- The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – TE Carhart
- Adaptive Strategies for Small Handed Pianists – Deahl and Wristen
- The Art of Piano Playing – Heinrich Neuhaus
- Playing the Piano for Pleasure – Charles Cooke
I have a playlist on my phone called Music I am Learning.
I put it together when I tore the world apart looking for the transcription Alexandre Tharaud did of Dance of the Blessed Spirits, which is from Orfeo and Euridice by Gluck. There are a couple of transcriptions of it floating around; I had trouble tracking down this particular one which is on an album of encores that Tharaud put out a few years ago. There is some lovely stuff on it. The net result is I have a bunch of different recordings and arrangements of it, all in that playlist. I started adding other stuff to it.
At the moment, on repeat, is Comptine d’un autre été: l’Apres-midi. It’s by Yann Tiersen, and it, along with Sur Le Fil, are in the list of Music I am learning. I own two books of Yann Tiersen sheet music, and both pieces are in the first collection.
I live in a building with four apartments. There are pianos in three of the apartments; mine, upstairs and the top floor. Upstairs is also learning Yann Tiersen; also learning Compte d’un autre été, L’Apres Midi. She has had more time to devote to it, and I know from past experience of listening to her through the ceiling, that she is probably better at reading music than I am. For me there are challenges; I may dive into sight reading from time to time, but every new piece of music I have played lately I have learned by ear and arranged myself. Someone asked me for the transcription of one piece in particular, and now I find myself having to develop the skill to do this; I’m cheating by using an app on my phone. Much to my surprise, the technology to listen to an audio recording and transcribe it isn’t really there yet. So best that I do it by trial and error.
The recordings of the two Tiersen pieces I am learning are by Jeroen van Veen. There is something incredibly relaxing about them which, I think, is why I want to learn them. In an ideal world, I would get up at 6, and play for an hour and then face the rest of the day. The day job. The walk/bus to work. The weather. It isn’t happening because I tend to burn the midnight oil at the other end. But L’Apres Midi is not impossible to play and all told, repetition is what I need. It might help my fingers to toughen up.
Somewhere in one of my swimming instagrame accounts is a comment that if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way, if not you’ll find an excuse. I have many things I want to do. Maybe if I were single minded it would be better.
I ordered more sheet music tonight; transcriptions by Vyacheslav Gryuznov. I came across him on a concert recording from RTE Lyric where he had just played some Rachmaninoff. He did one of the transcriptions as an encore so I went investigating and discovered he had a album of them, along with published sheet music. I’d like to have a go at two pieces which I know are beyond me but there’s a freedom in trying stuff anyway even if you know it’s going to be hard. This is one of them:
I already know it’s going to be hard. But if I learned some of it, it would be great. I really wish I had all the time in the world.
I went looking at second hand pianos at the weekend. I’m kind of on a journey – I don’t expect it to end for a few years but some time ago I read The Piano Shop on the Left Bank and in it, he referred to some French manufacturers, including Erard and Pleyel. Two came up for sale so I went and had a look. They were both about 35 years old, both built in Germany by Schimmel, under licence, so it was hard for me to treat them as French pianos when they weren’t manufactured there. The dealer told me that Pleyels would be manufactured again, but in China. He was not positive about that prospect. It got me thinking – there is an ongoing debate about the difference between German and US built Steinways, for example, and also, there is some debate sometimes around the difference between Indonesian and Japanese built Yamahas.
Of the two German built pianos, I favoured the Erard although I believe it still had some servicing ahead of it.
Luxembourg has an annual project called My Urban Piano where they lodge a few pianos around the place – I played one of them before I went to play the Erard and I played another one when I came back. I’m hoping to find all 21 although time is running out for me and I am busy this weekend. I know that a piano went into Connolly Station in Dubin, so I think that means there is one in Heuston, Connolly and Pearse. I do love in Metz and Paris Est to go and play the pianos there. The piano in Paris Est is a decent enough Yamaha and appears to be in very good condition despite the hard life I imagine it has.
Where I live in Luxembourg, you can often hear the sound of a piano. It seems to be just done here that people learn and this might explain why it’s easier to hire digital pianos – something I just could not do in Ireland. I think it’s a good thing; I suppose I think people learning any musical instrument is a good thing.
For me, it helps me to dream. In the meantime, the Gryaznov book should arrive by the end of the week. I am so looking forward to finding out just how hard it is. And I am wondering about lessons again.
