Practice: Who wants to live forever?

It has been a tough time for a piano player but I am finally gravitating against some kind of balance again. I even have had some practice time that was not too bad. And I had my first piano lesson for this year last Thursday. (Which made me prioritize practice time over blogging, sorry about that.) A good lesson. The student, however – me – was not too good of course, but I enjoyed the hour a lot anyway.

I am proud to say that the Chopin 10:6 etude is starting to get shape, or however you express it. No, it is still very far from recital level etcetera, I am not trying to pretend I am Ashkenazy or something here. It is not even reasonably good, but when I look in the mirror I can conclude that I have come far from where I began and that is what counts. I also believe it would be of great benefit to memorize this visually, as the pattern on the keys is far more comprehensible and logical than the note annotation.

“And then you can spend a lifetime refining it”, as my teacher said. We agreed that we will work with this etude for one more lesson, then we put it aside. (I keep on working with it on my own, that is.) Instead it is time to tackle the 10:3 etude. Earlier I wrote that I started with the section that looked hardest and I think that was a good idea. The “punishment” is that this etude is as ready to be played right now as a helicopter is ready to fly when you have dismounted it totally and spread the pieces over the workshop floor. On the other hand, this challenging section is not that difficult anymore. %e2%81%acchopin10_3

I can only play it very, very slowly but it has got some kind of structure. The coordination between the hands is quite amusing, what a great idea he got here. Same chords in both hands, but moving in the opposite directions nearly all the time – this creates a funny sound effect.

My teacher gave me advice on how to practice this section in order to play it technically right, lot of bounce work here, and this is what I am working with now.

The other tricky part on the previous page was not nearly as hard. It sounds more complicated than it is. Aaaand then there is the rest and nothing is trivial. I try a bit here and there, I have listened to some recordings, trying to get a grip of it. Yeah, this will need a lifetime, I know, but I think it is fun.

Then we talked about analyzing and music theory. Sometimes I get annoyed with myself because I cannot identify chords properly. Yes, I know the basics, but I constantly see a need for more deeper knowledge.

Oh, I need some more lifetimes …

Carreño and Mendelssohn have been put on hold for some weeks now, as my practice time over Christmas was so hopelessly restricted, but maybe today is the day?


Practice: Chopin addiction?

It just happened that I tried some more Chopin … As the 10:6 etude now is not “ready” (there are still some tricky spots that need a lot more repetitions before I stop making those mistakes, ehrm!) I know I should be working with just that, but as I have written somewhere before, I am an impatient little thing and I know that boredom is my worst enemy. So why not add yet another little etude …? Just for fun?


This is the 10:3 etude, very famous. Starts deceivingly simply and then it gets a bit more complicated. Sort of. I decided to take the wise approach and start learning this framed section first. It is rather funny, but I guess I will stay here for quite a long time. Anyway, I do as I have done recently – start from the end of bar 53 and try to work back to bar 46. Actually this section is not quite as horrifying as it looks, as there is a clear structure. Besides, it turned out to be easier (!) to play HT than HS, but nevertheless I assign myself to learn it properly HS, I think that will be very beneficial in long terms.
And I suppose memorizing just cannot be avoided here! This is typically such a section you cannot sight-read comfortably, so to speak … It is also easier to understand it if you look at the pattern on the keys rather than stumbling around among all these sharps and restores and try to count the help lines (or am I the only one who ever sigh over such things?) all the time.

One thing I don’t like with this etude, and the other one too by the way, is that Mr. Composer obviously thought you should have hands in the size of a toilet lid or something. I, who have woman average size, with a maximum span of 9 keys, have to stretch in a most uncomfortable way. I prefer to play pieces that don’t hurt.

But I keep on struggling with this, and with the 10:6 etude, and the B.133 walz, and the B minor walz … and then I have the rest. Need to get rid of the Chopin addiction.

And unfortunately my fingers are still “burning” from time to time. Not when I play, but I have the uncomfortable feeling of being balancing on the edge. When will it be too much?

