Monday, July 31, 2006

Monday, July 31

I grabbed about 10 minutes early this afternoon to play through mm 20-22 of the fugue. It didn't sound great, but it didn't sound bad, either. That's good news.

This evening, I sat down for my real practice, which lasted about 80 minutes. The scales o' day were Gb-major and Eb-minor. I love Gb-major. I think it's my second-favorite scale, after Db-major. Eb-minor has given me problems in the past; that 3-1 crossover in the LH always gets me. I did 9-8 and used the C-major fingering and did rhythms. It sounded pretty good after all that, but truth is, I really didn't want to spend that much time on scales tonight. Oh well. I'm obsessive. What else can I say?

I know, I know, I know I was supposed to start with Liszt, but I yielded to temptation and started with Bach. The next few measures after measure 22 are a little easier because one of the voices drops out for a bit. I worked on those measures, and while I won't say they were easy, they were much more accessible HT from the start.

I moved on to the Liszt. I worked on learning the first half of the piece, from measures 1 to about measure 38. I already know the rest of it, and the first half is much easier than the second half. It's still tricky, but I'll have it before too much longer.

I did spend some time working on the voicing in several measures of the Liszt. There are quite a few spots where I'm playing thirds in my RH and the higher notes need to be louder than the lower notes. So I worked on making the higher notes sing while playing softer lower notes.

It wasn't a bad practice session, but I did finish it feeling a little deflated. Both of these pieces are "stretching" me, to use Deborah's word. Honestly, I really think the fugue is too hard for me. I told her that, and she basically said I shouldn't have such a negative attitude. I wonder if I'm really being negative, though. I don't feel negative about the piece, or my progress. I love it, and I love working on it. I just think it's a big step from where I was before, and I feel a little (a lot) overwhelmed by it. Sure, I can learn it, and I will, and I love it, but it's costing me blood, sweat, and tears (metaphorically speaking, mostly) to learn every single four-note beat. It's not like I want to be able to play it perfectly the first (or even the hundredth) time I look at it, but it's taken two weeks of hard practice just to get six measures. Granted, I can play those six measures quite well (and by memory) now, but I still feel like an ant trying to climb Kilimanjaro.

And the Liszt ... I felt bored with the Liszt tonight. Maybe I was just tired. But it seems like I've worked on it for such a long time and have gotten almost nowhere.

On top of that, my right forearm aches after Bach practice and my left forearm aches after Liszt practice. NOT good. I posted about this on the Piano World Piano Forums, and people are saying to see a doctor about carpal tunnel syndrome. I really hope it's not that.

My lesson last week was good, but one thing frustrated me: my piano teacher and I probably spent 25 minutes of the 60-minute lesson chatting. Granted, we're both going through some things and are friends as well as teacher and student, but we never really got to "dive in" to either of the pieces. A lot of the lesson time we did use for piano went to scales, inversions, arpeggios, and Suzuki. We probably had 15 or 20 minutes total for both the Bach and the Liszt.

I think both of us would have preferred to do more piano and less chatting, but it just didn't happen. I think we both need to agree to keep the chat time to a minimum in the future so we can make more time for piano.

I have two more practice sessions between now and Wednesday's lesson. My goals are to learn to play a few more measures of the fugue smoothly, and to play the Liszt in its entirety. I'll also work on the prelude, which has been on the back burner for the past couple of weeks. It's not exactly easy, but it's certainly easier than the fugue. Maybe I should work on it more; I feel like I need something a bit more manageable these days.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

More Bach Tonight

I put in another 60 minutes or so tonight. Started with the usual scales and arps. I know I don't need to start every single practice session with them, but I choose to do so. It gets me "in the mood," so to speak. Yep. Think of scales and arps as the appetizer, or a pre-dinner glass of wine.

I was supposed to practice Liszt tonight. The Bach was still open on the piano, though, so ... I decided to play measures 16-22 through once, just once, before moving on to the Liszt.

Well, what do you know? Did I practice earlier today? Didn't I? I thought I did. But you wouldn't have known it by listening to me. It was like I'd never even learned measures 20-22!

