Following on the heels of my last two posts (one about how practice doesn't make perfect, another analyzing a recent Beethoven performance), it's worth noting one more thing:
All of our successes are a culmination of our entire lives up to that point, including successes and especially including our failures.
I mentioned in the Beethoven post that I'm quite terrified of performing fugues; that's a genre you can't get away from playing the piano. Here's the source of my terror: towards the end of my B.Mus in piano performance, I went through a string of performances where I had memory lapses in fugues. It didn't seem to matter what I did at the time, no matter how prepared I was, no matter how often I played without problems in the practice room, or for my teacher. I could not get through fugues.
Now, I know of several strategies to do better memorization work. The point here isn't how to do better practicing.
The point is that no matter how much better prepared I am today, I will still be worried about performing fugues in public. That makes every successful performance of a fugue that much more of an accomplishment. That makes every remembered note, every beautiful phrase or voicing that much more powerful to me. I think that playing on that knife’s edge allows me a certain kind of musicality that I wouldn't otherwise have. I would play differently if I didn't have that string of rough performances. Not better or worse, just differently.
The “failures” of my past make me, me, the pianist that I am today. That's the most valuable, distinctive, tool in my musical arsenal.
There can never be enough reminders: Practice does not make perfect.
I can never say enough: Practice makes permanent.
I'm so glad that someone decided to adjust that silly little axiom to say something vastly more accurate. The original wording is so wrong, so misguided, that I dare not repeat it verbatim.
We all need reminders that practice time brings us no closer to perfection or artistic or technical mastery. Practicing only reinforces what we're doing, good habits or bad habits.
It's worth noting though, when we have young kids that we're teaching, they can't innately comprehend the difference. It is so important that we help students and give them tools to make good habits permanent in their practicing. We see students for 30 or 60 minutes once per week (most of the time). They practice more than that at home and need to be able to work independent of a talented teacher.
But, one thing that Suzuki piano training has taught me, is that we have a secret weapon at our disposal: parents. If my student's parent understands good habit-forming practice skills, they can guide their student at home. Parents need not be able to play piano, but there are innumerable things they can do to help their kids practice better.
Parents can listen for balance between the hands. Parents can listen for a steady tempo. Parents can listen for hiccups in continuity. Parents can listen for an ugly note. Parents can listen for crescendos or decrescendos. Parents can listen for false accents.
As long as you give them a specific item to listen for in one specific spot, parents can go a long way to helping students make permanent, good, habits in their practicing.
This past year I learned and twice performed Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in Eb, Op. 35, commonly known as his Eroica Variations, as the theme of the variations is the same theme as the finale of his 3rd Symphony, also titled Eroica. This was never a dream piece of mine per se. A friend of mine had played it in our undergrads, and I heard Jeremy Denk do it live once. But it's not a piece I knew much about, nor one that I could "hear" in my ear (besides the theme). I knew it existed, but beyond that, my mind was a blank slate.
So last summer, I decided to learn it, and keep my mind free of the interference of other interpretations. (I discussed the problem of being influenced by recordings in my Artistic Messages blog series last fall, particularly #4.) I thought this would be an ideal piece to see exactly how much my artistic voice would differ from that of others: this is a significant, virtuosic piece by an iconic performer, but one relatively unknown to most people.
While learning the variations, I listened to just a couple people start the fugue to get a sense of their tempo, that's it. I didn't listen very long, and I tried to ignore all other details of their playing, beyond what I needed to satisfy my discomfort with my own tempo choices. Otherwise, to this day I haven't had any influence from other recordings of this piece. (Though full disclosure, I have played this piece once for my former teacher Thomas Rosenkranz, and twice for my coach Louis Nagel. Both mentors gave invaluable help and advice, yet neither works with me in such a way as to fundamentally change my interpretations. I see their influence as clarifying my vision of the piece or helping me reach that vision more efficiently).
Here's the very first performance of that piece, from my Choosing Joy recital in February.
Bass plus one voice: 1:20 area-I debated a lot whether to bring out the bass, or the 'new' section-the duet. Here I'm not consistent enough with either, though I do like bring out the difference: the duet.
Bass plus two voices: 2:10- I like the dialogue here!
