Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hello readers.

It's been far too long since my last post. Life was busy, and has been getting busier--up until this very morning. I've been very busy harvesting the fruits of the projects I've been working on. This week, I had a Spanish final, two AP tests (English Language and Composition, and World History), a Piano Festival, and then finally this morning an audition for a piano scholarship. I may not have distinguished myself greatly, but nevertheless it was a great experience, if tiring.

This morning's audition was very challenging for me. I played three very difficult pieces, though they were still on the low end of the difficulty spectrum of my peer's repertoire. There was some good and some not-so-good, and I was incredibly fortunate to be adjudicated by two amazing and very honest internationally-recognized professionals. They had plenty to say about all my pieces, mostly criticism but a few very encouraging bright spots. It was really hard to read and take, especially as most of the things they talked about I had already tried to integrate into my pieces, but nerves had erased.

I did think, though: If life really was "everyone's a winner," then there'd be no reason to grow and become better. We learn from our weaknesses and criticisms, painful though they be. We recognize the best, and aspire to be like them--but at the same time, we also need to remember that they, too, are not yet perfect. Even masters can have places they need to grow--Chopin was terrified of large crowds all his life.

At the same time, if we are always being criticized, it will almost always become detrimental. Lifting weights is good, but doing too much will cause injury. That's why we should be careful how and when we open ourselves to criticism, and to what kind. Do we really want to work for months to go to a competition that has a hundred contestants, but only gives vague, general comments? In my mind, these kinds of competitions are worthless for all but the very, very highest--for people who have crossed the threshold into the "80-20 rule", where growth comes ever slower--there's less to learn, and eventually one even starts pioneering and breaking new ground. Subtlety becomes the order of the day. But while 100 percent is not possible for anyone, some do get to the 99.9 percent range--and that last .01 percent keep subdividing into .001 and .0001.

This is where I want to be with my music. It may take another 5 years, it may take 25 years, it may take 55 years. But this is what I aspire to grow into. And only by doing the exercise, taking the criticism, lifting those weights, and finding joy in every step of the journey will that happen.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Post No. 9.

This one is an analysis of my originally-composed piano concerto. I'm going to publish this post in conjunction with the one about my novel. Like A Killer's Storm, the piano concerto has been a very long process. And, like my novel, it's had its moments of despair and triumph.

The work began as a three-movement concerto, last January. Over the spring and summer I wrote more movements--a scherzo movement, a funeral march to replace the original middle movement, and completely-rewritten first and third movements. But ultimately I was dissatisfied with all of them. They all seemed fake, like aimless film music. I tried to redevelop it into the style of Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2--which meant bringing it down into one long movement and piecing in material from the old movements.

I thought I had something good here--so I sent it off to the YoungArts scholarship competition in hopes of winning a couple thousand dollars. I had high hopes, and I even think there was something about my application to YoungArts in my first blog post ...

But I didn't even make it into the finals.

Maybe I thought too highly of my own talents. It was kind of a shock.

The truth is, I think still have a ways to go as a musician and composer. I've been writing music for about fourteen months, and I've learned so much along the way. But it takes more time than that to achieve mastery of the art of composition and hope to actually compete with the other musicians.

Now I've come back to the concerto--in some ways, it feels connected to my novel. Now, let's be clear--this song is not a musical realization of A Killer's Storm. But it does have chapters or sections that reflect the classic action-adventure story plot.

Each section (or chapter) is labeled with an Italian expression marking that reflects the content of the music and describes how I want it to be played. The structure goes something like this:

1) Largo Maestoso Appassionato, which is Italian for "slow, majestic and passionate." The opening bars are kind of like a dark battle. As Ryan would say, an "orc-war march."

2) Allegretto, which means "at a brisk tempo, but slower than allegro." This is the first ray of hope in the dark opening--this is the scene when the hero first steps up to challenge the evil villain.

3) Adagio Cantabile translates to "moderately slow and singing." In a movie, this would be a tender relationship scene, during which we get to know the hero's friends, allies, and 'love interest.' Just as this is the time when a story will more deeply develop the character, I develop the opening motifs into a theme that has been apart of this concerto since the day I first conceived it.

4) Tempo I/Quasi Marziale means "return to the opening tempo, like martial." The hero has made his big decision to go face the villain, and marches out to meet him head-on. The pace and tension rise as the chapter progresses. This section further condenses the love theme, then expands it again, building it up into the core motif of the entire piece--all the while, the piano is thundering continuous octaves in both hands.

