Friday, March 25, 2011

The continuing struggle

With lessons, that is. Eight down, nine to go. It feels like a trial. I'm taking these with such a huge grain of salt that they are becoming hypertension hazards. Why am I such a skeptic?

In some ways they are good. For one thing, having to play something for someone every week is exactly what I need. And then, the teacher is saying the right things, I think. She is talking a great deal, every lesson, about touch, and tone, and using the wrist and arm. At the end of each lesson, she sort of waves it all off, saying, "Just have fun with all this!" which I suppose is also a good attitude to have (rather than taking it too, too seriously).

Most of my doubts lie in the direction of execution. It's one thing to say "Bring out the melody," but another to explain how to do this consistently. This teacher does try, but the mechanism is not really clear to me, and unfortunately, she is not able to fully demonstrate what she is saying. By that I mean that she can show me individual motions but cannot show me how they work in context -- that is, when you are performing the whole piece. No, it's not good to be too obsessed with details, but on the other hand, the details are what form the whole. Too many sloppy mistakes, missed notes, rough transitions, anachronistic interpretations, and so on, and the listener loses heart. One of my teachers used to say that an audience will accept only a limited number of oopsies before they turn against you.

Should a teacher be able to play what she assigns to a student? I know there are plenty of teachers who cannot, but it has always seemed like a major obstacle to me. I have often wondered how Dorothy Delay (the famous violin teacher who was at Julliard for many years and who taught just about everyone you have ever heard of, but who was not known for her own playing) was able to teach so many virtuosos so effectively. Perhaps they were at such a high level of playing when they got to her, she didn't have to teach them any technique -- it was all refinement. (Any Delay aficionados out there, please feel free to comment. I never met her or watched her teach myself.)

I also wonder about whether it's better to simply play rather than getting bogged down in trying to achieve some ideal sound that I may never be able to produce. Isn't it possible to be musical without so much attention to this? I mean, who the hell is going to listen to me, anyway? And then, once you have sufficient technical ability to play without strain and self-injury, isn't "good tone" one of those subjective things? Or is mine so bad that I have no business playing the piano in the first place?

I should add that I do feel this is helping my piano playing, overall. It's making me listen to myself more carefully, and I think I sound better. However, I have the instinctive notion that I should continue to forge ahead and do what gives me the most pleasure, taking from this teacher and others what is useful and meaningful to me and setting aside the rest -- along with the salt. I know that with the cello, it took many years of letting everything I heard and experienced sort of simmer together on a back burner before the jumble of ingredients melded into a palatable dish (most of the time, anyway).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another person's WTC project

The music critic of The Oregonian, David Stabler, decided a year or so ago to spend a year practicing the Bach preludes and fugues. The plan was to practice one set per week for 30 minutes a day -- not for performance or recording or from memory, but to get acquainted with all of them.

Here's his first post about it (October 2008):

Goats in the shed

And here's the last (February 2010):

A year of playing Bach

When I heard about this, I was looking forward to reading some details, though few were forthcoming (either he didn't post much about it or there was a website shakeup and posts got lost, but I could find only one other than these). He writes very well. It would be nice to read more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy Bach's birthday!

Born March 21, 1685

My older sisters all took piano lessons, the first two only briefly, the third for some years. This third sister (who is 7 years older than I) stuck with it long enough to learn a little Bach. My first memory of this music is a Schirmer edition of something -- the inventions, perhaps? -- with the old buff-colored cover and the mysterious (to me, as a child) appellation, "Bach," front and center. Despite my sister's halting attempts at it, the music struck me as comfortingly organized, cheerful, substantive. Even my untutored ear responded to its many levels, from finger exercise to harmonious, architectural whole.

When I started lessons myself, I spent a few years on utter dreck (cheesy arrangements of pop tunes, etc.), but at some point my teacher decided I was ready for the good stuff, so she told me to get the book "Eighteen Little Preludes and Fugues" put together by Busoni. I wish I could say that I instinctively knew what to do with this and developed incredible skill and sensitivity in my playing, but alas, I did not. I knew there was something important there, but I did not know how to get at it.

Early in my cello-playing career, I discovered that Bach had written six solo suites for cello, and of course I wanted to play them. I began my explorations into them at age 14; one could not really "finish" such a thing, though I delved into it fairly thoroughly. I suppose the official culmination was my doctoral thesis on the fifth and sixth suites and the lecture recital I gave on the same topic.

