Sunday, November 21, 2010

Back to Basics -- Scales

I have to admit, I have been relieved that I haven't had to play scales for a very long time.  Mainly because playing them don't make me feel very good--they sound uneven, the left hand misses lots of notes, etc.

But as I'm practicing the Chopin piano trio, I realized I probably need to get back to practicing some scales.  There are a few passages where the two hands play in parallel motions.  I'm not too happy with my two hands being uneven, and I just realized that they are thirds.

I've never been good at parallel thirds in both hands.  They have never been even.  Maybe that's why thirds, as well as sixths and tenths, are something I haven't played since middle school.  Wow!

My left hand is actually a bit worse than I thought.  The only thing it is consistent in is missing notes... my 2nd finger there isn't very reliable either.  Well, that's kind of annoying, because those are things that can only be fixed through months of practice.  I was hoping I can get away with it now that I'm playing "real pieces"--but sometimes, missing links can come back and bite you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Use Your Imagination--Having a Vision for How to Make Music Sound Good

So I've talked about how I've been working on making musical phrases when playing the piano.  That's coming along quite nicely, at least in the sense that I actually actively think about phrasing now, as opposed to ignoring composers' phrasings marks when I was younger.

Another thing I briefly touched on is having a consistent interpretation of a piece of music.  This is something I need a lot more work on, but until I actually play a few more pieces of music in completion, I'll remain deficient in this regard.  I'm in no rush, of course.

I also mentioned that I need to let music come to me once in a while.  That's tricky, because unless you have good intuition, letting music come to you sometimes means you're churning out madness.  Think of children playing--not the prodigies, of course--say, Mozart's K. 545.  Extreme speed, right?  That is not what you want when I say "letting the music come to you".  It's something that needs to be nurtured, but at the same time, you need to expose your primitive modules of your brain to grow musically.

Today, as I'm listening to the Ax, Frank and Ma's version of Chopin Trio, I am struck by how good it sounds.  I've been a little distracted by the despite wild fluctuations in tempos and some seemingly non-faithless interpretations in my past hearing of their performance, but as I'm being frustrated by my inability to make my piano part sound good, I realize just what caliber of musicians they are.  And I realize, I am been following scores to such a tee that I am hampering my imagination.

Currently, I do have have the vision to be able to create good musical sounds in my head, and perhaps that's why I have so steadfastly remained faithful to the score.  I need to be able to imagine and hear various ways of playing music in my head to actually be artistic and creative--after all, that's what playing music is all about.  It's not about following every last bit of the composer's dynamic and tempo markings.  That's what professors and, gasp, musicologists do.  As an artist, you need to be able to go one step beyond that.  I'm not talking about violating the composers' intents, but turning the music the composers created into pure gold.  Once the composers wrote their music, the music becomes human property, in a sense, and as long as you understand the spirit what the music was written, the dynamic marking and tempos should all come naturally if you have that artistic vision.

And that artistic vision and imagination is what I need to develop.  It kind of encompasses "letting the music come to you", I suppose, because now you're letting the music come to you even when you're not actually making the sounds at the piano.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Letting the Music Come to You

So I've kind of went through the 4 movements of the Chopin Trio, and the few days have been playing something different.  A couple of Scarlatti Sonatas, some Bach Prelude and Fugues, Poulenc Mouvement Perpetual, and also, Chopin Etudes.  Actually, I should say, mostly Chopin Etudes.  Op. 10-5 (Black Key), Op 10-8 (Sunshine?), and Op 10-12 (Revolutionary).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning the Chopin Piano Trio -- Part III

The piece is quite a bit more difficult than I had imagined chamber music pieces to be.  Or maybe it's just me not trying to play all the right notes in the past and now I'm trying to?  Either way, this post will be more about technical difficulties I'm encountering as I'm learning the 4th movement of the Chopin Piano Trio.

1) Bar 35.

Chopin Piano Trio, Bar 35-37
  I've been following the fingering suggested by the National Edition, in blue.  I find the D circled in red to be very awkward to play with thumb.  Maybe I should have explored alternate fingerings, but they're all hard in one way or another.
  The Chopin National Edition also suggested using the left hand to play some of the notes, as indicated by the dotted lines.  Those definitely make it easier to play, although the left hand would have to do a lot more jumping around and I have been playing those notes heavier than that right hand, which is bad.

2) Broken 6ths, octaves, 10ths and 11ths
Chopin Piano Trio, Bar 69-70
  This passage is proving itself to be hard.  The 10th and 11th are hard enough as is, and jumping from the F back to the C doesn't help.

3) Big broken chords
Bar 132-136

  The big broken chord in 132 (and 131, not shown) isn't exactly trivial, but the ones in bars 134 and 36 are simply not something I'm used to playing.  Obviously, the 5th and 4th by themselves are easy, but once you combine with the rest of the chord it becomes quite hard to hit all the right notes, unless you have hands like Rachmaninoff.  I've been trying to play them as legato as possible, so I've been using a lot of 4-5 fingerings playing those 5ths and 4ths, but maybe I need to lift and reposition my hand here.  It's probably okay with all the pedaling going on, but it's hard to make it sound even and smooth when you lift your hand.

