Monday, July 13, 2009

Piano Preferences

I got a new piano bench this weekend. It's an adjustable bench, and I'm hoping to have it for a long, long time. It replaces the kitchen chair, which replaced my old piano bench, which I'd used for 30+ years. So I'm a faithful piano bench owner, I am.

I didn't get to practice this weekend, so I was looking forward to tonight's practice session using the new bench (which I've named Gilbert). Sure, I planned to practice my Shostakovich ... but I also planned to experiment with the new bench.

My old bench was too high. The kitchen chair, obviously, was too low --plus, it wasn't flat, like a piano bench should be. I would get a backache before I ever made it through my warm-up scales.

I started with the bench low and practice for a few minutes. Backache.

I moved it up a bit. Backache.

Moved it up a little more. Backache, but not quite so bad.

Finally I found a good height and practiced for a half-hour before the sleepies started to take over. Then I compared it to my "too high" piano bench. It's slightly lower. It's also a lot more cushiony, which helps, I'm sure.

Deborah always has me adjust her piano bench to as low as it goes. Sure my elbows are at the right angle at that height, but it never feels right to be that low. I like to feel like I'm high above the piano--but not so high that it hurts my back. There's a narrow range in there, and I can find it with my new bench.

Another preference I have--one that Deborah has convinced me to abandon--is that I like to sit on the very, very edge of the bench. To do that, the bench has to be a little farther away from the piano than you'd expect. But I like the feeling of space. With it comes a feeling of freedom. It's like I'm giving the piano, and the music, room to breathe.

So I think I might start playing the piano the way that "feels" right to me. Maybe it's bad technique, but can it be so bad if I'm simply more comfortable in a certain position? I definitely feel like I have more control in my "preferred position." Sitting closer to the piano, and being closer to it due to a shorter piano bench, makes me feel crowded and claustrophobic. I've tried it for five years now, and I still haven't gotten used to it.

One final preference: As wonderful as my hearing aid is, and as drastically as it's improved my quality of life, I prefer playing piano without it. Maybe this is because I learned to play without it; I didn't get a hearing aid until I was 29, and I couldn't afford a really nice one until I was 38. I hear the piano differently when I don't have the hearing aid in. It's like hearing the voice of a treasured friend. I don't have that feeling at all when I use the hearing aid.

Again, I feel like I have more control when I play my preferred way (i.e., without the hearing aid). The notes sound clearer and louder when I have the hearing aid in, but they also sound harsher. Without the hearing aid, they sound ... considerate. Not clanging in on my consciousness. They sound like friends. Voices I can truly work with. And it's like my hands and fingers know what to do, whereas they always feel shy and uncertain with the louder, harsher tones.

I was supposed to have a lesson Saturday morning, but Deborah had to cancel at the last minute, so I won't have a lesson until this coming Saturday morning. I'm going to try an experiment this week. I'm going to go back to playing without my hearing aid, using a higher bench, and sitting a little farther away from the piano than usual.

What can it hurt? It's not like I'm training to be a professional. And it's not like I'm the Queen of Bad Technique, though I sometimes feel like I am during a lesson.

I really think it's time I started trusting my own instincts a little more. I have no problem trusting my instincts as a writer. With piano, it's always been a different story.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Schubert Practice That Didn't Happen

"Self, if you're going to be tired and super-sensitive and not pay attention, then you might as well be at work, where you don't *have* to think this hard. So just go back to work, Self."

That's what I told myself. So I packed up my music and went back to work.

There are few things I hate more than wasted practice time at the piano. I know myself well enough to know that today was going to be a bad practice. I was tired and fuzzy-brained, but that wasn't the real problem. The real problem was that I was distracted.

For one thing, I didn't want to take a long lunch hour. The knowledge that I was on a short (25-minute) timetable was disastrous for my concentration. Too bad, because I'm usually pretty good at making those short sessions pack a punch.

I also kept thinking someone was listening. Paranoid, I know. I don't usually worry about people listening when during a lunch hour practice session. So maybe I have a sixth sense and someone really was listening today. Either way, if I even think someone might be listening, my ability to focus on practicing goes out the window.

So I did my scales and arps and "practiced" for about five minutes, then I packed up and went back to work.

Maybe tomorrow's practice will be better.

To make this post a little less depressing, I'll show you what I'm focusing on for this week.