Back to the drawing board.

After all that drilling of measure 20 using the former fingering, my LH was confused about the new fingering. So I had to re-drill it all, as if I were drilling for the first time. I put my nose to the grindstone and my fingers to the keys. I was a woman on a mission. I was going to get measure 20, and play it smoothly and well, even if it meant spending an hour or more on it tonight.

It's still not perfect, but it's much better. It's just a very tricky section. The RH is playing a unison F-double-sharp (I think) that's supposed to be a staccato in the soprano and held note in the alto ... all at once! Also adding to the confusion is (again) the smallness of my hands. At one point, I have to play three notes of the alto melody by alternating my thumbs. All of this while, of course, the other parts of the hands are playing entirely different things.

Such is the joy of the fugue.

I spent all of that time (yes, all of that time) working on those danged measures 20-22. Oh, wait. I did play through the Liszt once at the end of practice. It's beautiful, but it pales in comparison to the fugue. (Now, if I were to practice the Liszt first and really get into it, then I'd probably say the fugue pales in comparison to the Liszt.)

Guess I'll start with Liszt tomorrow!

Playing Catch-up

Yes, I'm pathetic. I had a lesson last Wednesday, and it went quite well, but then I didn't practice piano again until today, Sunday, many days after my lesson.

I did practice some gospel stuff for church. Playing big chords and octave-scales as accompaniment can be lots of fun, and that's what I did at church this morning. This afternoon, it was back to Bach.

I practiced for about 90 minutes. Played scales and arpeggios for the first time since last Wednesday and ended up having to do the 9-8 for F major. F major, always the weird one among the white keys. Not much of a problem, though. I'm doing 9-8 whether I feel like I really need it or not because it really helps.

Then I moved on to Bach. Played mm 16-19 a few times to reacquaint myself with the fugue, then moved on to mm 20-22. Whew. Measure 20 is a butt-kicker. I drilled it many times (too many to count), and I still wasn't comfortable with the fingering, so I changed it. I hate having to change fingering after working so hard to establish a different one, but my hands' discomfort with the original fingering (after trying it in dozens of drills) was a message that I had the wrong fingering for me. So I changed it, drilled the new fingering about five times, and had no problem.

It's still a tricky measure, so I'll need to work on it some more later.

Measures 21 and 22 were easier to play HT than they were HS. These are the first two measures I've found in this fugue that are actually easier when played HT.

At my lesson on Wednesday, by the way, Deborah said that my snippet of the fugue sounded really good. I expressed some mock-frustration at how long this is going to take me to learn it (mock-frustration because I'm not really frustrated; just amusedly overwhelmed, if one can be that). She said not to worry about it, and that the way I'm learning it (memorizing while making sure the fingering is correct every time, as well as the holds, staccatos, etc) will necessarily take longer than just learning to play the notes.

I've saved tonight's practice for Liszt. It'll be tempting to go back to the Bach, though! The time flies right by when I'm working on that fugue.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


My piano teacher is a Suzuki piano teacher. The Suzuki Piano Method was developed at Shinichi Suzuki's Talent Education Institute and is an extension of the Suzuki Method for violin. It's basically a pedagogical approach, generally for small children, in which the child learns to play music by ear before he or she ever learns to read a single note.

Now, I would probably have loved Suzuki, if I had found such a teacher at the age of four, when I already had a handful of learned-by-ear tunes in my "repertoire." And now, although I read music quite well, I still depend on my ear a great deal. I like to hear pieces before I ever learn them. I don't have to hear them, but I prefer to. Once it's in my head, it's easier for me to play. Makes sense, doesn't it?

In fact, and this is a little embarrassing, I was horrible at reading time signatures until about two years ago. I was fine if something was in 4/4, but 3/4, 6/8, 5/8, etc., just confused me. I couldn't sight-read very well because I had never really learned to read note values. In the past, whenever I needed to learn a piece, I would have the teacher play it or, when I began more advanced repertoire, find a recording of it. Any confusing problems with reading music ceased to be a problem once I could hear how it should be played. (Is that cheating?)