  This is where it reminds me of Chopin's Op. 10-1 etude.  Only not in the key of C major.

4) Thirds.
Chopin Piano Trio, Bar 168-170
  Well, this actually isn't as bad as I originally thought.  The Chopin National Edition had some weird fingerings that I should have ignored earlier.  Now, for Bar 168, I'm playing (52)-(31)-(42)-(31) and Bar 170 basically the same.  But I haven't quite nailed it down yet.

  I don't know why Jan Ekier suggested for bar 168 (53)-(42)-(31)-(2/3 1) and essentially the same for Bar 170.  (31)-(2/3 1) doesn't work that well for me (2/3 meaning either 2 or 3); and isn't moving the thumb like that the wrong fingering anyway?


Man, I didn't know having to play all the right notes make a piece so much more difficult.

There are a bunch of other things that are hard, mostly bringing some of the polyphonic stuff in the piano part.  For the time being, I'm thinking the strings will detract attention enough so while I'm paying some attention to them, I'll try not to spend too much time worrying about that for now.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Piano Regulation

It's been a while since my last post.  Mostly, it's because I haven't been as motivated to practice, and a large reason is because I feel like my Steinway B is more and more messed up.  My arm and fingers kept hurting so I've reosrted to playing on my other electric piano.  I've chronicled the downweights on my piano in an earlier post, and of course in additional to that there are a bunch of other issues as well.

I was especially unhappy with how Faust Harrison treated me.  First off they charged a rather exorbitant amount (a grand), I thought, for a day's work, which came to something more like 5-6 hours.  Secondly, even when I asked them to fix up some things after the humid summer, they dragged on their feet until it has been a few months and they refused to work on it unless I coughed up more money.  I would have been more okay if it didn't end up being so messed up, but I found a different technician and he did a monstrously improved job.

So, Arpad Maklary, a Hungary who actually used to work on Zoltan Kocsis's piano, worked on my piano yesterday.  He worked on a bunch of things, here are some of the ones I remember:

- Cleaned up the strings by getting rid of the oxidized surface.  This has the effect of bringing out the overtones.  This, amazingly, made the piano sound much more like a Steinway!

- Raised the levels of the hammers.  Apparently, for some reason, the hammers earlier were sitting at around 47-48 mm from the strings.  Arpad said the Steinway standard is 44.5 mm.  This partially contributes to the piano feeling so heavy.  The mechanics appears non-trivial to me because all the moving parts that go on in a piano action, but clearly overall, if the hammer is closer to the string, you would imagine the piano being a bit easier to play.

- Applying lucricants on various parts.  Well, this is easy to understand.  It reduces the friction at various places and helps both downweights and upweights, the "touch" of a note, etc.

- Replaced a few pins in the bushings.  The low G and the 2nd-lowest E are a little sticky, even after lubricating the bushings.  So he replaced them.  And since I kept complaining about the low D (74 grams before regulation), he replaced that one too.  Coupled with all the other work he did, the low D is now <56.7 g!  (i.e. 10 quarters, my standard measurement).  Nice.

- Tuning.  I like his tuning.  I don't think it's particularly magical, but stretching the lowest few notes and highest few notes by more than a few cents has very nice effects.  The highest C he stretched it by 50 cents.  The lowest A I think he stretched it by something ~ 25 cents?  Now the bass has a nice sustaining, sororous sound and works very well as pedal notes etc.  Playing the lowest C major triad chord sounds awful, however, but it's rarely used so it's okay.  I recall that once, in Shanghai, a tuner who gives intruction at the Shanghai Music Conservatory and was the tuner for Lang Lang's piano came to tune my upright and I wondered why after he tuned it the chords in the lower register sound so out of tune.  Now I know--they had the same reason.

There are a whole slew of other things he did that I don't remember or don't understand enough (like the backdrop(backcatch?), some screws, putting graphite on a certain part I don't know the name of, the height of the "click", and some others).  But he was here from 10:30am to past 8pm--and I'll just say that in comparison, Faust Harrison absolutely ripped me off.  My piano now actually sounds like a Steinway, plays like a Steinway and feels like a Steinway.  From now on, if there are passages I can't play, I can no longer blame it on my piano :)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Local and Global Considerations

Phrasing, as hard as it is, is about the treatment of a small number of notes.  It could include your touch, your dynamics, etc.  Musical consistency, on the other hand, is putting phrasing, dynamics, color, everything together in a consistent manner.

Excuse me for using science/engineering description: phrasing is a more "local" phenomenon, musical consistency is "global".  And as we know, local optimization is much easier than global optimization.

I've been wondering what the word interpretation means in one of my earlier posts.  I think musical consistency is pretty much the same thing.  You think through a piece, you decide what you wish to tell the audience, or maybe just to yourself, and present it in your vision.  A good vision, is likely logical and cohesive in a certain way, and that is what I mean by musical consistency.

I only thought of this when I watched a few masterclass clips--Mario Joao PiresSusan Starr, and Schiff.  (Yes, youtube is a great resourse.)

