Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Slowly and Diligently, and Bach

Once again, my failure to blog does not translate into a failure to practice. While I still have days where I don't play a single note, those days are few. Most days I'm managing to spend an hour or so at old Henry. On Sunday, I spent three. After that three-hour session, I decided that three hours of practice per day would be just about right.

Alas, I cannot beam myself back to 1989 or 2004, when I actually had that kind of time.

So I practice when I can.

I can now play all of my pieces—the prelude and fugue, the nocturne, and the impromptu—perfectly (at least when it comes to striking the right notes) ... at about half the tempo they're supposed to be.

For the next few weeks, it will be a process of diligently playing these pieces over and over again at a certain notch on the metronome ... and then moving up a notch. And playing them ad nauseam at that notch ... and then, moving up another notch. Until I can play it at my goal tempo.

It's going to be a slow but enjoyable process. Last night I practiced the prelude at something like ♪=84, playing it through eight or ten times, and then I moved it up to ♪=88 and played it half a dozen times at that tempo. I had to stop a few times to work on the left hand in measure 10, going more slowly and in rhythms, because my fourth finger kept misfiring near the end of the phrase:

The rest of the piece sounds machine-like in its evenness (I'm probably flattering myself here, but it does sound pretty even) ... all except those few notes ... some of the time. Sometimes they're perfect ... but not every time, which tells me that the "perfection" sound may just be luck. I want to know, every time I get to that part, that those notes are going to be even. I know I'll get there. It'll just take time.

There was one other part that was plaguing me in the same way, and I have gotten there:

This is the end of measure 8 and the beginning of measure 9. It's similar to the downward run in measure 10, but it's all white notes, whereas the left hand in measure 10 starts with a B-flat. Also, the LH fingering in measure 10 is 2-3-4-5, while the LH fingering here is 1-2-3-4. This particular four-note sequence has proven to be a challenge, with the fourth finger misfiring, and the 2-3-4 going to fast and falling out of step.

Alas! (Why do I feel so compelled to talk like a late 19th-century poet today?) It's no longer a problem. Lots of rhythms and slow practice (along with a daily regimen of Hanon exercises) have helped to eliminate that little problem. So I know that the measure 10 misfiring will someday be the stuff of history.

I'd planned to write about my other pieces here, but this blog post has already gone long, and it's time for me to start work. I just learned that my 11:00 meeting got canceled, so maybe I'll update the blog again then ... nah. I'll go practice!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Catching Up

Greetings from your long-absent piano blogger! Have my three regular readers been wondering what happened to me? Well, in this case, infrequent blogging does not translate to infrequent practice. What it does translate to is a lot of life-stress, particularly related to work, and I haven't had the time or desire to be at the computer any more than necessary. So no blogging.

I do want to write a quick update, though, for myself as much as for anyone who is reading this. The main reason I started this blog was so I could track my own progress, so I want to start doing that again. Below is a quick update on my progress in everything.

Slow and steady is the rule here. I'm slowly, very slowly, working my way up the metronome. I'm still not playing anything fast (72 for major scales, 52 for minor), but I'm working on playing everything perfectly--smoothly, with total control. I now have near-total confidence in being able to play all the notes of a given scales; for those pesky black-key harmonic minors (C#, G#, and Eb minor, I'm looking at y'all), I no longer feel like I'm re-learning the scales every time I play then. I know them. I know what's coming next, and I don't need to much time to think about it. I don't know if I've ever known the harmonic minors (including contrary motion) as well as I do now. Perhaps I did, but I don't remember.

Arpeggios seem really easy. I've always thought they were hard, but they are so ... well, they just seem so easy. Have I changed somehow? I don't know. I'm going through all of them (major keys) at 80 (or something), and not having a problem.

Oh, Hanon, how I love you! I have had too many piano teachers who didn't require, or even assign, Hanon. But I do love it. I have been playing the first dozen or so exercises just about every day, and I can tell that my finger-independence has improved. My hands are also less tired at the end than they used to be, so I think I'm building endurance too!

I can play the whole thing! It's taken forever (such is the life of the adult piano student), but I have all the fingering down and can play through the piece just about perfectly, albeit at a slow tempo. Now I'm taking them in short sections and working up the speed for each short section. a few more weeks of this, and I'll be playing it the way I've always imagined!

As with the Schubert, I can play the whole thing(s)! I have the prelude at a pretty good speed, though my left hand 4th and 5th fingers aren't always behaving. To help with that, I've been doing a lot of rhythms. I also think the Hanon exercises are helping. The fugue is at a similar place as the impromptu: I can play it perfectly (at least in terms of hitting the right notes) as long as I don't play it too fast, so now I'm working up the speed in short sections. Also as with the impromptu, I imagine that, in just a few weeks, I will have this down and will really get to focus on bringing out the different melodies/themes.

I think I'm playing the Chopin as well as I've ever played it. I still have a few areas to work on, but I feel like I am so close with this one.

