Playing the 'Unplayable' Concerto
August 6, 2008 9:20 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn to play the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1...without being able to play the piano.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat Minor is easily my favourite piano concerto, and by my favourite composer to boot. Rubenstein called it 'unplayable.' Despite that I'd love to learn how to play the famous opening solo. There's just one problem...I can't play the piano.

I play the violin reasonably well, have good background in theory, and even compose for full orchestra. When it comes to piano, though, I can only punch out simple melodies with one hand. To make things harder, I have baby hands, well under average size for an adult male.

Despite all this, learning the solo part would be the ultimate tribute (not to mention the ultimate party trick). The orchestral score is already in my possession, and a copy is available online too. I don't want to have to go through piano lessons, at least not for the sake of a lark.

Any pianists here have tips or tricks for learning complicated music, especially those directed at a newb? Also welcome are indications that I'm out of my mind.

For your trouble, a topical Monty Python YT.
posted by spamguy to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I remember reading some book about how to be an amateur musician (in the best sense of the word) and it talked about someone who came to the teacher asking to learn a Chopin Prelude, just one. The person had no interest in learning anything else. So the teacher spoonfed it to the person, one measure at a time, until they got it. It was rough, but the student got what they wanted. When they were done, that was it. They didn't take anymore lessons.

But it might be more fun to pick up some actual ideas about playing the piano. It's a very satisfying instrument to learn. I play a bit, and the more I play the more fun it is. It's a great instrument for doing what you are talking about, playing around with things you love.
posted by sully75 at 10:10 AM on August 6, 2008

Best answer: I don't think it's impossible but, wow, you're going to need to devote a lot of time to this, to get it slick enough for a party trick.

Everything up to bar 40-ish is, as you've probably realised, both hands playing pretty much the same music, just a couple of octaves apart. For this section:

- those big arpeggiated chords at the beginning need to spread (the wavy lines) all the way from the bottom to the top. Very rapid and very even is what you're aiming for.
- learn just one hand first (right or left, it doesn't matter since they're broadly the same) then get the other hand to copy it.
- break it up into small chunks (a couple of bars at a time)
- play little and often, all those double octaves will be very tiring at first until you get the strength in your fingers and forearms.
- this one might a bit technical but, if your hands are big enough try playing some of the right hand octaves (particularly on black notes) with your thumb and ring finger. It will make it easier to make a legato line if you can alternate 5-4-5-4* at the very top.

for bars 42-8:

- Each of those big arpeggios repeats itself as it goes up through the octaves.
- Make your thumb an anchor. If possible, pick a white note rather than a black one
- For instance, you should probably choose to start the first arpeggio in the right hand with your thumb. The fingering will then go F(1)-Ab(2)-Cb(3)-D(4). Now tuck your thumb under your 4th finger and repeat the pattern. Voila!
- In the left hand the process is similar but you'll be looking for a 4-3-2-1 pattern. Then hook your 4th finger over your thumb (bend your thumb as for to the left as you can to help).

Cadenza from bar 49:

- Maybe your friends will be impressed enough that you don't have to learn this bit too??
- I'd just learn the first chord of each triplet, again, it's a repeating pattern so once you've got the hang of the first four groups, you've learnt the whole thing.
- If time permits, you could have a go at the notes in between, but you'll be amazed what you can get away with by sticking down the sustain pedal and a little gentle fudging...

Final tip: For goodness sake stop when you get to bar 60!

Best of luck!!

*Just to add to the confusion, piano fingering numbers 1-5 thumb to pinky, rather than 1-4 from the index finger, which is probably what you're used to from the violin. Sorry!
posted by dogsbody at 10:37 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think dogsbody has it, but I'll say this: things are really against you here. The positives are that you read music and that you know theory, these things help. The things that you are against you are that you have small hands and that you don't play the piano. Look at the opening, it's all about hand stretch and strength. You need to have a solid technique to play this. Can you stretch and octave? If not then I'd give up on this plan. If you can, then you're just going to have to learn a bar at a time. I remember when I started to learn the piano after I played the violin for a while and it was a tricky. It's hard going from reading one stave to two and having to learn a completely different type of hand independence. Still I managed it, but then again I was seven, and kids adjust quickly. So, in short if you are going to be able to do this, then it's going to take some time. It is of course ridiculous, but that's no reason not to attempt this. Good luck, and do let us know if you manage to learn this (especially the cadenza!!!)
posted by ob at 10:54 AM on August 6, 2008

Oh, I forgot something. When you're learning this do not tense up. It's easy to fake strength through tension but do not do this. You can hurt yourself and it's really not worth it. If you can't play something whilst relaxed then you can't actually play it and have to practice some more. Perhaps you know this from playing the violin, but I thought that it was worth mentioning.
posted by ob at 10:58 AM on August 6, 2008

Response by poster: Hah, there's no chance I'd make it past bar 25, so dogsbody went juuuuuust a little past.

I can't say accurately what interval I can reach, but it would probably be a 9th, give or take. So yeah, I'd have it rough. General purpose piano lessons are on the 'X Things To Do Before I Die' list, but at the moment they're out of reach. So-to-speak.

This is all great advice; thanks!
posted by spamguy at 11:48 AM on August 6, 2008

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