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.