Saturday, March 23, 2019

Economy of Motion

My previous post concentrated on some basic recurring issues I tend to have but I noticed that despite writing these out, some of them keep resurfacing. In order to expedite my learning process, this time I will attempt to outline theory and methodology for approaching pieces and maintaining proper good habits; sort of a checklist if you may.

Learning new pieces

In order to formalize the approach to new pieces and to avoid pitfalls of my practice and in order to avoid too vexing initial analysis, the goal of these steps is to put in an hour or two of work before actually starting to work on a piece.


First and foremost, one should know what the piece is about. Might be good to look into the history of the piece a little bit too, but the main points to perform here are:
  1. Listen to a recording (or many) of the piece
  2. Establish an idea of what the composer is trying to say
  3. Identify the key mechanisms that are used to convey these ideas (f.ex. use of staccato)

Key and Time Signatures

Identify the key and time signature(s) of the piece. Possibly going through the basic fingerings for scales as a sort of reinforcement learning. Many of my recent pieces have featured more than one key and time signature so this requires crawling through the score of the whole piece.


After numerous tougher passages in some pieces, most recently with Debussy, I've noticed that rhythmic issues come up pretty late in the process. Arguably rhythm is one of the most important things to get right and even more so in the beginning. This does not imply lack of expression or rubato but the basic understanding of the rhythm per hand in and hands in conjunction with each other. Thus, the first exercise is to go through the piece, passage by passage by performing the clapping exercise.

Clapping Exercise

  1. Clap through the rhythm of the piece with Right hand
  2. Clap through the rhythm of the piece with Left hand
  3. Clap through the rhythm of the piece with Both hands
  4. Repeat 3. until comfortable (possibly listening along a recording)

High level analysis of harmony and phrases

One of my earlier attempts at formalizing this process went to deep into the analysis part and would have basically required hours of preparation before touching the piano. While possibly beneficial, it just turned out to be too tedious to actually do so I never even properly tried... Great success!

Instead, the new approach goes through higher level harmony changes without necessarily attempting to perform proper roman numeral analysis on the chord progressions. While still greatly beneficial at some point, the attempt here is to help organize the piece in ones head to better chunks initially before starting to hammer away further practice and analysis.

Harmony analysis

  1. Identify a phrase (often but not necessarily limited by legato lines)
  2. Identify harmony changes within the phrase
  3. Repeat for all phrases in the piece

Hands separately

Now, knowing the keys and time signatures, the rhythm and having a basic idea on how things should be shaped and articulated based on the high level analysis and initial look into the character of the piece, one can start to hammer away at hands separately phase.

While the steps outlined here are somewhat experimental, as I often notice that my HS practice does not properly incorporate dynamics and phrasing, my hope is to get more out of the initial phase of learning. Especially since I should, by now, have put in a decent amount of work as to how the hands should be playing on principle.
  1. Select a bar
  2. Play through the notes at ones own pace
  3. Try to play through the notes with correct rhythm (albeit slower of course)
  4. Incorporate phrasing and dynamics
  5. Repeat from step 1. for next bar
  6. If out of bars, move on to the next hand
The actual length of one block does not have to be a bar, but can be a phrase, a page or the whole piece - but all steps need to be completed for both hands. One should gradually make the played sections longer in order to learn the full flow of the piece as well.

Hands together

Once Hands separately (and possibly before as a teaser) is smooth enough, one should start to work on hands together. These are essentially the same steps as Hands separately but ... together.


A lot of the previous practice focuses on individual phrases (or collection of phrases), but not necessarily a convincing performance of the whole piece. Polishing can take a long time but hopefully the previous steps have expedited the journey to this point and less time will need to be spent here.

Economy of Motion

I titled this post as "Economy of Motion" for the sole reason of writing a bit about that subject. It has, over time, dawned on me that playing fast passages is more and more smoke and mirrors in the sense that instead of individual notes, playing broken chords (or such) can be done with close to a singular hand motion, producing multiple sounds with the cost of one movement. Obviously this is not always the case, but many impressive sounding pieces can be played in such a fashion. In my personal experience, Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum was one of those pieces and even though I did hit a sort of peak with that piece before reaching breakneck speeds, the notion stands.

I recently had consistent problems with rolling chords (arguably still do) and I was not quite sure why. In my practice, I generally could roll those chords with ease when done individually so the hand motion was not the issue but whenever playing those chords in context, I had trouble and was rushing to be able to play it in time.

