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Piano playing pianist concert. Classical music

Filed Under , , on July 12th, 2014

Mid-Year Checkup with Rachmaninoff

By Seth Kabala

Who says New Year’s Resolutions are only for January? I say you should do a mid-year review to ensure you’re on-track, and if you’re off-track–to ensure you have enough time to pull back onto the road before you smash into a bridge abutment, splattering your brains (bridge abutment being failure, splattering being the withering of knowledge and opportunity, violent metaphor used because the author is just going for it today).

To make sure this year is on-track, we must go back in time.

The year was 1996. The actor was Geoffrey Rush. The movie was Shine, and in it, prodigy pianist David Helfgott was tasked with learning the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto (Rach 3, colloquially), and (Barney Stinson voice) he said, “Challenge accepted,” in so many words, striking a shoulders back, chest jutted, fists on hips, arms akimbo, I-am-a-bad-ass pose while saying this, in so many words.

Overlooking my loose interpretation of the facts ([whisper voice] because he did none of those things), that is what happened, more or less, in so many words. Fast-forward a few scenes, and Mr. Helfgott, under the stress of learning the piece and a whole bunch of other shitty things that happen to him, has a nervous breakdown at the keyboard, fails spectacularly, and ends up institutionalized. But enough about him. This column is about me.

Following the release of that movie, I ordered the Rach 3 sheet music and have been diligently–like, playing through it, the right hand, for the first movement, half of the first movement–working on it. It is a beast. It is a bear. It is the most ferocious creature a lone hiker could encounter while on a back-country trek, musically speaking, and should you encounter it, you’d better hope you have more to fight with than toothpicks and chewing gum–toothpicks and chewing gum being metaphors for weak hand, forearm, and wrist muscles, all of which contribute to poor technical facility at the piano, thus rendering the task of learning the Rach 3, to even a passable level of proficiency, nigh impossible.

I’ve been a pianist since the age of nine. For the past several years, I’ve let my technique languish. For one of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions, however, I decided I’d messed around with the Rach 3 enough, and I was going to learn it, piece by piece, record it, and post these recordings to YouTube.

Deadline set, I started practicing several hours per week. Let’s say I didn’t have toothpicks and chewing gum, but instead had some solid pieces of firewood and a couple blocks of C-4 in my pockets.  (Why do I have C-4, and what metaphorical equivalent is this? Not sure. Explosive playing? Sure. That sounds good. Plus, it’s a damn cool metaphor!) I don’t quite have a police night stick or hellfire missiles in my arsenal yet, but my weapons cache is becoming more powerful with each practice session, and tomorrow, I will post the first portion of my recordings, through the first cadenza, intro through page eight in the G. Schirmer edition.

I’m still trailing Vlad (*imir Horowitz) by a fair margin, but I feel it’s a good start. Check it out and let me know what you think. Am I on-track, or is splattering happening?

We’re past mid-year, so now is a good time to look back on the goals you set for yourself in January. Maybe you didn’t try to learn the Rach 3, and that’s okay. So long as you’re moving toward bettering yourself, and you avoid a nervous breakdown (and splattering. Splattering’s bad), you’re doing okay.


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Seth Kabala

About: Seth Kabala
Seth is an entrepreneur, writer, and musician. He lives with his wife and three children in Portland, OR.

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