Despite my insane workload this semester, I am somehow managing to squeeze in some practice time every now and then. I have been focusing mainly on improving my tone and musicality. I noticed that when playing forte my notes tend to sound percussive, so I am making an effort to make the sound more mellow, and I think the improvement does show in my recording of Invention 6 in E Major. At the moment I am rather satisfied with this version, even though there are some mistakes in the notes. I have never been comfortable with making mistakes, which actually leads to more mistakes because of nerves, so I am trying something different where I tell myself small mistakes are okay. We shall see how this works over time.
Little Prelude in D Major (Little Preludes and Fughettas)
Last updated August 31, 2021
This will likely be the last update until next year, since I will be very busy with teaching in the upcoming Fall Semester. Little Prelude in D Major is another piece I learned as a student, although I did not play it for my Grade 8 RCM Exam (the piece I did play from List A or Baroque Repertoire is Fantasia in D Minor by G. P. Telemann, I may put it next on my list of pieces to learn). Contrary to Invention 13 in A Minor, this Little Prelude is a better fit for the piano rather than the harpsichord. I am working on my tone and dynamics, and the cantabile style of this piece provides a nice exercise to improve these aspects of my technique. Apologies for the thorough lack of musicality in the last quarter; when I get performance anxiety I can concentrate on playing the right notes but not much else.
(Before I get complacent, watching Yuja play Rach 2 fixes the problem easily by making me feel abjectly inadequate. And for something that contains both the deepest despair and the gentlest reassurance, there is only Schubert, as performed by Horowitz with a masterful interpretation.)
Practice Session Recordings, Part I
Last updated August 22, 2021
It has been about six months since I resumed a regular practice regimen. I have to make a confession here, which is that it would not be an exaggeration to say that I “rage-quit” after completing my RCM Grade 10 Practical Exam. I earned a mark of 77 out of 100 when I was used to marks in the 80’s and 90’s from previous exams. Thus began my 15-year break from serious piano playing from mid-2006 to early 2021. I also did not have a high-quality instrument while completing my academic training, so it was actually probably a good thing that I did not practice during those years, or I could have ended up with worse technique.
Since February, I have been taking about one hour (almost) every day to practice, and I am keeping it slow and fundamental for now to avoid injuring my hands and to build better habits. My routine consists of scales, arpeggios, broken chords, block chords, and of course every pianist’s favourite, Hanon exercises. I also throw in one Czerny study at a time, along with one piece of repertoire at the end of each session. I came up with the idea to record myself every few months or so to keep track of progress in my technique, the first of such videos is posted below. Compared to when I started in February, my tone is better, and my fingers are definitely more dexterous. The next steps would be to gradually increase my playing speed and to work on more subtle dynamic expressions.
Invention 13 in A Minor (Inventions and Sinfonias)
Last updated August 4, 2021
I managed to get Invention 13 in A Minor into a presentable form sooner than expected. I am playing it with harpsichord only, since in my opinion it is one of the pieces for which harpsichord is strictly superior to piano. Compared to some of the Preludes I learned recently, this piece was surprisingly not much easier, even though the average difficulty of the WTC I is higher than that of the Inventions and Sinfonias. The difficulty of Invention 13 lies mainly in the awkward intervals that are present throughout the piece in both the left and right hands, and greater precision is required to avoid hitting a wrong note compared to pieces where the phrases are fitted to the natural positions of the fingers, even though the overall note density is not very high. I am seeing small improvements in my technique, mainly in the smoothness of starting and ending phrases, which is a good sign. Still, I expect to put in years of practice before learning something like Appassionata.
A Note on Practice and Improvement
Last updated July 28, 2021
I will begin this post by saying that I do not have a video update today, although one should be forthcoming in a few weeks. Yes, I have been busy, as we all are all the time, but I also could not decide on an appropriately-difficult and musically pleasing piece to learn for a while. I realized that I need an emotional response from the piece to “force” myself to learn it. I say force here because it seems that my patience for labourious practice is not what it used to be. I cannot say definitively that social media is the main cause, but I believe it at least plays a role, where the most impressive highlights are only ordinary and instant gratification comes easily. I will have to remind myself to accept that real progress is slow and takes much effort.
I have been listening to András Schiff’s 2012 recording of the WTC to try and find the next piece that inspires me, and currently this is Fugue 6 in D Minor from Book I. It is just a bit beyond my current skill level, so I have gone back to my student books and restarted on the Inventions. Invention 13 in A Minor will be coming soon, it is one of the first complex Bach pieces I could understand and appreciate musically. For piano students, it is common to play pieces from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach such as the Minuet in G Minor at an introductory stage, and these pieces are very easy to learn and pleasing in perhaps a shallow way. The Little Preludes and Inventions are then learned at an intermediate level, but I could not appreciate many of these at the time—the notes simply did not make sense to my ears. I will have to see whether this has changed as well.
Prelude 2 in C Minor (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I)
Last updated May 12, 2021
After three months of semi-regular practice, I seem to be making some progress. At least, I am now able to play this Prelude which I previously believed to be too difficult.
Below is the Historically Informed (HI) version with a harpsichord voice, A4 = 415 Hz, and Werckmeister temperament. It is slightly faster and smoother, but still far from perfect (why is perfection so hard?).
