Tag Archives: piano

Going to a concert

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Tonight I’m bringing half a dozen of my piano students to hear Benjamin Grosvenor’s piano recital at The National Concert Hall. For many of them it’ll be their first time at such an event. I don’t know a great deal about Mr Grosvenor (although he’s probably weirded out by people calling him Mr Grosvenor), other than that he’s a phenomenal pianist, a prodigy, a wΓΌnderkind.

I showed some of my students a YouTube video of an 11-year old Benjamin performing with astonishing maturity in the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year back in 2003. Tonight, his programme consists of transcriptions of Bach, some Chopin (including the Op. 22 Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise), Scriabin, Granados, and ending with a virtuosic arrangement of Strauss’s Blue Danube. Here’s a Spotify playlist I put together of the pieces. One of the Bach pieces I couldn’t find and one I could only find in its original solo violin form (but I’ve included it anyway).

I’ll let you know what we all think πŸ™‚

The book in the picture, by the way, is something I found in a charity shop (possibly The Secret Bookstore on Wicklow Street). First published in 1950, it’s full of entertainingly unapologetic opinions such as:

A word about the habit of giving bouquets at concerts. You will see it both at star recitals and, sometimes, at recitals by new artists. It’s silly really, and as it’s perfectly obvious that the flowers are sent in by friends or, in the case of young artists, by proud relatives, it deceives nobody into thinking any the more of a performance. It was, I think, Bernard Shaw who pointed out the impossibility of an audience offering spontaneous tributes, and who referred ironically to the custom of well-bred people of always taking a bouquet with them to a concert on the off-chance of wanting to present it!

Piano exam

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Photo by Jenny Wilson

My piano exam was yesterday and I think it went pretty well. Two of my students were doing their Grade 4 exams right before me, so that was a bit of a distraction from my own nerves. There were a couple of little girls doing their Grade 1 exam and also a lady in her sixties who was doing a recital exam (candidates have to prepare a twenty minute programme). She was in good form when she came back into the waiting room afterwards (with the massive pile of music β€” the examiner needs a copy of each piece, since they don’t know what’s to be played), giving encouragement to my two students, “if *I* can do it, then so can you!”, which I thought was great. There was no chat out of the Grade 1 girl’s dad. He sat reading a Christian self-help book (I glanced at the chapter heading and saw something about Satanic Something-or-other), only making his presence felt by leaving little tracts on the seats when he left β€” one of them jauntily perched on the pocket of my bag!! Anyway.

I started with scales, which is apparently good to get one used to the piano. I was surprised at how nervous I was when it came to it. Should’ve done more playing of my pieces in front of other people, I think. Another thing I noticed was the height of the stool. It’s unusual that you get to adjust the height of piano stools β€” most are at a fixed height. As a result, I don’t really give much thought to it and, even though the examiner gave me an opportunity to do so, I didn’t make any changes to the seat. (Glenn Gould used to bring a chair with him wherever he played that he had sawn the legs down on. Apparently he sat very low at the piano β€” more suitable to the type of music he excelled at, as opposed to ‘big’ Romantic repertoire, which he didn’t specialise in.) When I think about it, of course, piano playing is all about minute distances and it makes perfect sense to try and replicate the conditions in which one has practiced those precise movements. Duly noted.

Perhaps as a result of the unfamiliarity of the position and definitely due to some of my body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct under stress, I made a couple of little slips in the Bach fugue that I hadn’t been making in practice. That was frustrating, because I’d worked hard on it and it is a beautiful, pristine thing when it’s all there. I ended up taking it β€” in my best renditions of it in practice β€” at a fairly gentle speed and at quite a quiet dynamic. Bach would’ve most probably played it on a clavichord or a harpsichord, neither of which can approach the power of the modern grand piano. It’s tempting, at the end of this particular fugue (in Bb, from the first book of ‘The Well-Tempered Keyboard‘), to get louder as the last couple of entries appear. The last one, just before the gnarly last four bars, is a real joy when it comes good after practice. It’s a bit like I remember running the 800m in school β€” a feeling, in the final stretch, of the legs just going by themselves. The subject is woven between the left and right hands and seems to appear in relief against the top and bottom parts that are very definitely in the right and left hands. So satisfying to play and, in my opinion, best handled with care, like a fine cloth.