What's Next?
I'm still pretty deep into these pieces, so I'm not consciously thinking of what I want to play next. I've also been mulling over some general music goals recently, so I'll likely be writing more about those as we get into the new year.

That's about it! I'm in North Carolina for several days with no access to a piano for practicing. So I'm counting the days (3) until I am reunited with Henry the Grand!

Monday, December 03, 2018


I've hit a milestone. It's not a particularly measurable milestone, but I know that I've hit it.

Ever since I started taking lessons again, I've had this sense of, "Ugh, I'm so out of piano-playing shape. My fingers are weak. My timing is off. My technique is bad. I can't remember the minor scales. Ugh, ugh, ugh."

Of course, there wasn't that much ugh. There is always piano love and piano happiness and piano joy. But I was definitely out of piano shape, physically and mentally.

I'm getting back into shape.

I've been playing a lot of Hanon, some of it quite slow, always focusing on keeping my thumb relaxed and forcing my fourth and fifth fingers (particularly on the left hand) to work. This has been a challenge, but I can tell that my fourth and fifth fingers are starting to feel more independent, starting to carry more of their own weight. This is huge.

The Chopin is starting to sound good. I don't know if I'm playing it as well as I played it in 2005 with Deborah, but I'm getting there. I'm playing it more intentionally than I did before. I've done an analysis of the whole thing, so I know exactly where I am at all times, and there is something to be said for that. (What, I don't know.) I've also been working hard at playing "levels of softness," and it's helped my Chopin-playing.

The Bach prelude sounds good as well. I still need to do some work with rhythms to get it perfectly even, but I have the notes down cold. And even the fugue is coming along. I can play through the entire thing, start to finish, at a super-slow pace. I could probably hum each of the three parts by heart .... okay, maybe not totally, but almost.

And the Schubert ... ahh. I hit a milestone this weekend when I finally got the fingering down for everything and can play the entire piece slowly. So now I'm ready to do the real work! I love that final page, the Coda ... I have it down pretty well, at tempo, and it is soooo much fun to play--so loud and powerful and tempestuous! Like me! Ha ha!

Oh, and scales! I can play the majors perfectly at 76! And the minors at a little slower than that! All contrary-motion, of course. Neither are "fast" yet, but I can play them, and they feel comfortable. I'm no longer uncertain about where my fingers should go. I just know. I guess practicing every single scale, every single day, will do that to you.

These days, I'm just feeling a greater sense of power at the piano, something that has come from the many hours of practice (including finger exercises ... so many finger exercises), and from detailed, focused study of where the music is going from measure to measure. I have put in the work, and will continue to put in the work ... and I'm starting to see results.

It's all strange because it seems I'm never able to get any focused, long-term practice in. It's all just 10 minutes of scales here, some finger exercises there, twenty minutes of work on a measure of the Bach a little later, maybe ten minutes to play through the Schubert Coda a couple of times. That's it. But every little bit really does count.

Piano life is good.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Bach, Measure 27

Yesterday the plan was to work on Schubert, and I did ... but I spent another half-hour on Bach, specifically measure 28 of the fugue.

I had a hard time with this one. A couple of measures before, the F is sharped, and I kept wanting to play F#, particularly in the left hand. I finally ended up writing in a natural sign. I also couldn't figure out which fingering to use on that same F-natural. Four on F-natural, five on E-flat? Playing a black key with 1 or 5 is almost never a good idea, though it's occasionally necessary. Bach said to use 3, and I ended up going back to 3, even though it's a stretch from the 1 on D.

I also struggled to hear the individual voices at the end of the measure when the soprano comes back in. I don't like to use the word "struggle" because that implies that the process wasn't enjoyable, and it was totally enjoyable. It took some concentrated work, and I forgot time as I played the voices hands separately, played slowly, played in different rhythms, etc. I finally got the measure down and moved to the previous one and practiced (briefly) playing it with the two on either side.

I didn't practice as much as I wanted this weekend. While I spent several hours at the piano, they were somewhat distracted, with quite a few interruptions. Still, I'm thankful for what I can get. Today I have a piano "make-up" lesson because we're not having a lesson on Thursday (Thanksgiving).

Time to get to work!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

My Favorite Type of Practice

Today's practice was broken into several short sessions.

This morning, I tackled scales and arpeggios: All major scales at 72, all harmonic minor scales at 40. I feel like I could go a good bit faster on both, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. As always, I'm playing four octaves with contrary motion.

Arpeggios are going well, I guess. I'm playing them the "old" way--or the "pre-Deborah" way. Deborah told me not to worry so much about connecting the notes, at least not to the point of twisting my hands this way and that. But now I'm back to the old, legato way ... which is fine. It's actually easier. Plus, I'm not doing contrary motion. It's just four octaves, repeated once, and that's it. I think it's good to do it this way for now. I'm definitely out of practice, and while I'm finding the arps "easy," I know there's always room for improvement.

At another short practice, I played through Hanon exercises 1-11. Then I did exercise 11 (my assignment for the week) as legato, staccato, and "swing." The focus there is on keeping my hand relaxed--which, even on these simple exercises, is a challenge for me.

