Monday, September 19, 2011

Maintaining Legato

Handwriting of my piano teacher in Shanghai, China- Ms Lee.  Faculty member of the beloved Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  Her practice notes for me - "Legato"  Or, like she likes to say it, "LEEE-ga-TOH" (1996).
Legato is a piano technique that a pianist must practice frequently. It is a music term that means that the notes in the music, as notated by a slurred line, should be played smoothly, without any breaks between them.  Imagine a calligrapher making a masterful brush stroke, the delicate contours and shapes of his characters taking shape before he lifts up the paintbrush. Some beginner pianists cheat by depressing the pedal, artificially slurring all the notes in a loud, jumbled mess. But, true legato, the kind that has crisp clarity and continuity, can only be achieved through hours of practice until it becomes second nature. 

I like to play pieces by Czerney to practice Legato. But ask any pianist about Czerney and you'll probably hear a chorus of curses.  Many of Czerney's pieces sound simple to the human ear but actually require intense concentration and practice to overcome the many technical challenges and repetitions to play the pieces well.  The pieces he wrote to train for legato have impossibly long phases, running cadences, large vertical spans, and rapid finger crossings- with few punctuations for the hands to rest between the notes and phases of music. 

So, preparation is needed. The greatest challenge is building up finger endurance as you play, your fingers burning with fatigue like a runner's during a marathon.  So why do we need to practice Czerney or Legato? I think it is because the most beautiful melodies I have ever played, the kind that really touch my heart,  are usually the ones with the longest slurs, requiring the most control of legato. Without the endurance to play legato, you lift your fingers up for a rest before the phase is complete, breaking it and ruining melody in the process, never allowing the music to reach it's full potential as the composer had intended.
Me, Age 5-6.  Practicing on a Young Chang Professional Upright my parents saved up to buy for my sister and I.  I had to practice before I could go swimming, that explains the swimsuit, and the pout.  :) 
Over the weekend, as I am coming up to the end of a phase after a long practice session, my fingers fatigued- they couldn't kick anymore. My hands were tired, but I still had a few more notes before reaching the end of the phase.  Do I give up now and break the melody, or do I push it and continue playing?  I compare this feeling to being in its very small way similar to:

A marathon runner running his last 1000 m in a 26.2 mile race, his knees burning from the lactic acid build up.  He is almost at the finish line.

A mountaineer on Mt. Everest vying for the submit upon reaching Mushroom Rock (A rock feature at 28,000 ft in the death zone), feeling like he could almost reach the peak while every single cell in his body is starving for oxygen.  After a few more hours, he will stand on the highest point on Earth.

A soprano singer, holding her contracted diaphragm for five more seconds to sustain the last note in an opera before she gasps for fresh air. She is a few more beats away from a flawless performance.

A pre-med student, 5th hour into taking the MCAT, on the final passage on the Biological Science section, her brain now a fuzzy blur, but knowing that she must concentrate to get the last few questions answered correctly.  Her dreams of becoming a doctor to help people may be within her reach.

And, at that moment, I chose to push myself.  I pushed my fingers to finish the phase.  And, because I did, the music transformed from a phase into a singing melody. 

What melodies await you this week? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Have a great week.

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Carl Czerney-School of the legato and staccato

Young Chang Pianos

Monday, September 12, 2011

Square Pancakes & New age mooncake molds

Hello everybody,
We've all seen and eaten round pancakes for most of our lives, but how many of us have eaten a square pancake?  When I think of square pancakes, I think of something that stands out from the crowd, something that dares to be different.  A salmon that swims downstream instead of up.  Here is a really good fluffy pancake recipe to mold these square pancakes. 

They were fluffy and delicious.  Slightly sweet.  The buttery flavor really comes out.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups well-shaken buttermilk (It is ok to substitute milk.)
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for greasing
Vegetable oil, for greasing (both the pans and the mold)

Spray the ring with a little cookie spray or grease the edges with a little butter (If you need to re-grease later, make sure the ring is not hot.)

Whisk the flour, granulated sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl.  Add the buttermilk, eggs and cooled melted butter to a second bowl and whisk to combine.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients.  Stir with with a fork or use this Tovolo Better Batter Tool.  It really does work out the lumps faster and prevents the formation of gluten.  This means that your pancakes will be fluffier.  Over-mixing is the number one cause of dry and chewy pancakes.  The same principle also applies to making cakes.

Place the Square Pancake Ring, in the middle of the pan.  (There is no need to grease the pan).  Add a large tablespoon of batter to the middle of the ring until it is about 3/4 full.  Do not overfill because the pancake batter has rising agents and your batter will overflow out of the ring.

First attempt, almost overflowing.  But it didn't.  Phew.
When the top looks like it's solid, lift the pancake ring up using the handle (It will be hot, so be careful), release the pancake and flip it over for another 1 minute. 

This recipes makes about 14 square pancakes.

Recipe adapted from: Food Network: Neely's Strawberry pancakes

While we are on the topic of "square pancakes", check out the images below for an innovative, outside of the box thinking for mooncake molds. You see, mooncakes are eaten during Mid Autumn Festival when the moon is usually at his roundest.   The buttocks metaphor for "the moon" is not only unique in the Western context.  The moon is referred to in Chinese as "Ba Yue Shi Wu"(Literally translated as the 8th month, day 15), and this term can also be used to denote one's gluteus maximus.  In usage, you can say "Hey, I have been eating too many pancakes, my 'Ba Yue Shi Wu" is getting larger, time to hit the gym." (haha).  So this company in Hong Kong has taken this phase literally and made a mooncake mold out of it.  "Moon cake", get it?  It is pretty clever, isn't it?  Admittedly, is very cheeky, and I hope you don't find it a bit too much. It's all in good humor.
Photo credit: Photo generously provided by Goods of Desire (GOD), a lifestyle company based in Hong Kong.  Reused with permission.
Photo credit: Goods of Desire- G.O.D
Photocredit: Goods of Desire G.O.D.
Too bad the molds aren't for sale.  The mooncake makers that makes the mooncakes own the rights of the design.  However, if enough people like this mold, they might re-consider releasing the mold.  So please comment on on this post if you like the mooncake mold. They might change their minds about releasing the mold so that it is available for purchase by everyone. 

Thanks for reading everybody, and Happy Mooncake Festival!

Have a good week ahead!
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