Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tonight's Practice

I didn't have a very long practice tonight. I'm a little disturbed about what a challenge it's been to speeding up my scales and arpeggios. I can play them perfectly up to a certain tempo, but if I try to go past that tempo, my hands just start slapping at the keys, not even trying to hit the right notes. It's as if they're saying, "I can't do this, so I'm not even going to try. So there. Blah."

I think I have some idea of the reason for this strange problem. I know the notes. I don't think it's an issue of not knowing what notes to play. I think part of the issue relates to the fact that I've been slowly, over the last year or two, adopting a new technique of relaxed hands and using my arms more and my fingers less. My hands don't seem to understand how to unite "relaxed" mode with "playing really fast" mode. My hands almost feel lazy.

I worked on the Suzuki Beethoven some. Not much to report there.

For the fugue, I reviewed my work from the last practice and began work on another measure. I really felt tired, though, and didn't feel like I was benefitting much from the practice. So, after I completed the measure, I moved on to the prelude and simply worked on emphasizing the leading voices. So much easier said than done.

Then I moved on to Liszt. Resisted the urge to just sit down and play it through, and instead worked on the final line of the piece, trying to make it sound more "shaped" and less ... like a bunch of randomly twinkling stars. I worked in rhythms and was surprised (once again) that I didn't know the line as well as I thought I did.

That's about it for tonight. The entire practice lasted about 50 minutes.

No Practice December 8

I spent the day in Charlotte for the Thunder Road Half-Marathon. Didn't get to practice piano, though I did play a bit on my birthmom's keyboard that afternoon.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Practice 12/7/06

Only an hour or so of practice tonight. I've been feeling a little depressed and sluggish and wasn't in the mood for practicing.

I fell apart on scales and arps again. I ended up spending quite a bit of time on them, particularly the scales (Gb and eb). I tend to mess up in the same spot in the LH, no matter what scale I'm playing, regardless of whether I'm in major or minor. I worked through that LH spot, worked in rhythms, played it very slowly, etc., and then was able to play the scale perfectly at 88. I still feel a little "shaky" about it, though.

I played through the Suzuki Beethoven. Didn't really practice it.

Went straight to the fugue and learned four new measures. Yes, four! I saved the easiest least complex page for last, and it was nice to be able to learn four measures in just ten or so minutes.

I worked on tone quality and emphasizing the "leader" in the first page of the prelude. Played very slowly. I ended up picking the two "LH leader" passages apart, playing every other note, every two notes, etc. I don't feel like I have the control I need in my LH for the subtleties Bach is asking of it. So George and I worked on acquiring that control. One thing I did was to have my LH touch play a note, then touch the key (but not depress it) for the next note, then play the next note, etc. I don't want to do too much of that because I have an inkling it can cause hand injury. But the short exercises I did tonight really helped me to see what I need to do in order to rein the LH in as a whole.

I didn't have time for Liszt, so I just played it through once. He gets to be first tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lesson Report

During practice sessions, certain questions arise regarding fingering, dynamics, etc. Sometimes I write them down on a scrap of paper. Usually I bring them up at a lesson if I remember them. But I've started to write them down in the notebook where Deborah writes all of her notes at my lesson. I used to feel like this notebook was something almost sacred, something I didn't want to sully with my dumb questions, but that's changing. I'm feeling more and more like Deborah and I are a team, rather than Wise Teacher on the Holy Mountain and Lowly, Groveling, Ignorant Student.

Anyway, I write the questions on the page she'll be writing on at the next lesson so she can't miss them and I can't forget to ask them. That's how the lesson started today. Only one question was "Liszt: IT Dynamics?" And I couldn't remember, for the life of me, what "IT" was supposed to mean.

On to my lesson report!

Inversions sounded fine. I fell apart, however, on scales and arps (F/d scales and E/c# arps). I mean, I really fell apart. The piano sounded like an old-fashioned computer, making all kinds of blips and beeps and sounding nothing like the smooth scales and arps I play at home. I actually laughed at myself. I'm not used to making such, er, interesting, sounds on a piano.

It's all psychological. I know it's all psychological. My hands know what to do. They've done these scales and arps a million times. But something in me subtly starts thinking, "OK, it's going too well. Hope you don't mess up at the bottom of the scale in the LH ..." And, like clockwork, my LH turns into a mess of confused fingers.

