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.

The Lesson

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!!

Related Links

(Some of these also appear above)