Category Archives: piano

Looking at stubby fingers

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.

on attitudes to others

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.