This is the Coda of the Schubert Impromptu in E-flat major, Op. 90, No. 2. Much of the piece falls right into the hands, but the Coda didn't look like it would feel quite as natural to play. So I decided to work on it first. Here's the entire Coda:


Yesterday I focused on the second half of the coda. It turned out to be much easier to "pick up" than I'd originally thought. The only parts that gave me a bit of trouble were the part where the chords went in opposite directions:



See what I mean? Also, the chords in the RH (right hand) are a bit of a stretch for my tiny fingers. Plus, much of this is played on the high end of the piano, which means I have to imagine what it sounds like, thanks to my high-frequency hearing loss. I know, I could practice an octave lower, but I'd rather not.

I was happy with yesterday's practice. I can play the second half all the way through, at a slow tempo. I actually have it by memory too, for the moment. I have the notes.

My practice for today was supposed to be on the first half of the coda. My goal was to have the first half up to the same standard as I have the second half. Specifically, I knew I would need to work on those parts of the first half that were similar to the second half:



I didn't get very far. But I'll be able to work on this tonight. I'm due for another good practice.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Musical Funk

I am in a serious musical funk. Negative, negative, negative self-talk galloping through my brain. All though my lunchtime practice session today. All through my lunchtime practice session yesterday. Here’s what the negative little voice was saying:

"For someone so supposedly talented as you, who has worked as hard as you have at piano, you’d really think you wouldn’t suck as much as you do."

OK, I was going to make a list of everything that little negative voice was saying, but really, that’s pretty much what it’s saying right there.

Granted, I know I’m coming back to piano after a nine-month “fallow period.” I’m not in the pianistic shape I was in before. Deborah and others have said that fallow periods are necessary and good. That’s fine. But I think back to what caused the fallow period. It was basically a thought similar to the following:

"For someone so supposedly talented as you, who has worked as hard as you have at piano, you’d really think you wouldn’t suck as much as you do."

I can tell you when the fallow period started. It started at a group lesson where I played the C# major prelude and fugue that I had poured my heart and soul into for two years. When I took it on, I knew it might take two years (or more) to learn it. I was also learning Ständchen at the same time, which was no piece of cake. And I was working full-time, well, more than full time. More like 50-60 hours a week. And commuting two hours a day. So I went into this piece knowing I was going to live with it for a long, long time.

I was playing it really well in my practice sessions a year ago. I was aware. I was one with the piece. Playing that fugue was like having a million-tiny-fingers brain massage. It was like being part of a complicated dance where me and my dance partner were totally in sync with each other … only there were three dance partners—the three voices of the fugue. And the prelude … it was ready. I was ready. I looked forward to the group class, particularly because John Cobb, probably the most accomplished pianist in western North Carolina, was going to be there.

Well, I flopped. Maybe “flopped” is too strong of a word. But the prelude sounded mediocre, and I didn’t play the fugue well at all. I played it certainly … but it sounded like one of those “this-student-is-playing-way-beyond-her-means-and-shoudn’t-be” moments.

After I finished, I got some feedback. It included things like:

- Do you practice with a metronome? (Of course, this is a veiled and polite way of saying your timing sucks)

- Were you uncomfortable on the bench? I thought you looked really uncomfortable. (I wasn’t uncomfortable. But it was a comment on my posture, which I know needs work. Someone also said that I had some “strange body positions” when I was playing. Ah, nothing like knowing you looked stupid.)

I wasn’t uncomfortable on the bench, but I was uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable playing for other people, and always have been. So maybe that came through in my posture and “strange body positions.”

Whatever. After that session, I decided I really didn’t want to try anymore. And I’ve pretty much been stuck on the following statement ever since:

"For someone so supposedly talented as you, who has worked as hard as you have at piano, you’d really think you wouldn’t suck as much as you do."

So now that I’m back at piano and my time and energy are limited (amazing how much it takes out of me to drive an hour and a half on a Friday afternoon after work, or a Saturday, for an hour-long piano lesson), I’ve picked up an easier group of pieces.

I really want to learn all “Seven Dolls’ Dances” by Shostakovich. These are kiddie pieces, but I don’t care. Plus, I’m about to have a kiddie, and I want to play them for him/her. So I’m sticking with the Shostakovich. The other piece is a Schubert Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 2). I’ve dropped the Bach P&F I’d started, and I dropped the Beethoven Bagatelle, which I never liked that much anyway.

