Robert Estrin - piano expert

How To Solidify Your Musical Performance

How to improve consistency in your musical performance

In this video, Robert gives you useful tips about how to solidify your musical performance by talking about Chopin's Mazurkas and Liszt's Sonata in B minor.

Released on August 25, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to Today I've got such a special treat for you, how to solidify musical performance. You practice a piece, you get it learned, and then you want to perform it, but every time you play it you can't count on it coming out the way you want it to. Maybe sometimes it doesn't practice, but you're afraid to even play for anyone because it's just not dependable. Sometimes it comes out well, sometimes it doesn't. What can you do about a thing like that?

Well, a few years ago, I did a video on how to practice a new piece on the piano and what I did was I took a piece randomly, I actually flipped through Chopin Mazurkas and found one I'd never even sight read through, and the first thing I did was I read through it and then I started at the beginning learning it and I practiced in front of you, showing you exactly how I approach a new piece. And what I do and what I did on that video, you can reference it in the description below, is after reading through, get to work and just start from the beginning a very, very small phrase, as matter of fact just a couple of measures, and look at just the right hand and figure out the notes and then figure out the rhythm, look at the fingering, and then the phrasing, and finally the expression. In other words, looking at all the details and get that memorized, just that little phrase, get it fluent.

Same thing with the left-hand, that same little phrase, notes, rhythm, fingering, phrasing, and expression of the left hand. Just a little snippet. Get that memorized, then put the hands together and get that memorized, and going on to the next section the same way, connecting as you go.

And that's the first step. So what about after you've learned a whole piece and you've got it memorized, but it's still not really solid or maybe it was solid at one point, but it's kind of deteriorated over time. And what can you do about a thing like that? Well, I've got an answer for you and I thought what I do is a similar thing and practice in front of you, which is going to be a real treat for me because I've been dealing with technology all day. That's one thing about, that you don't see the back end of what it takes to make these videos. And I really enjoy practicing the piano and sometimes it's hard enough to have the time, so I'm going to do it right now in front of you and I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

What I'm going to do is I'm going to take this Liszt B minor Sonata I've been working on. And we just moved here to the Waterloo Arts District and finally got air conditioning here. You notice that it's been tough making videos because it's been very hot. And so I decided that I would learn this, kind of relearn this piece, and in doing so, I couldn't find my scores, so I had my father's old score. And to give you an idea how old this is, this has made... I know what the year is, but it's $1.50. It's all tattered, but it's got all the notes in it. So the first thing you do, make sure you have your score. If you're going to be practicing, have the music and of course your trusty metronome. And you start from the beginning, or in this case, I don't start from the very beginning because the beginning is very slow and predictable. It's nothing technical, technically oriented.

So I'm going to go ahead and start from where the fun begins. And I will check with the metronome when necessary. I won't necessarily use the metronome throughout, but any time there's any insecurity with tempo or if you need to do metronome speeds, you want to have your metronome handy. So this is a great way to practice. No peddle, have the score handy, and play slowly and securely, and anything that isn't right in the pocket, you stop, you reference the score. Watch the process and see what goes on to solidify your musical performance.

Ah, so there was a missed octave. There were a couple of little, slightly cracked notes, little finger slips that I'm not concerned with, they were kind of random, but this, I want to make sure I've got this solid. So I reference the score, find out exactly where I am, and I know what the notes are here, but I want to have it handy to find a good space to start, which is right here.

So I'm going to do that a few times to clean that up. I hear a little bit of cracked notes here and I want this to be totally clean.

Notice I'm just segmenting instead of doing the... I'm just doing the, leaving out the bottom D.

Now I add the D.

But with a little hesitation to make sure I can nail it.

The G was still sloppy. Did you hear that? That's why I need to stop on the G, give myself a moment to be secure, then play the D.

I missed that G again. Did you hear it in the left-hand?

It's amazing how I can do that over, and over, and over, and over again perfectly, but with a note after, the D after it, sometimes I miss it. Isn't that interesting? And you'll have to kind of cement things more than you think you have to. Look how many times I repeated it. I'm going to repeat it some more.

It seems like I couldn't possibly miss it by adding one note to that. Let me go hesitate after that G so that I'm sure to get the G and then I'll play the D after that.

Not totally clean on the G. Can you believe it?

So what's happening is I'm calling attention to that G because that's the note I'm missing sometimes. So I have to really be able to land on it with total security and relaxation. You get to a point where you just kind of fall on the right notes. You don't make yourself push to the right notes. You fall on them, so it's totally relaxed.

Pretty good. Let's see if I can get it in context.

Missing that one now.

I'm missing notes all over the place. This is actually very treacherous. You kind of have to psych yourself up to be able to play this accurately.

I did get the passage that I worked on. I'm going to start over, see if I can go ahead and get the next section cleanly.

