Monthly Archives: April 2015

Janáček – Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From the Street”), I. Předtucha (Foreboding)

I hope you will forgive the fact that this is not yet the post about memory! I decided that this would also be a good place to talk about my recordings when I post them on YouTube. Hopefully you will enjoy some of the videos or at least find them interesting. The videos that I will share over the coming weeks will likely all come from my recent solo recital at Tenri Cultural Institute (NYC) at the end of February.

In fall of 2009, I studied abroad in Prague during the first semester of my junior year of college. It was there that I studied with Martin Vojtíšek for one semester and there also that I encountered Leoš Janáček and this sonata for the first time. Originally I chose to learn this piece only to sort of add to the experience of studying in Prague. I was a music education major at the time and had only recently started studying piano very seriously. I also knew nothing about Janáček and was not particularly interested in the piece. I just thought that learning a Czech piece in the Czech Republic seemed like a good idea.

Well, it turned out that learning the piece in Prague was an excellent idea. While I later realized that I didn’t always agree with Mr. Vojtíšek’s views about all aspects of piano playing, he of course was an authority on Czech music. I was able to develop ideas about expression, timing, and many other facets of the piece that I would not have otherwise discovered. And while I was there, I also had the amazing opportunity to visit Janáček’s house and play his piano! I had no idea that after I returned to New York and polished the piece with my teacher, I would ultimately end up triumphantly performing the Janáček Sonata at the Gijón International Piano Festival (Spain) in summer 2010 and opening all of my graduate school auditions with the piece as well. Perhaps it was because I was going through increasingly difficult times at that point in my life, but something about the darkness of the piece resonated deeply with me. I would develop a highly personal relationship with this very unusual sonata.

I have an extremely bad habit of accidentally destroying many of the scores that I own. I am trying now to be much more careful. In 2009 and 2010, I also had the habit of writing huge amounts of information from my lessons into the score (as well as in a separate notebook) since there was so much about piano playing that was foreign to me at the time. You can take a look at the first two pages of my personal copy:

janacek1janacek2

After I performed the piece in my senior recital at NYU in 2011, I didn’t play it for over three and a half years. I only revived it this past December for the aforementioned recital at Tenri.

This first movement, marked “con moto” (“with movement”), is titled “Předtucha”. This edition, as you can see, translates this as “The Presentiment” (spelled incorrectly, curiously enough). I have decided, however, that “Foreboding” is a much better translation. A “presentiment” or premonition of the future may possibly be neutral (even if it is probably negative), whereas “foreboding” essentially leaves no room for the terrible tragedy that will follow. Besides for the octaves in the left hand on the bottom of the first page and the rather difficult coordination between the hands during said passage, the movement is not really very technically difficult. The challenge in this music lies instead in communicating the incredible depth of emotion through a convincing personal vision.

There is a stark contrast between the unbearable sadness of the opening material and the calm, flowing grace of the music on the second page. But after a repeat of the first two pages, the movement builds to a terrifying climax, completely submerged in anguish, and later, in the end, even the “calm, flowing grace” of the past is transformed from a tranquil Gb major to a resigned Eb minor (the key of the movement) utterly devoid of hope. The opening thematic material in Eb minor (including the passage with left hand octaves) occurs three times – twice because of the repeat and the final time immediately after the climax of the movement. To me, each time the mood becomes more anxious and more chaotic so that by the final time, the tension reaches a feverish pitch and the tempo is significantly increased.

The passage with left hand octaves is also marked “fff” – which I take to mean as basically “almost as loud as possible” and “tvrdo”, which is literally translated as “hard” but which I think can also mean “uncompromising”. Because of the nature of the piece and directions such as these, to me the loud sounds in this sonata are not the warm louds of Chopin or even, perhaps, the brilliant louds of Liszt. They are louds infused with suffering and bitterness and anger and fear and regret – “yelling” louds instead of “singing” louds. I stop short of actually hitting the piano, but the sound definitely borders on harshness much more so than usual.

I will talk more about this piece when I post the second movement (which may not be for a little while). For now, the most important thing to understand is that the piece is about death. The incredible anxiety that builds and builds throughout this movement is about the approach of a being that simply cannot be stopped by anything in this world. Janáček wrote the piece because of his outrage over the killing of worker František Pavlík, a man who was bayoneted to death by soldiers on October 1st, 1905 for supporting the idea of a Czech university in the city of Brno. With the sonata comes the following inscription:

The white marble of the steps of the Besední dům in Brno. The ordinary labourer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers.

What is Practicing?

I honestly would love to start talking right away about my current experiences in learning new repertoire, but there are so many things that need explaining before I can do this. You know how some people will get sidetracked and ramble on and on and on about many different topics, completely forgetting their original point? I am like that, except that the ramblings are carefully organized and always serve some sort of overarching purpose. Conveniently, I also don’t forget my original point.

