Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Music on the back burner, sort of

The past few weeks I have felt a need to pursue some other things, so I haven't been thinking as much about music and so haven't had much to write about here. I have been practicing the piano at least a little bit every day as usual, though. I am continuing to work on the Brahms Op. 118 No. 2, and it's getting much better. I made a recording last night to hear how it was going, and it was actually pretty good. I'd post it, but I had one memory lapse, so I will wait until I make a better one.

The Bach is almost there. I spent an hour or so recording it last night, but each take has at least one thing I don't like (a mistake, rushing the tempo, articulation, etc.). But I will have that done soon, and then I'll choose another P&F set.

It's so interesting how each piece I work on seems impenetrable when I start, and I feel as if I will never understand or be able to memorize it, but gradually it moves into another part of my brain and I find myself playing it. I try hard not to rely on muscle memory. I always jot down a basic analysis on the score so that I understand how the piece is structured and know what key I'm in and what chord I'm playing. I also try to figure out the mood, and perhaps a narrative. All of this allows the experience of playing to attach to verbal and logical thought processes. This stuff isn't at the fore when I'm performing, but it helps the whole memory structure hold together.

Cello activity has been limited to our neighborhood band, which has been getting together once a week to prepare for a gig at a coffee shop in May (playing for tips). This past weekend, we worked on our Beatles and Broadway numbers -- "In My Life"; "Here, There and Everywhere"; "Stardust"; "All of Me"; et cetera. "All of Me" is fun to improvise on; it can go in many directions. This combination of instruments (recorder, fiddle, cello, and guitar) probably sounds silly, but what the hey. At least it's something different.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Short post

For anyone who checks in regularly, I apologize for not posting anything this past week. I have been taking a bit of a break, though I have been practicing the piano for an hour or so every day. Still working on the three B's (Brahms, Bach, Beethoven).

I do have a goal this week: to record the Bach. You read it here . . .

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What I'm playing this week

I'm feeling really burned out this week, so I'm not pushing myself to do that much practicing.

On the piano

Brahms Op. 118 No. 2, for the master class on April 18: I'm working on solidifying memory and trying to establish a tempo and pulse. One thing I can't stand when listening to other people play this piece is when they use excessive rubato. What I mean by "excessive" is stretching all the eighth notes in the accompaniment every single time. It's like underlining everything in the book. I think the pulse should remain fairly consistent. The 3/4 time in this piece connotes a dancelike feeling, too slow for a waltz, but perhaps almost a minuet -- or a waltz in a dream. There should be rubato, of course, but it should be used judiciously or it dilutes the effect.

Beethoven Sonata Op. No. 3: I decided to just plunge in and start learning this. It's a nice change from the pieces I've been playing: it's bold and energetic with a classical sensibility (but unmistakably Beethoven) and long. I figure at the very least it's a good technical study for me.

Bach Prelude and Fugue, WTC II/3: I'm still hoping to record this before I begin another set. I listened to a few recordings and realized that I have been really punching it out; a gentler approach sounds much better. So I'm changing it, taking slower tempos and trying for a more rounded, mellow sound.

On the cello

I'm giving the cello another rest. I may play a bit to see if it sounds any better after being humidified with a Dampit. The air has been especially dry all week.

Every time I start feeling depressed, or squirrely, or as if life maybe isn't worthwhile, my husband says, "It's the cello." I do seem to have a love/hate relationship with it, for lots of complicated reasons. I always feel better if I just step away from it for a while.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Those musical biopics

Last Friday, my husband and I went to see "Bird," the 1988 film directed by Clint Eastwood about the life of Charlie Parker. I've seen several films like this one, and once again I left the theater scratching my head and wondering: What the hell were they thinking?

See, for me, it would be really interesting to know the person's background, how he learned to play, and how much he had to practice. Instead, there was one measly scene with a small child squawking out a few notes on a recorder, and then another measly scene with a teenager standing on a porch tooting on a saxophone for a few minutes (playing "Oh, Christmas Tree," for some reason, though it didn't appear to be that time of year).  The rest of the movie had a lot of really boring depictions of arguments between Parker and his wife, Parker stumbling off to shoot up, Parker getting drunk, and so on. We all know the guy was (a) a genius and (b) had a lot of problems; what we (or I, at any rate) want to know is why. What were the demons that drove him to self-destruct?

There are stories about how Parker practiced 16 hours a day. Was that true? If so, what did he practice, and what inspired him? There is a total of one scene in this movie in which Parker seems to be explaining what he was trying to do when he improvised his solos, but it's kind of buried among the murk of the rest of the film.

I was especially disappointed because Clint Eastwood actually is a jazz musician of sorts, so you'd think he would have been interested in delving into some of these subjects. Alas, no. The movie was sort of artsy; you could see he was trying to give it the feeling of a piece of music played bebop style, with the jumping around in time, returns to a "theme" (though exactly what the theme was, it was hard to say), and excursions into other areas and relationships. There was some good music in it. But it was not at all satisfying.