5) Allegro e molto con fuoco means "Lively, and with much fire." The battle is driving full-force. Like an action movie, the music rushes from one theme to another, as though in a car chase. The scene builds into a thunderous cadenza for the pianist--albeit quite a long and difficult one. Even I would have trouble playing it if I were to learn it, which I don't have the skills or time to do at this point.

6) Meno Allegro. This means "less lively." This section is actually directly from the revision of my first movement, though at a slightly slower tempo than written initially. Again, this equates a relationship and character-driven scene, a retreat from the conflict into a safer place to rest and regroup. In tactical terms, this is a victory for the villain, and the hero has lost an ally and dear friend. He wonders if it's even worth fighting any more. As I once heard at an OCW writer's conference, it's the 'dark night of the soul.'

7) Adagio Resoluto means "moderately slow and resolute." The hero doesn't give up--he can't. Not when so much depends on him. So he calls his scattered allies back and forms a plan for one final attack.

8) Tempo de con Fuoco is "at a speed that's with fire." But this is not a return to the con fuoco theme, but instead a sped-up rehashing of the very first theme. The villain is enjoying his spoils, and believes that he has won. But then he sees that the hero was not defeated as hoped, and is now coming out of his hole to defeat him once and for all. Enraged, he sends everything he has against the hero's small resistance. But the hero is clever, and he gains the upper hand in the battle--hence the tonal shift from C minor to E-flat major. And then the hero and the villain are fighting hand-to-hand in a precarious position. Stakes are high--the winner of this fight will swiftly win the battle. And then the hero strikes down his enemy and the war is won. He and his friends celebrate and step in to fill the role that the villain had before, only now with justice and solid leadership.

Thank you for reading. Now you should go listen to my concerto--the link to musescore is https://musescore.com/user/8661166/scores/3203586. And when it goes live on YouTube soon, I will add in the link to that too. Hope you enjoy!

Thanks for praying, everyone! Then, now, and every day in the future. And I'll make sure to do the same for you.

Post No. 8.

Prayer works.

I'm living proof of it.

Over the past two-plus years, I've been working on my novel--tentatively titled "A Killer's Storm"--it's about a teenage-storm chaser named Mick Riddle, who has a history with a drug dealer named Harry Marquam--the man killed his father, and in retaliation Mick had busted him and stolen boxes containing secret information. Now, almost a year later, Harry wants to escape his dealings with a worldwide crime ring, but they do not wish the same for him. Upon forced interrogation, they learn of Mick's theft. So, using a newly-developed hallucination-inducing drug, they brainwash Harry into helping their chief assassin to track down Mick and retrieve the critical data.

This novel has been through so many revisions and drafts that I've lost count. And sometime last spring, I got discouraged with it and put it away. I gave it to so many people, and only two have gotten all the way through it--my brother Ryan and one or two writer friends. Now, people are busy, I know that much. But when a year passes, I began to get the feeling my novel just didn't have the guts or merit to compete with everything else people do in their lives.

So I gave it up, and started writing poetry over the summer. And all through the fall, I thought about it occasionally--and never could get back into it. It was just a big, ugly mess--the characters didn't interact the way I wanted them too, I rambled on for pages and pages of storm-chasing narrative without moving the rest of the plot forward, the motives and logic behind a lot of the plot twists wasn't very strong.

But, unknown to me through all those months, the story was churning inside the deep recesses of my brain, curing, aging, growing riper and stronger. My wonderful mother encouraged my poetry side more and more, and assigned me her old college books on style and voice for school. Then, over Christmas, she asked me to give her the latest edition of my novel to read. I thought about refusing. After all, I hadn't touched it in months.

Then she sent out her Christmas cards, along with a letter. Talking about me and my writing. And I swear people started praying.

In the space of a week and a half, all the simmering that had been going on my head burst out into some fifty- thousand words of rewritten material. And now I think I might actually be able to make the story work. If anyone reading this is interested in being a beta reader, reading the whole thing, and giving me feedback, please let me know in the comments or by email.

And thank you, everyone who's been praying! I'll be sure to do the same for you!

"Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven."--Matthew 18:19

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Merry Christmas, and happy new year (almost)!

Yesterday I posted my first recordings, which includes my interpretation of the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. posthumous, by Frederic Chopin. I thought it would be fun to write an analysis of a this particular song, especially since it has so much in common with the Chopin piano concerto in F minor.

