Thursday, November 22, 2012

THE LAST BEGINNING

I've started learning Bach's Two Part Invention number 15, the last one in my quest to learn the whole set of the Inventions. So far, I've worked out all of the fingerings and I've learned to play the two hands separately to some modest tempo.

As is so often the case, the stumbling block for me is the ornaments in the left hand. I'm reminded of a scene in the film "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where our hero is confronted with a pit full of vipers, a particular fear of his. He recoils from the brink and mutters, "Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?"

I can execute the ornaments, but will I ever be able to execute them consistently enough and rapidly enough to play the piece convincingly? We'll see.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

DANCING ON THE EDGE

Over the past several days, I've been intensively practicing the left hand trills in Bach's Two Part Invention #12. I had reached a plateau in the tempo at which I could play them, but with this intensive practice, I've demolished my former tempo barrier and leaped ahead about 25%. The tempo at which I formerly wondered if I had reached my physical limit is now well within my comfort zone, and the whole character of the way I play the trills has been transformed into something lighter and more alive.

But at my new maximum tempo, I once again find myself wondering if I've reached my physical limit, in part because I've also reached a plateau in the tempo at which I can play the right hand trills. I suppose I should remember what I learned before -- that I'll never know if it's my limit unless I keep practicing and pushing at the limit.

So, I'll keep dancing on the edge a while long longer before I say "Enough!" and walk away from this one. I'm curious to see what will happen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

BECOMING MORE CONSCIOUS

The last couple of days, I've been intensively practicing the left hand (LH) trills in Bach's Two Part Invention #12.

Yesterday, I noticed that the way I pay attention to my LH, which is my non-dominant hand, is different from the way I pay attention to my RH. It's difficult to describe the difference. The LH feels more remote, less there. I have less connection to it. I'm less conscious of it. If feels more clumsy than my RH.

Well, then, why not culture more consciousness of it? I dialed the tempo on the metronome back from my edge, well back into my comfort zone. Then as I played the LH trills, I closed my eyes and put my attention into my LH, into the fingers, the hand, the wrist, the forearm. I paid attention to each muscle and how it moved, to all the feelings, to every area that wasn't completely relaxed and nimble. I did this while playing the LH alone, and while playing the RH along with the LH.

It immediately brought something new to my experience of my LH and of my playing. Again, it's difficult to describe. There was a new wholeness, a new spaciousness, a new dimension, a new ease.

After playing that way for a while, I turned off the metronome and began playing the Invention as a whole from the beginning, but at a faster tempo than I've ever played it before.  When the LH trills arrived, I was able to play them in tempo, and with a new lightness. My LH definitely felt less clumsy.

I look forward to bringing this kind of conscious attention to my practice today.  I plan to keep the tempo in my comfort zone, and really get into the feel of my LH.

Looks like I've answered my question about whether the tempo barrier I experienced a few days ago was a plateau or a wall. It was neither. It was a door. I just hadn't figured out how to open it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

PLATEAU? OR WALL?

After a little surge in success a couple of days ago, I find myself unable to progress in tempo with the left hand (LH) trills in Bach's Two Part Invention #12.

Normally, this would mean that I'm just on a plateau after a move forward, and I'll soon begin to progress again. People learning all kinds of skills experience plateaus.  And yet I have this nagging thought that I might be approaching the limits of my physical ability to play LH trills.

Could that be true? There has to be a physical limit out there somewhere. Of course there is. There's some speed beyond which I can't possibly play any faster, no matter how much I practice or how much expert instruction I receive.

But how do I tell when I'm approaching that limit?  There are many other pianists who play these trills much more rapidly than I do. That clearly shows that it's humanly possible. And my own RH can play similar trills more rapidly than my LH can. But my RH is my dominant hand. Can my LH ever equal it? Is LH inferiority so thoroughly hard-wired into my physiology that I can never overcome it?  Bach, by writing music that puts stringent and fairly equal demands on the two hands, is challenging me to overcome it .

The only answer that I can come up with is that I'll never know when I'm approaching my physical limit if I let the belief that I am stop me from practicing.

OK then.  I'm going to go for it. I pledge to you, dear readers, that I will practice my LH trills for invention #12 every day for a total of at least 15 minutes (strategically spread out to prevent strain or fatigue) until I progress past this plateau or ... or ... or progress past this plateau. Harrumph!

Friday, October 26, 2012

LEFTWARD HO

For me, the most challenging aspect (among several) of learning Bach's Two Part Invention number 12 has been mastering the four long trills in the left hand (LH). One challenging aspect is coordinating the trills cleanly with the RH part, and another is playing the trills up to performance tempo.

Usually, when I learn a new invention, I begin by learning the two hands separately.  Then at some point I begin to play the two hands together.  After that, I don't play them separately very much anymore.  For number 12, however, even though I've been practicing the two hands together for a few weeks now, I've continued to practice the LH separately, too.  The last few days, I've been practicing the LH separately about half the time.  It has really helped the LH to keep up with the RH, and I've been making good progress.

Yesterday, I experienced a cognitive breakthrough.  All of a sudden, I was able to hear the LH trills very clearly while simultaneously hearing the RH parts equally clearly.  This allowed me to mostly clear up the problem I was having with coordinating the two hands.

I also experienced a physical breakthrough yesterday. I found a new and distinctly palpable level of looseness and relaxation in my LH while playing the trills. This is essential to being able to play them at a faster tempo. I'm still a long way from my tempo goal, but now I have more hope that I'll be able to get there. Someday.

Days like that aren't frequent.  I really hope those breakthroughs carry over into today's practice.

Friday, October 19, 2012

BAD REVIEWS

Lately I've been spending my scant practice time with the Bach Two Part Inventions working mostly on the one I'm currently learning, number 12.

One afternoon about a week ago, however, I decided to review the Inventions I had already learned. To my dismay, I discovered I hadn't learned many of them as well as I thought I had. In spite of long periods of practice working them up to a point of musicality and some level of technical mastery, several of them were in pretty poor shape. I couldn't remember fingerings. I couldn't remember what came next. Glitches reappeared that I thought I had thoroughly ironed out. And on and on.

I felt very discouraged by this and went through about a day of very negative thinking: "Why am I doing this? I'll never by any good. Why bother anyway? I'm in way over my head here. No one will ever want to hear me play any of these pieces. Even I myself don't want to hear me play them. Why don't I just drop the whole thing and go do something that I might have some chance of actually doing well?"

Eventually, after getting it out of my system, I got to a point where I could remind myself that I'm learning these pieces, at least in part, to get myself back to playing the piano with some facility. It's not about playing these pieces perfectly. It's about having a goal, however Quixotic, that gets me to sit down and play and not just let my keyboard skills rust away into oblivion. Getting discouraged and giving up isn't going to further that goal, now is it?

Part of coming to terms with this is realizing that I have to practice more if I want to play better. Half an hour here and there just won't do it. Duh. Part is bearing in mind that some of the Inventions are very challenging for me and I need to be patient with myself. Part is reminding myself that, even if some of the things I learned have since fallen apart, I still gained a lot of dexterity and brain connections from learning them and I could salvage them without a lot of effort. And part is accepting the fact that, at 61, I don't pick things up as quickly or remember things as well as I did when I was 16.

And so I sit down and I practice.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

COGNITIVE PRACTICING

In earlier posts in this blog, I've mentioned that some of the challenges I face at the keyboard are more physical while others are more cognitive.

For example, when I learn a new Bach Two Part Invention, I now typically learn the part for each hand separately and then combine the two parts. Putting the parts together -- keeping track of everything that I learned when practicing the hands separately -- is cognitively challenging for me. This is particularly true in these Inventions, where neither hand is a simple accompaniment for the other. Each hand has a complete life of its own.

It occurred to me yesterday that I could do two things to help me overcome that challenge. One is to go back and practice the hands separately from time to time after I've begun putting them together. I've been neglecting to do that, and I think it would help.

The other is to play one hand alone while mentally focusing on the other hand's part. This is a more purely cognitive type of exercise. In mentally focusing on the part I'm not physically playing -- by training my vision on the written notes, by noticing fingerings, by watching what the part is doing, by keeping track of how the part is interacting with the hand I'm playing aloud, by imagining how the part sounds, or even by singing or whistling the part -- I hope to form a clearer mental image of how the two parts fit together, and therefore to learn the piece more rapidly. Doing this with alternate hands might also make it less likely that I'll fall into my usual habit of focusing on one hand while letting the other go along automatically.

Research has shown that some people have the gift of being able to hear completely separate pieces of music run simultaneously in their heads and keep perfect track of them. Given the multiple simultaneous melodies of Bach's music, I wonder if he had that ability. It's my own lack of such an ability, my own need to focus on one thing at a time, that makes it so challenging for me to put the two parts together. Maybe this kind of cognitive practicing will help me stretch my mental abilities a little bit.

There are several other cognitive practicing techniques (such as carefully studying the score) that I haven't fully taken advantage of. I'm intrigued by the possibilities and plan to explore this area. I believe it would also improve my musical interpretations by giving me a clearer perspective of how all the parts of a piece interact. Of course I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

NEW CONNECTIONS

I'm currently practicing Bach's Two Part Invention #12.  This one puts a different demand on my hands than many of the other ones do.