I had the same reaction to the movie about Ray Charles that came out a few years ago. At least there, the film maker did explain what had happened to him -- why he went blind, how he felt about it, and how it came about that he got interested in music. Then, though, the movie jumps from the child playing his first notes on the piano to the grown up Charles making his way as a performer. Again, no attempt to show how he learned to play and sing or what he had to do to work at it. That would have been really interesting. Instead, again, there are scenes showing fights with the wife, drinking too much. Who wants to see a movie about a guy behaving badly?

The thing is that depictions of people's problems, especially with addiction, are pretty boring to watch because they are all basically the same. What would be enlightening is gaining some understanding of how and why these artists develop their art and what makes them different from the average joe (or jo).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Interesting gig

I just got home from playing at an English country dance ball put on by a high school in suburban Virginia where a group of kids of involved something called "Project Enlightenment." My understanding of it (and I really should have talked to some of the people there tonight about it, but I didn't) is that the students choose a person from U.S. history during the Enlightenment era and learn all about him or her, and then once a year they spend a couple of days doing reenactments at Mt. Vernon. So all the high-schoolers at this thing, as well as the caller and most of the adults who were there, were dressed in period outfits. I got the impression that the ball was something they haven't done before, but I could be wrong about that.

It was held at Gadsby's Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. Part of the tavern is a restaurant, and part is a museum/historical site -- that was where the ball was held. The dancing was a pleasant room with a wood floor, and there were refreshments in a separate room. I didn't do a head count, but I'd estimate that maybe 100 or so people were there.

The band consisted of recorder, fiddle, and cello, and I'm sure it sounded elegant (sort of Mozart- or Haydn-esque). My cello has been sounding tight and dry all week, and it just wasn't ringing the way it usually does, so I wasn't happy with how I sounded. All those times when I've played with the little local band for 10 people and the cello sounded great, and then for this, when there was a big audience . . . oh, well, that's how it goes, I guess.

I'm sure the people were mostly concerned about their dancing and weren't paying much attention to the tone of my cello. The other two musicians were very good, particularly the fiddle player. I noticed that if I started using a different rhythm or articulation in the accompaniment, she would immediately start doing it, too. I rarely get a chance to play with someone who can do that. The whole thing was very tiring, though. We played from 7:00 until after 10:00 with one short break. I'm glad it's over.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

The master class has been rescheduled for April 18, so I decided since I have more than two months to prepare between now and then I will play Op. 118 No. 2 instead of No. 1. This volume of Brahms (Peters Band II) was one of the things I would attempt to sight read when I was a teenager -- skipping the weird, hard stuff -- and 118/2 was one I would regularly thump my way through. So when I play it now, it brings back wafts of memory. I have fleeting images of myself as a depressed, clueless 16-year-old, losing myself in this music as I sat at the crummy little piano we had, no idea how I sounded, and it not even occurring to me to wonder. So now, as a much happier 52-year-old, I'm really trying to learn this, and I have a much different view of the whole thing. But it's a strange clash between past and present.

I had it in mind to record the Bach prelude and fugue I've been working on so I can feel I've accomplished something with it before I move on to another one, but I'm so dissatisfied with how I'm playing it, particularly the prelude. I can't seem to give it any shape or decide what emotion I want to convey. So I keep practicing it.

The experience with the Chopin Nocturne I recorded on Sunday and submitted for the online recital was sort of deflating. In one way I was proud of the fact that I had relearned it and made such a clean recording without practicing it all that much -- and considering everything that's been happening around here over the past two weeks -- but I know it wasn't the most heartfelt interpretation, either. However, I've had no feedback at all from anyone at Piano World. Now, to be fair, I haven't given the other participants feedback, either. But the whole thing is rather odd.

I wish I wasn't so eager for reactions from people, but there it is. Music is a form of communication, and you want to feel you are communicating with someone versus shouting into the wilderness.

On the cello:

I'm playing a little Bach plus the dances we're supposed to play on Saturday. I accepted this gig thinking it would be fun, but it's not feeling fun right now. My cello sounds bad, my fingers don't feel very limber, and now all of a sudden the organizer started sending messages about the sound system and using mics. I don't have any equipment like that, and using it is a whole different ballgame than simply playing acoustically. It's making me feel grumpy about the whole thing.

Speaking of feeling grumpy, on another message board I participate in, one of the members who is an excellent professional pianist announced the other day that she has decided to quit music. I was not all that surprised because she hasn't ever sounded terribly enthusiastic about playing the piano, not really. But much discussion ensued. It has caused me to think about all this again, about how music is such a great hobby but a not so great profession. The required skills can be so tedious and, yes, boring to master when you always have to play at such a high level, and it all takes so much time and energy. Even someone who is relatively successful at it has to start thinking that there's more to life than sitting in a practice room, especially someone as bright and as interested in the world as this person. Some people do seem to find their niche and a decent balance that allows them to continue to find the art in music, but others find it a hard slog. Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that stuff you do for fun is not so fun if it's your job.