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.

Scales
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
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.

Hanon
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!

Schubert
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!

Bach
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.

Chopin
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

Milestone


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.

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.

Henry

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.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Playing Schubert Schlowly

I actually said that as I started to type the title to this post: "Schlowly." I'm not good at tongue-twisters.

Tonight I worked on some of the Schubert. I've completed the coda section (meaning I've learned the notes and can play it through at a relatively slow pace), and I've moved on to the dozen (or two?) measures prior to that, starting at measure 212. Here are measures 212 and 213, for reference:


I am playing this section sooooo s-l-o-w-l-y. I was lucky to have a good hour for practicing tonight, and I spent the entire hour on measure 212 to right before the coda. I don't even know how to explain how slowly I played it. Basically, each note of each triplet was played on a beat of the metronome, starting at something like 52.

Here's how it sounded by the time I'd notched it up to 72: Click here for slow Schubert. Note that that little section is a minute and 22 seconds.

In this recording from Horowitz, the same short passage takes about 10 seconds, starting at 3:36 (this video starts right before that):



Do I really need to play it that slowly?

Yes. I think I do. I need to be able to think and plan. Playing that slowly helps me internalize the fingering, and it helps confirm that the fingering is right (or not). It helps me to see where I hesitate, where I'm not sure about things. It give me time to think through things, so that I can play the passage perfectly even though my brain may have felt like it almost "missed" something. And when I play it at a particular tempo three or four times in a row, the brain stops "almost missing." And then I notch it up, and play it a few more times.

By the time I finished practicing tonight, I was playing at something like ♩=60, which is still glacial but a lot faster than what I linked above. I'm finding that, when I've played something that slowly for several dozen times, everything starts to fall into place when the tempo increases. I'm still not there yet, but my fingers now know what to do. A few more sessions of this ultra-focused practice, and I think this piece is going to start sounding quite nice.

I've also begun thinking about dynamics, which I'm (obviously) not doing in my recording. I'm also focusing on keeping my hands light and nearly weightless in the "scaly" sections, since this is another piece that can't "plod."

I think this piece is the most difficult one I'm currently working on. Just getting the notes is a challenge sometimes. But with the slow approach I'm taking, I think I'll have those notes under my belt before too much longer if I can continue to put some time into the piece every day. (I know. That is a gargantuan "if.")

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Yielding to Temptation

Ever since I learned the notes of the Bach Prelude (BWV 866), I've been playing it at a snail's pace. In this recording (click), I've sped it up to the furious pace of ♪=50. The suggested tempo is ♩=72, which is about three times faster. Here's András Schiff playing it a more typical tempo:



So you can see that I have a long way to go.

A couple of days ago, one day into my "staycation," I began inching up the tempo. I have been determined not to rush the tempo increase. I want my fingers to be strong and my mind confident by the time I get to the goal tempo.

So I inched up to ♪=52. And then ♪=54. And then ♪=56. And on and on, playing it several times at each tempo. It sounded good! I wasn't just focusing on hitting the right notes; I was intent on making it sound smooth, not plodding or "punching," keeping my fingers light.

♪=58. ♪=60. ♪=63. ♪=66.

It was easy. I wasn't sure if I should speed up so many notches in one practice session, but ... oh goodness, I was having so much fun!

♪=69. ♪=72. ♪=76. ♪=80.

♪=80. Do you know what that means? Yes, that means ...

♩=40!


I stopped there. It was too good to be true. I'd reached the point where a quarter note was equal to the lowest number on the metronome. Progress! A kind of victory, even!

Everything was sounding good. I had a few places where my fingers stumbled a bit, but I would stop and work on them, drill them little, and then play them through again. It sounded fine. To me, at least.

The next day (yesterday), I started at ♪=56 and worked my way back up to ♪=80.

And then today ... I couldn't help myself. I yielded to temptation. I turned the metronome off and blistered through that prelude as fast as I could.

It wasn't perfect ... but it was a lot better than I thought it would be. I've played that darn thing so many times by now that my fingers just know what to do. I felt like I was listening to someone else play. I wasn't even thinking about my hands. I was just enjoying the moment.