In many of the inventions, the notes follow each other mostly stepwise, that is, the next note is often right next to the previous note on the keyboard. In #12, the notes are often arpeggiated, that is, the next note is a key or two away from the previous one. An arpeggio is basically the sounding of the notes in a chord in succession rather than simultaneously. For example, the beginning of "The Star Spangled Banner" ("Oh-oh say can you see") is an arpeggio.

There is one arpeggiated passage in the right hand that shifts from one chord to the next in a slightly challenging way.  I was practicing it repeatedly yesterday, and I noticed that the muscles in my fore-arm got tired in a new spot.

Probably I wasn't playing in a sufficiently relaxed way -- I'll be more aware of that in today's practice -- but also I was moving my hand in a slightly different way than I have before, or at least recently. I love those new neural connections.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

OK, SO I DON'T DIGRESS

I was going to practice a Mozart Sonata or two, but I'm so absorbed by Bach's Two Part Inventions, and so eager to complete learning all fifteen of them, that I've hardly touched Mozart.

I'm currently learning the left hand part for Invention #12. Aside from a couple of trills, it's not as challenging for me as I thought it would be. However, I can see that integrating the two hands is going to be difficult, as usual, especially considering the fast tempo.

Well, I try to keep the really dull posts short, so I'll end here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

THREE TO GO

Having worked it up to my target tempo and well beyond that, I've just finished the main work on Bach's Two Part Invention #11. Since I skipped ahead and learned #14 before I learned #11, that leaves only numbers 12, 13, and 15 in my quest to learn them all.

I learned #11 in short sections starting at the end and working toward the beginning. I don't think working backwards gave me any particular benefits, but it was fun, and didn't seem to have any disadvantages, either.  At this point, I've played through the whole piece from start to finish often enough that any differences in familiarity with the various sections caused by the sequence in which I learned it have washed out.

The next Invention, #12, appears to be more challenging than most.  For this one, I plan to bring to bear everything I've learned so far about learning Inventions. First step: Get that left hand happening. I plan to start with any particularly tricky passages, and then work in sections starting from the beginning. If I were really hard core, I'd memorize the left hand part, but I doubt I'll go that far.

Friday, August 10, 2012

BACH BACKWARDS

I learn new Bach Inventions in a couple of ways. Sometimes I learn the hands separately up to tempo and then combine them, starting slowly and bringing the whole up to tempo. Sometimes I tackle segments, starting at the beginning and gradually adding more and more until I can play the whole piece slowly. Then I bring it up to tempo as a whole. And rarely I just plow through the whole thing.

As I embark on learning Two-Part Invention #11, I'm trying something a little different.  I'm learning very small segments of a few measures, starting at the end rather than the beginning, and bringing each segment up to my target tempo before learning the next, or perhaps I should say previous, little segment.

Actually, I didn't really start at the end. I started with the passage in the Invention that looked like it was going to be the most challenging. It's pretty much in the middle, and involves a series of ornaments close together. I began by learning that up to tempo. Then I went to the end and began working backward. So far I've learned two segments at the end.

Since it's a relatively easy Invention and I can learn a short segment up to tempo in one or two brief practice sessions, there's a kind of instant gratification in this approach. But working backward probably won't support as good a musical sense of the piece as working forward does. Or maybe it will give me a new and valuable perspective on it. We'll see.

One reason I chose to work backward this time is that, when I work forward, I sometimes end up knowing the beginning of the piece better than the end simply because I go over it more often. I want to experience things the other way around and see what happens.

Friday, August 3, 2012

I DIGRESS

I declare my main work on Bach's Two Part Invention #14, AKA "The Summer Vacation Invention", to be complete. It now goes into the rotation of occasional review with all the other inventions I've learned so far. Truth be told, my favorites get a lot more review than my less favorites.

I'm now going back to learning the Inventions in order. I have only four left, and #11 is up next. Because of its slow tempo, it's relatively easy. I tried the hands separately today, and I can already play them up to tempo except for some slightly complicated ornaments in the right hand. I haven't worked those out in detail yet, but they don't look like they'll be much of a problem. The main work on this piece will be the cognitive challenges of remembering the fingerings and somewhat unusual accidentals, and putting the two hands together.

I plan to practice Invention #11 a little bit each day, but what I intend to focus on is a Mozart sonata. It'll be a break from so much focus on Bach. I like what playing Mozart does for my hands, and the sonata I want to learn more thoroughly is a favorite of my mom's. So why not a little digression from Johann over to Wolfgang?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

THIS LITTLE PINKY

I've almost completed work on Bach's Two Part Invention #14. Today I was flirting with my target tempo. Tomorrow I'll probably stabilize it at that tempo.

This Invention provides great exercise for the weakest fingers, which are the pinky and ring finger of the non-dominant hand, the left hand in my case. Actually, the pinky is reasonably strong. It's really the connection between the ring finger and its neighbors that causes trouble. The ring finger tends to be weak, and is not as structurally independent of the two adjacent fingers as one would want them to be. For me, it's devilish to play rapidly, loudly, and perfectly evenly in passages that depend heavily on those fingers.

Invention #14 has a repeated 32nd note figure that uses the left hand pinky-ring-middle-ring-pinky in sequence over and over in different locations on the white and black keys. It's a great workout.

One of the biggest battles for a keyboard player is learning to play perfectly regular keys with a hand that apparently evolved for other very different tasks, a hand whose fingers are far from regular, whose fingers all vary in length and strength.

So over and over Invention #14 I go, working out the kinks in those ill-adapted little fingers, kinks which become ever more challenging as the tempo increases, until I say, "OK, good enough. Time to move on."

Friday, July 20, 2012

SKIPPING AHEAD

Now that I've learned Bach's Two Part Invention #10, I'm ready to tackle another one in my quest to learn all 15 of them.

As a matter of discipline, I've been learning them in order to keep myself from postponing the harder ones. However, with my lighter summer practice schedule, I've decided to go ahead and skip to Invention #14, the easiest of the remaining five. It's delightful and not very difficult, with a moderate tempo and no ornaments or tricky fingerings. Having an easy one to learn during the summer will help me to keep up my momentum.

When I'm done with #14, I promise I'll come back to #11. Actually, #11 isn't particularly challenging either, although it'll be more work for me than #14.

Am I copping out? Maybe. But what the heck?  I'm learning some Bach.
THE MOZART EFFECT


By now I've become very familiar with Bach's Two Part Invention #10. Every note and fingering is completely automatic, and the cognitive issues have largely been dealt with. The big issue has been the physical challenge of playing it up to my target tempo, which I've been sneaking up on one beat per minute at a time.

In addition to practicing my Bach Inventions, I've been dabbling in Mozart sonatas lately. Playing Mozart requires a certain fleetness of execution that I can begin to achieve only if I thoroughly relax every muscle in my arms, wrists, hands, and fingers.

This has had a nice effect on my Bach. In the last day or two, I've reached my target tempo for Invention #10 by bringing that completely relaxed Mozart feeling into my Bach playing. I've floated lightly up to the higher tempo by getting more and more relaxed. Taught hands definitely do not move as deftly as relaxed ones.

Of course, my ideal is to play everything with completely relaxed hands, but it takes some awareness for me to maintain a relaxed approach at the keyboard. The immortal Mozart somehow helps me culture that awareness. I have a tendency to slide into the shadows of effort, and then I strain to play loudly or rapidly or clearly. But when I'm a conscious pianist, the relaxation blooms and so does the music.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A SHARPER TOOL

Depending on circumstances, I practice on two different pianos: an 88 key Korg electronic keyboard, and a Yamaha C7 acoustic grand piano.

The Korg has a built-in metronome* that can be set to any number of beats per minute (BPM) and that has a volume control. On the other hand, the old metronome that I was using with the Yamaha could be set only to increments of about four BPM (82, 86, 90, etc.) and had no volume control.

When I'm learning a new piece such as a Bach Invention, I find that, as I approach my target tempo, four BPM can be too big a jump in tempo. It pushes me a little too far too fast at the higher speeds, and I actually progress more slowly than I would with smaller increments. I tried shopping on line for a new metronome for use with the Yamaha, but didn't find anything I liked at a price I was willing to pay.

Last Friday evening I was walking across the Fairfield town square at about 8:30 PM when I happened to notice a light on in the little music store on the east side that's open at random times. I tried the door (the one with the irrelevant sign that says "Open 11:00 - 5:00 Monday through Saturday") and it was unlocked. I entered the chaotic rag and bone shop of a music store.

I found the proprietor behind a teetering stack of sheet music, and told him I was looking for a metronome. On a dark and cluttered shelf, he found a couple with the features that were important to me, opened their boxes and put in their batteries, and let me try them while he sold some guitar strings to a couple of teenaged boys. It really helped to be able to hear the clicks and try out the features myself rather than just read about them on line. I found one that was just right for me, and it was on sale for only twenty bucks. Yay!

Now I have a metronome to use with the Yamaha that gives me features that are more than equal to those of the Korg's metronome.

*A metronome is like a garden gnome, but it's for use in the city.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

STILL PLUGGING AWAY

I've relegated piano practice and blogging to a much lower priority during the summer than it was last winter, but I'm still practicing regularly, if more briefly.

