Saturday, December 22, 2007

I've been busy...

Since it has been awhile since my last post (!) my true nature as a pianist as been exposed. I procrastinate. Its not that I haven’t been practicing, because I have been chained to the piano --- just not playing a lot of Bach. My Bach project was put on hold while I prepared for a concert (performed on December 4, for Noontime Concerts at Old St. Mary’s) and then I had holiday gigs (Christmas on the Keys) and then I had to make these banners for friends and family….

Peace Banner / FoundArt Cards by BEE 2007

Peace Banner / FoundArt Cards by BEE 2007
...hanging in my window, before given away...

Diva Branch / FoundArt Cards by BEE 2007
...on the bar - wish I had a better picture. I'll have to get one from the DIVA for whom I made this banner.
New Year's Branch / FoundArt Cards by BEE 2007
...sent to my parents...

Merry Christmas Banner / FoundArt Cards by BEE 2006
...made last year, but hanging in my living room window Christmas 2007...
Now back to Bach. I will be posting several times over the next few days as I get ready for my trip to New York City. I’ll be working with Bruce Potterton at the Turtle Bay School of Music for five days between Christmas and New Years. My plan is to work on the Sixth French Suite in E Major. On my return to San Francisco the pieces will be firmly “in my fingers” which will provide a solid foundation to start working with Harpsichordist, Tamara Loring, on Barouqe ornamention.

The dances in the Suite right now are far from perfect, but I’m going to record all of them anyway. It will be interesting to see how much they improve after intensive study.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Streaming Courante

Today while playing the Courante I thought of a water running in a stream. No reason, except maybe channeling Schubert --- anyway, it was wonderful to play the Courante while thinking of water dancing over rocks, swirling in eddies, falling over cliffs…in the second section when the piece modulates to a minor key, it's like the stream is running through a dark, deeply wooded area – cool and mysterious - then after a long trill (bird songs?) emerges out of the forest and continues it’s journey to the sea in sunlight and warmth.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Au Courante

The courante, corrente, coranto and corant are just some of the names given to a family of triple metre dances from the late Renaissance and the Baroque era. Modern usage will sometimes use the different spellings to distinguish types of courante (Italian spelling for the Italian dance, etc.), but in the original sources spellings were inconsistent. Courante literally means running. From Wikipedia

My fingers fly down the scale passages in the Courante from Bach's French Suite VI. It’s like running down a hill --- fast a little out of control… like flying. A friend of my mine recently celebrated a milestone birthday with a Contra dance party. We ended the night of wonderful dancing with a simple version of the Flying Scotsman. It was exhilarating to sash-say down the line of dancers and back again. I was out of breath from running and laughing...just like playing the scales in the Courante.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Allemande Take Two

Follow the link above to hear the second section of the Allemande.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Two Voices

I want to write about the wonderful contrapuntal lines in the second section of the Allemande. I’m playing the left hand alone a lot to hear that marvelous voice --- with the octave leaps and then the beautiful falling sequence. I’m struggling technically to keep my left hand in tempo, another reason to practice hands alone. I need to hear that line so clearly when I combine the two voices --- to create a dialog between the hands, rather than the right hand line dominating the conversation. The harmony is a little darker in the second section, moving to a minor key. I like that darkness – c sharp minor… “the key of laments, sighs of unsatisfied friendship and love”…providing a contrast to the “happy” key of E Major. This theme of being unsatisfied in relationship to the moods created by the tonality of the key signatures keeps returning. As I mentioned in the post about the joyful nature of the key of E Major --- there is some scholarship documenting that composers found these two related keys (E Major and c sharp minor) to suggest ultimately unfullfillment. It’s funny, because I never feel unsatisfied when I play either section of the Allemande. Well…I’m not happy with my technique --- especially when playing the trills, but that is another story.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard

Today I was reading about the Allemande in the Badur-Skoda book – “Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard” and he was talking about the structure in the dance movements of Bach's Suites. Evidently the eight bar sections common for the Baroque period are present in the allemandes and the sarabandes of the French Suites. In many cases --- Badur-Skoda goes on to say --- the whole first sections are in an eight bar structure, and that the performer needs to show this structure by making long phrases. I found this quite interesting. In the E major Allemande, there are three, four bar phrases in the first section. I played all twelve measures in “one breath”. I couldn’t really make it work as I naturally want to "take a breath"* after each four bar section. Also, it increases my tempo, which may not be for the best, as the Courante (the next dance in the Suite) needs to be faster than the Allemande.