A couple of weeks ago, I played in public for the first time in many years. It was of mixed success so we will gloss over that. I played the piano.
I have a piano here in the apartment – it is a digital piano and I’ve rented it more or less since I moved in. Last week I had a mild yen to change it to a silent system upright so that on occasion I could get the feel of a real piano. I’m sure the manufacturers of digital pianos would grimace at the thought their pianos are not real pianos but there is a whole lot of vibrations missing. Digital pianos don’t touch the heart the way a strung instrument does. Anyway, I wandered down to the piano shop to see about silent pianos – when you are hiring a piano you are at the mercy of what is available, and they did not have one which interested me on the occasion so the change of piano will have to wait. But it’s a piano shop full of acoustic pianos and usually, when I’m done talking business, I take a look at the pianos and play them for a while. I don’t allow myself to fall in love – or at least I say this to myself – but I’m lying.
For a very long time, my heart was given to an 1882 Bechstein which Pianos Plus in Dublin had in their show room – I don’t know if it is still there because it is almost 2 years since I was there – but I’ve always recognised that it and I were not destined for one another. It cost more than I could conceivably save for in while I was working in Ireland. I’ve generally assumed I would be ordering a brand new Kawai baby grand at some point. Mostly I have chosen not to like Yamahas or Steinways and on occasion I’ve come across second hand Kawais, about 30 years old which were beautiful pianos. I’ve always known that the piano will be a confluence of time, house, what’s available and how much money I have at that time so while I think it’s safe to assume a brand new Kawai is achievable, deep down I would prefer a slightly older piano. Leaving aside the chance that they can be less expensive as well, the fact is, they tend to be a little softer to the touch. One of the reasons I don’t like Yamahas is that I have played some very hard pianos. Resistant touch. I am not such a fan.
But against that, I’ve met some beautiful secondhand Yamahas, all at least 30 years old. Pianos Plus had what I think was a G3 – it was already sold when I got to touch it but it was a beautiful piano. Huebner in Trier had a beauty the last time I was in there and I think it was a G3 as well. Today, I played an S4 exdemo in Kleber in Luxembourg and it was a breathtakingly lovely instrument to play. If I had the required 40,000+ it was on its way to me but…I didn’t.
The thing is, it was not the piano I loved the most either today or last week. Kleber’s big Steinway concert grand was in the showroom – it wasn’t the last two times I was in there – so I asked if I could play it and that was okayed
I have a meh relationship with most of the Steinways I’ve played. I’ve played quite a few brand new baby grands, say around 6 feet – various model numbers but what they all had in common was they had an imperiously bright sound. Because they were brand new, I tended to find the keyboards stiff as well. In Dublin, it was much easier to turn to a 140 year old Bechstein whose keys were like extensions of my fingers. But I hadn’t ever played any of the big concert grands, the nine foot or so pianos. While the dream of a grand piano might be somewhat unicorn level in terms of dreams, I’m realistic to know that I’m unlikely to ever have a place I can justifiably put one. But something caused me to play this one because I could.
Unlike a lot of the Steinways I’ve played, it has a gloriously comforting sound. Wrapped around my soul. I truly fell in love with the piano which was unusual for me with a Steinway. I loved it enough to think, you know, I could actually see myself buying a Steinway grand if it felt like this. Coincidentally, there was a baby Steinway in the showroom too, a second hand one. I don’t remember seeing a build date but I’m willing to bet it was about 20 years old. The keys were not stiff and the sound was a soft enveloping sound rather than the very bright sharp sound I’ve been used to from pretty much every other Steinway I’ve ever played.
It gave me pause for consideration. I’ve at least 2-3 years before I can consider buying a forever piano so that gives me time to save. A secondhand Steinway is going to take a lot of saving and of course, it is never going to be a nine-foot concert behemoth. But I think, when the time comes, and I start the journey of selecting my piano, I’d like to have enough money that a second hand Steinway might be an option. So I need to start planning now.