I've almost completed learning Bach's Two Part Invention #10, which I've been working on for many weeks now. I'm approaching my target tempo, and dealing with all the issues that come up as I increase the speed.

By now I've probably spent a lot more time with this piece than Bach ever did. I imagine that he tossed this little work off during an afternoon when he was also doing two or three other things, and then gave it to one of his hyper-talented sons as a plaything that amused him for a little while before he mastered it and turned to something else.

I struggle on.

Friday, May 25, 2012

OLD FRIENDS

This afternoon after my regular practice of the Bach Two Part Inventions, I was playing through some Beethoven piano sonatas that I about half learned in college and haven't played for many years.

They're wonderful pieces. I don't know why I've been away from them for so long. It was like seeing old friends after a long separation and finding that the love is still there. And as with friends, I can't help feeling a twinge of regret at the years of love lost.

Most of the Beethoven sonatas are very challenging but these particular ones are possibly within my grasp if I practice diligently. If I apply the same fervor to them as I have to the inventions, I could make some real progress.

The sonatas are, of course, much bigger compositions than the inventions. I think I'll start with some representative sections of the sonatas and include them in my regular practice sessions alongside the inventions, and work through them section by section over time. Then maybe in a year or two I'll be able to stand to hear myself play them.

Monday, May 7, 2012

SUMMER SCHEDULE

Summer is here, and with it comes a multitude of outdoor projects. I'll keep practicing, but I'll probably blog less often. On days when you don't get a new post from me, just think to yourself, "Brian is probably out gardening or painting a house or building a cellar door or something."
NEW GLASSES

I just realized it's been over two weeks since I posted anything here. I've been practicing, but with some travel interruptions.

Last week, I got new eye glasses. It's the first time I've had bifocals. I'm not sure if I'm going to like them or not, but I'm giving myself a couple of months to adjust before I make any changes.

Although I can read music just fine with these glasses, the keyboard looks strangely distorted when I look down at it. I can can make it look better by tilting my head down, but I don't like to do that for postural reasons. I'll see how things develop, but right now my the keys and my hands look very strange. I find it a little disorienting and distracting.

Friday, April 20, 2012

AN UNUSUAL DAY

I had two practice sessions today.  At the first one, I felt like I was trying to play the piano with flippers instead of hands. I just couldn't seem to get warmed up and fluid. But at the second one a couple of hours later, everything flowed nicely.

This story has no moral. Sometimes things just turn out that way.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

THE ODDEST LITTLE THING

This post is a follow up to yesterday's post where, I'm sure you remember, I discussed how the ornaments slow me down in Invention #10 when I'm playing the piece with both hands.

I discovered the oddest little thing today: the slowing effect is considerably lessened if I play the piece staccato instead of legato. I'm not sure why that would be. Maybe that little extra space between the notes gives me time to get ready to fire off the ornaments.

I plan to practice both staccato and legato and see what happens with those ornaments.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

WAIT! I'M NOT READY!

I've been traveling for a while. Did you miss me? Yeah, I didn't think so.

In Invention #10, there are a number of little ornaments -- mordents and short trills. When I'm playing with one hand alone, I can play them at my target tempo. That shows I can handle them physically. But when I put the hands together, they slow me down.

My subjective experience is that each ornament requires an extra burst of mental preparation and energy. When I'm playing one hand alone, I have enough attention to roll through the ornament. When I'm playing both hands, I don't quite have the cognitive capacity to coordinate the parts in both hands and simultaneously pull off the ornament in tempo.

Hmm. What to do? ... I've got it!  I'll keep practicing!

The answer, I believe, is to practice the two hands together until they're automatic. Then I'll have the required cognitive capacity to focus on the ornaments until they, too, become automatic.

This should be good for developing a whole slew of new neurons. I might even weigh myself before and after. This makes me wonder if there's any way, short of the obvious and unacceptable method, to get the weight of my brain separately from the weight of the rest of my body.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

OASIS

I've had some things on my mind lately, and piano practice is a nice respite from thinking about them. Piano practice is always there. Aside from the occasional day off, there's no decision to make about whether to practice or not. I practice.

If I take things step by step, the skill development aspect isn't so challenging that it's frustrating, but still it's challenging enough to be absorbing. And then there's the music itself. I love getting lost in the intricacies of Bach's delightful Two Part Inventions for an hour every day.

Yep, there are worse ways to forget about the world than playing music.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A FUN LITTLE WAY TO PRACTICE

While practicing Invention #10 with both hands this morning, I did some repetitions playing the right hand legato while playing the left hand staccato, and some the other way around. It's fun, and it helps me to focus alternately on the two hands as I play.

Whenever I mix things up like this -- change the rhythm, change the articulation, change the dynamics -- it's a challenge to my command of the notes that helps to embed them in my neurons from another angle. It helps me remember the notes more clearly, and it leads to a crisper, smoother, more controlled execution.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

PUTTING #10 TOGETHER

I've been learning the two parts of Invention #10 separately, first the left hand (LH) and then the right. In this morning's practice session, I began with a little work with each hand separately, but I spent most of the time putting the two hands together.

Even though I practiced the LH part to the point where I had it mostly memorized, I was surprised to find that a lot of the fingering, and with it many of the notes, I learned for the LH went right out the window when I put the hands together. I had to re-learn the LH fingering in combination with the RH, but it wasn't hard.

Again, I'm left wondering how efficient it is to begin by learning the hands separately, at least for this kind of music. When I begin by learning the hands together, I have little problem playing them separately when I want to.

The experiment continues.

Monday, April 9, 2012

ANY SUGGESTIONS?

On March 6, I pledged to my readers that I would learn the left hand (LH) part of Invention #10 to completion before learning the right hand part or putting the hands together. A few days ago, on April 5, I completed learning the LH part and began learning the RH part. The RH part is coming along fine. It's not up to my target tempo yet, but it's getting there apace.

This morning I began putting the two hands together. I played through the piece very slowly a few times, no metronome, to see where the glitches might be and to get a feel for what metronome tempo I might start with when I go on metronome. It has to be slow enough that I'm not making mistakes. The LH part certainly went smoothly, no doubt about it.

I still wonder, though, if this approach of spending several days learning the LH part alone, and more days learning the RH part alone, takes less time over all or produces a better end result than my typical approach of learning the two parts together to start with and just practicing the hands separately where necessary. I don't know how to do an experiment with that. I can't learn the same piece both ways and compare them.

Any suggestions?


Sunday, April 8, 2012

SHARPENING THE TOOLS

I didn't do a practice session today. My left thumb is much better, but I'm giving it one more day to recover 100%, so I thought I might as well take a little break.

Even though I didn't advance my musical skills today, I did do two things to sharpen my musical tools.  First, I went into the woodshop and made an extension to the music rack on my Korg electronic keyboard, where I do a fair amount of practicing, especially early in the morning when I don't want to disturb my housemate. The built-in music rack can hold a spread of 2 or maybe 3 pages. With my extension, the rack easily holds a spread of 4 pages, which is the maximum length of a Bach Two Part Invention. And second, I fooled around with MIDI for a bit and found a way that I can create a musical score using the MIDI features of the Korg in conjunction with software on my computer.

Tomorrow, it's back to regular practice with a new thumb and new music rack.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

STILL PLAYING WITH ONE HAND TIED BEHIND MY BACK

My left thumb is much better today, but still a bit sore. I'm continuing to spare it.

The good news is that I'm making great headway learning the right hand part of Invention #10 and #11.

Friday, April 6, 2012

I ACTUALLY PLAYED FOR SOMEONE

Most of my playing is in solitude. That's probably generally true for classical pianists. But last evening I had a close friend over for dinner who asked me to play something. Even though I typically don't play in the evening, as evidenced by the fact that I don't even have a lamp by the piano, I obliged my friend and ended up giving a little impromptu recital -- Schumann and Chopin, Bach and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Debussy, with a little lick of Liszt. It felt very good, and I was delighted with the warm reception I got for my efforts.

Playing for an audience, even an audience of one, is a very different experience for me than playing alone. I tend to listen to the music differently, as if through the audience's ears, or how I imagine they might be hearing it. At first, this can disturb my focus because I'm not used to that frame of reference. Everything can begin to sound and feel strangely unfamiliar.  But after a while I adapt to it, and at that point I believe it improves the expressiveness of my playing. I become more intent on putting the music across.

Playing for an audience is also a moment of truth. Can I really play this piece, or am I just kidding myself, just glossing over the rough spots? Each and every single flaw is revealed in all its humble honesty. The audience may not hear them all, but I do. I always end up with a long mental list of passages to work on.

So thanks for listening, my friend. It gave me an opportunity to practice in a way that's difficult for me to do alone. You listen -- to me, to life -- in many wonderful ways. I appreciate it.
HALF PRACTICE

The outside of my left thumb -- the part right along the nail -- has gotten sore over the last day or so. It's tender when I strike a key with that thumb. To give it a chance to heal, I decided not to play anything with my left hand today. We'll see how it is tomorrow.

That didn't entirely shut down practicing though. I was planning to begin working on the right hand part of Invention #10 today anyway, so that's what I did.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

#10: MOVING TO THE NEXT PHASE

A while back, I said that I was working on Invention #10 by learning the left hand part thoroughly before learning the right hand part.

