01(31): How I chose the pieces for my piano exam, and what I could have done differently

In a previous blog post, 01(15), I discussed my musical journey from its very beginning. I highly recommend that you read it if you want an exposition on my musical journey. That blog post is a must-read if you are a frequent visitor to my blog!

In this post, I would like to expound on why I chose the pieces I did for my most recent piano examination: the ATCL diploma (Piano Performance) examination. To summarise a portion of the previous blog post, I cleared my Grade 8 in August 2014. For the years following that exam, I would intermittently toy with the idea of doing a piano performance diploma. However, I would always dismiss the thought for one or more reasons: 1) I didn’t have a teacher; 2) the pieces on the diploma syllabus were significantly more challenging than that of ABRSM Grade 8 pieces; and more.

Despite all the hurdles and discouraging factors, I finally made the decision to register for the piano diploma exam in early July 2018, to have the exam scheduled for Nov/Dec 2018. Today, I look back and find it incredible that I was so bold to decide to do it. The circumstances just suggested that I was going to fail the exam and that I would be throwing a thousand dollars in exam registration fees down the drain.

To cut the long story short, I had a friend who told me once that anything worthwhile doing will often be difficult, but doing the difficult is often worthwhile. I heeded this advice of his. Over time, I had learnt more pieces, and I increasingly felt that this new milestone was a more accurate representation of my musical abilities. I reckoned that it would also be a nice pat-on-the-back.

The sheer sense of adventure was exhilarating.

One of the major reasons that I felt sufficiently motivated to register for the diploma exam was that some of my favourite pieces were on the syllabus list. As you would see in 01(15), I chose four pieces for my piano diploma exam:

1. Bach – Prelude & Fugue in A-flat Major, The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 862

My first real experience with the music of Bach was around the time when I was a Sec 3 student in 2012. That year, I attended the Founders’ Day ceremony (a ceremony which commemorates the anniversary of the founding of Maris Stella High School, my secondary school), and musical performances were included as part of the programme. There were performances by various performance arts CCAs (e.g. symphonic band). I remember that the string ensemble of the primary school side played the first movement of Vivaldi’s Spring. That was very memorable!

The one musical performance that stood out to me was that of a solo piano piece. A Primary 3 or 4 student played the grand piano on the stage (just a few weeks before the ceremony, the school had replaced the old Ibach grand with a brand-new Yamaha grand). The piece he played was relatively simple but it etched a memory that I shall never forget. He performed Invention No. 14 in B-flat major by J. S. Bach. You can listen Gould’s recording of it here:

The piece is simple in the sense that it only has two voices: one voice per hand. It is quite simple to hear the dialogue between both hands. You can hear the rhythm of one hand echoing that of the other. Despite being such a simple piece with few notes, Bach has constructed such a musical masterpiece. Hearing that live performance of a Bach work motivated me to learn other piano works by Bach. From that day, I went on to learn the other two-part inventions, pieces from the French Suites, Partitas, Well-Tempered Clavier, and just over a third of all variations from the Goldberg Variations. As of the time of writing, most of my repertoire consists of Bach. Just take a look at my YouTube channel. Most of my uploaded videos are performances of Bach works.

About a month after my A-levels ended in 2015, my family went on a holiday to New Zealand, and on that trip, I would listen to the recordings by the pianist Ms Kimiko Ishizaka. She is a renowned interpreter of Bach (in fact, the embedded video above of the prelude and fugue in A-flat major is that of her performing)! Whilst travelling from place to place via a coach (we were on a tour group), I would listen to her recordings of Bach, and admire the amazing scenery of New Zealand. I had her complete album consisting of all the preludes and fugues from the first book of the WTC on my phone.

One particular prelude and fugue set stood out to me. It was Prelude and Fugue in A-flat Major, BWV 862. I would set it on Repeat-One, and listen to it over and over again. I enjoyed it so much that the moment I returned to Singapore, I immediately set out to learn the prelude. Before I knew it, I was done learning it. The fugue was something I learnt only after I had committed to learning the set for my piano diploma exam.

I completed learning the A-flat major prelude within a few days of returning to Singapore, and uploaded a video of my performance of it directly to Facebook on New Year’s Day of 2016. I remember distinctly that I had made a post (simultaneously paired the video upload) which discussed the relevance of SG50, and what the next 50 years would be like for Singapore. I also talked about how I was inspired by Ms Kimiko Ishizaka to learn that prelude. In fact, I tagged her Facebook page in my post, and to my great surprise, she responded to my post and said that I played well!

It was a humbling experience. She even shared my post and video to her own Facebook page and my video ended up getting more than 1.3k views. That’s a lot, considering I was, and still am, an unknown pianist (as competent as Kimiko is, she isn’t that well-known in the classical piano arena either), and that very few people are interested in classical music in the first place!

2. Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 – ‘Pathétique’

This piano sonata by Beethoven is well-known. My first encounter with this sonata occurred while I was in junior college. There was this guy who would often play on the upright piano that could be found just outside the main auditorium of the junior college. One of the pieces that he would frequently play is the third movement of the Pathétique sonata. Its opening notes is very well-known. I talked to this guy and he told me that this third movement was one of his chosen ABRSM Grade 8 Piano exam pieces!

The second movement of the Pathétique is arguably the most famous of the three movements. I loved the haunting melody of the second movement and when I saw the Pathétique on the diploma syllabus list, I strongly considered it. Seeing that I liked all three movements, I ultimately chose this sonata as one of my performance pieces.

3. Chopin – Nocturne Op. 48 No. 2

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t have much to say about this Chopin nocturne. Firstly, it was Chopin, which meant that the harmonies and melodies were bound to be very pleasing to the ears.