The last time I bought a guitar, prior to yesterday anyway, was sometime in 1991. I bought an Applause with a wooden neck in a shop in Fussen in the south of Germany. I traded in an Applause with a metal neck against it. In truth, the main problem with the metal neck was that I was at the limit with what I could do with very high action in terms of fixing it and I struggled to play it. I wasn’t looking to change but there was this lovely looking and sounding guitar that looked just like mine, except it had a wooden neck. I named it Andy, after I took delivery of it, and that was it. I liked the guy who owned that music shop. He let me play his pianos, and he spoke to the guy who owned the bar across the way and said things like “she can play the piano, and you should let her”. The day he did, my friends spent a lot of money on beer and someone called Craig spent hours asking me to play something called Misty. I have no idea but this is probably a lack on my film culture part
The Applause went everywhere with me. Ireland. France. Germany. Finland, Belgium, UK. It opened doors, and got me friends and acquaintances. But sometime while I was living in Dublin I seemed to stop playing very often. I think social media had something to do with it; I also think part of it was the pressure on IT people to be constantly adding to their skillsets in their free time, and then of course, there was the photography which swallowed every spare minute I had for about 5 years. When I came to Luxembourg, Andy did not come with me.
I’ve had mixed feelings about this. I got a piano sharpish after I arrived in here because Kleber rented digital pianos which is handy when you are in an apartment block but the guitar thing was , well you don’t play often and you have a guitar. At some point I went and looked at some Taylors. I fell in love with a Taylor when I moved to Dublin in 1999 but I did not have the money for it so was saving. When I had the money, none of the Taylors felt right so I left the decision, pretty much forever When I went back last year to look at them as it seemed easier to buy a midrange guitar (ie far less than three thousand euro but a bit more than 85E with a sparkly box and a Santa Claus) than to shop a guitar across a bunch of flights and surface travel, I looked at Taylors and yet….nothing.
This is the thing about musical instruments, particularly stringed ones. You need to feel them. I cannot describe to you what I want from a guitar only that I have to play it and either it feels right or it doesn’t. None of the Taylors felt right. I think I played a Seagull the same day and possibly an accoustic Fender. Nothing.
I had this conversation during the week at work with someone. I don’t know if he plays music or not because he has not told me. He did tell me there was a good music shop not so far away which I had not been to and that maybe it might be worth a trek out on the bus. It wouldn’t be hard, and on that, he was really right. It took about 15 minutes from work and I went and had a look. There were a bunch of Martins, a couple of Yamahas and a few others, and a wall of acoustic Ibanezes
I kind of went off Yamahas at some point. When I was 15 they were THE guitar to play. I wonder how much of this is driven by what’s available locally and how it is priced. Anyway, the Yamahas today tend to fit into the Christmas present for starters bracket and I wanted something a little more than that. I started playing more than 30 years ago and could do some quite nice things with a guitar, like, sing. So I had a look at the Martins. One of my friends in Dublin had a Dreadnought which he had, if I remember rightly, bought second hand, and which was the absolute love of his life. Before his wife and children.
But none of these really appealed to me. I mean, a guitar is a guitar is a guitar is a guitar but meh. 1000-3000E worth of Martin wasn’t hitting the spot. So I went and looked at the Ibanezes. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I know they have good reps as electrics, and most of the names I hear endorsing or playing Ibs are electric. But there were three rather lovely looking guitars hanging on the wall and two of them caught my eye. They were both priced at somewhere between Christmas Present for Teenager and Been saving up for 5 years adult guitar nerd, which is to say they were the same. One was a cut away and rather unusually, it looked to have a slightly narrower neck. I asked if I could play that one and they said yes.
Yesterday, in many respects, was not a good day to test guitars. My nails were long, and protected by four layers of nail polish, and of course, having not played much for a few years, my fingers were going to hurt. They did. They do, even though I cleaned off the nail polish and cut the nails to what I thought was short enough (clue; it isn’t). But the guitar resonated remarkably for what was quite a small body – in fact, it’s an AE205Jr which means in practice, a slightly shorter fretboard and a smaller body. 10 years ago, I’d probably have turned my nose up at it and I would have been wrong to do so. It feels remarkably perfect in my hands; it has a gorgeous sound and it resonates with my heart. I’m obviously very rusty in terms of playing but the speed which which things are coming back has astonished me. There is a little getting used to the shorter frets and the slightly narrower neck but not much. I have small fingers as I know to my cost from the piano.
There was a time I knew every single guitar shop in Dublin, and every single acoustic guitar on sale in Dublin. I spent hours of my life playing them. I was heartbroken to hear Waltons on South Great Georges Street was closing – I used to go in there to play at my lunch hour when I was working in the area. In a way, it’s surprising I haven’t really don’t the same here although I imagine part of it can be explained by having a piano at home now. But I have played a lot of guitars in my life in shops in Dublin, London, Germany and wherever. In truth, I have never played a guitar quite like this. It really packs a punch way above what I would have expected for its size and especially, what I paid for it. Every review of the guitar which I have seen since has been immensely positive, both in terms of the sound, and its value for money. Despite the JR label on it, anyone I’ve seen playing it has actually really liked it. I found that edifying, and validating.