The Schubert is a late-intermediate piece. The Shostakovich is probably an early-intermediate piece. I’m working on them, rather than on more advanced stuff, to experience mastery and to play at world-class standard without having to struggle through learning the notes. "World-class standard." Those are Deborah's words. Heh. We’ll see about that. For someone supposed so talented as me, who has worked so hard … OK, we don’t need the broken record here.

So, that’s where I’m at. Feeling negative and kind of depressed about the whole piano thing. I really need to get back into the mode of loving piano and being thankful for my ability to play it.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Carried Away

I got carried away today—carried away into a wonderful state of consciousness where I lost all sense of time and just enjoyed being enveloped in the music.

That tends to happen when I find myself with a grand piano, a Baptist hymnal, and a big, empty room with excellent acoustics.

Actually, it doesn’t. I’ve been practicing at that same grand piano at that same Baptist church at lunchtime for a couple of years now. Rarely have I let myself lose track of time. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I know I need to be back at work by a certain time because if I’m not, I’ll have to work later than planned. Who wants to do that? Not me.

Today I worked on a very tiny part of the Shostakovich, practicing for mastery of that one little tiny part. Spent a good half-hour or more on three not-very-complicated measures. Dug into the music, picked away at the layers, drilled in rhythms, and in the process played those three measures probably 60 or 70 times. That’s the way I like to practice. That is why I never had, and never will have, a future in music. (That, and I’m deaf.) I’d much rather tinker with the complexities of a single measure than, you know, learn the whole piece for a whole audience.

(Selfish? Probably.)

Anyway, after I finished drilling the Shostakovich, I decided to go back to work a little early, so I took out the Baptist hymnal to play through a few hymns, like I usually do at the end of a practice session. I’ve played them so many times, and I have fun improvising and trying out new interpretations. It’s kind of a “winding down” for my brain after the intense practice.

Usually, I play a couple of hymns, then I leave. Not today.

Today I played and played and played. And played. For probably an hour. I’ve been working on gospel-i-fying the hymns—you know, playing it in 3/4 or 6/8 time, using lots of grace notes, adding climbing and descending octaves, etc. It’s so much fun, even though some of my results leave much to be desired.

I also practice changing keys, usually just basic stuff like going from the tonic to the subdominant. I stick to the easier pieces—the ones that just have three or four main chords. It’s good training for my brain. (Training for what, I have no clue.)

I’ve long been at the point where I don't play exactly what’s written on the page. The chords in a hymnal are merely guidelines. I use them as such and go from there. It’s so much fun, even though the results are sometimes disastrous. This is part of why I have no future as a church accompanist. (That, and I have no desire to be a church accompanist. And I’m deaf.)

Anyway, I left for my “piano lunch” at 1:30 and didn’t get back to work until nearly 3.

What a great way to spend a long lunch.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ready for an Update?

Here goes.

I still have pinky problems. Not good. I feel like my poor hands are atrophying. I've been playing piano quite a bit at lunch, but nothing too difficult. Mostly I've been improvising new-age versions of hymns in the style of Jeff Bjork, David Nevue, etc.--not my favorite kind of music, but an unbelievably easy style to play. I really missed my calling as new-age Christian music pianist. Really.

Of course, I'm only 39 ... it's not like I'm on my deathbed. It's just a little depressing that I'm improvising the same old crap since the early 1980's. (My style is crap--not the hymns themselves. At least not most of them.) Truth is, I've played new-agey, beautiful and relaxing renditions of classics like "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In The Garden" for years. It's music I grew up to, so it's in my blood. Show me a hymnbook arrangement and I'll crank out a beautiful solo-piano rendition faster than you can say "Yanni Chryssomallis."

I love my music. I'm just really depressed about it right now. I don't know where I want to go with it. I'm not a performer--I know that much. But it seems like navel-gazing to practice, practice, practice all the time in my little George closet.

I know. I'm forgetting how Bach makes me sail above and beyond all the petty cares of this world. Someone please remind me. Robert? George? Sebastian?

Now that I'm having these hand issues, I'm suddenly feeling like the piano world is not my oyster. Not that it ever was ... but I was seriously considering auditioning for an amateur pianists competition, and now ... I don't know. I'm feeling a sense of ... maybe I can't do this after all.

OK. I just wanted to update the blog and let my reader(s?) know how things are. I'm off to play some piano ... and hoping the exercise lifts me out of these doldrums rather than dragging me deeper in.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Going to Practice

I'm going to practice. Now.

