Friday, 31 October 2014

CEP #3 - The journey continues...(Op.10 No.2)

Etude Op.10 No.2

Etude Op.10 No.2 bears many similarities to Op.10 No.1 - in fact, I always considered the first two etudes of Op.10 as a sort of pair which complement it each other. 

In the first etude, Chopin played with the idea of arpeggios in a sense. He wrote a piece based on "expanded arpeggios", where the hand had to be able to span an interval greater than that spanned by a simple triad. 

In this etude, Chopin plays with the idea of scales (the 'counterpart' of arpeggios I guess?). More specifically, chromatic scales. A quick glance at the score makes it immediately apparent what's so tricky about this etude. The fingering is all weird! Instead of the standard 1312313... pattern, you have 434534... a much more awkward fingering to use.

This etude is, in essence, an exercise in the dexterity of the 'weak' fingers of the right-hand (345). And no, there's no way to beat the system here, because fingers 1 and 2 have to play every quarter beat! So unless you have three hands, you can't play both clefs without using 345 fingering for the chromatic scales.

Perhaps it also exercises the lightness of touch, both in the right and left hand. Note that the right hand 'supporting' notes should only be played as sixteenth-notes. They can be seen as springboards for the scale runs, and they perhaps can disturb the flow of the piece if great care isn't taken over being very light with them.

The etude is quite short, about the same length as No.1. Personally, I think it's much less nasty than No.1 (which is ridiculously punishing!) but, as with all Chopin's Etudes, a lot of care needs to be taken when practising. Especially slow practice!

How I practised

While the piece itself is difficult, luckily it is very approachable for studying.

The etude can be very easily split into three voices:
  1. Scales in the upper register (right hand, fingers 345)
  2. 'Supporting' notes (right hand, fingers 12)
  3. Left hand
The obvious way of practising this piece is to start off with the upper register scales (which is more or less the meat of the piece anyway). Once this become fluent, it is simply a matter of layering the other voices on top, one by one. This is how I'm doing it!

Regarding the fingering of the right hand scales, in both my edition and the Schirmer edition it seems like, in general, when playing patterns upwards the pattern for the fingering is: 34343434... and coming down it's 5454545454... I find it easier when going up to replace the fourth finger with the third. So, in the first bar, the fingering goes: 5345 3534 5353 5345... I dunno, I suppose it's a matter of preference.

As with No.1, there are a few interesting 'tricky' sections in the etude:

Bar 21: It would be nice if the Eb could be played with the 2nd finger but, in the context of the piece, the fourth finger is really the only option. The result? - a passage that's a bit shifty!

Bars 33-4: This pattern gets easier with practise but at the beginning it felt like hit and miss! It's awkward because the normal 'scalic' pattern from the rest of the piece is broken. You need to use a completely different finger motion.

Unfortunately, I do not have a recording to provide you with today, as it's too early at this stage and my playing of the entire piece isn't fluent enough. Unless you want to listen to me playing at half speed - but I'm guessing you probably don't!

Instead, here's a link to a video showing you how a pro does it:

Till next time!

P.S. Happy Halloween!

Monday, 27 October 2014

CEP #2 - Progress on the Waterfall Etude

Last time we left off with me posting a recording of me playing Chopin's Op.10 No.1 etude.

It has now been 5 days since that recording, and after spending that time working on nothing but that impossible etude I will allow myself to post an updated recording to show the progress I've made since then:

Op.10 No.1 - Take 2

(note: this recording was taken with a microphone live of me playing on a Bechstein grand piano)

Personally? I'm fairly happy with the progress. I think the playing is overall much cleaner than it was 5 days ago.

Of course, the speed is nowhere near the 176 bpm Chopin asks for. So far the highest I feel confident at is ~ 124bpm, so there's still a lot of work to be done!

I did notice one particular thing that I would like to share. I have been practising this piece with a metronome (something I've never done willingly by myself!), and I spent a lot of time playing the etude over and over again at 124bpm, trying to perfect my accuracy. However progress was painfully slow. Today, I tried playing over at a much slower tempo (106bpm) a few times, then I played again at 124bpm There was certainly a difference! Not only in the accuracy but generally with confidence in playing. I think it goes to show that you must have patience when practising. Take it slow and get it right. Take it fast, get it wrong, and you'll end up nowhere!

The Importance of relaxation

This is another thing I think this etude tries to make you master. I have realised that you cannot play through this etude without a relaxed hand and not feel like your hand is about to fall off at the end. You cannot stress the hand in this etude. It is something I find quite difficult, especially because the action on my Kawai electric piano is pretty stiff compared to a grand piano. But, as I said in CEP #1, it seems like your hands can get used to long as you put effort into consistently having a relaxed hand when practising.