When I took up piano again, I also started playing some for church. The "praise team" (mostly guitarists who don't read music) handed me some music and said, "We don't know this one. Can you play through it so we can hear what it should sound like?" It was in 6/8 time. All I could do was shrug and say, "I can play the notes, but I can't play the timing."

Embarrassing, indeed. How I managed to make it through sixteen years of piano lessons and two semesters of music theory in college and never truly learn note values is beyond me. I think part of it was that I hated math and anything else that had to do with numbers. Timing, counting, values ... it reeked of mathematics.

After that incident, I found myself a music theory teacher and started at the beginning. Once he was clear that, yes, I sight-read beautifully as long as I didn't worry about note values, we went into the note values themselves.

It turned out that it was all very easy. I couldn't believe it. I had spent my life avoiding the "math" aspect of music, and it was hardly math at all.

All of this leads up to Suzuki. It really does.

When I started taking from my current piano teacher, she assigned a couple of Bach inventions and the Chopin Bb-minor nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1). A few weeks later, she asked if I would be willing to work through the Suzuki method. She wanted to see how it might help my technique, which was certainly rusty from years of not playing or having a teacher.

I gamely said, "Sure," and proceeded to Book One. Book One is actually a CD. I would listen to the simple little tunes and learn them by ear. It took me between 3 and 5 minutes for the RH-only pieces, maybe 10 minutes when both RH and LH were involved. Part of the difficulty is that the pianist on the CD plays the LH very softly, and my hearing isn't the greatest for very high and very soft sounds. (I'm deaf in one ear and part-deaf in the other and have trouble with certain volumes and frequencies.)

Still, I moved through Book One pretty quickly and started Book Two. These pieces are a little more complicated, but still not difficult--Bach minuets, Schumann's "The Happy Farmer," etc. I learn them quickly when I try, but I've dragged through this book because I have zero motivation to work on these pieces. I just find it very boring. Once I have the piece by ear, I'm allowed to use the book and work on dynamics. That part can actually be rather helpful. It's not a bad thing to work on technique using pieces that pose virtually no challenge in the way of difficulty.

Still, I'd rather work on technique using the prelude, the fugue, or the Liszt. Or, if I were to work on a lower-level piece, I'd pick one of the easier Chopin preludes or Bach inventions. Or, if I'm going to practice playing by ear, I'd rather get a jazz fake book, listen to Erroll Garner and Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk recordings, and learn to play what they're playing. I did quite a bit of that when I was in my twenties.

I just hate having to spend the time to learn these things by ear. I probably need sight-reading training more than I need ear-training. When working on Suzuki, I get the RH melody immediately. The LH takes longer because, again, it's so soft that I have trouble hearing it at all. I use my knowledge of theory more than my ear to figure it out. All in all, it takes me about 15 minutes to get the entire piece by ear, then another 15 minutes (the next day) to play through it so that it's smoothly memorized.

I shouldn't complain about it. After all, it's only 30 minutes a week. But still, I'd rather spend those thirty minutes doing something I enjoy more--either playing intermediate-level classical pieces, or imitating, by ear, the great jazz pianists. I've told my piano teacher this, but she believes that Suzuki has helped my technique immeasurably. True, my technique has improved, but I don't think Suzuki is the main reason. I think Bach inventions, scales, arpeggios, and practice have had more to do with it.

I suppose I could refuse to do the Suzuki anymore--after all, I am paying for the lessons and I'm not a child--but then I think, "What if she's right? What if Suzuki really is helping me?"

It's a dilemma.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Monday, July 24

I worked all day, and poor piano couldn't be the priority. George only got 60 minutes today.

First, I worked on Suzuki. I do not like Suzuki. I find it boring and not very helpful. My piano teacher, on the other hand, loves Suzuki and swears that it's improving my technique. So I'm doing Suzuki ... even though it bores me to tears. It's like bad medicine that I have to take a couple of times each week before my next piano lesson. It only takes about fifteen minutes each time, but those are the longest fifteen minutes of my entire practice session.