I'm pleased to announce that, as of this morning, the left hand part is up to speed, smooth, relaxed and easy. In fact, I mostly have it memorized. It flows automatically, and I just ride the music. It's a fun little jig tune. The only part that's at all challenging is a lengthy trill, but even that is pretty easy at this point since I've been working on left hand trills in a few of the other Inventions.

Tomorrow, I'm going to begin working on the right hand part.  I don't expect it to take very long to learn. After that, I'll put the two hands together. I expect that to be the toughest phase, but learning the hands separately first is supposed to make that easier. We'll see. I usually learn both hands simultaneously, as a whole.  The separate hand approach is an experiment for me.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

GETTING BACK TO IT

After having had an irregular practice schedule over the previous several days, I've practiced thoroughly for two days in a row now. It feels good. I could definitely see the difference between today's playing and yesterday's. Today's was smoother, more nimble, more up to speed, more effortless.

I'm amazed at how much I begin to slide in just a few days of not practicing. But it's nice to see how quickly I can get back to it, given the support of having practiced very regularly these last three months.

I'm looking forward to hitting the keyboard tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

BACK IN THE SADDLE

This morning, Tuesday, I had a full practice session for the first time in several days. It felt good to be forging ahead again, even if forging ahead consisted mostly of review in this case. I'm currently working on the left hand part of Inventions #9 and #10, and I reduced the tempo a little bit from where I had been two weeks ago. It seemed best to back up a little and take a fresh run at them. In fact, a trill in #10 was sluggish this morning. I don't think I could have played it at the previous tempo. I'll have to work up to that tempo again. I also had a nice session of exercises, scales, and arpeggios to get my fingers limbered up again.
MUSIC TO GO

Although I've been traveling a lot over the last week and have been away from a keyboard, I've still been in contact with my music studies all along. I have recordings of the Inventions on my iPod which I listened to closely and learned a lot from while I was driving. And when I stopped for a meal or a night in a motel, I boned up on my music theory using a book I got recently.

I also got to hear two very fine live performances.  I heard my friend Spencer Myer give a wonderful piano recital in Knoxville, TN, and I heard the celebrated violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman play in Lincoln, NE. I learned a lot about music just from listening to these two professional musicians display their artistry. How many hours of practice did it take them to get where they are?
INSTEAD OF PRACTICING, A NEW TOOL

I got back into town late Sunday, but instead of practicing on Monday, I fooled around with some new recording equipment I just got.

It's been a while since I've been able to record myself. It'll be a great tool as I refine my renditions of things I'm working on.

And who knows? Maybe you, dear reader, will get to hear a sample of what I've been talking about all these weeks.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW

Because of travel, I've missed practicing the last few days, and I'm going to miss some more practice because I'm going to be traveling over the weekend.

But I practiced today, at least. Laying Bach aside for the day, I devoted an hour, all of my practice time, just to scales, arpeggios, and exercises. It felt really good. I haven't practiced any exercises from the Hanon exercise book for a while, and while playing them, I noticed that my left hand felt more relaxed and agile than before. I attribute that to learning the Bach Two Part Inventions. Playing Bach is a great way to gain technical skill while enjoying some brilliant music.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

OFF DAY

I seem to be having an off day, as opposed to a day off. Nothing is clicking at the keyboard. I'm stumbling over things I could play just fine yesterday.

I think we probably all have days like this. Who knows why? I'm well rested today; a little distracted by some things on my mind, maybe, but not much more than usual.

Well, as Scarlet O'Hara said at the end of Gone With the Wind, "Tomorrow is another day."  By the way, when she said that after dragging me through the burning of Atlanta, the Civil War, and all, I thought "This is what it comes down to? This cliché is the conclusion of the movie?  I want my money back! I want the last three hours of my life back!"

But at this point, what else can I do but try again tomorrow?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

SO THERE

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm thoroughly learning Bach's Two Part Invention #10 with the left hand before I add the right hand. That's going great. I'm almost up to my target tempo. I'll have more to say about my experience with that in a separate post.

In this morning's practice session, I began to learn Invention #11 with the left hand only. It looks like one of the easier inventions given its slower tempo and lack of things that I find especially challenging. Now I'm working on two Inventions with the left hand only.

Usually I progress pretty far with one Invention before beginning to learn the next, but I'll be working on #11 concurrently with #10, mainly because I just feel like it. So there.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

SIMULTANEITY PART 3

Today I tried out the strategy that I planned yesterday, and I had mixed results. It helps quite a lot when my hands are close together, but it doesn't help as much when my hands are far off toward the high end of the keyboard.  The latter problem is definitely a left hand thing.  For that, I think I'll work at the margin of where the problem begins and see if I can improve that area, then keep working my way higher. I'll probably experiment a bit with the position of my left hand relative to the keyboard and see if that helps.

Well, unless there's a breakthrough tomorrow, that's probably the end of this little series for now. I may get back to it later and report how my strategy for dealing with the high end of the keyboard is going, but I think that'll take a while to bear fruit.

[This post is a follow-up to the two previous posts.]

Monday, March 19, 2012

SIMULTANEITY PART 2

I have an idea of what my problem might be.

Rhythm -- and simultaneity, which is a part of rhythm -- is a body thing. When I'm playing smoothly, there is a pulse of rhythm that goes down through the whole arm and is transmitted to the keys through the fingers.

I think my hand positions in the troublesome cases somehow interfere with the feel of that rhythmic pulse, particularly in my left hand. If that's so, then aligning my hands to achieve good simultaneity involves feeling the free and equal flow of that rhythmic pulse.

I'm going to see what I can do with that theory during tomorrow's practice session. My plan is to grossly exaggerate the accenting, i.e, the rhythmic pulse, of the scales as I play them and see if that brings my hands into alignment. If it does, then I can gradually refine it until the simultaneity sounds good with normal accenting. I'll practice in both duple and triple meters to get different patterns of accents.

I'll let you know how it goes.

[This post is a follow-up to the preceding post entitled SIMULTANEITY.]

Saturday, March 17, 2012

SIMULTANEITY

One of the benefits of playing scales is learning to strike the keys with both hands with perfect simultaneity. I seem to have a problem with simultaneity in two situations.

First, I've always had a problem with simultaneity when my hands are close together. Recently when I began practicing scales in thirds (3 notes apart), the problem came out clearly. I don't know what causes this problem. Must be something in the motion of my hands when they're right next to each other.

Second, I have a simultaneity problem when I play with both hands in the far right part of the keyboard. I think my left hand is the culprit in this case. It doesn't like the angle it has to get into to reach all the way up there, and it gets a little sloppy.

In both cases, the fix is the same as always: Practice with a metronome, start slowly enough to get it right, then gradually increase the tempo while keeping it perfect.  If it starts to get rough, reduce the tempo and practice until smooth again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If I carefully practice scales in thirds this way, and go all the way up the keyboard, I'm sure I'll be able to iron out yet another wrinkle in my keyboard technique.

All it takes is work applied over time.

Friday, March 16, 2012

AM I ALLOWED TO SAY THIS?

Well, I've tried. I've basically learned the notes, I've listened carefully to three fine pianists play it, and I still don't get Invention #5. To me, it rambles on too long without any significant thematic variation. Let's face it. Bach can get a little obsessive from time to time.

Since I don't enjoy the piece, I'm going to leave off practicing it even though I haven't fully learned it. I may play through it from time to time for the exercise and to see if my feelings have changed, but it's no longer on my regular practice plan.

I said I was going to learn all of the inventions, but I'm letting myself off the hook on this one. I just don't like it. There. I said it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

THREE TAKES ON THE INVENTIONS

I've now listened to my three recordings of the inventions a few times and I'm ready to say a few words about them. The three recordings are by Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, and Andras Schiff, and they could hardly be more different from each other in their musical styles.

Gould's renditions are skeletal. He reveals the bare bones of the structure of each invention, shines a bright light across the counterpoint that throws it into sharp black-and-white relief, displays little interest in sensuality. His playing is elemental, inevitable, compelling. It is also sometimes a little tiring to listen to. I like it in moderate doses.

Hewitt's renditions are zesty. She plays with bright energy, and doesn't shy away from big dynamic contrasts. She carries me along engagingly, and provides occasional surprises that make me smile. She does sometimes have a tendency to play with too much one-sided emphasis on the right hand, making the music a little more like a melody with an accompaniment and a little less contrapuntal. But that's a minor quibble about some very enjoyable performances.

Schiff's renditions are sumptuous. He plays with a lot of texture, with more rubato than the others, with more florid ornamentation, with richness. All in all, his playing is the most romantic, and in this he is at the opposite pole from Gould. His playing radiates warmth.

So which is my favorite? I was afraid you'd ask that. Having heard them all, I wouldn't want to do without any of them. They all illuminate these kaleidoscopic works in their own way. I know I'll listen to different ones at different times depending on my mood.

BRIAN GETS HIS GROOVE BACK

My practice and blogging have been disrupted by travel, but I think I'm going to be able to get back in the groove now.

