Happy Friday the 13th, or, RIP Rossini!

It’s pretty late right now, and I’m up blogging because I made the mistake of falling into a Wikipedia black hole right before bed.  At some point, I realized that tomorrow (today, really) is Friday the 13th and I got to wondering why Friday the 13th is considered bad luck.

Well, that led me to Wikipedia (duh), where I learned that the first known reference in the English language to Friday the 13th as an ill-omened day ties it to the death of none other than the opera composer-turned-chef, Gioachino Rossini (of Barber of Seville and William Tell fame).  The biographer Henry Sutherland Edwards described Rossini’s death thusly:

He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that one Friday 13th of November he died.[4]

So, it turns out that Friday the 13th is unlucky because a great composer departed this world.  But then again, as Rossini was a mere mortal, he had to go sometime . . . The death dates of all great men and women can’t be inauspicious, after all.

Anyway, enough of my rambling, it’s time for bed.  Tomorrow, make sure to pour out some vino in memoriam of Rossini.  Maybe blare a round of “Figaro” from your speakers.

Update: I realized some of you may not be familiar with Rossini, at least not by name. Here’s one of the arias that made him famous:


PS) For those of you who didn’t know this, Rossini retired from composing and became a chef.  Many Italian dishes were named after him, including Tournedos Rossini (pictured below)


Memorizing Music

My high school teacher once told me that the pianist became afflicted by the requirement of memorization because of the habits of Clara Schumann, a renowned concert pianist of her day and wife of Robert Schumann.

Wikipedia summarizes her life thusly:

Clara Schumann (néeClara Josephine Wieck; 13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896) was a German musician and composer, considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. Her husband was the composer Robert Schumann. She and her husband encouraged Johannes Brahms, and she was the first pianist to give public performances of some of Brahms’ works, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.

At any rate, the trend/curse is now inviolate, so we musicians must learn to memorize.  In this post, I’d like to share with you a few of my memorization tricks learned over the years.

1)  Start memorizing the day you start learning the piece.  Don’t practice for weeks and weeks relying on the music because you’ll only find it harder and harder to break you dependence.  Furthermore, unless you’ve developed sophisticated page turning methods, you will probably not be able play the piece fluently until you are off of the page.  Maybe that’s why Clara insisted upon it . . .

2)  Divide the piece into reasonable chunks for learning sessions.   Always work in musical phrases.  Mark these sections.  As you practice, these sections will become so firmly ingrained that if performance, if you make an error, you will be comfortable picking up again at these points.   So they are advantageous in the memorization process and later in the performance/memorization link up.

2) Memorize measure + 1 note by measure at first.  Always practice a beat further than the measure you choose to work on, to help your memory make connections between learned parts.  The first time you practice a measure (+1), play it through a few times paying attention to what you are doing.  Then take the music away.  At first, this will be a slow and painful process, but ultimately, you will find that you learn the music in a more firm way and that the rewards will be worth it.  Try reciting the notes to yourself.  You can start hands separately if the music is of the type where that would be beneficial.  Play it 20 times in a row, with a metronome, until you can play it without hesitations.   When you start the next measure, begin on the +1 note of the previous worked on measure and play through to the next plus 1.

IMPORTANT:  Don’t just learn the notes here.  Learn the articulation, ornamentation, and dynamics here and use them every time you play.   Articulation can be exceptionally hard to change after the fact.

3)  String memorized measures together to learn whole phrases.  Play over and over again until you can hardly stay it anymore.  Use a metronome and build up tempo slowly.  For simpler pieces, you may be able to start with whole phrases, but make sure you play the whole phrase, plus a small portion of the next phrase to aid in fluency.

4)  Employ penny practicing.  Take a stack of ten pennies and place on the left side of the piano.  Pick a phrase to work on and pick a manageable metronome tempo.  Play the phrase through with the metronome perfectly or until it is perfect.  For everytime you play it perfectly, move a penny to the right of the piano.  For every time you play it incorrectly, no matter how small the error, move all the pennies back to the left side of the piano.  Move the metronome a tick or so faster every time you think you can do it without losing all of your pennies.  For more difficult passages, this might mean after you have moved all ten pennies across the piano.