I have some ideas about why I'm doing this, but I'm not sure how to articulate them. So I'll just think on them and write about them in a later post.

Beethoven (Suzuki) sounded fine. The pianist on the Suzuki CD plays the grace notes different from how Deborah wants me to play them (as melodic apoggiaturas). I keep forgetting and go back to playing the way the CD does because that's what I learned the piece from. And her only real comments were to make sure I play the grace notes/appoggiaturas the new way. She asked if I would play just the Beethoven for the next group class, for the benefit of one of her students. I said "OK." Even though I'll be chomping at the bit by then (the next group class is in late January) to play Liszt and Bach for everyone again.

I played through the Liszt. It took me a few measures to ease into it, and the result was that I played, oh, about three different tempi in the first four measures. Silly me. I was laughing at myself again. I really need to imagine the melody before I dive into playing the introduction, so I know from the start what my tempo is. I normally do this ... I think I was just anxious to get started.

She had lots of nice things to say about the Liszt, though the quasi Violoncello is still the weak link in the chain. My ending also needed a little bit of work. And the big advice for the whole piece was, "Move the line forward." I think that relates again to architecture. I'm pausing too much to savor the beauty of each room, forgetting that they're all part of the same house.

I played the Prelude through, but I started too fast. The result was a not-so-great play-through. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. Her big comment was that I'm not using my musical sensibilities to play it. I'm not totally there yet, I know. I'm closer than I've ever been, but I still have a ways to go. I'm not shaping it enough. It's a tricky piece to shape, with the "leader" moving from LH to RH. The piece kind of reminds me of someone playing with the treble/bass on a car radio, making the bass prominent, then turning the bass almost off to make the treble prominent. Very cool effect, and one I'm still working on.

Fugue: No time. We'll begin the next lesson with it.

A good lesson, overall.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I Played With My Soul Tonight

Hm. That title can be taken two ways: either I gambled with the devil, or I had a very soulful practice tonight. You can guess which one it is.

Can't figure it out? Read on.

Scales, Arps, Inversions, Suzuki, blah, blah, blah: Good, good, good. Everything's good.

Liszt: Ahhhh. I normally save Franzi for last (read: the last 10 minutes of a 60+ minute practice session), so I worked on "Standchen" first tonight. Went back to the quasi Violoncello and focused (again) on the dynamics and articulation. Actually I played through it, s-l-o-w-l-y, a couple of times to make sure I wasn't missing any notes (in this section, I think because there is so much hand-crossing, I sometimes fail to strike the LH notes hard enough). Then I played isolated sections of the quasi Violoncello, again very s-l-o-w-l-y, really, really concentrating on the dynamics and articulation.

Then I listened to the Horowitz version from the Horowitz at Home CD and followed along with the music, taking close note of what the master did with the dynamics and articulation. This CD is one of my favorites, and I know I've listened to it at least a couple hundred times, but I listened to "Standchen" tonight like never before. Serious con-cen-tra-tion. Throughout the piece, I could feel my heartbeat/pulse and breathing change as they ebbed and flowed with the music.

Then I played. At first, just the quasi Violoncello sections. Several times. Focusing very intently on getting the articulation right. (Funny, if I pay attention--duh!--to the markings, my pedaling problem virtually disappears. This lack of paying attention to what's written ... I think it's particularly a problem for folks like me who tend to want to play everything by ear, and our way.)

Then I played the whole piece through, at a glacial tempo, really focusing, focusing, focusing on the dynamics and articulation, exaggerating the pianissimo and fortissimo sections, and also the crescendi and dicrescendi and everything else, stopping whenever I got anything the slightest bit wrong, and correcting it.

Wow. Time ceased. I felt like I was in the music, picking my way through the staff lines the way I'd hike a forest trail, looking, listening, breathing it all in, letting it become a part of me. Letting myself become a part of the music.

After that intense play-through, I drilled a few more sections briefly, then played the piece through at tempo.

Something magical happened: something that has happened before, but not often. I played Standchen with more feeling--yet more control--than I've ever played it. I felt so in control. I felt strong. Powerful. High. Joyful. Peaceful. And my hands got all warm and tingly and felt like they could play anything.

