Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL

After a couple of years of living with them and working on them, I'm finally getting the cadential trills in Bach's Two Part Invention #1 to sound the way I want them to: distinct and strong yet light, rapid and expressive.

Learning to play a good trill is a deal with the devil. He says, "So you want to be able to play a good trill, do you? Well it's going to cost you. When you could be eating, drinking, and making merry, you'll have to spend many irretrievable hours sitting alone in a room pitting the living blood and bone and sinew and muscle mechanism of your hand against the pitiless wood and felt and metal mechanism of a piano. If you work at it hard enough and long enough, you'll be rewarded with a fleeting second's worth of lovely trifle that hardly anyone will ever hear and that no one will fully appreciate. And when you're on your death bed and smelling my sulfur, you'll ask yourself if you could have better spent those lonely mechanical hours with your fellows. Then you and your precious hard-won trill will pass beyond all human memory into the void. So enjoy your trill while you can. You deserve it."

Friday, August 2, 2013

MASTERING ARPEGGIOS

OK. I admit it. My arpeggios are rough. Practicing Bach's Two Part Invention #13 has made it impossible for me to be in denial about it any longer. This is another one of those basics that I should have mastered 50 years ago when I was 12. But I didn't, so sue me. (Heeeey! That would make a great name for a Japanese lawyer. "And this is my legal adviser, Mr. Sosumi.")

While practicing arpeggios as exercises to help me play Invention #13 more precisely, I became conscious of the fact that I look primarily at my right hand when I play, at least when I'm not looking at music. The left hand was rougher than the right, so I decided to look at the left hand and see what happened. It was a very hard habit to break at first, and when I finally succeeded in tearing my eyes away from my right hand, what happened was that the left hand got better and the right hand became even rougher than the left hand had been been.

Well. This whole looking-at-my-hands thing wasn't working out. I had become dependent on vision, which is not only unnecessary for playing a keyboard (if you don't believe me, ask Stevie Wonder) but is downright harmful. You can't watch everything at once. I had certainly proven that while trying to play arpeggios -- which, by the way, I was practicing with the hands two octaves apart, making it even harder to watch everything.

The solution was obvious: close my eyes while practicing arpeggios, thus forcing myself to depend entirely on my kinesthetic sense. Once I get firmly back in touch with that sense, I'm confident I can master arpeggios, even this late in the game.

Monday, July 29, 2013

SINGING IN THE LIFEBOATS

"Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats." -- Voltaire

I've been lost in the shadows these last few months, absorbed in personal and interpersonal events, and not making the mental space to practice. Practicing is therapeutic for me in that it calls forth my energies in a positive way, but I also find that I need to marshal a certain threshold energy before I can begin to practice. That energy has been failing me for many weeks now.

During times like this, my mind begins to fill up with all sorts of negative thoughts about my playing. Whether they come in merely to fill the vacuum of not playing, or my mind unconsciously invents them in order to justify not playing I don't know. Maybe it's both. In any case, I find them hard to overcome. I don't seem to be able to banish them so that I can start playing again. I find instead that I have to start playing again in spite of them, no matter how painful I anticipate it will be, no matter what the specific contents of the thoughts are. So, I made a promise to myself and my friends that I would practice at least half an hour a day this week, and that is what I did. Last Tuesday I took a breath, sat down at the keyboard, and began playing scales.

All of my doubts about why I even bother to try to play the piano came up. I'm 62. What's the use at this point? Arthritis is developing in my hands and will, in a few years, make it difficult to play. I'm still working on basic skills that, if I had had proper training, I would have mastered before I was 20. I've spent too much time away from the keyboard and many of the meager skills I did manage to accumulate have deteriorated. I can't even play basic scales evenly. The world is full of people who play far better than I can ever hope to, or ever could have hoped to. It would be much easier to drop the fall over the keys and walk away. But, I promised to practice, so I practiced.

The music of J. S. Bach is a wonder of human -- perhaps super-human -- invention. I know of no better way to become intimate with that music than to learn to play it, to learn and over-learn every single note of a piece, to spend hours discovering the expressive potential of the notes written on the page. However poorly I may play, I'm still expanding  my appreciation of Bach and the other composers I love. That makes it worth it. But even more than that, the sheer effort made in the face of inevitable failure makes me feel alive.

So, I continue to sing in my floundering little lifeboat.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

WASTED EFFORT

 At the keyboard, once a finger has struck a key, there's nothing more that can be done with that finger to influence the sound of the note other then to control the note's duration by keeping the key depressed a shorter or longer period of time. Of course, the pedals may also be used to control the note's duration, but that's irrelevant to my study of Bach's Two Part Inventions because nowhere do I use the pedals while playing these 18th century pieces. Anyway, the pedals are beside the point.