After a while, my teacher pointed out that the problems in such cases are often in the previous notes. Furthermore, in one particular passage he pointed out that the last note of one rolled chord would actually be held by the pedal so I could already make my way to the beginning of the next one in my left hand to be ready to play it when it is time.

In a couple of other scenarios, not involving rolled chords, I was basically staying idle with my left hand in the position where it had a rest and in another I was measuring up my overhand leap to arrive at the time it was time to play.

The solution in all cases, instead of being fast, was to be efficient. Move in position in good time and be prepared to play. Fundamentally this should always be the case, but the biggest realization for me was to look at the preceding notes of the problem notes. I tried to illustrate this point in a previous post as it was not the first time I realized this, but this time I think it will stick with me better. That is also why I drew up this new version of the illustration.

A lot more of my focus will go into being more efficient when learning and polishing pieces and figuring out how to handle those tricky passages. This is a part of the learning process as well as overall technique.

Next steps for me will be to delve deeper into the polishing phase of everything, since I feel I have fairly big gaps in there and polishing tends to take a long time. However, that's a topic for another time.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I have long since found that the times when one cannot access one's instrument are the times when one feels the biggest urge to do so. That, in itself, is not immensely valuable but channeling that enthusiasm into consuming resources and learning theory on the subject, whatever the subject happens to be, can be tremendously invigorating with the added bonus of taking some time off that can help reset some of the technique over and allows for a fresh approach.

In this case, however, I am obviously talking about piano practice but I think this applies to other crafts as well. As I had some time to reflect without access to my piano, I went through some of the notes and mental notes I had of my recurring mistakes. Some of them I'm getting better at and generally do well but sometimes - when tired, for example - I revert to forgetting everything I have ever learned and just struggling to play the correct notes.

Because of that, I figured it would make sense for me to document my most common recurring mistakes and tips I feel I should have framed on my wall as a reminder.

Active Fingers

This is one tip has also been expressed as either "pulling on the keys" or "playing through the keys". It is the sort of cat-like assertion of force from the hand to the keys through the fingertips that helps to transfer the weight of the arm on to the keys. This cat-like motion makes for a solid crisp, singing touch on the keys and is perhaps the most common thing my fingers stop doing if I am not completely concentrated. That being said, I feel it is becoming more and more second nature for me, but I do occasionally revert to them bad ol' habits.

I still do not exactly know what the steps are to reaching the sort of eloquent "brushing" of the keys that is probably just the extremely refined version of how this can look - apparent in the technique of Master pianists. It is probably not something to worry about at this stage, though.

Hand weight and Shoulders

This is a part of the former I suppose, but playing with hand weight and movement with a loose wrist and active fingers is something that is easy to forget, especially if there are lot of fast notes - i.e. it is easy to revert to just trying to use fingers which often results in uneven and inconsistent results.

As for playing from the shoulders for the fortissimo parts, it can also become somewhat lazy. One can try to exert force from wrists, hands and fingers to try to compensate but having the force come from shoulders and proper body weight makes it less tense and requires less effort as a whole... and generally sounds better I suppose.

Arrive early

This is something that I think I still need more practice on in getting it to my head properly. The idea here is to be at the keys before you need to play them as illustrated by this image.
The idea here is to make the conscious effort to perform the movement required to transition to the new position prior to the actual need to play the key. Obviously things like finger legato are not necessarily possible on such occasions, but for passages with jumps, it makes it possible to have the level of control required to play it properly.

For faster passages, the amount of time the movement takes might be shorter or virtually non-existent, but having the separation of movement and playing in the mind helps. When moving from slow practice to performance tempo, this delay on arriving early can gradually become shorter and shorter up to a nearly non-existent break between them, but the mental compartments remain.

Dynamics, Articulation and Shaping Phrases

Shaping is one of the first casualties of being rusty. The playing easily becomes mechanical because playing the correct notes takes up all the concentration, thus rendering the performance (using the widest definition of the word here) flat. For the most part, the biggest dynamics are still there generally; i.e. ff is still played louder but for individual phrases and sections, the overall dynamics are often missing or flat. This also applies to articulation although that rarely goes away completely.


