Tag Archives: classical music

Reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge, Part 2

In this post, I am continuing reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge that I started here.

I said in my previous post that pieces should be “ready to revive at any time” – this is what I mean by pieces becoming “a permanent part of my repertoire”. I would like to say some more about this:

  • For some of the major pieces that I learned in the distant past, a revival would take a very long time because I didn’t properly preserve the musical thoughts that I had at the time.
  • For each of the pieces that I learned during the 100 Piece Challenge, I know the exact fingering, shaping, balance, sound, etc. of each note – this is documented not only by the recording itself but by necessary markings in the score. I will show examples of some of my marked-up scores in the future to show what I mean. This leaves them ready to revive and re-memorize very quickly.

I still would like to have as many pieces as possible “at my fingertips” and “ready to play at any moment” – I want to see how far I can stretch those limits as well. However, it is not a requirement of any Challenge that I undertake. In fact, I should again note that it wasn’t a requirement in the first place, but is merely one interpretation of “permanent part of my repertoire”.

So, looking back at the requirements for the 100 Piece Challenge that I talked about in last year’s post, the three main rules were satisfied and I will continue to hold myself by these rules. Here they are:

  1. In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
  2. In the original challenge, one could move on from the pieces once they have been learned. However, I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.
  3. I saw that quite a few teachers chose to record themselves. I will give myself the same requirement and post all recordings on both YouTube and Facebook.

In that post, I mentioned some other points as well. For instance, I wrote, “Pieces can be very short as long as they are legitimate pieces of music. Many of the recordings I saw teachers posting were only one or two minutes long. There were also quite a few under one minute long.” I would like to elaborate on this comment.

Actually, there had never been any kind of rule set (either in the original 40 Piece Challenge or in my own 100 Piece Challenge) that there was a minimum length for the pieces.

  • A piece’s value, after all, is not determined by how long it takes to play it. Several Chopin Preludes, for instance, certainly take under one minute to play.
  • If a piece is short, a minimum time limit would probably encourage a slower tempo. And altering a piece’s tempo for the purposes of having it count towards a Challenge makes very little sense.

However, I found that there were at least two situations where the piece I wanted to learn – despite being “legitimate” (i.e. of real musical value, worth sharing with others, worth learning to improve one’s musicianship, etc.) – was both very short and relatively easy to learn, memorize, and record.

  • The first was when playing shorter compositions by undisputed masters such as Beethoven, Schubert, or Mozart. Pieces such as German dances, ländler, and minuets are examples.
  • The second was when playing pieces originally written by living composers for pedagogical / teaching purposes. For instance, I recorded many of the pieces from the Microjazz series by Christopher Norton. When I decided to increase the tempo of many of the pieces for my own musical and interpretational reasons, many of the pieces ended up even shorter than originally intended by the composer.

Since I found the effort and time to record most of these pieces to be much less than that which was required to record others, I (privately) created a new set of rules during last year’s 100 Piece Challege that explained how I would sometimes count two pieces as one piece. I still believe that counting each piece separately would have completely satisfied the rules of the Challenge, but I wanted to encourage myself to learn even more pieces. I also wanted to at least acknowledge to some extent that the difficulty of learning some of the pieces was less than originally anticipated.

  • If the piece is less than one minute long, it will be counted as only half of a piece (for the purposes of the total piece count – this does not mean that it is any less legitimate). A piece less than one minute long will be counted as one piece only if is it of exceptional difficulty to me or was unusually difficult to record (but the extra time and effort would have to be substantial for this exception to be made).
  • If the piece is one minute in length or longer, it will typically be counted as one piece, even if it is not particularly challenging to record. This is for two reasons.
  • First, it often requires more concentration to create a longer recording (i.e. to play longer without messing up!), even if the piece itself is simpler.
  • Second, the listeners will have more music to listen to when a longer piece is shared. In this simple way (even though it does not make the piece more “valid” in any way), a longer piece may be more substantial.
  • If the piece is more than one minute long but is unusually easy to learn, it may also be counted as half of a piece.
  • If the piece is unusually easy to learn even compared to other pieces counted as “half of a piece”, it may be counted as a third of a piece. Examples may include pieces originally intended for relatively younger children.

Since I still have many more things to say, I have decided to continue these reflections and new rules as another series of posts. Hopefully, these thoughts will be useful for understanding the mindset necessary for undertaking something like the 100 Piece Challenge and for constantly striving to find new ways to improve one’s musicianship, flexibility, and discipline in the process. I believe that the creation of, strict adherence to, and subsequent adjustment of self-imposed rules is crucial to success in endeavors such as this.

Reflections on the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge

A new year means that I had to decide whether to redo the 100 Piece Challenge or to issue myself a new Challenge. It also gives me a good excuse to talk about what I learned last year and to revive this blog yet again. For details about the 40 Piece Challenge I issued my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I gave myself, please see this post from exactly one year ago.

The 40 Piece Challenge was a big success with my students last year! Even though there were also a lot of students who didn’t pass, I can safely that for all of my students:

  • Sight-reading skills noticeably improved.
  • Ability to solve problems (both musical and technical) independently improved greatly.
  • There was a definite increased motivation to both bring current pieces to a high level and to continue to learn new pieces.
  • They became mentally stronger and better able to manage time.
  • Since they were exposed to more rhythms, coordinations, and different musical situations in general, they developed greater stylistic awareness and learned faster overall.

I have decided to continue issuing the 40 Piece Challenge to my students every year. Each student does the Challenge on their own time – in other words, their start and end dates vary a lot and they can restart the Challenge at any time.

With both the 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge, I used many of the new practicing methods that I have been developing over the past two years. In the case of the students, of course, I taught them these methods in order to help them achieve their maximum potential. I hope to continue revising and strengthening these strategies and to finally write more about them this year. I also have confidence that many more students will pass the 40 Piece Challenge this year since they (and I) have much more experience now.

In terms of uploading the 100th video, I publicly competed the 100 Piece Challenge on October 20th, the 100th Piece being Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, the “Raindrop” Prelude. I uploaded piece #133 yesterday night (December 31st, 2016) as the final piece of the year. I don’t have a custom YouTube URL, but if you search “david chang 100 piece challenge” on YouTube, you will find all of the videos.

reflections

I have a lot of scattered thoughts and reflections about how the Challenge went. Some of these thoughts will directly address the requirements that I set myself in my post from one year ago. Some of them will ponder over what I learned from the Challenge – both the expected and the unexpected. And still other reflections will be on mental and emotional obstacles, what the purpose of the Challenge actually was, and how issuing a new Challenge is at all useful or relevant in the context of larger goals. Here they are in no particular order:

Regarding my saying in my original post that “I am able to learn music five to ten times faster” than before:

  • This is certainly no exaggeration at all in terms of the number of pieces I ended up learning, but it’s true that the length and difficulty of the pieces in a solo piano recital program are significantly greater.
  • I should also note, though, that in the past it would be months before I felt I could learn and memorize even a simple piece of music. It would take incredibly long to work out the technical difficulties, to make all of the musical decisions (such as shaping and touch), to feel like the memory is solid, and then eventually to get up the nerve to record and listen to myself. And then I certainly wouldn’t share or perform the piece once I had finished learning it. In this sense, the fact that I ended up able to share newly learned pieces so often truly supports my claim of “five to ten times faster” than before.
  • As a result, I feel much more confident now that my methodologies really do work.

In my previous post, I said regarding the 100 Piece Challenge, “I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.”

  • At the time, I meant that all of the pieces would be ready to play at any time, and indeed, for most of the year, I attempted to have every single piece from the Challenge (and others from before the Challenge) at my fingertips at all times.
  • If I had to have the first 100 pieces simultaneously ready to immediately perform in order to pass the 100 Piece Challenge, then I was in fact not successful last year (though I was close).
  • It is also difficult to give a strict definition of “ready to play”. To me, “ready to play” did not mean that a piece would be played flawlessly, but rather that the piece could be performed musically and convincingly without too many errors. But “without too many errors” can also mean many different things when you compare, for instance, an audience of laypeople with an audience of pianists.
  • As the Challenge went on, I found that I could maintain more and more music in a performable condition (over five hours at some points… for laypeople at least), but it became increasingly difficult to maintain ALL of the pieces while continuing to learn new ones.
  • I now feel that while keeping all pieces “at the fingertips” is possible, it is simply too time-consuming and takes too much energy away from learning new pieces and from achieving other goals.

