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My (optimistic) hope to master
Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu

    This 'diary' or 'blog' was originally written at the Tabulas site here.
    Here it is again, archived, with added pictures, corrections, and with the date order beginning with the earliest entry.

    It's been a fairly recent ambition of mine to learn and master the piece "Fantasie-Impromptu" by Chopin. Around the end of 2002, I passed grade 7 in piano, but my sight reading is still quite poor (maybe even grade 2, 3 or 4 standard!). The main reason for this venture though is to see how well I can eventually play, and to divulge the techniques and methods I used to most quickly learn the piece. But to be honest, I have my doubts about whether I can truly master it, due to the inherent difficulties as I'll explain later.

April 20th, 2003 - My (optimistic) hope to master Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu

I've just collected the book from the shop for £4.50 - titled "SCHIRMER's LIBRARY OF MUSICAL CLASSICS - CHOPIN - Impromptus For the Piano". It contains not just the one I asked for, but three others too! (Erm... I'll leave those maybe for another time ;)

So, I've just opened the book, and turned to page 24. Aha, here it is - "Fantasie-Impromptu IV". Arghhh, four sharps! Why, oh why can't everything be in C Major? ;) Undeterred, I attempt to play a couple of bars on the piano (well, actually it's a touch sesitive keyboard - will practise on real piano a bit later). The first two bars are wonderful, just two sustained breves in the bass! I skilfully navigate past these, and get to the third bar. Here we have 2 bars of fairly simple bass arpegios. Well they should be. Painfully slowly, I trundle through them - forgetting the odd sharp or two. But then something catches my eye, something scary and daunting - something that begins on the fifth bar and lasts practically throughout the whole piece.....

April 21st, 2003 - What I saw...

You may have guessed what I saw. Yes, it's the horrible way you have to play 8 notes in the treble to every 6 notes in the bass - causing timing problems for people like me. Apparently, not many people can get the timing /spot on/. I'll give it my best shot, but I'm already beginning to think that I'll never be able to get this quite right. But pessimism never got anyone anywhere :)

So, with a gusto, I attempt to play the fifth bar, but just the right hand melody line:
[rest], G#, A, G#, G, G#, C#, E, D#, C#, D#, C#, C, C#, E, upper G#

Perfect! Well, actually no; those notes above are correct, but it's far from what I /actually/ played. I get it sort of right after numerous attempts though, and then dare myself to play the bass along with it.

Bad idea.

Almost as expected, I failed miserably. Before, I can even attempt to play both together, I need to get both hands as fluent as possible. I've heard it is possible to practise both hands together, but for a piece of this complexity, I think hands seperately is best.
Hints and tips I picked up so far: Sometimes, the fingering in a piece can look seem stupid, but it's generally always there to help you out. Big help huh? Sorry, that's the best I can do for now ;)

Hmm... ignoring the timing of the piece, I'm also worried that I'll even be able to get the music up to speed. They're semi-quavers in the treble, and everything's at Allegro Agitato!! But then, that is why I chose this piece in the first place. I wanted to see if I could play one of the hardest and most daunting pieces of music I could find. Determination and enthusiasm, if nothing else could get me through this, and after /mucho/ practise, maybe I will. I actually like the piece too, but that's a secondary consideration ;)

April 22nd, 2003 - Boring, but somehow fun...

Just woke up - back to the grind stone for some practise. Actually, it's kinda boring /and/ fun at the same time, and from experience, I know it will become more and more fun the further I progress into the piece. Hmmm... :) They say practise makes perfect. Is there a limit though? How hard can a piece get before it's out of reach? Not long ago, I created a classical/jazz style piece for the piano for a college project. It was meant to be playable, but since I create most of my music on computer, I love to add immense complexity, and stop at nothing to add tons of notes, chords, as well as near impossible finger 'jumping' and arpegios. In fact, it probably was /impossible/ to play perfectly - even by the best pianist in the world.

Cue - my devious scheme to get my adept college music teachers to play the piece >;-) I wonder what went through their mind after first glimpsing the tune. As expected, they did have problems, and trundled through the piece with all the grace of a certain computer operating system. One commented after that I should have made it playable for a human. What, and limit the music's potential? Oh well ;P ...Anyway, have a listen to it - here's the MIDI.