*As I'm a pianist I don't really need to take a breath to make a sound, like so many other musicians, but I try to show where I would take a breath as if I were singing the line. It helps a great deal to sing Bach while practicing --- even if it does make me a little self-conscious - what if somewhere hears me!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Allemande Take One

Here is a clip of the first section of the Allemande. I'll keep working on it --- adding some more trills and different articulations as I learn more about playing Bach's keyboard works.

I hope that the joyful nature of the key of E Major comes through. Once the microphone gets turned on, I seem to forget all of the nuances that I've been working on. When recording, I just hold my breath and hope that I don't make mistakes. A clip of the second section will follow soon.

Friday, October 5, 2007


Tempo. I have a theory about tempo. It is, that a piece can only be played easily when it is played at the tempo that the composer truly conceived for the piece. I’m putting that to the test.

I often tell my students that Bach is a composer that you can play slowly and still feel satisfied ---as the harmonies and the contrapuntal nature of the lines are so interesting. I’m having a hard time playing the Allemande at a slow enough tempo. I’m impatient and want to be able to dance on the keys today. I have practiced many of the passages carefully and repeatedly and hope that my hard work will be rewarded. I still feel like I’m all thumbs in places.

Recently I heard an NPR (Radio Lab) program about sleep. The program attempted to answer the questions: why do we sleep and what does it do for us. It turns out that all creatures sleep – some do so with one eye open. Part of the program mentioned that a musician was having difficulty with some passage work and had struggled while practicing. Unable to master the passage, the musician gave up and went to bed. The next morning the musician tried the problematic passage and amazingly the passage had been mastered while sleeping. Got me to thinking…time for sleep to help me conquer the Allemande and I’m going to put the score under my pillow for good measure!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Note Mistakes

I’ve been listening to Andras Schiff play the Allemande. He is so fast and fleet of fingers. Really lovely. My fingers feel sluggish…back to Czerny for me. Today as I was practicing I kept running into trouble with some passages (actually the whole piece seemed hard). I thought I was going too fast. I slowed down the tempo, but was continuing to make the same mistakes. I felt pretty frustrated…then I took a breath and asked myself why these passages, slow or fast would not work for me. I flashed to a conversation I had with a teacher who told me to put a work slowly into my hands by really listening to the sounds that each finger is making on every note. So I listened very carefully and took note as to which fingers were playing when, and then noted the intervals my fingers were creating. As I did that I noticed that one of the spots that I was having difficulty with was because I was anticipating an accidental that happens in the next bar. I was worried about it, so I was playing it early – ½ beat early! I then played the passage slowly analyzing which fingers were playing and the intervals they were creating and viola – the next time I ran the passage no mistakes! This minor eureka moment reminded me of something that Charles Rosen wrote in Piano Notes roughly paraphrased as follows: “pianists are the only musicians who don’t have to listen to the sounds they make to play their instrument”. I find that many of the my students are guilty of this – as I am sometimes. I try to not play that way ever, because if I listen as I practice I fix mistakes quickly and then I spend less time practicing. Hurray! Practicing the piano is a discipline where it really pays to be in the moment playing with conscious intent.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Regarding the French Suite in general...

These suites, not particularly 'French' in idiom, lack preludes, and are shorter and less elaborate than the Partitas and English Suites. Nevertheless, they contain some of Bach's most popular and accessible keyboard writing. (from the Urtext Edition of the French Suites)

When I read that, I got an idea to play around with adding a prelude before I play the French Suite No. 6 – especially since I have a favorite prelude in E Major from WTC Book II. I’ve been fascinated by the effective use of the step interval in the broken chord that Bach uses a lot in the Allemande. For example in the B Major arpeggiated chord ending the first section, the notes in the right hand are b, c#, #d, f#, b, followed by f#, d#, f#, b. The c# does not belong the b major chord, but the extra step creates such a beautiful effect. This addition of a step in the skip pattern is also used in the WCT Book II E Major prelude. It makes me wonder if the passing tone used with the triads is what I really love about these pieces and not the "joyful" key of E Major.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Heart Sings

JS Bach, French Suite, No. 6
The Allemande

What is it about the key of E Major that makes my heart sing? I always feel happy when playing in this key. I think a big reason I was attracted to this piece is because it is in E Major. One of favorite preludes is the E Major one from WTC Book II. Several years ago in Harper’s Magazine (January 2005), they published a sidebar about what the musical keys represented. It was fascinating. According to Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1739-1791) the Key E Major represents: “…loud shouts for joy, laughing pleasure, and still not altogether full gratification.” Perhaps this image was planted in my brain, so from now on, I feel joyful about E Major…the power of suggestion?

