Sunday, August 26, 2012

What I'm playing this week

I haven't done one of these posts in a long time, so here goes:

On the piano:
Scales and arpeggios, hands together, parallel and contrary motion (C minor this week; btw, with all those years of piano lessons, this is the first time I've learned scales in contrary motion); trill exercises; and chord progressions (modulations using I/V7 and I/II7). Reasons and aims: obvious.

Bach, WTC I in D minor and WTC I in B flat minor. I am breaking my self-imposed rule here by moving on to another piece before memorizing the last one. Also, I'm going back to one I learned, memorized, and recorded a little over a year ago. However, this is what my teacher has suggested, so I'm going with it. I'll keep working on the B flat minor set at least to keep it in my fingers. It really is a hard one to memorize because the texture is so thick, with big chords in the prelude and five voices in the fugue, plus the key is more complicated. The D minor from Book I has some challenges that are things I need to work on: moving the hand instead of stretching, learning to separate different lines within the same voice (in the perpetual triplet patterns in the right hand), keeping track of the beats when the modulations don't fall in with the bar lines. I don't exactly have to unlearn everything I did last year, but almost.

Chopin, Preludes 1 to 4. The idea with these is to eventually perform them as a group. No. 3 is still the sticking point. I may need to practice this for another year before I get it.

Brahms, Op. 116 No. 6 and 118 No. 1. These are exercises in subduing all but one line. One overarching characteristic of Brahms' music is its thick, complicated texture (many voices, many rhythms, many unexpected modulations), and these pieces are miniatures containing all of these elements. 118 No. 1 is something I worked on on my own for a couple of years, to little avail, so we'll see if it's better this time around. (I think it will be.)

Schumann, Kinderszenen, Nos. 1 to 7. I'm up to "Traumerei." At the last lesson I had on this, we talked about schmaltz and how to achieve it on the piano. See, I'm used to being able to get this on the cello by using a lot of vibrato and a lot of sliding shifts -- aside from the fact that the cello is in itself the essence of schmaltz in music. On the piano, it's a different experience -- you have to learn to sing the melody and to apply rubato to get this effect.

One thing I've been noticing is that even when I play music that I'm not working on in my lessons, I'm thinking about what my teacher would say if I were. So this is good. It's the "teach a man to fish" approach.

On the cello:
I have to admit I'm kind of bummed out that I couldn't do the audition I wrote about a month ago, even though I know it would have been an exercise in frustration, given all the other things going on in my life.

In lieu of that, I have been wanting to relearn the Schumann concerto and the Bach E flat suite -- both pieces I learned when I was in school. I performed the Bach on a recital but never felt like I really imbibed it totally. In some ways it's the most difficult because the key is so awkward on the cello.

And then the Schumann -- this piece has always intimidated me; it's so very unidiomatic to the instrument. I guess I started thinking about it because it was one of the two concertos one could choose to play at the audition, and I realized it was a real deficit that I had never brought this to any kind of polished level because it IS one of the great romantic works, period, let alone for the cello.

I've made some stabs at both of these pieces, but I have been frustrated by lack of time, at least if I want to sleep more than 4 hours a night and eat regular meals.

We have an orchestra concert coming up in about a month, but the music for this is not difficult, so not much practicing is required. The folk group may become more active now that summer is ending and people are back from vacations.

That's about it for now. Not terribly exciting, but at least I'm keeping at it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Piano progress

I thought I'd report on how things are going with the piano after about a half a year of lessons with my current teacher. It's been my best lesson experience ever, and I want to explain why.

The overwhelming benefit is that he has patiently gone back to the beginning and is teaching me the basic motor skills needed to play the piano. This is something no piano teacher I've had has done. The others have just let me slug out the notes without much discussion of how to do it. All I remember my first teacher, with whom I started when I was 9 years old, mentioning by way of instruction on technique was to curve my fingers, keep my hands still, and lift my fingers high, plus practice with the metronome to get pieces up to tempo. Now, granted, I wasn't the most diligent practicer back then, but I probably did more than a lot of kids, and I really had some native talent, but I learned nothing about how to produce and control the sound that came out of the instrument or even really listen to it, except in the simplest way. Subsequent teachers were pretty much the same.

These lessons, however, have been very different. I don't know how this all would have fallen out had I been the sort of student who insisted on playing only advanced repertoire or my favorite pieces, or who quibbled about what my teacher was asking me to do, but it all has made sense, and he somehow inspires trust, so I've gone with it and have done, or tried to do, everything he has suggested. I think it sounds better. It definitely feels better.

As far as repertoire goes, my sense is that it has been chosen to build certain skills. I've not found it boring or limiting -- the pieces, though short, are all masterworks in the piano literature. After all those years of flailing around with pieces that were much too difficult, I appreciate being given music that I can realistically get my hands around, and in an organized fashion. At the same time, the challenges are such that I would have had a very hard time figuring them out on my own.

Another facet has been experiencing a way of teaching that is both demanding and respectful. I've had a few teachers who were "nice" (like that first one) but who never asked for much more than just playing all the right notes. Most of the others (and this is both piano and cello) were demanding, all right, but in that unfortunately typical teacher way of making the student feel stupid -- acting as though the answers were so obvious that only an idiot would miss them. I've certainly had a lot of moments with my current teacher of feeling stupid, but I never feel I can't ask questions or that he pretends to have all the answers and I'm just being obtuse.

I'm probably not your average adult piano student, given the intensity of my musical background. But my aesthetic sense of the piano is pretty crude. I am now learning how to listen more acutely to other people's playing as well as my own -- what is a beautiful sound, and why? What makes something expressive? It's great to be able to discuss these things every week with someone who has definite opinions.

I have occasionally pondered whether I would have benefited from this type of teaching if I had had it earlier in my life. Aside from the fact that it's a moot point because there's no time machine -- and also, even if there were, it's not so easy to find such teaching, so I kind of lucked out here -- I think I may not have been ready for it, or at least not as receptive to it as I am now. For one thing, I am a mature adult and so have more patience and perspective. For another, because I have experienced the frustration of trying to do things my way in the past, the help I am getting now is a much-appreciated lifeline. Also, and this is key, it hasn't been until the past few years that I have firmly established the habit of practicing every day and of sticking with it for the long haul no matter what.

So those are my notes from the bench.