While a greater or lesser amount of force may be used to strike the key depending on the desired volume of the note, the amount of force required to keep the key depressed is always the same and is always less than the force required to strike the key sufficiently hard to produce a sound.

In reviewing Invention #9, a relatively slower Invention, I became conscious that, particularly in my left hand, I was sometimes keeping the key depressed with about the same force that I had used to strike the key. This is a very fundamental flaw in keyboard technique that, especially in louder passages, results in a great deal of wasted energy and tension in the hand. I thought I had wrung that problem out of my playing, but now I find that I still have some work to do.

I find that the problem seems to be related to the emotional force with which I'm playing. If I'm strongly feeling the loudness of the playing, the emotion overshadows my technique and I tend to express that feeling through constant tension and force in my hands. The feeling is fine, but I need to learn to express it purely through the sound of the music and not in any way through extraneous tension in my technique.

So there's that.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

PARADOX

I've been playing Bach Two-Part Invention #6 fairly regularly. It's a favorite of mine.

In reviewing it, I decided the main thing I wanted to focus on was making sure my tempo held steady through the various sections of the piece.

I turned on the metronome, set it to a tempo slower than I normally play #6, and began to practice. Things went normally for a couple of measures, and then to my surprise I began to fumble the notes. What seemed to be happening was that the fingerings had become very automatic for me. That's perfectly fine. Fingerings have to become automatic before one can play a piece up to tempo. But what wasn't fine was that they were automatic only in my muscle memory and I had forgotten them in my mental memory. In slowing the tempo, I began reading the fingerings off the page for the first time in a while, and they seemed completely alien. It destroyed my ability to mentally flow with the music.

What a paradox that slowing down would make it so much harder for me to play the piece. But it took only a couple of times through for me to adjust, get the fingerings back into my mental memory, and put everything back on track again.
RELAXING MORE DEEPLY

A large part of being a conscious pianist is about relaxing and being present. Several days ago when I was reviewing Bach Two-Part Invention #4, I found a new level of tension to which I had previously been blind.

I've been playing #4 reasonably regularly, so I didn't need heavy review of it, but I did want to clean up the long trills, especially the one for the left hand (LH). I got out the metronome, dialed the speed way back, and began to practice the LH trill slowly, with attention on rocking the wrist in a relaxed way. The idea is to engage the larger muscles of the arm in playing the trill as opposed to doing everything with the finer muscles of the fingers. This allows for both less fatigue and a bigger sound.

As I've often found in the past, I was having some difficulty coordinating the trill precisely with the metronome click. It went fine with the LH alone, but when I played the RH part along with the LH, things began to get a little bit out of synch as I gradually increased the speed. In some way, I wasn't clearly hearing both the click and my playing.

I was feeling into my hand and arm looking for tension when I suddenly realized that the important tension, the tension sucking up my awareness, was in my core. I was carrying an existential "Uh oh! Emergency! This is a left hand trill and it's really hard!" kind of tension that I hadn't consciously noticed before.

I took a deep breath into that tension and bid it farewell, and my playing immediately became more synchronized. It freed up my awareness to be present with the click and both my hands all at once. I find that the tension reappears from time to time, but now that I'm aware of it I can address it. It's gradually fading.

It never ceases to amaze me how tension locks up awareness and prevents me from clearly perceiving and being present with what I'm playing.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

ONE TWO THREE

I'm now reviewing the Bach Two Part Inventions, which I just finished learning, or maybe I should say, just finished taking a first pass at learning. I'm reviewing them in order.

I've stayed fairly current with number 1, so there wasn't much to do with that one except enjoy it and mess around with new interpretaions.

I've sorely neglected number 2, but it took me only about 2 days to get it running smoothly and up to speed. The left-hand ornaments that seemed so challenging the first time through now roll along nicely. With the fresh perspective of this re-boot, I'm seeing the piece more as a whole and I'm finding more music in it. I'm playing it better than ever.

I've partly neglected number 3 and I'm currently getting it back in shape. There are two similar cadences where there are two right-hand ornaments in rapid succession -- a turn followed by a short trill -- that I've never been able to play the way I wanted.  The left-hand part under these ornaments is very simple, but I could never play it with the right articulation. In becoming more conscious of these passages, I noticed how tense my right hand was during the trill. Today I worked out a lot of that tension, in part by playing the trill less with finger twiddling and more with wrist rotation. Using the larger muscles allowed my hand to relax. Now my attention, which was formerly absorbed in that right-hand tension, is free to encompass both hands and I'm finally playing the left-hand articulation properly.