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Insane Music Challenges/Projects
Paganini's 24th Caprice/Chopin's Ballade No 1 etc. in a year...
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May 11, 2015 - 6:24 pm
Member Since: January 15, 2015
Forum Posts: 154
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I recently came across the blog 'Vaughn vs Violin' ( from 2011, in which a guy (Vaughn!) challenges himself to learn (from scratch, and starting as a beginner with only 8 months' prior experience years prior) Paganini's 24th Caprice within the span of a year. Although Vaughn seems to have (unfortunately) discontinued the blog, I found it a fantastic read with lots of tips about breaking down a piece into smaller, more manageable chunks, focusing on particularly difficult sections and getting them right before joining them all up, etc. As amazing as this may sound, previously, I always just attacked a piece from start to finish instead of being at all strategic.

Not long after, I found a book called 'Play it Again: An amateur against the impossible' ( at the library, this time, about editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger, challenging himself in 2010 to learn Chopin's Ballade No. 1 also in the span of a year. While Rusbridger's previous experience with his chosen instrument (piano) is considerably more than Vaughn's, something they both have in common is a huge amount of support (Vaughn's wife is a professional violinist and violin teacher, and Rusbridger employs a series of teachers, builds his own music room, acquires (I think 3?) pianos, and so on. Despite these differences between their circumstances and mine, both had quite a bit of useful tips which I thought might be worth sharing, and were interesting reads. I'll post a bit about 'Play it Again' specifically in a moment (since I have to return it to the library!)

Has anyone heard of (or even participated in) any incredible challenges of this type?


May 11, 2015 - 6:55 pm
Member Since: January 15, 2015
Forum Posts: 154
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Play it Again: An amateur against the impossible by Alan Rusbridger (2013)

Some musings on/parts I found interesting in this book:

  • Good words for adult learners according to Jung: "A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage of life's morning." (The quote goes on to describe many of the activities one's middle years are often preoccupied with - working, socialising, raising a family etc. - and describes these as 'nature') "Culture lies beyond the purpose of nature. Could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?" (p. 5)
  • Remember that it takes time: Rusbridger saw Gary, a fellow 'amateur' play the ballade at a piano camp, which inspired him to take up this challenge. Later, Rusbridger found out that Gary had played the piece 2-3 times every day for 2-3 years (p. 62)
  • Conrad Williams, in Pianist Magazine, on tolerating imperfection: "People like to hear music played live and will tolerate different standards if the context is right. It's really only music critics and piano teachers who can't abide the imperfect. We amateurs will never touch the pros, but just conceivably we might touch an audience. Preparation, a bit of courage and a love for the music can take you a long way" (p. 67)
  • On the power of online performances: "another tweet linked to what looked like a piano in a workshed, with a balding man in glasses working his way through the Ballade. It's been viewed more than 3,000 times - that's six times the audience at Wigmore Hall in London" (p. 101)
  • On music and the brain, from conversations with Ray Dolan, professor of neuropsychiatry, and Lauren Stewart, neuroscientist: "If you acquire new skills, you can't grow more neurons (more cells). Instead, what happens is that the neuron sprouts more tentacles, or what are technically referred to sa dendrites. Because of the sprouting of dendrites and the connections they make with other cells, at junctions called synapses, we could show at the end of a year's training a change in the configuration restricted to that part of the brain representing the organ that has acquired new skills" (pp. 118-119) and "violinists... have bee show to develop a larger area of somatosensory cortex, particularly in the right lobe... [as] geographical representation of the brain is 'flipped'... A violinist's left hand does the more complex job of stopping on the instrument." (p. 146)
  • On music before recordings: "the performer gave a more creative element to the piece... pianists would introduce works with an improvisatory episode - "preluding" it was called - then as they finished they might add something of their own to sort of link up with the next piece" (p. 163)

Tips on learning/practicing/playing (which I find useful for the violin too):

  • Tip on 'fractures' from Charles Cook, New Yorker writer & author of Playing the Piano for Pleasure: "I believe in marking off, in every piece we study, all passages that we find especially difficult, and then relentlessly practising these passages patiently, concentrated, intelligently, relentlessly until we have battered them down, knocked them out, surmounted them, dominated them, conquered them - until we have transformed them, thoroughly and permanently, from the weakest into the strongest passages in the piece" (p. 23)
  • Advice from Rusbridger's teacher, Lucy, on why to obsess about the coda in this particular piece (but equally applicable to many other pieces): "a) because it's easily the hardest bit, but also b) because, in any performance, it's psychologically important to believe that the last three minutes are solid" (p. 43)
  • On practicing while traveling: "I read somewhere that studying a score on a plane is an effective way of cementing the work into the visual memory" (p. 99)
  • Tip on colour-coding passages: Rusbridger marks parts with post-it notes - "a traffic light system - green, amber and red. Green = nearly there. Red = way to go" (p. 150)
  • Advice on interpretation from pianist Murray Perahia: "The connection between technique and musicality and feelings is very strong; all colours in music come from emotional state... I very often use a story, a metaphor, for what's going on in the tones" (pp. 166-167)
  • Rusbridger's practice (most people Rusbridger talks to recommend 2 hours a day...): 10 mins G minor scales, 10 mins on the last 2 pages, 5 mins on the long downward runs, 5 mins on the upward run, 15 mins on the coda, 5 mins on the two bars before the coda, 15 mins on the LH in the arpeggio section, 10 min on the RH in the same passage and both together, 10 mins on LH octaves & chords, 10 mins on both hands in same section, 5 mins on the waltz (p. 293-294)
  • On 'speed tests': "playing the Ballade as fast as I could... I had to sacrifice a bit of accuracy on one or two little passages, but it was ninety percent there. I did it in 10:17, as fast as some of the slower commerical recordings. It was what athletes call my 'pb' or personal best" (p. 315)
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