My current bible on how to practise is a yellowing second-hand copy of Playing the Piano for Pleasure, a 1940s book by a former New Yorker writer, Charles Cooke, himself an amateur pianist. His technique was to identify the weakest moments in a piece (like my twelve horrors, below) and turn them into the strongest. He called these sections ‘fractures’.
I believe in marking off, in every piece we study, all passages that we find especially difficult, and then practising these passages patiently, concentratedly, intelligently, relentlessly until we have battered them down, knocked them out, surmounted them, dominated them, conquered them – until we have transformed them, thoroughly and permanently, from the weakest into the strongest passages in the piece.
So what’s going to stop me be able to play this piece? I start to construct a list of the horrendous technical challenges which – at any other point in my life – would have deterred me from even trying. Here are a dozen immediately obvious reasons why the piece is unplayable . . . by me.
FRACTURE - BAR 33
This sort of stuff at bar 33 – squashed flies on a page – happens all over Chopin. One moment everything’s calm, the next the right hand is fitting in millions of notes for every note in the LH. Well, not millions, but enough for the little black dots to blur in front of the eyes and beads of sweat to form on the forehead. Four per note for the first three beats. And then – count them – eighteen for the next three. Six a beat, strictly speaking, except that would sound rather mechanical. So perhaps split them six-eight-four? They have to sound effortless. But that means a long time with a pencil writing in exactly which finger is going to play which note and then memorising it all.
FRACTURE - BAR 48 TO 49
The first bit of passage work which hits you three pages in. This is really hard. The LH starts in one octave and then plummets an octave. So does the RH, but exactly a bar later. The LH figure is a clumsy mixture of third fingers and fifth fingers – they’ll have to find the leaps on their own because the eyes are going to be on the RH, which is darting all over the place – difficult fingerings, difficult leaps, twisty shapes. And the fact that the eyes are not going to be on the music means that every note must be memorised. And the rhythm is disconcertingly syncopated. The RH looks and (without the LH) feels as if it’s written in patterns of three, or even triplets. But add in the LH and the strong feeling is in two, not three.
FRACTURE - BAR 56 TO 57
Same passagework a little later . Nearly ten bars of broken chords in the RH, over three octaves and in three different keys and far-from-obvious fingers. I haven’t practised arpeggios for decades, or I would have a more instinctive idea of how these should be played. And, for added complication, Chopin’s written in horn calls (in two different octaves) in the LH. Assuming eyes transfixed on RH fireworks (more memorising) how is the LH going to find its way to exactly the right spot for the horn calls?
FRACTURE - BAR 106 TO 109
The big second tune – so sweet and melancholy in its first outing, now returns very grandly in A major or E major, depending on which pianist you talk to. Once again, as with much Chopin, the two hands have different problems to confront. The LH lays down a carpet of chords – changing key every bar, if not twice a bar and arcing over four octaves with each chord in a different inversion. So that, on its own, is an hour of fingering and a month of memo- rising. The RH is playing in large infilled octaves, trying to sing a triumphant melodic line over the LH, with some tricky triplet turns along the way.
FRACTURE - BAR 119
Just when you were getting the hang of the chords Chopin writes in three octave runs in the RH. But what on earth are they? Is the first B major? But with an E sharp thrown in? The second C-sharp minor apart from an F double sharp? The third G-sharp minor? Even if I knew the vanilla version of these keys I’d still struggle because each scale is slightly ‘wrong’. As it is I’ll have to learn each one individually, together with the right fingerings. And memorise.
FRACTURE - BAR 143 TO 144
I find this extremely tricky. The RH is a filigree moto perpetuo waltz – OK once you get the hang of it – but the LH has got big leaps (so that rules out looking at either the music or the RH, which is just going to have to play on autopilot) and these sighing chords, which don’t fit naturally under my hand at all. Playable adagio – but anything faster than that sends shooting pains up my left arm.
FRACTURE - BAR 146 TO 147
Passage work. Fingering. Notes. Memory. Coordination.
FRACTURE - BAR 163 TO 164
Fairly horrible. A long descending scale which begins as one thing (?B-flat minor, but with an E natural thrown in just in case that’s too obvious). And then – with a large spread chord in the LH to distract you – it changes into something else Nearly seven octaves in all.
FRACTURE - BAR 166 TO 167
One of the most unnerving bars in the piece. Let me count the ways:
1. A trill on the first note in RH (with two weakest fingers, 4 and 5) while thumb holds the octave.
2. It’s six beats in the bar. LH twelve notes. Outer part of RH seven notes. Inner part of RH seven notes. But a different seven. Middle part of RH two notes.
3. So get a pencil out and work out which note falls where. Draw lines on the score to show exactly where individual RH notes sound in relation to the LH. There’s maths involved in working out the relation between a crotchet quadru- plet (four single notes in the time of three) versus a quaver triplet (three half- notes in the time of two) versus three quavers (three half-notes) versus two crotchets (two full notes).
4. Now you’ve marked it up, try and play it. And make the melody (in outer fingers of RH) sing over the musical quadratic equation going on underneath. With a bit of rubato please.
FRACTURE - BAR 208 TO 209
So this is where the real fun begins. The nightmare coda, which the best pianists in the world fear. It’s presto confuoco – demonically fast – and syncopated. The LH is making large leaps which confuse the expected rhythm. You’re anticipating an oom-pah bass, whereas he’s actually written a pah-oom bass. There’s no time to catch breath or think – it’s either there in the finger or it isn’t.
FRACTURE - BAR 216 TO 217
A nightmare for the RH, which is required to perform death-defying trapeze artist leaps in mid-air. The hand has to take off at the speed of sound, arriving precisely six and a half inches to the left, substituting a little finger for a thumb on a ridge of wood. This swoop down the piano is immediately followed by a swoop up – an other leap of faith, with the thumb replacing the little finger, and then straight back down. The melody is essentially in the thumb, so everything else is decorative. But the thumb-melody is an octave apart. Once again, the eyes will be in two places at once (the LH is making its own octave leaps), so there’s no possibility of looking at the score at the same time. More memorising.
FRACTURE - BAR 255 TO 256
Having taken you right down to the bottom of the keyboard, Chopin races you back up again – twice. The first is a three-octave G minor scale, both hands in parallel. Too easy? OK, try this for size: two hands, four octaves and a tenth apart. So, each hand is playing a G minor scale, but starting on a different note.
At any other time in my life, I would quietly have closed the music and put it back on the shelf. The added fear overlaying the entire enterprise is that I have never memorised a note of music in my life. I can’t remember poetry, dates, phone numbers, films, novels – or music. Given that half of the piece is unplayable unless the eyes are on the hands and not on the score, I have no idea how, in my late 50s, I am going to retrain my brain.