Thursday, January 23, 2014

Speaking of Repertoire..

     If you're ever serious about becoming a professional concert pianist, the one thing that matters most after your ability is your repertoire. Consider you are a very talented pianist with only a handful of pieces memorized and an aspiration to play concerts. Unfortunately you will go nowhere.. You see there is a business side to music (just like everything else), and those people risking their money and reputation by letting you play at their venues will demand a lot from you. Of course you must be well aware that the competition is sky high and that means you will have to put more effort than to be just a good pianist.

       Repertoire is mainly what distinguishes the pianists from others. One pianist can be very convincing in performing the works of one or several composers while another be completely mediocre with them and only play the works of other composers. Wilhelm Kempff was a genius interpreter of Beethoven. Glenn Gould was particularly noted for his tonal clarity that would blossom in the works of Bach. Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein were both hailed as great interpreters of Romantic Era music. Of course they did play music outside of their comfort zone occasionally but it would not compare to their renditions of the works they were particularly famous for.

      Learning new music everyday is key to expanding your repertoire. A concert pianist is expected to have at least a minimum of 2 hours recital music plus several concerti at hand ready for performance opportunities. Try many different composers first and see whose music makes sense to you. It's a matter of personal opinion, really, and it's subject to change with musical experience and time. Then when you find you have a knack for a certain composer or a certain Era start focusing on their repertoire because this is the only chance to sound your best. Of course it is needless to say that you must know a handful of works by other composers who aren't in your comfort zone. After building your repertoire you will need to maintain it regularly or all your efforts will be lost. A reliable memory is all what you will need in that stage, which is not as easy as it sounds.


     There comes a time when you, for the very first time, mess with the keys. You just sit there making combinations of technique you're familiar with and discover beautiful phrases emerging. It is the time when you first discovered the art of improvisation.

      For myself, improvising has been a main part of my practice routine ever since I played. I wouldn't mind skipping a day or two of practicing technique (scales, arpeggios, etc..) if substituted with an adequate amount of improvising that incorporates these techniques. It is more musically satisfying than learning technique alone and unquestionably more efficient for your musical learning.

     Now to the basic question that all beginning improvisers are faced with: How do I improvise??
Well to be blunt I'm not so sure there is an actual walk-through to improvising.. If there were it wouldn't be improvising after all! But it is important to note that it's all in the ears. If you have an overall good sense of music (dynamics, articulation, phrasing, etc..) you should only be faced with the problem of technique, which is sure to develop after each improvising session. There are things that certainly help with improvising if not improve it a great deal. First and foremost, learn music theory. You can start off simple by learning popular chord progressions and basic harmony. Then you can see more advanced topics such as chord substitution, alternate progressions, and so on. This knowledge will only improve the way you think musically. Instead of having a crystal clear mind (not so good when improvising!), you will be having a string of musical thoughts that just keep hitting one after another. As for the technical part, go insane. Yes I'm about to quote a famous workout proverb: "Train insane or remain the same". You will need to explore on your own what your hands are capable of doing. Consequently it will help assess your strengths and weaknesses, and you will be able to focus more on the -say- lousy technique of broken octaves and get it to top notch!

    So that's how I do it. I develop my technique through the not so abstract act of improvising, as well as discover a bunch of fresh musical ideas ready to be roasted. What more can I ask for?

Monday, June 24, 2013


      Interpretation is very important in music. It's not enough to learn the notes only to sound good, you need to interpret the piece. Often great pianists have such unique interpretations that the same piece will sound different in each one's hands. Sensible interpretation, combined with a mastery of technique, is a goal that many pianists strive for, with very few ever reaching it at some point during their careers.

     Fortunately, interpretative playing is a skill that is acquired with practice. It's certainly a good start if you have a natural talent for music, but it's not necessary. As you play pieces from different eras (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century), you'll acquire the taste of each of them. Pieces composed in the same period usually have so much in common in regard to structure and form. When interpreting, it's very important to remain within the boundaries of theses features, so as not to damage the quality of the music you're playing. For example, in Classical pieces, it is not wise to use rubato (the style of slowing down and speeding up tempo freely) when playing them. Of course there are always the exceptions, but usually Classical composers composed in strict tempos, i.e. one tempo throughout the whole piece or movement. However when playing from the Romantic repertoire, one must extensively use rubato in order to make sense of the pieces, and not sound like a robot. It's called "The Romantic Era" because much of the music composed at that time from different composers invokes emotion into the player/listener, not just plain musical lines like in previous eras.