After an interminable fifteen minutes, I moved on to scales. First, I played last night's challenge: B harmonic minor in contrary motion, four octaves at 80 on the metronome. Perfect! Just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, I played it through a few more times. Perfect!

Tonight's official scales were E-flat major and C minor. Both normally pose little problem for me, but just for fun I did the 9-8 thing for both. I hit snags and fixed them. When I finally did the play-through with the metronome, they were ... perfect!

Arpeggios were G major and E minor. No prob.

I spent tonight's practice session on the deceptively easy Measures 38 through 49 of the Liszt. I went ahead and memorized them with the correct fingering. With all of that handwiching, it's tempting to throw the fingering out the window and just grab at what you can. Not a good idea, so I drilled the fingering into my brain for a good half hour or more.

Only one measure proved a challenge for me: Measure 46, playing on the C dominant 7th chord. The handwiching gets really hairy in that section, and I kept changing my mind about the ideal fingering. One fingering made more sense but strained my LH a bit. The other one required the LH to jump more, but didn't strain it. Jumping isn't too much of a problem, since I'm both pedaling and playing the LH chords as a slight staccato. But jumping is risky business when you're in the midst of a handwich. I'll have to ask Deborah at my piano lesson what fingering she recommends.

Too tired to tackle Bach tonight. Disheartening. I have to stop this alternating thing, where I work on one piece one day and the other piece the next. I retain everything better if I meet with it all once a day. I played through the fugue (the sections I've worked on HT) once and then called it a night.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sunday, July 23

I was only able to practice for about 50 minutes this evening. I'd planned to spend two or three hours at the piano, but ... well, you know how those things go.

Regardless, I had a very good practice session. The Scales o' Day were D major and B minor. D major is easy, so very easy. I played it through a few times, then moved on.

B minor is annoying, so very annoying. From the very moment I learned "B" and "B-flat" as a child, I have confused the two. This doesn't make sense. I never confuse "A" with "A-flat." I never confuse "F" with "F-sharp." Heck, I'm playing the C#-major fugue and have yet to confuse "G" with "F-double-sharp."

It is not a good habit to confuse "B" with "B-flat." Particularly when you're trying to play contrary-motion harmonic-minor scales.

The first run-through of the contrary-motion scale sounded fine. Had I played it at my lesson, my teacher would have written, "Very nice!" in my assignment book. But I knew better. That perfect scale had been the result of luck. So I played it again.

I hit a snag, and then another, and then I got very confused because I was (again) confusing "B" with "B-flat." Frustrating! (Not really, but relatively so.)

So I did the up-nine, down-eight exercise that Robert suggested. All the way through the scale. By the time I made it back to the "starting point," I'd quit hitting snags, and the B-to-Bb thing wasn't bothering me anymore. I turned on my metronome and played the 4-octave contrary-motion exercise five times in a row, without a single missed note.

That up-nine, down-eight thing is my new favorite scale exercise.

Next, I moved on to the fugue. Played through measures 16 through 19.5 a few times (OK, about ten times), just to make sure I remembered it, and then took on the next challenge: the rest of measure 19.

This is a little embarrassing. I spent 40 whole minutes (1) learning the second half of measure 19, and (2) integrating it into measures 16 through 19.5. Granted, I've become religious about playing new things a minimum of fifteen times before I move on. Ten doesn't do the trick for me. It has to be fifteen. And that takes time.

Measures 16 through 19 now sound lovely and smooth. I am, however, feeling a little overwhelmed at the huge mountain of this fugue that lies ahead of me. I'm going to be climbing this sucker for a long, long time. That's not a bad thing, but I do plan to take on a, er, less challenging piece once I'm finished with the Liszt (which I will most certainly finish learning before the fugue).

Speaking of Liszt, I replayed my work from yesterday and then called it a night. I'm tired. Tomorrow's practice shall (mostly) belong to Liszt.

