Some years ago, before I resumed playing the piano seriously and started taking lessons again, I would open a score, look at the forest of notes and think “I’ll never be able to play that!”. I’d visit my friend Michael, who owns a beautiful Steinway B (purchased when he retired, instead of the clichéd sports car), see Schumann’s Kreisleriana open on the music rack, and my heart would sink. “I’ll never be able to play that!”.
There are certain pieces which represent the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire: the Rach 3, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Balakirev’s Islamey, Chopin’s two sets of Etudes, to name but a few. Pieces which have become the preserve of the virtuoso pianist to showcase technical prowess and extreme pianism. We probably have Franz Liszt – he of the famously difficult Transcendental Etudes – to thank for the elevation of the pianist from salon ivory-tinkler, providing a pleasing accompaniment to drinks, supper and chat, to onstage superstar whose pianistic pyrotechnics caused ladies to faint and piano strings to break
About 18 months into my study with my current teacher, I heard Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor, no. 7 from the Opus 25, on Radio Three’s Breakfast show, and was instantly entranced by its melancholic tone, the singing left hand cello-like melody (this Etude is nicknamed “the cello”), the floating chords in the right hand, in which the simplest secondary melody is embedded. I downloaded the score from Pianostreet and started to learn it. Eventually I performed it at a concert at my teacher’s house last year, and also on a 1920s Bluthner owned by Sir Alfred Beit, at Russborough in County Wicklow. “I can play a Chopin Etude” I told myself, when my confidence needed a boost. I felt I had at last entered that exclusive Himalayan club.
My teacher then suggested another Etude, this time the E major from the Opus 10, a piece I had always wanted to be able to play. This is one of the most famous of Chopin’s Etudes (along with the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Black Key’, the ‘Aeolian Harp’ and the ‘Butterfly’), which adds an extra degree of difficulty in the learning process. As my teacher said, “It’s so famous, and you want to play it well”. Aside from the dread sixths in the middle section (which, once analysed, unpicked, and put back together again, are not so fearsome – there is a pattern, yes, really!), it’s not as hard as it looks. Oh, all right, it is pretty difficult – allowing the right hand melody to sing above the accompaniment and achieving balance between the hands being the chief issues of this piece – but it is certainly not insurmountable, and my teacher would not have suggested I learn it if she did not think I could cope with it. This massive boost to my confidence has enabled me to go on to learn one of Chopin’s Ballades (the first, in G minor), some pieces by Liszt from the Années, and one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Waiting patiently in my score library is Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Opus 61, one or more of the Scherzi, more Liszt, Hindemith, more Messiaen…. Now, when I open a score, I do not immediately react negatively: “I’ll never be able to play that!” has been replaced with “OK, where do I start?”.
Analaysing the score, going through it with a pencil, looking for patterns and sequences, listening to other people playing it, and general familiarity with what the printed page looks like before you all assist in learning. There is also a physical-versus-mental aspect: convince yourself on first sight of a new piece that you can’t play it, and you probably won’t. But sit down and sight read through it, get your fingers round the notes, enjoy the architecture and melody of the piece, spend time with the music, inhabit it, and quite soon it will become familiar; eventually it will be like an old friend (which is how I feel about the Messiaen now, despite finding it utterly terrifying for the first few months of learning it!).
There are other practical considerations, of course. Some music is physically very difficult or tiring to play, although I dispute the claim that you need big hands to play Liszt or Rachmaninov. You don’t; just a strategy for getting around the music efficiently and comfortably. Some pieces do not lie comfortably under the hand; others are simply exhausting to play and sometimes one is practising only to improve stamina.
Young students often lack the confidence to pick up music on their own, without a teacher’s help to guide them through the score. When I start a student on a new piece, we go through it together. I ask the student to highlight any signs or terms they don’t understand, to mark patterns and sequences, and to generally take the music apart and separate it into manageable chunks. Thus, a page of score which at first appeared daunting can be quickly simplified, making the learning process easier. Of course, many young students want to be able to play the piece straight through, preferably loud and fast (!), and find the crucial detailed study dull and arduous. But working in this way reaps huge rewards: I find I can learn – and retain – music much more quickly now, and “tricks” learnt from, say, a Chopin Etude, can be applied to other music. The “dread sixths” passage of the Opus 10, No. 3 enabled me to devise a simple strategy for a similar section in Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca. A case of “Well, hello! I’ve seen this before!”.
The piano repertoire is vast, hugely varied, and wonderful: don’t discount certain pieces because you think you’ll never be able to play them – but remember: sometimes the simplest pieces are the hardest!
Chopin, Etude Opus 25, No. 7 – Murray Perahia
Liszt, ‘La Campanella’ – Jorge Bolet
Mozart, Adagio for Glass Harmonica
Berezovsky plays ‘Islamey’