Most, if not all, of the above mistakes are also present when playing tired. The concentration at these times is spent (if present) on correct notes, often failing at that. Whilst not necessarily a mistake in itself, it is worth noting that being tired has a similar effect to not having practiced for a while.

I guess that summarized most of my common technical errors; there are a few that I slack on conceptually and that seems like periodical behavior. An example would be the fact that I do occasionally stop thinking about the music's intent and just go on autopilot trying to play the correct notes. The play becomes mechanical, uninteresting and absent thought, rendering the practice ineffective (or at least sub-optimal) in the first place.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


Turns out my weekly recaps did not become a thing as there's seldom enough time for such matters. However, I figured I'd write a post about more significant milestones. Such milestone happened recently as I more-or-less completed practicing my first Rachmaninoff piece and moved forward. The piece in question is Fragments (Posth.). A lovely little piece that I also recorded and might re-record after my piano gets tuned.

Disclaimer: This was recorded a couple of weeks prior to it being ready, so it is not yet completely polished, but I think still one of my better accomplishments as it is a challenging piece that introduces some pretty wide textures and some polyrhythms amid some of the faster parts of it. I might re-record it as a video with the tuned piano just for the "historical" value of it, but I do need to refresh it a bit before doing so.

Anyway, it was one of my bigger milestones as playing anything by Rachmaninoff was one of my main goals when starting out. Everything feels possible now.

I have since started practicing some Chopin; namely Nocturne Op. 15 No. 1 and the Raindrop prelude (Op. 28 No. 15); Both of which I hope to record when the time comes. Currently it looks like the time for the Raindrop prelude will likely arrive way earlier as the Nocturne feels significantly more challenging; especially with the con fuoco- part in the middle. I'm also practicing a couple of more playful pieces, namely Debussy's Golliwog's cakewalk and Prokofiev's Attrape Qui Peut.

I am also looking forward to taking a stab at Rachmaninoff's Elegie Op. 3 No. 1 which is, by far, more challenging than the previous one, but also one of my favorite pieces; perhaps ever. I don't know if it is possible to get to a satisfactory level of mastery on it at this time (or well... when I start in probably a few months time), but people tend to be addicted to the feeling of anticipation over gratification (this is why clickbaits work so well), so I will use this additional burst of motivation and funnel that energy into the Chopin and Debussy pieces which, I should add, are in itself immensely motivating "real" pieces that I want to play. In order to give an example of the kind of motivation I am talking about, I am currently practicing somewhere between 1-2 hours on weekdays and 2-5 hours during weekends, probably averaging around three and a half hours per day. This would be a good rate to reach Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour expert limit in something a bit over 11 years. If I am ever to actually reach that level of proficiency, it will most likely not happen in the next 20 years but it is fun to do the math.

Having graduated to pieces that I actually enjoy listening, I feel like there's some hope for me yet. I have, however, been widely neglecting all composing efforts and almost all improvisation work, which I feel I need to make a conscious effort to include in my practice regimen as the understanding would also, besides the obvious technical benefits, shorten the effort for memorizing pieces. I spend a fair amount of time on watching videos and video lectures regarding music theory, but there's no real substitute for actually getting down to trying to apply it by either analysis or composing.

Anyway, thought that'd make for a good little update on things going on. I don't know if I will be writing more than two updates per year, but I feel like I want to so... maybe.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Week 3: Starting new pieces

Week 3 was the first active piano practice week of 2018. I feel I got in most of the hours I wanted, aside from Thursday. I also started working on some new material this week; then again, I realize I have not mentioned the liszt of things I'm currently working on so here goes.
  • Beethoven - Moonlight Sonata - 1st movement
  • Beethoven - Moonlight Sonata - 2nd movement
  • Czerny Op. 299 No. 1
  • Czerny Op. 299 No. 2
  • Liszt - Sancta Dorothea
  • Schubert - Moment Musicaux 3
  • Schumann - Knecht Ruprecht
As new pieces / studies, I began working on
  • Prokofiev - Tarantelle
  • Czerny Op. 299 No. 3


  I personally feel that I'm probably ready to move on from most of the pieces in the 1st bracket (although the studies I will probably keep as warm up for an extended period of time); however, I trust the judgement of my teacher in this regard and am quite likely to end up doing some polishing on quite a few of them.

  I feel like I am getting the basic antics and most of the fingering down for Tarantelle after my initial few sessions of working on it. I'm still mostly doing hands separate on that, but it is quite a fun one to play.

