Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Update - Still Playing

How has it been almost two weeks since I've blogged here? It's not because I haven't been practicing ... though the practice sessions haven't been as often as I'd like. I am continuing to work on the usual pieces, though my main focus for this past week has been the getting the fugue into my fingers. I guess it's been "nothing to write home about"--just slow, steady learning of measure by measure, starting with the final measure and working my way backwards. I can now play the entire second page through quite smoothly, if slowly. My next lesson is tomorrow and I have a busy night tonight, so I don't imagine I'll get much further.

I'm also getting through my scales in less time, now that I've upped the majors to 72 and the minors to 40. Those minors are not quite so tough anymore. Even C# and G# aren't too bad. Playing them every single day for a couple of months has worked its magic! (If regular practice can be called "magic"!)

Schubert and Chopin have been on the back burner, more or less, as I focus on Bach. I'm hoping to give both of them some time over the next week, though this weekend isn't promising, as I'll be on the road all weekend, and then I have late nights away from home both Sunday and Monday night.

Despite an upcoming dry period, I'm hopeful for continued improvement. In fact, I'm thinking of taking a few more days off before the end of the year, just for piano practice.

And that's it, folks. My meager update for this two week period. I have a lesson tomorrow, so perhaps you'll see a lesson update soon!

Friday, October 26, 2018

I've Started the Fugue!

Despite almost no time for practice last week, I managed to start writing in some fingering for the B-flat major fugue, starting at the end.

At my piano lesson yesterday, I played through the last few measures. We talked a bit about the fingering, and she agreed that my LH fingering in measures 45 and 46 will work well. Here's measure 45:
Bach said to use 3 and 2 for the C and E-flat, but I switched it to 2 and 1, which makes it easier for me to move from 5 to 3 in the bass. The thumb of my left hand just slides down from E-flat to D, and all is good.

I am so excited about playing another fugue! The C#-major one was a bear (albeit one that I loved dearly), and this one has been a lot easier (so far) to pick up. For the most part, the fingering flows pretty smoothly; I've only come across a few weird/nonstandard fingerings ... like this move from 4 to 5 in the LH:

Normally, you would go from 4 to 3 there, but the 3 is busy playing the B-flat above.

I just love Bach. I just love fugues. I love how they make my brain feel, and I love the challenge. So excited to be working on this piece!

Friday, October 19, 2018

Brass-Tacks Piano Lesson

Yesterday was my first lesson with my new teacher where I felt truly unprepared. Despite some good practice time over the weekend, I hadn't been able to practice more than a couple of scales (literally, a couple of scales) all week. So, it was pretty much another Week in the Life of an Adult Piano Student.

It was a good lesson, though. Carol gave me a lot to think about--my practice-work is now cut out for me, you might say.

I went through some scales and then a Hanon exercise, and she had me freeze mid-play, and pointed out how my left wrist had dropped. I was using pretty good technique in my right hand (as far as the palm being higher than the fingertips), but my left wrist had taken a dive. She'd mentioned something the week before about my left wrist needing to match my right wrist, and I'd thought about it ... but apparently I hadn't thought about it enough. So there was that.

The other issue was that I've adopted this loose, limp, flourish-y movement with the right hand (in particular) when I'm playing the higher notes, whether it's part of a scale or in the Schubert. Years ago, a teacher (I don't remember which) told me I was too tense and my hand was too stiff. I worked hard on having my hand be looser ... and maybe I went overboard? Mostly, I think it's just the result of not having thought about technique in many, many years, and falling into some bad habits.

So the takeaways from last week's lesson: wrist up, palm quiet. These two things combined should help my LH fourth and fifth fingers stop misfiring. Despite all the finger exercises I've done up to now, those two fingers (particularly the fourth) feel just a little out of control. I can't depend on them yet to play as evenly as the others. They are weak, yes, but my low wrist has made it even harder for them.

