Nicole Dieker is currently listening to L practice La Valse in the next room. (We’ll rehearse it together this evening.)

I started learning Ravel’s La Valse last week.

The Garban four-hand arrangement. I’m playing prima, L’s playing seconda.

I actually did my undergraduate honors thesis on La Valse. The orchestral version, since by then I had been kicked out of the piano studio (they told me that I didn’t have what it takes to be a concert pianist and that I had “learned everything they had to teach me,” both of which were accurate). Then I staged it as a ballet, even though I had absolutely no business doing so, because that’s what you can get away with when you’re in college.

The reason I set myself to studying and choreographing La Valse, twenty-odd years ago, was because as soon as I heard the piece I thought to myself “What is this music, and how can I spend as much time with it as possible?”

Coincidentally, that is pretty much what I thought when I first met L, twenty-odd years ago. “Who is this person, and how can I spend as much time with him as possible?”

You should pay attention to those kinds of things.

Which is why we’ve decided to pay very close attention to La Valse, together.

Here’s where I am, one week in.

Consider this seven hours of practice, give or take — I get in a good two hours of practice time per day, even on weekends, but not all of it can be spent on Ravel. If L and I are going to play a recital this fall, we need two complete sonatas and one shorter piece each before we launch into our eleven-minute dance. (I recently read an article by pianist Stephen Hough on why limiting a concert to one hour with no intermission helps both musicians and audiences focus on the performance, and I am keeping that well in mind as we plan our debut.)

So… that’s seven pages of Ravel learned, in seven hours over seven days.

There are two important things to note here:

It’s memorized. (Note how I put the sheet music on the music stand in the background so you’d know for sure that I wasn’t using it.) L and I agree that committing notes to memory should happen at the beginning of the learning process, not at the end — and having put this theory into practice (pun always intended) I can vouch that it changes everything. Knowing what the notes are gives you the space to focus on playing them musically.

It’s reasonably clean. There are still some problems I need to solve (some of the triplets are uneven, some of the intervals are still insecure, there’s a not-quite-fully-memorized bit near the end), but this is remarkably solid, especially compared to the way I was playing and learning music a year ago.

Before L and I started talking pedagogy and I began using my piano practice sessions to explore, specify, and solidify various problem-solving techniques, I would never have been able to learn and memorize seven pages of Ravel in seven hours.

Now I can.

And we’ll see where I am a week from now. ❤️

p.s. this is what the piece can sound like, when it all fits together

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