Thursday, October 8, 2009

Measure by measure

On my brand-new Baldwin Hamilton studio piano, walnut finish and all, I decided I would play everything perfectly. After a few sessions of carefully sight-reading through some Bach and Brahms, I came up with the idea of learning only a measure or two of each piece at a time. I started with Beethoven's first sonata (F minor, Op. 2, No. 1) and Bach's B flat major partita.

This proved both boring and inadequate. The mind can hold so much more information than this, for one thing. For another, if you learn only a tiny amount of a piece at a time without at least somewhat knowing the context (structure, harmony), your mind has nothing to connect this new bit of knowledge with. Bar lines are artificial constructs providing simple rhythmic divisions and groupings, so this is a fragmented, sterile method of learning. Probably the only reason I learned as much as I did in this way is that I was already familiar with the pieces, at least aurally, so I wasn't starting from a place of no knowledge at all.

At any rate, I didn't get very far, or obtain much enjoyment. My piano playing dwindled down, along with my cello playing, as I became busy with other parts of my life.

When I first considered working at nonmusic jobs, my goal was to find a job that paid enough to live on that would also leave me enough time and energy to do other things. I remember calculating exactly how many hours I would have to myself after subtracting work, commuting, sleeping, and eating. They were always dismayingly few.

As long as I was doing the court reporting gig, I could maintain the illusion that this was just a temporary thing until I found my niche as a musician. I took any music job that came along, whether it was a wedding in Bethesda or an orchestra concert in Hagerstown (with a 3-hour commute).

There was a turning point. I sent a tape applying for a spot to play a recital at Montpelier Mansion in Laurel. For some reason, I told myself that if I didn't get it, it meant I wasn't any good and I should quit trying. Maybe I was looking for an excuse. It really is hard to go to work all day, even if the job is not challenging or difficult, and then come home and practice. It's like working a second job -- and in my case, this job didn't pay anything. I was tired of trying to keep my hard pieces ready. They weren't music to me anymore, but drudgery, an exercise.  It has occurred to me to wonder what I'd have done if I had gotten that gig (which, as I recall was just a one-time deal and didn't pay anything, either). It would have been a validation, I suppose, but then I would have had to scrape my way through a whole recital, and I wasn't at all in the right frame of mind for it.

That's the paradoxical plight of the musician. On the one hand, music is a fresh, eternally young, spontaneous thing, and the most appealing players have an attitude to match. On the other hand, gaining the skill to play it involves daily drudging. A harpist with one of the military bands once told me, "When you're young, they don't tell you that you're going to have to practice every day for the rest of your life!"

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