Mozart Piano Sonata when it comes to F Minor (Op. 2 No . 1)

This week’s guest post is by pianist and captain of The Piano Boat, Masayuki Tayama with whom we’re delighted to have embarked upon a project creating detailed walk-throughs of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The first set of videos features Beethoven’s first piano sonata, Op. 2 No. 1, which Masa introduces and shares some thoughts on in this post.  
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Much has been written about the life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven, a man who had a defining impact on the direction of music in and beyond the Classical period as well as the development of the piano itself. Most well-known for his symphonies, concertos and piano sonatas, it is a delight, and at the same time a fearsome undertaking to embark on exploring his Sonata Cycle. Each of these 32 (or nowadays, 35) monumental works introduces something new. However, it’s easy to forget that at the point of writing his very first catalogued sonata, Op.2 No.1, Beethoven would not have known that he would go on to write another thirty one, spanning all the way to Op. 111.
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor
This work bears an overly simple dedication to his then-teacher, Joseph Haydn, from whom Beethoven claimed to have learnt nothing. There may well be an element of truth in this given that Haydn was probably too busy with his own compositions to devote much time to his student. However, there is no doubt Beethoven would have been greatly influenced by Haydn’s works themselves, including their Sturm und Drang elements.
Beethoven’s choice of key for this work, F minor, is unusual as most keyboard compositions at the time were aimed at the keen, privileged amateur pianists and more accessible keys were preferred.  Additionally, as contemporary keyboard instruments were not tuned to the ‘well-tempered’ standards of today, the key of F minor may well have sounded slightly bizarre.
It is folly to believe that he would have chosen this key just to be different for the sake of it. In fact this key, already used by Beethoven in one of his three early sonatas which demonstrates his dramatic characteristics, eventually leads to the great Appassionata Sonata. The temperament and immensely dramatic opening of No.1 does indeed, for the right reasons, stamp his mark in the world of great composers.
Whilst adhering to the more traditional ‘sonata form’ from the Classical period, he does add an extra movement across the set of Op.2. This would normally have been reserved for larger scale works such as symphonies or chamber music and is therefore unique in itself.

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1st Mvt – Allegro
Beethoven didn’t hesitate to borrow material previously explored and at this stage, influence from the Classical period is seen throughout. However, the way he turned the ‘Mannheim Rocket’ theme in Mozart’s G minor symphony into something even more dramatic on a single instrument is uncanny. There are many of his own temperamental traits already displayed in every corner of the music.

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2nd Mvt – Adagio
Here, we find Beethoven adhering more to the Mozartian approach to writing a slow movement. I started playing the piano at a young age, attracted to Mozart’s music, and treasured a yellow-labelled – so it must have been Deutsch Gramophone – cassette tape of Mozart’s last piano concerto No.27. I would attempt to play by ear some of the themes, following which I was then sent to piano lessons. My feelings about Mozart’s music are aptly put in the quote from the film Amadeus, where Salieri describes Mozart’s music as ‘filled with unfulfillable longing’. This really does feel most appropriate in articulating the serene yet almost painful second movement.

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3rd Mvt – Menuetto & Trio
Whilst the other Scherzo third movements in the set of Op. 2 are more light-hearted and jovial, Beethoven adds an enigmatic, almost haunting opening to this brief movement with a more peaceful, contrasting Trio section. There is much to explore in this additional movement with a sense of innovation prevailing.
4th Mvt – Prestissimo
It is intriguing to imagine what the audience at the time felt when first hearing this incredibly dramatic movement. A foresight of his later work, the third movement of Moonlight Sonata, this movement stands on its own merits, serving as a precursor of what was to come. Whilst Haydn in particular wrote hugely contrasting piano sonatas, none compare to the intensity and relentless and temperamental pursuit of drama of this movement which builds to a fiery conclusion.

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Having studied many of the 32 sonatas with some of the world’s greatest pedagogues and performed them extensively, along with Beethoven’s concertos, and subsequently works by Schubert, Brahms and Rachmaninov, revisiting this F minor sonata brought a fresh perspective to my view of the pure genius of Beethoven.
His early works tend to be relegated to ‘study pieces’ at conservatoires, and not often included in concert programmes. They pose unique technical difficulties, some almost impossible to execute as written and performers are much more exposed due to the relatively simple harmonic progressions and melodic writing. This may contribute to the reluctance of pianists to perform them on stage.
It was fascinating to look at practice strategies with knowledge and experience I did not possess as a student, to overcome some of these challenges, and explore the musical detail and depth with which these works can be performed. The 32 sonatas span Beethoven’s lifetime, exhibiting the bridge between the elegant, style gallante of the Classical period and the more direct, personal and emotional output of the Romantic period. They cannot be explored enough and I am thrilled to be embarking on this adventure!
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The full set of eighteen videos in which Masa explores background, style, interpretation, technical challenges and practice methods for each of the four movements of this work is now available on the Online Academy. Click here to view or click here to find out more about the Online Academy.

Beethoven on Board
Our Beethoven on Board series will ultimately feature all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and is being filmed on board The Piano Boat. The Piano Boat is a new way of bringing classical music to audiences in and around London, surrounded by the intrigue and beauty of the canals.
The boat, Rachmaninov, is designed for and dedicated to musical events, carrying a beautiful Steinway Model A grand piano in the concert saloon. Seating 12 in an exclusive, intimate setting, it offers an experience where spectacular music is at the forefront of your experience on the canals. Click here to find out more.

