I’ve recommenced work on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D 959 in A), following a few months’ hiatus due to family health issues, during which I was unable to give the music my full and proper attention. Regular readers of this blog will know (along with my husband who works at home and hears me practising every day!) that this sonata has become something of an obsession for me since I embarked on a study of it in autumn 2014 (read more about this here.)
This is not the first time I’ve taken a break from the sonata. In the immediate aftermath of receiving my (disappointing) diploma result last September, I wanted nothing more to do with the music. The score was consigned to the back of the bookcase in my piano room, firmly hidden away. I needed time away from the music, to reflect and regroup. At the time, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go near the piece again, but as a pianist friend of mine pointed out, “You just need to let it ‘marinade’ for a few months“. And gradually during that marinading process I found myself returning to my books and articles on Schubert, to listening to his music again, absorbing new details, new thoughts about the sonata, allowing his distinctive, highly personal idioms to seep into my musical consciousness.
Some works reveal their subtleties, depths and complexities more slowly than others. This is certainly true of Schubert’s music which has so many details to be unearthed and explored that one cannot expect to cover all of them in one go – nor even two or three. Rather like the layers of an onion, these details are peeled away over time and through repeated “returns” to the score. For example, in my latest work on the sonata, I am finding more interesting bass details and inner voices/instrumental lines to be highlighted. Whether these details will find their way into a final version, I cannot say, but the process of exploration definitely throws light on other aspects of the music and throws up new ideas for consideration.
Another satisfying aspect of returning to a piece after a rest is finding that certain passages which previously seemed intractable or particularly challenging can now be played with ease and suppleness. This may seem curious, since one has spent weeks not practising the music at the instrument, but it strikes me that one needs time away to allow technical and musical details to embed in one’s mind and fingers. A rest also encourages one to practise differently: I have found myself returning to very simple practise in some areas of the work, stripping the music back and then rebuilding it.
When working on very complex repertoire one can reach a state of saturation where it becomes impossible to take in new ideas, nor even process existing ones. At this point, you may find yourself making silly or careless errors – this is usually the time to put the music aside and give it, and you, a rest.
There is plenty of useful work to be done while the music is resting – listening, reading (both score and books/articles about the music and composer), thinking and reflecting. If, like me, one is focussing on one specific composer or work, “listening around” the work in question is always helpful, in my opinion. I have a very large Spotify playlist of late music by Schubert, including string quartets, the ninth symphony, songs and other piano music, in addition to some works by Beethoven which have a connection to the Sonata I am studying. And of course while some music is resting, other repertoire can be explored and enjoyed. In fact, I find playing music which seems almost diametrically opposed to Schubert (20th century minimalism, for example) incredibly refreshing, allowing me to return to the Sonata with renewed enthusiasm.
There is such a thing as “over-practising” (though some students don’t believe me when I tell them this!). Over-practising can kill a piece of music, as we become complacent about the work and inured to errors, which are then very difficult to erase. Over-practising can also lead to boredom, which can make us careless in practise, and can cause injury which may leave us unable to play for weeks or months. Then an enforced rest from the music and instrument may be necessary, though one can still continue with work away from the keyboard as described above.
When I recommend taking a break from the music to students, they usually exclaim that they will “forget everything” when they return to the music. In general, this is not the case. Music which has been thoroughly and thoughtfully practised and is well learnt remains in the brain and fingers and can be brought back to a good standard very quickly. Returning to a work after a rest can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making new friendships.
A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’ and thus resting and returning to the same work many times becomes an ongoing study. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. Rest the work and return to it, and suddenly new things come to light, informed by our reading, listening, life experience, and so forth. American pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.
As my autumn teaching term is about to start, a post on practising seems appropriate. Several of my students have already fessed up to me, via email and Facebook, that they have done little or no practising over the summer break. I’m disappointed, of course, especially as one is working towards Grade 3 at the moment, but I’m not surprised. Children have a wealth of other activities to distract them, and seem to regard the long summer holiday as the ultimate down time. Piano practice goes the way of schoolwork: forgotten for six weeks.
It is a truth universally acknowledged (with apologies to Jane Austen), that regular, focussed practising reaps rewards. On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.” On a simpler level, to me this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.
Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.
Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone”. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions. “Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality” (SB). Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.
Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.
“The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come”
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!