The piece at ♩=72 (or whatever tempo I was using ... probably more like ♩=60) has an entirely different effect than at ♪=58. It's electric at that faster tempo. It feels and sounds like another piece entirely.

And it is so much fun.

So now I feel like a energetic dog on a leash when I play it at ♪=72. I want out of that leash. I want to run free! I want to fly through it the way Glenn Gould does ... even though I don't even like it that fast!!



I haven't played this for my piano teacher in a while, so I imagine she'll have some constructive criticism next week when I play it at, oh, maybe ♪=60. But I definitely feel like I'm turning a corner with this one.

And what has come into view as I turn that corner?

That's right. The fugue. I don't want to start it until my teacher gives me the go-ahead, but I have a feeling I'll be starting it soon.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Piano Lesson: More Words Than Music (This Time)

I'm technically on vacation for a couple of days. I was supposed to go to Shenandoah National Park with a group of ladies for a camping/backpacking trip, but a number of things came up that left me too broke and exhausted to make the trip. I considered having these few days be regular work days, but I truly needed the time off ... so I took it.

It has been heavenly, which has helped heal (somewhat) the disappointment of not going to Shenandoah. I've had to do a little bit of work for my job, but I've also had plenty of time for music.

Yesterday at noon, I went to Augusta to see a chamber music performance that was part of the Westobou Festival. My piano teacher, Carol, accompanied mezzo-soprano Diane Haslam, who did a mix of songs and poems about love. It was quite enjoyable, and I'm hoping to take more opportunities during the week (when I can) to attend music performances.

After that, I came back home and settled down in the music room for a few hours of practice. I worked on voice for about an hour, practicing some of the songs I've been learning, recording myself, listening, singing, recording, etc. I think I have made progress in voice. I've also noticed that I sing much better when I'm not stressed. After voice practice, I moved on to piano: scales, finger exercises, and Bach. The neighbor kid came over at some point to "make music with Nina." After we played and sang a few songs on piano, guitar, and general kid-classroom instruments, she left and I worked on Chopin. This morning, I spent some time on Schubert. My piano lesson, rescheduled from yesterday, was at 10:00.

We didn't play a lot, which was disappointing but OK because we spent a lot of time on theory! I'd gone through a bunch of scales and written in the accidentals to identify them as major, natural minor, melodic minor, or harmonic minor. I played through them (which I hadn't done yet), and only "missed" maybe three of the 80 or so I'd done. I don't even remember what our conversation was, but it was about scales, and I just felt so happy to be having a conversation about scales.

After that, we looked at the first line of the Debussy and worked on playing individual notes from mp to p, or maybe from mf to p. I'm working on being able to hear and control the (often subtle) gradations in the sound. For example, if I'm to carry a decrescendo over two measures and I'm to start it at p, I need to know how "loud" of a p that should be to that I have somewhere to go after the decrescendo begins. So the beginning p might need to be more of an mp, or maybe even an mf, so that I have the opportunity to get to pp or whatever is designated for the final note.

This exercise is really going to be useful for the Chopin, which has so many gradations of softness, such as with this decrescendo mark starting at a p in measure 9:


So while Chopin may have p written, I might need to play more of an mp too allow room to grow softer. Or at least figure out what p needs to sound like, and what I want the notes leading into that high F should sound like before I start the crescendo.

I worked on just the first four notes of the Debussy, starting at something like mf, listening to the sound dying away, and then picking up at the "dying volume" with the second note, and then repeating with the third and fourth.

And then it was time to go. :(

Next week we aren't going to do theory but are going to focus on actual pieces instead. We've had a couple of lessons that have been more talk than playing, so it's time to start playing again!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Schubert Practice!

Schubert has gotten the short shrift for a couple of days. Not that I'd planned it that way, of course. It's just that I'm at a place in the Schubert that isn't lending itself to micro-practices. I need time to work through a whole section.

Plus, it's kind of hard.

