Original Post: December 23, 2020, Updated: February, 2021
As if the generation is not sharing enough about their lives… I want to share some of my experience – how learning Hindemith indeed was for me. I sometimes see classical musicians talking about their journey with a piece of music. It often involves how glorious it was or how challenging it was, but all in all, they speak somewhat general to me. Is it because of the ‘stop talking and just play it, show it to me’ kind of spirit? Here I am shameless, not showing off at all, but rather the opposite. I hope you find it amusing or encouraging because you can do it if I can do it.
How do you learn a new piece? Once I decided to learn the piece to perform it at CCM, I started to listen to it every day. I have to have some aural information. I don’t have a perfect pitch. If I punched a wrong note when I sight-read, where I usually have my nose one inch far from the score, I would not know and learn it wrong. I listened to the entire piece and felt like the piece was forty-minutes long. I said, “the music is long and difficult!” I can’t forget the perplexed face of Maestro.
As a matter of fact, the music is twenty-five minutes long—four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. Imagine you are in a foreign country and someone is talking to you in a language you only know its alphabet. Twenty-five minutes will feel like an eternity. Thankfully, Hindemith used the same notation to write down his new tonal system. Still, the system eventually created a unique sonority. The piece that I was given, Konzertmusik Op.49, was in the middle of his list of works. The complexity had disappeared; instead, his intention was obvious. I had to learn it somehow. But how?
I once worked with a professor who spent his youth in Paris. He is Bulgarian-born but heavily French. Naturally, I wanted to understand him better and tried to learn French. Using an app, I knew nothing about the language but started learning words. I crammed some words with their articles, some sentences. I knew how to say ‘I’d like to have a cup of tea.’ It worked. Now, I remember nothing but je m’appelle.
Instead of learning the whole system of Hindemith, I decided to cram the notes. I am not very proud of making a non-scholarly and non-artistic decision, but I am proud of making a timely decision. It takes months for me to learn a Beethoven cello sonata and be fluent with it. I had no time to analyze everything without the help of a Hindemith expert and make sense out of it. I had learned Mozart piano sonata not knowing his musical philosophy and understanding his modulations. I am 20 years older than that, but nothing changes because I am dealing with the music of 150 years later.
I pushed myself to move on with a certain number of bars every day. Slow movements were fine. As for the fast movements, I pulled out my hair every day and night. I blocked sections, as short as three measures, and started playing slow, as slow as turtles. When I was done with the day’s practice, I played the YouTube video twice slower and repeated listening to those three measures numerous times. I had to get the sound. Thank you, YouTube, for making that ‘Playback Speed.’
What made it easy to learn this music was that the rhythm is not tricky and straightforward. What made it hard was that I was fresh to his harmonies, thus sonority. And the passages were not friendly to pianists’ fingers. Of course, Hindemith was not a pianist. In the fourth movement, I had these three measures where I spent an hour for three days for its fingering. Debussy wrote in the preface for his Etudes, “Let us find our own fingerings!” I tried many different ways but couldn’t find it. After days of struggle, I brought it to my teacher, Mr. Tocco. “Pretty awful,” he said. I was quite relieved that I was not the only one who would find it difficult. However, he spent fifteen minutes and gave me the ultimate fingering. I am hoping to be a wise teacher like him when I am seventy-six years old.
Each movement gave me different challenges. The first movement needs a beautiful shaping of phrases and an expression of different colors of each section, and some of them required some gluey notes. The second movement starts with a canon. If you know J.S. Bach Well-Tempered Klavier Book II G Minor Fugue, the intensity is there. Here I thanked my first piano teacher, who made me play all the Bach Sinfonia. It is about working out the fugal sections and voicing within ff or fff. The intervallic pattern of left and right hands is not bad here. I did not know that and complained a lot until I saw the fourth movement.
The third movement sounds like the music of the twelve-tone technique. They say that this is a variation, but I do not find it. If someone can give me a lecture on this movement, I will fly there. I had to purely enjoy the sound of it. The fourth movement solo part starts with a silky passage from a high register. Practicing this movement, I wanted to have a left-hand replacement surgery. I have set up a left-hand exercise time from then on. Endless intervallic patterns for a hundred bars await you. Then, the last two lines of the whole piece were the longest seven seconds of my life. I found no pattern in this little cadenza-like descending swirl. It does use twelve tones, but I do not think it follows the Schoenberg-like technique. I just made sure that I repeat the swirl ten times every day, no matter what. I had to trust the power of accumulation.
After practicing it faster, I started to realize how beautiful the first movement was and how exciting the second movement was. I must have listened to it so many times that I got used to it. I think I became sad as I thought I was a mere small creature to play this beautiful music so wrong and ugly. I walked up to my dear friend in the next studio and cried. Poor Guiliano.
One day, I made a debut in my bedroom with the Spotify Brass, playing the first and second movements. It was a great way to practice and get distracted while I play. I learned to stay put together when I have all the excitement from the Dolby surround brass sound. I plugged in my earbuds, Spotify on, with the full sound from my little keyboard. I don’t know how it actually sounded out there. My roommate had to deal with it every time.
By then, I removed my metronome from the second movement. My teacher had to learn the ridiculous piano reduction to play with me. He played it technically every week from the first week of October to the second week of November. Right before the first rehearsal week, I met Maestro with a thrill and insecurity as I was not convinced with my interpretation yet. Thankfully, he liked it. I showed up at the first rehearsal. My fourth movement was half-baked. The rehearsal started, and I heard the tuba solo. I was so happy to hear it played somewhere else than my phone, live.
From then on, I established a new relationship with the piece every week. The music spoke to me in various ways. I started to hear the lines that I never heard; some passages had clearer meaning after weeks. I found more economical ways to play specific passages, and I learned how to ‘listen’ to the symphony. My left-hand was still stupid, but I have never given up. I am still working on it. I did not abandon the dream of learning Hindemith’s theory, but the reality kept me busy and tired for that.
At one point, I was stuck. I knew that it was not perfect or GREAT, but I did not know what to do to make it better. Numerous small recordings were made, many friends were involved in listening to me. No one knew this piece except for this one guy who played with the Wind Symphony with a different conductor years ago. Sharing the pain of learning this music alleviated the pressure. Even though there are thousands of piano pieces out there for pianists, we often understand what kinds of challenges a piece gives. Since I had not talked to someone who played or knew the piece, I felt like I found an oasis when I started talking to him. Another friend, who was there from the beginning of the reading also watched many short clips and provided different perspectives.
Playing with a brass ensemble was also a challenge. I have never played as a soloist for a large ensemble, nor thirteen brass instruments. When it comes to an ensemble playing, I automatically listen and fit in. That is not the case for a soloist. I thought about one hot soloist and another who has been my idol – Yuja Wang and Radu Lupu – what would they do? I also had Mr. Tocco, who played with many orchestras and conductors of various ages and styles in Europe and America, and the friend who listened to my recordings, who also performed with many different orchestras at competitions. I felt fortunate to be able to talk to them and pick their brains.
In the end, I still did not know the tonal system of Hindemith. It was just like I learned how to pronounce ‘I’d like a cup of tea, please’ in French without knowing any grammar. All I had to do was to develop the muscle for strange passages; listen to the sounds; and experiment with different tones and balance. But I witnessed the intricacy of the music, small germs of each of us sculpting a compact first movement and building a tower of the fugue. The glorious sound coming from the shiny people made it all worth it. Of course, I would have saved some time if I knew what I was doing. I think I will know next time I play this!