Maria had something to say about Beethoven's 32 variations in C minor.  At the end of the theme, there are a few descending staccato notes.  Instead of playing them strictly staccato, as the student did, she suggested thinking of them as portraying something ghostly.  And if you do so, then the staccatos in the 1st variation must be a continuation of this sort--do not play staccatos on the G's, or at least not obvious staccatos.  Otherwise, the consistency and logic is lost.

Susan Starr's student was working on Liszt's Dante Sonata.  There, the consistency is achieved by making sure you follow tempo, and not put in arbitrary rubatos.  It is easy to fall into the trap of changing your tempo when reaching a climax or a lull.  This kind of rubato is also a local consideration.

Schiff's clip is short.  It's on a Schubert sonata.  The lesson here is that Schubert had measures clearly marked out, so just follow them.  In the piece apparently it's easy not to play them that way--yet again, a local consideration.

It is after one starts considering a piece in its entirety that he starts entering the realm of true music appreciation.  Listening for sensuous spots here and there is nice, but a whole new world will be opened up if you start thinking globally.

Replace all those "you"s with "I"s and that's exactly where I am standing right now.  I've got a lot of global considerations ahead of me.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Accents -- The Phrase-Breakers and Rhythm-Markers

Accents--they feel like they're anti-phrasing, especially on the piano.  The piano is percussive as is, accented notes almost feel like they're just emphasizing the shortcomings of the instrument.

For piano pieces by the likes of 20th century composers like Prokofiev and Bartok, accented notes seem natural and appropriate.  It's like revealing the true nature and ambitions of the piano, instead of trying to make it into a legato instrument which it is not.  Perhaps it's for that reason I've always like 20th century music more than the Romantic era.  I have to admit, however, that it doesn't explain why I'm a Debussy and Ravel fan.

So what to do about accents in music where the composers were trying to make the piano sing?  I haven't had a clue, up until today, when I'm studying the Chopin Trio.  My understanding thus far, comprises of the two following points, although if you think about them they're kind of related:

1) Phrase-Breaking
  The past couple of months I've been thinking about how to phrase a line on the piano.  I realized that the human ear is sensitive to contextual input, and this illusionary effect is perhaps the only reason why the piano can sound legato to us.  So, to insert accents in a phrase is just doing the opposite.  You are actively disrupting the phrasing.  Example:
Chopin Piano Trio, 2nd Mov, Bar 1-2

According to the National Edition, the first accent (more accurate, the first marcato) isn't even an accent--it's a one-note diminuendo.  In any case, it's the accent circled in blue I'm referring to.  Instead of ending the phrase, you put an emphasis on it.  It totally disrupts the flow of the phrase.

This has such a profound effect that it almost sounds unnatural.  How do you make it not sound so abrupt?  That brings me to my second point.

2) Rhythm-Marking
   Musicians often put a slight accent on, or at least pay more attention to, the beginning of every measure.  This rhythm marking function of an accent is about as natural as it comes.  In fact, many dances are differentiated by merely which beat the accent is placed.
  So I think the only way to make the example above (start of Chopin's Piano Trio 2nd Mov) is to somehow establish a rhythm very quickly.  You have exactly two chances to do it--third beat of measure 1 and third beat of measure 2.  Can you (read: I) pull it off?
  Speaking of dances, the 4th movement of the piano trio is effectively a Krakowiak, in the style of Chopin's Rondeau de Concert, Op.14.  It is there I realized this second function of the accent:
Chopin Piano Trio, 4th Mov., Bar 1-8
Notice all the martalletos circled in blue.  They define the character of at least the opening of this movement and is something the performer must impart to the audience.  It doesn't come naturally to me but you're just have to get a feel for it, maybe by listening to Chopin's Opus 14, which sounds very similar to this movement at times, or other Krakowiaks.

There are other functions of accents... like a slight pause in music for added drama, etc.  But I don't have good examples as of yet, so I'll hold off that thought for later.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Learning the Chopin Piano Trio -- Part II

It feels kind of weird that this since I started this blog I've probably spent more than half of it detailing my injuries, as opposed to musical growth.  It's more unfortunate, I suppose, but apparently many pianists suffer pain in their hands and arms.  Just today one of the students in my class complained of pain.  It's probably more or less inevitable, since as long as you're moving any part of your body you're putting stress on it.  But the point is to minimize the amount of necessary effort.

Last week I purchased an ergonomic keyboard, an ergonomic mouse, and a book about the human body and how it relates to pianists, What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body, by Thomas Mark.  The 3M ergonomic mouse didn't work so well for me, so I've returned it.  The Miscosoft keyboard I've used it in the past, and I love it.  And from a rudimentary perusal of Thomas Mark's book it contains a wealth of useful information.  I'll have more on it in further posts, I'm sure.  But there's a lot to learn.

I skipped last week's class because of pain.  The pain is kind of still there--it just moves around.  I think by now it's pretty much visited every conceivable muscle and tendon... The good thing is that pretty much all of them just last a couple days before going away.  The bad thing is that it seems like new ones just keep coming out of nowhere, like my latest one located somewhere on the inside of my elbow.  Either way, it's saying that I need to be a lot more careful.