My next party song

I had my last lesson for this year last Thursday. It was embarrassing to come there, after three weeks, and not having made any progress whatsoever since last time, all thanks to my job. And my upcoming injury (which is getting better now, thank God). But at least I had done a lot of mental practicing and memorizing. As this memorizing thing is so new to me, I was very proud to demonstrate my progress in this field.

As I told my patient teacher, I feel it is good to have some pieces memorized. It is always so embarrassing to suddenly be in a venue where there is a piano and is there anyone who can play anything? And there is me, who can play both this and that but … only with the score. So without that book or that paper, I cannot play anything at all except Heart and Soul, and half of Für Elise, sooorry … There was a time when I could play Ballade Pour Adeline too, but that was many decades ago.

So I am working hard to change this, I told my teacher this. She came with an excellent comment – I don’t understand why I haven’t thought about it myself before! She said: “when people spontaneously ask you to play something, they don’t want something long and complicated. They just want to hear something short and easy-going. Why don’t you learn a few simple pieces for such situations?”

It was so very true. I believe most of us piano students tend to underestimate the “easy” little pieces. First, when you have practiced something to death, you tend to forget that the audience is not as fed up with this piece as you are yourself. Second, we are deeply entangled in our latest project most of the time, and for a student the latest project is often also the hardest we have ever played so far. That is quite natural.

But thing is, that we then sort of forget the easy repertoire, which of course is much below our present level. It may feel a bit shameful to play such easy pieces. If we struggle to learn the Fantasie Improptu, that is what we think everybody expect from us, as it is our best shot (and we spend soo much time with it at the moment, right? It fills up our whole world …)  But my teacher reminded me that it is a good thing to have some easy repertoire “in store” as well. So now I have got some short works as Christmas assignment, to be learnt and memorized.

So here is my latest project, and I hereby proudly announce that I have almost memorized it completely now. Just a few bars of the left hand accompaniment to go … Yes, I memorize one hand at a time, I just cannot do both simultaneously.



It is also nice work when you need to restrict your piano practice a bit. (Oh, and I bravely admit that I cannot play one single note of Fantasie Improptu.)

Practice: One of those days, you know

I really wish I would never write a post like this, but I have to, and most likely I will do it again …

My workload is still insane. This evening I decided to take a break, though, and play the piano instead.

It was not a success. I don’t panic over a few days without practice; I know it happens from time to time and that I quickly will regain what I have lost, but nevertheless I have lost quite a lot and I get so tired over all these incomprehensible mistakes that suddenly occur everywhere. It is that particular bar (no. 17)  in the Chopin etude, I really need to work a lot with it in order to find the right keys, but this evening I just didn’t have the energy for it. Instead I tried the Fanny Mendelssohn Nocturne which I worked so hard with the other day. The other day I also was very pleased with the results I got, it felt like I was getting somewhere with it. This Nocturne is technically not the most challenging piece I have tried, even though it is not exactly elementary either. But it is hard to make it sound good too.

Today it was more or less disaster. I suddenly felt that I could just as well call it a day. Anyway, I do have some important progress to report: anyone read the post about backward chaining?  I mentioned there that it made memorization more easy too. And I have been working, away from the piano, with a simple little piece. I did it, I finally managed to memorize it! I can play it by heart! Really! As I have not been able to memorize anything at all in many many years, this was fantastic progress. One funny little thing I noticed here was that it much easier to memorize when I am not sitting at the piano.

So I have mentioned that it is very important to summarize your progress after a practice session. What did I do well today? Ok, I fixed a lot of those mistakes in the Chopin etude. I proved I could play a whole piece by heart. And I have also memorized about 6 bars in the Chopin b minor walz … Not bad, really.

I can also mention that I have worked quite a lot with the Carreño walz lately and there a lot of things have happened, so I have not been totally passive. But today … was not a very good day. I work far too much and I am starting to feel confused and alienated. Typically stress. I’ve better doing some meditation exercises instead of fighting with Chopin right now, but next lesson is very soon.