This piece isn’t technically challenging too, and it simply blended well with my other pieces (notice how the four chosen pieces are in chronological order in terms of when they were composed?). The ending of this nocturne is phenomenal and majestic though. I didn’t think too much of this piece overall, as I chose it to make up the time requirement (for the ATCL, the total duration of pieces need to be within 32-38 minutes excluding breaks between pieces).

I mean, there were other pieces I liked much better which could have been chosen to make up the time requirement. However, I felt that I did not possess the technical competence to do these pieces justice. One such piece was Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3.

In Liebesträume No. 3, we have runs like this:

Achieving the level of precision required to execute those runs would simply not be feasible, given the limitations of time I had as a full-time student, and the sheer amount of time that I would need to practise in order to play those runs satisfactorily. Hence, I ultimately chose to learn the Chopin nocturne.

4. Rachmaninoff/Kreisler – Liebesleid (from Piano Compositions No. 2)

This is the most interesting one. This is quite special in that the piece is Rachmaninoff’s piano transcription of a work for violin and piano that was originally composed by the violinist, Fritz Kreisler. The melody of Liebesleid is very well-known. Just hum the first two bars and just see how the average Joe on the street is able to hum the succeeding bar effortlessly.

Of course, as with anything Rachmaninoff, this piece is probably bound to be technically challenging. Rachmaninoff is notorious for having large intervals in his compositions (e.g. tenths just scattered here and there throughout his virtuosic compositions). Well, that shouldn’t be too surprising considering that Rachmaninoff had a handspan of a 13th! That perhaps explains the monstrous opening chords of his second piano concerto. For a detailed exposition on pianists and their handspans, read an earlier post I made: 01(24).

Fortunately, while this Rachmaninoff transcription is challenging enough to find its way onto an ATCL syllabus list, it isn’t AS challenging as many of Rach’s other pieces, as it’s “only” at an ATCL level. Many Rach pieces require musical maturity far beyond an ATCL level for a performance that one can be proud of. Nevertheless, this piece was challenging enough that I ended up the devoting the greatest proportion of my time to learning and mastering this piece for the performance exam. And as you might have guessed: among the pieces I ultimately selected, this was the most technically challenging one.

I am very fortunate to have an above-average handspan. This has enabled me to stay faithful to Rach’s original composition in that I am able to, in many instances, play the originally-written block chords (I personally rather have all notes of a chord sound simultaneously than having them roll). This is contrasted by the act of “rolling chords”. Pianists usually “roll” chords when their span is not large enough to play the chord as a block. For those of us who read sheet music, just watch the above video and you’ll know what I mean.

My first encounter with this piece was quite unusual. I no longer watch Japanese cartoons/anime but back then, I used to watch Japanese animation, along with other movies during my free time. Around October 2014, A-1 Pictures, a Japanese animation studio, began airing an anime television series that was an adaptation of a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Naoshi Arakawa.

The Japanese name of the series was Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, which translates to “Your Lie in April”. The animation series was quite popular. I don’t have time to talk about the plot in detail but basically, the plot revolves around two main characters: Kousei Arima, a prodigious pianist, and Kaori Miyazono, a violinist. Some time in the show, Kousei performs Liebesleid on stage and personally, it is a way for him to have proper closure regarding the death of his mother, whose death had a great psychological impact on him.

Liebesleid (which is German for “Love’s Sorrow”), as originally composed by Kreisler, is actually part of a set of works known as Alt Wiener Tanzweisen (German for “Old Viennese Melodies”). This set consists of three works: Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy), Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow), and Schön Rosmarin (Lovely Rosemary). The three works are usually heard or performed separately. Rachmaninoff composed a set of virtuosic transcriptions on the first two works: Liebesfreud, and Liebesleid.

In the anime, Kousei’s piano teacher was his mom, and she would only ever play Liebesleid, and not Liebesfreud. The curious Kousei then recalls mid-performance how he asked his mother when he was younger, and when she was still alive, why she would only play Liebesleid.

In the ‘subbed’ version of the anime, Kousei’s mom replies “So that you’ll get used to sorrow”. In the ‘dubbed’ version of the anime, she replies instead “I play it, so that sorrow won’t be as scary”. Either way, there is something we can learn from her response.

Rachmaninoff is a true master at taking the simplest of melodies and creating complex sequences of dissonant chords, and interwoven melodies. Though the learning process for Liebesleid was most challenging among all my pieces, I also found it to be the most rewarding. To date, Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Kreisler’s Liebesleid remains one of my favourite pieces for piano.

In 01(15), I talked about how as expected, the examiner felt that my best-performed piece was the first piece: the piece by Bach. I was not surprised by this as Bach is my favourite composer and an overwhelming majority of the pieces that I have learnt are by Bach. So, one mistake is that I didn’t focus on my strengths. The piece by Bach was the shortest piece among the four pieces and it only accounted for slightly more than 10% of the total performance duration (excluding breaks).

In hindsight, I could definitely have chosen my pieces such that Baroque pieces (specifically those by Bach) took up the greatest proportion of the performance duration. I definitely could have chosen to perform something like Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major (I do in fact, already know how to play two movements from that suite!). That whole suite on its own would already take up around half the performance duration! Who knows? I just might have gotten that elusive distinction for my piano performance diploma exam if I had chosen to focus on my strengths instead!

Well, that’s all I have for this post. For more details, please, once again, check out 01(15), as it truly is the most comprehensive post I have at the moment on my musical journey. If you have any questions for me, please feel free to contact me on Telegram or via my e-mail. Thanks!

Yours faithfully,
Nic Loh
4 August 2019

1. http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/6/6e/IMSLP05971-Liszt_-_S541_Liebestraume_(kistner).pdf
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Your_Lie_in_April
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alt-Wiener_Tanzweisen

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