I'm sure you've missed me, dear readers.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC

Even though I've had the recordings of the Bach Two Part Inventions for 10 days now, I haven't yet listened to them. However, I'll have some leisure over the next couple of days, and I'll listen to them then. Of course, I could easily have made the time to listen to them before now. I've just been putting it off so I can continue to be in denial about the quality of my own renditions for a little bit longer.

My intent is to listen only to the nine Inventions that I've learned so far. As for the other six, I want to approach them with a fresh ear and see what I can make of them on my own before I listen to what others do with them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

BREAK OUT THE CHAMPAGNE

I reached a milestone this morning when I got all the technical aspects of Invention #9 working smoothly at my target tempo.

It's not done yet, though. I'm still refining the musical aspects of it. In this piece, phrasing is everything. The left and right hands are singing the same song but starting at different times. It's like "Row Row Row Your Boat", but quite a bit more sophisticated. Each hand has to have its own independent expressive integrity, and also sing in harmony with the other hand. It won't be done until I have that working the way I want it.

Who am I kidding? A piece like this is never done. All I can do is get it to a point where I might think about playing it for someone. My understanding of it and my ability to play it will continue to evolve for as long as I continue to play the piece. It's fun to mark a milestone, though.

Here's to Johann! Here's to art! Clink!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A MASTER PRACTICING

Glenn Gould is world famous among classical music lovers for his electrifying and often controversial interpretations of Bach. They're powerful, with crystal clear counterpoint and sometimes super-humanly fast tempos.

I was very sad when, barely 50 years old, he died suddenly in 1982 without finishing the recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas he was working on at the time. In the same vivid way I remember the Kennedy assassination, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard of Gould's death.

Here's a video of Gould practicing. He stops, restarts, sings along loudly, goes back over certain passages, steps away from the keyboard and rehearses mentally, works with one hand alone, and so on.  In the last third of this brief recording, he displays his stupefying power at the keyboard.

He's so young in this video that I cried the first time I saw it: for what might have been had he lived longer, and because I missed someone I never met who nevertheless felt like a friend.

Glenn Gould in his youth

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

PRACTICING BACKWARDS

The title may have led you to imagine me playing the notes in reverse order or maybe sitting with my back to the keyboard and reaching behind myself to strike the keys, but the actual topic of this post is nothing as interesting as that. I'm guilty of using a provocative title to entice you to read this far. It's not the first time I've done that, nor will it be the last. You may flee now if you wish.

When I practice, I have a plan in mind, often written down. There's a new piece to learn, pieces that are nearing completion to finish up, and some more or less familiar pieces that I want to review and keep current. I generally start with a warm-up consisting of scales, arpeggios, and exercises -- sort of like jumping jacks and stretches for the fingers -- then move from one piece to the next in some order.

I realized this morning that over the last week or so, I've been in a rut. Every day, I've done the review pieces first, then the pieces that I'm finishing up, and then the new piece. So, I reversed the order of the pieces and started with the new piece first.

During a session, I experience a natural arc of physically loosening and warming up and mentally developing focus, followed by a period of peak efficiency, followed eventually by a gradual tiring and loss of focus. My focus nearly always deteriorates well before I get to the point of being physically tired. Because I mostly play in a physically relaxed way, I don't usually get tired unless I repeat the same challenging and physically demanding passage too much. I find I can refresh my focus to some degree by shifting between familiar and unfamiliar music, and by just taking a break, having a drink of water, and moving around a little bit.

Because of this arc, I think that where in the practice session I work on a piece may make a difference. Also, memory studies have shown that, when we're learning new material, we tend to remember the last things we learned more clearly than the earlier things we learned. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But that doesn't matter. The point is that, whatever the positional effects are, it may be beneficial to practice backwards sometimes so that different pieces fall in different areas of the arc on different days.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

YOUR ASSISTANCE PLEASE

I've started learning Invention #10. It's going to be challenging but fun. It's a rollicking jig, or gigue, as they tend to spell it for music from Bach's time and place.

My plan is to learn the left hand part alone before learning the right hand part, as my composer/pianist friend Kathleen Ryan recommends. In many pieces of music, the left hand alone isn't much to listen to, but in this piece, as well as in many others by Bach, the left hand part is interesting and entertaining all by itself.

I've never before learned the left hand part of a new piece to completion before beginning to learn the right hand part. I want to have the experience and see how it works out for me. It'll take some discipline on my part not to yield to the temptation to put it all together prematurely, so I'm going to lean on you for help.

My pledge to you, dear readers, is that, before I start work on the right hand part, I will practice the left hand part alone until I can play it fluidly at my target tempo.

I will submit to your disapprobation if I break my pledge. Of course, I'll be sure to tell you if I break it. I'm an honest blogger, as I'm sure all bloggers are

Sunday, March 4, 2012

FEEDING THE DOG

I was in a lousy mood this morning, no doubt about it. I didn't feel like doing much of anything at all, let alone anything as focused and organized as practicing.

But, I sat down and played anyway. I had a day off recently, and it was too soon to take another day off.  Taking a day off here and there is a good thing, but starting to take too many days off is a slippery slope that leads to deconditioning, discouragement, and giving up practicing. I've only recently clawed my way back up that slope. I'm determined not to let myself slide back down it any time soon.

My hands don't care what kind of mood I'm in. They need their exercise regularly. It's like having a dog that needs to be fed no matter what. You can't say, "Sorry, Fido. You'll just have to go hungry. I don't feel like getting your food for you."

So on a day like this, I sit down at the keyboard whether I feel like it or not. My hands need me. I may not hurl myself against my most difficult challenges, though. Instead, I may turn to the comfort food of piano practice: old familiar pieces that come easily.  If I start with those, I often find my mood improving, and then I become eager to tackle a challenge.

That didn't work today, though. Grrrr.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

RESCALING

Well, I've finally gotten around to something I'd been putting off: exploring my new book of scales and arpeggios.

I've started practicing some of the easier scales in 3rds, 6ths, and 10ths instead of just octaves. And I've started playing the easier arpeggios in different inversions. I'll work up to the harder ones over time.These are supposed to be good for the foundations of my technique. At the least, they're fun to play and a great warm-up.
THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES

After a day off, I found that my left hand could play a tricky trill in Invention #7 a little better than before. I had been practicing that trill on a daily basis before the break. I think there's some kind of consolidation that goes on in the nervous system during a break. Of course, if the break is too long, what got consolidated at the start of the break has faded by the end of it. Better not to be away from the keyboard for more than a day or so.

Friday, March 2, 2012

I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT

Well, my canned teachers (see previous post) arrived yesterday.  I've unwrapped the CDs, but I haven't listened to them yet. Truth is, I'm afraid to. I know it'll be devastating to my morale. I'm going to hear three stellar pianists take pieces that I've been struggling with for weeks and months and make them sound both beautiful and easy. I'm going to think, "I can't do this. Why bother? I wonder what's on TV."

This is a phenomenon we all have to face. One of my close friends, a writer, has observed how tough writing is for him given the existence of Shakespeare.  Even the great composer Johannes Brahms remarked how difficult it was for him to write a symphony "with him looking over my shoulder", and by "him" he meant Beethoven. Unless you're Bach or Shakespeare or Michelangelo -- or delusional -- there's always someone who can do whatever you're doing far better than you can. In my case, it's not just someone, it's countless thousands of someones. Sigh.

I have to step back and remind myself that, in contradiction to occasional flights of fancy, I'm not doing this to become an excellent pianist. Are you surprised to hear that, dear reader? I'm doing this for self development, and for the sheer joy of the music itself. I can fully reap those rewards only if I get out there and give it my all.

I think I'll take a day off from the keyboard today.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

TEACHERS IN A CAN

I suppose it's inevitable that, when I'm learning a series of 15 pieces like the Bach Two Part Inventions, there will be a few that I don't like as well as the others.  Of the first 10, numbers 2 and 5 are the black sheep for me.  The fact is that I can play their notes, but I just don't quite know what to do with them musically.

Let's assume for the moment that the lack of musical imagination in this instance is mine and not that of one of the towering musical geniuses in western civilization. What to do?  Well, since I don't have a fresh teacher to guide me*, why not open a can of teacher?

I've ordered three recordings of the Inventions from Amazon.com: one by Glenn Gould, one by Angela Hewitt, and one by András Schiff. I expect my canned teachers will arrive soon, maybe today or tomorrow.

My hope is that these three very different views of the inventions will stimulate my musical imagination, and will inspire me not only to find the music in the Inventions I don't yet grok but also to find new perspectives on my favorites.

[A big shout out to my good friend Barney for his guidance on which recordings to get.]

*Having a teacher is a whole topic in itself which I intend to address one of these days.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

MY DREAM

I love the Bach Inventions that I'm learning, and they're great for helping me to re-establish my skills after too many years of not practicing regularly, but they're small, fingery pieces.  My hands generally stay close to the keys and move deliberately from one position to the next.

Yes, they're beautiful, and yes, they're good for me, but I dream of playing the big pieces again, pieces free from the constraints of 18th century harpsichord-rooted keyboard style, virtuosic pieces where my hands dance and fly over the keys. I dream of feeling like a real pianist.

Decades ago, when I was too young to know they were completely over my head, I learned a couple of Rachmaninoff preludes. Big chunks of them are still in my muscle memory.  One of these days when I work up to it and I'm feeling really fit at the keyboard, I'm going to return to those Rachmaninoff preludes of my youth and see what I can do with them in my maturity.