I am therefore revising “permanent part of my repertoire” to mean “ready to revive at any time” rather than “ready to play at this very moment”.

  • “Ready to revive” could mean anything from 20-30 minutes of review for a simple piece to several days to a week for a major piece.
  • To make sure that the piece is ready for performance, it’s important to forget and re-remember it in sets several times (or many times) as described in my earlier posts, so it’s best to allocate a day or two to be safe if it’s an important performance.
  • I know that a lot of high-level pianists have a similar conception of how to maintain their repertoire.
    • Many learned their pieces well enough that they can revive them in a very short amount of time.
    • Having previously learned (and revived / re-learned) music so slowly, I always assumed that they had some sort of superhuman ability.
    • The way I learned pieces for the 100 Piece Challenge is so thorough, however, that I now feel confident in my short-term revival ability.
      • However, obviously technical difficulties can still arise if I didn’t solve all technical issues in the piece at the time of the learning / recording.

In my next post, I will continue my reflections on the 100 Piece Challenge.

Memorizing Separate Hands Made Easy! (and more detail about sets)

One of the most popular suggestions for memorizing music more effectively is to “memorize the left hand alone”. After all, since the right hand often contains the melody in piano music, the contents of the left hand are much more easily forgotten. I personally think that memorizing pieces separate hands (meaning both left hand alone and right hand alone) is always a great idea if you really want your memory to be solid and/or if you are going to give an important performance soon.

There’s just one problem – it always seems so time-consuming and tedious! I found that even if I loved the music, it was a lot more difficult to keep my attention purely on the task of memorizing separate hands. In addition, if I was attempting to memorize a piece separate hands, I often spent too much time away from playing the piece both hands. And what’s worse, a task like memorizing separate hands is often done once and then never again.

I remember there was one point years ago where I tried to memorize a new piece separate hands before I really tried to play it both hands. At the time, it was extremely time-consuming and it drained all of my energy. I had to abandon my efforts because of time constraints.

memorizemusic2

For my most recent recitals, I would try to memorize the entire program separate hands (long after I had already learned the pieces). For one recital, I simply could not finish the task in time. For another recital, I did actually complete the entire task, but it took many, many hours and my efforts were all crammed into the last few weeks before the recital…

But I couldn’t argue with the results. If I memorized a piece separate hands (even if it was imperfect!), I really felt a powerful physical and psychological security in what I was doing. I was more aware of every single note and my memory was much more solid. I knew it was worth the effort, but I felt that there had to be an easier way to accomplish the task. My discovery of how to do this is the second of the three reasons that I now learn music much faster than before (the first being the nature of memory, which I discussed in my previous series of posts).

The key lies in practicing in sets (which I discussed in my previous post) and in mixing separate hand sets with both hand sets. To reiterate:

When I do these “sets”, I always include the first note of the following measure. If I break single measures into even smaller chunks (halves, quarters, etc.), I always include the first note of the following beat. By including at least the first note of the next set each time, you are naturally creating “linking notes” so that you do not have to practice transitions between measures nearly as much later.

Please read the previous post in detail for more specific instructions about how to practice in sets!

I also thought I would make even more clear what I described in the previous post:

  • Purpose of practicing in sets (1 measure sets or 2 measure sets, for instance): To make it much easier to link together an entire phrase, which is the true unit of musical expression.
  • Purpose of practicing “all loud”: To make it much easier, both physically and psychologically, to play with full musical expression.

Anyway, basically it is almost always helpful to learn each set separate hands, then both hands! Remember that piano playing (not including pedaling) is essentially:

  1. Solving something you are doing in your right hand
  2. Solving something you are doing in your left hand
  3. Doing both of those things simultaneously

So, when you are first learning a piece, it is not only for memory, but also for physical, technical reasons that it would be very helpful to break apart a set separate hands.

And once the piece is properly learned, more separate hand practicing is, of course essential! It is much easier and much more logical to solve many technical and musical issues separate hands first.

Just like practicing in sets both hands allows you to memorize a piece without really trying, including separate hands in the process allows you to memorize separate hands without really trying! Plus, your attention is maintained because you constantly see how the separate hands fit together. You break the set apart into its components and you piece the components back together over and over again, leading to a more complete understanding of the music.

For instance, let us say that a piece is 12 measures long and is in 4/4 time.

  • I think it is always a good idea to first sight read through the entire piece.
  • You can then write in any necessary fingerings. In other words, if you were to look at the piece away from the piano, you would know what finger is playing every note in the piece. It is not necessary to write in fingerings that are redundant or obvious.
  • Perhaps the first 4 measures of the piece are not that difficult to remember. We can break them into 2 measure sets (beat 1 of the 1st measure to beat 1 of the 3rd measure and beat 1 of the 3rd measure to beat 1 of the 5th measure). We try to read each of the sets both hands first.
  • We find that the first set is easily memorized both hands. So, we play it from memory once or twice.
  • We find that the second set is slightly more difficult to remember, so we break it apart separate hands. The right hand alone is played from memory (from beat 1 of the 3rd measure to beat 1 of the 5th measure) and the left hand alone is played from memory. We might play back and forth once or twice. Then we play both hands from memory at least once – it should now be much easier to remember.
  • Measures 5 through 8 are significantly more complicated, so we split them into 1 measure sets (beat 1 of measure 5 to beat 1 of measure 6, beat 1 of measure 6 to beat 1 of measure 7, etc.).
  • We may even choose to temporarily split certain measures into half measure sets (beat 1 of measure 5 to beat 3 of measure 5, beat 3 of measure 5 to beat 1 of measure 6, etc.) before putting the halves back together into 1 measure sets.
  • We memorize each measure separate hands first, then both hands. Again, we simply have to play from memory at least once. We are making no extra effort to remember the music permanently.

memorizemusic1

  • Perhaps the last four measures start the same as the first four measures, but end slightly differently. We could first memorize the 2 measure set at the end (beat 1 of measure 11 to the end), perhaps temporarily splitting it into 1 measure sets if necessary. We might want to try playing a 4 measure set from beat 1 of measure 9 to the end since we had already memorized and forgotten something similar near the beginning of the piece.
  • Once we reach the end of the piece, we can call it a day or we can go back to the beginning again. If we go through again, perhaps we can do a 4 measure set for measures 1 through 4, 2 measure sets for measures 5 through 8, and a 4 measure set for measures 9 through 12. We may find that we have to constantly split the 4 measure sets into smaller subsets and then piece them back together again.
  • If we start to feel tired, it may be best to take a break and come back to it tomorrow or later in the day when we are more refreshed. But if for some reason we really want to focus on the piece, we can then work to make measures 5 through 8 into a 4 measure set. Once we have three 4 measure sets, it is not very difficult to link the sets together into a fully memorized piece. Throughout the process, we have forgotten different sections of the music many times, so it is much more likely that we will retain this newly memorized piece in our memories.

A few especially important points:

  1. It is almost always helpful to be practicing at least the smaller sets using the “all loud” practicing I described in the previous post. Again, I find it helpful to play through the entire piece “all loud” at least once during the practice session, particularly if it is new or I am preparing for a performance soon. And if the piece is very rhythmic and/or presents any sort of technical difficulty for you, I find it very helpful to be using the metronome at a manageable speed during the entire process. Once the entire piece is learned, obviously you would increase the metronome speed gradually while playing “all loud”. Of course, there are pieces and sections of pieces where the use of a metronome may be entirely unnecessary.
  2. As the sets become larger and you start to link the entire piece together, it is important to constantly be thinking about your ultimate musical ideas. I describe this is in my post on what it means to learn a phrase. It is really important to be playing the piece as you REALLY would – with all of the details I describe in that post – as soon as you can. Like I said, the “all loud” practicing is only to allow you the freedom to execute your musical ideas. Going back and forth between “all loud” and “real” playing is often very helpful. I also really like to play with full musical expression at my current highest metronome speed before I turn off the metronome and continue to practice with my actual musical intentions.
  3. I find that the idea of memorizing separate hands, then both hands is most helpful when first learning a piece and shortly before an important event / performance. We usually don’t have time to go through every piece separate hands every day. But if you really do the sets correctly (both separate hands and both hands), then the separate hands of the entire piece should link together naturally without you consciously trying (as the sets combine into larger and larger sets). Playing a 4 measure set right hand alone becomes playing an 8 measure set right hand alone. Playing an 8 measure set left hand alone becomes playing an entire page left hand alone. And so on! And not only that – you constantly see how the separate hands fit together into both hands. If you work over the course of several days, the separate hands memorize themselves without any extra effort expended.