Expanding Your Repertoire with Quick Studies

In this week’s post, Ryan Morison discusses how quick studies can be used as an effective tool to broaden your repertoire and develop good habits and skills when learning new pieces.
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I recently wrote a blog post about one of my main piano goals for 2021 which is to broaden my active repertoire. A tool that I have found to be invaluable for the purposes of achieving this goal is quick studies.
Photo by Jordan Benton from Pexels
Quick Studies – What & why?
Quick studies are an often overlooked, but incredibly beneficial way to grow your repertoire. They also help you develop and hone the skills required to new learn pieces faster.
The concept is very simple: you reduce the amount of time you have to learn a piece e.g. often one or two weeks rather than months. The objective is to do this without compromising significantly on the quality of the musical result.
Tips for quick study projects
The following are some tips and suggestions that I have found which may be useful if you’re considering embarking upon similar projects:

Not too difficult – Don’t be overly ambitious in choosing pieces. Select works that are realistic given your abilities and the shortened timeframe. It’s far better to choose something easier than too difficult. One way to measure difficulty is to use examination syllabi as a guideline e.g. select pieces one or two grades below your current level (this worked very well for me!).
Not too long – Shorter is better, especially if you’re not quite sure if a piece is at the right level.  Personally, I found that pieces approximately three pages long with some repetition worked well. I also checked my selections by doing a run through and keeping a tally of difficult spots. These were places that I couldn’t sight-read and therefore would need to practise. A few tricky spots is fine, but if literally every bar has something challenging then the piece probably isn’t suitable.
Lay good foundations – The things that caused me the most problems down the line were errors with fingering and other sloppiness in the earlier note learning stages. Just because you have less time doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t follow a systematic approach, in fact it’s the opposite! This free email course gives a great process to follow for the early stages of learning a piece and can be applied to quick studies.
Be consistent – Consistent practice, even for short time periods, is far more important than the total time spent practising. I used regular “micro-practice” sessions targeted at specific problem areas which helped me make great progress despite having very limited time. This blog post gives some useful tips for short practice sessions.
Be disciplined and focussed – Simply playing through your piece daily and hoping that things will improve or correct themselves is a sure recipe for failure. A much more disciplined, strategic approach is required. This might include highlighting problem areas upfront and adopting a plan to tackle them systematically (Graham Fitch refers to this process as Quarantining).
Set goals and milestones – Working towards defined milestones e.g. recording for yourself, a lesson, playing for others is an excellent way to give your practising structure and focus. There are so many opportunities to do this, even in current circumstances. For example, over the last year I participated in various online meet-ups and even an online masterclass (click here if you’d like to see a video of my performance and feedback session!).

Many of these principles apply not just to quick studies, but to learning new pieces in general. Because of the time pressure of a quick study, they become even more pertinent. This makes quick studies incredibly effective for building and reinforcing good habits that apply well beyond the project at hand.
I recently concluded my first quick study project and found it to be such a positive undertaking that I’ve since started several further pieces in this manner (If you’d like to find out more, I’ve documented my experience in the form of a “video journal” on my website). I highly recommend the quick study approach and if you’re looking to improve your ability to learn new pieces, encourage you to give it a try!

Further links & resources

How to Start Learning a New Piece – Click here to sign-up for a free email course designed to guide you through the early stages of the process and show you principles and practice tools for efficient and effective learning.
Quarantining – Click here for a blog post on quarantining with links to further information and resources.
Examination Resources – Click here to view our Guide to the ABRSM 2021 & 2022 syllabus or click here to view an index of all of our resources and guides for piano examinations

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Finding and Choosing Piano Fingering

Open up a score of piano music, and the chances are you will find fingering suggested by an editor, and sometimes even by the composer. If you consult a different edition of the same work, the fingering is likely to be different. What does this tell us? There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only!

“The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand!”

Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability.

If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering.
Suggestions for choosing fingering
The following are some suggestions for choosing and embedding fingering:

Fingering in any score is a suggestion only. Consult as many different editions as possible (IMSLP is a great online reference source, and often has multiple editions of standard works, each with its own editorial fingering).
It is vital to consider the eventual tempo, as well as the dynamic level, articulation, phrasing, shaping, timing and tone quality when working out a fingering (as much as is possible at the start).
Keep the hand closed as much as possible, avoiding stretches between the fingers that can lead to tension.
Avoid staying too long in one fixed position. Frequent changes in hand position keep the hand mobile, and thus free of tension.
Fingering that feels fine when playing each hand alone might not work so well when playing hands together. Try to organise the fingering with both hands together (after which you can practise hands separately).
As you start embedding the fingering during the process of practising, you might find you want to change some of it. Allow a small window of time to do this before settling on your final fingering.
Commit to the fingering you have chosen and it will soon reach the automatic stage.

Principles of Piano Fingering – Online Workshop
Join us on Sunday 13th June @ 16:00 – 17:30 BST (GMT + 1) for an online workshop in which Graham Fitch explores the principles of piano fingering, showing how to choose the best fingering for your hand to find solutions to the technical and musical challenges. The following topics will be covered:

Basic principles of identifying and choosing fingering
Pitfalls to avoid e.g. unnecessary stretching between the fingers
How to factor in the eventual tempo, touch and articulation, etc. when selecting a fingering
How to embed a fingering, once selected, so that it becomes automated
Tips for hand redistribution and solving problems for players with small hands

 Click here for more information or to book your place!

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