Bass plus three voices: 2:45- I had a memory issue of a different variety in my 2nd performance of this piece too.
Theme: 3:25-I'm pretty happy with the phrasing here, though some of the passagework needs cleaning up. You need this jolly feeling here, but the arrangement and texture is really heard!
Variation 1: 4:05- It's so easy to over rely on the pedal here, but I'm glad that I'm not!
Variation 2: 4:45- of course Beethoven would make one of the hardest variations the second one. I'm quite happy with the tempo and cleanliness of the A section especially. I don't love arpeggios, but am glad it's in the key of Eb, and not C or F#. The mix of black and white notes helps a lot.
Variation 3: 6:09- there's a really tiny memory slip I'm proud to have played through.
Variation 4: 6:30 area- I've debated about playing different tempos in these variations, even with such consistency in sixteenth notes in these first four. But it seems to me they're so completely different in character, that I just need to "help" their differences a little bit.
Variation 5: 7:05- Tempo especially different here, I want to milk these juicy intervals in conversation.
Variation 6: 8:00- Just the week of the performance I was having major memory problems in this variation, so I'm glad I rectified it here. I'll take some unclean broken octaves instead. And again, success in not over-relying on the pedal.
Variation 8: 9:20- A precursor to Waldstein Sonata's finale. Everyone kept telling me to use more pedal here. I like the sound, but maybe will experiment with going further in this direction.
Variation 9: 10:08- for me probably the 3rd hardest variation. Playing these chords, with such short articulation, but still making them beautiful. Not a very successful performance, though the B section was better than the A.
Variation 10: 10:50. Actually one of my favorites. Besides the false, I like how it went. I'm trying to displace the meter as much as possible, each hand disrupting the other.
Variation 11: 11:30 ish. Another favorite. Such a mundane melody, simple accompaniment. I actually had a lot of memory problems in the B section while learning it.
Variation 12: 12:20- I guess tied with 9 for the 3rd hardest variation. My hands don't like to adjust to new hand positions so quickly, but then to play broken chords too, this could have gone worse.
Variation 13: 13:06- it's up for debate whether this or #2 is the hardest variation. I'm still not convinced about how to use the pedal here. I'd take this kind of accuracy; I only completely missed the right hand note once, and a couple other times it was a little messy. I could have slowed down a tiny bit more and no one should complain, but gosh I really want to keep the energy going like I did here.
Variation 14: 13:45ish- I wish I'd changed the mood more here. This should have been slower. But I like the voicing, and how I hold onto dissonances.
Variation 15: 14:42- Very hard to memorize, and to phrase. And to count. I think I found a nice balance in the A sections between the short phrase articulations from Beethoven, but still maintaining a longer line.
Fugue: 20:19- There's nothing so intimidating to me than performing a fugue from memory. My Master's recital had 3, including a 5-voice fugue. Listening to it now, it's been nearly 4 months since I last performed this piece, and I've read through the fugue maybe once or twice. It feels like a foreign piece! I can't 'feel' myself playing it as I listen, as I can with most of the variations. I'm impressed with the speed I have here, but I'm worried that relearning it is going to be very difficult! I'm very happy with a lot of the voicing and articulation, and besides a couple slips, the memory is quite good. This fugue is also difficult because it's so easy to play it all fast and loud. You want the feel of eroica, but without banging. Pacing is so important, and I feel like my performance doesn't get monotonous.
Post-variation 1: 22:42- I never feel like I have great trills, but I really liked the sparkliness of those at 23:27.
Post-variation 2: 23:38- My left hand melodic chords get very rhythmically monotonous, every repetition of the rhythmic device gets the exact same stress. When my right hand moves to 32nd notes at 23:53, I like the phrasing of the left much more.
Overall, I like this performance a lot more now, than when I did a couple of weeks after it happened. I think I capture the distinctiveness of the variations so that this doesn't feel like a long piece. There's enough sloppiness that I'm eager to fix and it's nothing that a 3rd and 4th performance of the work won't fix!
I've had teachers advocate slow practice, in fact, most of my piano teachers advocate slow practicing.
