Already in Progress


For the past month I have been working on the Three Novelettes by Francis Poulenc, which I love for its simple beauty. It is not a difficult piece – Jane Magrath categorizes the piece as Level 10 in The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching. 

One of the most striking points my teacher made about the first novelette was that the performer should begin the piece as if it is already in progress, as if the melody already exists somewhere in time and space. He has made this point before with other pieces, and I think the thought is lovely. In my practicing I’ve noticed that if I can achieve this, it results in a more nuanced, gentle beginning.

Here is a recording of the piece played in concert by Yilin Sung:


Personal Lessons – Bach’s French Suite Number 5

Oh goodness, where do I begin with lessons on a French Suite?

First of all, I must say that I love Bach. His music just makes sense. It is so clean and precise, yet full of nuance and subtleties. In Bach you always have that moment of, after having worked and worked at it, crystal clear insight. The “ah-ha” moment of clarity.

The fifth French Suite is divided into the following dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, bourree, loure and gigue. One thing I needed to work through was how to make the individual dances a cohesive whole. Questions like tempos, energy levels, how much time to allow between movements, which repeats to take, etc. are all necessary and must be addressed.

When I first started studying this piece, I was very didactic. I remembered back to college days (and even high school) and the teaching of articulation within Bach. I had been taught that the longest note value in each dance should be legato, the shortest note value legato, and the mid-range note values should be detached. So I was religiously following these requirements. Of course you know where that leads – I was completely frustrated and was not making music at all, just becoming a robot.

When I discussed the articulation with my teacher, his thoughts were so liberating I could feel the burden rolling off my shoulders (and fingers!). His perspective is that there is so much freedom in Bach because of the lack of dynamic and articulation markings. Your overall goal and end result should be to make music – of course this needs to be within the bounds of good taste and in accordance with the style of the music. But matters of dynamics and articulation are fluid – you do not need to follow strict rules because Bach did not impose them. Even Bach’s son CPE Bach simply admonishes performers of his father’s music to use good taste.

This is wonderful news. My practice was instantly more joyful and creative. I was listening to the music more intently and with more discretion. I was making musical decisions.

Other ideas my teacher brought out in this piece were:

  1. With regard to voices – what is the spatial quality, what is the timbre
  2. The whole idea of unity and variety is fascinating and could be studied at length
  3. The issue of repeats within the individual dances – sometimes the repeated material should have variety, but it doesn’t necessarily need to change. Bach is complex and audiences welcome a second chance to hear the intricate music again.

Bach is simply a treasure-trove of musical ideas. I could play through Bach for years and years and never grow tired of it.

Personal Lessons -Soiree dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie

 I have been struck while learning Estampes with the brilliance of Debussy. When you consider the form, harmonic and melodic structures, pianism and sheer range of his compositional style, you get a small glimpse of the reason Debussy’s music will endure through the ages.

Debussy book Schmitz

The book, The Piano Works of Claude Debussy by E. Robert Schmitz has been a good resource for learning Debussy’s Estampes. I like the way Schmitz walks through each piece describing harmonies and presenting vivid, imaginative pictures of everyday life.

A few things I’ve learned about Soiree dans Grenade (Evening in Granada) from my lessons:

  1. The Habanera rhythm is delightful to play
  2. Quite often we think about projecting to an audience – playing to the back row, etc. However, the opening of Soiree is so distant that it works best to draw the audience in. To invite the audience to join in the journey.
  3. Huge chords! As I am learning this piece, I am teaching Debussy’s Claire de Lune to a student. I love the timing of this. I am embracing the struggle of learning these huge chords and can provide practical insight to him (“because I was just working on it before you arrived!”)
  4. It is fascinating to evoke the sounds of other instruments on the piano. I am a little proud that the piano is capable of such feats. 🙂

A few things I’ve learned about Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain) from my lessons:

  1. Levels of pianissimo – the energy level really dictates the mood and intensity
  2. Again, Debussy’s masterful use of harmonies. Utterly beautiful.
  3. Multiple levels of melodic activity within one measure or phrase. See measures 37-42 as an example.
  4. Juxtapositions of themes upon themselves in different tonalities and tempos. Genius.

My piano lessons have continued to stretch me to think more deeply about the pieces I’m playing, the technique involved, and the overall enjoyment of music. I’m so grateful to be able to take lessons again.

Personal Lesson 1: Debussy’s Pagodes

pagodesMy first official lesson with my Wonderful Teacher was awesome. It was stimulating, inspiring and just plain fun. (Read about my decision to take piano lessons here.)

I have been studying Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes, which was inspired by Debussy’s visit to the World Fair in Paris. Debussy recreated the sound of the gamelan in this piece. We discussed how the sounds of the gamelan were duplicated in Pagodes and how to separate the different sounds. My teacher suggested playing the low gong sounds with the left fist to achieve a full, deep sound.

One of our most valuable discussions was regarding volume. How do we think of volume? Different shades of color, volumes of speaking, proximity.

The French and Japanese shared certain sensibilities, which made the French particularly interested in Japanese music at the time. One of the similarities in music was the idea of joining a piece of music that was already in progress (as you start at the beginning). It is as if you pick up the song that has been on a continuous loop, and merely join in a song already in progress. This idea really helps to clarify the beginning and end of Pagodes. 

Next piece up – Debussy’s Soiree dans Grenades from Estampes

Taking Piano Lessons

Happiness is playing my pianoI have begun something I should have done a long time ago. I have always wanted to continue taking piano lessons. My last lesson was when I was working towards my master’s degree, about 12 years ago. Recently I sent an email to the director of keyboard studies at the local university to inquire if he might be available to take on an extra student (me!). He very graciously agreed to meet and discuss the possibility.

At our first meeting, I was amazed. We met in his home, where he greeted me at the front door and led me up to the second floor concert hall. Jaw-dropping. The whole upper level is a huge concert hall filled with two grand pianos (one Baldwin, the other Steinway), an upright piano, chairs in rows, round tables. I mean, he has his own concert hall.

After chatting about my background, goals, etc. I played Debussy Arabesque No. 1. Even upon that first meeting, I picked up nuggets of information from him that has greatly enhanced my playing. Really, he is an encyclopedia of knowledge. He has played everything, met everyone, and is so fun to talk with. I hope to be so personable and inspiring in my teaching.

A few takeaways from the first meeting:

  1. He asked me technical questions in a very non-threatening way. He would phrase his questions like this: “What does andantino (for example) mean to you?” or “How would you teach this to your students?”
  2. He told me that he plays the piano with his arms, not his fingers. The movement is on a much larger scale than just playing with fingers. This idea of gesture really helped me in a section of Debussy’s Pagodes which I started learning after our first meeting.
  3. An illustration he used – say you have a poster hanging on a wall in your room. After awhile you get used to it and hardly notice it is there. If you move it to another wall you start noticing it once again. This happens in music – you know how to play legato or andante, but taking those skills to a different piece helps to freshen those skills and renew your focus.

I am thrilled to be taking lessons again, and to be taking them from this particular teacher, whom I will affectionately refer to as Wonderful Teacher (WT). I’d like to update the blog lesson by lesson on the things I am learning about teaching and about the music itself. It’s going to be a great adventure.