Prelude 6 in D Minor (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I)
Last updated March 16, 2021
It is interesting how our musical preferences shift over time. In the more advanced stages of my piano lessons, I gravitated toward Baroque and Classical styles, and was drawn to the austerity and complexity of Fugues in particular. The very first piece I learned from the WTC I was the second Fugue in c, which I played for my RCM Grade 9 Exam in 2005. I also played Prelude and Fugue 5 in D Major as a set at the subsequent Grade 10 Exam one year later. Looking back now, I do not find this pair to be the most musically pleasing in the entire collection, thus I do not think I will revisit it.
More recently, I have begun to appreciate lyricism more so than complexity alone, which is part of the reason I am focusing my present study on the Bach Preludes. I need to get my technique up to par before learning the Fugues, and certainly before attempting more challenging Romantic repertoire such as Beethoven Sonatas and Schubert Impromptus.
Prelude 6 in D Minor, flowing yet melancholic:
And here is the Historically Informed (HI) version with A4 = 415 Hz and Werckmeister temperament. A more subtle difference between a modern versus an HI interpretation is that the piano allows for the drawing out of individual voices through varying touch, while the harpsichord has altogether more blended harmonies because every note is constrained to the same volume. For some pieces I think there is a clear winner between the two sounds, however for this Prelude I like both interpretations.
Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I)
Last updated February 16, 2021
Aside from painstakingly/painfully rebuilding my technique with Hanon exercises and Czerny studies, I am slowly playing through the less technically-demanding Preludes from WTC I for a touch of much-appreciated musicality in my routine. My current work-in-progress is Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major, it is light and mellow. I am also experimenting with different settings on my instrument; to be “historically informed”, I used the Werckmeister temperament with Baroque tuning (A4 = 415 Hz) and a harpsichord sound for the below video.
How does Bach’s music really sound in the tuning of his time?
Last updated February 6, 2021
I do not know whether I learned this as a music student in my youth or simply assumed (wrongly) from the name “well-tempered”, but I was previously under the impression that Bach used equal temperament. Apparently this is not the case, although it seems to be a common misconception. As noted in the preface to the Bärenreiter Urtext score for the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC), based on (among other evidence) the systematic increased complexity of fugue motifs in “uncommon” keys (i.e., keys with a large number of sharps or flats), Bach’s well-tempered tuning likely differentiated keys beyond absolute frequency.
I have absolute pitch, thus different keys already sound different to my ears, and I have always been interested in the “emotional colouring” of different keys that would arise from an unequal tuning. In order to test this, I compare different temperaments (equal, just, Werckmeister, and Kirnberger) with Bach’s Prelude 2 in C Minor (WTC I) in the video below, which is probably the first proper introduction to the WTC for many pianists—moody, dramatic, and relentless. The piano recording at the beginning is a “modern” benchmark, where the A is tuned to 440 Hz. All other recordings use a harpsichord voice and have the A tuned to 415 Hz.
Even though the just temperament showcased in the video is tuned on a minor triad with a base of C, it likely is a natural minor and not harmonic minor tuning. Clearly, E-natural, A-natural, and B-natural are all quite dissonant, and F-sharp; and C-sharp even more so. Normally just intonation is more harmonically pure and thus pleasing compared to equal temperament, but the amount of modulation in this piece makes this tuning a bad choice. Werckmeister also seems more pleasing compared to Kirnberger, again evident in the accidentals.
Compare this with the exuberant Prelude 3 in C-sharp Major, we avoid the problem with accidentals in the harmonic minor scale. Here just intonation works better, although still not perfectly due to modulation to different keys. It is worth noting that like equal temperament, Werckmeister and Kirnberger are universal tunings designed to be feasible for all keys, whereas just intonation works best for the tonic key, but its quality deteriorates the farther (in fifths) we are from the fundamental. The bonus clip (7:00) in the above video demonstrates this, where a tonic of C is used to play the piece with rather disastrous (and amusing) results.
Here is my human rendition without any exotic tuning. It is not perfect, but has a little more musicality than the MIDIs I generated and also my playing in the past, which is certainly reassuring. I am working on my technique again after a 15-year hiatus from practicing regularly. (Conveniently, this will also help with my profession as a computational chemist by allowing faster and more precise typing!)
As an aside, I remember reading somewhere that this piece was originally written in C instead of C-sharp, and that Bach later changed the key signature to make it fit within the theme of the WTC. This hypothesis seems consistent with how the piece plays out, as the development section contains modulations to several keys with 1–4 double-sharps which is quite unintuitive to play (and write, I imagine), but would be much more reasonable if these were simply (single-)sharps instead in the case of C.
For a rather different flavour, give the contemplative and anguished Prelude 22 in B-flat Minor a listen. I have changed up the ordering of the temperaments slightly, they are now in order of most to least “equal”, and this also makes for an easier comparison between the modern equal temperament and Baroque Werckmeister, allegedly very close to Bach’s well-tempered tuning. Interestingly, although the dissonance in just intonation is clearly audible, it almost isn’t as irksome as it has been in the previous two examples. I also do not hear as much of a difference between Werckmeister and Kirnberger for this particular piece, although they are different from the recording with equal temperament.
To conclude this mini-analysis, I would like to present a more well-known piece and one of my favourites: Prelude 10 in E Minor. In fact, there are a number of similarities between this one and Prelude 2—for example, both are driven by a steady stream of sixteenth notes, and both contain a marked tempo change. However, whereas Prelude 2 expresses its storminess outright, the emotion in Prelude 10 is more subdued, leading to a tense build-up that culminates with a diminished chord just before the tempestuous stretto. The pure tuning in e has noticeable dissonant notes as usual (in particular the F-natural which appears several times), and Werckmeister has a flatter tonic triad compared to equal temperament.