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.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Morning Micro-practice

I didn't have much time this morning, so I did a quick run-though of the scales (at 60) and Hanon before working on part of measure 17 of the Bach prelude.


The tricky part is the transition to the rolled chord. For some reason, I was stalling. The measure before is nothing but scale-y fingerwork, and then suddenly ... this big rolled chord. The transition wasn't sitting right with me.

So at my lesson (did I mention I had a lesson yesterday?), we talked about changing the RH fingering before the rolled chord from 3-1 to 4-2. That way my thumb is free to grab the C of the rolled chord.


So that's what I practiced today, since the 4-2 stretch, while helpful, didn't feel totally natural. Playing at a glacial pace, I did the 4-2 and then the rolled chord a dozen or so times until it was smooth. I sped it up just a little, and it still sounded good.

And that was my micro-practice. Those three sounds.

For my next practice, I'll continue working backwards. I hope to have the whole thing (at my usual glacial pace) by my next lesson!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Op. 9, No. 1, Measure 73

I learned Chopin's B-flat minor Nocturne using the Schirmer edition, favorite edition of broke college students everywhere. When Deborah and I were going to work on the F-minor Nocturne (which I barely started before I had to quit), she had me get the Alfred edition. So when I decided to do a chord analysis of the whole piece (B-flat minor, I mean), I pulled out the Alfred since it wasn't covered with fingering, jotted notes, and other scribbles.

When I sat down to get the piece from memory a couple of weeks ago, I went back to Schirmer. Here's measure 73, which I'm still working on getting "just right."


So the Schirmer and the Alfred are both lying around. When I sat down to work on measure 73 today, I grabbed the version that was closest at hand: the Alfred. Here's measure 73 of the Alfred:


I have the measure 73 polyrhythms down for the most part, but I'm not confident about them. When they come together properly, it feels like more a stroke of luck than something I've consciously executed. So for today's practice, I wanted to see if I could make that "stroke of luck" be more consistent. So I looked at my Alfred edition, to remind myself of how many RH notes I'd practiced for each LH note.

And ... something was different. The Alfred edition is not like the Schirmer edition. And neither of them are the official Urtext edition, at least as far as I know.

In Schirmer, the first three triplets are 3-against-2 with the LH. After that, we have the rather-hard-to-digest 20-against-6, starting with the Bb in the right hand and a Bb2 (the Bb an octave below Middle C) in the left:


As noted above, that Bb2 is the first note of the second set in the LH, and the seventh note in the measure.

In Alfred, we have "3 against 1" for the initial three-note sets, and then the 20-note run starts on the fourth note of the measure, the Bb3:


Aaarrrggghhh.

So I did what I always do when I'm not sure about something in Chopin: Asked, "What would Artur do?"

Artur Rubinstein, 1962
So I listened. And ... it's kind of hard to tell.

I prefer the version I learned originally. I don't know if it matters that I play this many notes against that one note, or if I'm strict about anything as long as it's beautiful and comes together in the end. I'm just going to go with my instinct here. I'll continue working on having the progression of notes in both the RH and LH feel as natural as possible. This will allow me to think less about this note or that note, this beat or that beat, and just enjoy the flow of the music under my fingers.

Impromptu Thoughts

This Schubert Impromptu (Op. 90, No. 2) is tricker than I remember it being!

I first encountered it at the end of my senior year of high school. I was going to work on it the summer before college, but I ended up not taking lessons that summer, or maybe my lessons were so spotty that we didn't get far in anything. For whatever reason, I abandoned the piece before I ever started it.

When taking lessons from Deborah in the mid-2000s or so, I decided I wanted to finally do that impromptu. I'm not sure why; No. 3 in G-flat minor is my favorite. Maybe I was hungry for something scaly; I don't know. So I got as far as writing in some fingering ... but then I got another job, or I moved, or something. And, once again, the impromptu didn't happen.

Fast forward to now, and by golly, I'm going to learn that piece before I die. Third time should be the charm, right?

I started working on it in earnest this weekend--just the last dozen or so measures at the very end. And I realized, very quickly, that this piece is going to be a big challenge. Just figuring out the notes takes real effort in some places ... and I'm a pretty good sight-reader! And then there are passages that are similar to others, but just different enough that you can't let yourself coast on what you learned before.