I focused on measures 230 to 238 today. It's where the familiar scale-y E-flat theme takes an interesting turn in the chromatic section (specifically, measure 232). I was having a little trouble with the fingering in the left hand (5 or 4? 5 or 4?) and was stumbling a little on the chromatic stuff. I played with the fingering in both hands and finally figured out my 5's and 4's in the LH. It's not that different from what I did with the Bach earlier today: arranging the fingering so to allow as little effort as possible for me.


I also think I have a good fingering pattern worked out in the RH.

Another challenge for today was switching from the chromatics to the downward F-minor scale in measure 237. You can see that I'm doing a similar three-note pattern in the previous measures, to the switch to a scale wasn't happening as smoothly as I wanted. So I drilled that until it felt natural:

I also got started on the main theme, which starts a few measures before. It's in E-flat major. My big challenge there is that most of the end of the piece has been in E-flat minor, so that's what I've been learning. The switch to E-flat major was not easy! So my next few practices will be on this big section: the E-flat major theme into this chromatic switch, to the end of the page (all in E-flat minor), to just where the coda begins.

I also played through the coda (also E-flat minor) a few times at a super-slow pace, just to make sure I still have it. And I do.

Slow Perfection

I usually have a wide-open morning for practicing on Saturdays, but that hasn't been the case today, mainly because I was exhausted after a long, stressful week and slept in (a rare thing for me) this morning.

But I did have time for some scales and Bach. At my lesson on Thursday, Carol said that I'm going to need to play more lightly if I ever want to get this prelude up to speed. I'm "punching" the keys and playing them with more weight than I need to. I think this is partly because I'm going at such a slow speed (♪=40). It's a plodding pace, and I'm tempted to plod and "punch."

So today I practiced playing it more lightly, but with equal intensity, starting at ♪=40. My goal at this point—now that I have the notes and the fingering figured out—is to play it perfectly at this tempo. Once I can play it perfectly at ♪=40 (and by that, I mean that I can do it consistently, not just once), I'll move to ♪=42. I won't move to ♪=44 until I have it perfectly at ♪=42. And so on, until I'm at ♩=72, or whatever it needs to be.

I love this phase of learning a piece. I love working toward perfection. I think perfection has gotten a bad name in this era of mediocrity-worship we're now living in. It's too often wrapped up with perfectionism in its unhealthy sense. But I think perfection is a good thing to strive for, and to achieve on occasion if you can. So with this piece, and with the others, I'll be working toward slow perfection. And then a faster perfection. I may never have any of them to a professional level, which is fine—and not something I expect anyway. But I want to play these as well as I possibly can. No laziness, and no excuses.

I upped the tempo to  ♪=42 this morning and encountered a few stumblings at that tempo, not so much with the notes but with the fingering. I tend to get lazy with fingering: Oops, that was supposed to be a 5 and I played a 4. Oh well, I'll get it right next time.

This morning, I wasn't lazy. When I played the 5 by accident, I stopped and thought about why I played the 5—and, in this case, why I kept playing the 5 instead of the 4 that I'd specified. This actually happened in a few places:

As I've been learning this, I've played the 4 maybe 60% of the time, but the rest of the time I've played the 5. Why?

Well, It's maybe a little bit of a stretch for my hand? If it is, why did I write the 4 in, in the first place?

I tried changing the 4's to 5's, but that didn't feel right either. The transition from one grouping to the next felt, somehow, like it was more work. When I used the 4, it felt like less work. I realized it was because playing the 4 pulls my hand slightly to the right. When I play the 1 that follows (all of the lower notes in the RH are being played with 1), it's easier to transition my thumb to the step up.

And that's why I must have opted for the 4 in the first place. In each case, the 1 has to move up a step, and using the 4 in the preceding note makes that just a little smoother.

So at the slow pace, I drilled using the 4 and not the 5. And from now on, when I'm playing the piece, if I use the 5 as is my old habit, I'll stop ... and drill.

Slow perfection. It's not just about playing the right notes, or using the right dynamics. It's also about using the right fingering ... consistently.

Friday, September 28, 2018

A Snippet of an Exercise

I'm going to be working on the first few measures of Debussy's "La fille aux cheveux de lin."

I thought I would be learning the whole piece, and maybe I will ... but for the moment, the focus is on phrasing and "softness control" (my word for it), on using weight (rather than tension) to get the sound just right. This piece (these few measures, or maybe the first couple of lines) will be more of an exercise than anything else, for now.