Though they comprise great music in their own right, the solo cello suites are not at the same level as the keyboard works or even Bach's solo violin music. They could even be described as primitive -- just six preludes exploring various techniques and six simple sets of dances. This was probably intentional on Bach's part because the cello was relatively unexplored territory at the time, and it was not his instrument. The cello suites progress in difficulty, so I believe they were meant as pedagogy. There is implied counterpoint and some multivoice writing, but basically they are fiddle tunes. Even so,  any other solo cello music pales in comparison, and time spent on playing them is rewarding in many ways.

But the keyboard music is  infinitely more so. There is so much to play there, and again, on so many levels, that they can be enjoyed anywhere on the spectrum from occasional hobby playing to full-time, lifetime endeavor. I am somewhere in between. When I'm being realistic, I know that I will never play as many of them as I would like. On the other hand, the music exists and will be there for me whenever and however I choose to take it up. As it is for anyone.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A decent lesson

Today's piano lesson was not too bad. At least I played more than I have at the others.

Now that I've been working on the first movement of the Beethoven Op. 31 No. 2 for a few weeks, it's getting back into my fingers. We started with my playing through it from the development to the end. It actually felt pretty solid, albeit with a few glitchy things. My teacher expressed great enthusiasm, and even said I sounded like a different person. Interesting to get that reaction; at least it shows I'm not consistently bad! (Playing on a good 9-foot piano in a big space helped. Last week's lesson was moved to a different room, so we were on a real PSO.*)

We then went back and went over sections in detail. We talked mainly about touch, and about shaping phrases, and about voicing. These were all helpful, I think. We'll see if any of it sticks.

One thing that helped me this week was thinking more about my ideal interpretation. To start with, I've been trying to get the whole "Tempest" idea out of my head. This fanciful title was not Beethoven's. According to Wikipedia:

The Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, was composed in 1801/02 by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is usually referred to as "The Tempest" (or Der Sturm in his native German), but this title was not given by him, or indeed referred to as such during his lifetime; instead, it comes from a claim by his associate Anton Schindler that the sonata was inspired by the Shakespeare play. However, much of Schindler's information is distrusted by classical music scholars. Renowned British music scholar, Donald Francis Tovey, in his authoritative book A Companion to Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas, states that "With all the tragic power of its first movement the D minor Sonata is, like Prospero, almost as far beyond tragedy as it is beyond mere foul weather. It will do you no harm to think of Miranda at bars 31-38 of the slow movement... but people who want to identify Ariel and Caliban and the castaways, good and villainous, may as well confine their attention to the exploits of Scarlet Pimpernel when the Eroica or the C minor Symphony is being played" (pg. 121).
What keeps coming to mind (though in a half-baked, fleeting fashion) when I play this piece is something more Gothic, like Washington Irving's Headless Horseman:

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance.... the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.
—Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
Anyway, I think it almost does not matter what one imagines in relation to a piece of music; music like this is only "about" itself. But attaching it to something verbal makes it easier to hang onto under the stress of performance, I've found. So I'll keep thinking about this.

*PSO = piano-shaped object.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Taubman workshop

Last month, when I started thinking more about tone production on the piano and how to go about improving it, I posted to Piano World with my questions and received some mixed responses. Several people recommended that I look into Taubman technique. I even got a private message from a very enthusiastic Taubman student ("It's truly absolutely amazing," this person said).

In a nutshell, this is an approach developed by Dorothy Taubman (who is now in her 90s) that is based on observed natural movements that best serve the techniques involved in playing the piano. It eschews a lot of the old standbys like very curved fingers, lifting fingers independently, sitting rigidly at the piano, and so on (all of which were part of how I was trained, btw).

So I did a web search, found the site for the Golandsky Institute, and noticed they were having a workshop on March 5 in Philadelphia at University of the Arts.

I quickly calculated: Philadelphia, only a few hours away; event on a Saturday when I had nothing else scheduled; cost, minimal. So I signed up.

