More adventures practising Brahms Violin Sonata No.1

A few weeks ago I started documenting my attempts at mastering the piano part from Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1. You can get some of the background about why I’m doing it in this post and how what my experiences were revisiting a daily practice schedule twenty-one years after the last occasion.

Since then, I’ve noticed some real improvements in my playing and some unexpected developments which I thought might be worth documenting here.

1. We can pretty much play it in its entirety now. Three or so weeks ago me and Abigail got together to play the first movement. What had at first seemed like a daunting prospect and an endless movement suddenly became a lot more manageable, achievable and concise. This was probably because during our most recent rehearsal we had an opportunity to get through the movement in its entirely without stopping (I reckon largely because I’ve mastered most sections at the piano so that I can make a good fist of things).

The psychological effect on both of was remarkable. It felt like we had reached an important milestone and that every other subsequent milestone was far more achievable.

2. There are moments when the music is running away with itself. What our rehearsal also uncovered was something I had totally overlooked. To date, I had assumed that I kept reasonably good time. Not the case. Just a few minutes analysing some shaky ensemble work on the first page revealed that when we both got tense, we both had a tendency to speed up. This was quickly confirmed by starting the beginning of the piece at the speed we’d finished the first section. The difference in speed was remarkable.

3. What is the role of the pianist? I don’t know if I’m right to think this or not, but as accompanist I think there’s a need to maintain an objective eye of what’s going on and, be responsive to the needs of the soloist. Is that right? Is the relationship between soloist and accompanist a partnership with soloist as the dominant contributor and pianist providing support. Or is it more of a partnership or a collaboration, with both musicians contributing to a greater whole? If I’m speeding up without even realising it then that strikes me as letting the side down rather more than not being able to play the notes in the first place.

4. There’s no shame in going slow. I’ve been deliberate in my choice of speed over the past few weeks as a result. Why bother trying to play something up to speed if you can’t? Your fingers are going to tense up, there are going to be all sorts of splashed notes, and there’s going to be a lot of bashing at the keyboard.

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So, given that there’s no pressure on me to play up to speed, I’ve deliberately taken things ultra-slow (like the bit at the end, above). It’s given me an opportunity to identify where the weak spots are in my finger control, where the fingering needs improving and which bits can be avoided because they don’t need much time spent on them.

5. Going slow means you end up enjoying some unexpected moments. Take the section below.  I remember looking at the arpeggio very early on in this process and fearing it (odd given that if you play all the notes together as one chord is as pleasing to hear as it is under the fingers).

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When I played it at speed I realised just how weak my left hand was. The prospect of being able to deliver it swiftly (and in conjunction with the right hand) was way too daunting. As a result, I always fluffed it.

At a slower speed I have got the chance to get accustomed to the feel of the notes in my left hand and give my right hand enough time to ‘join in’ at the end. This combined with some arpeggio and scale exercises (see later) has meant where my grasp of these notes had been quite weak a month or so ago, now it feels firm. That promotes a sense of confidence in that section and, as time goes on, it becomes ever more pleasing to play. Bizarrely, I think this bar is possibly my most favourite in the whole movement as a result.

6. Arpeggios and scales. Who knew they could be so fun?  Whilst playing things slowly I realised just how weak my left hand was in places. It made me think of the gym and what the general advice is for novices like me if they discover that they’re struggling to press a particular weight: get accustomed with a lower weight – practise.

So, taking a break from the music, I reached for my old AB Scales and Arpeggios manual and set about practising some of them as warm up exercises. The difference on the difficult arpeggios in the sonata has been remarkable in a short space of time. I had forgotten the benefits of scales and arpeggios on daily practise.

7. I can turn pages at a slower speed. Turning pages yourself is vital in feeling at one with the work. Being able to do that at a slower speed means you occupy the music in a way that only goes to promote a sense of confidence in what you’re doing. I also find it incredibly pleasing to see a well-thumbed piece of music. There’s love in those page turns.

Well-thumbed, full of hope, brimming with achievement.
Well-thumbed, full of hope, brimming with achievement.

8. Time away helps; too much time away doesn’t. For various reasons (some listed in the points remaining), I’ve not been quite so devoted this week. On the plus side its meant that I’ve returned to the keyboard refreshed meaning that the first time I go through something I’ve mastered it (subsequent run-throughs haven’t been quite so successful). It’s also meant that less time is spent at the keyboard, making that time spent practising far more focussed. That said, there are moments when I’ve felt like the piano has been abandoned. Are there sections, like the one below, which dropped in standard as a result?

Twos against Threes: This has been getting increasingly messy in the past week.
Twos against Threes: This has been getting increasingly messy in the past week.

9. My practice strategy has inspired a similar approach to writing. There was a moment ten days ago when I began to wonder whether the benefits of doing exercises at the keyboard (arpeggios and scales) could be applied to writing. I do write most days anyway and make a point of writing in longhand too, but could doing writing exercises every day have the same effect on my creative thinking as doing arpeggios have on the strength of my left hand in certain circumstances?

So, this week, I’ve embarked on 20 minute writing practise following a variety of writing prompts. Amber Lea Starlife’s Week by Week prompts have been a real boon helping improve levels of self-awareness as well as provide useful personal insights which could be useful in fiction writing. There are elements of self-coaching in the process too.

Shaun Levin’s Writing Maps encourage me to take unorthodox approaches to generating ideas and narrative threads (these are creatively the most rewarding).

Bryan Cohen’s 1000 Creative Writing Prompts propose scenarios as a starting point. Whilst at first these starting points take the initial difficulty out of getting fictional stuff off the ground, the process keeps me close to the end of creative writing I find quite daunting. I suspect this is because at the present time I still have a lack of confidence in my own imagination meaning the outcome of writing something which is pure construction is far less satisfying than with Levin’s or Starlife’s prompts.

10. It’s a bit like school now. Having (nearly) daily practice sessions plus two or three types of creative writing a day, is turning this autumn into something reminiscent of school. I like the structured time afforded by these two different activities (which also happen to compliment one another). I also appreciate the way I can escape into a whole other world relatively quickly, an opportunity I look forward to on a daily basis.

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