Last fall I practiced Nocturne No 9/2 by Chopin on the piano (on youtube: Horowitz,Rubinstein, Shebanova, Yundi Li). I found it pretty difficult, because it’s very delicate, and for me there was a lot more stretching, and the left hand moves a lot farther distances than in the Moonlight Sonata). The right hand needs to play louder than the left hand and the pedal is absolutely necessary.
“Discovering” La Cumparsita
I managed to play it reasonably well by the time we had our piano party, after which I wasn’t sure which piece to practice next. I looked through some score books that I discovered in my bookshelf. I could recognize most titles, and tried them out and nothing seemed appealing, when I got to a piece titled La Cumparsita. I didn’t know it, so I went over to trusty youtube, searched for “La Cumparsita piano“, and came across a lot of nice versions, but I found this rendition by Alberto Dogliotti just amazing. Isn’t that wonderful?
Little bit of background
La Cumparsita is originally not a piano piece. From wikipedia:… it was written by Gerardo Matos Rodríguez, an Uruguayan musician, in 1917. It is among the most famous and recognizable tango songs of all time. The title translates as “The little parade” and the original lyrics begin: “The little parade of endless miseries…” It was named cultural and popular anthem of Uruguay. (There are some more links further down)
Starting to practice
So I tried going through the scores that I had. They didn’t come out anything like what I found on youtube. I went to a music store, to buy scores, but they had none (to my surprise). So I searched the internet for other scores, and found this one. I practiced that for a while but didn’t find it too satisfying.
Pointed to Linda Lee Thomas
I mentioned my latest ambition to my friend Chris Startup, a professional Jazz Saxophone player. He recommended I should ask Linda Lee Thomas for help.I called her up and left a message and got no reply. So I thought of looking her up on the Internet. Oh my, she is the principal pianist for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I mean I’m really not that good of a player. I called a subscriber of the Vancouver tango mailing list, Gabriela Rojo, if she knows someone and she also recommended Linda. Ok well, I called again. She was very encouraging! I told her I am kind of stuck because I have no scores, and she said that’s right, I need to “make something up”. She would be away to Argentina, the heart of Tango, until the beginning of March. We could meet after she returns.
“Making something up”
So ok, I tried to make something up. I simply changed the left hand from the scores that I had: just repeat the whole chord + the octave (in the scores the chord is broken up) in quarter notes, and at the last 8th play a half note down. I thought that sounds like tango, and it took me quite a while to complete that for the whole piece. I also modulated the volume a little bit (in fact it gets quite loud). Sorry, I don’t have a recording. Its really quite simple. Still it is enjoyable; for example, I heared my family humming the tune after my playing. On the other hand it is far from what I found on Youtube; they do a lot more with the left hand, but I couldn’t figure out what it is.
So I thought that was a good basis for a lesson with Linda; I called her up at the beginning of the week, and we arranged to meet today! My hope was to find out what happens in the left hand. From what I could tell it was playing a few bass notes, then contributing to the melody, breaking up the chords into much less notes than my scores had, and how I was playing it.
So now let me explain what I learned at this lesson.
I started to play what I had put together. I didn’t make too many mistakes, still she praised me for getting this far by myself. She said I must have a good ear. I guess I cannot tell, but maybe that helps. However, she said the way I played it is the “American” way, as opposed to the “Argentine” way, the American way being associated with Ballroom dancing, which is looked down upon in the Latin tango world. Hey, that makes sense. I guess I was after that Argentinian way.
So she sat down and played the Argentinian way: yes that is great, that is what I want to learn. How to get there? I really need to practice a phrase over and over again, so on the spot I find it difficult to duplicate. So she reduced it to a lot less notes in the left hand. Let’s just break up the chord, play its notes as individual quarter notes, but then syncopate the first note – play it a little earlier.
Ok, I think I got that. Now we made it even more simpler: play the root note of the chord, and then the same note an octave higher. With the melody in the right hand that already sounds a lot better!
