Practising Brahms Violin Sonata No.1

I’m working with a violinist as a piano accompanist in preparation for her Associated Board diploma exam next year. We’ve known one another for many years but only been playing together since the new year.

One of the pieces we’re working on is Brahms Violin Sonata No.1. It’s the first time I’ve played a piece of piano accompaniment by Brahms in nearly twenty years.

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It’s hugely demanding piece for me (which is part of the appeal I suspect – I like a challenge) which has meant I’ve been playing the piano more often in preparation than I’ve ever done in the past fifteen years. Documenting the process seemed like it might be an interesting thing to do.

1. Where we started from I’m an amateur musician at best. My last piano lesson was in 1991 (with the man who’s scathing review of a Prom concert this year prompted this blog post) and although I continued to play as an accompanist whilst I studied music at university, I have never regarded my piano playing skills confidently. At best, I manage.

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Since university, I’ve done bits and pieces at the keyboard, but nothing substantial. Consequently, the piano we have in the house has remained pretty much untouched for the past five or six years, until this year.

2. Why the Brahms?

The Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 is part of the syllabus for the Associated Board diploma. But there was some discussion had between me and violinst Abigail. She really loved playing it. I rather relished the challenge of taking something on which seemed utterly impossible and pouring my energies into getting it under my fingers.

One of many bits of the first movement from Brahms Violin Sonata No.1 which I want to feel as though it's effortless to play.
One of many bits of the first movement from Brahms Violin Sonata No.1 that I want to feel as though it’s effortless to play.

I remember thinking the same thing about the prospect of accompanying a clarinettist at university in Weber’s Grand Duo Concertante and Brahms Clarinet Sonata No.1. There was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment at the end of the six month process, as though I had somehow expanded as a result of the painstaking practice. I wanted to repeat that twenty years later, largely to see whether I could.

3. The effect of regular practising again 

There is a misconception about music practice, I think. The ill-informed, lazy thinkers amongst us, assume that if you haven’t nailed your skill as a teenager, then you’ll find it almost impossible to do it later in life.

This may seem like the case if you’re starting from scratch, but I now think the secret to learning something (whether its a new work or a new instrument) is taking a structured approach to practising.

Setting realistic goals, knowing your own limitations, identifying the cause of technical problems and experimenting with different solutions.

During this process, I’ve come to understand that practising something doesn’t mean setting aside two hours in your day to ‘attack’ a difficult piece of music.

Rather, practice demands allocating ten or fifteen minute bursts of activity. Practically, this has been me setting the timer on my phone to 15 minutes. When the buzzer sounds, I move on to another section and practice that for a quarter of an hour. And after that I stop.

I quickly realised that going beyond half an hour at a time had a negative impact on my effectiveness: I got tired; I made mistakes; I got frustrated with my own limitations; I grew disillusioned and impatient.

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By keeping practice sessions short, I felt as though I achieved more. Practice became something to look forward to – an escape from the everyday and an opportunity to use my brain in a different way. There was an opportunity to solve problems, to break things down into chunks and a need to be quite structured in my day’s activities. I even got to do some practice on holiday on Port Isaac this year.

4. Slow and steady wins the race, eventually

The first page of the piano part is fiendish. I always hated contrary motion and I still hate it today.
The first page of the piano part is fiendish. I always hated contrary motion and I still hate it today.

Very early on I quickly got disappointed by not being able to master everything in the piece. I expected to be able to master it quicker than I could. I developed a frosty relationship with the work as a result, finding excuses not to go near it even though the overall goal was to practise and play it. Early practice sessions with Abigail left me feeling as though I was letting her down.

But, by committing to 10-15 bursts of practice every day and doing everything incredibly slowly, I soon started to master bits I had initially thought were impossible (like the bit pictured above).

It was around about then I remembered how little I actually engaged in my practice sessions when I was a teenager. I did the actions (and got a Grade 8, as it happens) but never actually thought about what I was doing. I wasn’t especially aware of what was going on when things went wrong and didn’t look for solutions either.

Twenty years later, it was a little different.  By approaching things slowly and methodically, I was able to look critically on the causes of technical problems and look for solutions. The results were rather gratifying.

5. There is no shame in listening to recordings

Listening to other recordings before you sit down and play something has always seemed like cheating to me. Why? God only knows. The key to tackling the overwhelming scale of the first movement alone, for example, has been getting a sense of what goes on in it. And, if you can’t play it first off, why wouldn’t you listen to a recording of someone who can first?

I started listening to Perlman and Ashkenazy recording a couple of months ago. It helped me get out of the reality of not being able to play the notes on the page, and helped established what the end-point was. I hope to God we never have to play it as fast as their recording. As for the one with Barenboim at the keyboard, I will never play it at that speed, I’m sure of it.

6. Learning where the weaknesses are

This was a monumental thing. Slow practice for example revealed to me for example that difficult sections could be mastered surprisingly quickly, almost. And that the difference between complete mastery and 80% was perhaps a weak fifth finger and tension in my forearms. I started to fear octaves, arpeggios and contrary motion.

7. Learning from memory is your secret weapon

If there’s a particularly different passage of music, take your eyes off the page and keep them squarely on the keyboard. Seeing where your fingers are meant to move to is a surefire way of making sure they hit the right note.

8. The difficulty is where you least expect it

I always thought that if a passage was particularly difficult (even if it was learnt from memory) it was the passage itself which was the problem. In some cases practising the Brahms, I’ve noticed that it’s the bar before the difficult passage which needs the attention.

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Seemingly straightforward, the challenge in this section for me is moving from the first bar to the second bar, one octave to another in no time at all. The fact that both chords require a weak fifth finger in the right hand makes it all the more difficult.

 

Sometimes (like in the section above) it is the leap from one part of the keyboard to the next (or rather, not knowing where the hands need to jump to next) which is what causes the problem. If you’re not prepared mentally for the challenging passage, what hope do you have of pulling it off?

9. You develop weird relationships with bits of the music

I have a favourite bit (below) of the Brahms first movement because when it works (it doesn’t always) I feel a rush of adrenaline pass through my body. I have played it over and over and over again. I adore playing it at a slow speed and hearing the syncopation between the two hands. I never thought I’d be able to play it. I can just about complete this section at high-speed. And when I’ve got that nailed, everything else is a piece of cake.

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These two pages are my favourite part of the first movement. I love the effect of the syncopation at the bottom of the first page with the octaves in the right hand. Fiendish but incredibly gratifying.

At the same time, I also fear other bits of the movement (above). The contrary motion on the opening page is rotten and mean and prone to all sorts of wrong notes ending up in the mix. I approach it with mild fear and resentment. The notes on the manuscript stare out at me. It’s odd.

10. I’m nearly at the first milestone. The next is even tougher. 

Getting it all under my fingers has been the first challenge and I’m nearly there and it’s probably taken around 6 weeks of intensive daily practice broken down into 15 minute bursts. I’m pleased about that achievement, especially because I haven’t tired of the work yet.

But the next challenge is even tougher, I think and may necessitate returning to recordings again. It’s about getting a sense of musical shape to the whole, paying closer attention to the articulation and the dynamics and, most importantly, working with the soloist on the end product.

There’s time yet, of course. We have a practice assessment in December and before then, we have three other rehearsals. And that’s another 8 weeks of practice. Bring it on.

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