I believe this song was written in 1830, when Chopin was just twenty years old. He was at the height of his performance career--his piano concerto in F-minor was also in the works at almost exactly the same time. Now, later in life Chopin flat-out refused to perform in large public concerts, and even at this time he disliked it, despite the necessity of establishing himself as a premier musician in Paris.

Here is a recording of Arthur Rubenstein--one of the greatest pianists ever to walk the earth (and now sadly deceased for thirty-four or so years)--playing the Chopin F minor concerto. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_GecdMywPw

Also, here is my video, which includes the nocturne (yeah, I'm not as good as Rubenstein, and probably never will be). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I40C1nuv0uE&t=716s

This piece shares a number a striking similarities to the F minor concerto. My favorite reference is at 1:24 in the Nocturne, in which this beautiful phrase seems to twirl like a couple dancing under moonlight. Chopin evidently liked this theme very much, and used it in the concerto. Note these points: 1:57 and 5:45 of Rubenstein's video.

Another one I like very much is the scherzando (joke) theme that comes up in at 1:57 in the Nocturne. Notice the similarity to 26:30 of the concerto.

And the scales at the end of the Nocturne, particularly 2:56, seem to echo the second movement (for instance, 17:30 in the concerto). I'm actually learning this second movement to perform in May with my piano teacher playing the orchestra part arranged for piano. I'll definitely post a video of that performance ...

Well, this is the end of my spiel. If you have feedback on either the blog or the video, please comment, either here or on youtube.


Friday, December 30, 2016


This is a post relating to my first youtube album, a video consisting of my own recordings of Claude Debussy's Prelude No. 8 (the Girl with the Flaxen Hair), Frederic Chopin's Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor, Rachmaninoff's Moment Musical No. 5, Op. 16, Franz Schubert's Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90 No. 1, and Frederic Chopin's Nocturne No. 13 in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1.

For those seeing the blog first, the link to the recordings is here: https://youtu.be/I40C1nuv0uE

A little about the recording of each piece:

When I was working on the Debussy, I often found the piece sounded aimless, as if without direction. I had to work very hard to avoid exaggerating the long pauses between phrases and making sure my rhythms were correct.

The Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor is my Mom's personal favorite piece.  This beautiful song was written in 1830, as an accompaniment piece with his second piano concerto. For the music geeks reading this, they will notice significant relationships in the themes of the concerto and the nocturne. Actually, I'm working on a detailed analysis of the connections between this song and the F minor concerto; I plan to publish it soon.

This Moment Musical is the first piece by Rachmaninoff I have learned. It's part of a set of six moments musical, each one a tribute to an earlier form. This particular one is a barcarolle, which means "boat song." I really love the rocking motion of this piece, but the chief difficulty is in layering the complexity of the singing voices in the right hand and rolling triplets in the left hand--which are often rhythmically staggered.

I first started learning the Schubert Impromptu in C minor last winter, almost a year ago. I had mostly finished it by May, but never put the finishing touches on it. But when I started planning this set a few weeks ago, I decided to pull it out of mothballs and finish the darn thing up. It was quite difficult, recording for ten minutes at a time, trying both not to make a mistake and at the same time show the singing qualities unique to Schubert's music. This is one of my piano teacher's favorite pieces of music. Many thanks also to my Dad, and to my sister for turning pages for me and providing precious feedback.

But the Chopin Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1, is my personal favorite of this set. It is the most difficult of the five, both expressively and technically. This piece has also taken me months to learn and perfect, especially the last section, when all hell breaks loose and the world seems to crash in on itself. When Chopin wrote this, his relationship with writer George Sand (Aurore Dupin) was beginning to unravel, and his tuberculosis was beginning to get the better of him. But he was not finished yet, as we can see from this explosive night-piece that begins as a lone singer, develops first into a choir singing from the depths, than into passionate outpourings of inner turmoil.

To say this road has not been easy would be an understatement. But God has given me the strength and knowledge to overcome the difficulties in these beautiful pieces, and share them with the rest of the world.

Merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

God bless.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Here's another post.

I'll keep this one brief.

I just wanted to say a quick word about something I've learned lately.

This might be obvious for some, and for others it may be irrelevant or completely opposite to how their minds work.

But I've found that when I give myself time to actually work on ONE or TWO projects at time, without very many interruptions, and without spreading myself thin across too many other things, I can get far more done in a short time than when I spread myself thin over months of trying to attempt too much at once.