In order to keep my hands from the pitfalls of disillusionment, I soon moved on to Bach. :)

I did the same dynamics/articulation thing with the Prelude. Of course, any dynamic markings in the Bach are those of an editor, but this is the Alfred edition, which I mostly like. The louds and softs are constantly changing in this piece, and from the RH to the LH and back. It kind of reminds me of rolling hills.

Again, I was focused. Again, I felt like I was crawling inside the music.

I didn't try to play it fast. The recommended tempo is something like 84-92, and I can play it at about 52 right now, if I don't want to make (hardly) any mistakes. Tonight I didn't play it any faster than 40. I wasn't concerned with the natural fluidity that comes with speed tonight; I was concerned with the fluidity that comes from smooth transitions from loud to soft, from RH melody to LH melody.

It was 10:00 p.m. before I got to the Fugue. No time to practice it. So I played through it at a snail's pace, so slowly that it's almost a challenge to actually miss a note. I call this "laying down tracks." If I do a slow, (almost) note-perfect play-through at the end of my practice, my fingers somehow remember it the next day. And I plan to spend a good bit of time on the fugue tomorrow before my lesson.

All in all a wonderful, transforming practice of about two hours. I really, really hope my lesson doesn't get cancelled tomorrow! And I hope I'm able to play half as soulfully tomorrow as I did tonight!

Monday, December 04, 2006

December 4 Practice

Friends, I would not have practiced tonight if I hadn't promised myself to update this blog every day, whether I practice or not.

But I did practice! And I'm glad I did.

I actually practiced a total of about two hours, give or take a few minutes, today.

Scales sound good. Arps sound pretty good. D Major, of all keys, gave me trouble. Hm.

Inversions: I think I might be swinging too much. I've started leaning my weight into the keys. Not enough that it would be obvious to a non-pianist, but enough that I notice it.

Liszt: I actually practiced Liszt several times today. Worked on the "boring" quasi Violoncello part. I started paying more attention to the accent marks (pressure marks?) and slurs, and it wasn't so boring after that. It was challenging. But I have a host of questions for Deborah now.

Bach Prelude: Worked on page two. Drilled the poop out of it. Drilled the poop out of the transitions. I've been playing page two pretty well, but I get a nervous feeling whenever I get to it. I wanted to wear out that fuse, and made some progress toward that.

Bach Fugue: Added about six measures HT! Drilled and drilled and drilled. I didn't want to stop, but it's late. I now only have ONE PAGE left to learn HT. I won't have it before tomorrow's lesson, but I will by next week's--if I keep working at it the way I am!

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Good practice tonight. Scales and arps are sounding good, even at the faster speeds. I worked on both the prelude and the fugue tonight. For the prelude, I drilled a few measures on page two, and for the fugue, I reviewed those last three measures, then went to work on a HT measure elsewhere in the piece.

For the Liszt, I did a bit of drilling here and there, and they played the piece through a few times, thinking about the architecture. I think this creative visualization thing is working. Each time I play through it, it feels "bigger" somehow.

What I really want to write about for this entry, though, is a tiny breakthrough that I've been observing lately. It's been a long time coming, and I really noticed it yesterday when I was playing at church. It has to do with hand positions, finger curve, gestures, etc.

Ever since I started taking lessons from Deborah three years ago, she has been after me to relax my hands, to use more than just my fingers and wrists when I play. My playing was VERY "fingery," and my hands got tired easily because I let them tense up so much. My thumbs and pinkies, when not striking the keys, stuck out at funny angles, just because they were so tense.

Part of that was, I'm sure, because I *was* tense--I started taking piano at a very stressful time of my life (new job, new marriage, new state, new house, etc.). Part of it was that I hadn't played piano on a regular basis in over ten years. I'm sure my current less-stressful lifestyle, along with a much-increased familiarity with the piano, has helped. Liszt and Bach deserve some of the credit, too.

What's the big breakthrough? It's this: I finally seem to have adopted the "relaxed hand" mode that Deborah's been trying to get me to understand for three years. I can tell that my arms are in the driver's seat--not my wrists and fingers. And I'm not having to consciously think about it. It feels natural.

I don't know when this change took place. I'm sure it's happened over time--and glacially so. But I noticed it at church tody because my brain tends to dissociate itself from my hands sometimes when I'm playing there, and I watched my hands almost like I was watching someone else's hands play. And I could see a real difference. My hands looked more like Deborah's hands. Like a professional's hands. Smooth and gliding. Not tortured and stiff.

