Preparing the piano part for Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste has been (and continues to be) an experience unlike any I’ve ever had. After last week’s rehearsal, one of the assistant conductors remarked upon the primitive rehearsal techniques to which we resorted for such a complex, intricate, and just plain hard piece of music. I replied that, surprisingly, I found myself using similarly primitive techniques in the practice room for exactly the same reasons.
Like a beginning piano student, I clapped the rhythms without playing, “sang” and conducted the rhythms, and upon moving on to the notes themselves, practiced simply moving from chord to chord, devoid of any rhythm. The sonorities are unfamiliar, and the way the chords feel at the keyboard is equally foreign. When I had finally trained my muscle memory (for one small passage!) to move between these chords without excruciating conscious effort, I then began to play the two or three measures of my focus, painfully slowly, but in the written rhythm. Thankfully, there are many simpl-er sections of Couleurs, but this was my method for the infamous section that we in UMWO know as “rehearsal 81-86.”
In the end, I expect such work to yield its reward. On the one hand, such efforts are having a transformative effect on my practicing in other repertoire; on the other hand, I can already anticipate a joyful liberation to come at the time of May 5th’s performance, with complete freedom to live for twenty minutes or so in Messiaen’s unique sound world, unchained from my fifth-grade practice techniques!
-Mike Langlois, piano soloist