First Lessons in Bach

So I’m in the process of recording Books 1& 2 of this famous, excellent series of graded pieces for solo piano.  After years of saying “those pieces are for little kids, they’re too easy”, I’ve decided to just learn them, play them to the best of my ability, record the results, and enjoy the process.  If you’re searching for music to play – regardless of your current level – I highly recommend these books.

When learning classical piano music as an adult, there’s a natural tendency to want to play all of the difficult, virtuosic music that (most likely) got you into the instrument in the first place.  I’ve discovered this to be a frustrating waste of time, realizing that if I can’t play simple things effortlessly, how could I ever expect to play anything more difficult?

If you’re interested  download the sheet music on IMSLP for free – https://goo.gl/Gcuzrn

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Those F***ing Clementi Sonatinas 

Nothing gives me more anxiety in this world than having to play through one of those clickety-clack, metronomic classical piano pieces (think Haydn, early Beethoven, Mozart, etc.).

There’s a very painful-to-watch video in the archives of the Golandsky Institute (filmed back in 2005 I think?) where, halfway through a short Handel piano piece, I completely choke up, my hands shaking (out of both nervousness and my hands not cooperating with my brain), where I repeatedly whisper “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” out of complete embarrassment, and just before the very kind Edna Golandsky was able to say “Don’t worry Jason, it’s ok”, I angrily make my way through the rest of the piece. Although this was in front of an audience of about six people (teachers in training), I considered it one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and was pretty much done with piano playing after that disaster of a performance. (Actually as I’m writing this I do remember an additional blow to my ego – the face of a notable person there, as we were all leaving, who looked at me with an expression that screamed “Your poor playing disgusts me”. Not even kidding. But I digress….).

So why Clementi? 

I’ve always believed that if you can’t play a condensed form of a style, you won’t be able to play a more extended form of that particular style. If you can’t play a Rachmaninoff prelude, how could you expect to play one of his concertos? Similarly, if I can’t play a simple two-page Clementi sonatina, how could I ever expect to play through a multi-page Mozart or Haydn sonata? Or one of the great Beethoven piano concertos? Like children, adult beginners have to learn these pieces. There’s no way around it.

However, there’s something different about this particular diary entry.

Right now I have a choice. I’ve practiced these two pieces for the last few weeks, and to be honest, I’m pretty sick and tired of them. Thanks to the very kind Ric Overton at Hollywood Piano Company in Burbank, I had a chance to record these the other day on a beautiful Mason and Hamlin piano. Did the recordings come out perfect? No. 

So what’s this choice I’m talking about?

One of the great lessons we can learn from kids is to simply be present, their minds never focusing on the past because they are too engaged in what they are doing NOW, and essentially just keep moving forward. I’m not that happy with the way these performances came out, but I’m going to say “fuck it” and leave them as-is for you to see and hear. I’m now moving on to learn new music, the same thing a kid would do. At this point I know most adults would be littering their minds with negative self-talk (“I fucking suck”, “why am I so awful?”, “why didn’t it come out with the way I wanted it to, I’ve worked so hard” blah blah blah). 

But I choose not to think those things. 

Why? 

Because it’s all a choice.

Sadness, Strength, and Why I Can’t Enjoy the Music of Chopin

I owe a lot to Chopin. Witnessing a performance of his Etude Op. 10 No.1 – those glorious broken chords played up and down the entire keyboard (the musical equivalent of seeing the heavens opening up and blinding you with light) – and then looking at my electric guitar – rusty, out of tune – made me think one thing:

Fuck this guitar shit… Seriously. I want to learn how to play THAT.”

So really everything I’m doing now started with that bit of inspiration. Chopin, for me, is where it all began. Thanks Chopin.

Now since that Etude was clearly too difficult for me at the time (do yourself a favor if you’ve never seen this piece played – Google it), the first piece I actually memorized and performed was Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28 No. 1. I played it my senior year of high school, I played it during my music school audition in college. Thanks Chopin.

I remember watching videos of the 2005 Chopin Competition in awe. Pianists like Ingolf Wunder playing with so much unbridled passion you wonder – how is this kind of music-making even possible?  Chopin, Chopin, Chopin.

Chopin, Chopin, Chopin.

Chopin, Chopin, Chopin, Chopin.

Over a decade later, I have a new perspective on Chopin’s music.

I can’t fucking stand it.

Now before all you classical music snobs wish a violent death upon me, allow me to explain.

His music is executed with perfection. There is no doubt about that. The attention to detail, the harmonic surprises, the technical inventiveness — it is perfectly crafted music that has rightfully influenced all-of-music since.

There’s just one thing – I’ve noticed recently – that prevents me from really enjoying it.

Every time I hear his music I get the feeling it was written by a very sad, sickly man, isolated from society, lost in his head and in his emotions. I also get the feeling that he was maybe pining after a woman who wasn’t all that interested in him. I’m also guessing he didn’t live very long……

Oh wait. 