On to the comments from Julie Jordan.  

1) Melody lines need to sing.  Nothing new here--I guess I need to do more.

2) Passages where both hands play scales/arpeggios need to sound less busy.  Careful with phrasing.  Example:
Chopin Piano Trio, 1st Movement, Bar 219-221
Bar 219-220: More phrasing in both hands.
Bar 221: Sounds too busy.  Emphasis on the right hand.  Left hand need to be very light.

3) Musical ideas need to "go somewhere".  I suppose falls under the giant umbrella of phrasing.  Anyhow, example:
Chopin Piano Trio, 1st Movement, Bar 243-246 (the ending)
The 16th notes need to be "going" to 8th notes.  A word on editions: the above is the Kistner edition circa 1840.  But the Chopin National Edition, which I trust, has different markings for the notes I highlighted.  There, the orange ones have no staccato markings, and the yellow ones actually have staccatissimo markings.

Well, that's why having an thoroughly researched urtext edition is important.  Now you can decide exactly how you want to phrase them.  Julie Jordan recommends thinking about this whole section as though played by a cello, so the 8th notes, without the staccato, has a little more oomph than mere staccatos.  I think that makes sense.  Staccatos may make sense yet, but I suspect it might not be compatible with the character of the piece.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chopin Competition Live Feed!


I don't know if they were streaming it back in 2005... but this is 2010 and web 2.0 is definitely here.

Some Continued Pain and Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse

Been kind of slow the past few days. My arms are hurting, presumably a continuation of the pain due to piano playing. So I haven't touched the piano very much the last little while. In fact, sometimes my wrists and arm hurt even when I type and use the mouse. And that actually reminds me--when I was in grad school doing too much programming on a non-ergonomic keyboard eventually make my wrists hurt.

So I bought an ergonomic keyboard, the Microsoft Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000, which is the same one I used back then. In additional, for the first time, I bought an ergonomic mouse.  This is one of those that look like a joystick, the 3M Ergonomic Mouse.  So hopefully I reduce as much stress and repetitive motions as possible.

One of the things after my lesson with Madeline Bruser is that I've been more conscious in sitting up straight.  And it's surprisingly tiring!  In fact sitting up straight makes my shoulders pretty tired after just a few minutes of sitting in front of the piano.  I'm sure that this is a good habit, it's just that I'm even having some back pain now...

But here's something that'll cheer everybody up:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Injuries and Technique

I had a lesson with Madeline Bruser on Tuesday.  Who is Madeline Bruser you ask?  Well, she happens to be the author of a book I bought several years ago, The Art of Practicing.  Like I mentioned, several weeks ago I had extreme pain on the right side of my ribs.  I recalled her book, found out that she lives in the City, and thought it would be a good idea to have a lesson with her.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Learning the Paganini-Liszt Etude #4 -- Part I

In 1838, Franz Liszt composed a series of 6 etudes, known as the Études d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini, S.140, based off themes and materials from the incomparable violinist Niccolo Paganini's compositions .  This version was composed during the era where pianists competed against each other for their sheer technical capabilities, and Liszt the showman naturally fell into the trap of making pieces as difficult as humanly possible.

More after the jump.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Additional Notes from Thursday Evening

A couple of other points from Thursday night's class:

1) Some people learned to play the piano completely differently from the way I did.  This lady in my class does not read music very well; rather, she plays what she hears from memory.  I was quite amazed as to how she is learning Beethoven's Appassionata not so much from the score but from her listening.  I wish I have a better ear.

2) Nerves.  I haven't had to perform a new piece from memory in a while now.  Last night's playing of Paganini-Liszt #4 was my first in, oh, 9 years at least.  I had numerous slip-ups, and missed an entire bar in a section I thought I knew both mechanically and harmonically.  I guess I was nervous, ended up playing faster than I should, and by the time I reached that section my arms were already all tense and I was just fighting to keep things under control.

  I also noticed that I had to take breaks when I was playing that 2-minute piece.  By breaks, I don't mean literally stopping; I mean slight ritardandos at places where they aren't musically called for.  There are a bunch of left-hand cross-overs in the piece, such as:

The leap back is more than 2 octaves.  I had to slow down a little bit to ensure that I hit the right notes both reaching there and coming back, not to mention trying to make them not sound harsh.  If I weren't so tense, I could pull off without those ritards, but at the time I had to because because my arms were so stiff and needed that split-second break to recover.

It's debatable whether it's musical to take a breath, but that's beside the point.  In the end, I probably should take a tiny breath anyway, because otherwise the passage sounds like it's coming from a machine.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Arrival of the Zoom Q3 and... Fingernails!

I ordered the Zoom Q3 off Amazon and it arrived in the mail today.  As advertised, it's a little bit of video and great audio.  It's great to listen to your own playing with a nice recording device, for review, for critique, for enjoyment.

I'll post my review of the Q3 later on, but the first thing I noticed from my playing is... my fingernails knocking on the piano keys.  They sound like ping-pong balls!  I didn't expect fingernails to sound like that.  In fact, I never noticed those ping-pong ball sounds when I play!

I promptly helped myself to a nail clipper.