Even without noticing, you will stop using the music as you do this and you will be able to play the whole measure without any hesitations.  A further benefit of this style of practicing is that it can be sort of meditative and help you to practice mindfully, concentrating only on the task at hand.

Do this step until you are at maybe 75% of the goal tempo for the piece.

5)  Start joining phrases together, using penny practicing.  You will need to smooth out the hesitation spots in the music, where you have not been playing straight through.  You will not need to start the metronome at as slow of a tempo as you ended up using in step 4, but it will be slower than the tempo you used to start step 4.  At this point, you should be working toward the ideal tempo for the piece, as best it can be approximated with a metronome.  If you are working on a piece where a lot of rubato will be employed, it is best to play most of the passages as fast as your fastest section (judgment calls are needed here).

The metronome practice will make sure that you can play through the piece section by section by memory without any hesitation.

6)  Analyze chord structure and other structural elements of the piece.  This step can be employed at any stage of the memorization process.  If you are comfortable and well-versed in harmonic analysis, this can be particularly helpful in memorizing pieces such as Chopin Waltzes (the left hand) or alberti bass lines from Classical pieces.  Often, virtuosic passages are merely varied arpeggios.  Learn them as such and you will remember them much more easily.

7)  Identify patterns and adopt fingering that follows a pattern.  Where passages form patterns that can be played with the same or essentially the same fingering, take the time to figure that fingering out.   It will make your motor memory 100% easier.  Also take the time to determine what the exact pattern the composer is using is.  Is it a harmonic progression?  Are the same intervals used repeatedly?  Understanding these parts will enable you to commit the section to memory very quickly.

8)  Learn your scales and arpeggios in all keys proficiently.  Practice regularly.  I believe at Julliard the piano students have to know them all at metronome speed of 120 with 4 beats per tick (too lazy to insert music symbols, sorry).  Aim for that goal.  So many virtuosic passages will be built upon these scales and arpeggios.  Practice your arpeggios and scales in 6ths and tenths.  Learn scales in thirds (where one hand plays the scale in thirds).  Learn your chords in all the common variations employed in the Classical era.  (I’ll add musical excerpts later).  Practice these regularly.  Although not a favorite among pianists, it is so very important.  If you can understand what is going on with a piece both intellectually and in terms of motor memory, learning will come much more quickly.
9)  Practice mentally when you are away from the piano.  Visualize the piece and what your hands are doing.  Take note of blind spots and pay extra attention to them when you can consult the music and your piano.
10)  Develop a story for the piece.  In the later stage of your process with the piece, it is helpful to develop a narrative or a series of related scenes or imagines that will make your understanding of the piece more natural.  To take a simple example, if you imagine the piece the Erlkonig, you can directly associate the story that the piece tells, n very specific detail, with all musical passages in the piece.  This will turn what might become tedious memorization into building a story.  It will also help to really animate your playing.  Here is the piece being performed by Kissin, for your reference.
As you can see, the pieces is, er, involved.  Understanding the story will make remembering it simpler.
11)  Know your source material and influences.  On that note, if a piece has a history or is an adaptation, such as is the case of the Erlkonig, learn it.  Often, understanding what the composer was trying to communicate or why he wrote the piece will help you memorize it or understand it better.  For example, the Erlkonig is a Liszt transcription of a song by Schubert.  This song has a text which can be learned and understood (despite being in German.)    In fact, in this case, the text is actually a poem by Goethe.  Listen to the song.  It will help you understand what Liszt was trying to do.   In this particular piece, you’d realize that the song has three distinct voices, a father, a son, and the Elf King.  They all have different moods and messages; you are playing three characters.
Here’s is a performance of Schubert’s Erlkonig by Jesse Norman.
Here’s another one, which was orchestrated, performed by Anne Sofie Von Otter
12)  Study the form of the piece.  If you are not familiar with the features of a waltz or a sonata or the like, you will have more trouble committing the piece to memory.  Familiarize yourself with the form generally and identify how the form specifically functions in your piece.  Does the composer do something surprising or different with the form that makes it unusual?  Notice these things.  Of course, where the piece has no form, this might not be possible, but always give it a try.  You may be able to notice the repetition of certain motifs, phrases, passages.  You may notice where a composer has used patterns or tricks to disguise a theme from earlier.  Some composers have been known to take a melody and then reprint it in the music later, turned upside down or played backwards or three half-steps higher.  (read Serialists).  Finding these types of things will help you commit the piece to memory.
14)  Make like Simonides.   I’ve never personally tried this but I just learned of this memorization technique which is employed by World Champion memorizers.  It was invented by a Greek guy named Simonides.  Basically, you envision a house or some other structure, and you put everything you need to remember in the different rooms of the house.  That way, as you walk through the house, you can “see” what’s next and what it is. Be specific about the house and what it looks like and what is in it.  That’s essential to its effectiveness apparently.  I would try putting different sections (the ones you made above) in the different rooms of the house.   Experiment with this technique, and if you find it works or doesn’t work, please let me know!  You can read a little more about the technique and its origins in the NYTimes article linked below.
Unfortunately, no one said this memorization process would be easy, but if you follow my advice you will KNOW your piece and will be able to handle whatever nerves might cause your memory to become less secure.  So happy practicing.  Remember, working slowly is ultimately going to make the overall process take less time.  Try to practice mindfully and patiently.  If you are pressed for time, develop a schedule for learning each section.  I would recommend taking whatever time is needed to learn a section, but sometimes it can be helpful to set a goal to learn section A this week and section B the next.  Just don’t get too tied to the schedule that you fail to get firm results.
Happy Practicing!  And don’t be mad at me when you get frustrated, get mad at Clara!