(If you don’t know Chopin’s life story – the feeling I get from his music pretty much summarized it, albeit crudely)

To me Chopin is like the Kurt Cobain, the Amy Winehouse – the archetypal ‘Tortured Artist’ – of classical music.  Unbelievably expressive – capturing all the angst and frustration and longing we feel as humans, and masterfully transforming those emotions into musical form.

But at the end of the day – just like when I listen to Nirvana or “Love is a Losing Game” – Chopin’s music conveys so much pain and sadness, I’d rather avoid it entirely.

Even in some of the “lighter” pieces (the ‘Minute’ Waltz or the ‘Black Key’ Etude, for example), I still can hear a composer momentarily trying to cover up his sadness with a smile. 

(Now on the other end of the spectrum you have composers like Bach and Liszt who basically spent all their time either performing music, composing music, or having sex. Their music has such a joyful, spiritual, filled-with-wonder quality, that I will save these thoughts for another day).

So what does all this have to do with Schumann and Grieg?

When I listen to this Schumann piece, I get the feeling he was calmly looking back on his own childhood – with longing and blissful nostalgia, with sadness and strength.

When I listen to this Grieg piece, I get the feeling he lost something very dear to him, something he cared for deeply, yet eventually learned how to just let it ago. Again, sadness and strength.

Not just sadness, like Chopin.

But sadness and strength.

 

The Magic of “Unknown” Composers: Stephen Heller (Part 2)

This piece is such a gift to beginning pianists.  So many arpeggio etudes are not only the musical equivalent of watching paint dry, they are also always meant to be played at some ungodly, break-neck speed.  This gem by Heller is the complete opposite.  The arpeggios are played at a very reasonable pace, but most importantly, it’s a beautiful and uplifting little piece of music.  Thank you once again Mr. Heller 🙂

WHY I CHOSE THIS PIECE:

  1. Arpeggios for days
  2. Passing a melody between hands
  3. It’s just perfect

So I learned a piano piece written by my Uber driver

The unspoken beauty of art (or any passion/hobby/interest) is the profound effect your creation (or simply your efforts) can have on another person’s life.

On the morning of October 8, 2015, at 5:44am, I had the pleasure of meeting Martin Ulikhanyan, my Uber driver, on my way to the recording studio (where I recorded this).

After asking him a few questions I discovered he was also a musician – a concert composer from Armenia who had studied film scoring at UCLA. Since I had also studied film scoring we kept talking about music until, upon arriving at my destination, Martin said, “I’m going to send you my piano pieces for children.”

I said sure, we exchanged emails, and both went on our way.

So why did I learn this piece?

I remember days after hearing this performance Martin sent me, I simply could not get the melody out of my headI still can’t.

When I started taking a closer look at the score it became apparent how perfect this piece is, not only for the adult beginner, but for anyone in the beginning stages of piano playing.

It has this wonderful combination of simple, repetitive musical gestures, followed by faster single note passages, and ultimately an incredibly inventive and dramatic ending: the player must play at the opposite ends of the keyboard – the left-hand with the catchy tune, the right playing fast shimmery arpeggios.

I can’t express how much I love this piece and how grateful I am to Martin for having sent it to me. It was exactly what I needed at that moment – not too difficult, not too easy. (As a sidenote, I would argue that this piece belongs right next to the great pieces written for children by Kabalevsky and Bartok; it should, without a doubt, be included in both the ABRSM exam as well as in compilations such as the fantastic Alfred “Masterpieces With Flair” series.)

I’ve spent a lot of time – countless hours – learning this piece over the last few months, and it’s crazy to think how it would have never happened had I not gotten in that Uber and asked my driver a few questions about himself.

That’s the real beauty of creativity – make something, and have fun with it – you never know the kind of impact you’ll have on someone else’s life.

 

For more information about Martin and his music please visit:

http://www.martinulikhanyan.com/

 

JS Bach – Two-Part Invention No. 13

After a two month hiatus, it’s good to be recording again…

Why I chose this piece

  1. Out of all the inventions, this one feels like a distant relative to Bach’s D minor and F minor Keyboard Concertos. I love those pieces – playing this makes me feel like I’m on my way to eventually tackling those.
  2. Every pianist has to learn at least one of the Bach Inventions. Period.

The time I wish I played David Arquette’s piano

One evening a few years ago I randomly ended up in David Arquette’s home for the wrap party of his movie The Key. After shaking his hand – “Hi I’m Dave,” he says – my attention (which was temporarily distracted by the incredible view of Los Angeles, the overwhelming amount of catered food, and a giant Sprinkles cupcake tower) was eventually directed to this beautiful white baby grand piano in the middle of his living room, just begging to be played.