Saturday, July 22

I wasn't home yesterday, but I did manage to snag about 40 minutes with a piano where I was. Did the usual warm-up with scales, arps, and inversions, then went straight to Liszt. I'm at a point right now where I really need to start learning a new section. But first, I played through the part I've already learned. There was one section in which I've missed some big notes every time I've played it through ... so I went to those measures first. Spent about 20 minutes working out the kinks and then drilling it a million times. Then I moved on to the "new" stuff (Sections 6, 7, and 8).

Sections 6, 7, and 8 are not hard. They're a little tricky because of the handwiching, but they're not hard. I can play them almost perfectly when I sight-read. This can only mean one thing:

Deceptively. Easy.

I drilled Section 6 probably more than I needed to. But I really want to "cement" it in my brain, you know? And, as I drilled, little kinks came out here and there: I tended to miss a certain note, or my LH and RH got tangled in a certain spot. So it was a good use of my limited practice time.

I didn't get to move on to the Section 7 and Section 8 drills. Next time.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday, July 21

I usually work during the day and practice during the evening. Since I'm going to be at Brevard Music Center tonight to see Chu-Fang Huang perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2, I decided to work only a couple of hours this morning and spend the late morning/early afternoon at the piano.

Good decision. I practiced/played for about 80 minutes.

Scales sounded good. Today was Ab-major and F-minor. Of all the scales, I think F-minor and F#-minor give me the most trouble. They shouldn't, but they do. They sound pretty good now, but it took a lot of work to get there.

F-minor acted up a bit, so I tried some of Robert's suggestions (see comments for this post). It helped to do them in groups of nine. The back-and-forth effort of suggestion #4 was actually easier than I thought it would be. "Easy" is a relative term. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't quite the impossible challenge that I imagined it would be.

Next, I went straight to Bach, my beloved Bach. This week's goal for the C#-major fugue has been a seemingly small one: to learn Episode II (measures 16-19) hands-together.

Well, guess what. I DID IT!! And it's only Friday! (My "piano week" runs from Wednesday to Wednesday, since that's when I have my lesson.) Only two days of practicing, and I have all of Episode II hands-together! And Episode II is, in my opinion, the hairiest, scariest section of the entire fugue!

I think the fugue may be within my reach after all. My piano teacher never doubted it but, being a chronic self-doubter, I wasn't so sure. "Just take it as it comes," I thought. "Plug away, and see where it takes you." And look where I am now! All of Episode II, hands-together, in the bag! :)

The next goal is to learn, HT of course, the rest of Measure 19, plus Measures 20-22. Measure 20 has a hairy LH section. That'll be my next big (fun) challenge.

I reviewed last night's work on the Liszt for about 10 minutes. It sounded good. Very good. I've always been better at playing the Romantics than anything else, and I really feel good about how the Liszt is shaping up (the second half of it, at least. That's right. I still need to learn the first half).

Then I did a very dumb thing. I took out Chopin's Bb-minor nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1), just to play it for fun. I love this piece. The reason I started playing piano again was so I could learn this piece. I play it every now and then, but hadn't played it in a couple of weeks.

Why was this a dumb thing to do?

Well, as much as I've played the nocturne, I've never memorized it. (I know. I need to do that.) So I was playing with the music.

Do you know how weird it is to play something in Bb-minor (five flats) when your brain has been spending most of its time in C#-major (seven sharps)?

Do not try this at home, folks.

It was rather amusing, actually. I've never missed so many notes in the nocturne as I missed today. Live and learn. If I ever do a recital, I won't have two such different key signatures next to each other in the program.

Time to run! No practice tonight, probably, but hopefully I'll squeeze in an hour or so tomorrow.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 20, Part 2

As promised, here is the second installment of my July 20 practice log!

I practiced for about an hour tonight. I didn't spend much time at all on scales, arps, and inversions. I was ready to get re-acquainted with the Liszt. So, after a few minutes of a "warm up," I went straight to Liszt.

