Nocturne No 20 (C# Minor)

Chopin wrote this piece for his sister as an exercise before studying the second piano concerto. The melody is simple (and addictive). On face value, it’s not a difficult piece. So what is it exercising?

The simplest things can be difficult to master. I remember once spending an hour trying to make one note sound good. Of course, I’m not saying that we should obsess over every simple thing. But from time to time, a simple piece lodges itself in my head, and I can’t help but obsess over it.

To start, I am focusing on three areas in my study:

1. Chords

The piece begins with soft, solemn chords. The exercise here is to play the first two bars warmly, and then play next two bars even more softly. How soft and warm can I make these chords? These first four bars are a study in chord tones, specifically the famous Chopin pianissimo tones.

2. Shaping the Melody

This piece has a simple, beautiful melody. The melody is an exercise in how to shape each phrase. Nuances in the color and dynamics between each note can change the way a phrase makes you feel. How do you take a few notes, and shape them into mountains and valleys?

3. Smooth, invisible arpeggios

The left hand arpeggios should support the melody, but in an invisible way. These arpeggios are like oxygen, the invisible medium without which life would not exist. They provide the backdrop, the chordal ether in which the music swims.

I could go on and list other elements that is exercised within such a simple piece, but these are more than enough to start studying.

My practice:

Digital to Acoustic

Today, I went to a piano meetup and played the Chopin Concerto (No 1, 2nd Mvt). Ah, every time I switch from digital to acoustic it’s like being hit in the head with a sound hammer. But then again, I think every piano is a bit different and takes getting used to. While playing, it sounded just.. loud, like I couldn’t control the dynamics. But I recorded it with my phone from about 15 feet away, and there’s more variation in the dynamics there than I thought.

It was nice to play in front of people and meet some other amateur pianists in the area.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Movement 2

I tried to capture the movement of a memory in this piece. I feel the music moves through nostalgia, confusion, and optimism.

As with any piece, these are always work in progress and there are plenty of things to work on. For now, I’m happy with the recording and will move onto working through projects. In the future when I return to this piece, I hope to commit the thing to memory, smooth out some of the runs, and better shape the phrasing during the sections with the thirds.

Playing the Whole Concerto

I started working on the second movement of Chopin’s first piano concerto last year. When I learn a new piece, I go through a few lines at a time. I work through each section, learning the notes and thinking about what story I want to tell. This way, I slowly make it through the entire work.

I worked on the last section of this movement for a few days. In the end, I was happy with it. It was melancholic, with a touch of reverie—just as Chopin himself intended.

“It is not intended to be powerful, it is more romance-like, calm, melancholic, it should give the impression of a pleasant glance at a place where a thousand fond memories come to mind” — Frederic Chopin

Then I played through the whole piece, and it all came crashing down. The last section—the beautiful section that I had perfected the day before—it just sounded wrong.

It basically told the same story as the first section. The tone stayed the same. It was boring. The story wanted to progressed throughout this movement. I mean, it’s called a movement! It should move.

When I played the whole piece through, I realized the last section is not melancholy at all. Quite the opposite. It is an optimistic restatement of an earlier section. This section told a story of journey’s end, and it was a good journey.

I made the mistake of thinking about each section of the piece in their silos. Each section belongs to a larger movement, and each movement belongs to a larger body of work.

When I work on something—a few bars of music, a feature on a webpage, a press release—it’s always a part of something more. It’s easy to lose sight of the context around which I’m working when I’m focused on one section. But audiences don’t just listen to one section. They listen to the whole concerto.

Even when working on one single note, play the whole concerto.

Big Project Ideas

Holiday season has been really hectic at work, so I haven’t had much time for piano or updating this blog. But hey, I’m back now!

Now as I look ahead I’m trying to figure out some good projects to tackle for 2015. I’m thinking of Chopin’s Preludes and Ravel’s Jeux D’eau.

Chopin’s Preludes are short pieces of various types of technical and musical difficulty. It would be a nice collection to study as a whole. Also each piece is short enough that I can play at parties without having to worry about taking up too much of people’s time.

Ravel’s Jeux D’eau is the last piece I started to work on before I quit playing piano way back when. It’s technically very difficult so it will definitely be a challenge. On the other hand, impressionist music should be a nice change of pace from the romantic Chopin.