Anyway, I'm digressing. I'm getting quite good at a few bars now. In particular, the 5th, 6th and 7th bars. The timing is still iffy, but I'm speeding up, and unbelievably, my success ratio for hitting the right notes is actually starting to improve.
OK, the first real hint now; when playing both hands together, it's a good idea to play the bass-line as seperate chords. For example, take the first set of 6 quavers in the 5th bar (the number after each note signifies the relative octave by the way):
C#.1 - G#.1 - C#.2 - E.2 - C#.2 - G#.1

.....would be played initially as a /single chord/. This will help to familiarise your fingers to the right notes without worrying about the timing. And then a little later, you can attempt to play it properly as a real arpegio. In other words, you are playing 2 single chords in the bass to every 16 notes in the treble. This is certainly easier than 12 notes in the bass to every 16 notes in the treble.

And it does seem to work. Certain bars I had big problems with (like the seventh bar) seem to benefit from this way of practising. After a little while, I find I can place my fingers on the correct notes, and can even get the nightmarish triplet style timing to a semi-reasonable level when playing for proper.

April 24th, 2003 - Arpegios and what not

Progress seems to be slow but steady. At the moment, the second page is only a glimpse in my eye, and I still haven't reached anywhere near perfection on the first 10 bars. My timing is still iffy, and worse, a new nightmare has cropped up - the 13th bar. I struggle to play just the right hand up to speed, and fail miserably. If there was ever such a thing as a tongue twister in music, this would be it. I'll try to explain why:
A 'normal' arpegio would go something like: C, F, G, upper C. But the equivalent here would be C, upper C, F, G. I think it's because I'm so used to playing 'normal' arpegios, that the fingering is currently a bit difficult. Anyway, it's:
G-1, G-2, B#-1, C#-2,
F#-1, F#-2, B#-1, C#-2,
E#-1, E#-2, B#-1, C#-2,
F#-1, F#-2, B#-1, C#-2.
(that's for one bar's worth)

Bar 13
Now, that's easy to master if you're playing simple crotchets, but it's when you're pummeling allegro semiquavers - that things start to get difficult. Which by the way is an understatement.
Progress is super-slow here. I use the metronome and play the same 16 notes over and over and over again. First off, I use a slow enough timing, so I can manage the bar at a speed which doesn't get my fingers in a twist. Then I speed up the metronome fractionally. Then a little bit more... then a bit more... (80bpm, 85bpm, 90bpm, 95bpm, 100bpm).

Hey, I think it's working! 20 minutes later, I find that I can play the bar at a speed that I could have only dreamt of before! It's occasions like this when you just /know/ that you're getting better :-)

April 28th, 2003 - Faster and faster...

Bar 7
That 13th bar I can play better than ever now - something like 110bpm - even 115bpm. This isn't quite fast enough if I want to play for real (which needs to be around 130bpm I imagine?), but hopefully, that'll come with practise.
I'm beginning to surprise myself. Just occasionally, I can play the fifth bar at a great speed, and very accurately timed too. It's like - "Woah, was that me who just played that?". That's a good sign I think ;-)

On the downside, I'm still having massive trouble getting the 7th bar fast enough (the one with the rising treble line: A-1, C#-2, D#-2, F#-2, A#-2, C#-3, D#-3, B-3, A-3, G#-3, F#-3, E-3, D#-3 F#-3, C#-3 ...). Will I ever get it up to speed?

Bar 19-21. Lovely bit this section from bar 18 to 23
April 29th, 2003 - Jumping ahead of myself

I'm jumping ahead of myself, and trying to play the bass along with the treble in the 13th, 14th and 15th bars. It's slow. I also attempt the second page with the 'saddening' descending of notes (it's the part just before where the main tune repeats - I love it). Again, progress is slow...

June 30th, 2004 - ...back!!

Well, it's been over a year now since I last wrote in this blog. I somehow managed to get side-tracked (like I always do) with updating my site, lots of reading, exams, and even writing a small game.