  Here's a short breakdown of practice time per day (does not include lessons):

Realizations and insights

    This entry is more of a log entry for me to track my progress; I will attempt to have more insights on what and where on further updates. As a big takeaway from this week, I would especially note the realization and implication of alternative fingering for the Liszt piece. I did not realize it before as it was not explicitly stated, but there is a relatively standard case of centering on the second page that I did not construe as such initially. These kind of things happen semi-automatically in a lot of pieces, especially over time when one polishes pieces, but the fact that you can consciously think about where you should be for a certain grouping at what time, it allows you to save practice time for more complicated problems.
  The specific scenario was an octave long four note arpeggiation that I could awkwardly reach and was attempting to do so. But simply by dividing it into two groups and moving hand to those positions and to next transition after, the passage became easier and less awkward (one could almost say natural) to play with the left hand; essentially removing the last technically challenging bit from the piece all together. Obviously there are more things to polish there, but all the pieces are there albeit a little crooked.

I also found a new pianist I like Vitaly Pisarenko, never heard of him before, but he plays through some Rachmaninoff quite well and all sorts of Romantic era pieces. Here's a lovely piece of expressive ravel to conclude this week's post.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Musical Moments

I have decided to reactivate myself in the writing department. I, however, also decided to concentrate on blogging about my Piano Journey and keeping other stuff to a minimum. Everyone knows how 2017 was for the world and it needs no recapitulating. However, the undeniable beauty of the arts, the satisfactory feeling of accomplishment, progressively growing skill set and sharing knowledge make for a good basis for a more uplifting blogging experience.
  I feel like I have progressed in leaps to pieces that I wouldn't have thought possible a year ago (and thensome) when I was recording Dolly is Sick. I am now (my teacher might disagree) at the brink of reaching the level I am comfortable recording for pieces such as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata's first two movements, Schubert's Moment Musicaux 3 and Knecht Ruprecht by Schumann. Obviously there has been a bunch of other pieces I've breezed through over the year, but I want to establish - for my own record keeping - a base level defined by the pieces I am able to play to a satisfactory degree. I am still quite a way away from Rachmaninoff but solidly progressing towards it.
  Besides advancing in technical skills, I am also digesting an immense amount of theory knowledge coupled with additional realizations about technique thanks to my teacher and a few YouTubers (most notably Dr. John Mortensen). I am also living exciting times in my piano "career" for yet undisclosed reasons.
  Anyway, as future goes, I will actually be posting my practice data, insights, realizations, links to piano performances and educational videos at a rate of how striking I find either. I will be tagging all these posts with a piano tag so if it does not interest you, one could also filter those out - assuming it is possible to exclude tags.

Happy New Year, 2018!

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Last Romantic

This post is something I wanted to write for a while since before I even started this blog. I do not really know what this turns to be now that I indulge in writing it, but the composer/pianist I am focusing on is perhaps the greatest source of inspiration for me from the musical world and his music bears a great amount of personal significance for me. It sounds a bit cliché to say that some particular piece of music cured depression and it would be an overstatement to say that here too, but there is something special about music that resonates with how you feel and makes you feel a sense of connection. Do not get me wrong, I have listened to music all my life - different kinds of music too. The evolution of my taste has gone from techno to power metal to romantic era classical, always avoiding hip hop/rap, neither of which I have never found tremendously stimulating.

  When it comes to "classic" classical music, everyone has heard of Beethoven and Mozart. From the Romantic Era, most people recognize names such as Tchaikovsky and Liszt, even if they can't quite put their finger on "that tune" that they know from them. However, unarguably one of the great ones was the Russian-born Sergei Rachmaninoff, also sometimes referred to as the Last Romantic.

  Rachmaninoff had his fair share of bad fortune and plummeted into depression after the failure of his first symphony. During this depression that lasted for 3 years, through which he got with professional help, he composed virtually nothing. After recovery, he composed two short pieces Morceau de fantasie and Fughetta in F major. I mention this only, so that I have a "donkey's bridge" (Finns might get this) to a piece from him that I absolutely love and that also turned out to be one of the most popular ones among the collection that was later titled Morceau de fantasie. That piece, of course, is the first piece I aspire to play from him one day (in around 10 to 30 years), is the prelude in C-sharp minor.

