Friday, September 30, 2011

New Bach recording

In honor of our orchestra dress rehearsal tonight, I took the day off of work today, which gave me time to record this:

WTC I No. 18 in G sharp minor

Perhaps it is premature because I may go to my lesson this weekend and find that there are all kinds of things I can work on -- which I am sure is true -- but on the other hand, this meets my current standards (it's memorized, I can play it fluently, I was able to get a clean recording).

So here it is -- enjoy! Any comments are welcome.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Progress (what I'm working on, current edition)

I am almost ready to record WTC I/18. The seemingly magical switch from halting, tedious effort to making music has happened once again, and I can play through both prelude and fugue from memory with at least a modicum of interpretive finesse.

I am also making progress on the Debussy First and Second Arabesques. The second is nearly memorized -- I'm just working on getting all the sections to flow together without stumbles. The first started at a more advanced place because I was so familiar with it, but any mysteries are being resolved. It has taken me about a month to get to this stage, compared with four months for the most recent Bach set. It seems most music that is not Bach is so much simpler and easier to grasp.

The impossible Scarlatti Toccata is feeling better.

When my right hand starts feeling overworked, but before anything hurts, I've been stopping and practicing some Berens exercises for the left hand. I really like these; they simple and definitely pedagogical (various scale and arpeggio patterns in various keys), but they are musical as well.

My second piano lesson is scheduled for this coming weekend. I'm looking forward to it and hope that it will provide further enlightenment.

We also have an orchestra concert on Sunday, so I've been getting reacquainted with my cello over the past couple of weeks. We've been getting along pretty well, so far.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Taubman tidbit

At my recent piano lesson (described in my previous post), while we were talking about my interest in learning Bach, my teacher mentioned a pianist who teaches at the Golandsky Institute seminar every summer in Princeton: Father Sean Duggan. He is a Benedictine priest who teaches at SUNY Fredonia and who won the International Bach Competition twice, in 1983 and 1991.

I came across an interview with him in which he said this:
"The Golandsky/Taubman approach is useful for Bach,” Duggan says. “It’s useful for any piano playing. Ease at the keyboard, facility, and tone production come into play with Bach. Even pedaling. I believe that when you’re playing Bach on the piano, you should use the resources of the piano to make the music come alive. If you try to make the piano sound like a harpsichord, the pieces sound dry and lifeless. You have to be true to Bach and, also, true to the piano.

“Edna had a big impact on my performing and my teaching,” Duggan says. “My performing keeps improving, and my teaching has grown a lot. Edna is a remarkable teacher. She has incredible insight. She knows the right words to use to get you to do the right thing. She has razor-sharp eyes and ears. A lot of teachers have that, but she has it to an extent that I have never before experienced in anybody else.”

I would love to hear him play.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New teacher, first lesson

I had my first lesson with the new teacher over the weekend. He is a Taubman technique devotee/trainee. I did not seek him out strictly because of that but because I feel having this focus on the physical -- how you are using your muscles in dealing with the piano -- offers some promise of staying away from mysticism. What I mean by "mysticism" in relation to piano lessons: attempts to define, explain, and categorize the various phenomena involved in playing with things that have no basis in physical fact. For example, I once had a teacher tell me that my approach to learning music was "masculine." Excuse me? And that means what? And of course is what every young woman wants to hear. Or my recent teacher's constant marveling at how I was able to play anything at all, given that I work all day -- aside from making me feel like a freak of nature, how does that help me figure out how to improve? I want someone who can look at what I'm doing at the moment and tell me what is preventing me from playing better.

And of course, there is an appeal in working with someone who at least has learned some relatively proven methods of avoiding pain and stress and gaining fluidity. Naturally, you never know how well someone can teach something that he knows, but at least you are starting with a basis that means something.

Don't know if any of that makes sense, but, FWIW ...

Anyway, I felt we communicated well and on the same wavelength (oops! a little mysticism there, I guess!), and I found this initial lesson helpful. I have not decided if I want to plunge into what in Taubman they call "retraining," which tends to commit one to some months of no music, just exercises. For now, I'm just going to keep plugging away at my chosen pieces. The first thing I played yesterday was my current Bach prelude and fugue. They are at the stage where they are almost memorized but not quite, so I used music and played them all the way through, which in itself was extremely helpful to me. Yes, I could play them for my husband or my friends, but as I may have mentioned in the past, playing for the relatively uneducated listener (i.e., musically speaking) stresses me out more than playing for other musicians. The former tend to be very ho-hum -- if something does not sound bad, they think it must be easy -- and easily bored, and then they say things like, "Well, as long as you're enjoying yourself!"