Learning the Chopin Piano Trio -- Part I

The third class of the Solo and Collaborative course that I signed up for at the Juilliard Evening division.  Since the previous week I kind of injured myself, this week I thought I'd do a better job preparing.

My plan was to play through the 1st movement of the Chopin Trio in g minor.  So I starting practicing the piece in earnest last Thursday.  It became quite obvious that the piece is a bit more difficult than I had previously imagined.  There aren't clusters notes anywhere, but the piece does require some practice.  More practice than I had intended for this chamber music piece--I guess I wasn't giving it enough respect.  I suppose my Caltech habit of going to rehearsals and basically sightread things isn't gonna work too well here, because I actually need to play this piece well.  

So, practice it is.  Getting all the notes right is hard!  I guess it's been a while since I actually need to learn a piece the proper way.  So one week turns out not to be enough for the 1st movement.  Well, that's alright.  I'll play the 1st movement, or at least parts of it in class, and my readily available backup piece: Paganini-Liszt Etude #4.  I've been stuck on the Paganini-Liszt piece for a couple of months now, both technically and musically.  So it's a good piece for a masterclass-like setting.

On to the lesson we go.  And I learned a few very valuable lessons.

1) It's a bad idea to not to think musically when you're practicing.  John Hsu, the conductor when I was at Cornell, wondered out loud why so many pianists aren't practicing musically the same time they're practicing the notes.  He's a cellist, so I guess he's more musical.  I've been doing it, but when I gave myself this goal of learn the notes within a week, I forgot to think about the music.  Julie Jordan, the instructor for the class, wasn't too happy about my playthrough, which was exactly that--a playthrough.

2) Phrasing is extraordinarily important.  Dr. Jordan stressed this in both of my pieces.  Even for chords, there is some phrasing involved.  The notes need to go somewhere, and often times, if you don't have an intuitive feel, you can analyse the harmony, the meter and the rhythm to get an idea.  Simple example: 

From Chopin's Trio, bar 9 to bar 12.  The key signature is 2 flats.  The whole left hand line needs to be phrased.  The F leading note goes to tonic G.  Phrase it that way.  

Even a scale, an arpeggio, a broken chord should be considered a musical idea.  Dr. Jordan mentions that she's not even used to playing scales without "going" anywhere.  For a broken chord, like the one in Chopin's Piano Trio measure 4:

The key signature is 2 flats.  You should feel like it goes to the top A.  Now, the PWM edition actually recommends not playing the broken chord in the right hand to sound more convincing (possibly Chopin's intent, since it occurs later in the piece), which Dr. Jordan concurred.  So the broken chord starts in the left hand and goes to now-non-broken chord in the right hand.  

Without keeping phrasing in mind, music sounds dead.  Personally, I think that piano is a limited instrument when it comes to phrasing; but if you don't even try, it just sounds really, really bad.  And the thing is, and this is a recent discovery of mine, the human ear picks up on very small nuances, and that the context in which we perceive sound matters a huge deal.  And that's the only reason why we can hear different colors coming from the piano, a supposedly percussive instrument.  I need to figure out exactly what the ear and the brain is actually capable of picking up.

3) Melody line.  Chopin listened and thoroughly enjoyed opera, even if he never wrote one.  He constantly thought about ways to make the piano sing.  It is no coincidence that Chopin became the greatest piano composer.

Paying attention to the melody line is similar to phrasing.  Bar 17-18 of the Chopin Trio 1st movement:

Make sure to use the circled notes to lead the syncopated melody while making the piano sing.  Even for something like this, from the 3rd to last measure of the Paganini-Liszt Etude #4:

It's a melody!  Not particularly interesting, but even less interesting if you just bang out those 4 notes.  In fact, if you go to youtube and listen to this piece, many performers didn't pay enough attention to these 4 innocent looking notes, and ended up sounding downright aggressive.  Yes, it's a showpiece, but you can still make music out of it.

4) The idea of the block.  By that, I mean the reduction (right word?) of the notes to a chord.  Like: 

Bar 53 of the trio 1st movement.  The key signature is 2 flats.  While I played the triplets well, the bottom quarter note I didn't pay much attention to, and thus sounded dead.  Dr. Jordan said that you should think of the triplets going to the bottom note (which is easier said than done because of the leap).  To assist in hearing and absorbing the sound, practice playing the top 3 notes as a chord lasting a quarter note and phrase that chord with the bottom note.  Dr. Julie calls this blocking.  It is easily applied elsewhere.  Basically you can practice "blocking" the entire Paganini-Etude to get a better feel.

This post has gone on long enough.  I'll leave some thoughts for another day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Touchweight -- Downweight in particular

Touchweight refers to the force associated with the response of a key on a piano.  Downweight specifically refers to the amount of force necessary to depress the key; upweight refers to how much force would stop a key from returning to its original position.

I've been finding that I've been getting tired at the piano faster than I remember.  My left wrist is actually hurting a little bit.  Maybe it's because I'm practicing more, but I have an alternate theory.  New York City had an extremely humid summer, and my technician told me that it caused many pianos to have "stuck keys", and I wonder if it's had a permanent effect on my piano.