And it's strange - you look at a pianist's hands and it doesn't occur to you that their hand is relaxed. You say to yourself "That hand is doing a lot of work!". But it's one of those pseudo-paradoxes in piano-playing, I guess. A relaxed hand reduces unnecessary strain ('s unnecessary!) and prevents injuries. I had an injury in the left hand due to piano playing me, it doesn't feel good. At all!

So, what next? I think it's time to move on. I will be starting Op.10 No.2 tomorrow, but I will still be working on No.1, just not as often. I think I perhaps need a bit of time off to allow the music to 'bleed' into my hands.

Otherwise this etude will just become a study in masochism...and will get the better of me in the end.

Till next time!

<----- CEP #1

P.S. I present you another recording of Chopin's Op.10 No.1, this time from the indestructible and downright freaky Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa:

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

CEP #1 - And so it begins...

Before we begin, I have a quick confession to make...

I have already begun to study two etudes from the set. These are Op.10 No.1 and 3. I looked at No.1 for a couple of weeks a few months ago, so while I didn't study it for a long time I studied enough to memorise the notes and have the piece "in my hands", if you will. As for No.3, I have had a long history with this one as I first started practising it from a collection of Chopin pieces many years ago. However, I am proudly ashamed to say that I only studied the A section seriously, i.e. the first section containing the main melody. I deemed the middle section too difficult at the time.

I should also briefly point out which printed edition I will be using for the project. There is a lot of talk out there on which edition is the best for the Chopin Etudes. Henle Urtext, Paderewski, Schirmer,'s enough to make your head spin!

Me, personally, I think when it comes to editions of sheet music, it's important to ask which editions to avoid. Fortunately, it's quite simple to determine which editions these are, because they almost never come up on online discussions.

Either way, I decided to go down a less conventional route and ended up purchasing the relatively new Alfred Masterworks edition. I have had a good experience with them in the past, and I liked the fact that the book was ring bound and included the 3 Nouvelle Etudes. Judging by the Amazon "Look Inside" feature, the notes themselves looked clear and nicely spaced out.

I could've referred to IMSLP for the sheet music, however I did wish to have a physical, professionally bound copy of the etudes for this project as I've found that, in many cases, sheet music which I print out ends up being written over with phone numbers or turned into paper airplanes or simply thrown in the recycling bin. Not to mention that, of course, printing for yourself also costs money!

If I ever wish to refer to a specific bar or part of the music on this blog, I will be using extracts from the Schirmer (Mikuli) edition found here on the IMSLP site. If there are any important differences between the Schrimer and Alfred edition, I will point those out.

Etude Op.10, No.1

We begin our studies with, quite possibly, the most terrifying etude in the whole set.

On the page, all it looks like is a series of arpeggios in the right hand going up and down and up and down, and the left hand playing nothing more than very basic octaves. Ha, this is the stuff of 6 year olds!

Oh dear...this is not the stuff of 6 year olds at all. In fact, even the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said that he wishes never to perform this etude in public due to its difficulty.

So what's so difficult about it?

First of all, it is wrong to assume that this is a study in arpeggios. The right hand is not playing arpeggios at all. Let's follow the piece note for note...

The piece starts off with the left playing a C octave in the bass, followed immediately by the right hand playing the notes: C G C E, followed by the same set of notes an octave higher...and an octave higher...until reaching the top E of the piano, and then descending with the same, reversed pattern all the way to the C at the bottom. The fingering for "C G C E" given by the sheet music is "1 2 4 5".

Try the right hand out slowly on a keyboard if you can. It feels awkward because, unlike in basic arpeggios, you are required to shift your hand across the keyboard in playing those four notes (unless you have very big hands, but that's not the point). Then, after playing those four notes, you have to shift the whole hand up an entire octave, playing the C played by the 4th finger again by the thumb.

This pattern is, pretty much, the essence of the piece. The notes themselves change throughout the piece as Chopin uses different harmonies, but the pattern pretty much remains the same throughout, with very little rest for the right hand throughout the piece.

(note: I will assume throughout these blog posts that the reader has never studied the Chopin etudes, but of course that won't be true for everyone)

I initially thought, therefore, that this etude is about stretching and shifting the right hand.

But I have come to terms with the idea that, no, this etude is not about stretching at all, although it may seem like it at first due to the grouping of 10th chords. There is, counter-intuitively, no need to stretch the right hand at all in this piece!

I think this etude is definitely about being able to smoothly and efficiently shift the right hand while being accurate with the fingers.

I also think there's something to be said about the expansion/contraction motion of the right hand. You need to spread the fingers out to play the broken chords, but then you've got to bring the thumb right up to the position of the little finger when you're shifting the position of the right hand to an octave above. And vice versa on the way down, where you bring the little finger up close to the thumb.

All this might not seem so tricky at first, but that's because we haven't taken into account what makes this piece so terrifying...

The tempo.

