Thursday, January 23, 2014
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?