So far, I have talked about the nature of memory and the importance of separate hands with regard to learning and maintaining music. Next time, I will discuss the third and final component: mental practicing.

The Nature of Memory, Part 3: The Principle of Forgetting, continued

The last time I wrote about the nature of memory was way back in May of 2015. I am very happy to finally be able to continue writing about this topic. Basically, these writings on the nature of memory comprise one of three main reasons why I am able to learn and memorize music much faster than I was able to about a year ago. You can read Part 1: What It Means to Learn A Phrase and Part 2: The Principle of Forgetting if you want to understand what I have talked about so far. So far, I’ve basically said the following:

  • As long as you intend for the music to be memorized, you should memorize the music from the very beginning of the learning process. This is much more efficient than making memorizing a separate process that you only accomplish at a later point.
  • Music should be learned phrase by phrase as musically as possible. (See Part 1 for extensive details.)
  • The more we forget and re-remember something (including phrases), the more that thing will stick in our memories. Thus, distributed practice is a much more useful way to memorize a piece of music quickly. (See Part 2 for my elaboration on these topics.)

Although I am not proud of the long hiatus that plagued this blog, I have to say that I am glad I waited to write this particular post. The methods I have been using have changed and evolved many times over the last six months or so. To be honest, I originally intended for this post (Part 3) to be nothing more than further citations of scholarly writings in order to support the ideas that I proposed in Part 2. Instead, I find that I have developed some ideas of my own.

Some of these ideas may appear at first to contradict the thoughts I expressed in Part 1 (learning music phrase by phrase). I hope you will bear with me as I attempt to explain why these new ideas, far from being contradictory, in fact perfectly complement the old.

Once you separate the piece of music you are learning into phrases and attempt to learn / memorize each one as musically as possible, the most efficient way to memorize the piece is to forget and re-remember each phrase as many times as possible. The more we retrieve the musical, meaningful phrase from our long-term memories, the more we become likely to permanently remember the phrase. This is essentially what I described in Part 2.

But how about the memorizing of the phrase itself? Just like playing through the entire piece over and over is certainly not the most efficient (or at least reliable) way to memorize the piece, simply trying your best to memorize the phrase over and over again for five minutes is not the most intelligent solution. So, I combined the idea of the principle of forgetting with one of my strongest and oldest practicing methods:

  • Break the music into 4 measure, 2 measure, or even 1 measure sets.
  • Play “all loud”, often with metronome.

Let me first elaborate on the first point. If a phrase is 4 measures or 8 measures long and it is difficult to remember, logically it would make sense to separate it into even smaller chunks. Indeed, if the piece is very slow and a single measure is very complicated, you can even break single measures into half measure or quarter measure sets.

When I do these “sets”, I always include the first note of the following measure. If I break single measures into even smaller chunks (halves, quarters, etc.), I always include the first note of the following beat. By including at least the first note of the next set each time, you are naturally creating “linking notes” so that you do not have to practice transitions between measures nearly as much later.

Remember: you are memorizing each set of measures and then moving on from them. You have to choose a goal that can be easily accomplished with very minimal effort. Again, the decision will vary depending on your skill level and the difficulty of the piece. If 2 measure sets seem like a reasonable choice, memorize the entire piece in sets of 2 measures (always including the first note of the following measure) or memorize up to the point that you wish to work on for the day. It may seem very odd, but do not try to remember each set of 2 that you memorize! Just having each set in your memory for a moment is already enough – each little “memory task” should take something like 30 seconds or a minute to accomplish. In fact, you should acknowledge that you will probably immediately forget the set of 2 that you just saw. I realize it is very counter-intuitive for some (including me) to just immediately move on. But it works! When you go through the piece again (even if you only do it fifteen minutes from now), you are already solidifying your memory because you had time to forget the music.

Other points to keep in mind:

  • You can adjust! Some sections may require 2 measure sets, while a difficult section may need you to choose 1 measure sets. An easier section or a repetitive section may cause you to choose 4 measure sets for the first time that you go through the piece.
  • You can break down sets into smaller subsets as you go along. If a 2 measure set is not being memorized instantaneously, you can reduce it to 1 measure or half measure sets, always paying attention to which part is giving you more trouble and dedicating your time accordingly.

The second point – “all loud” (often with metronome) is something that may be controversial. I have read articles and heard from quite a few different musicians that claim the metronome is harmful and/or that it should never (or at least rarely) be used. Essentially, I believe that the metronome is merely a tool – nothing more and nothing less. If you find this tool harmful, then of course do not use it. But if you find that it consistently improves your playing, as I do, then by all means, use it! I do not find that it has “robbed me of my natural sense of rhythm” as some would claim. I have used the metronome to help me solve an enormous variety of technical and musical issues. So, this is what I mean by “all loud” practicing:

  • Play almost everything at a good, healthy mezzo forte or forte. Temporarily do not concern yourself with dynamics or shaping.
  • Play with your entire body relaxed (including shoulders, arms, wrists, fingers, etc.) as you play loudly. You should feel very grounded and confident in the keys without pressing on the bottoms of the keys or using excessive force.
  • Still voice chords! But the difference in volume between the note(s) you are showing and the other notes does not need to be as obvious as usual.
  • Still close the ends of phrases to some extent. They do not have to be pianissimo or especially quiet at this time. The ends of phrases merely have to be somewhat softer than the rest of the phrase.
  • Play with the metronome if desired / needed. I find it helpful with just about any piece of music at some point. Choose a speed that is slow enough to comfortably manage.

Practicing with all different kinds of dynamics and articulations is helpful, but I find that the “all loud” method I just described reliably works not only for me, but for all of my students (regardless of talent, how much they practice, etc.). The purpose is to greatly strengthen your muscle memory, preparing you both physically and psychologically to conquer the technical, musical, and memory-related challenges in the piece. Remember that you are doing this “all-loud” practicing while practicing in the sets I described in the first section of this discussion (2 measure sets, 1 measure sets, etc.).

memorypart3

If you go through the piece or the section of the piece you are working on today with these points in mind – memorizing in 2 measure sets (for example) “all loud”, you can go through the piece again in 2 measure sets (since you had time to forget them) or you can increase the size of the sets to 4 measures. After increasing to 8 measure sets “all loud”, it is very likely that the entire piece can be linked together “all loud”. It often helps to break up this task over several days, since sleep greatly helps retention.

So where does “learning phrase by phrase” come in? Basically, at any point during this entire process, you can look at the sheet music (or play from memory if you’ve memorized the markings) and try your best to do all of the points described in Part 1. This “all loud” practicing should make it much easier to accomplish those musical goals because your weight will be much more in the keys and your body will understand the coordination much better. Similarly, the memorizing in sets should make it much easier to remember each musical phrase (since you’ve forgotten each chunk of music multiple times).

At some point, you should try to simply play from the beginning of the piece (using all of the points described in Part 1), trying your very hardest to be musical and to give each phrase meaning. If you have memory problems, try to practice in sets. You can try the sets both “all loud” and with full musical expression. Even though you might temporarily break each phrase into smaller sets, ultimately the phrases will still be the main unit of your musical expression. The only purpose of the methodology described above is to make that task much easier to accomplish. You could say that the method has been amended to something like “learn set by set, but internalize and express phrase by phrase”.

I should also mention: even if you want to memorize a piece “all loud” in order to make things easier, you must always remember to play musically when you actually do a real reading of the piece. It is not acceptable to play “all loud” for a performance, for a lesson, or even for a “real performance” for yourself.

Soon, I will write about the two other main components of this method – separate hands practicing and mental practicing.

The 40 Piece Challenge and the 100 Piece Challenge (2016)

The idea for my personal 100 Piece Challenge came from the 40 Piece Challenge, which was started by the amazing Elissa Milne. You can read more from Elissa Milne here. I am also very grateful to my friend Walter Aparicio, fellow pianist, for telling me about the challenge in the first place. Basically, the idea behind it stems from a problem that many piano students and teachers face. When a student begins taking piano exams, there seems to be no time to learn additional pieces, and the student ends up focusing on only three to six pieces the entire year. Elissa had the fantastic idea of using a repertoire-rich approach in which students must learn 40 pieces in one year. Here, I quote the results from her blog:

Students were sight-reading ridiculously well. Their initiative to source new pieces to learn had gone through the roof. The volume of pieces wasn’t slowing down their capacity to progress onto more difficult work. And when they did progress onto more difficult work they had this growing stylistic awareness that is the fruit of much experience. It was amazing!

