What’s the point of practicing the piano?

My brother-in-law gave me a copy of the classic book Playing the Piano for Pleasure, which I first read many years ago. The author, Charles Cook, advocates playing the piano for an hour a day and dividing up that hour as follows:

  • Forty minutes of working on your repertoire–that is, a couple dozen pieces that you want to absolutely master (including memorizing them)
  • Ten minutes of working on your technique–he considers this optional
  • Ten minutes of sight-reading

The question I’m facing is how much effort I want to put into absolutely mastering a bunch of pieces, as opposed to knowing them well enough to derive please from playing them. In particular, what’s the point of memorizing them?

Here’s a piece I’ve been playing–the Brahms Waltz in A-flat Major, played by Evgeny Kissin:

This isn’t a hard piece to play. It lasts under two minutes, and there are only a couple of moderately tricky measures at the end. I played it through ten times or so and I was pretty comfortable with it. But to memorize it, I’ll have to hammer it into the ground for a couple more hours, and then continually review it to keep it in my fingers. That’s assuming my aging synapses are still capable of such feats.

Playing the piano, of course, makes you constantly aware of how far short you fall from what has been achieved by the geniuses who lurk among us. This site tells the story of the teenage Martha Argerich learning Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in her sleep, while her roommate played it in the same room. When she revisited the concerto later, she had to unlearn some of the mistakes her roommate had been making.

Well, as John Lennon said, we’re all doing what we can.



Progress Report 2: Brahms

[Updated to correct an error pointed out by my smart brother.]

Here I talked about my resolution to learn Brahms’s Intermezzo in E-flat Major. I’m hard at work! Technically, it’s not especially hard. The sheet music I’m using for the piece grades the difficulty of pieces from 1 to 10, and this one gets a 5 — middle of the range. But, you know, my fingers aren’t what they used to be…

The piece is in standard ABA format. The middle section is in G-flat Major, which is also pretty standard. The problem is that G-flat Major on the piano has six freakin’ flats. Here’s what the beginning of the middle section looks like:

This is not hard music to play, unless you’re out of practice playing music with six flats, in which case you’re continually stumbling when you go to play a C and you realize that you should be playing a B, because the C is flatted in this key, and C flat is B. Right?

It also doesn’t help that Brahms has a pretty rich harmonic language going on here, so by the fifth measure of the middle section he’s temporarily turning those C-flats into C-naturals, and you have to remember that too.

The right thing to do is to just go ahead and memorize the piece so you’re not stuck trying to sight-read it. But, you know, that’s a lot of work. And I’ve got a novel to finish.

New arrival

This will slow down my writing:

I used to play the piano a lot growing up, but finally ran out of time for it when the kids arrived. They took lessons for a while but were never especially interested, so the old piano (which had been in the family since I was a kid and had seen better days) went to piano heaven.

I got to be pretty good in high school, but I never had the drive to get any further than pretty good. Now, we’ll see.

The music in the photo is the Arietta from Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata. I am showing off–I can’t play the thing. Yet. Or maybe ever–it offers technical challenges that my fingers may not be up to.

While we’re on the subject, here’s a quick plug for my novel Summitin which I get to imagine what it’s like to be a brilliant (and eccentric) classical pianist, in the mold of Glenn Gould.