I don't know how far I'll get, but I know that however far that turns out to be, I won't regret giving it my best shot. Better that than not trying.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

WHERE AM I?

I've set out to learn all 15 of Bach's Two Part Inventions. So far I've learned the notes for 9 of them, but different ones are in different conditions.  It's time to take stock of where I am.

Numbers 2 and 5 have fallen into neglect like abandoned buildings.  They're not my favorites, and I haven't been maintaining them. I really should repair them before they collapse.

Numbers 1, 4, 6, and 8 are in pretty good shape.  I'm making music with them and refining the way I play them.  Number 3 isn't far behind that group.

Numbers 7 and 9 are nearly where I want them as far as learning the notes goes, and I'm about ready to begin seriously honing and refining their musical aspects.

The bottom line: 7 coming along well, 2 in serious need of repair.

I think I'll begin learning number 10 soon.  I feel the siren song of new territory.  Maybe tomorrow. It's going to be a challenging one.  Maybe I'll begin working on some of the tough spots in the background while I review numbers 2 and 5.

Monday, February 27, 2012

NEW DIMENSION

Today I downloaded Finale Notebook, free software for creating music scores and printing them out.

I used it to write down a little composition I made for my music students.  I called the composition "Invention 1.0".  It's written more-or-less in the style of the Bach Two Part Inventions that I've been practicing so diligently for the last two months, but it's highly simplified so as to be accessible to a beginner at the keyboard.

So much of the music for early beginners isn't very interesting.  I tried to write something that had some musical structure and interest even though it uses only the five notes of the basic hand position, plus a leading tone at the end to wrap it up with a good satisfying cadence.

I tried it out on a student today and it went very well. He seemed to like it, and it was at the right level for him -- a little bit challenging, but well within reach given some practice.  I used it as an opportunity to help him get well grounded in the steps for learning a new piece, which I think I discussed in an earlier post.

I'm really excited to be composing again, even if it's only 16 bars of very simple counterpoint. I look forward to writing more things for my students.

Hmm... Now that I think about it, I got so excited that I never got around to trying out that new book of scales and arpeggios I just got.  Tomorrow.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

SCALING THE HEIGHTS

I typically begin at least my first practice session of the day by playing some scales and arpeggios. It gets all of my fingers moving and warming up, helps me with the eternal quest, which all pianists face, to play evenly with fingers that are all different lengths and strengths, and eases me into the session mentally with something familiar.

But I realized the other day that I have a number of significant gaps in my practice of scales.  I only recently began playing them in contrary motion after making my piano students play them in both parallel and contrary motion.  I don't play the minor keys. I play with the hands only an octave or two octaves apart and never in 3rds or 6ths apart.  And so on.

Well, it's time to get serious about scales, isn't it?  I ordered a complete book of scales, arpeggios, and cadences in all the keys, and it arrived yesterday.  I'm going to get right on it!

Tomorrow.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

AN EMERGENCY

If you've been following this blog, you know I've been working on a challenging left hand trill in Bach's Two Part Invention #7.  I practice it a little bit every day. I'm living with it, making it part of my life, part of my body.

This morning I realized that, at some point, I slipped past a threshold with it.  It no longer feels like an emergency when I play it.  It no longer saps every particle of my awareness just to be able to get through it physically.  I'm relaxing into it more and more as it becomes a routine that's solidly in my physiology.  I'm able to turn the passage it into music now, maybe shape the little melody going on in the right hand, or grow the trill louder or softer.

It makes me think of a lot of the difficult passages in things I've played over the years.  Many have felt like an emergency to me.  They take so much attention to play that I don't have any awareness left over to turn them into music.

The only answer, the always answer:  more practice.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

THERE'S RETENTION AND THERE'S RETENTION

Today, I went back and reviewed Bach's Two Part Invention #2.  It's been weeks since I revisited it.  Truth be told, it's not my favorite and I've been neglecting it.

I was dismayed to discover the extent to which I had forgotten it.  I was very rusty on the fingerings and on the details of how it goes.  It'll take a bit of refurbishing to get it back up to the shape it was in when I last practiced it actively.

One thing that I didn't lose, however, was my facility in playing a little ornament with my left hand.  I developed that facility while practicing #2, and it's just as crisp today as it was weeks ago. (See the entry "Brian Grows a Neuron", posted February 12, 2012, and covering an experience from January 11.)

This got me to pondering the difference between retaining the physical skill of playing the ornament, and retaining the memory of the details of the piece.  Memory, as a cognitive skill, is more plastic, more brain-based. It comes and goes. But somehow the physical skill is more deeply ingrained in my body and, perhaps, in my peripheral nervous system.

Having once learned the piece, I know that it will be far easier for me to learn it again than it was for me to learn it the first time.  Much of it is still in there, and I can re-build on that.

Well, that's it for blogging today. Gotta run. Now, what was it I was going to do next....

Monday, February 20, 2012

LET'S GET WITH IT, RH

In running through Invention #7 this morning, the one where I'm learning a challenging left hand (LH) trill, I found that I could play the LH trill better than the RH one.  Ha!  I've focused so much on the LH trill that the RH trill has fallen behind.  That's very unusual for me, and kinda fun.  But I was able to get the RH trill up to snuff in a few minutes.

Good old RH! You'll always be my dominant hand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

PURE PLEASURE

I sat down at the piano "just for a few minutes" to do a "quick" run-through of Invention #9.

Before I knew it, more than an hour had gone past and I had played everything from Bach Inventions to a Chopin Nocturne to "Bridge Over Troubled Waters".  I was lost in the pleasures of music.

I'm so happy that I decided to go back to practicing regularly.  I can play again!  Hooray!
SHAKING IT UP

Bach's Two Part Invention #9, which I'm currently learning, has lots of groups of 16th notes.  This morning, I varied the rhythm during several run-throughs by making those into dotted rhythms.  That is, for every two 16th notes, I'd play a dotted 16th note and a 32nd note. This was purely for the purpose of practice, of course.  I wouldn't ordinarily play it that way, and I certainly would never perform it that way.

It changed the character of the piece from melancholy and flowing to robust and almost militant.  I enjoyed experiencing an alternate expressive universe buried in there. It challenged my routine way of playing it, exposed a few spots where I wasn't completely on top of the fingering, and made me hear it afresh when I went back to playing it as written.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

WHOLES AND PARTS

Yesterday, composer/pianist Kathleen Ryan  ran across this blog (after I sent her a link to it) and did me the great favor of commenting on it. For example, see her comment and my reply to the post "Well, it's been nearly two weeks..." from 2/12/2012. I'm very pleased and grateful to have guidance from a trained professional musician like Kathleen.

One of Kathleen's recommendations is to practice the left hand alone until I have it down pat before practicing both hands together.  Now, I'm generally a "play it as a whole" sort of guy. I enjoy hearing a piece as a whole, and I think it's a valuable way for me to get into the musical qualities of a piece. But I have a great deal of respect for Kathleen's skills at the keyboard, and I decided to try out her recommendation on Bach Two Part Invention #9, which I'm currently learning.

In this particular piece, I found it quite easy to learn the left hand part alone.  Within 15 minutes, I was playing it smoothly and musically at full speed. (I had a tendency to sing along.)  It turns out that Invention #9 just isn't that physically challenging for my left hand.  So, I'm not sure how much I got out of this little exercise other than making the left hand fingerings more automatic, although that in itself is no small benefit.  I can see, however, that learning the left hand alone to a good degree of completion will be very valuable for Invention #10, which promises to be considerably more physically challenging for my left hand than #9.

The biggest initial learning challenge for me in #9 is the cognitive challenge of putting the two hands together.  They intertwine in lovely and intricate ways, and it's taking me a bit of work to get it all sorted out.  In the end, I'm right back to playing the whole, which is where I was yesterday.

And what a lovely whole it is.  The piece, in F minor, is rather melancholy but very flowing. I take pleasure in practicing the hands together even at a very slow tempo.

I do, of course, stop off along the way to isolate and work on particular passages, but I soon integrate them back into the whole.

I suppose my conclusion from all this is that there are lots of approaches to learning a piece, and I can apply them flexibly as the need arises.


Friday, February 17, 2012

TEMPTATION

"I can resist everything except temptation."  -- Oscar Wilde, in Lady Windermere's Fan

I practiced the left hand trill in Invention #7, and all of Invention #9 this morning.  For the trill, I'm sitting back a little from my edge, from my maximum speed, until the trill is completely smooth, relaxed, automatic, and natural at this speed.  Only then do I plan to increase the speed again.  At least that's the plan.  The temptation to push ahead is huge.

Invention #9 is requiring my maximum patience, too.  I'm determined to play it at half speed until everything is completely automatic.  Yes, if I had boosted the speed a little bit this morning, I could have kept up, but it would have been a little rushed.  I know that I'm laying the foundation for mastery of the piece right now, in these slow and (not always) patient hours.  Once I've invested in making it 100% automatic and easy at this speed, it will be easy to boost the speed a little every day, and the dividends will begin to roll in faster and faster.