The Cross-Eyed Pianist, another important blogger, had this to add: “Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.” Indeed, the 40 Piece Challenge exploded in popularity and has been used successfully by many teachers worldwide.

I already am very careful that each of my students develops the skills they need to teach themselves music and play at a high level as soon as possible. And for about nine months now, I have been developing techniques – both mental practicing and other ideas as well – for learning and maintaining music as fast as possible while not sacrificing quality. By teaching the kids all of these techniques, I found that my students actually helped me to fine-tune said techniques and improve upon them week by week. (Sorry, I really do hope to blog more about those topics soon!) But I digress.

The point is: a lot of my students, especially those who have been studying with me for some time, are already quite independent of me. And the idea of having them learn many more pieces actually is perfectly in line with all of the techniques I have been teaching them over the last year. I am confident that they will reap all the benefits described above and also be much happier now that they won’t have to focus on only a few pieces. So, I did, in fact, issue them all the 40 Piece Challenge, and gave them all a sheet last weekend that I found online:

40piecechallenge

Reactions ranged wildly, but for the most part students were either indifferent or enthusiastic. I honestly was pleasantly surprised. The trick, of course, lies in continuing to give them those “challenge” pieces, but in also finding a lot of repertoire that is at or below their current skill level. In other words: learn a few big pieces while learning many small pieces.

The other part of the story is that teachers began giving themselves the 40 Piece Challenge. “After all, if my students can do it, shouldn’t I be able to as well?”

Keep in mind that at many music schools, the idea of preparing an hour-long recital of big pieces each year and then immediately forgetting all of the repertoire to learn new music for the next year is extremely common. The idea of learning music in addition to your recital repertoire sounds very nice, but often seems impossible. At least, it seemed that way to me. At this point, I don’t even agree with the idea of “completely forgetting pieces to make room for new ones” anymore, but that is a discussion for another time.

So it is not surprising, given their experiences as music students, that many teachers would ironically find themselves caught in the same trap that their students are caught in. From what I have seen, those teachers who managed to complete the challenge reaped many benefits of their own.

As excited as I am to give my students the 40 Piece Challenge, I have to say that I am just as excited to give myself the 100 Piece Challenge, in which I must learn 100 pieces in one year. As far as I know, this has never been attempted. I have a lot more time than most people since I teach mainly on the weekend and I purposely do not teach many private students during the week. In addition, since I feel that I am able to learn music five to ten times faster than one year ago, this is also a chance to prove that to myself. In a way, I have been preparing for this challenge ever since I started developing new practice techniques back in March. There are a few important rules that I am setting for myself, however:

  1. In the original 40 Piece Challenge, pieces are not required to be memorized. However, I must memorize all of my pieces.
  2. In the original challenge, one could move on from the pieces once they have been learned. However, I must keep all of the pieces in my memory. This means they become a permanent part of my repertoire.
  3. I saw that quite a few teachers chose to record themselves. I will give myself the same requirement and post all recordings on both YouTube and Facebook.

There are other things I would like to say as well:

  • I will allow myself to revive old pieces for this challenge (I saw that other teachers had also allowed themselves the same thing). In fact, as long as I do not have a recording of the complete piece on my YouTube channel, I can record the piece for this challenge. However, since I have posted quite a few recordings, quite a bit of my repertoire (and almost all of my recent repertoire) is ineligible.
  • I am not limited to classical repertoire. However, I must uphold the same high standards if I learn pieces of other genres.
  • Pieces can be very short as long as they are legitimate pieces of music. Many of the recordings I saw teachers posting were only one or two minutes long. There were also quite a few under one minute long.
  • For me, a “piece” means that it must typically be considered one complete piece. Many teachers that did this challenge would post separate movements of sonatas as “pieces”. Obviously, this makes sense because of the length of the sonata and I do not fault them for it. However, you would normally say that a sonata is only one piece of music. Thus, a Beethoven sonata that lasts half an hour is to me only a single piece. However, the 24 Chopin Preludes are 24 separate pieces despite their brevity (because we would refer to them as such).
  • I think that this entire process will make me much more comfortable with the idea of recording and sharing. I had avoided sharing more music before because it is too troublesome for me to sync audio from an external device to video and because I only have an upright piano at home in Westchester. But since this is not for an audition or any sort of formal purpose, I am content with just balancing my iPhone on a music stand and recording my slightly out-of-tune upright. 🙂 I have removed the pressure of a perfect setup, and it feels great.
  • I do not have the time to obsess over perfect recordings. I will try my best to produce quality recordings, but I won’t let my pride stop me from sharing. Because music is meant to be shared!
  • I basically have to record around two pieces each week.
    • The idea is not to start each week thinking: “What should I learn this week?” I am always learning many pieces simultaneously – some very challenging and/or longer and many that are easier and/or shorter. Some may take just one week to learn, while others can take six months, a year, or even longer. There will simply come a week at some point where I think, “OK, this is ready to record / perform now.” In other words: I have been working on many pieces to prepare for this challenge already. This is how attempting to learn 100 pieces is possible. I expect that many pieces that are not ready to record this year will also spill into next year.
    • I believe the key to success in this challenge is to constantly learn new pieces, constantly record myself, and constantly record as many pieces in advance as possible. I should be at least two videos ahead at all times… hopefully more!
  • I will not let this challenge interfere with the maintenance of all my other pieces, my musical standards, my constant volunteer-performing that I am doing with the wonderful organization Sing for Hope, my other musical goals, or any of my other goals. This challenge should be a logical complement for everything that I am already doing. If I approach it correctly, really shouldn’t feel any extra pressure. Rather, it should help me learn pieces even faster and feel even better about my playing.
  • I probably will not have enough time in 2017 to attempt a challenge like this since I am planning to apply for piano doctoral programs this fall. So this is the time to do it!

I hope to continue my long-forgotten posts about mental practicing soon. I will post updates about the 40 Piece Challenge I have given my students and the 100 Piece Challenge I have given myself every few months or so. Looking forward to a fantastic year of music!!

The Sing For Hope Pianos, Part 8 [FINAL]

Thursday, June 18th: I only had two main goals remaining: record I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables and find all 50 Sing For Hope Pianos. My friend Lauren was again graciously accompanying me in order to help me accomplish the first goal. However, because of cloudiness and the chance of scattered showers, we found several nearby pianos in Manhattan to be closed.

I decided that it was too risky to travel all the way to the three remaining pianos since they might also be closed. I reasoned that since I had only three pianos remaining, it made more sense to continue to travel to nearby pianos (that I had already visited) in the hopes of getting a good recording. At least I could complete my first goal this way.

Times Square Piano

  • I was surprised to find the black key that had been missing from this piano the previous week replaced and the piano itself in perfect working condition. So the pianos in Manhattan really do receive much more love and attention after all.
  • To my delight and amusement, a man said that I was his “superstar” after I sung Stars.
  • I later found out from Lauren that two men had set up a big camera behind me and recorded me while I sung I Dreamed A Dream. At the time, a girl named Maria told me I had a great voice after I had finished singing.
  • I also met this girl named Bree and accompanied her while she sung On My Own (also from Les Mis). She was very happy with my accompaniment and talked to me for a while about her band. She also shared with me that she was both legally blind and completely colorblind. She said she sees the world in shades of gray, which would mean that she has monochromatic vision.

Herald Square Piano

  • I sung I Dreamed A Dream here and played some piano pieces as well. I met a man named Russ who spoke very highly about me as a musician, but also criticized some aspects of my piano technique. The man was clearly not a classical pianist and furthermore was acting like the piano belonged to him. I told Lauren (and myself) how silly it was to get negatively affected by just a few words from him.
  • I also briefly spoke to Jeremiah, a classical pianist who told me that he had really enjoyed my playing.

