Great Music – Chapter 5.5 (UPDATED)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a technical glitch the wrong YouTube video was posted on the first publication of this post. We’ve now put the correct one in. TMV regrets the error.
This week’s offering on music is a bit off the regular track. I am often asked by my piano students what is the most difficult piece of piano music ever created. Some times they ask what is the easiest piano piece ever created. Lets start with the easiest first. After considering a bunch of candidates such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Yankee Doddle”, I remembered back to my very first piano lesson. My teacher put up a piece of music called “The March of the Middle C Twins”. It consisted of my playing middle C, alternating between my right and left thumbs. I remember looking up at the teacher feeling pride that I had just played a “real song” and maybe I was ready for Carnegie Hall.
However, as I continued my musical training I encountered the ultimate easy piece of piano music – John Cage – 4 minutes & 33 seconds
Picking the most difficult piano piece is – actually difficult. There are thousands of possibilities. When asked this question by my students, I give them an honest answer – it’s any piece of music I can’t personally play well. However, anyone who has seen the movie “Shine” probably can make a good guess as to a difficult piece of music.
The movie “Shine” is based on a true story of the pianist David Helfgott. David was an Australian pianist, trained at the Royal College of Music in London. In preparation for a competition, David attempts to learn the most difficult piece of music I have ever encountered – Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto. It’s not the most beautiful or greatest piece of music ever composed but it is generally acknowledged as the most difficult piece to learn. There are probably less than a dozen people in the world who can play this piece well. In the movie, and true in real life, David Helfgott suffers a complete and total nervous breakdown trying to learn this piece and had to be institutionalized.
Here is a YouTube of Daniil Trifonov, a world famous pianist playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto A Concerto in music terms is a large scale work composed for piano and orchestra where the piano(or other solo instrument) and orchestra are, in effect, trading off supremacy in musical themes. While I don’t expect all of you to listen to the entire 46 minutes, watch enough so you can understand what Daniil is going through playing the almost 50,000 notes that are part of just the piano score.
Notice how Daniil is fighting fatigue as the Concerto progresses. Playing a large scale work like this requires the pianist to go into training just like an athlete. Daniil himself has compared playing this piece as the same as running a Marathon – both are exhausting. Add to this, how does one remember which piano key to play when there are almost 50,000 of them as well as remembering how loud or soft to make each note and whether to hold each note for a whole, half, quarter, eighth,16th, 32nd, 64th beat.
The whole exercize becomes mind numbing when you consider the amazing complexity of the various combinations. The key to being able to play something like the 3rd Concerto from memory is NOT to use your brain, but to trust your fingers. The only way to play something with 50,000 notes is to rely on muscle memory in your fingers and arms. Muscle memory is built by repetition. Based on my experience, playing something like the 3rd Concerto would require Daniil to practice the entire piece some 500 to 1000 times. That is many lonely hours at the piano where not even hunger can penetrate the need for concentration.
Ordinarily, I would like to show a YouTube of myself playing this piece. So come back to TMV in the year 3018 and give it a listen.
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