Before all that, I need to make one final recording of Chopin’s E Minor Concerto (2nd Movement). So I guess that’s the most immediate project.

Alice’s Piano

From time to time, I read things that don’t involve five lines or black dots. I did just that this week, and finished an amazing book called Alice’s Piano.

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Alice’s Piano is a story about Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer. She was born before World War I in Czechoslovakia, started playing the piano at a young age, and grew up to be quite an accomplished musician.

After the war started, she endeavored to learn all the Chopin Etudes. For me, it’s quite an endeavor to learn even one. Even the easiest one is very trying.

She was sent to a concentration camp and actually gave piano concerts there (had no idea this happened). Apparently, concerts were allowed by the SS as distractions from the daily misery. It’s a conflicting thing. On the one hand, they are using music and theater as bread and circus, to distract their prisoners from the reality of things. On the other hand, at least the prisoners have some music to lift up whatever spirit they have left.

She played (among other pieces) Chopin’s Etudes. In this book, each Etude is told by relating to another story of a fellow prisoner at the camp. For somebody who know these Etudes, I think it makes both the Etudes and the stories that much more powerful. In general, the way they relate the music to stories really moves me. It improves my understanding of the pieces and brings the story to life.

When she was transported to the concentration camp, she said something like “if there’s concerts there, it can’t be that bad” (paraphrasing here). I think that simple statement is so beautiful. It shows her spirit and optimism, as well as her dedication and passion to the piano.

Reprise in G# Major

After the darker middle section, the music in Chopin’s 1st Piano Concerto (second movement) journeys back to happier moments. It is a sweet, nostalgic melody that echoes the first part of this movement, albeit in a higher key–the G# major key, with theoretical 8 sharps.

If I were a better pianist, it wouldn’t bother me so much. After all, it hits all the same keys on the piano as the Ab major scale, which has only four flats.

Here, I had to heavily rely on my ear’s memory. I have heard this music dozens of times at this point, maybe even somewhere in the lower triple digits. I should know the tune in my head. Though all the accidentals are daunting, I can also rely on my ear and my comfort with the Ab major key to feel my way around the music. It’s only when I become conscious of my playing (which happens quite often as I’m learning the notes) that I need help looking up the notes.


The melody reprise with 8 sharps

Through out this section, the main melody repeats multiple times. Repetition is a good opportunity to showcase different interpretations. Here, I see each repetition as an attempt to try to overcome something. Maybe it’s attempts to recall a happy memory. Maybe it’s attempts to write a better memory.

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Thirds!

This part also repeats. Try 1. Try 2. Try 3. Each time, the memory gets more and more grand, more and more vivid.

Not going to lie–the thirds are tricky! I think I play them too heavily. They should be light and delicate, gliding along in a smooth legato.

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I do love the D# in the last chord here. It’s buried deep within the inverted chord in the right hand, but somehow it sings out to me. I think it’s because the left hand descends and points sharply at the D#. It’s just a lovely hidden note in a meaty chord.


I stopped this practice session at the climax. The last part is the denouement. It resolves the climax and brings us home. There is a coda (if I can call it that) where the piano accompanies the orchestra. Since I’m playing this solo, I think I will skip that and save it for a later date. Perhaps when I can corale a violin friend to play this section as a duet with me.

Voicing continued

I worked on voicing the middle section today. I also moved on to learning the notes in the last few lines.

The Middle Section

I continued the work from yesterday, where I the middle section but brought out one voice at a time. It helped me hear all the different melodies and make a better judgment on what to bring out when. For example, the bass is actually quite lovely.

All Voices:

bringing out the bass voice:

bringing out the middle voice:

bringing out the soprano voice:

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The Finale

I also worked on the last few lines. I used the octave option when playing the piece here. I like the octaves. I think it makes it sound more… organ-like. I also like the long chord in the last few measures in the bass. I could just hear the sustained organ chord throughout these measures. I suppose that is very Bach.

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Sigh… I don’t understand Bach

I’m still not quite familiar with the story of this piece. When playing Chopin it’s much easier for me to hear a story in the music. Emotions and memories just come to me when I listen. With Bach, I’m drawing a blank. That’s frustrating. I think this blank slate comes through in the music as well. The notes I play just don’t sound meaningful.