I really hope I don't have to commandeer the sanctuary, Jack Bauer style, from the Organ Lady.



Seriously. Jack and I are both English majors who were born on February 18. Don't mess with the likes of us. And don't get between me and my piano.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Where My Pinky Hurts

Pretend this is a left hand.


See those red arrows? I put those there to show where my pinky is hurting. It's at the joint between the intermediate phalange and the proximal phalange. It has definitely helped to lay off piano for several weeks. Massive doses of ibuprofen have helped, too.

Today I practiced, just a bit, before the Organ Lady came in. The pinky didn’t hurt too much. At this one point, however, I had trouble even lifting my pinky (the circled numbers are the fingers).



Note that the pinky holds down the G, then picks up and presses it right back down. My pinky doesn’t want to pick up, much less press back down. It would rather just stay down.

This could, of course, be due to lack of practice. I’m hoping it is.

Many thanks to my favorite arpeggist for pointing out that the IMSLP site is alive and kicking.

Kicked Out by the Organ Lady

On weekdays, the Organ Lady haunts the halls of the stodgy Baptist church on the corner of First and Main. She's not the organist for this church, but she practices there. She wears shorts and a t-shirt, regardless of the weather. She's lonely. She's friendly, but only to certain people (or so I've heard). She's always very friendly to me. I think it helps, in this case at least, to be a Bach nerd and a half-decent pianist.

She was haunting the halls again today. I didn't know that this morning, when I got a wild hair and decided I would practice on Xan the Grand at lunch. For my faithful reader, you may remember that Xan the Grand is the old Steinway grand at the stodgy Baptist church on the corner of First and Main. I hadn't visited old Xan in ages. It was time.

So, shortly after 1:00, I braved the frigid winds and walked the block to the church. "Please, Organ Lady," I thought. "Don't be practicing today. I really want to spend some quality time with Xan the Grand."

I entered the sanctuary ... and oh, was it sanctuarious! Nary an organ tone to be heard! Nary an Organ Lady to be found!

"Waterfall, is it you?" cried Xan the Grand. "Is it really you?"

I blinked. I was hallucinating. I was so happy to have Xan the Grand to myself. I was so happy that the Organ Lady wasn't there. I proceeded to settle down with Xan and had played through two sets of scales and arps, plus a few minutes of Bach's G-minor sinfonia, when ...

She entered the room. It was the Organ Lady. My muscles tensed.

The sanctuary was no longer a sanctuary. It was a place of battle. And, as had been ordained from the moment I first learned that this church's organ is the only one within a 50-mile radius, I knew I was going to lose. I stopped playing. The white flag came out in the form of a smile and an apology. I began to pack up my stuff.

I chatted with Organ Lady for a few minutes. She'd only been taking a short break, she explained. And she was back to practice some more.

I don't resent Organ Lady. There's no rule that says I have to give up Xan every time the Organ Lady shows up, but, seeing as pianos are a dime a dozen around here and organs aren't, it wouldn't make sense to do otherwise.

Still, I wish I'd had more time with Xan. My back-up pianos were both taken, so I wasn't able to practice anymore.

I'm definitely disappointed. I'll plan to get there a little later tomorrow.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Well, It's Been a Year

OK. Not quite a year. But almost a year.

Since I've posted anything on this blog, that is.

It's been a little less than a year since I've played George. And Thuddy. And Xan the Grand.

My job swallowed me. I'm still somewhere in the bowels of it. Development season, with its 60-hour weeks, it coming to an end, and support season, with its 60-hour weeks, is beginning. One of the major differences between the two seasons: during development season, we work until the work is done; during support season, we show up at a pre-scheduled arrival time, take a required one-hour lunch break, and don't leave until a pre-scheduled departure time.

Here are my hours for support season (now through April 15):

Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tuesday: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Friday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The hours are long, but we're forced to take lunch breaks. I don't think I took a single lunch/piano break during development season. I worked 12 hours some days, and I haven't had a Saturday off since early October.

It's a fun job, but it does cut into my non-work life.

Anyway, I'm taking my music books to work with me today. Going to force myself to take a lunch break, even though the support season schedule hasn't yet been instituted for this year.

My left pinky has been hurting for several weeks now--enough that I'm going to the doctor about it next week. I hope it doesn't have too much of an effect on the joy of playing piano.

More later. Gotta get ready for work.