Astor Place Piano

  • Unfortunately, in the end I later decided that I wasn’t completely happy with any full takes of I Dreamed A Dream (I almost was!), but this was my favorite clip (sorry for the poor quality):
  • I got dinner and spent time with Lauren for a while. After we parted ways, I went back to the Astor Place piano by myself.
  • Amazingly, this girl named Sherry came up to me and said she recognized me from one of my performances in Central Park the week before! I was very taken aback for three reasons: it had been over a week since then, we had never even spoken, and she was so sure that it was me! But she showed me video that she had taken and it was indeed me playing the piano. I was very flattered that she had remembered me and we had a very nice chat. I then gave her my e-mail address and we took a picture together.
  • I met four great people soon afterwards – two teachers and two assistant principals who were visiting a charter school in the city. Of course I had my Les Misérables piano / vocal book with me in my backpack, so I took it out and had a lot of fun singing through some songs with one of the assistant principals before they had to leave.
  • I performed solo both Broadway songs and classical pieces and they were very well received by people nearby.
  • I met Shun, a singer. He asked me if I could sight-read and I said, “Well, maybe! It depends.” I then sight-read the accompaniment to a song that he had with him. It was easy enough that I was able to follow him very well and we had a very successful performance.
  • I was very happy that I had such huge successes that day with playing, singing, and accompanying. I had also regained a lot of confidence in my singing after my performances had been so well-received multiple times.

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Piano 48: Carmine Carro Community Center

  • Friday, June 19th: I woke up fairly confident that I would be able to find the remaining three pianos. I was also aware, however, that there was a chance of scattered showers by the early afternoon.
  • Carmine Carro Community Center is located in Marine Park in Brooklyn. For some reason, there is no subway stop anywhere near the park and I irrationally didn’t want to take the bus. I ended up walking half an hour from the Q train stop.
  • When I arrived, I thought for a moment that the piano was missing (just like the missing piano in Staten Island), but it turned out that I was just on the wrong side.
  • I really felt such a relaxed, open vibe from this community center.
  • There were a bunch of kids happily taking turns playing and singing together at the piano. I felt bad interrupting them, but after 15 minutes decided that I could take no further chances with the weather.
  • The kids were all impressed with my playing and very interested in the fact that I was close to completing my quest to find the 50 pianos.

I conquered my inexplicable fear of New York City buses and took one by myself for the first time by using Google Maps – of course, it really wasn’t a big deal.

Before I got on the subway, I noticed a homeless woman holding a sign. I used to just completely ignore people holding signs, but I had decided recently that I would at least read them from a respectable distance and decide if the person was really intending to use the money to feed themselves (or for some other positive purpose). Apparently, she had many severe medical conditions and needed money for surgeries. When I talked to her, I found out that she was a lover of classical music and also used to play the piano. But she had lost two of the fingers on her right hand due to complications from her illnesses! Our talk really made me reflect once again on how incredibly lucky I am to be happy, healthy, and able to make music. I gave her some money, wished her good luck, and continued on my way.

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Piano 49: McGolrick Park

  • I had actually already been to the two remaining pianos. Both of them had previously been closed because of rain.
  • There weren’t many people around, but the location and the piano were both rather beautiful.
  • Several of the keys also didn’t work on this piano, so I played only briefly and hoped that the last piano would be open.

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Piano 50: WNYC Transmitter Park

  • Somehow, things worked out wonderfully and I arrived to find the final piano not only open, but completely available for me to play.
  • I celebrated by playing for quite a long time. A small group of people nearby were kind enough to applaud after each piece.

At the end of the Sing For Hope Pianos event, I found that I had:

  • Gained a huge amount of experience as both pianist and singer
  • Become able to perform any piece in any situation (immediately upon sitting down!), regardless of the condition of the piano, the location, the weather, and any number of distractions
  • Helped a lot of new pieces to grow by performing them whenever possible
  • Recorded a lot of my playing to share with family, friends, and whoever is interested
  • Further convinced myself of the power of mental practicing: Not only did I use it to keep all of my repertoire in my head without too much physical practicing, but I also used it to learn correct mistakes as I went from piano to piano. In addition, I was also getting a head start on learning even newer pieces.
  • Met so many wonderful people
  • Seen so many beautiful locations and pianos
  • Written these eight blog posts (and I had no idea they would end up so lengthy!) detailing everything that happened along the way
  • Completed an unforgettable adventure with the help of my parents and my dear friend Lauren

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Sing for Hope made me this lovely image upon hearing of my completion of the All 50 Challenge. I think I was one of only five people to find all of the pianos. I was also invited to Sing For Hope’s office where I received a bag full of goodies as a reward and met their very warm and accommodating staff.

Thank you so much for reading and I’m looking forward to writing about my other projects very soon!

The Sing For Hope Pianos, Part 7

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Piano 39: Joyce Kilmer Park

  • Wednesday, June 17th: Just like I had visited most of the pianos in the Bronx with my dad, I decided that the only way to visit all of the Staten Island pianos was to plan a fun day trip with my mom.
  • I decided to meet my mom at Joyce Kilmer Park, the final location in the Bronx that I had already visited twice (and that had been closed both times). Third time’s the charm, because the piano was finally open!
  • My mom even sat down and played a little bit of lovely Chinese music. I hadn’t heard her play piano in a very long time!
  • There were a few keys sticking on this piano as well. I figured that as the Sing for Hope event went on, more and more pianos would be suffering from the weather, so I was only slightly disappointed. But nothing could have prepared for me for what would happen at the next location…

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???

  • We went all the way to Staten Island next to find the piano located at the South Beach Boardwalk. One of my students had just sent me a picture of herself playing this piano the previous week. But when we got there, the piano was nowhere to be found!
  • I thought we must have just been slightly confused about the location, so my mom and I decided to split up and walk in opposite directions along the boardwalk. But even after a few minutes of walking, there was nothing to suggest even a hint of a piano.
  • I ultimately decided to jog in one direction for a small distance while my mom rested. I actually reached the end of the boardwalk and again found nothing! Jogging part of the way in the other direction also resulted in no leads.
  • I even asked two different people who were working at food stands if they had seen the piano and neither of them knew what I was talking about.
  • I thought the whole situation was so strange. The pianos were always very carefully secured and should have been impossible to steal. Plus, I had found pianos that had suffered from quite a bit of damage in the past. Was there any reason to just completely remove the piano before the end of the event when the entire event lasts only two weeks?
  • Finally, I found someone working at a food stand who said that they had definitely seen a piano there the previous week, but that they didn’t know what had happened to it.
  • Slightly disappointed and confused, my mom and I decided to simply move on to the next location. I sent Sing For Hope an e-mail to let them know the situation and hopefully get a satisfactory explanation.
  • But yet again, even after this, I wasn’t at all ready for what would occur at the next few locations…

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Piano 40: Tappen Park

  • It’s a bit difficult to tell from the picture, but this piano had many keys that were sticking – even more so than the piano in Joyce Kilmer Park!
  • So this piano, regrettably, was virtually unplayable. I figured that the pianos all the way out in Staten Island were much less frequently visited than pianos in, for instance, Manhattan. I made a decision to notify Sing For Hope about any pianos I found that had an unusual amount of damage, as it was possible that they would not find out about them otherwise.
  • Around this time, I received a very prompt and polite reply from Sing For Hope about the piano located at the South Beach Boardwalk – the piano HAD indeed been removed because of extensive damage! Apparently that information had been listed on the website somewhere, but I hadn’t known about it. That piano would not count against me if I was trying to find all 50 pianos. Although I was very surprised that the piano had been removed, I was relieved that the mystery had been solved.

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Piano 41: Clove Lakes Park

  • I was absolutely horrified to find this piano completely destroyed. Many of the black keys were lying pitifully on the ground.
  • Could this really be only because of the weather? Were the black keys on this piano particularly fragile for some reason? After all, the black keys had not come off on any of the other pianos. Or was it, in fact, vandalism? Seriously? What kind of person would destroy a piano for no reason?

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Piano 42: Faber Park Field House

  • The images may not be as graphic as those of the previous piano, but if you look closely, you’ll see that virtually the entire keybed has sunk because of water damage.
  • Like the previous piano, the keys could not be budged a millimeter. I was really at a loss for words at the time.
  • Of course, I notified Sing For Hope about this and the preceding pianos. They responded quickly and were very thankful that I had notified them. They said that they would send people to take a look at the pianos as soon as possible. I was realizing through my communications with them what an incredibly genuine, down-to-earth group of people the Sing For Hope team was.
  • This is, of course, the dark side and the risk of organizing a wonderful project like the Sing For Hope Pianos. Not everyone is responsible. Not everyone takes care of the pianos. We can only rely on the kindness and wisdom of strangers. Even if the worst happens, as in these cases, we remember what incredible joy and excitement the instruments brought to their respective communities before they were destroyed. And hopefully we can learn from these mistakes as we move on to future projects.