The tempo marking of the piece is "quarter note = 176". How fast is this? In the context of this piece, that is roughly 12 notes a second. Take a look at the video below to see a performance played in proper tempo (if not slightly slower):

There are 79 bars in the piece. There are, roughly speaking, 31 notes in the right hand every two bars, for 78 bars (the last bar does not have any notes in the right hand). This means that there are:

(78/2) x 31 = ~1209

notes in the right hand in this piece, which have to be played at a rate of 12 notes per second non-stop, not mentioning that also the right hand needs to repeatedly travel up and down the keyboard range in the space of just under 3 seconds.

I think this tempo marking, with the combination of the very shifty and active right hand, is what makes this piece so frightening and seemingly impossible to play.

How I practised

The way I approached practising this etude was, naturally, by ignoring the left hand and practising the right hand slowly. The very first time I started playing the etude seemed incredibly awkward, and I wasted too much effort by stretching my right hand rather than smoothly shifting the hand horizontally across the notes. After some time, though, I gradually began to discover easier, more comfortable ways of positioning my hand, and the whole playing became more natural.

I believe that it's not very different from when a complete beginner to the piano starts practising scales and arpeggios for the first time. Everybody finds that sort of thing awkward when they've never experienced it before. But as pianists become experienced with more and more pieces, everything becomes more familiar to them, and they forget that feeling of awkwardness. However, by writing Op.10 No.1, Chopin introduced some quite alien piano techniques which I think surprise many experienced pianists out there, and push them out of the comfort zone.

Thankfully, with a bit of practice and a few nights to sleep over it, this new technique loses a lot of its 'alienness'. So while, at first sight, getting used to the hand movements of this etude might seem an impossible feat (especially after watching somebody like Garrick Ohlsson play it) your brain will naturally adapt to it.

Then comes the task of discovering the motion of the hand which makes the etude as easy as possible to play. This, I think, is the ultimate 'trick' of the piece - finding the correct motions. I feel like I'm confident with my hand motions in about half of the bars of this piece, but there are many awkwardly spaced note sequences which I still don't think I've cracked yet.

Some examples:

1. What makes this sequence awkward is the big jump between the notes played by the 2nd finger and thumb. The big jump means that it's especially tricky to create a fluid motion with the hand. I find I need to do some funny rotating motion with the hand where I start each 5321 group with the hand rotated 45 degrees to the left, and end up pointing 45 degrees to the right, meaning that when I bring the pinky back to the D# I need to make a quick, 90 degree rotation with the hand to the left. It's bloody difficult!

2. This passage would be quite simple if it weren't for the E-flats! The trickiest part is the need to 'reach' the Eb at position 5 from position 4 while you've got the Bb in the way. It feels almost impossible to play this smoothly.

Anyway, let me show you what I can make so far out of the piece. Here is a recording of me playing the etude on my Kawai MP6 piano at home:

Op.10 No.1 - Take 1

Few things I noted when I listened back to this:
  • Tempo is much slower than it should be - this is as fast as I'm willing to showcase at this point. I should also quickly mention that, this being a study, you do not need to be able to play at 176 beats per minute to learn something useful from it. But, of course, I would quite like to reach the marked tempo at some point!
  • It sounds like I'm generally quite uneven with my playing - perhaps I need to undergo more slow practice, or practise using something like a dotted rhythm for the right hand. I have a slight suspicion that the recording capabilities of my electric piano aren't entirely accurate, but it's best to be on the safe side and assume the unevenness is entirely due to my playing!
  • Accuracy is not the greatest at the moment, but hopefully this will improve over time. 

Op.10 No.1 is, I think, quite an easy piece to 'get on top of', but it is an absolute bitch to master. It's perfect for technique-philes - you can get away with not putting in a lot of emotion, but it requires a ton of work to play at the right speed with 100% accuracy...enough to drive anybody mad!

I will give this piece one more week of practice, and post my progress. After that, I plan to leave it temporarily and turn to the next etude, Op.10 No.2.

Till next time!

<---- Introduction 
CEP #2 ------>

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Chopin Etudes Project - Introduction

 I'm awesome.

Dear Readers,

Many years ago, I made a pledge to myself.

I told myself that, before I die, I will learn and be able to perform Frederic Chopin's 24 Etudes, Op.10 and 25.

Now I'm ready.


The ultimate aim of the Chopin Etudes Project is to learn Chopin's Etudes. However, instead of doing it all by myself, I will post regular updates on this blog, writing my thoughts and comments as I study each etude, and posting audio recordings every now and then to showcase my progress.

