Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beethoven op. 111 progress report

Earlier this month I made public my goal to be able to play all of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas in about 2 years.  With that in mind, I set myself the shorter term goal of learning the last of his Sonatas, op. 111 in C minor, over the month of January.  It has not been easy!  I am a pretty quick learner at this point - years of leaving things to the last minute have helped me hone my ability to learn fast.  But even so, squeezing in the hours around all of my other responsibilities - for example, practicing for other concerts, teaching, taking care of my children, etc. - has been difficult. 

But today, on the last day of January, while practicing in a lovely home in Dublin, I played through the entire piece.  It is a privilege to know the piece much more intimately than when I started.  And it is good to know that while a month of sporadic work has been enough to get the notes in to my fingers, it is nevertheless a piece that will, I'm sure, reveal more and more to me as I live with it longer.  In fact this is why I started my Beethoven project with this piece - I am counting on the blessing of time to help me digest this piece more fully. 

My students know that I love to say how tired I am of the sound of the piano, which is partially true (but not totally).  One of the remarkable things about op. 111 is the way it sounds so unlike a piano piece to me.  Perhaps it is fitting that it is his last piano sonata (although several important piano pieces, most notably the "Diabelli" Variations, were written later) as the first movement sounds to me more like a symphony and the second like a string quartet, the genre which seemed especially to captivate Beethoven in his later years.  By the time this piece was written Beethoven was, I believe, totally deaf, and he was writing, perhaps, not for the earthly instruments we hear every day, but for the heavenly sounds he could hear in his own mind.  It presents the wonderful challenge of creating this palette of colors on the piano. 

Now tomorrow, my day is filled with a master class at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a radio broadcast, and a rehearsal with some old friends (all former winners of the Dublin International Piano Competition) of fun, entertaining music for as many as 8 pianists at once (including arrangements of Flight of the Bumblebee, the William Tell Overture, and "Tea for Two.")  It may not be op. 111, but it has its place too! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Music for normal people

I just started teaching a new course at Boston Conservatory, the first they are offering for adults via their extension division.  It is one semester class, meeting once a week, called "Getting to Know the Piano Repertoire" and when I was explaining what I was doing to one of my undergraduate conservatory students, she helped me find the word to describe the students who would be enrolling in the course: "NORMAL people."  At a conservatory, I spend most of my time working with students who have studied piano music for most of their lives - (abnormal people?).  Even then I have to make an effort at times to imagine what it is like to hear about a piece for the first time, when I have performed it in concert 100 times.  That, of course, is what teachers do all of the time, in all sorts of fields. 

But it is always healthy for a performer, like myself, to come face to face not with musical colleagues but with the "normal people" who make up the audience of concerts.  What do they think about when they hear music?  What do they like or dislike?  The great artist is not, of course, supposed to play in a way that panders to the audience, but he does need to consider what is valuable to them - it is about striking a proper balance between entertaining and challenging.  

In any case, I enjoy helping opening people's eyes to things I already know and love.  I admire the "normal people" in this course, some who appear to be working, some possibly retired, but all challenging themselves to learn something new, rather than sitting in front of the TV and coasting through life on the education they acquired in high school or college.  In the last year or two I have begun to do more private teaching, including students who are 14 years old, and one who is over 70.  It has helped me to see clearly how valuable playing the piano and getting to know great music, intimately, is to everyone, not just professional musicians themselves. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

The problem with perfect practice?

I just read (and recommend) this blog post by Dr. Noa Kageyama, on the subject of practicing.  About a year ago I gave a presentation to a group of Los Angeles piano teachers entitled "Making Practice Perfect" where I explored and shared various techniques that I find useful for myself and students.  Dr. Kageyama points out, however, that the attempt to be "perfect" in the practice room can actually prevent us from learning.  One such reason occurs especially in conservatory environments: we want to sound good to our peers in the hallway or the practice room next door, and will avoid working on pieces or passages we aren't so confident with.  Or we might avoid taking a risk with tempo or musical idea, for example, because we will (probably) sound terrible, at least at first.

As a kid, one of my friends (now concertmaster of a major American orchestra) would sometimes go over to an older friend's house (he is now the concertmaster of another major American orchestra) to practice.  My friend said it helped him focus and not screw around.  But I wonder if it might have also made him avoid practicing brand new repertoire, say, or trying out new interpretive or technical ideas.  Now mind you, he is a great (and successful) violinist so he obviously wasn't damaged by this much, if at all, but it makes me think that it's important, in practicing, not to focus on what others think, but to listen to ourselves and evaluate how we are doing.

To my Conservatory students: ignore everyone else practicing nearby!  Your job is not to impress them in a practice room - your job is to do your best on stage, in a concert or competition or audition or recording studio. 

On the other hand, I remember quite vividly the experience years ago as a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center that I often ended up practicing in a room near Leon Fleisher's office.  Being within earshot of one of the world's greatest pianists definitely made me sharpen my focus, and I had the nervewracking privilege of having him come in once or twice to advise me on something he heard me doing.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Goldbergs are not enough - now for all the Beethoven Sonatas!?!?

I recently blogged, happily, about my successful project to learn the Goldberg Variations in a month, working gradually, one variation each day. A brief update: I am reviewing what I worked on and it will be a few more months certainly before I feel ready to let anyone hear it! But I try to remind myself that I learned it not for the purpose of performing it (a departure for me), and that if I do program the piece on a concert in the future that will be icing on the cake. (Well, I have to say I do like icing! And in a VERY tangential footnote: my manager got me a chocolate cake for my birthday last week from Magnolia Bakery in NYC and it was absolutely the best cake I have ever eaten. That is not an exaggeration.)

I am now embarking on a project that I hope will take not one month but 2 years - I want, finally, to know all 32 of the Beethoven Sonatas. I feel very much at home with about 12 of them. There are a few more that I have worked on (and one I have played in concert) but that really warrant a thorough reworking. And then there a dozen or more that I have never worked on at all. My intention is to share some of my reflections on this, perhaps once a month as I hope to get one Sonata in my fingers every month. I decided to work from the end, for now at least, so I'm working on op.111. I'll write again about that in a week or two.

I am saying it here, publicly, to help me stay on track! My friend Ali Binazir, a wonderfully tireless high achiever, recently alerted me to the existence of a web site that is supposed to help people keep up with their personal projects, whether losing weight, or exercising, or reading a book every week. The site is here: http://www.stickk.com/ I haven't tried using it, but they have some great ideas there, and a mechanism for enlisting support from others to help get your projects done.

My challenge, aside from finding the time to do this and the tenacity and endurance to follow through for many months of work, is to translate my big goal in to smaller daily goals.  I find that the only way not to procrastinate is to have something VERY specific to do every day.  Wish me luck, as I wish you luck on YOUR projects.