Coping with a piece of Kerckhoven

Until recently, I perceived the works of Abraham van den Kerckhoven as less complicated to understand and learn as pieces of other composers I play. But currently, I’m working on a Fantasia in e minor, which is known as #355 of the Cocquiel manuscript (Royal Library Albert I, Brussels, Music Dept. – Manuscript II 3326 1741). Unfortunately little information is available online concerning this work. I knew it from the gramophone record (something similar to a Clay tablet, but intended for preserving music) Orgues Historiques De Thorembais-les-Beguines by Etienne Leuridan. He plays it with reed pipes (Grands Jeux) and makes extreme use of Notes Inégales (“piqué”). I found another recording of François Houtart, but since he’s using neither of them, I still prefer Leuridan’s edition.

As a consequence of last year’s performance, I had to completely change my practicing techniques. I did it first for the repertoire I’m already playing, and it helped to do much better this year. The Fantasia in e minor of Kerckhoven is the very first piece which I approach completely from scratch using the new techniques. Here’s what I did:

  • First I need to find a piece I really want to master. I listen to recordings of other musicians, and while doing so, I already try to imagine what I want to adopt and what I want to do differently.
  • I search for sheet music. Most often, I’m using the database. Sometimes I’m not content with the scores I find, so I typeset them using Musescore.
  • The next step, at least for me, is the most annoying, while very important – do the fingering. I print the sheets to paper and use a pencil for that. Then I try to somehow “play” the piece as good as I can while trying several fingerings. As soon I am content with the results, I write them into the PDF using macOS’ Preview application. I do this at home using a digital pipe organ emulation. The advantage is that I can use headphones so as to not disturb others. And due to that, I find the energy to actually walking through this frustrating and time consuming process. For the abovementioned work, I almost gave up whilst in the middle of the work. Now I have the fingering, and there are some bars where I need to play subsequent notes with the very same finger. Maybe historical fingering was helpful, but I have little clue concerning this technique. On the other hand, this piece actually requires less legato and a more stepped approach while playing (otherwise it will sound “muddy”, expecially when playing it with a Grands Jeux registration in a huge cathedral). I learned this while learning the Passacaille of Lully.
  • The next step is to identify fragments which I can practice autonomously. I tend to make fragments the size of about one to two lines respectively six to eight bars, depending on the piece.
  • Now I can finally start with the actual practicing work, the ruminant playing in slow motion of the fragments. I start with the fragments at the end of the piece and then move to the beginning, fragment by fragment. Sometimes I also use a random apprach for selecting the fragments, so I do not play them in the order they appear in the piece. I additionally use a metronome app and about half the intended final speed. This way I can avoid rhythmical failures early. I try not to repeat a fragment too often, e.g. 3 to 5 times is enough. If I do more often, I observe distraction. The metronome has one forther advantage – it avoids acceleration. No, I do not accelerate. I learned that practicing slowly really helps to avoid slipshod work. If I really can play a piece, I can also play it properly in slow motion. If I find it difficult to play a piece in slow motion, it just means I didn’t master it yet.

That’s it so far. I’m still working on the latter point, and this will last several weeks, if not months, depending on time available. This is hard work, and I managed to motivate me by understanding that practising is a welcome after work activity, and that playing the piece is a totally different thing. Both are worthy activities, and they serve a different purpose.