Alban's Blog

When something is too difficult…

About 30 years ago, we spent another Easter holiday in Salzburg where my father as member of Berlin Philharmonic had to play under Karajan during the Festspiele, I heard as a 10-year-old for the first time in my life the young Krzystian Zimmermann. Karajan had introduced him to his sponsors (after a so-called “Förderer-Probe”) as his own discovery, and I managed to experience the g-minor Ballade by Chopin after having practised my own little children piece (Gavotte by Prokofiev) in a one of the warm-up rooms, where I secretly used to practise. This was an absolute eye- and ear-opener, I fell in love with the piece and forced my piano teacher back in Berlin that I HAD to learn this piece.

Well, it took a couple of weeks until my teacher gave in (I’m not only since yesterday very stubborn); fact is that I had no technique or basic training to tackle a piece like that. Manually I wasn’t very talented as a young boy, and it was only due to an enormous patience and will that I managed to play this piece of music at the Steinway-Piano Competition (for children) a year later. Oh no, I didn’t win, but I have a recording of that performance, and it is adorable, little me, many wrong notes, but with quite some musical imagination (where has it all gone???).

Why am I telling this little story? No, not to show off, but to explain how I learn a piece which appears to be at first (and also second and third) sight far too difficult. Objectively the Chopin back then was at least five numbers too big for me, but my teachers taught me highly valuable and rather simple tricks how to proceed; on the piano you obviously can learn each hand by itself at first, but in oder to conquer all the fast passage work without the daily fingerexercises a normal young piano student would have to do, I needed to work very slowly and methodically, and until today, on the cello, I use these piano tricks: dotted rhythms (fast-slow-fast-slow and vice-versa as well as slow-fast-fast-fast-slow-fast-fast-fast and the other way around), every day, plus the metronom. When the final speed would be 150, I started with 50, playing through the entire passage in slow motion, and if I mastered it, I was allowed to move up to 55, and so on. Never faster than I could still manage to do it without too many mistakes. Oh yes, that takes a long time, but I had no choice: I wanted to be able to play that piece, and not only the slow bits, but also the excitingly fast ones!

I just got back from my second rehearsal of the Chin Concerto, and I had to think about the time back then and how much I owed to the experience of having dug my teeth into a piece which was far too difficult but which at some point I more or less conquered thanks to an eternal patience. Exactly this patience was needed to learn all the fast passage work in Unsuk Chins Celloconcerto. I have found an e-mail I wrote to her two months ago where I told her that her metronom markings were impossible to do; for the end of the second movement she asks for 150 per minute if not faster, and for the longest time I had no chance to get it faster than 120 beats. Last week I managed once 170, and it felt soooo good to have managed to fly over this tricky part. Also the last movements asks for speeds quicker than I could  evenread the music, technically and rhythmically pretty complicated stuff, but I refused to give up, put my pride on the line, and now it feels natural and the right thing to do. I was grateful to Unsuk’s answer, who drily wrote “it’s possible!” and right she was.

Reherals are going well, Ilan knows the score very well and made the orchestra work very hard, it’s coming along quicker than I hoped for. I didn’t have too many memory slips, though still have to secure the quick stuff, because it is so easy to get lost in these devilish runs up and down. Yes, I am nervous, but hopeful that we’ll pull it off. As always it is hardly enough rehearsal time, especially since there are some very difficult passages in the orchestra, but Ilan’s efficient way and the orchestra’s concentration and ability make me very optimist for next week. Time will tell…


  • Susan Franklin

    Dear Alban, thank you so much for this. For those of us amateurs for whom many pieces are “too difficult”, your description of the preparations that you sometimes have to make are both informative and inspiring. When we watch and hear musicians like you play, it seems so effortless. To know that you have frequently put it in all those hours with the metronome starting at 50 makes me realise that all those hours that I put in with the metronome at some ridiculously slow speed are nothing to be ashamed of. Thank you. I’m heading back to the piano right now! Warmly, Susan

  • Betty Sekhri

    Dear Alban,

    I was so hoping (actually planning) to be at the Albert Hall when you premiered the Chin work, but as they say ‘the best laid plans of mice and men…’. However, at least I will be able to hear it over the internet and am looking forward to it very much. I just returned from San Francisco….I saw Paul for only a few days before he left for Provence… but Neil came and stayed at the apt with me for a few days and I heard him practising the Schumann Kreisleriana on Paul’s lovely Steinway. Yep, he too understands how much hard work and patience goes into learning a work before one can become proficient.

    I just learned that my best friend’s granddaughter, 10-year old Stella, has just started learning the cello…I am hoping that she will get to hear you and be inspired by you one of these days. Yes, dear Alban you do have the knack of inspiring young musicians. Love to you, Katalina and Janos……………………..Betty

  • Alban

    Dear Susan,

    I am very glad that my need to work makes you feel in good company 🙂 I assure you, any musician, even the ones which don’t seem to miss any note (Yevgenji Kissin for example) work hard for it. My father once told me a for me very meaningful story: After a concert with Berlin Phil on tour he came back to his hotel room and heard some piano playing through the wall. He couldn’t make anything of it, but after 15 minutes of listening he realized that it was the soloist of the evening (I think it was Emil Gilels) who was going through the entire Mozart Concerto he had played (perfectly well) that night, but in slow motion, not only half speed, but even slower! This little anecdote from first hand showed me already as a youngster, that even (or especially) the great masters worked very hard. In German we have this saying: Von Nichts kommt Nichts. Nothing comes from nothing… 🙂
    Best wishes,


  • Alban

    Dear Betty,
    thanks for your lovely post, and I miss seeing you and your two sons. I hope one day soon – reunited in the US?
    Best wishes from London,

  • Vicky

    Hi Alban

    Many congratulations on your brilliant Prom this evening – I loved the piece, and your playing…and the interview afterwards was fun to watch!


  • William Rhee


    I was at the Proms yesterday and was hugely impressed with the piece and your outrageously virtuosic and thoughtful performance! I look forward to hearing you play again.


  • Katia

    I’m new here, but I love your blog already! I’m a violist…no, rather I try and I want to be violist 🙂 I play since I was a litte girl (now I’m spending 12th year in music school 🙂 and I’m absolutely in love with my viola and whole of this magic world of sounds and feelings. Thank you for this note, it’s nice to hear (again!) that not only talent, but also work is important 🙂 I have 3 fav. pieces which are still too difficult, but I know that someday I’ll play them and it’ll be the best performance ever (Walton’s and Bartok’s concerto and creme de la creme: Paganini – Sonata per la grand viola) Best wishes!

    P.S. sorry for my English – it’s horrible, I know!

  • Alban

    Hi William and Vicky,

    thanks for your nice words – I am glad you enjoyed this wonderful piece and I hope to play it many times more, with less stress than this time obviously (live radio and TV is something rather threatening, to tell you the truth…). I will write a blog about my experience soon, have been too lazy in the last couple of days, but now I am back in Berlin, ready to work again 🙂

    Hi Katia,
    your English is not bad at all – what shall I say with all my mistakes and typos… Good luck with taming these wonderful two concerti (don’t know the Paganini to tell you the truth), I love them very much, too (my sister is a viola player, gorgeous instrument!).

    Best wishes,



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