To be continued…

(I’m off to get ready to go out to The Mornington Singers’ concert.)

Piano practice

Practice continues for the Grade 8 exam. The three pieces I have to perform are coming along: Bach’s Fugue in Bb from the first book of ‘The 48’, Schubert’s Scherzo in Bb, and Shostakovich’s Prelude in D (from the Op. 34 set). Today I got a good bit of work done on all three.

This morning I listened to Murray Perahia’s 2000 recording of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, a piece I fell in love with when I was at university. The beautiful Aria that bookends the variations was featured in the film ‘The English Patient’ and my flatmate George had the soundtrack on CD. It also has a lovely version of ‘Cheek to Cheek’, as I recall… I encountered the piece again while staying on the Scottish island of Arran in my second year at university. A few of us went and stayed in a cottage there β€” I remember it raining a lot. We were armed with a box set of Bruckner symphonies, but it was a brief snippet in a TV documentary of Glenn Gould playing the fifth Goldberg variation that made the greater impression. It’s really a stunning performance (he recorded them twice, in 1955 and in 1981 β€” take your pick!) and a real piece of virtuosity. I memorised the first few bars of the right hand part when we got back to Edinburgh as a small act of worship…someday I’ll learn the whole movement!

I have a notion that Shostakovich gives that variation a nod in the Prelude I’m learning. It starts very similarly (although it quickly spirals off into Shostakovich’s sound world): the right hand has a stream of semiquavers which the left hand punctuates sparsely. Both pieces are number five in the set to which they belong…I don’t know…just a thought!

(Jeepers! I just searched for videos of the Shostakovich piece on YouTube and it’s mostly kids playing it at light speed…gulp…

Okay, okay, here’s one…

So, I’ll keep practicing!)

Grade 8

 

I have set myself a new goal β€” to do the Grade 8 piano exam in May. Grade 8 is traditionally the highest level of performance attainment. (It actually just occurred to me that this is probably because there are eight notes in an octave. Huh.) There are a number of examination boards, the best known of which are the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), London College of Music, Trinity Guildhall, and the RIAM (Royal Irish Academy of Music) here in Ireland. I’ve decided to go with the RIAM for this exam (although I did my other grades many years ago with the Trinity College of Music, now part of the Guildhall). I like the idea of being associated with an institution that I can visit and feel a part of. I’ve lived in Dublin for over a decade now, and I want my music qualification to reflect my subsequently altered sense of identity.

For music exams, the common format is to prepare three pieces from the syllabus. There are also scales and arpeggios to learn, a sight-reading test, and aural musicianship tests. It’s expected, too, that candidates will be able to talk about the pieces they’re playing with the examiner. At the higher grades, the three pieces are chosen from three lists that broadly reflect the main periods of musical history. I’m going to prepare Bach’s Fugue in Bb (from book 1 of “The 48”), Schubert’s Scherzo in Bb, and then something from Group C. I’m torn between a brilliant Shostakovich prelude in D and one of the most famous Chopin Nocturnes (in Eb).

I had a really enjoyable practice session yesterday working on the Bach and the Shostakovich. One of the first tasks when learning a new piece is working out the best fingering. Often a piece will have the editors suggestions marked in, but this is only ever a guide and a deeply personal part of piano playing. I made a quite a few changes to the Bach fugue edition I have. It’s a fairly knotty piece, especially the last line, which is notoriously tricky and involves lots of swapping of the hands to cover the notes smoothly. Emerging at the other end of all that work with a fingering that suits me was really satisfying, though. Now to practice, practice, practice!