  It is a rather manic but beautiful piece, that'll hopefully be within the range I will one day be able to play. The first big composition he did after his depression was one that he actually dedicated to his therapist, the 2nd Piano Concerto. It is a stunningly beautiful masterpiece and unarguably one of the most famous pieces from Rachmaninoff. I will probably do some analysis on it at some point when my theoretical understanding is at the level of being able to even theoretically comprehend what is going on there. For now, I am restricted to enjoying it's magic-like beauty. The following interpretation is among the most watched ones on YouTube and no wonder. I'm not sure whether it is my favorite one, but it is up there for sure. There are quite a few contenders (Denis Matsuev's is also great as his style of industrial might fits many parts of this piece like a charm).

  As one can probably guess, this piece is rather taxing to play for the sheer endurance required, not to mention the technical capabilities of the pianist. Rachmaninoff did compose for instruments other than piano as well, but as he himself was a capable pianist (capable of playing everything he composed which is actually nothing easy, sadly), most of his work is revolved around one or more pianos. He was also a big admirer of Tchaikovsky (who luckily also composed pieces that humans can play), and Tchaikovsky's death has been said to affect his work - as did his compositions, especially in his earlier work.

  His magnum opus though (guess there's some room for argument there) is the magnificent Piano Concerto 3. This is the piece that really made me fall in love with his music as it is in it's beauty and complexity so intellectually and emotionally satisfying that I do not think listening to it will ever get old. I know the story it tells is different for anyone listening to it, but I am sure everyone can find their own story in this piece. It is probably his hardest composition to play, even if some of his etudes are right up there with it. I chose Martha Argerich's interpretation here even though the sound quality is not the best of the ones out there, it is still probably my favorite one. Martha is undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of this century (and last) and a great figure to follow as well. She has said that she feels lonely on stage with the piano and I would think that's one of the reasons why she has also done a lot of four hands and two piano performances. But that's a topic for another day.

The movie Shine is also at least partially about this piece. It is based on a true story about David Helfgott, an Australian pianist who performed the piece (and won an award for it). The story itself is a story of a man coming from harsh circumstances of a deeply conservative family that (in the movie) lead to a mental breakdown of sorts. I do not know how tightly the plot of the movie is tied to the real Helfgott's life, but it was at least inspired by it. Geoffrey Rush earned an Oscar for the role and I would recommend the movie if this sort of drama floats your boat.

  I guess this post became a bit of a showcase than an overview of some important parts of his autobiography rather than an explanation and exploration of my personal relationship with his music. I picked pieces that are probably more approachable to first timers, as for myself, I have noticed that I am deviating towards his shorter works of late (most of them for solo piano). Hoping to at least be able to play some of his compositions at a later date is what keeps me motivated and whether this'll ever come to be remains to be seen, but I've always been a fan of setting high goals whether you eventually reach them or not. In this spammy torrent of YouTube videos, I would like to add one more - some "lighter" listening perhaps. Nikolai Lugansky's interpretations of Rachmaninoff's work are amazing and I feel he "gets it". So spare a moment.

While I wish I would have discovered his music earlier to get motivated earlier, I do feel lucky. Finding a sort of purposeful drive for self-expression in a world where hatred has become the predominant motivator, albeit absent purpose, feels profound... it feels special.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy new year!

Ohhh 2016, how dreaded thou art. And yet, thy demise draws near. Whilst we are still to see most of the repercussions of all the crap that went down, it is needless to say that on a global scale, the end of this semi-arbitrary time interval is more than welcome. Hopefully, it will mentally signify the end of the compulsory desire to make the worst decisions possible!
That being said, on an individualistic level - that level to which some people manage to, ahh so enviably, restrict their worries - my year was nothing short of amazing and that is thanks to the amazing people I have gotten to spend it with. <3 I also developed a nearly unhealthy passion to piano music, moved to another country, started a company and got a new title at my job, just to mention a few of the highlights!
I will not make resolutions for 2017 as I feel like stress has the way to sneak into our lives without inviting it with artificially made secret promises, but on the same note I hope that I, and people in general, will (or would start to) adamantly exercise critical thinking in their decision making. That is the only way to keep this sinking ship afloat!
So 2016... Thank you and jog on! Happy new year, everyone!

Economy of Motion

My previous post concentrated on some basic recurring issues I tend to have but I noticed that despite writing these out, some of them keep ...