The 9-against-4 is coming. Still not there yet, not completely, but it's coming. It's a LOT easier if I focus on the timing of the RH and not the timing of the LH. Much easier. Only thing is, it's not easy for my mind to focus on the RH. I don't know why this is. I consciously have to force my mind to think, "Triplets. Slow. Slower than if you were fitting them evenly into the LH notes."

I played through the rest of the piece, just to see where I was weak and what needed the most work. Narrowing it down to "Section 11" (measures 79-90), I practiced it the way I've been practicing the fugue: drilling, drilling, and more drilling.

This piece is very different from the fugue, but it does have one thing in common with it: multiple voices singing multiple melodies. In the Liszt, the RH (mostly) plays two voices: the main melody and its echo a third of a beat later. If that's not tricky enough, there are dynamics to think about. My RH will be playing two notes at once, but the bottom note is part of the primary melody and needs to be, say, mezzo forte, whereas the top note is part of the echo and needs to be piano. And both are in a crescendo, but a crescendo appropriate to their respective volumes. Argh.

Measures 81, 83, and 87 include grace notes. The fingering for these has been really tricky for me. Do I use 4-5-4? 3-5-4? It would be nice to use the same fingering for the melody and the echo, but that would be really awkward. Typically, the note that follows the grace note is the top part of a chord, so my 1, 2, 3, and 4 fingers need to be ready to play the chord, so that makes things even trickier.

I think I've found fingerings that I'm happy with. For tonight. They are as follows (lower melody is in bold; echo isn't.)

Measure 81: 3-5-3, 4-5-4
Measure 83: 3-5-4, 3-5-4
Measure 87: 3-4-3, 3-5-4

The 3-5-4 works beautifully on Measure 83, but it needs some work in Measure 87. The the grace note is B-C# to B, so even though 4-5-4 would be more within reach (and allow me to hold the note in the lower melody), it's very awkward for the grace note. 3-5-4 isn't much better, but it worked the best for me.

If anyone has suggestions for alternate fingerings, I'll be happy to hear them. I practiced these fingerings tonight and they sound pretty good (though the lost "hold" on the main-melody note in Measure 87 irks me).

OK. Boring technical discussion over. I love this piece. When I play it, I hear a million things I need to work on, but the tape-recording I made tonight sounded impressive. This is a big deal; rarely do I sound impressive to myself when I tape my playing. But I listened to myself playing Measures 62 to the end, and ... well, it sounded quite good. Put a big grin on my face, it did.

I was tempted to work on the Bach, but it's after 10:00 and I'm trying to overcome an insomnia problem. The fugue would probably not be conducive to sleeping.

Good night!

July 20 Practice, Part 1

I'm calling this "Part 1" because I'm planning a second practice session this evening.

Spent about 50 minutes on the piano. About 15 minutes were devoted to scales, arps, and inversions. The Bb-minor scale was giving me some trouble, for some reason. I do not want to devote a huge percentage of my practice time to scales, but last week's 20-minutes-per-scale work was surprisingly helpful. So I spent some extra time drilling Bb-minor.

I took about five minutes to play through the C#-major prelude, and then the rest of the session was spent on the fugue. (This morning, when my alarm went off, my first thought was, "I'm tired. I don't want to get out of bed yet." Then I thought, "But I get to practice the fugue today!" And I got right up.) I now, ladies and gentlemen, have not one and a half, but TWO and a half measures in the bag. Measures 17 and 18, with half of 19 (the end of Episode I) are sounding nice. I'm also learning the measures by memory as I go. It's making them easier to learn, since I'm forced to focus on how the notes look in my hands, what intervals are being played, etc.

My brain is turning cartwheels. I love this stuff. I wish I could spend all day working on it. But I'm not thinking, "Oh, why didn't I start learning HT sooner?" I think I started it right when I needed to.

Tonight I'm going to revisit Liszt. It's been awhile since I've worked on it, so tonight's practice will probably be more of a "re-acquainting" session than anything else. Oh, and the 9-against-4 section is on the agenda, as always!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Today's Practice

No official practice report for today, but I did write about the joy of learning a fugue on A Sort of Notebook.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Now the Fun(?) Begins!