Most grand pianos apparently have downweights in the 50 gram range.  Back then, I asked my technician to make the action slightly heavier, but he never told me what downweight he was aiming for.  Apparently most piano makers these days aim for 52-55 gram downweight.  Here's a link on the pianoworld forums with useful information:

Using quarters and dimes, I weighed the downweight for all the keys on my piano, the the pedal down.  A quarter weighs 5.67 grams, a dime 2.27 grams.  After testing a few keys, the weight of 10 quarters appears to the the average downweight, so I just taped 10 quarters together to save time.  Let's just say that's 56.7 grams.

A total of 58 keys, or 65.9%, of the 88 have downweight less than 56.7 grams.  Presumably, around 55 grams was the factory setting.  The distribution these 58 keys is interesting: from the very top octave to the bottom, it goes 13-10-8-9-6-3-6-3.  13 because it goes from C-C, the last 3 is low A, low B flat, low B.  Maybe I'm generalizing a little, but the more often used keys are more messed up.  There's also the "noise" in the data since my technician oiled up the bushing for a few of the notes somewhere in the middle to upper register.  Either way, I'm guessing they're messed up more because I was playing them when the bushing absorbed lots of moisture.

A few downweights are way, way off.  The lowest D weighs a whopping 76 grams!  The second lowest E is a close second, weighing 73.7 grams.  8 of them weigh over 68 grams, all of them in the 2 lowest octaves (starting from low C).  Perhaps that explains why it's especially my left hand that's getting tired?

I haven't measured upweights.  I've already wasted enough time testing the downweights.  But the second lowest E actually doesn't even always return to original position, so... that's definitely problematic.  I've had to work super hard for repeating notes for some keys, so it'll be interesting to find out what keys should give me problems.

Looks like I'll need to do something about it at some point... maybe the next time I get my piano tuned.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Listening to My Own Playing from a Few Years Ago...

I uploaded my playing the Mozart Piano Concerto K 491 (in 2005) and the Archduke Trio (in 2006) onto youtube today.  So I got a chance to hear my own playing from back then.

One obvious thing is that I didn't practice enough--I played through tons of wrong notes.  But that's something I knew all along.  I mean, I played the concerto with music.  That surely gives it away.

There are some things that I wouldn't do today.  Like with the Mozart, I probably need to simplify.  It also has too much phrasing done in the Romantic sense, I feel.  With the Beethoven, it's clear that I never put too much thought into it.  Other than the simple f and p's , the obvious crescendo and dimuendo's, my playing lacks a central idea.  [Actually, on second hearing, it sounds downright schizophrenic.  It just wasn't good.]

In general, back then I lacked subtleties.  A better point is that I think I need more layering when I present the music.  Maybe I've heard my own playing too many times, it's just not very interesting.  It's quite straightforward in the presentation.  If there even was a coherent presentation to begin with.

How would I improve my "layering"?  I don't actually know.  I guess that's why I need to buy myself a half-decent recording device and listen to myself.  Cell-phones and built-in microphones on laptops do not qualify.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stephen Hough and Raison D'etre of My Pursuit of Musical Growth

I went to the doctor the other day to get my aching right side of my ribs checked up.  While in the waiting room, I browsed through the August issue of the New Yorker.  It has a critics section on classical music, and this being the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth, some of it naturally went to review some of the new Chopin recordings that came out.

The reviewer, Alex Ross, gave a raving review of Stephen Hough's play.  Not knowing who he is, I looked him him later.  Turns out, in addition to being a musician, he is also a well-established poet, and writer on religious matters.  In fact, he's been named by the Economist as one of the world's 20 greatest polymaths.

I'd like for myself to be a polymath; I think people are definitely too specialized these days.  In fact, picking Chemistry as my PhD field after my bachelor in Physics and Math was partially motivated by this fact.  In college, I took courses like Drama, Women's Studies and Sociology with that determination in my mind.  I think in the end, I spread myself a bit too thin.

Stephen Hough is clearly much more accomplished in everything he has done.  I, on the other hand, has yet to accomplish anything in particular to any depth.

Other than my career in finance, perhaps it is only music that I have any real chance of becoming somewhat of an expert.  And it was only realizing that I solved the question I have been asking myself for many years now, which is: Why should I play the piano?

As a kid, piano was forced upon me.  I wouldn't quite go so far as to say I hated it, but certainly if it weren't for my parents, I would much rather be doing something else (most probably play video games).  In college, I had my first shot at giving it up.  But I was decent at it, so I kept taking piano lessons.  Maybe it was satisfaction of my ego and the thrill of audience's applause that stopped me from giving it up.

At multiple times in grad school, I didn't join the school's chamber music program.  I really thought it's time to stop the piano.  I was good, but not so good as the make a living out of it.  Why bother?  My musical standards started to get higher, and it became higher and higher for me to perform at that level, without much practicing.  I can just listen to music, and sing along with it.

So my recent surge in interest in music had me wondering if it's an activity worth pursuing.  Unlike most people, who simply do things because they enjoy them, I need to justify any actions I take, even if it's something I truly enjoyed.  This mentality has led me to making many short-sighted decisions, but I'm too deeply ingrained in this mindset to change.  And I have never been able to find a rationale keep up with music.

