Friday, February 25, 2011

Quick note

I am feeling a little better about the whole lesson thing. I have to say, I am noticing that I'm really paying a lot more attention to sound quality and what my hands are doing, and the teacher's words are sticking with me. So perhaps there is more method to the madness than I was perceiving.

The question, though, is whether noticing these things actually improves my playing. I think improvement must come from a combination of noticing, knowing what to change and how, and then doing it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fourth lesson: Uh oh

The school where I'm taking these piano lessons has a policy that if, after three lessons, you feel it's not working out, you can cancel or ask for another teacher, but after the third lesson, you're stuck. I spent much of the past week wondering if I should cancel. But, I wondered, was I considering it because I was afraid of the challenge or because I had misgivings about the teacher? As usual, with difficult decisions, I went around and around about it. Should I face my fears? Would there be consequences (e.g., hurting people's feelings, getting a bad reputation as one of those "difficult" students)? Was I letting my cynical side take over? I squared my shoulders and went back in today.

I'm now feeling like this was a big mistake.

My issues:

I want to PLAY. I don't want to have too many discussions about things like what to do with my hands without actually doing them myself. It just feels like there is too much talking going on in these lessons. Also, everything is awfully free wheeling. It's not that I want my first teacher again, who wrote in my book every week exactly how many times I should play each thing, and at what metronome marking. But at least a little more organization might be good. Also some direction on technique -- scales and all that.  But, sadly, I think this person is not that type of teacher.

Because I'm a grown-up now, I just stop and ask questions and try to get answers: How do you do this? How do you practice it? So far, I have not gotten very useful responses. But am I expecting too much? I just don't know! I only feel that I'm not very sure what I'm supposed to do between lessons that's going to improve my playing.

It's also bothering me that this teacher can't seem to keep straight simple facts about me, or even what we agreed to work on last week (most of which she chose). Perhaps there is some problem with her that is beyond her control, in which case I'm sympathetic. But it's weirding me out.

And then, not her fault, there's the piano. It is just horrendous. It was supposed to have been tuned since last week, but honestly, I heard no difference. It was possibly even worse. It's just a twangy, awful-sounding thing, impossible to control. Okay, when she demonstrates stuff, she does make it sound a little better than I do, but only a little.

One positive development amongst all the excessive chit-chat today was that she offered to let me change my lesson time to an evening on a different day, when she teaches on the "good" piano that they use for concerts. I'm sure it's much better than the Yamaha from hell. However, my husband and I went to hear a concert in there last month, just before I signed up, with a very good concert pianist playing on that very same piano, and it also was pretty out of tune and not that great sounding, IMO. Maybe they just have a lousy piano tech. But I accepted the change. It certainly can't be worse. The other good thing about the switch is that it will interfere much less with my work hours.

So, I guess I made my wimp's bed and now must lie in it. Perhaps things will improve. Perhaps this will simply be another trial I have to get through in my musical education.

If all else fails, I can just quit, I suppose, and chalk it up to sunk cost + experience. But it's sad.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Third lesson: Discouragin'

I dropped the last "g" to show that I'm not quite 100% serious. But I did feel discouraged.

I spent the week hacking away at the Beethoven, trying to hack more gracefully, but still hacking. Got to the lesson, played a little bit of it, and then the teacher, trying very hard not to be negative, suggested that we put it aside and work on something easier.

Now, the main reasons I believe she did this are as follows:

1. I have a couple of performances planned in the near future. One is an AMSF recital and the other is a master class (more about that as the time approaches). Not that these are set in stone, by any means, but I did express the desire to perform. The music school also has some recitals that would be possible. She said she was worried that I would get out there and pound out a couple of clams on those first four awful measures and it would -- well, discourage me. (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)
2. I also explained to her that I did NOT want to get stuck in a rut of trying to play something too hard that would take too long to learn, or that I couldn't learn at all. This has been the story of my life as a pianist -- particularly when I've had teachers in the past. I've already spent a good 6 months on this sonata, and the rut potential is all too strong.
3. She has never played this piece or taught it. Not that she couldn't give me advice on it, but it wouldn't be from personal experience.

So although I've definitely learned a lot from working on this sonata, I'm not opposed to learning some more manageable pieces. The teacher had some specific recommendations ready: She thinks it would be good to work on something more soulful, and pulled out two Chopin pieces: the B major Nocturne  (Op. 32 No. 1) and the C sharp minor waltz (the one in Les Sylphides, Op. 64 No. 2). Since we had talked about doing some shorter pieces at the last lesson, I had brought along my James Friskin book of Scarlatti sonatas, and she pounced gratefully on the first sonata in the book. We also talked about perhaps another bigger sonata, and I mentioned that I had worked on the "Tempest" for a while. She liked that one, too! It's nowhere as technically difficult as the Op. 2 No. 3. And I do think it will probably come back fairly quickly, at least as far as I took it when I worked on it a couple of years ago. (I had memorized the first movement and some of the third.) All must be very familiar territory for her as a teacher of kids and adult amateurs.