Mostly, the plan for me is to start playing trad again after a 10 year break away and while my list of desired features was “made noise, sweetly” and “doesn’t bankrupt me”, it didn’t occur to me that I would also wind up with a really light weight guitar that was easy to carry around. So that’s a useful bonus.
It’s funny though; old feelings never go away. I bought a couple of plectrums to tide me over until I get back to Ireland to pick up my box of tricks (I have hundreds) and the smallest that I found was a .46mm Dunlop, a plec I know well as I probably have about five in various boxes at home in Ireland, and yet it still felt really hard. It’s just occurred to me that in fact, I mostly used to play with a 0.38. Almost like paper.
Like my previous guitars, it has been named, and unusually, it hasn’t got a male name, but a letter, F. Mostly, when I went to tune it yesterday it was a couple of tones below concert such that the A was nearer F. So….
I can’t really compare it to my other guitar (and it feels wrong to talk about “other” guitars) as they are very different, and, more specifically, separated by an ocean, an island and a lot of land. So I don’t know how I’d feel about having the two of them in the same place. But then they were bought at different times in my life and I’ve done different things with them and I expect that playing them even now would feel different.
I fell in love with a few pianos today. It is hard to say how you can be in love with a few pianos simultaneously but…it happens. Today I went to the Marcus Hübner Pianohaus in Trier.
This is a veritable jewel of a piano shop. It has a large selection of grand and upright pianos. I must confess I skipped the digital section because I play a digital piano at home and this is to remind me that a digital piano, while it allows me to play, is still not the same as a real piano.
Hübner Pianos are a Steinway dealer. I have to confess that while I recognise the workmanship that goes in to them, I have never felt a grá for them in the way I have felt a love of 19th century Bechstein grand pianos for example. And the reason I went to Hübner anyway is because they also sell a piano I had never actually seen before – they have their own in-house piano models.
Most people who know me are aware that for most of the last 20 years I have been saying I want a grand piano. So it might come as a surprise to know that the piano I truly gave my heart to today was an upright piano. It is a Jubilaumsklavier and it has a beautiful rich sound, the like of which I have never gotten out of another upright piano. I’ve played a few of the newer Bechstein designed uprights like the Hoffmans and I’ve played a couple of Yamahas and one or two Kawais. They really never made me feel the way a beautiful grand made me feel. This didn’t just come close; it bypassed the feeling that I get from some of the smaller grands like the smaller new Kawai grands.
Hübner make grand pianos as well a few of which I played. In particular I played – and loved – a B212 Artist. For the longest tie I assumed that my grand piano, if and when it eventually came, would be a Kawai but to be honest, I don’t think this will be true any more. I preferred the B212 to the B187 – the B187 is a smaller piano and in truth, I tend to prefer the pianos that are at least 1.5m – there is something more aesthetically pleasing about them – the proportions are more balanced, even when the difference in the length of the piano is only around 3cm.
What I loved about the Hübner pianos – both the uprights and grands – is the responsiveness of the keys. The keys seemed just perfectly weighted – and this really brings into stark contrast why a real piano is still a far greater instrument than a digital – and the tone of the piano was far easier to control. The pianos resonate perfectly – and I should mention I was in the shop on a Saturday morning when they had a few people testing pianos – and the sound balances perfectly around you as a player. In practical terms, I cannot actually get one of these pianos just yet but when the time comes I may lock myself away with a Hübner piano and emerge only for breakfast.
In addition to those pianos, I also played one of the smaller Steinways – I didn’t note the model but if I remember rightly it was a secondhand piano – and I liked it a lot more than I like Steinways. It is possible that part of it is that someone else has broken the piano in but based on other things I noticed about the shop, I suspect it may be because Hübner have outstanding piano technicians looking after their pianos. This piano was far more responsive to what I wanted to do, and its dynamic range was broader than I have met on most pianos.
The other piano which I met and loved, again somewhat unexpectedly, was a Yamaha C3. I think the year of manufacture was noted as 1976 but I may be mixing it up with another one. This makes it one of the older Yamahas I have played.