This will definitely be one of those "deceptively easy" things.

I had a lesson yesterday, and we worked some on the Bach. I needed to change a bit of the fingering, but other than that, it is definitely time to start racheting up the speed, little by little. I'm going to have several days off of work next week, and I look forward to spending a lot of time with Bach!

And Schubert. And Chopin. And Debussy.

Such delightful companions! Life doesn't get much better than that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Those Dynamics I've Been Ignoring

I've written several times about how I've been playing my Chopin Nocturne mostly from memory for years, and have totally ceased to think seriously about all the little dynamic instructions that poor Frédéric so painstakingly wrote down throughout the piece. I've been focusing very hard on, you know, paying attention to them now. The result is that I'm playing the piece much more slowly than before ... but I also think I'm starting to play it better.

For my own reference (and for anyone who might be learning this piece and Googling "chopin noctrne op 9 no1 help what dose poco rallent mean"), I'm writing down some definitions here, in the order in which they appear in the nocturne*:

  • p - piano, soft
  • espress. - espressivo, expressive
  • smorz. - smorzando - dying away (both tone and speed)
  • legatissimo - very smooth and connected; more legato than legato
  • appassionato - with passion
  • cresc. - crescendo, gradually getting louder
  • con forza - with force
  • pp - pianissimo - very soft
  • poco rallent. - poco rallentando, "a little (poco) + "gradually getting slower" (rallentando)
  • ppp pianississimo (I can't even pronounce this, but it means "even softer than pianissimo.")
  • poco stretto - "a little" (poco) + "quickening the speed" (stretto)
  • fz - sforzando, forced or accented
  • ff - fortissimo, very loud
  • sempre pianissimo - always very soft
  • rall. e dolciss. - rallentando e dolcissimo, "gradually getting slower" (rallentando) and "as sweet as possible" (dolcissimo)
  • dimin. - diminduendo, gradually getting softer
  • accelerando - gradually getting faster

I think I got them all. There are plenty of crescendo, decrescendo, and accent markings, but the ones above are the dynamics that were actually written in. I knew what quite a few of these meant, but I had to look up a few as well. And it was a good idea to confirm (and sometimes correct) what I thought I already knew.

*With a little help from MusicTheory.org.uk

"In-progress" Recording - Chopin, Op. 9, No. 1

I'm a little hesitant to share this recording, for several reasons. I'll get those out of the way now:
  1. My piano is not in perfect tune.
  2. I cannot play this piece perfectly because ...
  3. The tempo is too slow throughout, but a little faster than I want in places.
  4. The polyrhythm sections are still a little wonky.
  5. I accidentally turned two pages in the middle of the piece and had to stop and turn back to the correct page.
  6. The final note of the piece wouldn't play the first two times on my 100-year-old piano, so that final note sounds like it's showing up to the party really late.
  7. The recording isn't a professional one, and (I think) the left hand sounds louder and more plodding than it does in real life. (I will let my new piano teacher be the judge of that tomorrow.)
I'm sure I could think another half-dozen reasons if I gave myself two or three more minutes, but I'll stop there.

Why am I posting this? Because I want to capture a moment of time as I (re-)learn this piece. I want to be able to listen to this recording and compare myself playing it three weeks, or three months, or a year from now. I'm hoping that (maybe) other piano students will get some benefit (or enjoyment, or a touch of schadenfreude, if nothing else) from seeing my progress.

Keep in mind I'm not looking for criticism or opinions. I know this isn't perfect, and I'm aware of what I need to work on. (As for the things I'm not aware of, my new piano teacher will let me know!) This is just what it's called in the title: An "in-progress" recording. I'll post another one in a few weeks, and we'll see if it sounds any better. :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Several-Day Update

I've managed to squeeze in several short practices over the past few days. None of them were "worth writing home about," but I do want to keep track of my progress here, so this will be an all-in-one update.