I played through the parts of the Schubert I'd worked on, more to double-check that I had all the notes right. I haven't started working on dynamics at all, and I've been practicing without the pedal (because that's what I do when I'm just learning the notes). It doesn't sound pretty, but that's part of the journey. She said to go ahead and continue learning the notes (I have about a page left of new material), and then we'll start the real work. I can't wait!!

I also played some of the Chopin, and I'm still too "plodd-y" in the left hand. So I need to put some real work into keeping it in the background. The high-wrist, quiet-palm thing should help with that.

And there is a lesson report. It felt like a very "brass tacks" kind of lesson: lots of focus on technique. Which is exactly what I need at this point.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Schubert: Cue the Hard Section

I really shouldn't refer to the ben marcato section as the "hard section." I'm sure that does something negative psychologically. Still, it's considerably more challenging than the flowing E-flat scales, and for several reasons. It's much more disjunct, for one thing, so that hands are jumping around a little. And then there are lots of accidentals, so your brain can't relax and just play what's expected for the key.

For my mom (and any non-theory people), what this means is:

If I'm in, say, B-minor, then I know that my fingers will be playing any combination of the following notes: B, C#, D, E, F#, G, and A (or generally, A#). Those are the notes in the B minor scale. So when I see a "C" in the music, I automatically know to play a C#. This is a challenge when you're first learning music, but I've played long enough (and I know my scales well enough), that I really don't have to think about it. My brain just automatically knows to play C#.

An accidental is when the composer says something like, "Yeah, you would normally play a C# here, but this one time I want you to play C-natural." (Or sometimes, in the case of this piece, C-flat!) There is a lot of that in the Schubert, so there is this ongoing adjustment of playing what's written vs playing what's expected.

There are also a few ... nonstandard? chords in there. As you might have noticed, I typically label every single chord in every single measure. This helps me because, if I know I'm in an E-minor chord (for example), then I know that (most of) my fingers will be playing E-natural, G-natural, B-natural, or some combination thereof. There is a lot of B-minor and F# major in this section, which makes it easier, but then there are things like this:

I'm not even sure what that is. It's an E-minor in the RH, and there's that A# in the LH. B-minor can have an A#, and we're in the key of B-minor, but ... what is that, even? An inversion of an A# diminished chord? And then we have that A# playing right next to the B-natural, which is quite dissonant and "sounds wrong" at first. I love the sound of the dissonance, but it doesn't feel like it "fits," and my hands and ears and brain took a minute before I could play it without concentrating too hard.

So this whole section is a mix of jumpy familiar chords (mostly B-minor, E-minor, and F# minor--the musical holy trinity of i-iv-V) and chords with accidentals. Here's part of what I worked on for my 20-minute practice this morning:

I also covered a few measures on the following page, plus the simpler, more repetitive section that I worked on yesterday morning.

In-Progress Recording

I hesitate to post my stumblings and bumblings with new material, but one of these days, when I have this piece down, I'll post all of the in-progress recordings together, and it'll be cool to hear the progress. This recording of measures 134 to 168 avoids being too stumbly and bumbly, mainly because I'm playing it at such a slow tempo. (I probably shouldn't use the word "tempo" here, as I'm not paying a lot of attention to timing yet.) This recording is of section shown above, plus the easier section from yesterday. I'm playing it very slowly--slowly enough that I can play it without missing notes.

This is what I call "laying down tracks." Going slowly, getting it into my brain and my fingers. I'll focus on dynamics a little later. For now, I just want to get the notes.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Bach Prelude: Coming Along (an in-progress recording)

Last night I grabbed about 20 minutes to focus on Bach. I have been playing the scale sections in swing and in rhythms of 4 (starting on a different note/beat for each run-through), all in the effort to make the scales smoother and more equal, without (in particular) my fourth finger on my left hand slipping and stumbling and making things uneven.