When I was filling out the form online, there was a part asking if I'd be willing to play in a master class, so impulsively I checked "yes" and put down the Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3 as my piece. I received a quick reply noting that I had been scheduled to play on the afternoon master class. This was before my teacher gave up on teaching me this piece. After that lesson, I had a panic attack over it, so I e-mailed Robert Durso, the faculty member in charge of the workshop, and explained my situation (i.e., level of playing, experience, etc.), suggesting that if it didn't sound like it was going to be useful (for the listeners!) for me to play I would be happy just to observe. A few days later, he responded and said he had consulted with Edna Golandsky (the master teacher of this technique, who worked closely with Taubman and founded the current institute), and they had decided to move me to the morning session. He asked for some specific spots in the piece I would like help with, which I duly sent, and I was on.

The first session at 10:00 a.m. was a lecture by Durso ostensibly on octaves and chords, but it really was an outline of the entire history and philosophy behind Taubman technique and an explanation of how it is applied, so it was a great way to learn about it. Right after this was the seminar led by Golandsky. Five of us were scheduled in 15-minute blocks; I hesitate to say we "played," because the longest anyone actually played anything was maybe eight measures. Each person had chosen a small point that he or she was having difficulty with, and Golandsky demonstrated how one would go about solving the problem. So there was a snippet of a Schubert impromptu, a bit of a Chopin mazurka, and so on.

I of course started with those first four awful measures in the Beethoven. I think I was the only person playing who had no experience with Taubman, so she gave me some general pointers. She said many people play those double thirds with two hands, but if one did play them with one hand, she recommended another fingering  in addition to using a combination of motions: hard to describe in words, but basically a sideways rotation of the wrist combined with a sort of in-and-out movement of the hand. We also covered a couple of other passages: the really difficult beginning of the development (which she recommended breaking between the hands -- and yes, I can see it will be much better doing it that way); the unison trills (which would be approached in the same way as the double thirds); and the broken octaves at the end of the development and the coda.

I had lunch with four other people from the workshop. Two were in their 20s, both studying with Durso in Philadelphia, and the other two were more in my age group and were piano teachers (and students! as one woman pointed out to me when I asked). One of the younger people was a jazz pianist. In the course of the conversation, I asked how long it takes for this technical approach to become ingrained. They all agreed that it starts very slowly, and there's a lot of playing one note at a time, with you thinking this can't possibly be working, but that one day it starts to click. It was actually very enlightening to hear this from this small sample of people, showing once again that there's more to learning something than sitting at the feet of a master.

The afternoon featured a master class by Danilo Perez, a jazz pianist. There seems to be a real effort to incorporate jazz into this approach -- or vice versa, perhaps. The University of the Arts has made jazz a big part of the music curriculum, which I think is great. The music schools I attended had a sharp divide between classical and jazz, with the latter being at best a poor stepchild, so it was nice to see the genres mixed up a bit. As for the last class with Golandsky, I am SO glad I followed up and did not play on it because it would have been awful. The two young women who performed were very good -- one played Chopin's Scherzo No. 1, and the other played a Ballade, and both were almost flawless. So me and my messed-up little bit of Beethoven would have been quite out of place.

So what was my take-away from all this?

There is a certain almost cultlike belief in this system among some, similar to what I have seen among Suzuki teachers and students. Like what is called "the Suzuki method," what is called "Taubman technique" is at heart simply a collection of useful ideas and approaches to learning music that good teachers and players have always used -- the one an overall method for learning, the other an approach to technique. (I noticed there was a session for string players at this workshop, which would have been interesting, but it was scheduled at the same time as our morning session so I couldn't check it out.)

What I liked about Suzuki, when I was involved with that, is that it provides a systematic way to break learning down into small, achievable bites. Students master one small part of technique or note reading or musicality at a time, but it's not boring because (1) they are playing real music; (2) there is always a goal (e.g., recital); and (3) there is the social element of playing with other students and, for children, of the parents being closely involved with lessons and practicing.

This brief exposure to Taubman technique gives me the impression that in the same way, there are points of piano technique that can be broken down into small elements. It is interesting that what my teacher has been saying is generally along the same lines as Taubman (particularly with respect to tone being related to the speed with which the key is depressed), which is why I had decided to continue with her despite the problems with her teaching method being so unsystematic. It's not that I am longing for some kind of militaristic regimen but rather for something in between that and randomness.