But I'm in it for the long haul. Last night when my voice lesson was canceled, I took the free hour to (1) practice one of my songs, and (2) have a micro-practice on Schubert. I played what I'd micro-practiced yesterday, and--relief--it was still there, in my head and in my hands! So mostly I just repeated a couple of measures at a time, very slowly, to lay the tracks in my brain.

It felt so good to feel those notes under my hands: to hit the right notes, and to enjoy the sounds of the chords. Two days ago, I was struggling, picking through the notes, missing the chords, focusing, focusing, focusing. But today? They're there. Those last dozen or so measures are there.

Next micro-practice: play through those measures a couple of times, and if they're still there, move on to the preceding measure ... and do the work.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Micro-Practicing

I managed to get about 60-70 minutes of practice in today. Gotta love weekends. Only thing is, those 60-70 minutes were broken into short intervals throughout the day. Six or seven short intervals.

One thing I became good at as an adult student years ago was micro-practicing. I don't know if that's a real term, but it's the one I use. Basically, it's the ability to take the 10 minutes you have available for practice, and make the best of every millisecond in those 10 minutes.

After a half-dozen micro-practice sessions, I feel almost as if I'd gotten an intense hour in. Of course, that's just a feeling. But experience has shown that the practice sessions are worthwhile, and that the improvement happens anyway.

The key is in focus and planning. Plan to focus on a very, very small bite during those ten minute: a half a measure, the transition from one chord to another, a scale run. Today's micro-practices focused on several things:

1. The Eb-minor contrary-motion scale. I'd decided yesterday that I would focus on this one first thing. I started by simply playing the scale. As soon as I got to the place where I always mess up, I isolated that section. (Generally, I get muddled in the second half of the contrary motion, where my hands are moving back toward each other). So I stared at the two ends of the piano and worked my way in, drilling the area--just a two- or three-note sequence. Once I had that, I tried a group of five notes, then six. Then a whole octave, several times. And that was it. The ten minutes were up.

2. In the Bach, I looked at this measure near the end of the piece, specifically the motion from the E-natural to the big chord. Once that became smoother, I worked to the end of the measure.


3. In the Schubert, I spent a couple of micro-practices on a measure toward the end (sorry, I don't have measure numbers in front of me). One focused on crossing from one bar to the next, the E-flat to the diminished chord. Another focused on block chords in the second measure. Another focused on several measures prior. And another focused on the transition to the scale runs near the very end.


4. In the Chopin, I focused on playing it through and keeping the LH soft. That's it.

So it was a good day for practicing, even if I never got to dive in and lose myself. I didn't make very much in the way of beautiful music. Most of my practicing will happen like this, I'm afraid. There is too much going on, and it's rare to find a whole hour, or even a half-hour, for quiet focus on music.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

First Piano Lesson, and First "Real" Practice

I had my first piano lesson! Followed by my first "real" practice, where I'm actually working on something that an older, wiser pianist (my new piano teacher, Carol) told me to work on!

I have been under the weather for several days and wasn't sure if I should keep the lesson appointment, but I did, and I'm glad I did. I now have "assignments" to keep me nice and busy until next time.

At today's practice, I focused on several things:

Scales

Scales! My beloved scales! I focused on the majors today, seeing which ones of those I really could play at 60. Everything sounded fine, except for Eb, Gb, and Ab. Of course, the black keys. So I spent a bit more time on those and worked them up to 60 pretty quickly.

They were all in my brain at some point. There was a time that I could play all of them at much faster than 60. Still, I was surprised that just a few minutes' focus on some trouble spots rendered nice, smooth scales at 60.

I will focus on minors tonight and tomorrow. Somehow I don't think they're going to come back to me so readily. But who knows? Maybe they'll surprise me. "Waterfall, we've been waiting for you! Let's play!"

Bach

I'm practicing the prelude very slowly, with the metronome, and I'm starting at the very end. Today my focus was on measures 20, 19, 18, and 17. In that order.


The notes really aren't that hard; they're mostly scales and arpeggios. At some point, this piece will be lightning fast, but for now I'm moving slowly, so slowly that I can't miss a note. I want to make sure I'm playing evenly, and that I have the timing right, with a good sense where things fall from beat to beat in each measure. I don't think this will be very difficult to learn, note-wise. The challenge will be in achieving a good tone, playing evenly, and ultimately getting it up to speed. I had the loveliest time working on this today.

