Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Week of June 11

This log will be updated daily, whether I'm able to practice or not. If you want to access the week's practice log quickly, simply click the link beneath the piano icon in the sidebar. Last week's completed log can be found here.

Practice Goals for the Week

1) Scales at 76 and arpeggios at 60
2) Suzuki Minuet 4 (by ear)
3) Play through Bach Prelude once a day
4) Learn Fugue hands-separately
5) Work on tone and voicing for Sections 12 and 13 of Liszt; begin learning Section 9

Sunday, June 11: Spent 70 minutes on scales, arps, Suzuki, the Prelude, and the Fugue. Scales and arps are sounding really good. When I write "scales and arps," I mean scales and arpeggios in similar and contrary motion, at increasing speeds. Also included are full-octave inversions for each. Today's scales were B major and G# minor, and today's arpeggios were Gb major and Eb minor. For Suzuki, I played through Minuet 3 and "learned" the right-hand notes of Minuet 4 by ear, which took about two minutes.

I can play through the prelude pretty well. It's very basic and just kind of falls into the hands. There are a few sticky sections that I'll need to spend more time on before my lesson Wednesday.

The hands-separate practice for the fugue is turning out to be easier than expected. The hardest part is synchronizing the rests in one voice with the held notes in another voice. I'm doing a lot of listening to separate voices, then playing two voices together, then listening to individual voices again, then voices together, etc. It would be easy enough to play the voices together without thinking of them as separate voices, I suppose, but that would defeat the purpose of learning the fugue. It's a mind exercise as much as it is a finger exercise, and I am loving every second of it. (That sublime mind-finger exercise thing, by the way, is Reason #214 to adore and admire Bach.)

Spent about 80 minutes on the Liszt (plus a couple more scales and arps to warm up). I'm only focusing on measures 91 through 115 (the last section of the piece, starting with the con agitazione measure). The big challenge for me has been the timing. I learned how to do 2-against-3 when I learned Liszt's "Consolation No. 3" in high school, but the 2-against-3 in "Ständchen"--with the changes from measure to measure, plus the ornaments, plus the voicing challenges--has been a real bear (with 2-against-3, one hand is playing a "1-2, 1-2" beat while the other plays a "1-2-3, 1-2-3" waltz-like beat). I must have played measures 99 and 101 a hundred times today--without the ornaments, with the ornaments, with the metronome, with a special focus on voicing, all together now, etc. And always slow, slow, slow. Imagine the runners in slow-motion in the movie Chariots of Fire. That's how "Ständchen" feels. I'm playing it with all the emotional power I can muster in the dynamics, but at half the speed at which it should be played. Very challenging, and the temptation to play it faster is nearly irresistible.

But resist I must. For now, and for my next few practices, I'll continue to play at a snail's pace.

Monday, June 12: Practiced for about 70 minutes this afternoon. I did the usual scales, arps, and Suzuki as a warm up (more to warm up my mind than to warm up my fingers), then moved on to the fugue.

Whew. I worked on the fugue itself for about an hour, hands-separately. I really want to learn this, and I don't want to cut corners. So I'm approaching it in several different ways. First, I went straight to the "red stars" I'd written in the other night when playing through to see which sections would be the most challenging. The toughest-seeming one is early in the piece--measures 6-11. So I began the drill: play one voice, then the other. Play them together, listening. Back up. Shut the piano. Play one voice on the piano lid, focusing on the fingering. Play it again on the lid, "listening" and imagining the keys. Do the same with the other voice. Do the same with both voices. Over and over again. Focus. Keep "playing" until it feels natural, both in my fingers and in my mind.

This "away-from-the-keys" practice taxes the brain, but when I finally open the lid and play on the keys again ... voila! It's there, and it sounds just as smooth as can be! Once I'm playing on the keys again, I run through those same measures 10 or 15 times each--or 20 or 30 or more, as needed. I focused really hard on measures 1-6 and measures 10 and 11 today. The plan was to do all eleven measures, but I'm not used to such brain-taxing, intensive work, and I had to stop because I was mentally tired.

So, I covered eight measures today. Sigh. The fugue consists of 55 measures. Actually, I'm looking forward to the work. As with my physical workouts, I'm sure that more of these types of practices will simply improve my mental endurance in the long run--as well as make me a better pianist!