That is, until last night.  I was reading Glenn Gould's writings, and I was caught thinking how even for a genius  like Gould spent a lifetime pursuing and thinking about music.  As I got up to the bathroom, my mind just became crystal clear and I realized music, or perhaps the piano in particular, is actually worth my while pursuing.  I would like at some point in my life to be able to claim supreme expertise at something, and at my rate of finding new things that interest me, the only candidate for me to becoming an expert in is the piano.

My full justification currently contains the following two points.  One.  Few had a chance to have spent months as a kid playing alongside a music conservatory professor every single day.  Those days gave me a rock-solid foundation to build upon, and with my innate urge to play everything fast, I have good finger dexterity.  It is not something you can simply acquire after becoming an adult, so I have something that can genuinely be qualified as "talent".  Two.  I think, I have an inner desire to prove to my parents that, contrary to what they have been telling me all my life, maybe I do have have some musical senses after all.  This aspect is deeply ingrained in my head which is again a rather unique event.  Coupled with my somewhat obsessive perfectionism when I put my mind to it, I keep searching for the perfect way to play a phrase, or a measure, or even a couple of notes.  The Perfect Note--what musicians are constantly after.

I think that with those two points, largely unique to to myself, give me sufficient rationale to keep pursuing the piano, and music in general.  It is going to take a lifetime, but I hope I do get somewhere.

Friday, September 24, 2010

YouTube Clips

Irrefutable proof that I actually do play the piano:

Videos for the Ravel and Tchaikovsky piano trios have been uploaded.  I should have the Beethoven Archduke and me playing Mozart's C minor piano concerto hiding somewhere but I can't seem to find them.

Yep, no solo playing.  I need to videotape myself one of these days.  Wonder what I should upload for my first piece...

YouTube is truly amazing--I suppose to even say something like that shows my age.

It's funny that for the Tchaikovsky clips it says "Content matched 3rd party copyrighted material" on my upload page.  It doesn't show up on the Ravel.  I wonder why?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ear Training--Part I: Intervals

Several days ago I downloaded Ear Master 5. I've always known that my ear isn't exactly up to par, but using the program shows that I probably have regressed since the days when I was taking the ABRSM grade exams. Oh, the aural tests. It's been a very, very long time.

The problem with the aural tests back then is that I treated them like I was treating a math problem. I hear an interval, and I just count semi-tones from top to bottom and bottom to top, and spit out the answer. The method was good enough for me to get enough points on those tests.

My teacher who did these aural tests for me never taught me what I should be listening for. Not to denigrate her, but Macau at the time I was growing up was quite devoid of musical talents. There was maybe one or two half-decent piano teachers, and she wasn't one of them. My grandma never taught me ear-training--as she probably didn't need them, being a child prodigy who entered the Shanghai Music Conservatory at the age of 14.

So this time I'm gonna train myself the "right" way. That means I want to get a feel for what the intervals sound like, what the chords sound like, etc.

So... using Ear Master's... here's what I learned:

What I suck at: major and minor 6th's, in particular. perfect 4th's, to a lesser extent.
I just don't seem to have a feel for them. It's gonna take some time.

What I'm good at: 2nd's, 3rd's, maj 7, dim 5's.
2nd's and maj 7 are easy--they don't get any more dissonant.
The 3rd's I can identify mostly because 3rds come up a lot in piano music, so for once I actually have a feel for them, which is good.
dim 5: Saint-Saen's Dance Macabre happens to have made an impression on me so I just think back to the two opening chords of that piece. It's a pretty distinctive chord anyway, although after listening to dozens of random chords I occasionally even get this wrong.

Some strategies I've come up with:

min 7: Try to fit either a V7 or II7 between the two notes. It's gonna take me a little more time to internalize, but it seems to be working. Like I said, I try not to count semi-tones--though sometimes I still get caught in the habit of raising the top note by a semi-tone and try to hear whether it sounds like a maj 7. Again, I don't think it's a good habit. I want to get to know what a min 7 interval sounds like.

maj 6: Here's the funny thing. If I can sing it ascending, then I can recognize it as NBC's "sol-mi-do". Descending--I get it wrong pretty consistently. I don't know, it sounds like a minor chord sometimes, which is obviously because it's minor 3rd inverted, but when it's make up of notes on the C major scale, it sounds "pretty major" to me. It must be some kind of C-major bias I and a lot of other people have.

min 6: If it's descending, I try to to sing "do-mi-fa-so" in my head. If ascending, it's more obvious, but I haven't come up with a strategy yet. The C-major I described earlier bias also creeps in here.

For both maj and min 6: I've tried adding a note in between (like "mi-so-do" or "do-so-mi") to complete a triad. But I'm pretty bad at that it seems. Wouldn't hurt to develop that though. Maybe it means I need to learn solfege, if it is what I think it is.

I'll have more on my ear training endeavors later on.

Chopin National Edition

Feeling better today. Used a few patches of Salonpas the last couple of days--highly recommended.

