I started learning the 1st movement ‘Allegro’ from Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano last summer because I had been obsessed with his music for a long time and really wanted to learn one of his pieces. This piece seemed a good start because it was definitely a decent challenge for me, but equally wasn’t too difficult for my current level. Below is listed a rough timeline and my experiences of learning it at different stages and advice I would give for playing it.
Last summer: To begin with I just started playing it through and getting to understand the different passages, though mainly within the first 4 pages. At the time, I was having difficulty with tension, and as the piece contained a lot of quickly repeating large chords I had a lesson with Nelly Ben-Or, my teacher at the time for helping me get rid of tension and play freely. She helped me massively develop the right kind of approach to it; soon I was playing the chords a lot easier.
To briefly explain how I did that, I’ll start with the very beginning.
For the RH repeating chords, Nelly got me to play just one chord, releasing it down into the depths of the key bed, then just basically hover about in it, staying in close contact to the keys, feeling the chords reverberating as sound, bouncing slightly to get an easy approach to playing this.
I also found the LH pattern from the highlighted passage a bit difficult to play well, so again we applied the same idea of feeling the ease of allowing yourself to release the chord from the fingertips, with the only ‘doing action’ coming from the touch, not from anywhere in the arms.
With this passage I first tried playing every 2nd quaver in each beat as a crotchet, as I have tried to illustrate in the image. Here’s what I mean:
For this part also try playing the lower note with the LH and the chord with the RH, and then play it all with the LH, but feeling the same ease of playing as you did when using both hands. Here it’s also important to have a ‘bird’s eye view’ and think the notes together so that the leap is simple.
Once done with that, play it as written, thinking it the same as above, but this time the chord happens to have a bounce or another sounding while it’s there, like this:
It’s definitely not a perfect recording, but this is just to illustrate the point.
Practising this without the pedal also helps a lot to be more secure and confident here, as you are not relying on the pedal and so it is just used to add colour etc. when performing, not to make the playing easier.
Moving on to this section:
Something that I find very useful here is thinking the right hand as two different hands playing – one playing the upper dotted crotchets with the other playing the semiquavers. The reason being that we often struggle and tighten when trying to manage all that’s going on in the right hand, and so when it is mentally separated into two different hands playing, it becomes easier.
In terms of memorising this passage, this is potentially difficult to easily remember because of the different patterns in each hand, and so I first worked on understanding how the left hand moved. I played it by itself, without pedal for more confidence and clarity, aware of what the pattern is:
Onto the right hand – playing the RH dotted crotchet notes alone with the left hand accompaniment, without pedal, was very helpful for making me play it better by securing it more, and for understanding how the passage works. After mastering this, always remembering an easy, free touch to the keyboard, all that needs to be done is to insert a ‘butterfly’ under each RH note. By butterfly I mean two notes alternating back and forth, like the movement of a butterfly’s wings. I give this image to promote the lightness of this ‘flapping’ so that you are not tensing around the neck and jaw. It’s also useful to think of it as being played by two hands – but only in your mind, not actually! – so that you aren’t having to ‘grab’ more by the scruff of its neck with one hand doing all the work.
To be continued.