we didn't have a piano at home, and no room or money to get one, I settled for flute instead. Actually, I became pretty good at flute playing, I even made the Dutch Student Orchestra twice. I only realised at age 37 that, if I wanted, I could finally buy my own piano. So I did, and started taking lessons. After three years of lessons and three years of hardly any playing, I started taking lessons again a year ago. Apparently my current teacher fits my style of learning much better, because I'm making much faster progress, and I'm much more fanatic about studying than I used to be.

I've found that thinking about music, and about studying, resembles an exercise in philosophy. My goal with this blog is to share my thoughts about playing and listening to music. I hope that sharing my experiences will inspire others, and benefit anybody who is enjoying the journey of making music.