Chopin's 2nd sonata and his Piano Trio are the pieces I'm working on for the Juilliard evening class I'm taking. So instead of relying on IMSLP I actually mailed-ordered a decent edition. The National Edition, edited by Jan Ekier, apparently is endorsed by the Chopin Piano Competition so it's gotta be the best. I find it kind of cute the publisher Theodore Presser Company also publishes the Pederewski editions, arguably the best edition outside of this National Edition.

So the sonatas and the trio arrived in the mail today. Definitely interesting to see what kind of work the editors did to arrive at "urtext" edition, with extensive performance and source notes.

There are keys differences between the IMSLP and this National Edition. I'll list a couple--they happen to both come in the very first measure of the pieces.

2nd sonata 1st movement, measure 1:
The IMSLP version (edited by Klindworth) has p as the dynamic marking.
The urtext has an f.
Comment: Good to know--all the recordings I heard on youtube basically play somewhere between an mf and and f. It does make more musical sense that way.

Piano Trio 1st movement, measure 1-2:
The IMSLP version (edited by Kistner) has staccato over the chords in quarter notes.
The urtext does not have the staccatos.
Comment: Again, good to know. Both make musical sense, I suppose. Emmanuel Ax actually plays them staccato (except for the last note) in his recording with Yo-Yo Ma and Pamela Frank, so I've been puzzled what to do there. Legato won't feel as lively, but we'll find out how it sounds when I actually play them in an ensemble.

My point is that it just puts you on more solid footing when you have an urtext version that you trust. There are enough things to worry about when you're performing, so the last thing you need is to wonder if whether you can trust your score that you're learning the notes from.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Amazingly enough, I have sustained an injury. Just when I actually spend some time practicing the piano.

Actually, I'm not entirely sure if it's a piano-related injury. I wake up yesterday morning with pain in my ribs on the right side, and it got a lot worse today. Can barely walk without pain. I think I must have pulled a muscle or something.

Maybe I'm being a hypochondriac--but I just happened to be reading Madeline Bruser's "The Art of Practicing". So I decided when I feel better, I'm going to set up a lesson/consultation with her to make sure I don't do disastrous things to my body when I practice. I guess it's my body telling me that I'm now in my thirties.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What is an Interpretation?

As mentioned earlier, I'm taking the Solo and Collaborative class of the Juilliard Evening divisions. For this class, I'll be preparing Chopin's 2nd sonata and his Piano Trio. The course syllabus says "By studying these paired pieces, the comparative motifs and trends that the composer utilized in each genre are revealed." I wonder what will be discovered?

I'm getting a little obsessed about having my own interpretation. What on earth does the word "interpretation" even mean? I suppose it is the whole of the tricks up my sleeve, overall emotional state when playing the piece and the rationalization the came before the actual performance. On a sad day, the sadness comes out. On a happy day, the happiness comes out.

But my real issue is, HOW does this show? In each individual phrasing and expression? If so, then to have a consistent performance, one must not give in to the whims at the moment of performing. With the lure of Chopin melodies, for sure one would be distracted. A phrase that came out too sentimental. A passionate passage that came out too aggressive. Yet, if your rationale is to rein in your emotional excesses, I fear that the performances would lose life. Such a difficult balance!

But my understanding of what an interpretation is certainly not accurate--I've only really thought about it for a day and haven't talked to many people yet. And that will exactly be a process in my musical growth.

ps. I found a review on somebody's performance of Chopin's 2nd sonata.

I needn’t detain you long: this is the kind of Chopin recital that informs and refreshes. From the weighty opening chords of Chopin’s Second Sonata, Simon Trpceski strikes a balance between detailed analysis, instinctive reaction and sweeping romanticism that’s deeply satisfying.

He can produce a huge, rich sound and introduce tempo adjustments and rubato in ways and at times that could prove disruptive, and yet his musical intelligence and confidence are such that he gets away with it, and you’re carried along with his exuberance. The rapid repeated chords of the Sonata’s second movement are attacked ferociously, then the huge resonance Trpceski’s produced melts into the warmest, gentlest cradle-song of a melody you could imagine. The third movement is that famous funeral march, not taken too slowly, and beginning with an intimate subjectivity, before the more public mourning and posturing. The frantically compressed moto perpetuo finale has a nightmarish quality to it…which is then picked up in the opening of the first of Chopin’s 4 Scherzos; not much to joke about here. And again it’s Trpceski’s willingness to surrender himself to the moment that’s so impressive in the Scherzi; there’s a genuine feeling of spontaneity about these performances, yet he’s still able to bring out little details and emphasise lines you might not have noticed before.

Personality in spades, yes, but there’s also integrity, and that really matters. You get the feeling that Trpceski really identifies with this composer-pianist, more so than in his Rachmaninov recital for EMI, where just occasionally the gestures felt overblown. Here there’s appropriate flamboyance alongside emotional honesty, and if you want to know what I mean, sample the opening of the Scherzo No. 2. Trpceski’s been given a better recording for his Chopin as well, absolutely mirroring the playing: intimate, but with room to take the grandest sonorities. Sheer delight from end to end.