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. http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/62f9

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.