Anyway, back to the work at hand (no pun intended!) I have the notes of the Allemande in my fingers. I’m working on tempo and checking my fingering and ornaments. I find Alfred’s Ornamentation Book helpful as it gives me a point of reference to begin with. I’m also exploring added trills on the repeats. It’s fun to try mordents and appoggiatura at full and half cadence points. I also find the sequences in this work fun. I know that Bach’s work is full of sequences, but the syncopation with the leap of the 6th is extra rewarding…but, is it fulfilling?

Monday, September 24, 2007


About the Allemande…it is a dance in moderate duple meter first appearing in the Sixteen Century.

As one of the enduringly popular dances of the Baroque genre, an allemande is often offered as a standard portion of a musical suite. While early on an allemande served as a prelude to the suite, the dance is usually included in the first movement today. Here is some information on the history of the allemande, as well as some of the features that make the allemande unique in the world of Baroque dance. The origins of the allemande can be traced back to the Renaissance of the 16th century. The name of the allemande is actually based on the French word for "German," and points to the fact that the dance is based partly on elements of popular Germany dances. Featuring a moderated tempo along with a double meter, the allemande was a lively representation and quickly caught the attention of dancers as well as composers. During the 17th century, there was some experimentation with the allemande that changed the basic structure of the dance. Instead of a double meter, a quadruple meter was employed. In addition, the overall tempo of the movement was increased. Most of the refinements came about in order to accommodate similar changes in the musical compositions.
It is worth noting that no less than Bach and Froberger in Germany composed allemandes that were geared for use with keyboard instruments, while Italian and English composers focused on musical compositions for string instruments. English composers also experimented with a tripe meter to the allemande, as well as working with the quadruple meter concept.

From WiseGeek

Friday, September 21, 2007

Diary of a Pianist

This diary will be an attempt to document my process as I learn various masterworks of the keyboard literature. I wanted to start this blog as a way to connect with other musicians and music lovers as the practice room can be such a lonely place!

I always envied ensemble players – as they get to interact with other musicians while learning pieces – even though I never really sought out chamber music for myself, being far too interested in solo playing.

When I first thought of this diary project, I originally chose Pour le Piano by Debussy as my starter project. But I had a lot of trouble getting underway. I did download some great recordings of the work (so far my favorite is by Claudio Arrau, but Phillipe Entremont’s recording really gets my heart rate up – his Toccata tempo takes my breath away!), bought a score, and read through the Prelude and Sarabande (notice I did not read through the Toccata…), but I just couldn’t seem to get any further than that. I just talked a lot about playing the work.

So, this summer I attended the Golandsky Institute at Princeton University for the second time, and, like the first time, I found inspiration at the Institute. One of the master classes featured a lovely young pianist, Monika Haar, playing the sixth French Suite of J. S. Bach. I fell in love with the piece, and having never learned any of the Suites, I realized it was high time to start in on one. I’ve always loved Bach, but for years I had a phobia about playing his music – all that ornamentation! Later, seduced by the Early Music Movement, I felt Bach should not be played on pianos, as they did not exist at the time when Bach was composing his music. Also, my technique was rusty from not playing the piano for ten years from 1983-1993 (long story, don’t ask!), and, frankly, playing Bach’s music is hard.

However, one by one, I conquered my fears, including making peace with playing Bach on the piano and not on a period instrument (more about that later) and I’ve made J. S. Bach a staple of my piano diet. When I first returned to the piano, my teacher Eliane Lust had me relearn all of the Two-Part Inventions by singing one line and playing the other which was a wonderful may to reconnect to the piano and to Bach. I’ve also worked on several Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier, and of course now I’m learning a French Suite.

My next post will be about working on the first dance of the suite, The Allemande!