As far as I understood the right hand then plays the chord notes added below the melody note (which is pretty standard for the piano I guess), plus maybe an octave lower.
Well, that is as much as I could reproduce on the spot. She scolded me for using what she referred to as the American phrase, which is the last-but-one bar in the scores that I have. This is associated with the “American” tango. Instead, what she plays at the end of part A (the piece comes in parts A-B-A-C-A), is d-g, possibly completed to chords, possibly the chords broken up into very fast notes. It really sounds very nice!
Now I also asked her about how she starts the piece. While getting to understand the syncopation, she was playing the right hand (and me the left), but she would always have a nice introductory phrase. I wanted to know how that works – I’m not quite able to grasp whole chords and play them. So this phrase has two parts, the first one of which is just F-F#-G which she pointed out as an important element. After that follow three chords, G-minor, F-major, E-flat-major. Then with the D-minor chord the tune starts.
I asked about using the pedal. With my version, I couldn’t make out any use for it. But when playing just a few notes in the base, and the melody with higher notes, it makes sense to use the pedal to make the bass notes last.
She pointed out that Tango likes to take up the full range of the piano, all high and low notes, “just play it higher, and then lower”.
As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t immediately play that much of what she showed me right on the spot. I hope that I now can better hear what is going on. She gave me a list of names to find artists for inspiration:
I think what is not in the scores is what you can only learn from teachers, and really at the heart of learning music; here there are no scores available. So thanks a lot to you, Linda, for sharing your knowledge!!
I’ve been learning the piano over the last few years, off and on; probably less than 1 hour a month on average. Recently it has become a bit more and for the last month or so I’ve been practicing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I feel it is a good piece for beginners. I’m lucky to have an above average reach, so one note more than an octave is not a stretch for me.
I find it helps a lot to listen to the piece on youtube, and replay certain sections over and over. This got me quite far; but when I got to the 40th bar (of the 1st Movement) I thought it would be good to get some feedback and see what to improve and what’s ok, and if I’m on the right track in general.
So I asked my friend, Andrea, who has been playing a lot longer than me, and she agreed to meet. Because I am not totally happy with our piano, and to make it easier for her, I asked to play at her place. Our piano seems overly sensitive, so that it is not easy to play softly, and consistently so. Sometimes I even think that I hit a key, but no sound resulted (not easy to reproduce either).
What follows only covers how far I know the piece at the moment: the 1st Movement up to bar 42 (where a repetition of an earlier phrase occurs.)
Of course, the way she played it – on the same piano – was a lot better. The way it was better, was, first of all, much more consistency in the right hand: even rhythm, even volume. It was obvious to me that this is important for the piece, but it wasn’t clear to me how much more consistency is possible.
On top of that she applied the pedal almost throughout the whole piece. I had heared that the pedal is important, but not to that extent. Pushing the pedal down is the easiest of course, however, this piece is so delicate that that will not do. The trick is to push the pedal not all the way, but a little more than half-way and, to release the pedal with each chord change, and each time a melody note changes. Once you know, that makes a lot of sense, and it works. But I find that extremely difficult to do. Some scores indicate when to apply, when to release.
The third thing, and I was aware of this, was to bring out the melody notes (“the ones with the stems sticking up”) by playing them louder, compared to the other notes that are played at the same time. I find it pleasing enough to play the piece without this; I think that is also very difficult. Related, around bar 14, where there are two F# half-notes in the right-hand, I was neglecting the second one.
Around bar 28, when a new theme is introduced, she explained to me the meaning of “phrasing”, of how to control the volume, and that theÂ A in the right hand should be the loudest; equally bars 32 to 40 have phrasing hints; I knew I had ignored those, but now I know how to read them and what they mean. (She also explained that Horowitz manages to regulate the tempo at this part of the piece, by slowing down and speeding up, but such that the total time is still as it should be)