Thursday, January 24, 2013

The innards of a lesson

I thought it might be interesting for any pianists out there if I posted a description in a little more detail of what I worked on in a piano lesson -- and also as a record for myself!

At my most recent lesson, this is what we did:

We talked about my ongoing issues with playing scales fast, and then my teacher asked me to play the trill exercise that I've been practicing every day for this past year (it's one he still does himself, I believe). After observing what I was doing, he suggested another exercise that's difficult to describe, but involves holding down each finger on a note and tapping each adjacent key with the next finger, allowing the other fingers on that side to move as a relaxed unit. So you would hold a C, for example, with the thumb, and then play the D with the index finger, keeping the other fingers close and relaxed. Then hold down index finger on D, play the C with the thumb. Then hold down D with the index finger, play E with middle finger, and so on.

Then I played the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 Preludio. I had a memory lapse in the middle and so stopped to pull out the music and started back at the beginning; after saying that it was coming along, my teacher observed that I was attacking melody notes with flat fingers -- kind of smacking them down -- creating a harsh sound. Also that I wasn't keeping a steady tempo, and that in the final section of the piece, where there are big chords that require a lot of leaping around with the left hand, that I was short-changing the rhythm. He turned on the metronome and we worked with that for a bit. Final observation was that a tricky octave run in the left hand was suddenly loud, though not marked to be, which was jarring.

At my last lesson, he had told me to start learning Brahms Op. 79 No. 1, one of the Rhapsodies, so I played the first page or so (haltingly). He suggested that in working on this, I should count carefully, and in terms of physically playing it, should not hold onto the chords after they sound, allowing the pedal to do so, because otherwise it's impossible to play it at the proper tempo.

We then moved to Brahms Op. 117 No. 2, the beautiful B flat minor Intermezzo. I played it all the way through, and then we started talking about something interesting: moving at the keyboard. He asked me to move as I played so that my torso was directly in front of where the melody was being played -- and mentioned a sort of "rule of nose," that your nose should be over the melody note. I tried doing this, and it did feel more organic and like I was more connected with what I was playing, so I'm going to try to do this with everything and see what happens.

My teacher mentioned that there are pianists who don't think you should move, and then others who move very subtly so it's not that dramatic. So there are different schools of thought on this. I know from my experience playing the cello that moving while you play is essential, especially in chamber music if you want to stay together. But in addition, it connects you with your instrument and you become more of a unit with it. This is always harder to do with the piano because, well, you aren't actually holding the thing.

We finished up with Bach, the C minor prelude and fugue from WTC I. I played them both all the way through (from memory). In the prelude (and I kind of knew I was doing this), he commented that my sound at the end was more strident than it was at the beginning -- and I don't remember what else, but I do know that I played it again, and it was better the second time. Then on the fugue, he said something like, "It was certainly lively!" though that wasn't entirely a compliment! And we ended shortly after that when the next student arrived.

What always surprises me is how much we cover in an hour. When I'm teaching, I'm doing well if we even get partway through two short pieces, yet in what I've just described, we worked on technical exercises and four different pieces, yet it didn't feel rushed. Anyone out there reading, what's your experience? How much stuff do you play at your lessons?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A year of piano lessons

It has now been a year since I started taking lessons from my current teacher. What I've been learning has certainly altered my perception of what playing the piano is all about.

One aspect of playing that he stresses quite a bit is the tactile one: feeling the keys and the vibration of the string and the resistance as you lift a key. I had never thought of the piano in that way; it always seemed like a big monster machine, maybe a giant manual typewriter. I've known all along I was missing something, especially in recent years, but the various teachers I've had never mentioned anything like this, and I was too focused on playing notes to notice subtleties like these. Oh, I suppose on occasion when I had the chance to play a really responsive and beautiful-sounding piano, I would think, "Hey, there's more to this than playing the right notes," but I didn't know how to take it any further.

Another concept completely new to me was how little force one needs to use. I was raised on lifting the fingers and hitting the keys hard, but I'm learning that creating volume comes from the combination of using the wrist, the weight of the arm, and the speed with which the key is depressed, and that actually, plenty of volume usually is created without exerting a lot of effort. It's a kinder, gentler, more relaxed approach to playing the piano, and I think a warmer, purer sound is the result (though of course I still have a long way to go).

And then there is the matter of how to move around the keyboard, execute big leaps, and play fast -- all things I used to try to do with brute force and wishing for luck. In combination with using less effort, per the previous point, I'm finding I can play faster and more easily.

The whole issue of voicing, while not new to me, has been a major theme. How very much one must bring out the important line, and keep everything else in the background, is constantly surprising.

Most of all I have appreciated my teacher's patience and willingness to hold me to higher standards, though he always does so with good humor. I know when he tells me to do something, it's based on what he is hearing and not on a lesson plan or a rote instruction.

So sign me happy (music) camper.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Another year already??

I am way overdue for the obligatory new year's post: an occasion to evaluate the previous year and make resolutions for the next one.

The main comment I have is that this past year has flown by. In some ways it has been exciting: I finally am having the kind of piano lessons I have always wanted; I am really getting back into playing the cello; I started teaching again. I am more involved with music than I have been since I was at the conservatory. In other ways it has been frustrating: I never feel I have enough time to do justice to anything; my day job is less than compelling. I have done a lot of soul searching and pondering on what it all means and whether I'm following my best path.

In the big picture, I am very fortunate. I have the easy life of a person in a modern Western country, with the means and the leisure to follow my enthusiasms. I am limited only in the ways all people are limited.

I want to make some changes, but I do feel I am working from a good base already. So we shall see.