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Topic: Bowen Toccata  (Read 1655 times)

Offline Skeptopotamus

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Bowen Toccata
on: December 31, 2004, 06:08:11 AM
This is my favorite short piece of music, and I am planning on playing it in a competition coming up, but I can't get it up to speed.  I can play it slowly, but I always muddle it up if I try to play it in the correct tempo.  I really don't want to have to drop it, seeing as how I really like the piece.  Is anyone familiar with this piece and does anyone have any suggestions?

Offline johnnypiano

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Re: Bowen Toccata
Reply #1 on: December 31, 2004, 09:41:54 PM


 ;) :)

Hi! Skeptopotamus

I was a piano student of York Bowen at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  He told me one day that he had written a ‘little piece’ (the Toccata) in order to show people that he could still ‘do it’.  He played it in his last Wigmore Hall recital (he was 75 at the time) along with Chopin’s B minor Sonata, the Etude in E minor and the Waldstein.  Of course, he had fabulous technique and musicianship right up to the end of his life.

He was a very encouraging and good humoured teacher, and I have already quoted his philosophy in one of my posts to Piano Forum.  He used to say, “A smile is better than a frown.”

I have tried the Toccata but did not find I wanted to play it.  As to getting it faster:  are you sure that at a really slow speed everything is perfect, technically?  It is easy to scramble through a piece like this and wonder why it won’t go as quickly as you would like it go.  Are your fingers always vertically over the notes where practicable, or do you strain towards the next hand position?  Do you play soft enough for the speed, or are you  playing each finger too loudly and perhaps clinging to the key bed?  Do you try too hard to play legato when, at such a fast speed, staccato would do? 

Are there any weaknesses in either hand that you keep putting off examining?

You say that you can play it slowly but that you get muddled up when you “try to play it in the correct tempo.”  What about the tempi in between, and what is the correct tempo, anyway?  I assume you grade it to go just a bit faster and then, when you are confident of the new speed, faster still.  Don’t forget, you can play only as fast as your brain can give instructions to the fingers.  Are you sure your brain has absorbed every detail of the music?  Even then, the speed must be increased only slowly - you cannot go from an ambling pace to a sprint, certainly not in a long piece.  You could try playing just a few phrases (or one phrase!) as quickly as possible.  If that is successful move on to a longer section.


Have you analysed the harmony, beat by beat, and memorised the harmonic structure phrase by phrase and sentence by sentence?  This will allow you to think ahead much more quickly. 

It is possible that you are rushing your usual practice methods because (1) you like the piece and want to play it as fast as possible as soon as possible and (2) you are being pushed along by the date of your competition.

Can you take a day or two off and play through other things - really enjoying them?  Also, sit in a chair and go through the Bowen score analysing it musically, seeing how it  is built up and trying to hear it.  Then imagine yourself playing it slowly and getting every ounce of detail the composer put in.

I hope these questions will stimulate you.  Let me know how you go.  I am convinced that a huge amount of slow practise, REALLY FOCUSING, is the only way to play fast.

Best wishes for the new Year.  John

Offline Skeptopotamus

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Re: Bowen Toccata
Reply #2 on: December 31, 2004, 11:03:07 PM
You sure gave me a lot to think about.  Your students must hate you ;)

Anyways, I can't believe you knew York Bowen.  That must have been something.

But back to the subject.  I can "play" it, but I use the term loosely.  As many college students rack their brains going over Scarbo again and again, listening to it over and over, I am kind of consumed by this piece.  I only have two recordings of it, and one of them isn't that great.  Esther Park plays it the best that I have heard, and her playing isn't super great at all.

At a slow pace I can play it extrememly well, I think.  You talk about playing it too loudly, causing hangups, but IMO this piece isn't a very delicate one, and should be played as showy as possible, so that may be a problem, but when I'm finished with it I hope to be playing it quite harshly.

I may be crazy and just plain wrong, but this piece seems at least a little familiar to a lot of Debussy's pieces, and I just can't play Debussy.  I've tried all of your suggestions at some point or another and I just can't seem to get it coming out the way I want it.  Do you have any radical practice methods I could use :)

Seriously about those radical practice methods though.

Offline johnnypiano

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Re: Bowen Toccata
Reply #3 on: January 03, 2005, 06:54:31 PM

Reading your reply I can’t decide whether you would like to be able to play the Toccata faster, or interpret the piece in a more ideal way.

The only radical way of practising anything is to concentrate like mad, don’t attempt too much at any one time, be super critical of results, stop long before your brain runs out, and, if muscular tensions build up,  ask “why?” Go only as fast as you can focus accurately on the material.  This ‘method’ is RADICAL because it’s so unlike the way very many students practise.  Despite your experience, it would still be worthwhile reviewing these techniques.  I do so every time I practise!

If it’s the interpretation you are concerned about you need to think through the piece, or part of the piece, sitting down and studying the score.  Analysing it musically, this time, rather than technically.  What does it mean to you?  It can’t just mean fast notes ‘cos there are millions of pieces using fast notes.  What do the fast notes convey in this piece?  An unstoppable quality?  Is the music frenetic, light-hearted, showy?  You decide.

There is a good recording by Stephen Hough, along with some other Bowen pieces.

All the best with it.  Send me your recording of it when you are done.  :D :)
John

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