After I played, we talked about what I thought could be better followed by what he thought could be better. I mentioned my perennial problem with rushing, and he pointed out things I could do with phrasing and figuring out where to breathe and where to shape lines that could help. From there, we got into a little Taubman work -- he noted that my weaker fingers (3 and 4) are pretty tense, and that in general I am curving way too much.

We kind of left it that I would just keep these observations in mind but continue to work on my pieces -- the Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Scarlatti, or whatever else I want to learn. It's a little amorphous -- I mean, don't we all at least secretly want some genius taskmaster to say, "I want to you do this, this, and this," which then will magically solve all our problems? -- but on the other hand, I really am a big girl now and can think for myself, at least on a good day. So I will have another lesson in a few weeks. At the very least, this gives me a goal that is not as stressful as a performance as well as the opportunity for some educated feedback.

Monday, September 5, 2011

This and that

I see it's been a month since my last blog post. Here is a rambling post reflecting my rambling frame of mind.

I've been practicing the piano -- mostly my current Bach prelude and fugue (WTC I/18 in G sharp minor), and almost have it memorized.

I've also been learning Debussy First and Second Arabesques. The First Arabesque, in E major (more or less -- though there is some whole-tone tonality thrown in) is popular with intermediate students, and I'm very familiar with it, but I've never heard anyone play the Second Arabesque (G major). I thought it would be a good exercise to learn them both. Debussy wrote both pieces in 1888, and they were his first works for piano, I believe.

I have dabbled a bit in two Scarlatti sonatas (the Toccata I have mentioned in earlier posts and the beautiful slow sonata in F minor that is played a lot). Schumann has gone by the wayside mainly from lack of time and energy -- my job has been demanding this summer, and I've been coming home drained and tired, and there are some technical things in Papillons that I'm afraid I could hurt myself with if I proceed without due consideration. I figure it's better to play whatever I play with deep concentration and as well as I can rather than forcing myself to do everything I had hoped but at a lesser level.

I've been experimenting with different fingerings for my old nemesis passages in the first movement of Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3. At the Taubman workshop I attended this past spring, in my 15 minutes with Edna Golandsky, she suggested playing the double thirds as well as the broken arpeggios beginning of the development with two hands. With the former, a little extra muddiness is introduced because you have to hold down the pedal to keep the left-hand notes sounding, but it's extremely freeing -- the beginning of the piece goes from potential disaster to "Hey, this is fun!" With the latter, it's slightly trickier because you have to jump around the keyboard, but most of the tendonitis-causing tension from trying to play the arpeggios with the right hand alone disappears.

It really bugged me that when I brought this piece to my teacher this past spring, after working a bit on those first measures, she kind of threw up her hands and said, "Some pieces just aren't meant to be played!" I knew, of course, that what that really  meant was that she didn't know how to teach it, having never played it, but this pronouncement zapped my confidence. I mean, here I'd worked on this on and off for almost a year, feeling like it just needed some tweaking to be pretty good, and this is what I got instead.

This, among a multitude of other reasons, is why after mulling it over during the summer I decided that even though I did learn some things from this teacher, I didn't want to continue with her in the fall. I have made contact with another teacher who was recommended to me by several people, and I will have my first lesson next weekend, so we'll see.

Cello playing has been limited. For one thing, I hurt my shoulder while we were on our vacation (I think it happened when I slipped coming down the steps of a double-decker tourist bus and kept myself from falling by grabbing the handrail -- which wrenched my shoulder). It wasn't so severe that I noticed it much until we were at home -- and it was exacerbated especially by the motion required to move the bow across the cello strings. I decided to rest it as much as I could, like in the old joke:
Patient: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
Doctor: "Then don't do that."
(Okay, it's not funny. But you get my point.)

This plan appears to have been working because most of the pain is gone, and I can play the cello with only a touch of soreness now. I got together with our neighborhood band and played for a couple of hours, and my shoulder feels pretty good. This is good, because we start rehearsals for the first orchestra concert of the season in a couple of weeks.