Next practice session will be the parts of the Carreño walz that I have hardly ever played. That must be prio 1 at the moment. Then it must be the last page of the Mendelssohn Nocturne. There are a few bars where I fumble around like I-don’t-know-what and where I have marked that I should use the sostenuto pedal. This pedal – the middle – is very useful but it is only available on grands. As my digital is a digital grand, it has it, but my teacher has an upright. I was proud when I finally learned to use this pedal this summer, but it is still rather difficult.

There.  And I keep on doing memorization when I don’t play the piano.

BTW, here is the Mendelssohn Nocturne, the only recording I have found. I am not too fond of it, though. I want the tempo to be a bit slower … but it will take some more (read: an awful lot more) time before I can record my own version, as I still struggle to find the right keys here and there …

Practicing backward chaining

Someone reminded me of that good old trick “backward chaining” the other day and I am most grateful. I have used it from time to time but forgot what an excellent tool it is. So as I felt a bit stuck with the Chopin 10:6 etude, I tried this method and yes, what a relief.

As I already have written, this etude has a slow and steady tempo which means it should not be that awfully difficult to learn, but in return it is so filled with flats, double flats, restores, sharps etcetera and harmonic changes that it feels like getting lost in the jungle after a while. The reward is awesome, as it is as beautiful and hypnothic as only Chopin could do,  but for someone at my level this was a challenge:

Anyway, you patiently work your way through harmony after harmony and watch the key shifts carefully, adding note after note (I supposed better pianists can grab this in larger chunks than me, but for me it was really a note-by-note-approach, so far. I would have made one million errors otherwise.) And it is quite natural to begin from the beginning and work all the way to the end, right? Only problem here is that you are totally exhausted already after a few bars. So – you start all over again. Or work with just one bar at a time. But from a psychological point of view this is like going uphill all the time. After having grit your teeth over the first page, you realize that there still are two more pages to go. Sigh. This will take weeks. And that thought could be, let’s say, a bit crestfallening.

And the natural thing is to keep on polishing the beginning, as this is what you know the best, because we all love to excel in things that are familiar to us rather than constantly play as bad as only a beginner does. After all, we all strive to play the piano and make music, not just dwell in the “I do not master this at aaaall” phase. So it is very tempting to do this polishing even before you have reached the end of this project. The result will be the usual one – finally you can play the beginning brilliantly, then it quickly starts to deteriorate and somewhere near the end it is quite lousy. Not to mention all the where-do-I-go-now’s that I have already mentioned earlier. They create a lot of annoying micro stops that you, in worst case, stop noticing yourself and then the final result will be a rather limping version. Believe me – I know what I am talking about. When I have recorded myself, I sometimes have got some nasty surprises when I’ve listened to the playback …

In situations like these, the backward chaining is a marvellous tool. For those who have not tried it, the principle is very easy: you start by playing the very last note/chord of the whole piece. Do it until it “sits” nicely. Then you play the second last note plus this final chord, again seriously polishing it until it sounds perfect. Then the third last note plus the second last note plus the final chord, and so on, slowly building up the chain. If you should play HT or HS depends on the difficulty.

The big advantage is that you work “downhill” by this approach. The playing will become easier and easier because you get more and more familiar with the end of the piece, so instead of building up tension and agony on your way into the twilight zone, you get more relaxed and secure the further you get. Of course, when the chain has become very long, you should not waste time playing it all to the end every time, but now you have the comfortable feeling of knowing that you already can play that part. Another big advantage is that you totally get rid of those micro stops I mention above, as “next move” will always be more familiar than the previous one. But, note! This assumes that you do not cheat too much, which could be tempting. Cheating could mean that you learn to play, let’s say, bar 11. Then you learn bar 10, but from the beginning instead of the end, and there you already have a little transition between 10 and 11 that could be a potential problem, as you have broken the chain. (But if you have no problem with that transition, then why fiddle around with backward chaining – just play, then!)