Scales

I must say, I am so happy to be focusing on scales and not arpeggios right now. We'll return to "arps" in good time, but for now I'm working diligently at getting the scales back in my fingers and my brain. I'm playing 24 scales a day: 12 majors plus 12 harmonic minors, all in parallel and contrary motion. I still doing the majors at 60 and the minors at ♪ = 50. I do all of the majors plus six minors (C, C#, D, Eb, E, and F) in the morning, and then the remaining six minors (F#, G, G#, A, Bb, and B) in the evening.

And they're getting better! It really doesn't take that much time, either, particularly now that I'm becoming comfortable with the scales again. I imagine I will move up a degree on the metronome for next week.

Hanon

I'm doing #3 in Hanon. Oh, I love Hanon. In the morning, I play through it very softly at legato, staccato, and syncopated. In the evening, I play at a normal volume (since no one is sleeping). I'm spending a lot of time this week working on softness + evenness, which is a challenge, particularly on an old piano.

Bach

I have worked through the notes of the whole piece. That was, for the most part, the easy part. Now I get to start working more on tone and evenness and ... speed! Yay, speed! But I am determined to take this so slowly that, by the time I'm playing at the recommended speed, it doesn't feel like any kind of effort.

Schubert

I can now play a little over half of the penultimate page. I was expecting this page to be challenging, and parts of it are ... but not the very end section! It's actually fun, even at the creeping, crawling pace I'm currently using! Here are my impressions of the parts I worked on this week:


Hopefully that's readable! The "more challenging" part--the chromatic stuff on the first two lines--is where I need to focus my next few practices. I think it's one of those "deceptively simple" things--nothing is hard to reach, and the timing and rhythm are straightforward ... but it will just take time to get it all in my head and in my hands.

Chopin

I have avoided drilling anything in the Chopin--after all, I know the whole piece! Right?

But last night as I played, I realized I need to drill. The realization came with some degree of disappointment, but once I dove in, I was all in. Last night I looked particularly at the crescendo/decrescendo sections here:


And here ...


I think I've been playing everything too loud, and too much at the same volume. I'm working really hard to pay more attention to dynamics. I keep forgetting to do that, which is why I think lots of drilling is now in order.

I have a lesson on Thursday ... can't wait!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Tuesdays & Wednesdays, + Thursday Micro-Practices

I have been dealing with a lot of anxiety lately. I've had issues with the depression in the past, but anxiety has never been that much of a problem for me ... until now. Some of it has to do with work stress, some has to do with money stress, and some is just plain old life stress. While the cost of piano lessons adds somewhat to the money stress, the escape of practice and the anticipation of the next lesson have helped me make it through these last few weeks.

I'm finding that I tend to hit a low point on Wednesday evenings. Let's see why:
  • On Tuesdays, I have a full day of work, including a required meeting at noon.
  • On Tuesday evenings, I am the leader for a combined Tiger/Wolf/Bear Cub Scout Den.
  • On Wednesdays, I have a full day of work, including a required meeting from 12:30 to 2:00.
  • On Wednesday evenings, I volunteer to teach a pre-school class at church.
  • On Wednesday nights, I have choir practice.
So, as you might imagine, I can go two days without touching the piano, and not from lack of desire to do so. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are like whirlwinds, and I collapse, exhausted, into bed on Wednesday nights.

Except there's this other anxiety thing I'm dealing with: insomnia, accompanied by random panic attacks as I lie in bed and the worries and cares of life race through my brain.

This morning I still managed to wake up early enough to work on some scales. I'm on my lunch hour right now, and I've already managed to have two micro-practices today:
  • Early this morning from about 7:40 to 8:00, I ran through my major scales and six minor scales. I also worked on Hanon, practicing playing loud/soft in a controlled manner.
  • For about 10 minutes at lunch, I worked through the other six minor scales and played through the Schubert coda three times at a slow pace.
I think I'm ready to go to the next section of the Schubert. Since I'm working backwards, that will be the last few measures before the coda begins.

I have a Cub Scout recruiting event at 5:30, and then my daughter has taekwondo at 6:30, so we won't be home until about 7:30 tonight. Luckily, we have plenty of leftovers for dinner, which means I won't have to cook or wash a bunch of dishes ... which means that I just might have some time for Bach and Chopin tonight!