But I've known a few people who advise against it: our technique works differently at slower and faster tempos. Even fingerings can work at one tempo, but not at another. One of my former teachers, Paul Barnes, used the analogy that you can't water-ski under-speed! The alternative-because these teachers don't expect fast tempos upon sight reading-is to practice small sections of a new piece at performance tempo.
I'm sympathetic to this idea. Ultimately, I often have to catch myself, and many students, in getting 'trapped' at a slow tempo. Many of my piano practice strategies are geared towards practicing in small sections, and building towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
But I do value slow practicing for pianists, in the end. But I always try to frame it this way: Practice slow in order to think fast.
If our fingers and our brains are slow, we aren't pushing towards the goal of perfecting a piece for performance. We're not ingraining it in our minds. We aren't doing slow practice, we're doing slothful practice.
If your fingers are moving slow, but your brain is moving fast though, you're still making progress. Your brain needs the chance to make connections between new notes, to chunk information into efficient modes of memory. Practice piano so that your eyes and fingers are working at a pace that allows your brain to do that crucial work.
I'm generally no fan of labelling "historical eras". Really, what does late Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach have in common? Next to nothing, in fact, in terms of texture, many of them have exactly opposing ideals. Yet we call all of it 'Baroque' music.
I find the "classical era" label most cohesive and appropriate. There is consistency of style and musical ideals from composers as wide as C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
But it's the "romantic era" label that really gets me: Romanticism does not mean expressive. I need to say that again, in different words: just because some music is expressive, does not mean that it is romantic. Expressive music doesn't automatically mean romantic music.
I could go on as to why, but I'll point you to two resources. One is an interesting article contrasting the historical philosophy of the enlightenment and romanticism. This isn't easy reading, but this extended quote is contributive:
Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.
Charles Rosen doesn't really define what romanticism, especially as it relates to music, is, but he does a great job discussing music that he considers romantic, and how these composers contrasted their work with the preceding classical era. Reading The Romantic Generation is a big commitment, but it is the most enlightening musical text I have ever read. Who are the composers who make the cut and earn the label 'romantic?': Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, a little Mendelssohn, Bellini, Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
I have no problem removing the 'romantic' label from Brahms, and Schubert, and even Mendelssohn. I'm hesitant to give it to Chopin (Rosen makes a strong case that Chopin contributed innovations to romantic sound, but I'm not sure he would suggest that Chopin is a purely romantic composer, like Schumann was). I don't think it's at all appropriate to Rachmaninoff.
Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff all wrote very expressive music. But to make not of this fact is simply to make note of its expressivity, not allegations of romanticism.
I'm very grateful for this article from Interlude writer Frances Wilson. She begins with the observation that most musical biographies seem rather formulaic. Venues, conductors, competitions and teachers. There are alternatives:
Wouldn’t it be refreshing, once in a while, to read an artist’s biography which was less a list of achievements and name-dropping, and more about the personality behind the dry words and the professional photograph? To discover more about that person’s musical influences, their likes and dislikes, what music excites them and why, and what makes them tick as a musician? Details that may not be found on the artist’s website and which might bring musicians closer to their audiences. In reality, most artist biographies tell us very little about the musician or musicians we are about to hear in concert and seem only to serve the requirements of their agents and managers.
I remember just before I made my first version of my website. I was nervous to do it: I was a hack! I didn't have major accomplishments, I didn't have a lot of performances to advertise, and why would anyone be looking for information about me anyway? I relented only to treat my website like a portfolio, but I still felt that its presence suggested that I had an inflated sense of my own fame.
Writing a biography was very similar. I couldn't create as impressive a biography as those I read of professional musicians. Even amongst many of my student colleagues, I didn't have the biggest named schools, or major competitions, or prestigious festivals to arouse audience interest.
Besides, some people's biographies come off sounding fake or contrived. "I studied with the student of a student of ___________ famous teacher." "I won some competition only 5 people heard of" "I made up a series of adjectives which have no objective value regarding my playing".
Then I read the book Beyond Talent by Angela Myles. Her idea regarding biographies was to tell your story as an artist. She suggested collecting 'raw material', any aspect of my career, talent, strengths, fun facts, which made me, me. What was the brand that only I could sell.