Case in point: Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor. I just undertook this piece a few weeks ago, and already I feel I've made significant progress without screwing it up (and yes, I have screwed up pieces before--the third movement of Moonlight is stuck in a very frustrating limbo for me right now).

But the Chopin seems to be coming along very well, despite the reputation this piece has for being, according to concert pianist Murray Perahia, "one of the hardest songs in the repertoire." Honestly, I'm not entirely sure why I feel as though I am directly composing this piece, like it's my own work.  If I keep making the same amount of progress on this piece that I have been over the past week (during which I have worked on it almost nonstop), I will finish the "rough draft" within another few weeks! It feels as though God's giving me a Christmas present.

This may be my last post for a little while. Very soon I plan to post several Youtube videos of songs I've recently finished--two Nocturnes by Chopin (C minor, Op. 48 No. 1 and C-sharp minor, Op. Posthumous), the Prelude in G-flat major by Debussy (aka The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), and Moment Musical No. 5 in D-flat by Rachmaninoff. Over the next few months, I will finish my other pieces--the first movement of Mozart's Sonata K.576 in C minor, Bach's Prelude and Fugue No. 2 (also in C minor), the second movement of Chopin's piano concerto in F minor (I'll be performing that sometime in May with my piano teacher playing the orchestra part arranged for piano), Chopin's Grand Valse Brilliante in E-flat major, Op. 18, and of course the Ballade in G minor. I look forward to sharing this music with you!

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hello Readers.

Have you ever had to do anything that was really hard, and frustrated you at every turn?

That's the boat I'm in right now--I'm plugging away very, very, very slowly at my pre-calculus course. It's insanely frustrating to work with--intense, complicated problems that I often get wrong.

The worst part is when I get super emotionally involved in my work-- I have to grade my own problem sets. There are few things more discouraging than finding I screwed up problems that took me twenty or thirty minutes of hard work to solve. Some days I just want to throw the textbook across the room.

This has been my situation since January of last year, when I finished Algebra II and went on to pre-calculus.

I am very grateful for winter break, but I still dread the day when I have to take of pre-calculus again--perhaps the bane of my very existence.

But then my Mom--who is also my teacher--told me to look at math like a piano concerto. She insists that finishing pre-calculus and moving on to calculus will keep doors to whole career paths open if my career as a pianist doesn't happen. You know, I thought then, she's right.

She suggested I write a blog post comparing the many skills required to solve pre-calculus problems like graphing a sinusoid curve, finding roots of complex numbers calculating the distance between a point and a line, etc. to the years of experience and many skills required to learn, say, a piano concerto. I liked that idea, and since I love to analyze anything I can get my hands on--I decided to go right ahead.

I picked a movement from one of my favorite concertos of all time, the third movement of the piano concerto No. 3 in C minor by Beethoven. This will most likely be my piece for my senior year recital at the National Federation of Music Clubs recital in spring 2018 (so I have plenty of time to learn it!). Here's a recording I particularly enjoy, by Krystian Zimmerman. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1QNhRNxvTI. The third movement is at 28:37, unless you want to watch the whole thing, which I highly recommend. :)

I'm not going to go into a minute-by-minute analysis of the piece, which would be tiresome to all but the most dedicated musicologists. But, among other things, this concerto requires solid scale, arpeggio, chromatic and octave technique. Many times, the pianist needs to balance a dense, rolling accompaniment with a singing melody.

I've heard many people say that calculus is easier than pre-calculus, which at first didn't make any sense to me. If these problems I'm doing now are hard, what will calculus be like???

In the same way, learning pieces like this can be as daunting as taking on a calculus course.

But then, I thought, what if I were to break it up?

Calculus is only hard because of the pre-calculus necessary to solve it. And, in the same way, once I've learned the individual skills by themselves--the scales, the arpeggios, the octaves, the balance, the interpretation--it's like the pre-calculus in calculus. It takes years of experience to build up to repertoire like this, just like in math, one goes from beginning arithmetic to fractions to algebra to geometry to pre-calculus to calculus.

This particular concerto is not as complex or long as, say, Rachmaninoff's or the Tchaikovsky concertos--to which one might describe as the linear algebra of music. But nevertheless, it is still very difficult in its own way, and attempting this piece requires the endurance and many skills comparable to solving calculus problems. So, perhaps I can look forward to my schoolwork this coming winter. It's a welcome outlook, I think.