Tag Archives: piano

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.

Mental Practicing Questions and Answers, Part 3

I hope to again rouse this series from its long hiatus – I am continuing my mental practicing Q&A by discussing the many other benefits of mental practicing. For a more detailed explanation of what mental practicing is, please see Part 1 of this series. For a thorough description of how mental practicing actually helps you in performance, please see Part 2.

What are some other ways in which mental practicing would help me more than just physical practicing alone?

  • I will eventually elaborate on all of these points (some much more so than others). But here they are:
    • You will be able to practice (almost) anytime and anywhere.
    • You will be much less prone to injury.
    • You will be able to practice longer hours than before.
    • You will learn music much faster.
    • You will be able to increase your ability to focus.
    • You will be able to maintain a large repertoire much more easily.
    • You will understand much better how the learning / memorizing process works and why memory slips occur.
    • You will be able to start from any point in your music (provided that you can see the area clearly in your mind).
    • You will have the knowledge to help students learn faster.

What do you mean by being able to practice anytime and anywhere?

  • This is of course the most obvious benefit of mental practicing. If you develop the ability to use your mind to accomplish practicing tasks, you can imagine how useful that ability might be. But it was only when I started doing regular mental practicing that I began to understand its incredible versatility.

What are some examples of the versatility of mental practicing?

  • YOU CAN BE OUTSIDE!
    • Even if you are not an outdoors sort of person, there is no denying the scientific benefits of spending time outside. For starters, being outdoors has been shown to improve focus and general cognitive functioning, lower stress levels, enhance mental health, and strengthen your immunity.
    • Of course, if you enjoy being outside like I do, you already recognize that leaving the traditional practice room is an extremely welcome change of pace. When I think of heading to a park to do mental practicing, I automatically think of enjoying the sunshine, getting a boost in energy and mood, relaxing & letting go of tensions, and refocusing myself through a change in atmosphere. Even on a cold winter day, you can get so much work done just from practicing in different environments.
    • Philosophically, I always think that we are making music in order to make the world a better place somehow. By going out and constantly experiencing the world itself, we are continuously reminded of our deep connections to the world around us. We are also repeatedly inspired by the beauty of nature.
  • I would like to emphasize at this point again the following fact: You can leave the traditional practice room and get serious work done! Being in nature is one of the most wonderful applications of this fact, but in general, I feel that the ability to practice wherever I go has changed my entire life. After being chained to the practice room for so long, the freedom of being able to work wherever I go constantly feels like the entire world has opened up to me.

mentalpractice3

  • You can get exercise while practicing! You can practice while walking, running, cycling, swimming, or doing any other sort of exercise that uses some sort of repetitive motion for a prolonged period of time. Obviously, this type of mental practice would be without the use of the score. I will explain in a future post how to go about doing this. Often, the exercising and mental practicing will act as perfect compliments (with each one acting as motivation for the other).
  • You can practice in a variety of inspiring indoor locations as well. Your practice environments are limited only by your imagination and level of experience. I practice a lot in coffee houses and bookstores and also quite enjoy doing mental practice while walking through museums. I feel like I can read more books, see more art, and generally just experience more culture because I can practice while staying for long hours in these locations. Of course, you can alternate periods of mental practicing with just enjoying being there in the moment.
  • You can practice while on public transit / traveling. This includes subways, trains, buses, planes, etc. The daily commute or long flight can thus become very productive if you want it to be.
  • You can practice if you go somewhere without a piano while traveling.
    • Obviously, if you really want to be on vacation, it is often best to not practice at all for some time! But if you want to do at least some mental maintenance of the pieces (particularly if the trip is long), mental practice can really help, particularly if you have a lot of pieces to remember.
    • If you want to continue to do some serious practice on the trip, you may find that doing pure mental practice for a good amount of time each day may actually cause the pieces to be in better condition by the time you return home (provided that there are not significant technical difficulties that had not yet been conquered).
    • If you are actually going specifically to a piano festival or competition, often there are not enough practice rooms or it may be difficult to practice for the amount of time that you need. It is at these times that mental practice can also be crucial for maintenance of the pieces and for peace of mind.

In the next post, I will continue to talk about the versatility of mental practicing before beginning to elaborate on the many other ways that it can be helpful.

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.

Mental Practicing Questions and Answers, Part 2

Continuing where I left off in the last post, I will start by talking more specifically about how mental practicing helps you in the act of performance itself.

How will mental practicing help during actual performances?