At the very end of my practice, I made a quick recording (without the metronome) to let my many (okay, two) (I think) readers hear how it's sounding. Keep in mind that my phone recorder is very low-tech (making everything sound loud), and that there wasn't much I could do about the air conditioning and the TV in the background. There are still a few spots of unevenness, and of course I missed a note or two (which is typical for when I'm recording something!), but overall I'm happy with how it's sounding so far.

Enjoy! (If you can't access it, please let me know in the comments.)

An Easy Section of the Schubert

Working backwards, I've been through several sections of the Schubert, which I outlined (a little) in some previous posts. I've been through the coda (which I found challenging) and then the E-flat minor section with all of the chromatic climbing (which I found challenging) and then the circle-of-fifths section (which I found less challenging but still challenging).

After that, I came to the E-flat major theme. Compared to what had come before? EASY. Really. It just flowed right along. All that scale work I've been doing has helped. This section is little more than running up and down on the E-flat major scale.

So this morning, it was time to move back to another ben marcato section, which is similar to what we had in the coda: marchlike, a little jarring, and generally lots of jumping around. Very different from the smooth, flowing scales of the main theme.

I was ready to dive into to a challenge. This section is in B minor, and it has lots of accidentals. So I dove in.

And it was ... easy! At least this first part was. It was just a bunch of repeating of the same thing, first on E-flat minor, and then on B minor. (Of course, if you play it forwards, it's B minor and then E-flat minor!)

Here's what I practiced this morning, starting at measure 154:

I'll admit, I was not expecting to get through 18 measures in a short 20-minute practice at 6:30 this morning. I peeked at the next few measures I'll still be working on, and it looks like there's some relatively simple repetition there, too. The tricky parts are coming, though! The challenge here is not to blow off these "easy" sections and to give them as much serious attention as I do the harder sections.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

This Voice Thing

I have written at length about voice on my other blog. Sometimes I ask myself why I'm doing this. It's so dispiriting to listen to recordings of myself, now a year or so into voice lessons, and still find my own voice ... less than pleasing. I feel kind of bad for my voice teacher -- I love my voice teacher, but each week he sees a student who feels frustrated and uninspired by her lack of progress.

Part of the problem is that I never do well in lessons. This is an age-old problem, of course. I never play piano as well in lessons as I do at home. There's always that nervousness that comes with playing for a teacher, even though I know I shouldn't feel it. When I'm home, I listen to opera all day long and sing "Libiamo" (from La Traviata) and "Voi che sapete" (from The Marriage of Figaro) with as much gusto as the most confident opera singer. At my lesson? My throat feels like a pinhole and I can barely choke out "Caro mio ben."

My voice teacher tells me that I just need to relax. I agree. (Though knowing how to relax is my problem.) Tension is a voice-killer. And I know that I carry my tension in my throat and jaw, so that doesn't help. I told him that I just wish there were some kind of magic formula--something that can transform my voice from its slightly off-key, hoot-owl sound into something beautiful, or at least pretty.

There is no formula. I need to relax. I need to be a not-stressed, not-tense person.

I don't know how to be that!

However, he did say (or I should say, he repeated) that there are some "magic-formula" type things I can do:
  • Stop swaying. I sway when I sing. That forces the body to constantly adjust for balance, which isn't great for the voice.
  • Open my mouth. Almost make it like I have a double chin.
  • Open my throat. Like I'm yawning.
  • Breathe from my diaphragm. Not from my neck, which is how I've breathed all my life.
  • Sing from my diaphragm. Not from my neck, which is how I've sung all my life.
  • Don't shrug my shoulders when I get to the high notes. Contrary to intuition, shrugging the shoulders (or stretching the neck, or standing on the toes) doesn't help with the high notes. Instead, I need to think down. As the notes get higher, the sound should come from a lower place, somewhere in my stomach.
  • Memorize my songs. (This has been a big challenge for me. I don't know why.)
He also suggested that I get a mirror so I can watch myself sing. So today I went to Walmart and bought a cheap full-length mirror. And tonight I watched myself sing, and cringed at all of the neck-stretching and shoulder-shrugging that was going on. But it was good, because it made me stop doing that.