I crafted a biography which I used for several years (with minor adjustments here and there) that I was happy with, because it gave the audience context to my performances. My biography wasn't there to wow them, it was there so that my personality, my history, and my music making could emanate from the same source.
So no more hiding behind inflated accomplishments. I'm calling for a resurgence of honest biographies that tell stories. True stories.
(and by the way, I've been revamping my own biography. It will roll out in a few weeks, before the end of July!)
more active arms. You want big motions, big power, to come from bigger joints and bigger muscles. Fingers are really good at the small things: articulating. The arm, specifically the elbow joint, is really good at creating the motion needed for a big sound at the piano. The common wisdom says that you play the piano with your fingers. I try to emphasize with beginning students that the fingers are more than anything just a conduit for bigger muscles to transfer motion to the keys. Tiny muscles that they have, we want our fingers to have to work only as a last resort.
Obviously, this is complex language. When teaching beginning piano students, you don't want to overburden them with technical language. In fact, you don't want them to really know that they're learning at all. A fundamental principle in piano pedagogy is that you relate new knowledge to old knowledge.
What kids do understand naturally, by the time they're beginning piano lessons, is brushing their teeth. And unless they use an electric toothbrush, they understand that bristles on an old-fashioned toothbrush don't do any work themselves. But they're essential to brushing! Kids immediately and intuitively understand that it's our arm that's the source of motion when brushing their teeth.
So, I give them a toothbrush to play on the piano. It just so happens that the 'arm' of the toothbrush corresponds nicely to our forearm, the 'joint' of our hand holding the toothbrush corresponds to the elbow. The bristles of a toothbrush even look like our fingers hanging from our hand in a beautiful piano hand position.
I'll have my students play quite a bit with the toothbrush, then ask them to treat their fingers just like the bristles. Generally, they intuitively make the connection, they can play with quite a big sound, without pushing or forcing. Their fingers are more passive and their arm more active, and they have nice alignment as well as hand position. Throughout their early years, I can continue to refer to "toothbrush arm" as a technical tool for specific pieces.
This way I also never have to talk about their wrists. They innately understand that the "wrist" of a toothbrush isn't floppy, but it isn't a cement block either. Again, it's a conduit, a tube where motion from the arm travels to the fingers. They get that all the wrist has to do is just not get in the way.
And so as I adjusted my performance to align to a quarter-note pulse, the piece changed from the brooding, introspective piece to a very angry, agitated one. The piece drives forward, barely relenting, until you reach the climactic diminished 7th chord right around 0:58. Then the picardy third that follows isn't so much a ray of sunshine as it is a sarcastic "well, whatever", still angry.
I think it fits the piece really well. My teacher wanted certain harmonic tensions and resolutions in place but he was willing to go along with it. I played it this way in a couple competitions, as well as for other teachers in studio classes, lessons, and a few commented on it, a few didn't. Anyone who was very familiar with the piece clearly noticed the difference. If I encountered any resistance, I maintained that it wasn't really 'faster', my performance, it was just in the proper meter. Tap along to the quarter note, and it isn't a speedy beat!
This 5-voice fugue was quite difficult to learn, but I'm rather happy with how it sounds. It sounds very busy, but there's quite a lot of clarity in this performance. This performance would come from October of 2010.
that some of the more virtuosic elements of the piece (simple as they seem to me now) were a struggle. I could tense up in the big chordal or octave sections and I imagine my rhythm suffered terribly, as did sound and voicing. I think it's also the reason I hit some clunkers; say in M. 5-6, I'm holding a fixed hand position as I shift positions and never establish the new positioning.
But this piece is a particularly dangerous one if you can't sing at the piano. It's almost made to be played "beaty", that is, EVry SINGle BEAT sounds the SAME. The first two phrases share the melody between the hands, and the homorhythmic nature, AND the range of the melody lends itself to be played so badly, so easily.
I know that we worked so hard on creating a singing line, and instilling an organic rubato. At this point, even though I'd been playing it for several years off and on, you can hear the artificiality of some of my musicality.
Consider the beginning. First of all, the tempo is too slow (perhaps to aide some technical struggles later. You can hear that I speed up for beats two and three, and I bet that was something we were trying intentionally, to move the phrase forward. Secondly, I make a HUGE agogic accent on the F in measure two. I'm sure my teacher was trying to get me to highlight the highpoint of the phrase, but it sounds so fake here.