And the third plus is that at least I can memorize the notes much easier in this way. Last night I read some music in bed and memorized about 10 bars from end to beginning, and today I could sit down at the piano and play it all from memory! Wohoo! But now let’s remember that I have worked with these bars before, although without being able to memorize them, and I could only play them HS. But to me this was real progress.


Anyway, the bottom line is that I can play the whole etude now – not perfectly, by no means, but in tempo, without stops and with not too many mistakes. The price I pay is that I have practiced this so intensely during the last few days that I am getting dizzy, so no more practice today. So backward chaining really is the shit when it comes to learning complicated pieces – could be used for just parts of pieces, of course!

(A little footnote about the tempo: I prefer about the same tempo which Pollini uses in the recording here. The notation says it should be played much faster, really – but hey, it sounds better this way, so I do like everyone else and don’t bother about the metronome annotation.)

But of course I must also mention some disadvantages as well. It could be rather challenging to bring a half-done piece to your teacher, as they always ask you to start playing from the beginning, and that is now your weakest spot and there is risk that your teacher interrupts you early and shows some disappointment: you don’t understand this piece, do you? Have you practiced this at all? So you have better explain your approach carefully before you begin. I did this with my teacher some days ago and it was all right, she is familiar with this way of learning. But she also mentioned that it could be a good idea to work from both sides simultaneously so I add this remark for my readers to consider. After all, what I write in this blog are just my own opinions and thoughts, by no means any expert “truths”.

The other bad thing … well, let’s conclude that this method is wonderful for the mechanical learning, but not for the musical idea. It is like reading a novel in the reverse order, it does not make very much sense. On the other hand, once you know where to put your hands, you can spend the rest of your life analyzing the piece and make it sing without agonizing over next technical hurdle and that end section which you haven’t practiced as much as you should have.  So you still have all that work ahead of you … but who cares, as it is now the fun begins?


Practicing …

About the Chopin walz op 69:2 …

What I need to do now is to practice all the different semiquaver figures – or whatever you call these combinations – separately until I do not miss half of them and end up somewhere out in the marshlands. A terrible way to ruin such a nice piece of music, I am ashamed every time it happens. As it happens far too often (read: all the time), I suppose I must do a lot of slow playing here. I have also identified an issue with my wrist – the movements in these sections require a very precise pre-positioning of the wrist, or else I will stretch my fingers in several awkward angles and the result is nearly always that I miss the right keys. At least I think this is what I need to do – I will try this approach and see if it works.

Yes, it worked! My translation workload is still heavy and I will have to have low ambitions for the rest of this month thanks to this, but I have managed to squeeze a few practice sessions in, focusing mainly on this walz. Today it felt so much better than before. I am pinpointing the remaining difficult spots better, and I will keep on working with them separately. Cannot make up my mind about the tempo here – slow and tranquil, or more cheerful and energetic?

At least the key change is easy now. I used to think it was tricky, because I am not used to these … A sharps? Well, after having sighed over that 10:6 etude, I am not that scared anymore. There I have to remember to play C flats. C flat, how strange. Oh well, I’m getting used to it now.

Anyway, I should try to memorize this walz more. It is just that … I loathe memorizing. It is so difficult and so boring, and it always ends with me crying “what’s the point anyway???” and giving up. But fact is, that I understand the point very well. I simply play better when I don’t have to stick my nose right in the music sheet all the time and feel like Rowlf from the Muppet Show.

Ohmygod, I really look exactly like him, hahaha! Maybe a little less cute, though.

Addendum after my lesson 16-11-17: My teacher was very helpful with this piece, helping me to sort the fingering out in those tricky semiquaver passages. The piece does not feel that difficult anymore and that is a good sign. Of course you are never totally “finished” with a piece, there are always things to improve, and improve a bit more, but at least I am soon reaching the point where I can put this piece in the “decent standard” pile. 

Practicing Chopin

The typical amateur phenomena recently occurred: I got a sudden heavy workload and therefore piano playing must be restricted. Being a freelance translator, I cannot afford to decline jobs when they show up.