Schubert

Note-wise, the Schubert is the most difficult piece I'm working on right now. As with the Bach, I'm starting at the very end:

There is quite a bit of repetition, which why I was able to cover eleven brand-new measures in a single sitting. For example, measures 276 through 279 are all the same thing: a downward Eb-minor scale that's missing a D. Over and over again, just different octaves. The left hand, meanwhile, is going from Eb minor to Ab minor, back and forth. And then that's all it does in measures 280-281. Then we have a Bb, and then an Eb-minor chord, and we're done

Measures 273 and 275 are a little tricky because they're similar (same chords) but different (different inversions), and they're separated by that Eb-minor measure. They're pretty easy to play separately, and they're not bad if I play them one after the other ... but for some reason, having that Eb-minor chord in measure 274 throws me off.

So I spent quite a bit of time working on the transitions on either side of measure 274.

After some drilling on that, I worked on the whole little section:


And then, all three full measures.

So now I can play it slowly, but it's even, and that's what's important. The speed will come. (And this is another piece that's going to be very fast someday!)

I also spent some time on Hanon and did a few minutes of sight-reading from my old Easy Classics to Moderns book.

I love weekends. No way will I be able to spend this much time practicing during the week. But on the weekends? I can make time for piano.

Friday, September 07, 2018

More Scales

Despite waking up later than usual, I managed to stick to my piano schedule this morning. I had maybe 15-20 minutes, so I dove right in to the scales for the day: F# through B, majors and minors.

As you might expect, there were a few easy ones and a few that were, well, not so easy.

Easy: F# major, G major, G minor, A-flat major, A major, A minor, B-flat major, B-flat minor, B major

Not so much: F# minor, G# minor, B minor

Oh, those minors! I'm actually doing the harmonic minors for each one, and I think that's part of what makes them tricky.

I'm also going to be doing Hanon each morning. I pulled out my old Hanon book when I first started playing again a few weeks ago. Before that, I hadn't played Hanon in years. I had one teacher, back in the early 80s, who assigned Hanon exercises ... and that's about it. Most of my teachers never assigned Hanon, and a few of them downright disliked Hanon.

My opinion? I kind of love Hanon. I like not having to think about the notes. That leaves room to focus on tone, technique, and whatever else I want to focus on.

So, speaking of focus: My focus with both Hanon and scales is to stay relaxed and focus on evenness of tone--and play at a tempo that allows me to achieve both of those goals. The "evenness of tone" area, in particular, is one where I can tell that I've regressed in 12 years of not playing.

This was a short little blog post, and I imagine they will all be short until my lessons are up and running. And since scales and Hanon are not the most exciting topics for most people, I'm probably doing my vast reading public a favor, right?

Until next time ...

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Scales

When I spoke with my new piano teacher, we talked a bit about scales. What scales did I know? How did I practice them, back in the days when I used to practice?

I demonstrated my usual routine using C major: With the metronome, one octave in parallel motion, with one note per beat. Then two octaves in contrary motion with two notes per beat. Then three octaves in parallel, three notes per beat. And finally four octaves in contrary with four notes per beat. And then rinse and repeat with the relative minor.

So she said, "All twelve each day might be a little much, so let's make it six per day."

Gulp.

With Deborah, I did one per week: one major scale, with the relative minor. And then the inversions and arpeggios.

Six scales per day? And with the relative minors, that's twelve!

Soooo ... I have some work to do.

I've been under the weather for a few days and haven't played much, but I managed to play scales in six keys tonight (actually twelve, including relative minors): C through F. All of the white keys were a breeze, as were C minor, D minor, and E minor. C# minor, E-flat minor, and F minor ... not so much. I'd been playing with the metronome on 60, but I had to slow down to 44 for those three.

Tomorrow I play F through B. Somehow I think I'm going to spend more time down in the 40's tomorrow.

I'm wondering if I should stick with relative minors, or just do majors and minors in the same keys each time. For example, do I practice the majors and minors from C to F like I did tonight? Or do I do C major through F major, and then A minor through D minor? In pairs? As in C major/A minor, D-flat major/B-flat minor, D major/B minor, etc? I think maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

I can experiment. Play around. This is very new to me, this scale thing. I'm sure I did scales in college, but it wasn't until I worked with Deborah that I started to play them all in contrary motion. Only then did I really learn my scales (even though learning contrary motion was quite the struggle).

I'm kind of happy to be working on scales. I've always loved scales. Once upon a time, I could fly right through them. I can't do that now ... but it will be nice to be able to do that again!