I worked on Liszt for about 10 minutes tonight. I was too tired to have a decent practice, so I just played through measures 91 to the end a few times, very slowly, to make sure yesterday's awesome practice sank in. I found that, while I missed a few notes here an there, I have a much better sense of the timing--the left-hand "beat," if you will--and was able to keep it steady throughout the ornaments, 2-against-3 measures, etc. So that's good.

Tuesday, June 13: On the road all day. No practice. :(

Wednesday, June 14 (Lesson Day): About 30 minutes on scales, arps, Suzuki, and Liszt (about 15 minutes was spent on Liszt). Mostly just warming up for my piano lesson in the afternoon. Didn't have time for Bach. This evening, I practiced for about 80 minutes. Did the usual scales and arps as warm up, then got to work in earnest on the Bach. Very intense, focused practicing of hands separately. I've had to do a lot of fiddling with the fingering because the editor's fingerings assume that my hands are bigger than they are. It's also been a challenge to play with the notes detached rather than legato. I'd been practicing legato until today, when Deborah said to make them detached. Sigh.

Practicing the fugue literally exhausts me. When I finished it, I sluggishly moved on to the Liszt and decided only to work on the last couple of measures. They're not hard, but they did need a bit of attention, so I focused on them. Tomorrow in the Liszt, I start on Section 9 (the part with the arpeggios in thirds). Once I've gotten that section down, the rest of the piece will be easy in comparison. I'm glad I'm getting the most difficult sections down first.

Thursday, June 15: Worked on scales and arps for about 15 minutes. Then, worked on the Bach Prelude for about 45 minutes, Section 1 (measures 1-15). It's not a hard piece, but I'm treating it as if it is; otherwise, I won't take it seriously enough and will end up not knowing it as well as I should. Does that make sense? :)

I worked on the fugue for about 40 minutes, cementing Section 1 (measures 1-15) hands-separately. It's hard work, using the new fingering, using the correct articulation, etc. I'm playing it very s-l-o-w-l-y right now and am not speeding up, even though I secretly want to. (Heck, I secretly want to play it perfectly at speed, TODAY, but that's not gonna happen!

I took a break, then got to work on Liszt. I spend about 30 minutes of intense focus on the "flutter" sections in Section 12 (where the echoes come in with the grace notes), working to make them perfect mirrors of each other. It was a particular challenge today because yesterday at piano we decided I needed a new fingering. That always makes it hard, when you've been using a different fingering for a week.

After working on those small sections, I played through Sections 12-15 a few times (about 15 minutes), focusing this time on the Gestalt of it, from the agitated, energetic start to the sublime ending.

Next, I moved to Section 9 and worked on the arpeggios in thirds for about 15 minutes. It's weird because you basically are playing 9-against-4. I think I'm just going to have to spend a few hours drilling those arpeggios until playing them is as natural as breathing. Then I'll add the left hand.

Friday, June 16: Practice for about 90 minutes on scales, arps, and Bach. I've moved up to 76 on the metronome for scales and seem to be having a bit of trouble with contrary motion in the minor scales. Arps were a little sloppy, for some reason. Maybe I'm just tired tonight.

I worked on the C# major Prelude for just a few minutes, reviewing and cementing measures 1-15. I don't want to spend too much time on the prelude, but I do want to review a little bit each day, just to keep it fresh in my psyche.

The C# major Fugue was the major area of focus tonight. I'm still working hands-separately, of course. I reviewed and cemented Section 1 (measures 1-15), and it's sounding pretty good--very clean, in fact. Just ignore for now that I'm playing at about 30% of the recommended tempo. I think I'm gaining a much more acute awareness of--and a much greater appreciation for--the "clean" sound of Bach. It's a special touch, to try to render on the piano something clavier-like: sparse, not too rich in tone, etc., but still musical. I used to dislike Bach because of that very sound ... and now I seem to have gone in the opposite direction. I find that sound very calming and sublime now. The held notes add so much to the other notes beneath, and the rests are so perfectly placed ... if I accidentally hold a note when I shouldn't, it's as if the harmony of the universe is interrupted, and a harsh, discordant clang sounds upon my delicate ear.

OK, so maybe that's a bit overdramatic. But the greater awareness I'm gaining seems to be allowing for less and less "wiggle room"--i.e., sloppiness--when I play these small sections of the fugue. I actually cringe a little when the sloppiness creeps in.

That's as it should be, I think.

Spent only about 20 minutes on Liszt. Worked out a good (?) fingering for measures 62 and 66 (the arpeggios in thirds). Didn't worry too much about the 9-against-4 timing ... I'll start on that tomorrow. Measures 62 and 66 gave me plenty of work for the 20 minutes that I had!