But now, I also have a real incentive to practise further as I'm off to uni in the autumn to study music (plus computing)! Yay! It'll be the university of East Anglia - can't wait :)

But it's down to a couple of reasons that really put me off the piece for so long. Firstly, the keyboard I was using to practise was limited to four octaves. This makes the high notes somewhat tricky to reach ;) ..Secondly, the beginning of the third page really put me off... Here's a midi, courtesy of Classical (yes - I've been writing about it for long enough, you now have permission to finally hear it ;)

Bar 37 & 38. Tricky stuff. (but not as tricky as that MIDI ;)
The tricky part is the part just after the big chromatic scale drop at 50 seconds, but especially from 53 - 56 seconds (bar 37-40). To get it right, I have to practise over, over and over again, more so than anywhere on the first two pages (and some of those parts were tricky). It's hard because you have to go really fast, span a whole octave (bigger hands than mine would probably make this easier), and play some tricky notes all at the same time. But at least now I have a full size keyboard to reach the upper notes, and occasional access to a proper piano so I can get the dynamics (quiet and loud) right.

Anyway, playing the piece after a year (occasionally inbetween) was an interesting experience. Just like riding a bike, you never forget how. Though, okay, it did take around half an hour to get back to the quality of playing that I was at last year.

Finally, I'm not just limiting myself to this one piece - I'll be trying to improve my awful sight reading ('sight reading' is where you have to play a piece you've never seen before). At the moment, I'm up to grade 7 in piano, but my sight reading is probably grade 3 standard (possibly up a couple of grades due to practise in the last two weeks though :D).

July 6th, 2004 - Fastly does it...

I'm still working on that impossible part (bar 37-40).

Up from 75 beats per minute now to an impressive 90bpm. I need at least 128bpm or even 140bpm to get up to actual speed. 90bpm sounds like a tortoise in comparison! Anyway, it's the last 40bpm (from 90 to 128) that's going to be really hard to attain. Maybe I won't ever even reach it properly without thumbling the notes.

But that's a great thing about practising on keyboard (or with a metronome) - I get to play a competition with myself trying to beat the record.

July 22nd, 2004 - A quote from the book...

Now up to 100-105 BPM for that part! My rhythm is still not perfect throughout the whole tune though. I still have problems on the seventh bar for example (the bar where the melody climbs very high).

Let me quote something from the beginning of the music book - it always makes me cringe:
Now why do I feel that was written just for me? :)
I'm gonna just have to practise each and every 3 bar combo a dozen times each - I'm not going to let this this tune beat me =P

September 14th, 2004 - Scary performance!

For the past two to three weeks, I've been practising around 2-3 hours a days on it - longer than I ever have done before. I've also managed to play the second (slower C# major) part of the piece reasonably well too.

Anyway, I have actually been improving - less wrong notes in all the 'awkward' parts (bar 7, 8, 11/12, 14, 16, and all of 30-40) and slightly smoother timing overall. You'll find that mastering the last 10% of a difficult piece of music requires 90% of your time and perseverance. In other words, getting noticably better is a slower and slower process towards the end.

And the reason for all this?

I probably have to play in front of the my tutor/s at university so they can assess my piano skills! Of course, this wasn't the original reason why I started out playing the piece, but I might as well use it this opportunity. I've also been practising Scott Joplin's 'Maple Leaf rag', and have got quite good at that too.

The only problem is; I don't know how well I'm going to play on a proper piano, since I've been using an electronic keyboard! (the keys are slightly easier to press down and there are no loud/quiet dynamics). I'll have to see if I can put in a bit of last minute practise on a real piano. Wish me luck!

I'll try and put a recording online if they have the equipment at uni.

September 24th, 2004 - on hold...

Okay, well I later found out that the performance was only for non-pianists. That doesn't mean I'll escape though - just that I'll probably have to play it in front of the class later in the month!

Piano is definitely harder though. I'm used to the key weighting of a keyboard...

Oh yes, I'm at uni! Life is hectic as you might guess. The fire alarm went off on the first night I was here! (thankfully not since).

January 6th 2005 - Performance coming up!