  • To answer this question requires a bit of exposition. To me, mental practicing is nothing more and nothing less than using your brain to be aware of your practice – the sight, the sound, and the touch. In other words, everyone does some amount of mental practicing while doing regular physical practicing (typically unintentionally). Usually, students and lower-level musicians will tend to do very little of it while higher-level musicians may tend to be much more aware of what they are doing. The more unaware you are of what your body is doing and the more you play “automatically”, the more dangerous the situation will be when you get nervous.
  • But wait! It also is never good to overanalyze or overthink at the moment of performance either. I want to emphasize that being aware of your senses and overthinking are two entirely different things. Certainly, there is a sense of “automatic” in performance if you consider that to mean “natural and relaxed without overthinking” or “courageously stepping forward just like any other time”.
  • Going back to the idea of thinking, “I wonder if I remember what’s next?” while performing, your awareness of your senses from mental practicing is what would save you in that situation.
    • If you remember the sound of the following passage, you may already save yourself (depending on how detailed the aural memory is). If you at least know how high or low the next passage is, hopefully you can move your hands to that approximate area of the piano and maybe your muscle memory will then take over and save the performance. And the more you can find by ear, the better. But unless you have both perfect pitch (or excellent relative pitch) and an ear that can hear many pitches at once distinctly, this alone will probably not be enough for you to relax.
    • If you remember the touch and sight of the passage as well, though, you will know exactly where to move on the keyboard. It is the same certainly you would feel if you had just checked your sheet music. But instead of checking the sheet music, you merely checked your brain to determine the exact area of the keyboard you needed. In other words, your answer to the question would be, “Oh, that’s right, I do remember where to move.”

Can you give a simple example of these ideas in action?

  • In this simplified example, let’s say that you are playing a C major chord in root position with your right hand (C, E, G) and that you don’t know what is next. Naturally, you will start to become nervous.
  • If you remember the sound of the next chord as being the dominant chord (a G major chord) and you remember that the top note is G, that helps, but you may not remember the exact voicing of the chord. If you remember that the note sounds specifically two octaves higher than the first chord, that will at least help you to get to the correct area of the keyboard.
  • But if you remember that the notes are G, B, D, G (and you can picture this in your head) and you remember the sensation in fingers 1, 2, 3, and 5, you have the exact information that you need to continue onward and (at least for that moment) you will no longer be nearly as nervous. It is as if those specific notes are lit up on the piano and you know exactly which fingers to place there.

mentalpractice2

Can you elaborate further on some of these ideas?

  • First of all, mental practicing simplifies and combines many different chunks of information. For instance, in the preceding example, there is not really enough time to think “The notes are G, B, D, G and the fingers are 1, 2, 3, 5 and I imagine the sound to be like this”. Instead, in an instant, the sight, sound, and touch of the chord pops into your mind and you know exactly what to do next.
  • Mental imagery / imagination itself IS the awareness of what is happening in performance. Mental practicing is not just supposed to save you in times of emergency. It is no more and no less than you consciously being aware of your senses.
  • Mental practicing allows you to practice your awareness of senses DIRECTLY instead of as a by-product of practicing physically. It takes care of blind spots that are created even with physical practicing of the best possible intentions and observations.
    • In very fast and/or very technically difficult passages, it is easy for the security of the passage to be almost entirely dependent on muscle memory. Indeed, the muscle memory has to be strong enough that the passage can be executed under even the most mentally demanding situations. However, if you become very nervous and slip a little off the keys or have some other little mishap, it is possible for the whole passage to fall apart because you do not have conscious awareness of the notes. Mental practicing will save you here.
    • In contrapuntal passages such as fugues or any music that is dense / complex, it is very difficult to be simultaneously aware of everything that is happening. Separate hand practice and separate voice practice is wonderful for increasing awareness, but mental practicing will tie up all other loose ends.
    • In very slow pieces and passages, it sometimes can be very nerve-wracking because there is more time to be aware of what you are doing. Here, mental practicing actually shines the brightest in some ways! You have a huge amount of time to think ahead. If you mentally practiced properly, you will find that you always know what happens next long before it actually happens.

This actually ended up being a much more detailed answer than I originally anticipated. But hopefully these elaborations much more clearly elucidate both the nature of mental practicing itself and how mental practicing helps you in performance. Next time, I will continue to talk about other benefits of mental practicing.

Mental Practicing Questions and Answers, Part 1

As I said at the end of my last post, mental practicing (along with the nature of memory and the importance of separate hands) is the final component of my approach to learning and maintaining music. I thought I would discuss mental practicing in a question and answer format. Some of the questions will simply expand on some of the points I mentioned in my very first blog post, while other questions actually came up through my teaching of mental practicing over the last year.

What is mental practicing?