Saturday, June 17: I hadn't planned to practice until tonight (crazy party girl that I am!), but I slipped into the Inner Sanctum for what was supposed to be less than a minute and ended up spending 90 minutes on Liszt.

This will probably sound really pathetic, but I spent a huge chunk of those 90 minutes on measures 62 and 66 (the 9-against-4 arpeggios in thirds). I couldn't wrap my brain around the rhythms and I didn't want to just fake it. So I drew pictures, colored stuff in, and even made a cool table in Word to get an idea of where the notes should fall, rhythmically.

This, my friends, is an example of what happens when a perfectionistic right-brained person sets her mind on figuring out an unfamiliar mix of rhythms:

This is the "score" I read while practicing the arpeggios. That's OK if you think I'm a nut for going to such extremes. But I can tell you one thing: My 9-against-4 rhythms are sounding really good! Once they're really cemented in my mind (after I play them a million more times), I'll feel like I've earned the right to rubato-ize (rubatize?) them a little bit.

I also worked on Section 10, which is the first half of the first "echo" section following the arpeggiated-thirds section. It's not too difficult, though the grace notes and voicings are, again, throwing off what I thought was my relatively good ability to play in 2-against-3. I'm sure I will adjust--all of this is just so new to me.

I feel good about my progress, though. The sections I'm working on sound good, in a just-learning kind of way. And that's all I'm asking for at this point. :)

This evening, I spent 90 minutes practicing. About 15 minutes went to scales and arps, and about 20 minutes went to Sections 1 and 2 of the Bach Prelude. The rest of the time went to Sections 3 and 4 of the Fugue. It was a very uneventful practice; Sections 1 and 2 are getting more comfortable in the hands, and Sections 3 and 4 have several tacets and are slightly less difficult. Maybe (gasp!) I am also getting the hang of this fugue thing.

I played the Liszt for about 10 minutes before closing up the piano for the night. I noticed the double-dotted quarter notes in Section 9 ... huh? Followed by a 3-against-2 with the first note of the triplet starting halfway through an eighth note in the left hand? Ugh ... this means ... MATH. Blech. As if figuring out the 9-against-4 wasn't confusing enough. I worked with it a little bit, but not a lot. Bach fugue AND Liszt math can be dangerous when ingested in a single 24-hour period.

TOTAL PRACTICE TIME FOR WEEK: It's been a record week, folks. I practiced for more than 13 hours total, for a daily average of just under two hours.


robert said...

This is really helpful, a good read, and I admire it a lot. And I've learned a lot from reading the in-depth of a fellow learner. Some very random, but considered comments.

If you're aiming for that Chopin Ballade, you might need to really push your scales/arps goal. I alternate between doing a cycle of major/relative minor and major/parallel minor, and I've liked the results. Have you considered some of the alternative fingerings for scales like G? Things take a real speed jump as a result.

I've never found practicing/learning counterpoint very hard...just "feel" the foices. But even I can only do it with full concentration for about an hour...then the voices start getting...strange. For learning/memorizing, have you tried moving RH up and octave and LH down an octave? Humbling -- you find out how well your head really knows the notes.

I've only tried away-from-keys practice a few times, but I've liked the results. Your good paragraph makes me think I should try more!

Contrary motion in the minor scales. Yup, always an issue. What I've found helpful is to identify precisely the place (it's usually just one) which is making things fall apart. In my Eb minor, it was the turnaround when my hands were out and the ends. Notes were getting out of synch as the hands came back in. So I practiced the turnarounds relentlessly, using double notes, grouping, counting rigorously. I tend to find for a scale issue like that I might work on it for a week or two -- better to have it in good shape before I move on to the next one. Besides, it will reappear again tn the cycle!

robert said...


I took the away-from-keyboard for a spin with my Mendelssohn double-octaves. Liked it enough so I'll try more.

Those are the same scales and spots I had issues with too. I spent a month on Eb minor -- the turnaround in outward CM had a tendency to get my LH ahead of the RH. Not good.

As for alternative fingerings. Mostly it's for LH. For example, LH G major:
The principle is LH 4 on F#. I took it for a spin the other week when I was working on my quite satisfactory G with the "regular fingering". I'm going to do it -- once I get my interval scales (3rd, 6th, 10th) up to the same speed and evenness as the regular G major.


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