Now where is that? Make sure I'm being honest here. You don't want to take any chances that I'm reinventing the score because if you practice without the music over, and over, and over again, you can actually start playing slightly different things each time, end up with a whole different piece if you're not careful. So where is that? The high E flat. And it's amazing how long it could take, even for me, because it just does... Okay.

So I got through this section pretty well. Sometimes I will practice that octave section for an extended amount of time, but it's very tiring and sometimes it's better to practice it once or twice throughout the day, or maybe a third time and not just keep pounding at it because it's extremely taxing on the muscles. So I'm going to go on for now. The next section isn't too hard, so I'm going to kind of skip to the next section that's got some notes in it that I've got to make sure that... The next place that really gets quick is over in the a tempo, later on the D major section.

What's going on? See there?

And there again. I'm watching the score and noticing that the quarter rest comes in when the D sharp...

That's one. This chord comes off is when the D sharp plays in the right hand. These little details, you'll find them when you really meticulously play slowly with no pedal, with a score. You can really clean up your playing and really play the score accurately, get it really absorbed in a way that, even though I went through this and memorized it meticulously to really get every detail in a 30 minute work, nobody's got a perfect memory. You've got to constantly reinforce, which is exactly what I'm doing now. Better than that, when I find places that aren't clean, I can spend some time cleaning them up, doing progressive metronome speeds, or hands separately, or whatever it takes. Continuing on, let's see what comes out. All right? I'm going to start at the same place again.

Ah ha. Okay. That was the second... This is a pattern that goes on, and on, and on through this whole section and being able to get the pattern.

It's the same pattern over and over in different keys.

And incidentally this all goes much faster. Funny thing, playing it faster with some pedal is actually easier.

But if I slow it down, any little imperfections are going to stand out like a sore thumb. And that's the purpose of this slow, no pedal practice, to really be an honest performance, to really get that, all the notes solidly under your fingers in a relaxed manner.

I'm going to start right there. So I... The temptation is to go back further because it's so easy to start at the beginning of the section, but you've got to focus on where the problem is exactly. So I'm starting on the third measure of this section.

Now I'll go back.

That last one, it didn't sound totally even, the triplets. The other ones I was happy with. So let's see what's going on. That last one, by the way, I've gone over it again, and again, and again, for some godforsaken reason I have to keep revisiting the score and to clean it up. It's not any harder than the other ones, but I don't know why, but got to put the attention where it needs it, right?

To practice it in chords is always helpful to hear the harmonies and the finger connections.

And notice that as I played each time I bring out different voices. I might bring out the alto voice.

Then maybe I'll bring out the tenor voice.

And that way you have control over everything and you really hear everything. When you go so fast these things don't come to your attention the same way.

Let's see if I can get any context. I'm going to take this whole section, see if I can get that last one cleanly. And I'm going to take not such a slow tempo, so see if I can get it.

I got it. Let's see if I can get it from memory this time.

I missed the left-hand, the bass line. So let me go through that slowly and bring out the bass.

Now back to the beginning of this section, see if I can nail it.

It came out fine, but it didn't feel totally relaxed and I want it to feel relaxed. I want to try it again and see if I can play it with my shoulders relaxed, my back relaxed, no tension at all and see if I can make it come out, even in that relaxed manner.

Better, but it wasn't a hundred percent relaxed. I'm going to try stopping just before that last group to see if that gives me that moment to relax so that I can then incorporate that memory of the relaxing right at that point. When I'm playing it at the speed, it's like an infinite amount of relaxation in a speck of time.

See that? Made it relaxed. I'm going to do the same thing with a little hesitation there.

I didn't even hesitate that time, but it was still relaxed. So maybe I'm in good shape. I'll try it one more time and I'm going to think the hesitation and make it very, very small, but it will be there in my head so that I have that relaxation moment just before that last iteration of this pattern.

And this always drives me nuts. I can play these octaves fine, but the very last three.

I think if I stop before the final chord, maybe I'll have that relaxation because it's muddy over there and it drives me nuts.

It's the G pinky that I'm not hearing all the time.

And that last time I got it, but I felt this tension in my back. I want to get it with not any tension.

And those last three triplets, once again, are not totally clean.

Just going, thinking, just going slightly slower on this, helping to nail it because sometimes you get tight and you play some notes just a little bit too fast and it trips you up.

That was better. Of course, you've got the 16th note on the right hand.

To complicate things a bit, right?

It wasn't clean, was it?

That was a good one.

And I'm doing something that I learned from Jeff Biegel. Jeff Biegel's a sensational pianist. He was a student of my father's, so I kind of grew up seeing his development and he's a stupendous artist. And he talks about a technique of putting the pinky, the pardon me, the second finger kind of curled in and that's what I just did and it's a nice little tip for you when playing octaves to get that arch. Because I've talked about how the power of the octave comes from the arch, the power of the arch, because, after all, you want to equalize your pinky, your little puny pinky, with your massively strong thumb and that's where the arch comes in. And by rounding all your fingers, particularly he likes to think of the second finger, it makes that arch really strong.

