Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An act of faith

I'm playing a piano recital of the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a concert pianist who toured America during the Civil War. The concert is on June 30th at 3pm at Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign, Illinois.

Every time I start to prepare for a concert there is the time when I think: this is never going to happen. I am not going to learn this music in time. It feels like an act of faith to even prepare for it as if it is actually going to happen. And yet something (unreasoning fear?) makes me practice for an hour. Then another. And another. This process happens so often I refer to it as step one.

This time, however, I have set a new record for lateness in getting started. It's been a busy year, with a whole lot of unrelated musical activities, and, when I sat down on Monday, with less than four weeks to go before the concert date, I was in new territory. Normally I would have the entire program memorized by now; instead, I'm just getting started.

This was one of my worries--memorization. Besides just being able to play the notes. And everything else.

I have a theory that more successful people aren't any cooler than the rest, or that amateurs get worried and nervous while the professionals just go about their business. No, the difference is that the professional panics earlier. And with more intensity. That intensity compels him or her to practice. Hard. Then, as the date nears, the panic lessens as the results come in. A piece of music starts to actually sound like a piece of music. Until then, its actually not a lot of fun preparing a program. And that's where I'm at right now. I want everything to feel comfortable and to sound good by last Tuesday. Which is totally unreasonable, and is probably the best thing I've got going for me right now. Make sense?

I'll share a couple of nuts and bolts things I did today. Here's a passage from the opening piece on the program which I am determined not to give away before concert time. This is a passage from somewhere in the middle so it doesn't count. It is also not going to be the most musical thing you've ever heard. In fact, it is the complete opposite of how I plan to play it on stage. That's because the thing I am worried about getting my ears around here is not the melody, or the bass--those are interesting enough that I'll imbibe them without thinking about them too hard. It's the tenor voice, the top of those chords that the left hand jumps to up from the bass every time. Where does that voice go? If I don't pay particular attention to it, try to make a musical line out of it, I'll never be able to remember how it actually goes and at the concert I'll mess it up. It's not very memorable, which means it needs special attention. As a general rule, you have to put in at least twice as much time on the "dull parts." So I'm playing this line quite loudly, to teach my ear how that part goes. The rest, melody and bass, is on automatic.

[listen]

Another harvest from the practice room is the old standby to play slowly. Painfully. It's not terribly interesting this way, but it is also not at all necessary to achieve anything close to performance tempo in the first few days, particularly if you can play it well and comfortable at a slower speed. In my experience, once that happens, the piece speeds ups rather quickly. Suddenly, within a day, the piece goes from competent but boring to a full fledged piece of music that I can do something with. Check back in a couple of days; you won't recognize this passage!

[listen]

In the meantime, Mr. Gottschalk has written a lot of interesting instructions in his scores, and I think I'm going to have a lot of fun trying to get into his brain. For one thing, he seems obsessed with "good rhythm." Instructions to keep the rhythm steady, not to slow down, to mark the rhythm well, dot the scores. Sometime  soon I'll count the number of similar instructions in the six pieces I'm playing. I suspect a large part of the reason for that is to combat the way amateurs played his music, slowing down partly out of affectation and partly because they just couldn't handle the hard parts at the same tempo they'd set for the rest of the piece! I can't imagine he didn't use a little rubato; I've heard a few pianists online playing these pieces with an absolutely unswerving sense of plowing through every beat of every passage at an identical speed and they sound like robots. No, a dance is not composed of absolutely equal beats. Besides, I've already noted one place in the scores that supports my theory about these markings being more to prevent abuse than out of a desire to communicate a musical idea: there is a place toward the beginning of a piece called "Pasquinade" where there is marking to not slow down. Now it never would have occurred to me to even think of slowing down there. If the composer feels compelled to warn others not to, then I think we have our winner!

Until next time, slow and steady! And with accents on all the "wrong" (unimportant) notes!

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