I thought I could first ramble about the idea of practicing in general. I think it’s always a good idea to understand the nature of a problem (in this case, the entire idea of practicing) before proposing a solution.

Like any other serious musician, my current practice methods are the result of years of trial and error. Some components of my current practicing have worked well for me since high school (I’m 26 now, by the way), other components I’ve been using for barely a month, and many other components fall somewhere in between. For a classical musician, the “practice method” must somehow address the vast difficulty of bringing several (or many) pieces from zero to performance-ready and then maintaining a certain amount of pieces in one’s repertoire.

Practicing, in one sense, can be described as simply noticing something that can be improved and then improving it. For many years, we often need an expert teacher’s help to even acquire the ability to notice these problems in the first place. We also need the teacher’s help with the solution to the problem. Let us say, for instance, that the teacher says:

“It is very uneven and the hands are not together. Try playing very slowly, paying special attention to your left hand”

This may be a comment given to a fairly advanced pianist (a Bachelor’s or Master’s student, perhaps). It would not be helpful at all for beginners because it is not specific enough. For laypeople, the fact that a Bachelor’s or Master’s student at a conservatory might receive this comment may be puzzling. If this is a “fairly advanced pianist”, why would the teacher have to give a comment such as this? Shouldn’t something as basic as hands being together be achievable even for “intermediate” pianists such as diligent teenagers or children? The answer is: yes, it should be, but it often isn’t for various reasons. Here are some possible explanations:

  • The student is already fully aware of what the teacher has pointed out, but the piece is very difficult technically. The student has already done exactly what the teacher has asked and has also tried many other practice methods. Despite putting in many good, quality, intelligent hours, for whatever reason the passage still does not go correctly.
  • The student has simply not practiced enough.
  • The student is not practicing intelligently.
  • The student actually didn’t even notice the unevenness and the hands not being together in the first place.

Of course, the preceding list makes many general statements and leaves unanswered many questions. How could the student not notice the unevenness and/or the hands not being together? What does “practicing intelligently” mean? And why might the passage still not go correctly even if the student does everything the teacher asks and more? The idea of intelligent practicing, for me, is something like this:

  1. What is the nature of the problem? Musical? Technical? Memory-related? Something else? What are you focusing on right now?
  2. Where exactly is the specific example you’re focusing on right now? It should be a small, manageable section. Or it could be two notes. Perhaps just a single note.
  3. What is wrong with that specific example? What needs to be improved?
  4. How do you go about fixing it? More focused listening? Greater imagination? More focused sense of touch? More relaxed body? Conquering a psychological issue? Researching the style? Understanding the character? Metronome? Rhythms? Accents? Mental practicing? Eyes closed? Hands separately? Something else? Some combination? etc. etc.
  5. Why did step 4 work? Or why did step 4 not work? Do I just need more intelligent repetitions? Or have I exhausted this method and I need to come up with a new idea?
  6. Keep going back and forth between steps 4 and 5 until the problem is solved. OR: move on for now because the muscles, memory, and/or spirit need time for the information to sink in.

Whatever level of musician you are, you have some standards. You have a standard for something being “performance-ready”, a standard for something being ready to play for a teacher, a standard for something you are playing or sight-reading for the very first time, and many other standards. For instance, even if you are sight-reading, you would probably not allow yourself to misread 80% of the notes or rhythms because the piece would be literally unrecognizable. Practicing is forever about trying to bring your current abilities up to your current standards. This impossible task is compounded by the fact that lessons with a good teacher improve your current abilities and raise your standards simultaneously. Sometimes the gap between your standards and your abilities will become much wider than you are used to if you study with a very demanding teacher. This is the case even if you are improving at a desirable rate.

When a student’s standards are too low, s/he may fail to notice issues such as unevenness, even if the problem is extremely obvious to his/her teacher. Continued lessons with a great teacher (combined with conscientious effort) will make it much easier to notice problems in one’s playing over time. This also means that without a great teacher (in 99.99% of cases, at least), at some point it becomes difficult or impossible to raise one’s standards, and therefore it is also difficult or impossible to notice problems in one’s playing on a higher level. I should also point out that it is very possible for standards to be in entirely different worlds:

Layperson: It sounds great! So even and clear!

Piano performance major: It’s a little uneven, but it’s getting better.

Master teacher: It is horribly, unbearably uneven. What are you doing?!

When a musician gets to be a certain level, s/he will begin to use past experiences and experiment with / research many different ways of practicing, including methods of his/her own invention. Even the best and most varied practice methods will of course require time to implement. And then there is the issue of how to maintain technique, musicality, and memory once a problem is actually solved. There is also never any guarantee that a problem will ever be completely solved.