I have a love-hate relationship with Yamahas in general, but especially with their grands. In my experience, their pianos are very hard to play; their key action requires quite a lot of force to get a sound out of the piano and for someone who has a soft touch, it just seems like too much hard work. At some point a few years ago I had a conversation about this with a piano dealership in Ireland and the salesman recommended I try just one particular Yamaha which was second hand and which their technician had done some work on. I’ve concluded since then that Yamaha probably build beautiful pianos, but I will never buy one new and I would definitely want a good technician to have at it. I have played I don’t know how many Yamahas over my life but I’ve really only liked two of them. Both of them were C3s and both of them were second hands and not exactly recently built. This probably doesn’t prove anything. Anyway, the C3 compared well with my expected grand piano budget but will have to compete with either a Hübner upright or, if I save up extra specially hard, with a Hübner grand and neither is going to happen yet.
It would be very easy for me to stop here and say, yes, Hübner is a lovely piano shop, and they have a selection of absolutely beautiful pianos that fill your heart with joy to play. But I won’t. One of the things which marked out Hübner as much, if not more, than their pianos, were their staff. I met three of them, including Mr Hübner himself, I believe. They were unfailingly friendly and helpful and more than willing to help in any way or answer any questions I might have. I found it to be a welcoming piano shop.
I come from a very different piano tradition to most people in Germany. I grew up playing the music of Ireland with some classical thrown in. I never play classical in public and what I used to test the pianos were variations on music from the folk traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Brittany. I was made to feel utterly at home in front of their pianos.
Via the wonders of the internet it is possible to get at sheet music online rather than waiting to go through the pile of it 1000km away in Ireland and remember to pack it the next time I am travelling. And so it is that the 2 piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is safely stashed in pdf form on my Onedrive and I can access it from my iPad. Joy to the world and all that.
Rach 2, as you’ll see it named on Youtube, has been my very favourite piece of music for nearly 30 years. In that, at least, it has outshone Eagle by Abba. I bought the score as arranged for 2 pianos in a shop off Tottenham Court Road when I was 14 because I wanted to learn it. This was highly ambitious since only two years previously I had been ruining my mother’s life with a rather chaotic arrangement of the Rose of Tralee which for some reason I had elected to learn when I started learning piano “properly”. IE, by learning to read both the treble AND bass clefs. My teacher could not get me onto the grades half fast enough. I have no idea where the sheet music to the Rose of Tralee is now. I might check the piano stool when I get home. It had a sky blue cover and it was so old that it is not to be found on a Google image search now. All sorts of things are hidden in the piano stool, and there it may be hiding. But I digress. Back with Rachmaninoff.
The shop off Tottenham Court Road only sold sheet music. I’m pretty sure it is long gone because when I was living in London in 1997, studying to be an interpreter, about 10 years after I bought this particular piece of music, I could not find it again. I always thought it was called Oxford University Press for some reason – maybe it said it on the plastic bag it came in – but that could be fiction on the part of my memory. I do remember the shop though. It was magical then and I have never seen anything like it since. It was floor to very high ceiling wooden drawers. There were probably discrete labels here and there to ensure that the right sonatas and fugues could be extracted.
I wanted two piano concertos, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff, and additionally, a Grieg piano concerto. When push came to shove, however, a choice had to be made on financial grounds because two together were just a bit much for 14 year old me. In the end, Rachmaninoff, despite being marginally more expensive, won, and Grieg was left aside for another 3 or 4 years.
I guarded it with my life back to the small town in Cork where I grew up and it took up residence on the top of the piano, sharing space with the various exam pieces I had to do for the RIAM grade system and the music exam for the Intermediate Certificate at school, an exam I passed almost completely on the strength of playing because it was not on the back of my prolific knowledge of required musical theory as laid out in the syllabus.
I worked at the Rachmaninoff on and off over the years. I have very clear memories of sitting in the car, reading along with the sheet music while listening to a tape of the piece ad ensuring I could track which bits were were on the tape. There are still annotations in the book aligning certain sections with times on my favoured/only available recording at the time. And I have very clear memories of using the week before my Leaving Certificate to spend 5 or 6 hours a day working on the second movement. In the days running up to a life defining school exam, I could be found crouched over the piano; a pint glass of Ribena resting on top of the piano, carefully hauling my fingers into the shape of the opening notes of the second movement.