Tonight I worked on "If Music Be The Food of Love." (Here's a nice recording of someone singing it on YouTube.) While I focused specifically on singing the entire song by memory, I also worked on the high notes. The highest note in this song is a high G, which I am perfectly capable of reaching. (I'm a soprano. Who knew?) But when I get to F, my voice goes hoarse. This happened a few times, and then I focused really hard on opening my mouth and on singing from my diaphragm.

Like magic, the high notes stopped sounding hoarse.

So maybe this is the magic formula. I recorded myself a few times, and I definitely don't sound terrible. Where I was singing off-key 50% of the time a year ago, I rarely fail to hit the notes now, even the high ones. So I've gotten better.

It would make perfect sense for me to quit voice and use my voice-practice time (and voice-lesson money) to focus on piano. But I'm not going to do that. I've come too far. Maybe I've just gone from "bad" to "mediocre," but still, I've come a long way. And I'm looking forward to my next lesson, where we'll take a break from the Italian songs (which I love) and focus on the English songs (which I love less and have therefore neglected for the past few weeks).

I'm also enjoying choir and feeling more confident in my ability to not distract everyone else with my off-key-ness. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.


This is not the greatest picture, but it's what awaited me last night while Anne played at a friend's house for a couple of hours and Dan worked on genealogy.

Henry the Grand Piano
I spent some more time on Chopin, but most of my efforts were on Bach, on playing the scaley parts in "swing time," as suggested by my piano teacher. I worked on keeping my LH relaxed and even took a side trip into Hanon to do some very slow exercises, focusing on just where my hand tensed up, slowing down, and playing so that it stayed relaxed. I think it was a useful (though not very interesting to listen to) exercise for my left hand.

This morning I started working on Schubert at 7:00 a.m. (sorry, sleeping family). I somehow managed to spend two hours on Schubert, which included writing in more fingering. (I'm finally starting on the easier E-flat-scale section.)

What does the rest of the weekend hold? I have to work today, which kind of depresses me. But this evening I hope to get a couple more hours of practice in. Tomorrow's going to be busy, so if I practice at all, it will be late tomorrow evening. And then ... I'll be back to my 20-minutes-a-day weekday routine.

But I love the picture above. I need more times in my life where Henry is waiting for me like that, and where I have a block of two or three hours to focus and play.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Chopin and The Magic Cord

So there is a magic, invisible cord in my body. Two cords, actually. They're relatively sturdy, they lead from my brain to my fingertips, and there's enough cord for some slack. If you loosen the cord, the body can put more weight into the keys. If you tighten it, the fingers "pull away" and play more lightly.

So that's what I imagine. The weight in the fingers comes from the body, from the core--not from the hands. When it's time to lighten up, the hands shouldn't tense; the core should control how much weight is used to strike the keys.

So last night I worked on a measure of the Chopin that, in all the years I've played this, I've never given much attention to: measure 83.

Here's what it sounds like, without the dynamics.

In this measure, you have an accelerando in the first half, and then a diminuendo in the second half. The measure starts at something like fortissimo. So there is this rushing that is simultaneous with a dying away. The hard part is that, my brain seems to have married loud with fast, and soft with slow. When I play louder, my hands want to speed up. When I play softer, the hands slow down.

So I worked on this last night. First, I focused on simply getting softer: concentrating on making each note-pair a little softer than the one before, pulling the cord back, thinking about just how loud I needed to be at the beginning in order to reach the goal softness at the start of the next measure. This took some slow playing, and some eyes closed in concentration.

Once I felt like I was getting the hang of it, I worked on the accelerando--on not yielding to the temptation to crescendo as I sped up. It wasn't easy. It wasn't intuitive. But I think I got some good work done. And visualizing the magic cord really helped. As I sped up, I just imagined the chord pulling my hands away, ever so slightly, and the sound got softer. And it sounded nice!