And then ... and THEN! This afternoon I had my favorite kind of practice: A whole hour devoted to just a few measures! The focus tonight was the fugue, measures 30 to 35.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around those few measures. The biggest challenge for now is the accidentals. I'm in B-flat, but Bach keeps marking the B's and the E's as naturals, and then adding F-sharps and C-sharps, and it changes with each measure. The only measure of this group that doesn't have accidentals is measure 31, and it's by far the simplest.

I say that the accidentals are the biggest challenge for now because the true challenge is yet to come: making the three different voices distinctive. For the moment, I'm just trying to get the notes.

I worked on the measures individually, playing slowly, playing in rhythms, really listening for the voices, paying attention to what chord each set of notes was hinting at. Once I mastered a measure, I would play it with the others I'd practiced, and then move to the next one. Between the slow pace and all of the repeats, I managed to while away a whole hour on these six measures. I could have gone longer ... and, in fact, I did.

Tonight I returned to Henry to revisit what I'd practiced a few hours earlier. I ended up changing some of the fingering in measure 33. By the time I had to quit (an hour later), these measures were sounding pretty good. When I practice tomorrow, I'm going to work on transitioning from measure 35 to measures 36 and beyond ... which I have pretty well. And if that goes well, I'll work on going from measure 29 (and before) to 30. Just to make sure everything is about equal.

Then, and only then, will I move to new measures.

I am about 2/3 of the way through learning the notes. This is not an easy piece, even though it's considerably less complicated than I remember the C# major fugue being. And I think it's harder for me since I've been away from the piano for so long.

At the same time, if I have to think of a single adjective for this fugue, "hard" isn't it. Neither are "difficult" or "challenging" or "tough." The first word that comes to mind is "fun." And "adventure," even though that isn't an adjective. "Brain-massage" is another non-adjective that still seems a perfect description for this fugue, or any fugue.

I really love practicing Bach. I should get a few hours at Henry tomorrow. While I'll spend some of my time on Bach, the majority is going to go to Schubert, who has been sadly neglected for a couple of weeks now.

I'm so happy to have a few quality days with Henry.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Piano Time on the Horizon!

OK, so maybe I'm not going to the beach, but I do see some quality piano time on the near horizon of my life!

It's Friday, and my family has no plans for the evening. That means I will (metaphorically) clock out at 5:30 or so, and then I descend up on Henry the Grand and spend a few hours practicing ... oh, I don't know ... Schubert, probably.

We do have a few things planned for tomorrow, but just a few. I'm hoping to spend a good chunk of the morning with Henry.

And then I have Sunday afternoon. A whole afternoon with Henry!

My husband and daughter are tossing around the idea of going to the beach for the first few days of the Thanksgiving holidays. I am gently encouraging them to go and have fun. Meanwhile, I'll stay home (since I don't have vacation until Thursday) and ...

PLAY THE PIANO! (when I'm not working, of course)

And write. And think. And walk. And read. And do all those things I never have time for.

Most important is piano. I am going to have time with my piano.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Just Like Starting Over

This morning I returned to Schubert for the first time in a couple of weeks.

You read that right. It's been about two weeks (maybe more?) since I last practiced Schubert.

There is something wrong with your life and your priorities when you don't have 30 minutes a day to spare for piano practice or voice practice. And there is definitely something wrong.

Not only have I not had time for piano, I haven't had time for writing, exercise, meditation/prayer, reading, listening to music, blogging, or even housework. It seems I go from work (where I'm always behind) to toting Anne places (where I'm always in a rush, and always late).

Take, for instance, right now. I'm sitting down at 7:40 (work doesn't start until 8:30). My calendar has my first three hours blocked off for non-priority stuff that I need to get out of the way before I start on the priority stuff. But I just checked the ticket queue, and guess what. I have a good hour's worth of client communications to do. Know what that means? Do it now or wait until work hours--which means bumping the priority project back another hour.

I can't get ahead. In fact, I'm not even keeping up. I feel like I'm falling a little (or a lot) more behind every single day.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, I did manage to re-visit Schubert for a few minutes this morning. It was 6:30 a.m. and my sleeping family probably didn't appreciate it, but it's the only time I'll have today. The rest of the day is work, then church, then choir, and I won't be back till almost 9 p.m.

I stumbled through pages of what I'd already learned. I hadn't played the new material enough to build muscle memory, so it felt a little bit like relearning. The closer I got to the end, the better I sounded. The final page didn't sound bad at all. But those earlier sections? Just like starting over. So I will have some work to do to get all of that back. Hopefully it will come easy once I've worked on it a bit. And then I can move on to learning the rest of the piece.

Scales sounded good, though. As did arpeggios. So that's good.

Still, I feel angry and depressed this morning. I never have a moment for myself unless, like this morning, I wake up after five hours of sleep to grab 15 or 20 minutes at the piano. I guess I should be grateful that I have a piano. I just wish I had more time for it.

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.