     When working on a famous piece, it's best to do a little research about it because it's highly likely that it was composed for a reason. Beethoven's Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata were composed out of love, but love has two sides, a bright cheerful one when you're with the one you love, and a dark sinister one when you simply cannot be with them. In Fur Elise he was apparently wooing his loved one (a student of his), but in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, it seems he was heartbroken and devastated. If you had similar experiences in your life, you can channel them into the music. Try to bring those painful/cheerful memories to life when playing a piece of corresponding emotion. Utilize your life experiences in music. Usually the great musicians didn't have a steady and easy life. In fact, most of the successful musicians lead bumpy lives with lots of ups and downs. They channel their personal lives into the music to create magical masterpieces. Great music comes from great lives, and great lives come from great experiences and lessons.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Improving Technique and Reading!

     This post is targeted at the late beginners and intermediate players who have been playing for a while and want to improve their technique and reading abilities. Expect yourself to go shopping for some sheet music or printing them off the internet along the way!


     Think of technique as a workout, where you build strength and endurance. On the piano, we strive to play with as much relaxation as possible so that we do not have to deal with unnecessary tension in the arms. This will come from finger independence training.

      What you're going to do is train every finger to move as independently as possible, without causing other fingers to move but at the same time not feeling tension in your arm while doing so. This process will take a decent amount of time until your muscle fibers are so finely intricate that they get used to such movements and co-ordinations.

       Get "Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist" book, which consists of 60 purely technical unmusical graded exercises. Practice 2 exercises for about 10 minutes a day starting with a slow tempo and moving your fingers in a way such that the whole hand doesn't move. This will train your fingers to play efficiently, without much effort, yet achieve much. You will find that the process of speeding up will come along the way naturally, never force speed!

      The next step would be Carl Czerny's amazing book "Op.299: The School Of Velocity" in which he wrote 40 exercises that are like Hanon's, technically useful, however very musical. You don't have to finish the whole Hanon Book to go to this one, but better start off this one after acquiring basic finger independence technique. This will work out your co-ordination, where you get to play simple yet tricky passages fast. You will learn it by playing it very slowly first then speeding up until the required tempo, and your technique will benefit greatly from these exercises. I suggest you go through all of the exercises in this book since each one addresses a different technical problem and deals with it in a very effective manner.

      Sight Reading:

      Sight reading is the process by which a musician plays music from sheet for the first time, with negligible mistakes in pitch or tempo. Sight reading is much like reading words, you don't read every single letter, but entire words and even sentences. Thus we read and think in terms of patterns. If you want your music reading to be as fluent as your ability to read this post right now, I believe you should tackle it with the same approach.

       So what are the patterns in music? Scales, arpeggios, and chords! If you already play scales and arpeggios as part of technical exercises (which you should!) then you will have no problem whatsoever playing music in such familiar keys. After all, what good is a reader if he can't play what he reads in a satisfying manner?

       Get the "Beyer: Elementary Instruction Op.101" book, it will help you from the very basics of learning note reading to a pretty advanced intermediate level towards the end of the book. Start each exercise with a metronome beside you, and set it at a comfortable tempo so you can read without mistakes in pitch and always keeping the tempo steady. Eventually your reading speed will increase with a lot of practice, so just be patient. It will suffice to sight read one or two new exercises daily, and by 2 weeks' time you'll already see considerable progress! The more you get the hang of it, the more time you'll spend practicing, because you'll enjoy it! Imagine the day when you're getting the sheet music for a good song or piece you just heard, and playing through it from start to finish for your personal enjoyment. If this doesn't motivate you I don't know what will!


Friday, June 14, 2013

Reflections on Some Famous Pieces

    In this post I'll be giving my opinion about some pieces I studied lately, based on my own experience in learning them.