Sunday, September 02, 2018

An Oops

So I finished labeling chords today as I worked to memorize the last couple of pages of the B-flat minor nocturne. At some point I realized that I've been playing a couple of notes all wrong for ... who knows how long? I thought maybe I'd been playing them wrong from the very beginning, but I could see that Deborah had circled the correct notes in my Schirmer edition. So it's possible that I wanted to play the wrong notes but she was trying to get me to play the right ones.

These are near the end of the piece. As in the beginning, we go from B-minor to F7 ... or do we?

This is what you have in the beginning:


That second set of notes is an F7 chord over the B-flat bass note: F, E-flat, A, F, and F. An F7 chord consists of F, A, (C,) and E-flat. Those notes in the red boxes? All F's.

So that's what I was playing at the end. But look at what's actually written at the end:


Over the B-flat bass note, we have G-flat, E-flat, and A. Those notes in the red boxes? All G-flats. I'm not going to try to figure out what chord that is supposed to be, and which notes are (and aren't) properly in the chord. All I know is I've been playing the F7 (with F's instead of G-flats) all this time.

Oops.

Not that I've played it that often in the past 14 years ... say, once or twice every six to eight months. But still!

How embarrassing. I'm glad I figured it out.

And ... I can now play the whole piece from memory. Now, for the fun part: practicing playing the whole thing from memory!

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Memorizing is Mesmerizing

I have had the hardest time memorizing songs for my voice lessons. I work at it and I practice, but the practice sessions aren't as focused as I'd like them to be, and it seems that the weekly voice lessons come and go, and the words still aren't there.

Piano is another story. At least when I took from Deborah, memorizing wasn't too much of a stretch because I practiced so intently. At the same time, she didn't require memorization, so I never quite jumped out of the nest with any of my pieces. So did I ever memorize them?

Kind of? Maybe?

I'll never know. So in my rediscovery of the B-flat minor nocturne, I've decided that I want to do two things I'd never seriously focused on before: analysis and memory. The two go hand-in-hand, so it seemed a worthy way to spend some time this afternoon while Anne played with the neighbor kids outside.

My Schirmer edition of the nocturne is the one I learned with, so it's all marked up with fingerings and comments. I had this Alfred edition that I've never used, so it became my "analysis copy." I started by simply labeling the chords.


Quite a few of the chords were simple, as in the very beginning of the piece: B-flat minor to F7, back and forth. It gets more complicated and interesting later on, of course.

I feel a little silly that I waited so long to do this analysis. I noticed a couple of things right off the bat that I'd never even thought about before:
  • How changing from the minor to the relative major feels like a sunrise
  • How, after making that change, going from the I to the IV of the relative major feels like the warmth of the sun coming from behind a cloud on a too-cold day
I'm sure that is the oldest trick in the book, but it's new to me, and I made stuff up for a good half hour, just noodling from minor to relative major and back again.

The other thing I thought about was diminished seventh chords and how their instability can lead you anywhere. My music theory knowledge is limited, but I do remember learning this at some point. I just never applied it, or even thought about it beyond the classroom setting. It was "theory" and for too much of my life, "theory" had been a separate thing from the experience of making music. For a long time, I just wanted to play. I didn't want to be analytical about it.

I know, I know. It's dumb. I have a lot to make up for. 

Once I'd thought about and labeled the chords in the first section, I worked on memorizing. As you might expect, having the chords written down, and now having the ability to think about the direction the music was going, made memorization so much easier. I played at a snail's pace, too, to help ensure that I wasn't just relying on muscle memory.

Somehow, two hours went by as I analyzed and memorized. When Anne came in with the neighbor to see if they could go get ice cream, I felt almost irritable, like I'd just been pulled out of a deep sleep. But we ended up going to Chick-Fil-A for a late lunch and ice cream, and then to the playground, and then to Rack Room to get Anne some new shoes, and it was a fun afternoon with the kids.

When I got home, I sat down to play the few pages I'd memorized earlier, and ... yep. It was still there. I played it slowly, and it was still there. This may be the first time I've actually memorized those pages. Really memorized them. Hopefully I'll never lose them again.

The goal for tomorrow afternoon is to memorize the third main section, and probably the fourth (which is mostly a repeat of the first, except for the ending). The goal for the rest of my life is to play the hell out of this nocturne so that I'm still playing it at age 90 in the nursing home ...whether the rest of my mental faculties are there or not!

I also need to practice voice tomorrow. I wish analyzing the chord progressions would help me memorize the words, but I don't think it works that way ...