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 Danger 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.
One writer I really admire is a guy named James Clear. He's the source of the read 20/pages a day system that I mentioned in an earlier post. He writes extensively on habit formation and strategies to formulate creative excellence.
I happened upon a podcast interview with him where he expounded on a lot of ideas in this article: The Difference between Professionals and Amateurs. In short, the difference that he discovered is simply a willingness to commit to regularly engaging in one's chosen work:
Being a pro is about having the discipline to commit to what is important to you instead of merely saying something is important to you. It's about starting when you feel like stopping, not because you want to work more, but because your goal is important enough to you that you don't simply work on it when it's convenient. Becoming a pro is about making your priorities a reality.
I know that I myself have always had trouble committing to seeing repertoire or a recital program through to complete, professional-level mastery. When I was getting tired of practicing the same pieces, my undergraduate teacher would extol the virtues of theater actors: "They have to perform the same play with the same lines and the same actions day after day. They can't afford to get tired of it, and neither can you."
It's true, the point is well taken. These professional artists had to commit to the artistic merits of their production. They had to invest their own talent to bringing a play or a musical to life day in and day out.
I had the opportunity to ask a singer on tour with a Broadway musical how they achieved this professionalism. He said that in such a large ensemble, everyone's individual approach in a given night allowed for subtle variety which could only be noticed by the actors. A scene where the cast casually socializes, free of choreography, would allow for different interactions every single time. The actors could test each other's commitment to character by pushing different boundaries in an attempt to make others laugh. Even the most systematic and planned blocking allowed for variations night in and night out.
I really took this insight to heart. It is the sign of a true professional to withstand seeming monotony and find artistic variations within the repetitive routine.
Pianistically, we have set choreography of notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. We even have more subtle elements imposed upon us by performance practice, and the expectations of our teachers or colleagues.
But beyond this there is still a wide margin for variation. The balance between our hands can shift between phrases to show different nuances of a story. Rubato can ramp or ease up to highlight dramatics arcs. We can explore the extremes of individual articulations; staccato does not just mean detached.
A professional pianist shows up with regularity to explore these variations while the amateur pianist explores a piece only when, and until their inspiration lets up. Even the pianist who moves on to pursue something else, even if practicing consistently, but not consistently pushing one's understanding of certain repertoire, will never reach the same kind of professional artistry that others who show up and dig deeper will.
I thought that a good summer project would be to revisit some old performances of mine. The oldest recordings of myself that I know to be in existence are from my second year of my undergraduate studies. I haven't found the CD of that session, but I'm sure it's somewhere in my home. I do have my junior and senior recitals, plus several other recordings from my undergraduate years, not to mention all recitals I've done since, and non-recital sessions of other works too. I'm lucky that I've made sure to get decent recordings of almost all major repertoire i've learned.
My memory would tell me that my piano playing back in the day was awful. I've improved technically since then, and clearly I had no idea how to listen to my own playing, interpret music correctly, or practice for strong, individual performances.
As I listen back, I was actually quite wrong. I don't hate my playing from my late teens and early twenties. I hear problems in it, but I also hear an individualistic artistry which I recognize as an early version of my playing today. So I thought I'd share some old personal recordings and comment on them.
First up is my Junior recital from January 19, 2007. This was my first full recital program ever, including Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D, WTC II, de Falla's The Miller's Dance, a couple Debussy Preludes, Morel's 2nd Study in Sonority, (maybe something else?) along with this Haydn Sonata. This date is the only time I ever wore a tux with tails, rented for the occasion, and for some reason, I thought so much hair was a good idea.
that one of my biggest issues was a tight hand and wrist, likely due to under utilized finger position, and poorly integrating all of my upper limbs. You can also hear it in the scalar passages like M. 36-37.
Some of the musicality is naive. You can count out all of the fermatas, they're far too unoriginal and ill-contrived. I would like to hear more detail in the articulations, especially a closer attention to slurs. A lot of "hits" are the exact same strength, i.e. M. 74, 76.
But on the good side, I do back off for M. 78 to create a nice little line. There are other moments where I listen and match the tension and release of a line well, say M. 60-61
I really like how I listen to the ends of phrases; M. 4-5 and M. 6-7 make a nice pair, and M. 10 captures the confusion of landing on this strange chord really well.
Overall, it sounds like I do get the jocular character of this piece quite well. I don't have all the tools to execute it yet, but I do hear something in my playing that I like, and I'm grateful that I had great teachers who heard it as well.
The first day of my first piano repertoire class in the fall of 2017, I gave my students a quiz. There were no wrong answers per se, but I was interested in presenting them some pianistic problems, or, challenge some commonly held assertions about the piano repertoire.