    Revolutionary Etude: This is an outstanding piece, the first time I heard it I thought I was hearing the best music in the world. I was way more musically inexperienced back then so I guess I exaggerated a little bit. But nonetheless it sounds very impressive for the musical and unmusical ears alike! You'll have to be a very highly experienced pianist to tackle it, and it's no cakewalk for even the most talented of pianists, and most just can't pull it off without a load of preparation and hard work! The left hand continuously plays scales and awkward arpeggios, with the right hand playing big brutal chords which have to be timed exactly at the right beat. So as much as it sounds tempting, I recommend you leave the whole set of Chopin Etudes for later, them being among the most difficult the piano repertoire has to offer.

       Preludes op.28 nos.4 and 20: These are probably the easiest of the preludes in this set of 24 preludes. They have beautiful sad melodies, no.4 expresses grief and no.20 is more melancholic. If you are a good sight reader you should learn them in no time. As for technical obstacles, there is nothing to work on except the stretto measures in no 4 and the pianissimo large chords in no 20, which are prone to breaking.

      Moonlight Sonata: The title clearly has no relation to the music what so ever. Beethoven himself was furious when that title was given out on his masterpiece that he almost withdrew it from publication! When I first heard the first movement I thought it sounded like a funeral march, but when I played it and realized the constant triplet rhythm across the whole movement, I felt like it was a clock ticking, with the third movement in Presto tempo being like a race with time, where one is running out of it. The second movement is basically a tension reliever between the other two emotionally consuming movements. The first movement is technically easy but will not sound impressive without high musicality. And by impressive I mean touching the very bottom of one's soul. The second movement can be sight read by an intermediate/advanced player. The third movement, however, needs a decent amount of dexterity before attempting to play it. Its fast arpeggios on mostly black keys and subtle dynamic changes challenge even the most capable pianists.


       Piano Sonata K 545: This has been labelled by many as "The easiest piano sonata" although I totally disagree. The sonata is easy but it's not the easiest out there! Also, difficulty is a relative matter, it might seem easy for some pianists, but it is also considered a troublemaker for many. The problem with Mozart in general is that his music is scandalous: If you miss a note or hit a wrong little one, the audience goes frowning at you. So you will need good clarity production from those fingers, well calibrated dynamics and a lot of practice to play it without displeasing the ears. Also mind the rhythm, as it may get tricky in parts of the first movement. The second movement is easy to play, the third being fast and energetic, needing agile and seamless movements of the hand and fingers.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before Learning a New Piece..

      All right so you heard this awesome piano music over YouTube and you want to play it yourself. You download and print the sheet music and you're about to start when suddenly..

      I was learning the third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata which goes at an incredible speed until this passage came up, requiring me to hold an octave with my right hand and trill the 4th and 5th fingers (4th being on the upper note of the octave, 5th a half step above it). The amount of tension I felt due to the wide stretch was unbearable, and for a moment I thought my fingers would snap off my hand.

      I had this piece on hold for 10 months before I could execute this passage fairly enough that it doesn't make my ears bleed. All because of a stupid single mistake: I didn't go through the whole score before tackling it, and that experience has taught me. Even the most simplest of pieces may contain one devilishly tricky passage which will need special attention.. so I check that I could play that part alone, and if I was successful to the degree that I can at least hit the right notes at the tempo, I learn the piece. If not, I do some finger exercises to help me execute such passages better, and come across the same piece 3 months later to check for progress.

      So, before learning any new piece you must scan the whole score for technical obstacles. You shouldn't worry about unfamiliar marks, though, a pocket music dictionary or the internet will tell you how to play notes with these marks on them. But most importantly learn what is possibly within your grasp but also with a little technical challenge, to guarantee improvement in overall piano playing.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The 10,000 Hour Rule

      There is this well known rule that states that if you practice anything for about 10,000 hours you become a master of that thing! Sounds cool no? This was a research carried around 100 years ago with a group of musicians in a music college. The elite musicians were found to have practiced for about 10,000 hours, the good ones 8000, and the average about 4000. So if we divide 10,000 hours by a time period of ten years, it means 1000 hours per year of practice. That will be about 3 hours a day. So if you practice 3 hours a day for 10 years straight, you'll definitely become a master of what you practiced this long.

       The most important thing is proper practice, as mentioned before in my other post. Of course you won't be playing properly right away, it's just that you have to check on your playing every now and then to realize the problems you're facing and eventually work a solution for them.

       When I first heard about this rule it got me pumped up to practice harder and more diligently, because it says that it's only a matter of time before you become great at what you do consistently. I think you'll feel that way about it too!