Anyway, at the least it was fun going back to school for a day.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to get to Carnegie Hall

My husband has been saying for a long time that he would like to hear a really good orchestra (as opposed to the ones I generally play with!). We were in New York last week for a business meeting late on Tuesday afternoon, and the meeting was only a couple of blocks from Carnegie Hall, so we decided to go to the Philadelphia Orchestra concert that happened to be scheduled for that evening.

Now, I have been to Carnegie Hall and poked my head in the door but never heard a concert in the main venue there -- just in the recital hall upstairs. (Actually, I've even performed in the recital hall, with a chamber ensemble.) We got seats in the balcony, which is up many flights of stairs and much less expensive than seats lower down, but it was great up there. We had a panoramic view of the stage, and the sound was wonderful -- clear and warm.

The program was Berlioz, Beatrice and Benedict overture; a world premiere violin concerto by James MacMillan, with Vadim Repin; and Tchaikovsky, Fifth Symphony. After the overture, my husband whispered to me, "I can't believe how good they are." And of course it was all perfect -- perfectly together, perfectly in tune, perfect solos. An orchestra like this is like a jewel in a velvet box, like a priceless painting in a museum. All of its members -- cream of the crop, best of the best; talent plus years of lessons plus winning out in fierce competition to get there. And the hall a legend itself, a cozy, creamy, gilded, and red velvet nest in the middle of Manhattan, kept alive through corporate philanthropy. And yes, I enjoyed hearing this concert, but it also seemed like something unconnected with the real world. And I had no burning desire to play in a group like that. (A good thing, too, or I'd be living an extremely unhappy life.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lessons, continued

I had my first lesson on the school's 9-foot grand yesterday -- MUCH better. (I wonder how they got hold of such a thing? Donated, perhaps?) Though the ideal is to be able to make any piano sound good, it's hard to learn how to do it when the instrument is fighting you, and particularly when it's out of tune.

As for continuing the lessons, even though this teacher isn't exactly the right one for me (or doesn't feel that way, anyway), I decided that the best course of action given the circumstances is simply to go and get what I can out of them. Really, the most important aspect of playing is how, what, and how much one practices.

The real problem I'm having is my atavistic tendency to let things slide. I am wasting practice time flailing about, playing too fast, and so on, so when I get to the lessons, it seems I can hardly play a thing. It's something along the lines of my sleepwalking brain going, "Okay, what do I need to get done? Oh, right, we talked about that one section of the Beethoven, so that's all I need to practice." What I need to do instead, both to gain the most benefit from going to all this trouble to take lessons and to continue to progress in my playing, is to practice at least as well as I have been practicing all along while keeping in mind the ideas presented at the lessons. This may not be the most efficient way to go about it, but maybe there is no efficient way.

Not that my prelesson practice was exactly efficient in the sense of producing quick results. I have been learning in slow increments, hearing improvement only over many months of nibbling away at a piece. I don't know if learning quickly is a proper goal anyway. It's like losing weight: Anyone can crash-diet a lot of pounds off, but because this way of eating is unnatural and unsustainable, they generally come right back on when one starts eating normally again. Another analogy: cramming for a test. We've all brute-force memorized key facts or formulae at the last minute and regurgitated them well enough to pass, but a week or a month later, all is forgotten. In the same way, it's possible to woodshed one's way through a piece of music enough to be able to play it at a lesson or a concert, but my experience has always been that it's gone from my fingers in the same amount of time I spent learning it. On the other hand, slow, steady, careful, relaxed practice sticks a lot longer.

To her credit, this teacher is not saying I need to master everything in an instant. To the contrary, I feel I'm in the adult student ghetto, where much latitude is given and few results are expected. We're all supposed to be doing it "for fun." In a way, of course, that's right. But in another way, if we wanted pure fun we'd spend our free time riding roller coasters (I personally hate roller coasters, but you know what I mean). Or playing EZ arrangements that take 5 minutes to learn.

What bothers me most of all is that playing the piano is starting to seem overwhelmingly impossible. Yes, I would like to have a better touch and tone, but I'd like more to keep playing and not get bogged down in perfectionism. Is it an either/or proposition? Or is there such a thing as just a little perfectionism, now and then, when it adds value? Okay, that's a rhetorical question, because as I'm thinking about it now, that's EXACTLY how it should work. No one can be perfect; instead, one aims for the illusion of perfection, or what makes the art seem to be perfect, and gradually, over time, these areas of high achievement spread and overlap.