Oh, and I also had to practice the fingering. I belatedly realized that I'm not being consistent with the fingering, and I don't know if I've ever been. Call it laziness, or maybe it's that I'm not as enamored of the end of this piece as I am with the rest of it. Yeah, it's probably just laziness. Anyway, this measure needs attention, and I'm planning to give it more over the weekend.

Another thing: The reason I stumbled upon this measure last night is that I decided to try to play the piece starting with the last measure, and then the last two measures, and then the last three measures, etc. And guess what. It was a disaster. I couldn't play it! It felt like a brand-new piece.

So this nocturne, which I've played forever, is not as snugly in my brain and my fingers as I thought it was. I don't think it will take long to get it there. It's just going to take a few super-concentrated practice sessions.

For now, I'm having to put the magic cord away and go to work.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Archie the Thumb

I've named my left thumb Archie because he arches when I play piano.

Do you see that? Do you see how Archie isn't looking rested and relaxed? That, friends, is what a tense thumb looks like.

Oh, yes. That is not a happy thumb.

Why am I arching my left thumb? I don't do this on my right hand. Just the left. In this case, I was playing the fifth Hanon exercise. Archie is perfectly relaxed on the way up the keyboard, but he arches right up on the way down.

On the way up, the thumb leads off and my weak 4 finger doesn't have to work very hard:

Not so on the way down. On the way down, the 4 finger has a bigger role. And the 4 finger is weak.

This weakness throws off the balance of my whole left hand. And what does Archie do?

He arches. He's overcompensating. My whole hand is overcompensating, I think, by becoming tense and stiff. Gotta get that 4 finger to do its job! But this isn't good.

My left hand needs to be relaxed. Archie needs to chill. And my 4 finger (what shall I name him?) (and why are my fingers male?) needs to learn to carry its own weight.

The solution? I asked my teacher about this because I'm having some trouble with evenness in the Bach when I speed it up to 80. And I know it's all related to my weak 4 finger.

She said to practice in syncopations, or rhythms.

Rhythms. Of course. I practice in rhythms all time time, but it's usually to instill muscle memory when I'm learning a new piece, not to get my weak 4 finger to behave.

See, I didn't have a weak 4 finger before. They were all strong, and they would all do what I wanted. But 10 years away from the piano? It has consequences.

So I'll be focusing on rhythms in both Hanon and Bach, and Schubert for that matter. I want evenness. I want strength. I want Archie not to arch. I want Archie to be happy.

And I want Norman to get strong.

Oh geez. I just named my left 4 finger (the ring finger) Norman.

It's time for bed.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Me Practicing

I got an unexpected 20 or 30 minutes with Henry (and Schubert) tonight. Anne snapped a picture of what is "typical me" on a late evening.

If I ever become a concert pianist, I think I will have to perform with a pencil in my mouth. I'm not sure whether I know how to play without one.

A Day without Practice

Yes, life has returned to what it was before, now that my "fall break" (two days off from work) has ended. Yesterday morning I spent about 20 minutes at the piano, going through scales and a bit of Schubert. This morning, I had about 12 minutes, which I devoted mostly to scales and Hanon. I started to play through the Bach but I was distracted and playing too fast. So I played it through slowly, just so my brain wouldn't have those fast mistakes be the last thing it remembered ... and then I was done for the day.

And that, friends, is a slice of life as an adult piano student.

Now I'm at work. I've actually been at work for a few minutes, but no one is at the office yet, so I figured I could take five minutes for a quick piano blog post.

Work has been really hard lately. It's been difficult to think. My mind lacks its usual focus, and I'm struggling to get through the simplest tasks. When I finished work yesterday, I was so completely exhausted. I took a short walk around the block (because I hadn't exercised all day) and then I took a "headache shower" (hot shower with the spray beating right into my forehead and temples--very healing), put on some warm pajamas, lay down on the couch, and went to sleep. I think I slept 12 hours.

The only time I sleep that long is when I'm depressed.