Why Chopin's Etudes? Well, they are my favourite set of pieces for the piano, and Chopin is also undoubtedly my favourite composer for the piano. I find his pieces contain some kind of brilliant quality found nowhere else in the piano repetoire, the kind of thing that makes you go "Aaahhh...Chopin" and makes your heart melt. But there aren't only personal reasons. Chopin's Etudes are widely regarded as some of the most innovative, imaginative and, perhaps most of all, challenging pieces for the piano repetoire out there. I suppose you can call it the ultimate course of Romantic piano playing ("etuder" means "to study" in French, so "etudes" are "studies")

Before I move on, a few words on this word "learning". I was purposefully being careless with my word choice when I said that I will try and "learn" Chopin's Etudes. I believe that it is not actually possible to "learn" any piece of music. You can throw the word around and people will understand what you mean, but strictly speaking it makes no sense. Me personally, I have "learnt" a fair number of piano pieces in the past, however, whenever I end up performing them in front of an audience, I always hit a bum note somewhere and I never play it with the same confidence I have when practising at home. So my playing is not perfect. And what does "learn" mean in art, anyway? What does it mean to learn to play an instrument, or to learn to dance or learn to paint? I believe art is something you study, not learn.  

So what do I mean when I say that the ultimate aim of the project is to learn Chopin's Etudes? I initially foresaw it as this: I will be able to walk up to a piano in front of an audience, play all the etudes (without sheet music!) and receive a generally favourable, genuine response. It might sound slightly egotistical when I put it that way but that's essentially what I mean by "learn".

Unfortunately, I quickly realised that I doubt I will have the opportunity to ever perform for one hour straight in a piano recital. So I'll have to make do with plan B, which is: I will post a video on Youtube of a recording of the complete Chopin etudes, played by me, including good old fashioned scrolling sheet music, and if people "like" it, I'll be happy with that result.

OK, so we've established the end point of the project. Now some more details on the process:

Firstly, I can't guarantee that I will learn the etudes in order. I might skip about here and there, just to spice things up a bit.

Secondly, sadly I can't guarantee that this project will ever become finished. It's easy for me to sit here in front of my PC and ramble on about learning 24 of some of the most difficult pieces for piano, but stuff might come up in the future and I can't tell whether any success will come out of this or not. All I can say is this: this is not a "in-the-spur-of-the-moment" idea, I have been thinking about doing this for some time now. As for the etudes themselves, they have fascinated me ever since I was a child, and I find it difficult to imagine that that this fascination will ever stop, particularly when studying them. I might grow sick of them, but I know I will never stop loving them. Gosh, that sounds so cliche, doesn't it?

Thirdly, I have no teacher. The only teachers will be my conscious, the internet, and Chopin. While this is a risky move (and some of you will probably think of me as arrogant because of it!), I have decided that it will be part of the project. I would love to have a teacher but for now, getting one would be problematic and I'm willing to take the risk of diving in solo.

Now, the question that some of you will undoubtedly have on your mind: Who the hell am I?!

My name is Thomas Kobialka. I am 18 and I study Physics. I started playing piano at the age of 5 and, with help from three fantastic music teachers, finished the Grade 8 exam in the summer of 2010. However, I only started actually liking the damn instrument by the age of...10, or so. I started a Youtube channel (tomekkobialka) where I posted audio + sheet music videos of mostly piano pieces, including some of my own compositions. My passion started off as a fascination of mainly classical piano music after listening to my Dad's CD called "Piano for Dummies" but has since grown into a fascination of all sorts, from avant-garde to jazz to pop to opera. I occasionally compose music for video games and short films.

I am not a professional musician, in the sense that I don't make a living out of it, and I'm not a student of music. My completely formal music training finished with the grade 8 piano exam.

Simply put, music is a strong hobby of mine, and while my brain loves science, my passion ultimately lies in music. But, above all, I am deeply fascinated by Chopin's Etudes, and while part of the purpose of the project is to 'learn' Chopin's Etudes, the main purpose is to investigate the etudes mysteries and decode its difficulties, and share my findings on this blog. I like to describe myself as a musical explorer, a musical wanderer. I love discovering new things. I see musical performance as a side effect of this exploration, a kind of 'lab report', if you will. Don't get me wrong, I'm not demeaning musical performance in any way. But it's not the reason I love music.

Oh, one more thing. If you are unfamiliar with Chopin's Etudes, I recommend you look them up. I uploaded a complete set of videos on my Youtube channel, with audio and scrolling score. You can find more info on the Etudes' Wikipedia page. As far as recordings go, Pollini's Deutsche Grammophon recording is very good all-round. If you prefer to watch somebody play, Vyacheslav Gryaznov's recital performance is simply outstanding, as well as slightly terrifying. And finally, you can find the complete, free sheet music for the Etudes on Chopin's IMSLP site.
OK, best get practising now. I hope to put in at least 1 hour a day of piano practice. I will be posting updates on this blog hopefully at least once a week, summarizing what I've learnt and will also try to often provide audio recordings...maybe even videos.

I hope that, through doing this project, we can all together learn something...

Till next time! :D

I really should've taken that course in improvisation...