I am never without a recording of the piece of music. For years, the recording I had was Julius Katchen’s recording which had been released as part of the Great Composers part work series sometime in the 1980s – a wonderful resource which introduced me to an awful lot of classical music, and many key performers of the time. When my chips are down, the world tends to feel better with a sound track of that and his glorious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which, to be honest, I might see if that’s available too). Lately I have been listening mainly to Yuja Wang and Leif Ove Andsnes playing it.
To some extent, when I pick up the music with a view to playing this piece, it is less to play it, and more to spend time with an old friend. I know there will never be an orchestra behind me ready to enter after those titanic opening notes. Last night when I did so, it was to the news that my fingers no longer fitted the opening chords of the first movement, if indeed they ever did. I can still manage some of the second movement almost even by heart despite it being 27 years since I prepared for seven honours subjects in the Leaving Certificate by drinking Ribena and repeating the opening eight bars of the second movement ad infinitum…There are places I can still go with Rachmaninoff; and there are places he will not take me.
This is one of a few pieces around the piano which will come up.
Yesterday I signed up for gold membership of Piano Street. A couple of their features drew me to do this, namely the sheet music library (okay it’s not petrucci but it has some useful stuff and also, annotations for learners), there is access to the full Naxos classical catalogue. Naxos have a great search too. Access to International Piano as well. I found that quite interesting.
Piano Street is something I hadn’t paid for before but I had signed up for silver membership years ago and via that, got limited time offer for a reduced cost access. I might not have done it for the full whack. It fascinates me as a resource. Clearly, the key attraction has to be the Naxos library followed by the sheet music. The part which most people have access to, however, is the forum and to be honest, I find it a bit hit or miss in terms of the community. I might ask for advice about a piano, but not necessarily about playing it.
This is not to say that the average community of contributors to Piano Street are bad musicians. There are some very knowledgeable people there and I’ve found some interesting threads on repertoire there – it’s through that site I have found a lot of the less well known piano concerto works, including Paderewski, Medtner and a couple of others. I don’t always find their attitudes to be less than somewhat jaded. In certain respects, I can’t blame them. Two threads caught my attention yesterday, one relating to someone whose teacher had told them to give up on their dream of being a concert pianist. The other related to a 14 year old looking for advice on playing a rather highly rated piece on the difficulty scale.
There were a variety of answers to both questions although both voiced dissatisfaction with the idea that they might take time to respond to people who might be trolls.
I have mixed views. I used to mod two internet fora in Ireland and the issue of bad faith posters, well it’s just one of those features of the forum. However. Neither got an answer that I felt was really useful.
If we take the 19 year old who wanted to be a concert pianist, the first thing any 19 year old should be concerned about is where they are relative to their business competitors. Being a concert pianist is less being a musician and more being a business person. If you are 19 years old, you need to look at the people you want to be competing with for engagements, and where you are. We were all 19 once, and we were all probably clueless once. But I had established by the time I was 16 that I wasn’t going to make it as a concert pianist, key amongst them is that even though I might have been one of my teacher’s star pupils, I wasn’t yet playing what you might today call the sexy music. I was 15 by the time I got to Fur Elise which with the best will the world, is definitely on the easy side of repertoire. A 19 year old who is at Ronda Alla Turca is competing against people who have been in the Julliard School since they were 14 or 15. Of that class in the Julliard School, it’s not likely that many of them will make it either. If you have reached the age of 19 with a desire to make it as a concert pianist and do not know whether it is too late or not, the likelihood is that it is too late. If not, there’s a lot of rehearsal ahead of you. I was working on Rach 2 – ambitiously – at the age of 14 but I knew at that point that playing it on the stage of a concert hall as a star was a dream and it was not likely to turn into reality any time soon. Didn’t stop me spending hours at a time working on tiny sections of it, because that wasn’t why I did it in the first place.
One of the things that in hindsight got on my nerves is that when one of my co-students saw I had got the Rachmaninoff two piano script for the second piano concerto, flicked through it and pointed at bits that said “it’s impossible. You’ll never do it”. It’s a rotten seed to plant in someone’s head. It didn’t help on the journey which I am still nowhere close to finishing.
I’m much more in tune with people being realistic about how likely it is going to take. I think sometimes we tend to want to protect youngsters from stretching themselves. So I’m more in favour of saying to a youngster that if they want to try it, perhaps they should, but to recognise that a journey which is worth while may occasionally take you in a different direction to what you expected. The piece of music in question was the Chopin Ballade No 1 which is on my wishlist but not high enough up it for the moment. It is unquestionably a lovely piece of music, but, almost like Rachmaninoff 3 is getting a bit hackneyed owing to a reputation.
