Rachmaninoff Third, Part Three

May 25, 2011

“How long did it take you to learn the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, and with how much practicing?”

I owned the score as long ago as 1977. I would take it off the shelf and play through the parts of it that I liked the best at the time. I occasionally did that over the years. But I never thoroughly learned it either for a piano lesson or for a concert. By a strange roll of the dice, I was not invited to perform the Rachmaninoff Third until 2007, after several decades of concertizing. (See the complete list of concertos I have performed at http://jeffreychappell.com/orchestras.php )

The concerto is 78 pages long and takes 45 minutes to perform. There are other concertos that are 45 minutes long, but this one has three times as many notes in it as they do. In fact, there is an urban legend that a Juilliard student once counted the number of notes in the piece. The point is, there are a lot of them.

Because of that, there is no time to allow oneself any sort of careless practicing. When I learned and memorized the concerto for the 2007 Baton Rouge Symphony performance, I took care to center every finger on every piano key as I practiced only the right notes. It would take three times longer to correct the piece if I didn’t.

And I didn’t have that kind of time. As a full-time college professor with other teaching responsibilities as well, in addition to all of the other concerts I was involved in, I had to depend on summer months to learn the piece, and then on the January winter semester break for any sort of uninterrupted practicing. This was true in 2007 and also true in 2011 when I performed it with the Frederick Symphony Orchestra.

Fortunately, I learn quickly and can do a lot in a short time. When people ask me how much I practice, I answer that I practice as much as I need to. They imagine that, as a concert pianist, I spend several hours a day practicing. Well. There were some days, in fact, even as late in the game as during the month of April (before the May 7 performance) when I couldn’t get to the piano before 11 p.m. At that point, I could run through the piece once before going to bed.

–Jeffrey Chappell