Sometimes I see posters on different discussion boards who talk about “work discipline” and brag about practicing 12 hours a day and so on. As a first reaction, I always want to shout “AND WHO IS DOING YOUR HOUSEWORK THEN?”  Or who is paying the bills? Obviously all “good” piano students are either millionaires with an employed household staff, or they are letting their mommies wait upon them, or let someone else take care of their children or they live on delivery pizza or something. I don’t know. I am probably just jealous because my own life is so different from this.

Anyway, this is about practice. Chopin is in the pipe today. I recently picked up the old and abandoned project with the b-minor walz, op 69:2. Lovely, dreamy melody and mood. It seemed rather easy at first. Maybe it is too, but … after a long struggle I realized that the fingering in my copy is not optimal for me. I had to change it, from something that did not work to something that felt better … but … as most pianists know, it is harder to change something that got wrong from the beginning, than to do it right from the beginning. So now I need to both un-learn and to learn something new.

What I need to do now is to practice all the different semiquaver figures – or whatever you call these combinations – separately until I do not miss half of them and end up somewhere out in the marshlands. A terrible way to ruin such a nice piece of music, I am ashamed every time it happens. As it happens far too often (read: all the time), I suppose I must do a lot of slow playing here. I have also identified an issue with my wrist – the movements in these sections require a very precise pre-positioning of the wrist, or else I will stretch my fingers in several awkward angles and the result is nearly always that I miss the right keys. At least I think this is what I need to do – I will try this approach and see if it works.

Another issue is the walz beat in my left hand. How heavy should the first beat really be? This is not a ragtime stomp tune, but on the other hand a bit of “push” will make it more interesting, I think.  I cannot make up my mind about this. My teacher suggested me to play just the first beat in every bar until I have got my right hand better – poor woman, my “version” of this walz was rather horrendous when I was there, but I hope to have improved a bit to next lesson. Anyway, I really have practiced a lot of HS playing in this piece. She also added more emphasis on the ritardandos, I think she wants more dynamics in general. She politely remarks that I play neither p nor f, rather mf all the time … um. Probably because I felt to unsecure with the notes and with the piano. That is what I keep telling myself, but I cannot use that excuse much longer … so more dynamics then. The solution is usually to exaggerate for a while. Insanely exaggerate.

Well, main thing is to get those semiquavers right. I think I will fix the rest once I have stopped dabbling around on the keys with those. So they are first priority. Probably I would do much, much better if I was able to memorize them so that I can look at the keys … but problem is that I really suck at memorizing. Don’t know why, really. My memory is excellent otherwise, but not when I sit at the piano.

Then the “real” Chopin project – the 10:6 etude in e flat minor. I bought the whole collection with the etudes this summer and I really wanted to learn them – I mean, I wanted to learn one, to begin with. After a lot of pondering and discussion we decided I should try the 10:6 etude. Said and done … it is a slow one, so you don’t have to stumble over the keys. Actually the biggest problem seemed to be to decrypt the note jungle. Lots of flats … double flats … restores … suddenly a double sharp … I am working my way through this, bar by bar, it takes forever but sooner or later I will know where to go. I’m sure, aaah.

Second little problem was the theme itself. It is built by slow harmonies, beautiful and tranquil, but in the middle there is a steady accompaniment of sixteenth notes in a very special pattern. I won’t tell you how long it took before I had learned the first bar, because this certain pattern was strange to me. But after a very long struggle I got it, and the rest is … well, the same. Or seemingly the same. My teacher warns me that it may look the same, but it should be played with a different feeling here and there. Um. Then there is the question about the balance – this ongoing accompaniment should be just in the background of course, with the long harmonies making the lead voices. Finally I got it right on my own piano, but on my teacher’s piano it sort of collapsed into a undefined murmuring so I guess I have to work a lot more with this. I can play the whole piece now if I skip those sixteenths and practice them separately instead. The fingering is also very difficult in some bars – but at least I approve this suggested fingering, I just need to learn it. Just need to be patient and stubborn … So, more separate practice for the different voices here. That is the major attack strategy.

Whenever I get the time to go to the piano again.