I remember reading an article about Rachmaninoff 3 – never my favourite of his works – in which someone asked was it really the hardest in the repertoire. This was sometime after the David Helfgott biopic, and a senior teacher from Julliard responded to the journalist in question that yeah, you know it’s really hard. Then he paused. “But I have 25 16 year olds in a class who can all play it perfectly, you know.” The point is, the standards move and sometimes, when a lot of people target something, something of its mystique leaves us. Ballade No 1 is iconic, so yes, teenagers are going to want to play it. And they approach problems in a different way to adults in many respects. Adults look at the risks and the pitfalls. Teenagers look at the opportunities. I don’t regret starting Rach 2 when I was then, and in many respects, still am not, technically tooled up for some of the challenges in it. I do regret though that parts which are not in my view, the hardest parts in that work were pointed out to me as “impossible”.
And so, I tend to favour supporting teenagers attempting to do something hard but laudable. So many of them are not attempting to do hard stuff after all.
I spent some time yesterday and the day before considering whether to restart piano grades or not. If you spend any time around some of the piano forums on the internet, you find this is a question which quite a lot of adults who have gaps in their piano playing life address at some point, and a question that beginners want to deal with. Since most people doing grades tend to be children or teenagers, it is a question which causes a certain amount of nerves. A bit like someone going back to school after 30 years away because they never did do a school leaving exam. In many respects, on account of being completely out of whack with the rest of your cohort, it can be very nervewracking to be different, older and behind. Plus, children and especially teenagers, can be quite cruel sometimes.
On balance there’s a part of me that would like to finish things out. I made it to grade five with the Royal Irish Academy of Music before school got in the way and then I started on a journey through life where access to a piano was erratic at best. It is the same part of me that tries to tempt me into signing up for a PhD. I don’t have time to do all the things I want to do because unfortunately I also have to work. And I like my job. I like the meeting of other people. Anyway it is in that context that I was considering this. I had a look at repertoire for the Royal Irish Academy and against, that, for ABRCM and Trinity in the UK. I could not find a local centre that made sense to me, but ABRCM have an exam centre here in Luxembourg
From what I can see, the RIAM offers the grade structure, but also a couple of recital options. ABRCM seems to be double grade – performance and musicology. I can’t remember too many details about Trinity. Anyway, I had a look down through the assigned pieces for each of the examining authorities and one of the things that struck me was this: There are pieces I want to play. And there are pieces on the assigned lists. The overlap was sadly, rather limited. On the basis of this years sets of lists, I will not be starting back at grades.
One of the many things which cratered my attachment to music as a child was an assigned piece for grade 3 or 4 – so not exactly beginner but not very high up the scale – by Bela Bartok called Pentatonic Tune. I continued on because I knew enough to know that in general, this awful, awful piece of music which I hated but which some examiner had thought valid for a young person was not representative of all music. You will have teachers who consider this stuff required to have a well rounded musical education. I am not sure I agree – Bartok existed way after the piano repertoire – Liszt seemed to survive okay without him, as did JS Bach who didn’t per se write for the piano. What came into consideration for me as I reviewed these lists was this question: do I want to play these pieces, do I want to put the very minimal time I have free to do this into pieces I wasn’t really inspired to play in the first place? Where Bartok is concerned, the answer is a straight no, and I’m not too enamoured of Prokofiev either. They could both be avoided
I’m not afraid of hard work with the piano. When I have the freedom to do so – and I am having increasingly more of it – I am well capable of sitting at the piano for 2 to 3 hours at a time, breaking the hearts of my neighbours upstairs in constant repetition of parts to master fingering. I’m also not afraid of the piece I am learning taking a long time to learn. I’m aware that I have a massive gap in my practice, and I have some weaknesses with sight reading. But I also have some pieces I am motivated to learn, some easier than others. I spent a good chunk of yesterday with a piece of Handel which, if fortune smiles on the spare time front this week may well be finished by Easter. It’s a short piece. It’s an easy piece. And it is something to play for when people say “Play something there”. People tend to want the well known.