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Piano 43: Conference House

  • Finally, a working piano!
  • If you look at the second image, you’ll see that the lid of the piano was originally open only halfway when we arrived. A woman had been playing the piano with the lid in this state and I thought for a moment that this piano was also somehow broken. I played for a little while in the same fashion until I realized that there was a little latch on the side in the way of the lid. Very silly.
  • I still wanted to do some recordings, but there were people relaxing and enjoying the quiet nearby. It didn’t seem appropriate to disrupt the environment with a virtuosic piece in this setting.
  • Plus, for some reason there were lots of flies buzzing around this piano and my mom was continuously trying to shoo them away while I was playing. There didn’t seem to be any reason why they would congregate around the piano. I guess the flies must really love music..?

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Piano 44: Historic Richmond Town

  • This was a really refreshing, quaint, quiet spot with a beautiful golden-keyed piano. I was happy that the last Staten Island piano we visited had turned out to be the best one. It also seemed to be the perfect place to record.
  • We actually got interrupted by a random man who started asking us questions while my mom was recording. We decided to leave him alone for a little while since he wanted to play the piano. Thankfully he was gone when we returned.
  • Nobody else showed up at all during the remainder of our time there.
  • My mom recorded for me this clip of Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 12 (“Revolutionary”).
  • I was also very happy that I was able to achieve one of my main goals for this project: record in its entirety Godowsky’s arrangement of the same piece for left hand alone:

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Piano 45: South Beach Boardwalk

  • My mom and I both thought it would be a good idea to at least take a picture of the location with the missing piano, so we stopped by on the way back to Brooklyn.

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Piano 46: Rockaway Park

  • My mom is superhuman, so even though we had already visited all the Staten Island pianos (plus the one in the Bronx), she drove us all the way to Rockaway Park!
  • It was strangely cold by this point, and I had goosebumps wearing short-sleeves.
  • I was surprised to discover someone playing Chopin Preludes quite musically. I wondered if the man was a serious pianist. Since it was cold and getting late, though, I decided not to stay and chat for too long. He did express that he really liked my playing before I left.

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Piano 47: Roy Wilkins Recreation Center

  • This piano was in Jamaica, Queens and was our final stop for the day.
  • Again, nobody was around, and I played only briefly before we decided to head home.
  • It was funny how I had barely played any pianos the entire day since a lot of them were damaged and one of them was missing. It was also funny how almost nobody had heard me play the piano that day. Yet, just being able to play for my mom at a few locations and spending so much time together made the entire day worth it.
  • Also, I absolutely loved how the entire piano adventure was always so utterly unpredictable.

Next post – the end of the Sing For Hope Pianos journey!

The Sing For Hope Pianos, Part 6

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Piano 29: Shore Road Park

  • Saturday, June 13th, after teaching all day
  • Really beautiful location with a grand piano
  • I arrived to find someone playing pop music quite passionately. This person turned out to be a piano hog, unfortunately.
  • Another guy showed up on a bike and clearly wanted a turn, so I let him go first. He played a cover of Let It Go as his second piece and a little girl nearby started dancing so happily!
  • I met Jessica, a volunteer photographer for Sing For Hope; Glen, a rock pianist who was quite friendly; and a mysterious elderly woman who looked possibly Chinese but was not speaking Mandarin (or English). I don’t think she was speaking Cantonese either. But she tried to talk to me several times and I could only smile and nod. She did manage to express that she enjoyed my playing.
  • I was able to see a beautiful sunset by the water.

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Piano 30: Montefiore Park

  • Sunday, June 14th, again after teaching all day
  • The event lasts only two weeks, and I knew that there was a lot of rain in the forecast for the coming week (the last week). I had already performed a lot during the first week and I wanted to make sure that I visited all the pianos, so I decided to try to limit my amount of time at each piano. I knew that the coming week would be a battle between me and the weather.
  • This piano had previously been closed when I visited it the first time, so I was very happy to find it open.
  • This was a very quick visit, but three people talked to me after I performed one or two pieces and they were very appreciative and enthusiastic about my playing.
  • One of the keys on this piano didn’t work, but it didn’t affect my concentration.

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Piano 31: Marcus Garvey Park

  • This was another piano that had previously been closed.
  • I again had a very receptive audience here. I even received a “Bravo! Bravissimo!”
  • It really warms my heart to know that so many people are willing to be friendly and warm. It makes me realize how easy it can be to meet people as long as you have even one small topic of conversation – in this case, the pianos! In other words, the pianos really do bring people together.

I got to Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx at almost 8:30 PM. Sadly this one was closed. I decided to try to return to the piano in the morning.

Monday, June 15th: I returned to Joyce Kilmer Park and found that the piano was STILL closed. Probably it was because thunderstorms were in the forecast. It didn’t matter that it was actually bright and sunny when I arrived… I knew that the Piano Buddies in charge of the pianos didn’t always have the luxury of checking on the pianos several times throughout the day.

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Piano 32: Roosevelt Island

  • I was happy to find a grand piano, but disappointed to find it heavily damaged.
  • As you can see from the picture, at least six or seven of the keys on the piano no longer worked, presumably because of rain damage.
  • When a certain number of keys don’t work, there reaches a point where the message of a piece simply cannot be communicated. Unfortunately I felt like I couldn’t legitimately perform a piece this time around.

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Piano 33: Jackson Heights Post Office

  • Pretty quiet piano, but this one is thankfully not damaged
  • The person who I asked to take my picture also asked me to take a picture of them with the piano. Of course, I was happy to do so.
  • Two girls – probably in middle school – showed up almost immediately and were so excited over the piano. I told them to take care of the piano and to please cover it with the tarp if it started to rain. They nodded at me very sincerely. I was glad they were taking the responsibility so seriously.

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Piano 34: Kaufman Studios Entrance

  • Felt a few drops of rain on the way there, but somehow it wasn’t raining when I actually arrived
  • The tarp was on the piano at first, but the guard was nice enough to let me play and even take a few pictures for me.
  • Someone on the street stopped to listen, but didn’t approach me to talk afterwards. I wondered if the bad weather made it more unlikely that people would talk to each other.
  • I made sure to cover the piano when I left, as it would surely begin to rain soon.

I unfortunately had to call it a day after finding only three pianos. Still, it was quite lucky that any of the pianos I found had been open at all!

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Piano 35: Hunter’s Point Park

  • Tuesday, June 16th: More thunderstorms in the forecast, but I thought I might as well try my luck!
  • I just love these locations that are near the water. I bet it would have been even more beautiful on a sunny day.
  • This mirror piano combined with the cloudy day made for a very reflective morning.
  • Two mothers each brought their children in strollers over to listen to me.
  • I performed my five Chopin preludes with much more success than before.

The next two locations – WNYC Transmitter Park and McGolrick Park – BOTH had locked pianos because of the inclement weather. Nevertheless, I still pressed onward.

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Piano 36: Maria Hernandez Park

  • I successfully performed a bunch of new pieces, but people didn’t pay much attention at this location.
  • I thought about how certain neighborhoods and certain groups of people tended to be more or less responsive to music in general. I thought about how each piano location had its own unique atmosphere and character.
  • And I thought about how you should always play with all your heart, even when no one is listening.
  • A man showed up and seemed to enjoy playing and singing something with Latin rhythms even though he wasn’t a very advanced pianist.
  • As I was leaving, a mother was trying to coax her daughter into playing the piano. So different from the parents who practically had to drag their children away from these outdoor pianos!

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Piano 37: Brownsville Recreation Center

  • I had such an incredibly warm welcome at this location!
  • A older man named Robert convinced me to go inside and see the facilities of the recreation center even though I insisted that I wasn’t an athlete. Everyone inside was so friendly and accommodating.
  • I met Mitch, who sings Caribbean music and apparently has quite a following on YouTube.
  • I also met a lady at the front desk who used to sing opera!
  • Robert and Mitch convinced a whole bunch of people to come out of the recreation center to hear me play. And even after I performed a few pieces for them, Mitch would still bring out other people one by one. It was very sweet and rather funny.
  • Both my playing and my singing were received very warmly. Mitch even asked me for vocal tips, which I found very flattering.
  • I was asked if I gave piano lessons and if I would come back to perform for some sort of event, but I told them that unfortunately I lived too far away.
  • I told them what a wonderful community they had there and thanked them for treating me as such an honored guest.