I do like the section that follows pretty well. I think I have a nice staccato to accent timing in measure 9 and 11. I wish measures 10 and 12 would drive just a bit more, but overall I think the musicality is natural.
I remember in the "nocturne" that follows, M. 14-20, we worked a lot on rubato...I think I spend a little too much time "enjoying" the pic-up measures and they become monotonous. But, I like the sound here.
Something I'm quite pleased with is the laying of voices in M. 65-82. Here in the development, takes the technique of the opening, but changes the monotonous rhythm so that the principle melody is dotted half-note and quarter-note, leaving the hand crossing in place as a filler voice. I think I highlight this rather well, and am glad I don't try to "correct" Brahms by playing the melody as if it were written the same as in the exposition.
My favorite part of this piece has always been the closing theme in the exposition, and especially in the recapitulation. There's something about that surging left hand that sounds so triumphant, even in the minor key. I know my teacher warned me not to playing everything too loudly. I'm sure I was just banging, but following the advice, you hear me pull back in measure 112, again, so artificially. If I encountered a student banging in something like this, I'd encourage them to think more lyrically within forte/fortissimo, leaving the relative dynamic level untouched.
So it's interesting, the first old personal recording I had, I probably remembered as worse than it actually was. I would have thought that this oft-played piece from my late teens or early twenties would have come off better. But I'd take my playing in that Haydn any day over this Brahms.
(I should rerecord this Brahms!)
Any music teacher worth their salt, who requires their student to make musical goals, knows to push their students towards realistic goal setting. That's not to say that a student shouldn't have a goal of "playing at Carnegie Hall", or "win the Cliburn Competition". But in order to achieve these goals, we need to formulate a series of interim goals.
The deeper you go in creating these short-term landmarks, the further you're actually getting from making goals, and the closer you are to making systems.
I'm a big fan of scheduling my time, and acting in a consistent manner day to day. I wrote about aspects of my schedule when I spoke about my morning routine, and matching activities up with energy schedules.
James Clear expands on this idea in an article about the benefits that systems have over goals. He suggests that if a coach of a sports team focusses on the systems built and refined in daily practices, inevitably is going to have greater success over the course of a season, than a coach focussed on winning a championship at the end of the season. If a championship is unattainable without the day to day systems in place anyway, why not put all energy and expertise into perfecting the system.
Clear uses his own writing as an example. He set to a system of writing new articles every Monday and Thursday. Over the course of the year, he had produced a volume of work equivalent to 2 books. But if he had started that year with the plan to write 2 books, so many questions and unknowns would have gotten in the way: what should the book be about?, how should it be structured?, what sources should I draw on?...This is only off the top of my head.
I spoke about something similar to this in a post called Dangerous Goals. James Clear's article adds elements to the discoveries I made there. Particularly, his second reason to focus on systems rather than goals.
One critique that may be made about focussing on short-term systems rather than long-term goals, is that if we have no 'eye on the prize', we won't work towards anything in particular. But his point is that once we attain a quantifiable goal, we can easily lapse into passivity, perhaps regressing on the skills that took us to our goal. If we can't identify and replicate the systems that led to an achievement, even a new goal is like starting from scratch.
Setting goals and working towards them is like trying to tell the future. We can't turn ourselves into something we're not. What we can do is start with an acknowledgement of our strengths and weaknesses, and work on systems, habits and schedules, that utilize our strengths. New skills will emerge, new habits formed, and inevitably we are capable of producing much greater work than ever before.
So before you worry about visualizing a performance goal far off in the future (even six months is too far away), focus on your practicing. How is your practice system working out for you? How are your day to day routines supporting that system? Are you spending enough time practicing? Are you spending your practice time efficiently? Are you strengthening these artistic systems with personal growth, social time and paying attention to your physical health?
Most of us would agree that the best piano playing has a certain spark of intuitiveness, spontaneity that could not be planned. Don't worry too much about planning your playing in the future. Plan your day, plan your work habits, and you might be surprised by the artistry that comes out.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act