My favorite piano pieces

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This list is made up only of the pieces I’ve played and heard in performance, and thus I’m sure I’ve left out many important pieces. That being said, all of the following are winners:

Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu:

Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca:

Beethoven’s Midnight Sonata:

Debussy’s Clair de Lune:

and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor:

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What it feels like to play piano

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Following is a beautiful passage from Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (one of my favorite novels) that describes how it feels to just sit down and play:
“Then Tetsuya Kato, a vice president at Nansei whom Gen had known for years, smiled and walked to the Steinway without a word. He was a slightly built man in his early fifties with graying hair who, in Gen’s memory, rarely spoke. He had a reputation for being very good with numbers. The sleeves to his tuxedo shirt were rolled up above his elbows and his jacket was long gone but he sat down on the bench with great formality. The ones in the living room watched him as he lifted the cover of the keyboard and ran his hands once lightly over the keys, soothing them. Some of the others were still talking about the piano, you could hear the Russians’ voices coming from the dining room. Then, without making a request for anyone’s attention, Tetsuya Kato began to play. He started with Chopin’s Nocturne opus 9 in E flat major no 2. It was the piece he had most often heard in his head since coming to this country, the one he played silently against the edge of the dining-room table when no one was watching. At home he looked at his sheet music and turned the pages. Now he was certain he had known the music all along. He could see the notes in front of him and he followed them with unerring fidelity. In his heart he had never felt closer to Chopin, whom he loved like a father. How strange his fingers felt after two weeks of not playing, as if the skin he wore now was entirely new. He could hear the softest click of his fingernails, two weeks too long, as he touched the keys. The felt-covered hammers tapped the strings gently at first, and the music, even for those who had never heard the piece before, was like a memory. From all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. There was a delicacy about Tetsuya Kato’s hands, as if they were simply resting in one place on the keyboard and then in another. Then suddenly his right hand spun out notes like water, a sound so light and high that there was a temptation to look beneath the lid for bells. Kato closed his eyes so that he could imagine he was home, playing his own piano. His wife was asleep. His children, two unmarried sons still living with them, were asleep. For them the notes of Kato’s playing had become like air, what they depended on and had long since stopped noticing. Playing on this grand piano now Kato could imagine them sleeping and he put that into the nocturne, his sons’ steady breathing, his wife clutching her pillow with one hand. All of the tenderness he felt for them went into the keys. He touched them as if he meant not to wake them. It was the love and loneliness that each of them felt, that no one had brought himself to speak of. Now the people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well.”
Here’s the Chopin piece mentioned (also one of my favorites):

The Pianist

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The Pianist is one of my all-time favorite movies. Partly it’s because Chopin is my favorite composer, and many of the pieces featured in the film are ones I’ve learned. But mostly it’s just for this one scene, which feels so true, and so painful:

How to be a concert pianist

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What you’ll need: 10 fingers, preferably long

SonglistPiano Man by Billy Joel, Prelude in G minor by Rachmaninoff

Further readingThe Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

When I was four, my mom had a party at our house for her international graduate students. One of the Japanese women, Eiko, sat down at our Wurlitzer upright and began to play. My mom hired her on the spot to teach us–me and my seven-year-old brother–how to play piano.

For the next four years, Eiko came to our house once a week and spent a half hour with each of us, moving up through the Suzuki levels. On the weeks she couldn’t come she’d leave us with origami lesson plans, delicately folded pieces of paper we had to unravel to find out which piece she wanted us to practice. Even if we were unwilling students, Eiko meant a lot to us, and we to her. My brother was the ring bearer in her wedding, and I the flower girl. And because of Eiko I have a case of number-color synesthesia, which I attribute to her early association of notes and colors (I didn’t know of my synesthesia until earlier this year when I realized I liked a certain phone number because the colors were pleasantly arranged).

But while Eiko was an excellent performer she had never been taught to teach, and eventually she recommended that we continue on with teachers trained in both the music and the pedagogy. I went through a panoply of southeast Asian teachers, including women from the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and China, and a man from Vietnam. And I was introduced to the thing I perhaps hated most in my young life: recitals. When I think about those yearly recitals my heart still quickens and my stomach turns with the anxiety of waiting as the younger kids played through their pieces until it was my turn. I can still feel the shame of the one Christmas performance in which I completely blacked out the second half of my piece, and sat for a long moment before just playing the final three chords.

Debussy's First Arabesque

But I also remember the one recital in which I played my piece perfectly–Mendelssohn’s gorgeous Andante and Rondo Capriccioso–where by performing it I understood it as I never had in rehearsal. And I remember the Master Class for which I played Debussy’s First Arabesque; the visiting artist began his comments with You’re obviously very talented. The last teacher I had in high school tried to convince me to get a Masters in Piano Performance, a notion which seemed ludicrous at the time, and still does.

When I went to college I hoped to keep up my piano skills, and I did indeed go to the small, windowless rehearsal rooms several times throughout my four years. But it was a strange thing–I had defined myself for most of my conscious life as a pianist and suddenly I did not. I had too many new definitions, and pianist no longer felt true.

Today, though, I came home from work feeling incompetent and frustrated (self-inflicted labels) and sat down at the old Wurlitzer. I pulled out the Andante and Rondo Capriccioso and played it through without too much difficulty. And then I went to First Arabesque, to Chopin’s Rain Prelude, to a Mozart Fantasie, to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor (that last one is a beast–see songlist above). My frustration melted and, even though my fingers felt just as clumsy as they always did, I began to feel peace wash over me. I was never good enough to continue on to a career in performance, perhaps, but piano still brings me more joy than most things I’ve known.