A major focus for my New Year’s resolutions is the piano. I will be reviving a couple of challenging pieces that I learned years ago – the Berio piano Sequenza and the first movement from Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus – for performances at Penn as part of the “Eighty-Eight Lately” series, so I need to be more disciplined about practice than I sometimes am. (My performances will be guest appearances on recitals by Greg DeTurck (February 17) and Matt Bengston (February 24)).
While the Berio and Martino will obviously be my primary concern in the coming weeks, I’ve been thinking about my work at the piano in general as well. I have a large stack of exercise books (it seemed every teacher I ever worked with recommended different ones), but I will rely principally on the most succinct yet comprehensive, the Dohnányi “Essential Finger Exercises”. Regarding standard rep, I have spent more time with Bach (mostly the Well-Tempered), Beethoven sonatas, and the Chopin Etudes than anything else – certainly no surprises there – and expect to continue to do so in the coming year, though I will naturally dip into other areas as well. Bach has particularly been on my mind lately, how I want to be more methodical in my work on his music, more thoughtful in my approach to choosing fingerings and articulations, trying to set aside the fact that I usually feel like I don’t know how to make those choices. These issues manifest with every composer, but seem especially acute with Bach. I was never taught how to choose fingerings, at least not in a systematic way, though I got some spotty hints here and there. But at least I can be more thorough in making my decisions, in not letting anything slide, except the occasional slide from black key to white! Of course, this is bound up with the mysteries of phrasing and articulation. I want to get away from the generic “legato sixteenths, staccato eighths” approach, though, like fingering, I am not too confident about how to make choices. But make conscious choices I will, and being conscious, consistent and thorough will constitute an improvement on my usual habits. It will help to be less inhibited about marking up my scores; I’ve tended to be too sparing about that, perhaps in reaction to a teacher who spattered my scores with slashes, circles, words of encouragement and criticism, visual debris that could obscure the picture of the score. Still, I’ve been told that there are first-class artists whose scores are thickly coated with an impasto of markings, providing a historical record of varied approaches to each passage.
Another strategy for being methodical with Bach is a path through the WTC that was suggested by something I stumbled across in the Hinson book on piano repertoire. I’ve never seen it, but there is a Bartók edition of the WTC that offers an ordering of the pieces by degree of difficulty. Of course there is something arbitrary about this, but still, it gives me a structure for choosing pieces on which to work rather than simply wandering through the collection at random or trying to work through the set in the chromatically ascending order in which they are usually printed. (It’s not surprising that I know the easier among first ten or so pieces in the first volume as usually printed better than any others in the set.) There’s plenty of room for argument here. For example, I find the D major in Book One easier than several pieces Bartok has placed before it. Here’s the Bartók listing: