Bach, Beethoven, Chopin

Next week is a big one for me! During my Thanksgiving break from school, I will be making an audition video.

I’ve never done this before. In preparation for my undergraduate audition, I prepared an audio recording for two schools, neither of which invited me to audition. But I’ve never done a video, and I have never auditioned on piano.

How did I get to this point?

Over the last year, I have been preparing to apply for my masters degree. My few years of teaching have been amazing, but I discovered a passion for musical theater, and for musical life outside the school, too. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at music directing at a professional level.

Since I’ve always loved being a student, the idea to apply for a masters degree seemed obvious. I visited schools, talked with professors, and have a short list of schools I’m applying to this winter. All of them require videos of leading rehearsals and performances, and all require some degree of piano competency.

This last part worried me the most. I enjoy playing piano, and especially accompanying, but I’ve always been a kind of “journeyman” pianist: competent but not particularly stellar. But I needed to build my classical piano skills, so I enrolled in piano lessons for the first time since 2011.

Working with my teacher was an intense experience. Sometimes it was exciting, sometimes I left lessons in tears feeling inadequate. But the results speak for themselves. These days, I feel more confident than ever at the piano, and I’ve noticed some serious increases in my manual dexterity and ability to be expressive at the keyboard.

This audition video is meant to represent my ability to play as a kind of concert pianist. They are looking for three things, essentially: technical skill, expressiveness, and memorization. The program should represent a variety of piano styles, so my teacher advised me to choose works by Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.

My first selection, chronologically, is the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 847, for the curious). It’s the first one that I memorized, and it’s been a lot of fun to practice. I’ve never played a fugue on the piano before, though I did play one on the organ.

The prelude is surprisingly challenging. The hand shifts on the page are not complicated, but the harmonic progression is not very obvious. It’s loaded with seventh chords and chromatic progressions. The whole thing is a virtuoso showpiece, including an incredible progression of sequences toward the end that is a minefield.

The fugue is such fun to play. Although it’s a minor key, it’s somehow sprightly and witty. As with all fugues, it’s filled with sequences and scale passages, but it’s fun and exciting to play. It can be rendered with extreme delicacy, or aggressively, and it works either way. I have a tendency toward the delicate side, which has caused my teacher some annoyance. On a heavier touch piano, the delicate notes don’t sound if I’m too light.

The next piece on my program is two movements of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor (Op. 2, No. 1). The first movement is actually a kind of revival for me. I played it my senior year of high school, along with the third. Both of these were part of my senior recital back in 2010, and I’m sure my mom has a recording somewhere.

The first movement has been surprisingly challenging to revisit. Because of my new teacher, my mechanical approach to the keyboard has changed, and I had to almost begin all over again. I knew how it should sound, but the act of making the sound was completely new. There’s some nearly choral writing in spots, but there are other sections that could only be performed on the piano.

The final movement is both the most technically challenging and most interesting movement I’m preparing. It’s noticeably more complicated than any of the other movements, mostly by virtue of the perpetual motion triplets in the left hand. The middle portion is challenging because it is so completely different from the outer sections. It’s got longer note values, and a completely different harmonic motion. I tend to rush this portion. But it’s also got some incredibly orchestral writing. Specifically, I can point two three distinct motives and tell you what instruments they have (strings or flute/clarinet, trombones, and horns). The faster outer sections are purely virtuoso pianism.

The final work I’m preparing is a nocturne by Frederic Chopin. My teacher suggested Op. 72, No. 1 in E minor. According to Wikipedia, this was the first nocturne Chopin wrote, but it was only published after his death.

The challenge of this piece comes from the interlocking polyrhythms in the two hands. The overriding motive is triplets in the left hand vs. regular eighth notes in the right. In the second half, this is expanded to trills and ornaments as complicated as 11:3 in one measure.

The mechanical challenge for me with this piece was to get comfortable with large stretches in the left hand. My teacher showed me how to stay close to the keys and use the flexibility of my hand to help connect places when it’s too messy to do with the pedal. It’s really fascinating, and I have noticed my hands are significantly more flexible than when I began this.

Well, this is a lengthy post, but I hope it gives a good idea of what I’m working on. These pieces have been really fascinating, and I hope to be able to take this new knowledge on to other pieces. It’s been delightful to play and I hope the recordings next week go well.

Artistic Standards

Tonight I went to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. My original plan was to write about the experience of their exhibit Big Bambú: This Thing Called Life. After all, that was my original reason for going down there. But take a look at my Instagram for that. It was a very cool experience, but it's not what stuck with me as a topic for this post.

Instead, I found something in a nearby gallery that caught my eye. Really I could have written about just about any work, but what got me thinking is something in the Art of the Islamic Worlds gallery. It was the painting "Dancing Girl" by Muhammad Baquir.

Click on the image to go to the MFAH collection info.

Click on the image to go to the MFAH collection info.

Detail Matters

Next to the painting was a lengthy wall plaque describing the restoration process. Apparently the original painting was sealed with a substance that yellowed with age. A modern removal of the coating, and replacement with a modern coating allowed it to be viewed in its vibrant glory.

The plaque made a particular point of the detail. In particular, the pearls along the girl's waistband (which are not particularly visible in this photo) were painted with "a single flick of the wrist" and a slight shading of grey for dimension.

The precision and detail needed to pull off the hundreds of pearls is really staggering. Even up close, they are virtually identical and perfectly in line. This really incredible craftsmanship got me thinking about my work and the precision and detail that's needed.

Detail in the Performing Arts

There's an argument to be made that there's only so much precision you can have as a performing artist. When the goal is to create and recreate a work every time, the variations are part of the charm. No performance is perfect, and even "perfect" recordings are usually patched together from the best parts of a few takes.

But that has never been the realm in which I operate. For years now, my work has been subpar even for someone expecting the occasional flaw. I know for sure that one of my weaknesses are a performer is a lack of attention to detail and consistency. I play more wrong notes than a competent accompanist should because frankly I don't practice enough.

That's been a challenge as I've been working with my new piano teacher. It takes time and study to develop not just accuracy, but an artistic approach to a piece. In the summer I have plenty of time to do that, and when I'm working on just a few pieces for a long time, that's the goal.

But when I have to put together a show (200+ pages of music) in ten weeks, the simple fact is that I can't work every detail to the kind of precision that would be artistically ideal. And written accompaniments can be weak or downright unplayable, as any accompanist will attest to. 

Realizing Piano Accompaniments

So how do I deal with that? It's one thing when I'm playing Chopin, but playing a Sondheim piano reduction is another matter. What kind of detail should I be expected to realize from that? In Beethoven I can shape little miniature phrases, in Bach I can bring out individual melodies. But how much of that is important in the realm of playing a reduction for rehearsal?

I think most pianists I could interview would say "The more of that you can play, the better. An artistic accompanist is always better than a merely accurate one." So does that mean that as long as I'm a part-time accompanist, my piano skills are never going to be as good? How can I possibly catch up as long as I'm earning a living doing other things?

Where to start?

Those last questions are big ones. And honestly, I suspect the answer to the first is "Yes" and to the second is "I can't." But if I was going to make any progress at all, I need some kind of guidance. How do you grow as a collaborative pianist when you don't have many opportunities to collaborate because you're not a particularly good collaborator in the first place, and don't have the leisure to take on other commitments?

In the meantime, I think the best things I can do for myself are to continue to improve my piano skills overall, and to raise my personal standards for accuracy and artistry as a musician. "Accurate" and "competent" can no longer cut it. I have to find better adjectives.