But I have a couple of serious stretch targets, here on my desk beside me is a book of the Chopin ballades of which I started work on the second the last time I had reasonably dependable access to a piano (thanks to the nice people at the music department in UCD). There is a choice to be made between hours into a Chopin Ballade which really interests me – challenging and a bit beyond me yes – and hours into a few pieces, most of which I am not yet familiar with and of those, not on my radar. It may be that I would be better off sitting down with a teacher and considering the recital exams with the RIAM instead and selecting three pieces which appeal to me, or possibly 2 plus one obnoxious piece of modern stuff which I don’t much like to round off completeness. It is a hard call.
In the meantime, if it comes to me to spend around 4 hours with the piano transcript of Sarabande by Handel, I’m not sure I’ve lost anything because I’m not doing the grades. I suspect it is a decision I will be revisiting on a year to year basis.
Last night, I wandered off to the Philharmonie in Luxembourg to hear Yuja Wang play. I have seen some people write some rather positive things about her, lately about her rendition of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.
Yesterday was a gorgeous spring day in Luxembourg and the temperature as I walked to the concert hall was about 20 degrees. Very pleasant. The concert was not fully sold out but there was not much choice left in the way of seat. The program was a full set of Chopin Preludes followed by a set of Brahms variations on a theme by Georg Handel. I was familiar with the theme in question although I am not sure where I heard it.
There’s something almost lonely about a concert grand alone on a stage. It’s a long walk from the side of the stage. For Yuja Wang, it’s a really long walk in very high heels. And yet somehow once she is sitting at that piano, she takes over the world.
There are a lot of words I could choose to describe her playing. She is unquestionably one of the great technicians of the piano, but there is something more there. Something elusive but something that says that right here, right now, the right place to be is in front of a piano, if you are Yuja Wang. I’ve seen a few concert pianists over the years, all unquestionably talented, but with the possible exception of Daniil Trifenov, none so totally joined to the piano in a unit.
The Chopin was in many respects, imperious. More power than I am used to hearing from these things. I sat there and wondered how my life would have been different if I had heard Chopin like this when I was about 12 years old.
The Brahms was very different. Less imposing and yet, very inviting.
Then there were the 7 encores. Du jamais vu, I kept hearing around me. Some Tchaikovsky. Some Rachmaninoff. Some Prokofiev. A Horowitz transcript of Mozart. Some Bizet. Some Schubert. This was watching someone who was not, as it were, just a performer. This is someone who just wanted to play the piano.
I started playing the piano recently and to that end, there’s a pile of sheet music – disproportionately by Yann Tiersen – on my piano for me to learn. Most days I play some of the music I need to read and learn, and other days, I also play music I remember from my mispent youth. It might surprise you to know I spent a lot of time in pubs, with a diet 7-up in front of me, playing music.
I also listened to a lot of traditional music from Scotland and Ireland, and I added Brittany and Galicia to that later, Right now I am listening to Alistair Fraser and Paul Machlis. I make no apologies and anyway it featured on the Sex and the City soundtrack which I found out by accident because I didn’t actually watch Sex and the City being that I tended to be in bars and places of musical interest like Whelans, the old HQ, the Olympia the first time you could stick to the floor, and Vicar Street. Anyway, tonight, for some bizarre reason, a song by an outfit called Silly Wizard came into my head, a song called the Broom of the Cowdenowes, sung by Andy M. Stewart. I fully expect not many people to be familiar; the band broke up years and years ago and at least one of them is dead now that I know of. Not sure whether Andy Stewart is alive – let me just check – and it looks like he died at the end of 2015, Somehow I missed that, Arguably, given what 2016 turned out to be it seems he left before the rush.
Anyway, I played a bit of the song, realised there was a bit of the 3rd line of the verse structure I couldn’t remember, so went and looked it up online, like we do for everything. Shortly after that I fell down a rabbit hole that involved old records by Aly Bain – if you watch the Transatlantic Sessions you’ll know him – and wound up with a piece of music called the Pearl. (that’s a youtube link by the way).
I used to play the Pearl and what kind of gets me now is that I had forgotten it existed. Completely. It’s a piece of music by Phil Cunningham (he was a member of Silly Wizard by the way so you can see the link here). I don’t even know what key I played it in. It’s all the more upsetting that I still play a couple of other pieces by Phil Cunningham regularly, but mainly from his days in Relativity (and sadly, two of them are dead for definite and I never got to see them in concert) and as a result of all that, amongst the pieces of music I need to learn is now the Pearl, for which I am on my own without a pile of sheet music, and also, now I am listening to Rip the Calico by the Bothy Band because two of the members of Relativity were also members of the Bothy Band and you know what, I don’t care if their records are like 40 years old, they were fantastic.