My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Confessions of a piano collaborator

Image by N P Holmes, from Wikimedia Commons

Warning:  this post, due to its confessional nature, may be a bit shocking, especially to anyone who believes that a note-perfect performance is the only successful performance. 
First of all, I want to express that I really do try my hardest as a musician to learn music as accurately as possible.  I take care to learn the notes slowly and accurately, I figure out the rhythms, I am always conscious of what the composer indicates in the score in regards to expression...I do my homework because I believe that is my responsibility as a musician.  But sometimes, in spite of my best intentions, I find myself in what seems like an impossible situation.

I am scheduled to perform the final movement of Borodin's cello sonata with a young cellist soon.  Thankfully, or maybe not so thankfully, I've had the music now for months so I've had a good amount of time to work out the kinks in a handful of passages.  In other words, I "should" be able to play it just fine.  But here's the thing - these two passages that I'm having trouble with are, in my book, impossible to play as written.  It's one of these parts where there's this gorgeous, romantic, soaring melody in octaves in the right hand (no problem!) accompanied by an exceedingly busy, nasty, awkward, finger-twisting, half-a-keyboard spanning accompaniment in the left hand.  And of course it's fast, especially when performed with an energetic, extraordinarily enthusiastic young musician who just wants to have fun.

I've asked the cellist, no make that "begged" the cellist to not rush. 
I've tried to explain why a slower tempo is better ("I might actually hit some of the right notes!") 
I've talked to her teacher.
I've talked to her mother.
I fell down the stairs and sprained my wrist in order to avoid the concert all together.  (Didn't work - they just posponed it!)

But after all this, no deal.  

The other day, sitting at the piano after a month of not facing the Borodin thanks to my sprained wrist, I felt nauseous.  I felt defeated.  I felt mad.  "Why, oh why can't I play this thing?"  I had a pretty dramatic moment with myself.  Quite impressive, really.  And after a few days of attempting to play all the notes I finally decided that this situation called for desperate measures.  It was time to be creative.  It was time to decompose what was on the page and come up with something do-able.  So very sorry, purists,  perfectionists and dear Borodin!

I know, shocking.  Well, I'm laying it on the table right now.  I'm confessing that I have completely re-written part of the Borodin cello sonata.  I went to youtube, listened to a recording and when those horrible passages came up I closed my eyes and listened.  I didn't listen for every note in the piano part, I just kept my ears open for what stuck out and what stayed with me after the passage was over.  And guess what?  Were all those tiny notes in the left hand even audible or discernible?  Nope.  All I heard was the bass note at the start of every measure or even every two measures in some parts.  Encouraged by this, I sat back down at the piano and found a way to play the passage without making a mess of everything yet keeping those wonderful bass notes and the rhythm of the sixteenths going.   I could fly now!  And the soaring melody in the right hand?  I could actually enjoy it and sing!  

Do I feel bad about all this?  Well, yes and no.  The perfectionist, ambitious side of me wants to be able to pull it off the way it's written but the realistic side reminds me that I've put in a noble fight on that front.  And in the end, what's more important?  My ability to do some feat of pianistic magic or my ability to support this young cellist free of terror and with passionate musical intent?  

We played the Borodin this past Tuesday for a final run-through at a performance class and it was my first go at my edited version.  They only thing different anyone seemed to notice was that the pianist was actually smiling this time around!  That certainly works for me.  And next time I get the chance to perform the piece, I'll give the "correct" notes another go, I promise.  

Can you forgive me now? 

P.S. - If any other musicians out there feel like confessing about their own blasphemous re-writes, please feel free to do so in the comments.  I think it's important for young musicians, especially, to know that it is done sometimes.  Many thanks!

Added later: Geraldine, author of the wonderful blog, "Geraldine in a bottle," mentioned in her comment below that she recently wrote a post about this very topic: "Should you try to play all the right notes?" It's wonderful, just like all her blog posts. 