On that walk, though ... my brain went to music theory. It went through all of the different versions of seventh chords: "Okay, starting with C major. Major seventh is C, E, G, and B. Dominant seventh is C, E, G, B-flat. Minor seventh is C, E-flat, G, B-flat. Diminished seventh is C, E-flat, G-flat, B-double-flat. Next is C-sharp. Major seventh is ...

And so on. It was an enjoyable exercise that, 30 years ago, would have given my theory-hating teenage self a headache. So, the fact that I thought it was fun yesterday ... I don't know if that's a sign that my brain has gotten sharper, or if I'm really losing it.

I usually try to take some time at lunch for practicing piano or voice (usually voice if it's mid-day), but today I have back-to-back meetings all day. Picking my daughter up early so I can get her to taekwondo for 4:15, at which time I'll fire up my computer and get another hour of work in. And then we have church at 5. Actually we have dinner at church at 5, and then Anne goes to children's choir while I help teach a pre-school class at 6, and then we have choir practice from 7 to 8:30.

By the time I get home at 8:45, I will probably crash into another coma.

Tomorrow is just as busy. But the good news is that I have a piano lesson after work. So, even if I'm not able to squeeze in a few minutes of practice between now and then ... I'll have an hour-long lesson to look forward to!

(Of course, Hurricane Michael is headed our way, so all those plans for tonight may change.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Early Morning Schubert

I slept fitfully last night, periodically waking in a kind of panic, my head pounding and my jaw aching. I do not like where my life is right now--not personally, not spiritually, not professionally. I'm just very unhappy, and I don't know if it's legitimate unhappiness or if a cloud of capital-D Depression has descended on me, coloring everything. It could quite possibly be legit unhappiness: It seems that every day I see or hear an announcement that someone I know has died, including a number of people who have died tragically young. So this cloud of sadness won't seem to go away, and I think music is serving as kind of a coping tool, or maybe an escape, for me these days.

This morning I woke up with a sense of dread. On top of the emotional stuff, I have too much to do, I'm behind in work after a couple of days off, and I've taken on far too many volunteer responsibilities than I can handle. I really feel like I'm heading for some kind of a mental breakdown. I just can't handle things.

But Schubert. I got out of bed, went downstairs to the kitchen, poured myself some coffee, and went to the music room. It was maybe 6:30. I normally start my practices with scales, but this morning I started on the music that was open on my piano from last night: Schubert.

I've been working on the antepenultimate page of the Schubert, on the measures in the late 190s/early 200s. A couple of days ago, I worked on measures 212 and following. Yesterday, I worked on measures 204 to 211. It's a challenging little section for me. The hard part is not so much finding the notes (though C-flat and E-double-flat are always tricky) but holding what needs to be held--and remembering when to let go of a note. This is a challenge in both the RH and the LH, but here are a few examples of where the 5 finger (pinky) is holding on to a note while the rest of the fingers keep playing:

The circled notes get held until the end of the measure.
At least I think that's how that's supposed to work. In the left hand, you can see the held notes and the rests and perhaps get a sense of how it can be tricky. In the end, the LH is to sound smooth and mostly unbroken while the high note in each measure of the RH sounds like a high little bell ringing above the rushing stream of the notes below. I may be wrong on that, but I'm going on what I see in the music and what I've heard in recordings.

This morning I worked on measures 193 to 203, or thereabouts. This section is a little easier than the one I worked on yesterday, so I ended up playing through more measures. It features the same high held notes as the section above, but the stretches are easier, and the chords fall more naturally under the hands.

The next step? Enter the metronome! Now that I have the notes figured out and am getting the hand of when to hold notes and when to pick them up, it's time to begin the ... s ... l ... o ... w ... drilling that has worked so well for me elsewhere.

I don't know how much time I'll have for all of this, now that I'm back at work and staring at an overstuffed calendar for the next few weeks. I do know that piano is a great escape, though ... so perhaps I'll get more practice time in that I'm anticipating.