So ... small breakthrough. Big breakthrough. Take your pick.

'Tis the Season for Christmas Songs

It's that time of year again. This morning for church I practiced "Oh Come All Ye Faithful,"Emmanuel," and a few others. We're supposed to do "Go Tell It On the Mountain," but I don't have the music to it ... so I went through my old music and found a book of Christmas Carols for Level Four Piano, edited by David Carr Glover. I wrote down the chords, and voila! I now have the music.

I think Christmas carols are tricky, partly because we only play them for three weeks out of the year. So it's almost like I re-learn them every December, and I never feel like I quite have them down. I've always found "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" particularly difficult to play well, since the chords change with nearly every beat.

The bad thing is that everyone knows these pieces, so the pressure's on to play them exactly right--to give them what they're used to hearing.

The good thing is that people generally sing Christmas carols so loudly and with such gusto that they either won't notice or won't care if there's a missed note here and there.

I think my favorite carols to play are "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger." When I was in my 20s, I worked out a little conglomeration of "Away in a Manger" and the famous Brahms Lullaby. I knew nothing about counterpoint or harmony at the time, so it's not a very polished little composition. But I thought it was cool how the two shared a lot of chords and chord changes, and I had fun weaving them together.

OK. Time for a shower. Considering I have 2 hours of church, 5 hours of work and 2 hours of running today, it looks like this morning's Christmas practice is the only one I'll have today.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

12/02/06 Practice Report

Today's practice wasn't much of a practice. I had to work most of the day and am too tired tonight to practice. But I did sneak in about twenty minutes earlier today to play through those last three measures of the fugue. The notes are starting to feel more natural to my hands. I still have some work to do before they feel *completely* natural. The plan? Spend another 10 or 15 minutes (no more) on them, with the goal of memorizing them, and then move on to other measures.

No other practicing today. Tomorrow morning I hope to get an hour in before practicing the music for church.

Friday, December 01, 2006

12/01/06 Practice

I hope I'm not overdoing it. I practiced for about 110 minutes tonight. I'm so very tired, but I want to post a quick report while everything is still fresh in my mind.

The second-to last measure of the fugue is perhaps the most difficult complex single measure I've ever played. Deborah said to spend "about 10 minutes" learning each measure. Um, Deborah? This one took me thirty minutes. Okay, thirty-five.

If there's any one thing I've learned as a pianist, it's HUMILITY.

I spent the bulk of tonight's practice on the Fugue. The last line (final three measures) is a toughie complex bit of music, but I finally managed it. Each new set of rhythms was a challenge. I felt disoriented each time I started a new rhythm. Completely disoriented. Thinking, "What is this piece? Am I in the right fugue? Is this the music I thought was so familiar, once upon a time?"

Once I got that last line, I realized something: I now only have a page and a half left of the fugue. Once I learn that page and a half, I'll be able to play the whole thing, HT! After ONLY FIVE MONTHS! And maybe I'll be able to play it at tempo in JUST FIVE MORE MONTHS!

OK. So maybe I would have learned it faster if I'd practiced more diligently, instead of the fits and starts of the last few months. But still. This piece has been a bear very complex. A very friendly, fuzzy-wuzzy bear. Heh. Who am I kidding?

I worked on the Prelude for maybe 20 minutes. The final few measures are sounding quite good. I played through the whole thing VERY slowly, with the metronome. Then I drilled a bit of the second page. Then I realized I have this piece in my hands. There are only a couple of spots now where I pause a bit and have to think about what I'm playing. Know what this means, folks? This means I'm going to be able to start working on tempo before long! (I think!)

I played the Liszt several times throughout the day, always thinking in terms of architecture and wholeness. It's been interesting. In a good way, I mean. This weekend, I really want to drill the quasi Violoncello section. It's technically the easiest, but it's also the least interesting section to me ... which means I don't try as hard when I play it. The result? Not only do I sound bored, but I miss notes I shouldn't miss. Lovely. I need to work on that.

I didn't do scales or aps or inversions or Suzuki. Didn't think about it. As usual, JSB hogged my practice session. So I'll start with something else tomorrow.