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 ------>

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