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Piano 38: Carl Schurz Park

  • The setting sun was so bright and powerful as I entered the park that I had to snap a picture.
  • This location was just jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I thought I was taking a huge risk by continuing to try to find pianos with rain in the forecast, but somehow the rain just never really came. I was very glad that I had decided to take the chance.
  • As you can see from the pictures above: Two guys were playing some sort of boogie-woogie duet when I showed up. Then a guitarist showed up and started to play along with them! The playing was of a very high level.
  • I talked to them and found out that Alan was the pianist who was sitting down, Sebastian was the pianist who was standing up, and Danny was the guitarist. Apparently Alan and Danny had known each other for over 30 years (!) and Sebastian had just met them at that location.
  • I said I would play my arrangement of the Castle in the Sky theme. In an amazing coincidence, Sebastian said he had just played the theme at that piano not too long ago! It turned out that he was a huge Miyazaki fan.
  • The piano’s keys were not all completely responsive, but somehow I had struck a chord with the audience and received quite a lot of applause. Someone even asked for an encore. I of course happily obliged!

The next post will be about adventures in Staten Island with my mom!

The Sing for Hope Pianos, Part 5

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Piano 25: DUMBO Archway

  • Thursday, June 11th (continued): On the first day of the Sing for Hope Pianos event, I had come to this location to discover loud music blaring over the speakers. I had felt at the time that I should really only play the piano if I could be heard without music in the background.
  • Perhaps I should have just played the piano at that time, because this time there was music playing through the speakers again! I found out from a nice girl working there – Kaylee – that apparently I just had bad timing. Often there were events going on at the Archway in the evening.
  • There was a group of five or six people gathered around the piano, so I politely asked if they could take my picture. They were very enthusiastic about my playing.

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Return to Brooklyn Bridge Park

  • It was such a beautiful day that I decided to celebrate the halfway point of the adventure by returning to Brooklyn Bridge Park to play for a while by the water.
  • Performed a lot of new pieces with varying degrees of success.
  • Met Jean-Michel, a middle-aged man from Paris who played and sung quite well despite not having done so for a long time. We had a really warm conversation.
  • Met an old man and his middle-aged son. The old man spoke very little English (mostly only Spanish), but he was very friendly and kept making the joke that I had to pay $50 to hear his son, Mozart (his son was unfortunately just hitting the keys randomly and making noise for fun!). He said the rates would increase the longer I listened. I found it all very amusing.
  • On my way to the subway, I passed back through the DUMBO Archway. Kaylee, the girl from earlier, said that she had enjoyed my playing and that I should come back to play again.

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Piano 26: Goddard Riverside / Bernie Wohl Center

  • Friday, June 12th: Met Susan, a Piano Buddy (one of the people that takes care of the pianos) and the one who had applied to have a Sing For Hope piano at this location. She explained that every piano opens and closes at different times depending on the Piano Buddy. In order to encourage a sense of community and openness, she had decided to simply leave the piano unlocked during the duration of the event. She had also attached a note asking people to cover the piano if it rained and if it was very late at night. After she heard some of my playing, Susan took down my information and also took pictures and recorded video. She was very friendly and warm.
  • Met Nancy, an older woman who stayed and listened to my playing for a long time. She was very sweet and kept saying how listening to the piano had “really really” made her day. It seemed like she had been having somewhat of a rough time beforehand. I was really pleased that she had been so positively affected by the music.
  • I also met up with my very good friend Rocío at this location. She performed a solo piece and we had a good time sight-reading some four-hand music together!

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Piano 27: Riverside Park North – Rotunda at 151st St.

  • I used to live just two blocks from the 168th St. subway station in Washington Heights. It was very nostalgic to return to this area, especially because I used to run through Riverside Park from 165th St. to 145th St. and back every morning!
  • Rocío and I both performed solo pieces here, but nobody was around except for a couple being rather intimate nearby. I feared at first that we were interrupting their moment, but ultimately decided that it was the couple who had chosen a bad location, not us.
  • Met Matt, a classical guitarist who owned a music school nearby. He shared with us the information that Franz Schubert (the famous composer) had apparently been a guitarist and had done much of his composing on the guitar! Rocío and I were both very impressed with this knowledge at the time. Unfortunately, I did some research afterwards and it turns out that there is no direct evidence to support this controversial claim…

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Piano 28: Highbridge Park Recreation Center

  • Also in Washington Heights
  • No one was really around this location when we showed up.
  • Rocío was kind enough to record Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag for me, and some parts of it went surprisingly well even though the higher register of the piano was very out of tune and I had a few memory issues. Thankfully the piece does not use the high register of the piano very much.
  • The lovely couple pictured above showed up at some point. I thought they were just two random people who had happened upon the piano, but it turned out that the girl was Deanna, the one who had painted the piano! And the guy was Blake, her boyfriend and the singer-songwriter whose songs had inspired Deanna to come up with the design!
  • I had never had the good fortune of meeting one of the actual artists before, so this was a really pleasant surprise.
  • Blake played and sung a wonderful, moving song for us that he wrote himself.
  • I answered by playing and singing Stars from Les Misérables. Unfortunately it didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped it would, but I was overall still happy with the performance.
  • Deanna told us a lot about the message of the piano and a lot of the little details. She says: “I choose music, color, love, and joy to lead the way.” Her message is very, very beautiful. You can read more here.
  • I began to realize that even though there is a good amount of information about the design of each piano on the Sing For Hope website, it really is so different and so moving to hear about the pianos directly from the artists!

Rocío and I were planning to head to Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx, but I had also planned to see my student Skylar perform that day. Just when Rocío and I got to the subway station, Skylar texted me that she would arrive at the Lincoln Center piano soon with her parents. So Rocío headed home and I returned to the Lincoln Center piano. Unfortunately, Skylar’s family misjudged the time and ended up being very late. During this time, I watched a bunch of people playing. But for me, the highlights were:

  • A girl of perhaps 10 or 11 playing Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from his Children’s Corner suite. Played rather slowly but quite well!
  • A girl with piano bag – probably a college student – playing Chopin’s 1st Scherzo. She had quite a few memory problems though. I think she became very nervous when people started to gather around her.
  • A man who showed up with his baby daughter in a stroller and then proceeded to play great jazz!

Skylar finally arrived with her mom and dad. We attempted to patiently wait our turn, but I advised her to ask politely to play if the man continued for much longer. Unfortunately, a teenage boy showed up and cut in without noticing Skylar. There was a large group of teenagers with him – his friends and classmates, I assume. He played bits of pop pieces and then tried to play the beginning of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, but it seemed he had too many memory issues to continue. After waiting for a bit, Skylar finally got her chance to play!

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Skylar at Lincoln Center

  • Skylar proceeded to perform Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude and Ocean Étude, both new pieces for her. It was the first time she had performed either of them!
  • When she started to play the Revolutionary Étude, the teenagers that were leaving became very vocal about the difference in skill between her and the previous kid and said, “OHHH!!! Get WRECKED!!” I felt kind of bad for the guy, but it was still rather funny.
  • People gathered around to listen to Skylar and were very responsive. It wasn’t the most solid performance, but what do you expect out of a first performance of Chopin Études? I was very happy that she still remained calm and played strong to the end.

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Skylar at Central Park – Literary Walk

  • Skylar performed the Études again, this time more successfully. I am very proud of her for adapting to new situations and for performing these notoriously difficult pieces so professionally.
  • I met a man named Sid who loves fugues (a type of composition with usually three or four different melodies occurring simultaneously, basically). He was not a professional pianist, but he apparently was only very passionate about learning fugues on the piano. He had at least 24 of them in his memory (!!!), including fugues from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He also knew a lot of fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but didn’t care so much to learn the Preludes that preceded each one. Pianists know that fugues are often incredibly difficult to memorize. I thought: there must be very few amateur pianists in the entire world that know this many fugues!
  • I performed one or two piano pieces, and then Skylar recorded Stars for me. I was quite happy with most parts of this performance.

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Skylar at Central Park – Glade Arch

  • This was the piano where I had met David, Steve, and Todd four days ago (it seemed like so much longer!)
  • Unfortunately the pedal was broken this time around (!), so Skylar decided not to perform her Études.
  • Instead, Skylar played two pop songs and I sung along with one of them even though I didn’t know it that well.
  • As a lesson in both how to adapt to any situation and how important it is to practice without pedal, I performed my Castle in the Sky arrangement for Skylar and her parents with no pedal at all. I relied only on my hands to play legato and express clear musical thought.
  • Somebody clapped and responded very favorably to my playing. It turned out to be the artist of this piano, Stefan Sierhej, from Poland! It was such an incredible coincidence that I had somehow met two artists in one day. For whatever reason, it would later turn out, sadly, that I would not meet any other artists after this point.
  • The page on the Sing For Hope website about Stefan mentions that he used the Gold Leaf technique to design this beautiful piano, but it doesn’t express his personal thoughts on the technique at all. When we talked to Stefan, he talked more about it and also explained that it was quite a difficult project for him because he had never used the technique before. Well, obviously it had turned out beautifully!
  • What is the story behind each work of art? Each piece of music? Each place you visit or person you meet? Talking to Stefan about his secret struggles reminded me that beneath the surface, there are always many details hidden away, waiting to be discovered. And that is part of the wonder of the world.