I find it's easier to resist the temptation to push ahead too fast if I intersperse the intense practice sessions with playing purely for pleasure.  This morning, I went back to Invention #6, a sprightly dance that I can play at full tempo.  What a delight!  It reminded me of the rewards patience will bring me.
AGING AND PRACTICING

My thirty-something concert pianist friend Spencer Myer once told me that he was advised to memorize all the music he could while young because it gets harder and harder to memorize anything as one grows older.

That's certainly been my experience.  When I was in my teens, merely practicing a piece to a finished state was enough to lodge it in my memory, and many of those pieces are still in there.  But nowadays, north of 60, I have to work harder than ever just to become familiar with a piece, let alone memorize it.  Working on Bach's Two Part Inventions has certainly shown me that.

I could think, "I'm too old to learn all these new pieces."  But I prefer to think, "This is the youngest I'll ever be. Now is the time."

And music helps to keep me young.  It certainly seems to work for this 108 year old, who still practices every day.  If she can do it, I can do it.

[Here's a hearty shout out to Nathaniel for sending me the link to the video of Alice Herz Sommer.]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

SPACED OUT

Instead of one practice session of 60 to 90 minutes, I spaced today's practice out into a number of 10 or 15 minute sessions. Given what I was doing today, that helps to prevent both fatigue and boredom.

I began the day by warming up with the usual scales and arpeggios, and then attacked the left hand trill in Invention #7.

I practiced the trill in segments of increasing length.  The trill lasts 9 full beats, which feels like a month when I'm playing it.  I played it, left hand alone and then with the right hand, for one beat, then two beats, then three beats, and so on.  That really seemed to help me to play it crisply and in tempo. No increase in tempo today -- still working on getting it to be totally easy at the current tempo. Practicing the trill is intense and so short bursts of practice keep from tightening up.

For Invention #9, which I just started to learn yesterday, I ran through each hand alone, worked separately on the ornaments in the middle and at the end, and then began putting the whole thing together at about half my target tempo.  It's not a fast piece to begin with, so half tempo is quite slow.  Doing several short practices prevents boredom, and helps me to resist the temptation to start off playing it too fast or to increase the tempo prematurely.  "Allen" commented on February 13 that it's important to go slowly enough to avoid mistakes. That way, there are fewer mistakes to correct later because you prevent wrong pathways from ever appearing to begin with.

I think I'll go practice a little bit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NUMBER 9...NUMBER 9...

While I'm climbing Mt. Everest (see previous post), I might as well learn another Invention.  Why not? I become tired and bored if all I do is work on the trill in # 7.  Since I learned number 8 early on, number 9 is next up.  I did a practice on the slopes of Mt. Everest earlier today.  On the run-up to lunch, I luxuriated in the lowlands of Invention 9 for a little while.

To start this new piece, I began by just looking over the score.  What key is it in?  What's its meter?  What's the melodic theme and where does it appear? Are there recurring rhythmic figures? What's its general pace and feeling? Are there any spots that look like they'll be particularly challenging?  Over all, it didn't look bad, maybe a tricky fingering here and there, but there's one rather complicated series of ornaments in the right hand that's going to take a little ironing out.

Before playing any other part of the piece, I figured out all the notes for those ornaments -- thank goodness for the editor who spelled it all out -- and played them through several times, right hand alone, and then several times very slowly with both hands to get everything lined up properly.

After I was satisfied with that, I ran through the entire piece slowly with the right hand alone and worked out any hitches in the fingering, marking the score in pencil.  Then I did the same with the left hand.  Then I repeated the left hand run-through, and focused on a couple of spots where the fingering isn't obvious.  And that was it for today.


The series of ornaments. The editor has provided two ways to play them. I'll try the harder (top) way and see how it goes.
MOUNT EVEREST

OK, the left hand trill in Bach's Two Part Invention #7 might not be my Mt. Everest.  A Rachmaninoff piano concerto would be more like Mt. Everest for me in that I'm pretty certain I'll never master either one.  But I'm beginning to wonder if this trill will end up being just as intractable.  Well, I'll never know until I give it my best shot.

I think it's time to bring out my ultimate secret weapon: persistence. Patient day in and day out persistence. Up until now, I've been pushing that metronome setting upward at a fairly steady pace. But I'm on a plateau now, and I'm having trouble pushing past the current level.  Today, I slowed it down a bit, backed off my edge just a bit.  My plan is to practice the trill at this speed until it is super easy, super automatic, super relaxed before I take it up a notch. Patience. Persistence.

I'm currently at about two thirds of my target tempo. I feel confident I can bring Invention #7 as a whole up to that target. On the whole, it isn't that tough for me. It's just that triplet trill that's killing me. Am I up against an insurmountable physical limitation in my abilities? Will I have to capitulate and simplify the trill to get the piece up to my target tempo? Or will I eventually get to the top of the mountain?  We'll see.  But only if I can maintain my persistence in the face of self doubt.


A fragment of the music showing the trill in the left hand. The little inset below the staff shows how the trill is to be played on the whole note B.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A DAY OFF

I'm taking a day off from intense practice today.  I'll probably stop by the piano from time to time and play a little something just for fun.  But no metronome, no focus.

I find that the breaks in between the practice sessions are just as important as the practice sessions.  In particular, a good night's sleep can really help the brain consolidate what it's learned. Many times I've found that something that was challenging one day became easy the next day, after a night's rest.

Rest, nutritious food, exercise, sobriety -- all of these things support the process of honing a skill.  A skill is stored in the body, particularly in the brain.  Those have to be in shape or the skill is dulled.

Of course, all break and no practice leaves nothing to consolidate.  The rest has meaning only in relationship to the activity.  I find that a one day break can be beneficial, but I begin to decondition after a two day break.

See you tomorrow, Johann.

Monday, February 13, 2012

HOW I GOT STARTED BLOGGING ABOUT PIANO PRACTICE

I was in a downward spiral of not practicing.  Because I hadn't been practicing, I wasn't playing well.  Because I wasn't playing well, I didn't want to practice. And so on. I knew if I didn't pull out of the tail spin, I would crash and burn, destroying over half a century of playing the piano.

I got started with the blog after I declared to my men's group that I was going to practice for a minimum of one hour per day for five days. I was leaning on my group to help me re-establish the practice habit. I knew that, if I just practiced it would soon get better, no matter how unsatisfying it might be at first.  One of the members of the group volunteered to support me by reading my daily practice reports via email.  I ended up enjoying writing the reports so much that I continued writing well beyond the five days to which I had committed. Yesterday, I finally got around to putting it all into a real blog so I could open it up to my friends and students and anyone else interested in the topic. And here we are.

And who knows?  Maybe some experienced pianists will find it, take pity on me, and give me some valuable guidance.
FEELING THE TRILL

Rhythm is in the body. It's dance, heartbeat, waves, little vibrations. This morning I played around with feeling that rolling motion in the left hand trill in Two Part invention #7.  I realized that I had become so focused (yeah, I over focus) on synchronizing the primary accent on the upper note of every other triplet with the click of the metronome that I wasn't feeling the secondary accent on the lower note of every other triplet.

OK, that last sentence needs some explanation. Here's the basic pattern of the trill, the smallest unit into which it can be broken down:  cbcbcb. That's two triplets: cbc bcb.  To get the feel of it rhythmically, there has to be an accent (emphasis) on the very first note of the pattern, and that accent is synchronized with the beat of the music, the metronome click: Cbc bcb.  And there also has to be a lesser accent on the lower note, the first note of the second triplet: Cbc Bcb. 

DAH da da DAH da da.  Feel it?  It rolls when I'm feeling both accents -- really feeling them in my body.

I'm playing the trill with the index finger and middle finger of my left hand, or fingers 2 and 3 in the convention pianists use to number the fingers (the thumb is 1, the pinky is 5). To play the trill in a relaxed way, I have to allow my forearm to rotate loosely at the elbow.  It's in this motion that I feel -- or don't feel -- the rocking and rolling accents of the trill.

Maybe I should rename the blog "The Obsessed Pianist".

A Yeats poem comes to mind: The Fascination of What's Difficult

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Well, it's nearly two weeks since my last post, and I'm still working on Invention #7, the one that I thought wouldn't be too tough to learn. Ha! Most of it is actually coming along just fine. The sticking point is, of course, that killer trill in the left hand.  I haven't yet given in to the temptation to simplify it.  I'm getting too much out of working on it, both physically and psychologically.

I've cut my practice time almost in half because of some physical issues in my left arm and elbow.  I don't think they're caused by playing the piano, but I do feel them sometimes when I play, particularly if I tense up.  I hope that shorter practice periods will help me to avoid aggravating the problems.

Since the end of January, I've increased the metronome speed by around 40%, a satisfying amount of progress, but every bit of that progress has been hard won.  Now I'm working with a mixture of physical and cognitive challenges.

I'm ironing out the physical problems by sheer repetition.  If I can play the trill at tempo X, I try it at tempo X+1.  If that breaks down, I repeat tempo X until it becomes very easy, until I find myself maybe wanting to rush it. Then I try tempo X+1 again.  It usually flies at that point, but maybe just barely.  I have to practice it in and stabilize it.