  1. I felt exactly the same until I read Martin Katz; "Complete Collaborator," chapter 9, in particular. He talks about some orchestral reduction that is almost impossible to play, and he gives an idea of how to deal with it. It is not to cheat, but he suggests(!) making changes of what to play after honest consideration about your own pianistic ability and time that you would need if you try to do without changing. When I read that section, I felt so relieved. So, it is OK to change some, as long as it's still within the context of original music. (He gives more specific suggestions about how to change to make it more do-able.)

    He is talking about the orchestral reduction, but I started to apply the same principle to sonatas and others. I still can't stop feeling defeated when I know I am not playing all the written notes, but what's more important is the music and I am OK if I was able to go with my partner without blocking his/her best musical intention.

    In that book, he also suggests making changes from the very start when you start learning the piano part. I still have hard time doing that --- in the beginning I really try hard to learn all the notes correctly and practice to the tempo that is supposed to be, gradually realizing some sections that may not be do-able. I don't give up playing all the notes until close to the performance time, so, the changes I end up making are rather new, which is very risky at the performance.... I need to learn to foresee what's possible and what's not, and start making changes much earlier.

    Well, this is my confession. Obviously I am in the same boat as you are. Thank you very much for writing about this, I feel so much better knowing there is someone who struggle in the same way. Let's feel better, we are not alone. :)

  2. Some parts are not written so well. I've met composers who have no clue that they have written something unplayable, or something not worth the agony it will take to play it as written.

    And then there are circumstances like this one: I just played Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," in which there is a passage in the cello part with a few dozen scales in 32nd notes with lots of accidentals, ending with a final flourish that has to be in thumb position. I really, really wanted to play this perfectly, and it is do-able, but with an amateur orchestra where everyone is rushing and no one else is playing all the notes, it just didn't seem worth it to spend the time necessary to get it there when I had other pressing things to do. So I did the best I could with some last-minute woodshedding and am trying not to let it bother my conscience (too much). At least I didn't come in a measure early in a crucial spot, like someone else in our section!

  3. One of my colleagues recently gave a talk on dystonia in musicians. (He was focusing on embouchure issues for horn players, but addresses other instruments more broady.) At the 23:20 mark of this video, he mentions that dystonia problems are particularly associated with classical musicians, and though this certainly has to do with heavy practice regimens, it surely has a lot to do with the idea that everyone has to play the notes as written. A virtuosic jazz clarinetist or rock guitarist will surely practice a lot and do some very difficult things, but there's more freedom to choose riffs that fit the hands, etc.

    Classical music culture, on the other hand, pretty much assumes that we'll do exactly as we're told. There are, of course, many aesthetic benefits to this, and there are lots of ways in which doing the seemingly impossible can build technique, but it's little wonder musicians sometimes get pushed too far and become injured.

    It's always striking to me that in a song like "Ich grolle nicht," Schumann (apparently) gives an alternate version of the high note, as if accepting that the original won't be comfortable for everyone. (Maybe it was just pressure from a publisher; and, I'll admit that the alternate lower notes don't sound 'right' to me at all.) It makes me wonder if Borodin were looking over your shoulder, if he might not say, "oh, if that doesn't work, just play this and it will sound fine."

    However, that does present the possibility of a dangerous slippery slope, which I think is why your confession feels so...well, so confessional. But, your decision seems entirely logical and reasonable to me. And, um...yes, I' some adjustments in my time. Like say, for example, in that Erlkonig song you were tweeting about...

  4. Oops -- meant to add: If you listen to a recording of the Tchaikovsky by any orchestra, I challenge you to be able to discern whether the cellos are playing all those notes perfectly. I believe Tchaikovsky meant it as an effect. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you, as the performer, have to understand what is important and what is not, what to bring out and what can stay in the background.

  5. On the contrary to your concerns, Erica, l wish more musicians gave consideration to the question 'but how does it read?' In the theater business the question is "does it read?" Can the audience hear, grasp, understand what is offered from the stage?

    It's not about how well you do your notes as a musician, but how well you give them to the listener.