One of the questions that I asked was:
On the surface, this is a simple matter of confirming whether or not the piece was in triple or quadruple meter. Perhaps some considered whether it was actually notated in 4/4 with triplets, or in compound 12/8 time. But several students, including some who had performed the piece quite recently, gave pause, simply for the fact that I asked a seemingly obvious question.
They were perhaps more perplexed when I asked a follow-up question:
In some ways these were trick questions. Tricky because a) the question of time signature seems relatively uncontroversial, and in fact, obvious; b) because we all have a pretty clear sense of tempo in this movement. It has to be some sort Adagio, no?
Well most people fail to realize that the time signature in the first movement is actually cut time. Though the tempo marking is Adagio Sostenuto, I always like to ask what is 'slow and sustained'? Students don't often think about the connection between the tempo marking and the meter marking.
To me, the tempo marking relates directly to the note value of the basic beat, as revealed in the time signature. Therefore, the half note ought to feel like the basic beat, and it's the half note which ought to feel slow and sustained.
Well most performances nowadays are so slow that one cannot sense the half note as a beat. It's possible to hear this movement with the half note as a slow beat. It sounds faster to our ears, yet I think makes considerable sense so that the harmonic rhythm doesn't seem intolerably slow. Besides, when you count the quarter note in most 'slow' performances, the beat is actually rather fast, not anywhere near a sense of slow and sustained.
Months ago, I wrote about my love of Amy Beach and her Ballad, Op. 6. I was finally working on this great piece after dreaming about learning it for many years. Back in February, at my first Choosing Joy performance, I was relatively happy with how the piece went off. I won't go too deep into analyzing the performance. But I figured I would share it-wrong notes and all-as a special treat to those who read my blog. Check it out:
Prevailing wisdom tells you that when playing a fugue, one should always bring out the subject. I suppose the logic is ironclad: the whole point of a fugue is to have the main theme/subject weave itself in and out horizontally while 3-5 voices weave in and out of themselves vertically.
But I wonder if this way of playing a fugue defeats the purpose.
Isn't the genius of Bach that he could combine the subject and independent material in remarkable ways? It's more that he hides the subject? So if we're constantly pointing out the subject, we're working against the genius of his polyphonic writing.
I like to make the appearance of the subject much more subtle, and bring out the top voice more often than not. Give the audience some credit: most will know what they're listening for, and will search for it anyway. We don't have to hit them over the head with the subject. Even for the audience without significant musical training: fugues are set up that they get to hear the subject alone to begin the movement, then hear it flow from one voice to the next. Given just a little musical ear, and they understand this concept, and will track it as the texture becomes more complex. To me, this unveils a much greater, more subtle form of compositional genius.
One year ago I made the first post in my officially rebranded blog. I renamed this space "pianistic intentions", because I'd been reflectively intensively on the idea of what it means to stand out as an artist. It seemed to me that there is a category of musicians, professional and amateur, young and old, who successfully combine the best of performance traditions, with their own, distinctive, individual voice. This is something they do with purpose and with intentionality.
I want to listen to intentional pianists. I want to develop intentional pianists, I want to be an intentional pianist.
So much writing about classical music, so many piano blogs, don't get at this specific distinction of how to be a unique artist. It's also really difficult to approach this topic when teaching advanced pianists.
I had a conversation with a younger graduate student in piano performance recently. I'd just heard a performance and complimented what I heard. They answered "well, I made a mistake but I don't think anyone noticed". I get how difficult it is to accept compliments when you're disappointed in your own performance. But I think there's something different going on beneath the surface.
This pianist thought that their performance ought to be judged solely on the merits of whether the right notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics had been played.
It just so happens that I've overheard this same pianist practicing. I could tell that this pianist practiced in a way to avoid errors, or at least get through them. Not to fix errors, and certainly not to develop an individual musical voice. Not to problem solve, not to hear the music in a new way, not to challenge their perceptions of how the piece should be performed.
I'm posting a slightly abbreviated version of my first post about "pianistic intentions" below. The student I was speaking with has gotten the copying part down, but has yet to move past it.
I still stand by the framework of this original post. Everything that I've posted since then has been with the intention of moving pianists from the point of copying, towards a more intentional pianism. I haven't always been steady in my work, but I'm expecting that the second year of blogging (dare I say, intentional blogging?) will be even more fruitful than the first.
On May 22, 2017 I wrote:
A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
A good crescendo is hard to come by. A good decrescendo is even harder.
Most students will define crescendo as “getting louder”, and they intuitively know that that means you start soft. I’ve been emphasizing with a lot my students that the point of a crescendo is not so much the beginning or ending dynamic. It’s the ‘getting’ part.
The joy of a crescendo is the journey from one dynamic to the other.
The ‘getting’ isn’t a means to an end. The music is in the journey.
"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