Monday, January 31, 2011


People study with teachers to learn things they don't already know: to obtain guidance on how to proceed, to find out how to do something, to understand things in a way they haven't been able to accomplish on their own. If I were to go through the history of all the music teachers I've had, it would take a long time and end up as a book, but the bottom line is that most of them did not tell me what I needed to know, or did not tell me in a way that I could understand.

Even in the years when what I desperately wanted was simply to play the cello as well as I possibly could, with the practical object of getting a job doing it, the teachers I had didn't help much. They spent a lot of time on airy-fairy discussions about emotion, or they told me to practice but didn't help me learn to listen to myself. They assumed understanding that I didn't have.

Every once in a while, I would have a great lesson or series of lessons when the teacher would get down to business. My best lessons from one teacher took place when I was learning the Beethoven A major cello and piano sonata. There is simply no way that piece is going to sound good unless the cello is exactly, precisely, in tune, and so this teacher finally showed me how to pinpoint intonation by checking each and every note in multiple ways. After that experience, I was able to focus much more on this aspect of cello playing in every other piece I learned. It's not that I didn't know you needed to check intonation; I really didn't know how, other than the occasional check against an open string.

At one point, I had the opportunity to take some lessons with David Soyer (the cellist in the Guarneri Quartet, who passed away about a year ago). The one really nitty-gritty lesson I had with him was when he showed me some exercises to develop tone. There were two parts to this. For one, he liked to use the Popper etude No. 6 (all running 16th notes in various simple patterns, all over the cello), and the drill was to practice a small segment first at the lowest part of the bow, next in the middle, and finally near the tip, using full force and almost, but not quite, scratching, but keeping the hand and arm relaxed. One was to do this first as written, then in different rhythms. The other exercise involved playing a fully covered scale (he liked D flat major), slurring across the string crossings, playing very slowly with the fullest, widest vibrato; then, he suggested doing the same thing with "The Swan" (that chestnut from "Carnival of the Animals"), putting slurs in the most difficult shifts and string crossings. The object was to keep the vibrato constant and minimize the sound of any breaks across notes.

Well! This just about revolutionized my playing, believe it or not. Ever since I spent some time doing these exercises (and I did them every day for some years), my tone grew richer and surer.

Perhaps these pivotal lessons struck a chord (so to speak) because I was at the right stage to learn what they taught me. I do know that what works for one student does not work for another. Maybe I had heard similar things at other times but they went in one ear and out the other. But my point here is that out of the hundreds of cello lessons I had over the years, I can pinpoint only these few as being truly useful as lessons (vs. as performances, or as scold-fests, or as hours of fluff).

As for the piano: I just counted them up, and I have had five different teachers. None taught me as much as I've learned on my own, with the help of some technological tools, in the past 6 years since I began playing the piano again. As much of a cliché as it's become, the Internet has made a tremendous difference. The community at Piano World, for one, offers a resource that simply wasn't available in the past -- I mean, you can go over there at three o'clock in the morning and pose a question ("What's a good fingering for the first four measures of Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3?") and within a few hours get at least one response. The availability of inexpensive digital recording options means you can record something and post it and get feedback from pianists all over the world – not to mention being able to hear yourself with pretty good fidelity. The online "recitals" have provided realistic, achievable goals.

So this has been great, up to a point, but I still have a lot of trouble sitting down and playing the piano in front of a live human being. Not that this isn't always difficult under any circumstances, but it is especially difficult when one does it as rarely as I do. For me in particular, the expectations of what could be my captive audience, friends and family, are unreasonably high. I am the most educated musician most of them know, so they seem to think it just comes out of me with no effort, and they are not all that impressed unless something is polished to perfection (which of course it rarely is, given my lack of practice performing on the piano, yadda yadda yadda, endless loop).

And then, the more time I have spent, the more I have wondered if I have been handicapping myself too much by not getting some direct, specific help from a live human being in the same room. I'm well into the second half of my life at this point; how many more years do I have to spin my wheels on this? It’s not like there is a deficit of piano teachers around here. It’s starting to seem silly not to at least try it. My fear in the past was that I would go to the lessons but would not practice enough in between to take advantage of them. Now, though, that I have developed a solid daily practice habit, I don’t think this is going to be as much of a problem as it has been in the past.

Another thing about that live human being: as helpful as the virtual world can be, it does not provide the full social and emotional experience of face-to-face contact with other people. I would like to somehow integrate my piano life into my interactions with the outside world. I have a sense that my playing is  not entirely real -- that it will be validated and recognized only if I can play for other people without the filtering medium, and anonymity, of posting recordings on the Internet.