  6. Miho,
    I've had Katz's book mentioned to me several times now so it's high time I get myself a copy of it! I usually feel just fine about reworking orchestral reductions and know of at least one collaborator that spends much of her career doing just that and publishing them. But you're right, when it comes to sonatas and other pieces originally written for piano, I feel so much guiltier about the whole thing. I feel like I "should" be able to play it. And because I feel that way, it makes it so hard to figure out whether or not to rewrite a passage from the beginning of learning a piece. Sometimes I love the challenge of learning something that seems beyond my grasp and then when I succeed, there's nothing better. But this all means that I can work and work until the last minute then end up in an emergency situation where I have to try to make changes at the last minute. Tricky timing, I think. Perhaps with practice and more and more experience of doing this it will get easier to know when to change course.

    Thank you for your comments and your confession, Miho. It does feel good to hear your views and experiences with this topic!

    Happy reworking! :-)


  7. Harriet,
    It's so wonderful to hear from another instrumentalist about this topic. And yes, I think often the composer didn't have a clue - after all, I think it would be asking a lot of us to expect that a composer can write brilliantly for all instruments. So perhaps we can look at this rewriting thing simply as our way of helping out the composer a bit when needed. Forget the confessions ;-)

    And I love your challenge to listen to a recording to try to spot the imperfections. I believe it's part of my mission in life to help others realize that those imperfections are always there but that it simply doesn't matter in most cases. It's about more than every single note that's on the page. I like to think of playing music as weaving magic spells...if I weave my magical musical spell well enough those details don't matter!

    Thank you for your comment, Harriet!


  8. Michael,
    Thank you for your comments. Many helpful, encouraging thoughts there that make me feel quite a bit less guilty. And I too would like to think that Borodin would see very quickly that my hand is just not made to play those silly passages.

    When I'm talking with students about making alterations in the music to make it playable, I often mention a recording I once heard of Shostakovich accompanying Rostropovich for his cello sonata. There's this horrible but fabulous fast 16th note passage in the piano that comes out of nowhere - very etude like. In the recording I heard, it sounded like Shostakovich was literally doing glissandos up and down the black keys/white keys. I definitely did not hear individual notes. That's when it began to dawn on me that maybe notes don't have to be take quite so literally!

    And I have to say, Michael, that since you've even been brave enough to take on that lovely little Schubert piece, and more than once it seems, you have my complete respect! Who cares how you got through - you have lived to talk about it. Still not sure if I can do the same. :-P

    Thanks again, Michael.


  9. Kim,
    I appreciate so much how your first consideration is always the audience. It is such a good reminder to me and to others.

    Thank you for that!

    All the best,

  10. Erica,

    What a great post! I so completely agree with you!

    I had written a post on the topic on my blog at, because I also feel that it's rarely spoken about!

    I'm so glad to read that I'm not the only one doing that!

    PS: Glad your wrist is better!

  11. Geraldine,
    Great minds think a like - or perhaps I should say desperate minds think a like ;-) Thank you for adding your opinion through your own blog post. I've added a link to your directly into my post - the more the merrier! :-)

    It is so good to know that I'm not alone! And thank you for all the warm wishes and concern as my wrist has been healing. It's good to be back in the game again.

    All the best,

  12. I have done this a few times myself, both in classical and sacred pieces. Many of the composers we admire wrote by theory. So their progressions are fantastic in terms of theory, but when you put it in the pianists hands- not so fantastic. I have had to re-write some parts of our choir music from a certain composer who is just that- a composer. He is NOT a pianist. And as such he doesn't realize how impractical some parts of his music are. So I change them. :)

  13. Yay, Leah! Another pianist who has done this. I think this is just proving to me that we pianists are a highly flexible breed of musician :-) And smart and practical.

    Here's to rewriting when necessary.

    Thank you for commenting and joining the rest of us :-)


  14. Imperfections are sometimes most beautiful - in studying jazz saxophone, it's liberating to finally 'let go' or abandon the minutia of each chord change or scale and with artistic freedom and let the chips fall as they may. We rewrite melodies, chords, and entire forms on the fly and there's no reason why classical performers (and audiences) should not embrace and enjoy the same freedoms. Check out this beautiful rendition of Autumn Leaves by Miles Davis and other jazz greats...cracks, squeaks, blue notes and more :)

  15. Erica...

    I've done it for years. It sounds blasphemous, I know, but I'd rather sacrifice 1-2 perfect measures and have a brilliant performance than stress myself to nail them, to the detriment of everything else. When it comes to performing orchestral reductions, it is not only practical, but a MUST to decide what does and doesn't get played.