Shit… what could I play on this…what could I play on this!?” started racing through my mind. It was a good crowd and everyone was pretty friendly so I don’t think playing on it would have been entirely unwelcome. But I didn’t know any pop songs, and I knew I’d look like a total douche if I tried to struggle through some difficult classical piece.

So this made me think – what’s a good piece that you can just start playing anywhere that’s simple, sounds great, but doesn’t draw to much attention to itself? A few of the easier Debussy pieces might fit this category, but I think I’ve discovered the piece that accomplishes all this and more – Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 142 No. 2. 

It starts out with easy, quiet chords, gradually getting a little louder and more and more dramatic. Then the arpeggios come. This middle Trio section is why I love this piece so much – the broken chords not only sound beautiful but playing them looks sort-of impressive. The section is filled with very clear tensions and releases that – thankfully – any listener could appreciate.

Too bad I couldn’t play this piece back then.

A quick side note for purists/classical music snobs – I intentionally left out the repeats before the Trio as well as the repeat for measures 59-90, mainly because if I played them, this piece would bore the bejesus out of me.

Why I chose this piece

  1. Takes over 4 minutes to perform.
  2. The arpeggios don’t need to be played really fast to sound good.
  3. It’s a great “let’s try this piano out” sort of piece

The Magic of “Unknown” Composers: Stephen Heller

When it comes to music, I like rooting for the underdog.  Sure, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are great but what about the countless other pianists and composers that lived during the same era?  What was their music like?

Although somewhat known amongst piano teachers and students, the Hungarian composer Stephen Heller lived during the time of Chopin and Liszt – though his name and piano music is nowhere as ubiquitous as that of his colleagues.  Heller’s Etudes Op. 46 accomplish something very few composers have ever been able to achieve – that is, creating very short, simple pieces, focusing on a particular technique that – here’s the twistdon’t sound like the most boring fucking thing in the world. *cough*Czerny*cough*

I can’t say enough good things about this little Etude No.8.  It’s beautiful, it’s memorable, and it’s just enough of a challenge so you don’t feel like you’re playing a dumbed-down little kid piece.  I’d bet Heller was very influenced by Mendelssohn’s “Duetto” (No. 6 from Songs Without Words Op. 38), wanting to compose, possibly,  an ‘easier version’ of that famous piece.  I’d argue that Heller out-wrote his muse, saying in less than two minutes what takes Mendelssohn over four.

WHY I CHOSE THIS PIECE:

  1. Two pages in length
  2. Great introduction to Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words
  3. It’s just perfect

 

My First Bach Transcription

Composer hyphenation always gets me excited.

Whether it’s Paganini-Liszt, or Chopin-Godowsky, or Gershwin-Finnissy — transcriptions allow the listener to experience the music of one composer filtered through (and often augmented by) the imagination of another.

For the pianist there is no greater treasure-trove in the repertoire than the endless amount of Bach transcriptions available to us.  Sure there’s Bach-Busoni and Bach-Hess, but how about Bach-Grainger or Bach-Feinberg? Bach-Petri or Bach-Sorabji? Bach-Tausig or Bach-Stradal? Bach-Godowsky, Bach-Siloti or Bach-Saint-Saëns?

It never ends.

Several years ago, I discovered a set of ten transcriptions created by the pianist Wilhelm Kempff, and immediately went crazy over them.  Like Busoni, Kempff amplifies Bach’s music with thick chords, thundering octaves and shimmering filigree.

Siciliano (BWV 1031) – originally a piece Bach had written for flute and harpsichord – is probably the most restrained and easiest out of Kempff’s arrangements. It’s slow and it repeats itself, but, for the Bach transcription fanatic like I am, it gives me a small taste of what playing a more difficult Bach-Busoni or Bach-Kempff transcription would be like.  Thanks Willy!

Why I Chose This Piece:

  1. Longer playing time (3-4 min)
  2. Uses the sustain pedal throughout
  3. Practice making the top melody line ‘sing’
  4. Introduction to double note playing (3rds and 6ths)

A Great Composer Can Write Great Pieces for Children

To wrap up my study of Bach’s short preludes, I’ve recorded his No. 3 in C minor and No. 5 in D minor, two pieces I’ve longed to play for a very long time.

How can pieces intended for children be so musically rewarding?

I’ve always been in awe of these two pieces for the reason that they both provide the listener with a dramatic little musical journey, and the player with foundational technical skills that he/she will see more of in “adult” repertoire.  

The No. 5 in D minor is an exceptional example – a passionate and exciting little piece of music that teaches the player arpeggios, scales, and fast two-hand playing – all in under one minute. No. 3 in C minor is great preparation for the countless Spanish, Russian, Impressionistic – even the more challenging Bach – repertoire that uses two hand rhythmical playing.

Why I chose these pieces:

  1. Great introduction to faster playing
  2.  2-3 pages in length 
  3. No use of sustain pedal