I'm trying to look at this positively. I know there are lots of gaps in my piano education and that it's far better to fill them using material that is graciously written for the piano rather than stuff that fights it. It's worth spending these few months at least giving this approach a try. And anyway, I never intended to saddle myself with difficult pieces that I could never even begin to master -- I want to be able to PLAY. My weaknesses were on full display for the rest of the lesson, when, Op. 2 No. 3 banished, we worked on my current Bach prelude and fugue (WTC II/15 in G major). Now, talk about discouraging! For something I feel is coming along well when I practice it at home, it sure was a mess. I felt like what I am: a middle-aged amateur who only practices an hour a day. Quite a reality check.

So this definitely reinforced taking things in another direction.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Second lesson

When I have taken lessons in the past, I would go in every week feeling defeated: I hadn't practiced enough (however much it was, it was never enough). Every day in between lessons, I would wait to be inspired, and then I'd start missing days, and then a whole week would go by when I'd practiced for an hour or two over the whole week.

I have resisted starting lessons because I did not want to pay all that money and spend all that time and find myself in the same spot. One reason I felt okay about it this round is because I have built up the habit of practicing every day, without fail, unless I'm really sick or traveling and away from any piano. As Shinichi Suzuki used to say, "Only practice on the days you eat."

This habit has become so ingrained that this week after my first lesson went by without my feeling a  need to make any big changes in my routine. I just kept on with my usual, and I got to the end of the week feeling like I had actually done something. 

My first lesson ended with an agreement that I would concentrate on the Beethoven sonata but without a specific assignment. Being as self-directed as I am now, I took what we did talk about (the approach to the keys, filling out each note) and ran with it -- or at least walked briskly.
I thought a lot about the problem. I posted a question about it at Piano World (with mixed results). I pulled out this book, which I bought some years back:

I read it then, but this week was really the first time that I sat with it at the piano and tried some of the things Lhevinne suggested. He was apparently a wonderful pianist, and he taught at Juilliard for many years. He certainly expressed himself clearly and simply in this book (which appeared originally as a series of articles in Etude magazine in the 1920s). Much of the book is devoted to the issue of tone and how to use the fingers, wrists, arms, and body to influence tone. Everything in this book makes a lot of sense to me.

In addition to reading and thinking, I practiced -- the Beethoven as well as my current Bach prelude and fugue (WTC II/15 in G major) and the Brahms Op. 118 No. 3 -- and attempted to apply all of these new ideas. At my second lesson yesterday, then, we began with my playing through the entire first movement of the Beethoven. The teacher said she could hear the difference (I hope she was telling the truth!). Then we started at the beginning and went through slowly, phrase by phrase, discussing lots of details: phrasing, pedaling, voicing, dynamics, articulation. We made it through about two pages (which actually covers a lot -- both the first and second themes).

I will continue to work on incorporating more of this thoughtfulness into my playing and will see what comes of it. I mentioned to my teacher that I have a spot reserved on an Adult Music Student Forum recital in April that is what they are calling a "Sonata" recital -- for longer works -- so that would be a good place for the  Beethoven. She thought I would certainly be able to have it ready by then.

The teacher also suggested learning some shorter, easier pieces, which I think is a very good idea. I'll need to give it some thought. I'd like to explore some composers other than Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms -- which I've been sort of stuck on for the past couple of years.

Anyway, time to go practice!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

First lesson

Oh, it's so weird to be back in the student's seat. But going into this with scaled-back expectations and the willingness to be self-directive, I think it will help. Just for posterity, and in case it helps someone else, here's how the first lesson went:

1. Introductions, discussion about my background (always kind of complicated). I had gotten the idea of bringing in a copy of my cello resume and the list of pieces I've learned on the piano in the past six years, so that broke the ice a little bit. (The teacher and I discovered that we had played in the same chamber group, though not at the same time, and knew some of the same musicians.)

2. I started by playing the Bach D minor prelude I was working on recently -- and of course, rushed, crashed, and burned. The teacher, experienced with nervy adult students, took it in stride and began working with me on tone production -- pointing out that my wrist should be more flexible and that the left hand in this piece could be more expressive. I also played the fugue, and we briefly discussed what could improve it, though no revelations there.

3. We moved on to Beethoven -- my presentation here again marked by rushing, crashing, burning. Then I played some of Brahms Op. 118 No. 3, just to demonstrate my problems with it.

4. She seemed a bit overwhelmed by the amount of music I am working on, so we discussed what to focus on to start with. We decided on Beethoven for now. We spent the last 20 minutes or so of the lesson on issues around how I'm using my hands and wrists. I think this was REALLY good. It has sparked my awareness of what's involved in producing expressive tone on the piano -- something I have had little instruction on. I would liken it to being aware of intonation + use of the bow on the cello. That is, anyone can (a) plunk a finger down on a string and (b) drag a bow across the strings and get a sound, but there's a complex of muscles and bones that must arrange themselves in certain positions for the optimum and/or desired sound to come out. In the same way, anyone can push down a piano key and get a sound, but getting that sound at the exact time, length, and volume that is desired, while allowing the hammer to strike the strings and make them ring without deadening the sound, is any number of levels beyond that.

5. I left without really a specific "assignment," but what we talked about will probably give me a lot to work on as I continue with my self-imposed program. I spent an hour or so last night playing, trying to be aware of having a springy hand and wrist, listening to the tone.

The only really bad thing about this lesson was the piano. I don't mind that it was a Yamaha baby grand, but I do mind that it was horribly out of tune. Egads.