Thus it has come about that I finally contacted a private music school and signed up for a semester's worth of lessons, which are to start tomorrow. The people at the school are aware of my background, so they have set me up with someone experienced who teaches other adults. I hardly know what to expect, but I am hoping I will be able to try my best to get something positive out of it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011



We had a little snow storm this week, just a few inches at most, but it was somehow heavy and wet enough to cause power outages all over the place. We had both left work early on Wednesday afternoon (thank you, OPM!), so hadn't gotten stuck in the legendary traffic jams around the area, like our neighbor, who spent 5 hours in her car driving less than 10 miles, and were eating dinner around 7:00 when the power went out. We have a gas hot water heater and a gas stove, so we were able to clean up and make some tea, and we are well supplied with candles and flashlights. 

I was even able to practice the piano by candlelight, and my husband caught up on some reading. Sleeping wasn't bad, with a down quilt and two cats on the bed. 

But then by Thursday morning, power was still out. And again yesterday morning. PEPCO had promised to have us back on by 11:00 last night, but 11:00 came and went, and no power. It was pretty darn cold in here. I was reduced to huddling on the couch with a hat on my head and a cat on my lap. When I got in bed, one of the cats crawled under the covers with m e and stayed there most of the night. Finally, this morning a little before 7:00, we were back on.

So this has put a bite into my practicing, and I also feel like I'm on the edge of having a cold. But I'll get back on it today.

Because . . .

I finally will be taking some piano lessons! They start on Tuesday (unless the weather intervenes again).

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Housekeeping and "new" recordings

When I first started recording myself on the piano, I wasn't thinking about organization. I wasn't even thinking I'd want to listen to the recordings again, or share them with anyone -- they were just a learning tool for me. I am now paying the price for that in many gigabytes of poorly labeled audio files scattered about the hard drive. A few years into it, I did start saving them in one folder, with subfolders labeled with the date, but unless I felt a recording was a wrap, I didn't give it a name. Some of the recordings are just mistake-filled blunders -- valuable from the educational perspective, but not so much from the artistic one. But others are actually pretty good. I am now faced with the task of wading through everything and deciding what I can delete and what I should archive on a storage disk, which needs to be done before this poor computer cries uncle. Given that I have a full-time job plus I'm trying to actually practice the piano (and the cello) plus I have a life = Agghhh!!!

Anyway, I was looking at my list of Bach preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier that I placed on the blog and thinking that surely I learned, and recorded, more.

And sure enough, I came up with a few.

When one of my sisters got married in 1971, when I was 13, she asked me to play piano at the wedding. It was a sort of hip wedding at the Ethical Culture Society, with self-written vows and so on, so the music was simply to add a little atmosphere. My sister had been taking piano lessons at college as an elective, so she asked her teacher for some suggestions for music, and they came up with two of the easier Bach preludes. Prelude No. 23 was one of them. Of course I did not memorize it at the time, but over the years since then, I looked at it and wondered how it might be done, and especially how one might learn the fugue.

In 2008, I decided to wonder no more, and learned the set. This recording is the result.

The next one is from November 2006. No story attached, I just love it. I learned all of it, but I can find a recording only of the prelude:

Who knows what else I'll find in my rambles through the hard drive?

And if anyone out there has a suggestion for a good way to organize this stuff, please chime in!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The perfect is the enemy of the good"

I've heard this repeated many times and finally looked it up: Voltaire said it. In its spirit, I am posting a recording of the Bach prelude and fugue that I've been working on.

As usual, I wished for so much more for this piece: I wanted the prelude to be sparkling and clean yet melancholy at the same time; I wanted the fugue to be beautiful and brooding, with perfect trills. Not quite there! But at the same time, I did learn and memorize this in the shortest time I've spent on a WTC pair: 3 months. This is one of the easier ones; for one thing, in the prelude, the left hand is much easier than the right, and the fugue is meant to be fairly slow. Listening to it, what bothers me most about my performance is the predictable "marchiness" of the thing. Ah well.

I recorded this in one take. There was some problem with how my recorder was set; I hear some clipping and a little distortion. I may work on this some more and perhaps try recording it again, but for now, here it is:

Bach Prelude and Fugue, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, No. 6 in D minor

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I really have been playing the piano . . .

. . . honest! I do my hour or so every day without fail.

I just haven't had much to write, or not anything coherent.

I made a recording of the Bach prelude and fugue in D minor last night, but I'm having technical difficulties with the digital recorder -- my recordings are clipping and sound horrible. So I need to figure out what I'm doing wrong. I will post a recording as soon as I can get something acceptable.

I'm also forging ahead on the Beethoven; the second and third movements are mostly memorized, though still rough, and I'm trying to divide and conquer the fourth movement. There is one passage that has been giving me a lot of trouble. If I can find the time, I will scan it in and explain, but not tonight . . . 

There is no required cello playing on the near horizon, so the cello is getting another rest for now.