My phone was almost out of batteries at this point. I led Skylar and her parents out of Central Park, and we proceeded to have a very nice dinner together. I hadn’t planned on spending so much time with them, but I was happy that I gotten to bond a little with my student and very pleased that she had grown so much as a musician. With very little time left in the day and no batteries remaining, I decided to call it a day despite having visited only three new pianos. I started to wonder if it would really be possible to find all 50 pianos in time…

The Sing for Hope Pianos, Part 4

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Piano 18: Flushing Town Hall

  • Wednesday, June 9th (continued): These very cute kids had been happily banging on the piano when I arrived, so my dad and I just stood off to the side and let them play for a bit.
  • The piano was unfortunately in very poor condition – the notes were all extremely short and clipped regardless of how you played it. However, I still tried to play as musically as I could since the kids seemed so enthralled with the music.
  • I ended up performing Chopin Étude Op. 25 No. 11 (“Winter Wind”) while the little girl watched with great interest. The best part is that she started moving her fingers along with me!
  • People applauded and were very appreciative here.

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Piano 19: Unisphere at Flushing Meadows

  • Apparently, the amazing Unisphere was the symbol of the 1964 – 1965 New York World’s Fair. The theme of the fair was “Peace Through Understanding”. Somehow I had no idea that this enormous (and very well-known) structure existed!
  • It was very beautiful to discover this piano, covered with flowers, beneath a gazebo with the Unisphere in the distance.
  • Some girls asked me and my dad for directions while we were walking there. While I wasn’t able to give them directions to where they wanted to go, they seemed very interested in my little piano adventure, so they came along with us and listened to me play. People were again very appreciative here.
  • I “formally” performed the Godowsky arrangement of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude for left hand alone here. It was fairly successful!
  • At this point, it was around 7:30pm and my dad and I decided to finally call it a day and get some well-deserved dinner.

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In Which I Waste A Huge Amount of Time

  • Thursday, June 11th: The next day, I was adventuring by myself again. I decided to be very ambitious and get to the first piano by 8am. This was a gamble because I remembered that the pianos were all supposed to be opened up by 10am. I had no idea if that applied only to the first day of the event or if it applied to each day.
  • So I got to Sunset Park in Brooklyn at 8am and was greeted by the image above: many, many Chinese people exercising to some sort of recorded track and the piano covered by the attached tarp. But I gradually realized that the piano itself was actually open (the tarp was only covering the top). However, I didn’t want to interrupt the exercise routine. Besides, I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform freely unless the recorded music stopped.
  • And by the way, next to the exercising people was ANOTHER group of people dancing to ANOTHER recorded track going on simultaneously.
  • I waited for 40 minutes and finally gave up, resolving to go to the next piano and to come back later.
  • I proceeded to take the subway the wrong direction, simultaneously losing a newly-purchased umbrella in the process…
  • I got to the Washington Park / Old Stone House location to find THAT piano LOCKED. I waited until 10am and still no one showed up! On a whim, I decided to circle the park one time.
  • Upon returning, I discovered the piano opened but unplayable. I then met one of the people (presumably hired by Sing For Hope) that fixes the pianos; unfortunately I forgot to ask him his name. He said the soundboard had been heavily damaged in the rain. I felt extremely grateful for his help and realized how hard his job must be – the pianos throughout the entire installation must be getting continuously damaged by weather and other factors. I decided to go back to Sunset Park instead and return to this one later.

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Piano 20: Sunset Park

  • Upon my return to Sunset Park, I was amazed to discover that, THREE HOURS LATER, the same group of people that had been dancing off to the side was still dancing! And now the exercising group had been replaced by another dancing group. Both groups were dancing to separate recorded tracks right next to the piano. I finally conceded defeat.
  • A mother had been letting her little baby play the piano when I had arrived and it looked they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. I felt bad for interrupting, but asked her to take a picture. This was the first location where I didn’t perform a full piece – the recorded music was absolutely nonstop and I wanted to let the baby get back to his musical exploring.
  • There was also a language barrier because the woman didn’t speak English and spoke very little Mandarin Chinese. But eventually I did get her to take the picture shown above.

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Piano 21: Washington Park / Old Stone House

  • So finally I returned to the other location! The repairman was gone at this point. The piano was in better condition, but several of the keys still didn’t work, unfortunately. I think there’s only so much you can do for a damaged piano in a short amount of time.
  • It was VERY hot but I again performed Chopin’s Black Key Étude and Chopin Étude Op. 10 No. 8. By the way, here is the clip of Op. 10 No. 8 performed at Williamsbridge Oval Community Center that I mentioned in my previous post. Somehow, I wasn’t able to start the Black Key Étude well and I had a few memory slips during Op. 10 No. 8. I knew I still had to perform them more if I wanted them to become more solid.
  • I met someone named Ben who applauded after Op. 10 No. 8. He wasn’t a pianist, but apparently he likes the piece a lot and had just been listening to it on his phone! What are the chances?

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Piano 22: Prospect Park – Grand Army Plaza

  • I had never been here before either and had no idea of the existence of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. Apparently it is even slightly larger than the arch in Washington Square Park! I thought it was so surreal to find this beautiful grand piano looking like a toy next to this massive structure. So beautiful…
  • I performed the two Études I had just mentioned and they went better! I think partially it was because I had done some mental practicing on my way to this location.
  • I performed the first book of the Brahms-Paganini Variations for the first time even though I knew that I had not yet properly practiced the ending. As expected, the ending was a mess but the rest of it went reasonably well despite a few memory slips.
  • I decided to also sing Stars from Les Misérables – it was my first time “officially” singing at one of the Sing for Hope pianos since I had been sick at the beginning of the event! I hadn’t warmed up earlier in the day, so it didn’t exactly go great. I resolved to perform it better in the future.
  • I met a guy named Kolson (unusual name!) who was super passionate about harmonies and harmonic structure. He talked at length about “one-note songs” where the melody note would largely stay the same while harmonies moved underneath. It was refreshing to meet someone so spirited and vocal.
  • While I was leaving, I met a really sweet dog-walker named Jessica. She had really appreciated my performing and we had a very pleasant conversation.

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Piano 23: Brower Park

  • So the day after I met the adorable Chinese kids at the Flushing Town Hall piano, I met these adorable Jewish kids in Brower Park.
  • I really think the combination of the kids and the wonderfully cartoony piano made this a very happy piano location for me!

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Piano 24: Fort Greene Park

  • Absolutely dying in this heat and humidity.
  • Tried walking through the park to the piano location, but it turned out there was construction and part of the park was closed off. I made a daring leap off of a high wall on the side to save myself the hassle of walking all the way back and around.
  • I had already performed the two new Études and the Graceful Ghost Rag with varying degrees of success several times that day, so I resolved to perform all five Chopin Preludes that I had recently learned (1, 2, 3, 4, and 7) and at least the beginning of the Brahms-Paganini.
  • There was a man playing pop songs and Fur Elise with a lot of people gathered around him, so I waited a while until he was done.
  • I performed the 5 Preludes and the beginning of the Brahms-Paganini quite successfully, just as planned. People were nice enough to take pictures as usual and some were very appreciative, saying that I played beautifully.
  • One man took a two pictures of my hands before he left on his own phone and then sent them to me as well. One of them is visible above, and the other became a Sing for Hope Pianos Photo of the Day!

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  • After the people watching left, I decided to try and sing Stars again even though nobody was around. I finally felt like my voice was resonant and I actually felt very happy with the performance.
  • As I was leaving, a man – presumably crazy – came to me and yelled profanities at me, telling me to take my bullsh*t somewhere else. He seemed like he wasn’t in full control of his senses. I am proud to say that I was secure enough in my abilities that I wasn’t negatively affected by this unexpected outburst.
  • The man left, but I stayed for a little while, wondering if he was going to come back and hoping that no children were around. I didn’t want him to be a danger to anyone else. When it seemed like he was really gone, I decided to return to the DUMBO archway, where the piano had been unavailable on the very first day of this piano adventure!