One of my favorite pieces; Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2

Specifically, I love the first movement.  Unfortunately, my hands are small (can barely reach an octave) and my teacher in high school wouldn’t let me play things that I couldn’t reach, so this was out of the question for me.  I know, I know.   Alicia de la Rocha had small hands and still managed to be a concert pianist. But she mostly played Bach, not Rachmaninoff [ed.  I mean Prokofiev I think but Rachmaninoff also has proved a challenge for my small hands].  Very different things.

Anyway, enough about me and my hands.  About the Concerto:

Prokofiev completed his second piano concerto in 1913, dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April, shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friend Prokofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer in preparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them to Paris, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the Black Sea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk, provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approval from the more progressive.

The orchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minorOpus 16, was destroyed in a fire, during Prokofiev’s absence from Russia after 1918, and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Dyagilev showed interest in what seemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet, eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, became the Scythian Suite, music that Glazunov found even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Dyagilev arranged a concert appearance for Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto to the expected mixed response. Dyagilev now offered a more congenial commission for The Buffoon (Chout), a ballet eventually staged in Paris in 1921.

The concerto is in four movements and opens with a lyrical Andantino and textures, at least, that suggest the chromaticism and piano-writing of Rachmaninov. The second movement is a Scherzo, in the key of D minor, music that offers a technical challenge to the soloist in its busy octaves. The original key of G minor is restored in the third movement> Intermezzo, a march in ironic mood rather than the more lyrical movement suggested by the title. The virtuoso finale recalls in its first subject the first movement, leading to a second subject of obviously Russian character. There is an extended cadenza before the orchestra returns with the principal theme.

The following are a few different renditions of the Concerto to mull over.  I had the Yefim Bronfman recording in high school, so probably I prefer it simply because it is very familiar and comfortable.  As always, I love Evgeny Kissin‘s version because, well, he’s amazing.  Yundi Li‘s performance is also lovely.

It has been said of the work:

It remains one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, noted in 2011: “A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly.Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as virtuoso had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it withAnsermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers.”[7]

Furthermore, the cadenza in the first movement, which comprises close to half of the first movement, is among the most difficult in piano repertoire.

Happy listening!

Update: Watch Beatrice Rana perform the concerto during the Finals of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition:

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