  • Mental practicing (practicing in the mind) is used extensively by athletes, musicians, and many other professionals. While mental practicing cannot completely replace physical practicing, I believe that mental and physical practicing together produce results far greater than physical practice alone.
  • With regard to the piano, I quote from my original blog post:

    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!

  • In other words, mental practicing of the piano is the ability to imagine yourself playing the piano – the sight, the sound, and the touch.

Am I supposed to picture the sheet music or the piano keyboard?

  • It is fantastic to picture the sheet music as well, but here I am talking about the picturing of the keyboard itself (“keyboard memory”). We ultimately must translate the markings from the sheet music onto the keyboard, so the direct imagining of the keyboard is more efficient.
  • Of course, it is ideal to still remember every single marking from the original sheet music if possible. But remembering the “translation” and interpretation of each marking into the physical act of playing is, for me, far easier.

What exactly is it that I’m supposed to imagine visually?

  • I once had a student who could imagine the entire piano keyboard in front of her all at once – all the octaves simultaneously, just as if she was sitting in front of the piano! Unfortunately, I do not possess this ability, and I haven’t met another person who was able to accomplish this feat.
  • I feel that our mental sense of sight is absolutely tied to our mental sense of touch. After all, playing the piano with eyes closed in most instances is not that difficult a task. Our imagination of touch helps to inform what it is that we “see” mentally. When I imagine myself playing through my pieces, I would say that the areas of the keyboard where my hands are playing are lit up in the darkness. But I believe that everyone must imagine the sight of the keyboard slightly differently.
  • You can imagine your fingers literally playing the keys, you can imagine the keys going down by themselves, you can imagine the keys lit up with colors… As long as your mind processes the playing of the notes somehow (as long as you know which notes you are playing), there are no specific rules about how, exactly, you picture the keyboard.
  • However, regardless of what you picture visually, it is crucial that you know which finger is playing each note! For instance, even if you imagine the keys going down by themselves, you should know which finger is playing which key, and imagine the sensations accordingly.

mentalpractice1

Do I move my fingers while doing mental practicing?

  • To me, pure mental practicing should not involve any movement of the fingers at all. The imagination of touch is just as it sounds – it is only the imagination of the keys on the fingertips or other parts of the fingers. Moving the fingers will mix mental practicing with physical practicing because of a certain dependance on muscle memory. This, I think, takes away from the true power of mental practicing, which is using the mind completely independently of the body.

Do I have to hear every single note while doing mental practicing?

  • Believe it or not, the short answer is “no”! You don’t actually have to hear every note in order for mental practicing to help you. But of course, you should try to mentally hear everything as much as possible. Hearing at least the melody, the overall feel of the harmonies, and other important elements is usually a good idea.
  • If you can’t remember or don’t know exactly how the melody sounds (if you are sight-reading, for instance), at least imagine the rhythm correctly and try to approximate the contour / shape of the melody as best you can.

So, how will mental practicing help me any more than just doing physical practicing alone?

  • Imagine that you’re playing a piece of piano music that is relatively new, but seems to be going pretty solidly in the practice room. While performing for an audience of some kind (whether it be one person or a formal audience), your thoughts start to wander slightly because of nerves. Even though you try to calm yourself down, you can’t help but wonder something like: “I wonder if I remember what’s next?” or “What is my left hand going to play after I finish this phrase?”
  • In that moment, you consciously think ahead about what will happen next in the music, but your mind draws a blank. You momentarily freak out because of your memory slip, but ultimately you somehow recover. From that point onward, you try very hard to not consciously think about what you are doing. After all, you don’t want to risk losing control again.
  • Basically, if you had mentally practiced the piece in an effective manner, you would have known EXACTLY what was coming next in the music. You would have known not only the sound of what was coming next, but the sight and touch of the ensuing passage as well. You also would have known precisely how you were going to move in advance. In other words, you would not have lost control.

Next post, I will explain how effective mental practicing enables one to have more reliable performances (as described in the preceding paragraph). I will also begin to define what “effective mental practicing” means and troubleshoot problems that may arise. I hope to continue the discussion by addressing some of the many other benefits of mental practicing.

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.

singforhope115 singforhope116 singforhope117 singforhope118

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.

singforhope119 singforhope120

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.

singforhope121 singforhope122 singforhope123

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

singforhope125

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

singforhope93 singforhope94 singforhope95

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…

singforhope96

???

  • 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…

singforhope97 singforhope98

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.

singforhope99 singforhope100 singforhope101

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?

singforhope102 singforhope103

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.

singforhope104 singforhope105 singforhope106

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..?

singforhope107 singforhope108 singforhope109

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:

singforhope110

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.

singforhope111 singforhope112

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.

singforhope113 singforhope114

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!