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Latest Lesson

This evening's lesson was about 50% talking and 50% playing. We started with scales. I played six major scales at 60, and then we did a few minors at my new glacial pace of ♪ = 50. I played them through pretty well, and I think I need to stick to that pace (or slower) for a while with these contrary minors.

Next, we did Hanon and worked on playing softly with both hands, then soft LH/loud RH, and vice-versa. One thing we are focusing on is "weight," as she calls it: how much core weight you use to get a certain volume out of a key--and knowing, before you press a key, exactly what volume you are going to get. So the focus is on playing softly and evenly. That's a challenge. If I play softly, some notes are a little louder than others, and some notes don't make any sound at all. So I have a bit of work to do.

She suggested Debussy's "La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair") as a good piece for working on what I'll call "softness control." Would I want to learn that one? Sure. I actually played that for a class recital in high school (10th grade, maybe?), so it's somewhat familiar to me. Of course, I haven't played it since (I didn't particularly like it then; it wasn't "show-offy" enough for my taste at the time), so it will feel like a new piece.

After that, I played part of the Chopin, but she stopped me at the end of the first page. It is going to be a while before I can rid myself of old habits from years of playing this piece from mostly memory and not paying attention to the music or truly listening to myself. I am making the simple error of totally ignoring the crescendo and decrescendo markings:


It's dumb, and I should totally know better, but there it is. I liken it to having sung the wrong words of a song for years. Even though you're aware of the right words, you sing the wrong ones anyway because that's where your brain keeps going if you don't think about it.

We're also going to be working on some theory. We're not quite going to start at the very beginning. The first chapter of the book we're using (an older edition of Spencer's The Practice of Harmony) is on identifying note names. She asked if I thought I needed that, and I said, "Well ... reading notes is kind of like reading English for me." So we're skipping that. Instead, we're moving to the identification of scales (major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor). This will be pretty simple as well, but I think I could use the review.

Next lesson isn't until a week from Thursday, so I hope to get lots of practices in (even if they're just micro-practices) between now and then! I have a busy few days ahead (including a possible road trip and a full weekend), we'll see how much piano time I'm able to wrangle.

I should also get my Debussy in the mail in a couple of days!

Micro-practice on the F Harmonic Minor Contrary Motion Scale

I woke up late this morning. Not only did I not have time to work out, but I didn't have time for the usual 20 minutes I've been devoting to piano in the mornings before work.

I still managed to squeeze in about ten minutes. I spent those ten minutes working on the F harmonic minor contrary motion scale.

Playing it in eighth notes at 60 wasn't working. I was getting through the scale, but never without stumbling. And when I did get it right, it felt more like luck than anything else. So I slowed down. Really   s-l-o-w-e-d   down. All the way down to where I was playing a single note on each beat of the metronome ... at 40!

At that pace, I could anticipate where my fingers would go next. I was anticipating three and four and five notes ahead. I had time to think. I felt like I could breathe. I felt like ... I knew what I was doing.

I played the scale at that pace several times, and then I inched the metronome up to just a little faster. And then a little faster. As it turns out, I still feel like I have time to think when I play it at one note per beat at 50. And then I tried two notes per beat at 40. Still good.

I was tempted to try two notes per beat at 50, but I stopped for two reasons:
  • I had a good thing going.
  • I was out of time.
I really think that, when you play something for the last time in a practice, that "version" gets imprinted in your brain. If I play the scale badly, or even just miss a note here and there, I imagine the "bad" version is what my brain remembers the next time around. So I played the scale perfectly at a slow pace several times, and then I moved on.

Until next time ...

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Practice Time!

Oh, what a weekend. I got some good quality time with Henry on both Saturday and Sunday. We focused pretty intently on the pieces I'm learning in piano lessons, as well as on scales and finger exercises. This is going to be a nice, long recap of everything, though I love all of my pieces so much I'm tempted to devote a post to each one.