The cognitive challenge at this speed is getting the accents to fall in the right places.  The trill is a series of triplets.  It has a sort of rolling feel to it.  I find if I'm too stiff and rigid about bringing out the triplets, that is, about accenting the notes so that they're heard as triplets, it slows me down.  I have to let go and just feel the rolling movement, and then it comes together.

I've brought out my feeble arsenal of practice tricks. I'm playing the left hand alone and with the right hand.  I'm playing loudly and softly.  I'm playing the trill in sections (e.g., every other beat) and all the way through.  I'm going to the piano at odd moments throughout the day and practicing the trill briefly (frequent short practices with rest in between can be very helpful). Hmm...  What other practice tricks could I employ?  Specifically, what would help me get into the zone of feeling that rolling motion?




BREAKTHROUGH

Well, if yesterday was a breakDOWN day, today was a breakTHROUGH day.

In Invention #7, I've run up hard against a trill in the left hand. I've reached the maximum tempo at which I can play it, and that tempo is already below where I can play the rest of the piece and is substantially below the finished tempo I'm shooting for.

The trill goes on for 9 beats, a little over two measures, and it feels like an eternity. The same trill appears earlier in the right hand, where it goes on for 6 beats. Each beat is 4 sets of triplets, for a total of 12 alternated notes per beat or, as we say, 6 "repercussions" per beat.

What has been happening is that, beyond a certain tempo, I can't sustain the LH (left hand) trill for the full 9 beats.  It gets off track at some point, so that the repercussions are no longer in strict tempo and therefore stop lining up properly with the notes in the RH. It turns into a mess.

I thought this was a physical problem.  I thought that I had maybe run up against a hard limit in my physical abilities, and that I'd have to simplify the trill -- reduce the number of repercussions per beat to a level I could handle -- so that I could finish getting the piece up to tempo and go on with my life already.

But then I got to pondering the implications of an interesting fact: I COULD PLAY THE TRILL IN THE LH JUST FINE, STRICTLY IN TEMPO FOR THE FULL 9 BEATS OR EVEN LONGER, IF I PLAYED IT ALONE WITHOUT THE RH. At some point it sank in: what that means is that, at this tempo, the problem is primarily COGNITIVE, not physical.  That was the breakthrough moment. In retrospect, it seems completely obvious.

With that realization, I could take a different angle on boosting the tempo of the trill.  Instead of merely playing it at one tempo until physical mastery was achieved and then moving to the next tempo, I needed to make a cognitive shift of some kind.  But what?  What, cognitively, was the problem?  Why did adding the RH make a trill that I was physically capable of playing fall apart?

ATTENTION!  That's it!  When I was playing the trill alone in the LH, my full attention was on it.  When I added the RH, my attention subconsciously and automatically shifted to the RH and the LH was left to wander in the wilderness.  With that insight, the solution became obvious: While playing the two hands together, I consciously and deliberately shifted my attention to the LH, and like magic it began to stay on track better.  LIKE MAGIC!  WITH JUST A SHIFT OF ATTENTION!  It's going to take some practice to be able to put this together, but I realize now that I generally put my attention on the RH while I'm playing the two hands together and depend on habit to carry the LH along.  Good old Johann Sebastian won't let me get away with that. His music demands more flexibility of attention.  I think he was probably one of those people who have multiple music channels built into their brains.  He could probably hear all those lines of polyphony simultaneously and fully.  It must have sounded marvelous in his mind. What a stupefying talent the man had.

Anyway, I know that I'll probably run up against an actual physical limitation with this trill at some point, but I'm not there yet.  I've broken through a cognitive barrier.  It'll take some hard practice to consolidate this and make it habitual, but it will carry me along much further than I am now.  I'll deal with the physical limit when I get there.

Hmmm... Gotta relax that tension in my jaw while I'm playing this trill, too.  There's another cognitive problem.  And where else am I holding tension?

[Before beginning this blog, I was sending emails to a friend.  I'm incorporating those into the blog, and embellishing them here and there. This entry was from 1/31/2012.]
BREAKDOWN

After a very satisfying and forward looking practice session yesterday, I experienced a psychological breakdown today. It wasn't cognitive or technical; it was definitely psychological.

I thought "What's the use?  I'll never get this. I'll never be any good.  Why am I busting my butt on this?  Why not just go do something fun and easy? Bach is too hard for me. My left elbow hurts. I'm too old to learn new stuff at the piano. My memory isn't what it used to be. The heck with it."  I ended practice at least 15 minutes earlier than I would have normally.

OK. Deal with it. What's up?

Was it the sugar in the ice cream I ate last night? I haven't had sugar in quite a while. That can mess with my mood.

Was it the fact that I've been hanging out at the very edge of my abilities for weeks on end now?  I've spent almost all of my practice time learning new stuff and pushing the limits of what I can do.  I've spent relatively little time playing familiar pieces that I've already basically mastered, and that I can have the pleasure of refining musically.

Was it just the usual cycle of good and bad moods?  Go do something else and wait it out?

The thing is, I find that it isn't just music.  It never is.  Music reflects what's going on with me more generally.  I'm discouraged about everything this morning, now that I think about it.  So it's a mood. I've had those before. I'll have them again. I can deal with moods.

Things that help me:
Exercise, or even just moving around.
Breaking my routine.
Being with friends. I'm helping a friend move today. That'll pull me out of my own head.
Heavy drinking.  Just kidding!
Remembering my motivations -- I want to have a great looking brain for the autopsy!
Laughing at myself.
The appreciation of beauty.

But most of all, just sticking with it helps me.  If I just continue to practice, I know that I'll find the inherent satisfactions that it provides and those will keep me going.  They always have in the past.  I think they will for a little while longer.

Also, writing this blog helps.  It gives me perspective.

Another thing that gives me perspective is the experience of other musicians.  Here's a quote from Mike Ragogna's interview with Joshua Bell.  Mike lives here and is an acquaintance of mine. He interviews musicians of all kinds.  Joshua Bell is one of the most famous young classical violinists working today. He's at the very top of his profession, but even he is still developing.

MR: What is the biggest growth that you've had as an artist?
JB: Well, since I've started, I've grown about five and a half feet. (laughs) I did start when I was very young. I was four years old and being a musician and a violinist is a constant growth process. You're always learning. It's hard to answer that question. I mean, I still feel I'm going in the right direction. Each year, I feel I'm still getting better and finding more insight into the music. The Franck that I just recorded, for instance, I recorded twenty years ago. I think I would have a hard time listening to it because I've experience so much in between, in music and in life in general. Your whole approach changes as you get older, and I have a better violin now. I have a wonderful, many-million-dollar Stradivarius violin that was made in 1713. One's sound changes over the years and you refine it. It's a fun job because you're always evolving and learning.

[Before beginning this blog, I was sending emails to a friend.  I'm incorporating those into the blog, and embellishing them here and there. This entry was from 1/30/2012.]
NEW BEGINNINGS

I've pretty thoroughly learned Invention #6 now.  It's up to speed, and I'm ready to go off metronome and really turn it into music.  I'll probably play it a few times today at odd moments and see what I can make out of it.

This morning I began real work on Invention #7. Woohoo! I don't think it'll be very hard to learn. I've already been working out two of the harder passages in the background over the last several days. Tomorrow, it will replace #6 as the main focus of my practice time.

[At this time, I took on a music student. I wasn't looking for students.  He approached me about it, and I agreed. I expect it'll make me an even more conscious pianist.]

Yesterday, Student 1's first lesson went very very well. He's going to be a serious student. I'm looking forward to these lessons, in no small part because I want to see how they reflect back on my own practice of music and enrich it.  Hmmm... maybe I'll ask him to keep a little blog about his practice like I've been doing.  It would be a window into his practice for me, and it would help him be more conscious and self-reflective about what he's doing.  Writing these have been unexpectedly beneficial for me.  I'll talk to him about it at our next lesson.

[Before beginning this blog, I was sending emails to a friend.  I'm incorporating those into the blog, and embellishing them here and there. This entry was from 1/24/2012.]
HOW TO PLAY IT WRONG

Mostly worked on invention #6 today. It's fun, and coming together rapidly. I spent some time studying its harmonic structure to help me get through the thicket of accidentals in the middle section.

Here's a very common mistake that people make when practicing.  In trying to work out a passage, they play it until they get it right and then move on to the next thing.  Sounds natural enough, but what did they just do?

play it wrong
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it right
go onto the next thing

So, in effect, they mostly practiced playing it wrong even though the last repetition happened to be right. What's going to happen the next time they go back to that passage? They'll play it the way they practiced it: wrong.

It's important, once you get it right, to immediately practice it the right way until it's a stable habit that overwhelms all the wrong ways you played it. If you're honest with yourself about what's really going on, and if you're ruthlessly self-disciplined, it'll look more like this:

play it wrong
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it right
play it wrong
play it wrong
play it right
play it wrong
play it right
play it right
play it wrong
play it right
play it wrong
play it right
play it wrong
play it right
play it right
play it right
play it right
play it right
play it right
play it right
play it right
play it right
go onto the next thing

Now you're done with that passage and it won't come back to haunt and frustrate you.

[Before beginning this blog, I was sending emails to a friend.  I'm incorporating those into the blog, and embellishing them here and there. This entry was from 1/18/2012.]