Almost. It was going really well. It's all a little bit under tempo with no panel, mind you. So it may sound a little bit labored, but then it feels so good to solidify. So let me see if I can find where exactly I am. Yep. Yeah.

So that's right. So this is a good place to start.

See, that's what...

That's it.

Make sure I got it.

I missed one of those octaves, that A. There it is. So you...

So let me start here.

This section is so treacherous and, by the way, it's got it in the recapitulation in a different key. And if ever there was a place to watch out for memories slips, it's here, because it's modulating by the minute and you've got two versions of it in here. So you really have to think through this and understand it for the key notes that you got to hit. Because one of the hardest things there is, by the way, in memory fingers have a kind of a memory all their own, although I stated many times you can't depend upon it all the time, but it definitely comes in handy. But when you have to make leaps, you have to know exactly where you're leaping. You have to know what the destination notes are. So it's a very intellectual process. Leaps are much more difficult to have in motor memory. That's why, for example, string players being able to play very high notes in rapid succession, going up and down, to get that motion of the arm and the wrist is maddeningly difficult. My daughter has worked very, very hard and has amazing intonation that took years and years to develop, just knowing where it's going to go and landing in the right place. And this is a kin to the same thing here.

I missed that F.

And I find, by the way, for those of you who study this piece, think the pinkies of the left-hand, it really, really helps because the thumbs are going to come out loud once again, so you've got to land on those pinkies are kind of a good guide notes for you.

This isn't hard. It sounds hard, but it's just tremolos. So what have we got now? Oh, all this recitative is beautiful. I'll just play it because it's beautiful. And with a pedal and everything. I need a little bit of joy here. The pleasure of the pedal at a recitative, let's be expressive for a moment.

So I just got a comment that those chords are like death knocking on the doors. Isn't it?

So demonic. So, this little passage, it's a bunch of diminished seventh chords in succession by playing tritones in each hand. There's a theory lesson there for you. If any of you're interested, put it in the comments and I'll make a video explaining what I just said because it is a mouthful and if you're not really versed in theory, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But diminished seventh chords are built in the interval of minor thirds, that's three half steps apart, and so that means that if you skip the middle note, you've got tritones, which are half octaves in each hand and they go up chromatically like this.

It's so hard to do.

And of course it's Liszt and what does he do? And then on the next page, or I can turn these tattered pages, you got the same thing except higher.

Very difficult. I think. I mean, maybe for some people, if they don't have to work so hard, but I have to work really hard to be able to get those cleanly because they're pretty fast and you've got two notes in each hand and tritones going up chromatically and you've got two different sets of them. It's so easy to confuse them. One of the tips I can give you for, once again, anybody studying this piece, is find groups of notes. For example, you can go.

And then.

So even if you play the whole group, the whole run of tritones, of diminished seventh chords, you still thinking...

And makes it much easier. Instead of a whole string of them you kind of subdivide in your mind, but the audience doesn't even have to be aware of it. It's kind of in your head to just, it's kind of that relaxing right in the middle of a passage. I keep talking about relaxation. You want to strive for relaxation in your practice. Now how to achieve that? My father used to say that relaxation is about having enough strength. And this is absolutely true. When I played this piece years ago, I didn't have nearly the strength that I have now, so I had to really push in order to get things to come out. Eventually the fingers get stronger and you can lay back and let it just come out. The other thing is that this Ebach piano has so much sound and it's like driving a high-end sports car because it doesn't take a lot of work to get the sound out.

Now, interesting note, side note for you. I can use a little break anyway, mentally and physically. Is that when this piano first came in, it was voiced really super bright and in this room, which is already pretty echo-y, it was really, really loud and I used it as a learning experience. I learned... I said, "Could I possibly make this piano sound good in this room, as bright as it is." And I learned how to lighten it up and be able to control it. I still softened it down a bit. It's still on the bright side, but I love it because I learned how to control it. Horowitz, his piano was voiced super bright and he had a dazzling technique because he could play so lightly that anytime he put a little bit of effort in his piano, it was explosive. And he had that massive power, in no small part because of the control had playing a piano that was super charged with a shallow dip of the action and very hard hammers that produced a bright sound.

So now getting back to these diminished seventh chords.

I got it, but it didn't sound totally clean, right? To hear every note. Another way you can practice this, if you really want to spend a whole day on this passage, you could play each note of a line, like the top line.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Bill McClellan * VSM MEMBER * on August 25, 2021 @3:01 pm PST
Thank you for a wonderful video. Watching you practice is a privilege and very informative. It would be interesting to see when and how you include the use of the metronome when you practice. Thank you again for sharing your time and knowledge.
Robert - host, on August 25, 2021 @4:36 pm PST
It's funny how I stressed the importance of having the metronome there and didn't end up using it! Sometimes it is indispensable. Perhaps I'll make a video on how to practice with the metronome.
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