Scales: I've been running through all 12 major scales, four octaves with contrary motion, a couple of times a day. I'm keeping the metronome at 60 for now, though I can play them faster than that. I really want to focus on playing evenly as I increase the tempo, so I think it's necessary to keep it slow for now. My minor scales are another story. I can play c, d, e, g, a, and b at 60 easily (same thing -- four octaves with contrary motion). But the others? Ha. I can't even play them at 40. So I have the metronome on 60, where each beat is an eighth note instead of a quarter note. At that pace, I can play each of the harmonic minors pretty smoothly, without too much trouble.

I don't know why I have so much trouble with these. I'll work really hard on, say, E-flat minor. And then the next day when I try to play it again, it's like I've never played it before. There is some kind of disconnect in my brain, and I don't know what it is. I've tried these approaches:
  • Play the relative major first for context.
  • Take note of where the 4th finger goes on each hand.
  • Pretend that the two notes I skip at the end of each scale have cooties, and I can't touch them or ... I don't know, something bad will happen. Maybe a rash or an explosion of some kind.
  • Play in rhythms.
  • Isolate the places I get stuck, and play those in rhythms.
  • (Just in case I'm thinking too hard) Don't think as I play, and just hope my fingers hit the right keys.
Each time, I'll eventually get the scale and can play it through several times. But then the next day gets here, and ... I have to start all over again.

And then I wonder, "What's the point?" I mean, I know the minor scales. I can play them in parallel motion all day long. What's the point of contrary motion?

Hanon: We are starting at the very beginning with Hanon. I'm doing one exercise a week, just like I did with Mrs. Wood in 5th grade. This time around, I'm playing them legato, staccato, and syncopated. I'm generally keeping the metronome at about 60. The legato and staccato sound fine, but it's with the syncopation that the weakness of my left 4th finger really comes out. That one just feels like it doesn't have any muscle in it at all, so when I do the Hanon exercises, I'm focusing hard making that 4th finger work and not get lazy.

Bach: My focus for this weekend has been on mm. 10-11 (yesterday) and 6-9 (today), paying particular attention to the second half of measure 6 through measure 8.


This part is tricky because the RH plays something different each time, and the LH has its own sort of melody going on. I took a four-step approach to these measures:
  1. Figuring out (as best I could) what chords were being played.
  2. Practicing in block chords, where I played all the keys of each chord at once. I worked until I could do those with the metronome and not stall or falter between each chord.
  3. Practicing the chords in broken triplets. Obviously, I had to leave a note out. So, for that first chord, instead of Bb-F-D-F, I played Bb-F-D as a triplet. Again, I played these over and over with the metronome until I had it smoothly and it felt natural.
  4. Playing the music as written, still as a glacially slow pace.
I originally went from step 2 to step 4, but I found that too hard. For some reason, adding that triplet step made all the difference.

Schubert: I managed to learn the whole last page! That's the entire Coda section, for those of you who are following along at home. Yesterday, I worked hard on mm. 259-266.


Played it slowly, drilled it, wrote in the chords, played block chords, etc. The whole time I practiced, I kept thinking, "This should be harder than it is. It looks hard to play ... but really, it's not too bad. Not too bad at all."

Today, I sat down to tackle the first eight measures of the Coda (which, since I'm working backwards, are the last eight measures I need to learn in this section). And guess what! They are almost exactly the same as the next eight, only an octave lower ... which means it's easier to play! So it took all of maybe three minutes to play it through.

I played the entire Coda through very slowly, with the metronome, several times. It's not sounding too bad!

Chopin: Oh, my beloved Chopin. I really do think I'll write a separate post on this one. I have been playing this nocturne for years without seriously looking at the music. This weekend I spent some time reacquainting myself with what's written on the page, making sure I understood and took note of all the directions (legatissimo, smorzando, poco rallentando, poco stratto, etc.) that I've more or less not noticed for years. I played while looking at the whole music, not just the notes, and incorporated Chopin's directions in a way that I haven't in a long, long time. The result? A much softer, more thoughtful (I think) rendering of the nocturne.

All righty, that's about it. It has been a great couple of days with ol' Henry. I have a busy week ahead of me (as well as a busy few weekends), so I likely have several weeks of nothing but micro-practicing ahead of me. I'm glad I could get some quality time in now because I won't get another weekend like this for a while.