14th of Jan is when it all happens. Tomorrow is a 'mock' rehearsal, and that's scary enough! (there'll only be around 5-10 of us there as far as I know). For the real thing though, I'll be playing in front of all the students, some tutors, and probably many members of the public too. This is scary. I'll let you all know what happens.

The Quik Time QT-3
Thankfully, my piano teacher (Hi Christopher if you're reading this!) has been very helpful, giving me invaluable advice throughout all parts of the piece. One technique I used was to play the whole thing at 60bpm, and gradually get faster until I reach the full 120-140 bpm speed required. The metronome I used to achieve this was only 5 quid from eBay! It's the Quik Time QT-7. The click isn't as nice as the QT-3, but it's got accented beats, and the tempo stays the same even once it's switched off and on again. I'm not sure which one I'd advise buying. Maybe the QT-3, since it is cheaper. Whatever you do though, don't get the QT-5 - the beep on that is very tinny! (though it is card-sized which is handy).

I was also advised to keep my hands more free over the keyboard as I play (before that, they looked and felt stiff/awkward).
Hmmm... I haven't even mentioned the other parts of the piece much. The slower part in Db major is thankfully much easier than the main theme. It's got some tricky turns/trills and jumps, but some crafty use of rubato (speed changing) can help ;-) Finally, the end section is also tricky, and just as fast as the main theme, but at least it's only one page.

Oh yeah, I'm also playing the Maple Leaf Rag which has come on in leaps and bounds since I last mentioned it.

January 8th 2005 - Mock rehearsal went okay!

I was nervous even for this, but it actually went very well on the whole. Just one or two mistakes in the Impromptu, but I soon picked off again from where I left off. The Grand piano they have is very nice; much nicer sounding and easier to play than the most of usual upright pianos I find.

As well as my own pieces, I'll also be accompanying a saxophonist (Hi Chris!) to play three further pieces. It's one thing to mess up my own pieces, but I'd hate to ruin someone else's performance, so along with my own pieces, I've been practising around 3 hours per day over the Christmas holiday!

We've also been asked to submit photocopies of the piece, presumably so they can see where we mess up ;) Oh, and we had to design and write a programme too. Here's mine:

January 9th 2005 - five days to go!

Here's someone who wants to jump straight from Fur Elise (a grade 4 piece) to Fantasie Impromptu! Bravo! ;-)

Here's a quote from the thread: Me? I'd say go for it! Then again, what would I know ;-) Actually, the whole of that thread is well worth a read - it's very amusing!

January 15th 2005 - The Moment Of Truth!

Okay so I'm sure you're all wanting to know how well I did. Well, let's just say it wasn't a complete disaster :) I actually was so nervous for the first piece (Maple Leaf Rag), that I developed extreme pins and needles as soon as I sat down to play. Somehow though, I scrambled through, and after 30 seconds, the pins and needles had gone. Still, it was all quite messy.

The Impromptu went much better, at least in the second half. I was still nervous, but actually managed a reasonable performance on the whole. In a couple of days, I get the results! Here's hoping!

January 17th 2005 - And the results...

...Came in an omnious looking brown envelope. I opened it up to reveal a score of...
61% (the equivalent of a 2:1 in degree terms).
That's not too bad I guess. Two pianists achieved higher than that, and I think one got slightly lower. Overall, I'm fairly happy, though I know I could've better if I wasn't so nervous with the Maple Leaf Rag.

Here are the comments I received:
For those who want to take on the Impromptu, here's a couple more tips to get that rhythm sorted:

a: Tap the 4 against 3 rhythm /very slowly/ with 3 in the left hand and 4 in the right. Gradually start to speed up and then slow down again. Now try playing the Impromptu /very slowly/ while you imagine the rhythm at the same time. When you think you've got it right, gradually speed up.

b: So you can hear if you're doing it right, play staccato, without pedal at first, and it might even help to play the right hand an octave higher so that you the mind can easily distuinguish between the two pitch registers.

That's it folks - thanks for reading!


Lost in Musical Hinterland - Another great blog by someone who also hopes to master the Fantasie Impromptu (read from: Saturday, December 31, 2005).

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