This winter I am teaching at Syracuse University’s Strasbourg campus. Living in a foreign country has led to many changes in my daily routine. One of the most striking is the amount of focused time I have been able to give to the piano. Every morning at eight o’clock, five to six days a week, I walk four blocks to the Conservatoire de Strasbourg and practice for two hours. There are no distractions—no computer, no phone, and no kitchen nearby.
Aside from the freedom from these distractions, I have complete sonic and psychological isolation. When I practice at home in Syracuse, sometimes I am concerned about how my playing might be affecting my family. For example, with others in the house, I am reticent to practice in short rhythmic fragments—even though this is a powerfully effective technique—because I know those repetitions will be annoying to others. I am much less self-conscious practicing in my university studio, however, there are plenty of distractions and interruptions there as well.
Here in Strasbourg I am completely alone for two hours. One recent morning at the conservatoire, I recalled what my teacher, Ann Schein, said to me twenty-five years ago, “Work through both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and do the same with the Opus 10 and 25 Etudes of Chopin.” Although I have seriously studied all of the Etudes (and performed exactly half of them) I still have a ways to go with “the 48.”
I followed Miss Schein’s advice and spent the next half hour with the Bach E Major Prelude and Fugue from Bach’s WTC II, focusing especially on the reverent, spiritual, and uplifting four-voiced Fugue. I sang one voice while playing one or more of the other three, and repeated the process with each voice. I have my students pursue this approach as well. It’s like taking a highlighting marker to one’s ears, if that were possible. The counterpoint becomes synthesized and, after going through the process, I feel like I am conducting a well-blended choir.
Next, I moved on to Chopin, attempting to practice what I preach to my students: “Work on smaller portions of several etudes rather than only one piece.” “If you can solve the main challenges of how to play and choreograph movement, you can eventually master the complete work. In this way, many technical and musical aspects can be developed simultaneously.”
I also recalled reading Abby Whiteside’s essay, Mastering the Chopin Etudes, and elected to work on three that she wrote about in detail, Op. 25 Nos. 10-12. When I first played Nos. 11 & 12 (“Winter Wind” and “Ocean”) at ages 21 and 17, I had relied on considerably more ‘finger’ effort and excess tension. Applying Whiteside’s ideas of outlining and accessing ‘the basic rhythm’ of the music, most passages felt pretty easy, especially in No. 12. I used sweeping arm gestures from bottom to top and back again that led to cascades of sound emerging effortlessly.
The choreography of the large-scale movements of No. 11 begins at a slower pace, although the speed from one note to the next is faster, and the effect more brilliant. Here I encountered a comfortable first page but needed to stop to do detailed work on the second. Some fingerings I’d used at an earlier juncture could not facilitate the better-coordinated ‘flow’ of movements of my larger muscles. I worked on eight measures in detail, with an alternation of slow/medium, moderately fast, and very fast groups of 5 to 7 notes at a time.
I moved on to the “Octave” Etude, Op. 25 No. 10 and applied similar ‘proximal muscles’ concepts, recalling Whiteside’s assertion that the legato octaves are better played staccato.
Next, I turned to a new piece, Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in C Minor, and chose sections to practice with a variety of very fast, ‘small-group’ rhythms. I overlapped the groupings to complete the permutations of six notes at a time, all the while continuing to integrate three-dimensional movement by preparing and following through with a supple wrist and momentum from the upper arm.
I finished by visiting with an old friend, the Beethoven Concerto No. 4, lingering on the cadenza when une étudiante knocked on the door to announce that my session had ended; we exchanged pleasantries and I handed the room off to her.
The practice session that morning, like others before and since, took me back to my student days and reminded me of what drew me to playing and teaching the piano. Of course, life has pulled me in countless other directions. The responsibilities of being a parent top the list. And there are numerous other distractions, from email and administrative work to service projects and planning presentations. Living abroad, down the street from the conservatoire, has rekindled the concentration and intensity that I expect of my students and that bring me such joy.
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions and we’re already at the end of February, but this year’s resolution is to carve out at least two hours in a place, time and mindset where I discover, let go and connect with the instrument and repertoire that are so important to me.