    I'll save the "must-have-perfect-fingerwork" for my solo performances.

  16. I love this! I've just recently started to come to terms with "sacrificing" note-perfect performance in favor of a more playable version. Even in high school, I was completely choir director would try to get me to leave out notes or change things to make it easier and I wouldn't even give in to chord inversions, ha!
    I finally really dug into the whole mini-rearranging of parts business when I played a musical in April, the first one I'd played piano for. I had the book for a little over a month and was supposed to be preparing at the same time as preparing to accompany a recital (including Schumann Dichterliebe I-VII, Widmung, and a few other pieces). No way was it going to be perfect, so I did what I could and made sure the important stuff was heard. Granted, it's easier to get away with the in musical theatre, but like you said, the perfectionist in me still wants to play the everything. (That was another thing I had to get over- as our music director said, "when in doubt, leave it out", haha.)
    Anyway, great topic to address! It still bugs me when I have to "cheat" on parts, but I can accept it if it's the only option to have a better performance.

  17. Eugene,
    I love hearing from jazz musicians - I am so in awe of all of you and hold you up as an inspiration for me to have a healthier perspective about music making. It is largely to a friendship I had for a while with a jazz pianist that it dawned on me that I was forgetting why I was playing music in the first place.

    So thank you for yet another reminder that artistic freedom is not something to shy away from. Oh, and that recording of "Autumn Leaves" is fabulous. Making me smile as I listen and I don't even hear those cracks, squeaks, or blue notes ;-)

    With my respect,

  18. Kareem,
    Yay - another confession! Thank you for that. And yes, it's amazing how stressing about even just those one of two measures can be a detriment to an entire piece. So why bother?

    Happy musicking! :-)


  19. Alyssa,
    First I want to say that I always smile when I see your twitter handle - @BflatPenguin. Thank you for coming up with that ;-)

    Second, thank you for reading and for your comments about your own experiences. Musicals, ah yes. Musical scores, in my opinion, just beg to have things left out of them especially since so many of them are in horrible keys and are written out horribly by hand. I did a musical last summer that was horribly challenging and I ended up listening to the recording a lot to figure out what parts/lines are actually audible in a performance setting - it turns out not a whole lot is needed because most tricky spots aren't really even heard when it comes to the performance. I'll never forget slaving away over a passage like that recently, performing it really well at a performance, then listening to a recording of that performance afterwards...guess what I heard? None of that stuff I had slaved over. It just wasn't prominent enough to be heard. That was a reality check!

    Thanks again for sharing, Alyssa. I look forward to more conversation with you :-)


  20. composers who don't compose for real people are asking for it anyway :)

  21. Many thanks, Paul, for your words. Short and sweet!


  22. Hi Erica,
    I'm a friend of that young cellist you mentioned and her mother and they sent me over to your blog! I think I have an explanation for why those passages are so impossible to play. Wasn't Borodin Russian? My high school music teacher told a story that in Russia the pianists used to undergo a surgery to help them play a wider span of notes. They would slice down between their fingers which would increase their hand span and their ability to hit a wider range of notes. So, if you REALLY wanted to hit all those notes, I guess you could try that method... or you could just content yourself with playing "good enough" (which is my recommendation... I heard you played it beautifully!) LOL! =)

  23. Oh my goodness, Good Old Days Family Farm,
    Your comment has me grinning from ear to ear and cringing all at the same time! I am sincerely hoping that the story about Russian pianists is just a myth - that sounds absolutely horrible. Yikes!

    Well I'm glad you thought the performance went well when you heard it - it really is a beautiful piece which sometimes makes my job even harder. I sincerely want to play the piece the way the composer wrote it but alas, sometimes, it's just not possible, especially since I'm not willing to undergo surgery or mutilation!

    I hope to see you again sometime at one of our young cellist friend's recitals.

    Thanks for reading, and for commenting. Best wishes on your farm and homeschooling venture.

    All the best,