I search and search and search and search until I find a solution to a problem. I then determine what sort of “maintenance” it requires. On a daily basis, I then search for answers to questions like:

  • Does this require daily maintenance? Every other day? Weekly? etc. How can I improve it to the point that I can afford to maintain it less often with the same results?
  • Is there an even better, more elegant solution? How can I save more time? How can I accomplish this task in 15 minutes instead of 25 minutes?
  • How can I use this problem to solve other problems faster and more efficiently in the future?

Practicing, in another sense, may be seen as an open-ended question – one that happens to be fantastically beautiful. Everyone comes up with a different solution, and no two people will completely agree on all matters. There is no one-size-fits-all. But I started this blog because I wanted to share my personal, ongoing solution. Also, they say that the ability to teach or explain something requires that you understand it deeply yourself.

Next time: Some thoughts about memory!

The Beginning of a Journey and Introduction to Mental Practicing

On matters such as piano, music, teaching, and many other topics related to my life, I have realized that I almost invariably have a lot to say. Actually, probably anyone who has held a serious conversation with me for more than five minutes has realized this. So it’s a wonder that I didn’t start writing this earlier!

The purpose of these writings is going to be quite up in the air. A lot of these posts will surely be most relevant to professional musicians, especially pianists. But a lot of the ideas I will talk about will hopefully help musicians of all levels, including those of other instruments. Posts about teaching may possibly be useful to teachers of all different subjects, not just music. And perhaps anything that I share about my life or music philosophy may resonate with someone, somewhere, for any reason. Even if nobody reads this, I feel that to keep a journal of some kind will be very satisfying and grounding in some way, especially one that is public. I am certainly not a world-class pianist, but I have worked hard enough that I think I can share some of what I have learned.

There have been several instances in my relationship with music and the piano where I experienced some sort of huge, fundamental shift in my practicing philosophy. The most recent one began approximately one month ago and was one of the main inspirations for starting this blog (along with reading the blog of a very good friend of mine). It truly has changed my entire approach to practicing… with very dramatic and favorable results! I partially arrived at my answer through a lot of reading, research, and experimenting in my practicing in the one or two weeks following my most recent recital at the end of February, but many of the questions I answered had been dancing around in my mind for years. Needless to say, this is a very exciting time for me right now and I am enjoying the learning of new repertoire MUCH more than before. So, one of the main methods I will use to communicate my ideas will be chronicling the effectiveness of this new methodology on pieces I am learning right now!

Here are some questions I’ll probably explore at some point relatively soon, in no particular order:

  • What exactly is mental practicing and why is it so incredibly important and useful?
  • Why is practicing and memorizing separate hands so incredibly important and useful?
  • How do I learn / memorize music quickly, yet thoroughly?
  • How do I keep up a lot of old repertoire while learning new repertoire?
  • Is the metronome good or evil?
  • How many hours a day is actually useful and when should I practice?
  • How can I possibly find the time to fix something fundamental about my technique?
  • How can I use these ideas to help my students?

And so on. You are also welcome to leave comments / questions  / suggestions on topics and I would be very happy to answer to the best of my ability.

Mental practicing, since it is at the core of my new practicing approach, will be explored at length in my posts over the next few weeks. I will also write a lot about the importance of practicing separate hands. These are NOT my original ideas, but perhaps I can present them in a unique, easy-to-understand format. Also, since a lot of the posts I read online during my research were directed more at beginners, the pieces cited as examples in those posts were generally much simpler than those in the standard piano repertoire. I hope that as I document how I use this method to go about learning new (generally much more advanced) pieces, it will prove useful in some way to my pianist friends (and to any other pianists reading) in particular. Of course, I will also share all the things that don’t work as I learn new repertoire!

Even beginners at the piano can probably picture the piano keyboard to some extent (and if you can’t, you can “cheat” by first looking at the piano keyboard or at an image of one). Let us say, for instance, that you play “C, D, E” on the piano. If you close your eyes or look away from the keyboard and imagine that you play those same notes, ask yourself: “Do I SEE myself playing those notes, HEAR the notes in my mind, and FEEL the sensation in my fingertips?” This is mental practicing! But really, how much use could this neat little trick actually have, and why should it be used? After all, when you first try to mentally practice pieces that are currently difficult for you, it is often very hard to see and feel them clearly in your mind’s eye. It also doesn’t help that, when done directly, mental practicing can be exhausting! If practice time is so limited, why use it at all? Some of the most obvious reasons include:

  • You can practice ANYWHERE, at ANY TIME (within reason)! This means getting some work done while lying in bed, making good use of time spent waiting for mass transit and practice rooms, actually enjoying sunny days, and many other perks besides. It also means being able to greatly increase your practice time even when you are short on time!
  • The possibility for injury is greatly reduced.
  • It is one way to greatly speed up the rate at which you learn new music.
  • It is one of the best ways to maintain repertoire in the memory.
  • The possibility for memory slips is greatly reduced.

More to come soon!