As I mentioned in my last post, my piano teacher (Deborah) said it's time for me to start putting my hands together on the fugue.

Sigh. I was afraid of that. And it sounded so nice hands-separately.

But first ... she said to pick out the section I considered the most difficult, and to start by tackling it.

OK. Not an unusual approach to learning something.

So I picked out measures 17-19. It's physically impossible for me to maintain every complete held note in this section, and it will continue to be until I get my hand-stretching machine from eBay (heh). It's a scary, scary section for me; the paper is nearly rubbed through from repeated eraser marks as I changed the fingering and changed it back again (and again, and again ...). I hadn't done the hands-separately mega-drill session on this section yet, so that's what I did today.

Best to ease up to that hands-together thing., don't you think?

I had about an hour available for practicing. I flew through the scales, inversions, and arps (man, are they sounding good!) and went straight to the fugue.

I drilled. And I drilled. And I drilled. (I think I'm starting to sound like a dentist here ...)

The LH isn't bad in this section because it's only playing the bass voice. The RH, on the other hand (no pun intended), is playing alto and soprano, and the soprano is doing all of these wonderful musical arabesques from high held notes to lower notes over an octave down and than back up a sixth, and then up an octave to a high-above held note again. It's really very lovely.

The alto, meanwhile, is not exactly repeating the soprano, but shadowing it. Jumping up a fourth instead of a sixth or an octave. And it's a quarter-beat behind.

Argh. Just thinking about it makes my brain long for something easier to think about--like quantum physics, maybe, or advanced calculus.

Anyway, the RH sounds good. The LH sounds great. Put 'em together, and ...

Oh, my.

I think this is where the fun is supposed to begin.

Stay tuned. I'll be sure and report the moment, which may be a very long time from now, when I can actually play a single measure of this fugue hands-together.

I finished up the too-brief practice session with a run-through of the Liszt. I hate that I haven't been near a piano since my lesson last Thursday, but as they say, poop happens. And a lot of poop has been happening lately.

Stay tuned ... I've slated tomorrow and Tuesday for monster practice sessions (unless more poop happens), to make up for the missed days this weekend.

Today's total practice time: about 60 minutes.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thursday, July 13

I worked in a short practice today. Had piano this afternoon.

The short practice involved the usual scales and arps, and a run-through of my pieces. It wasn't so much a practice as a review.

Piano was good. She said that the Bach sounded very musical. I asked what I should do next, practice-wise--continue drilling and memorizing HS, or start HT? She said that I "shouldn't hold off any longer" on playing HT, and to keep drilling HS if I want but to begin working HT on whatever I find to be the most difficult passage of the fugue. That's easy. I don't have the music in front of me, but in the Alfred edition, it's the bottom of page two.

I played the Liszt pretty well, if a bit timidly. I'm playing it with emotion and paying attention to all of the dynamics and all of that, but I'm still also trying to make sure I get the notes right in several sections. She had all kinds of nice things to say about the Liszt. The 9-against-4 is sounding much better (though it's not there yet), and she was really happy with how I played the last page. I really feel like I'm turning a corner with the Liszt. It's stopped seeming "hard." It's still challenging, but I feel like I've "got it." I have yet to learn Sections 1-5, but those will be easy, at least compared to the second half of the piece. (I never like to use the word "easy" for anything piano-related.)

No practice after piano today, as my sister is visiting.

Wednesday, July 12

Today was a crazy schedule. I was supposed to have piano, but my piano teacher had to cancel at the last minute. Then a nine-hour editing job came up, so I was busiliy working most of the day. No practice. :(

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tuesday, July 11

I didn't get to practice today because I was tied up in a job all day long. I did, however, get to see William Preucil, Eric Kim, and Arthur Rowe perform Mendelssohn's D minor piano trio last night--wonderful! Also on the program were Beethoven's D major violin sonata and Brahms' F major cello sonata.

Just as watching really good tennis players improves my tennis game, watching pianists improves my piano playing. Weird how that happens.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Monday, July 10

I've been going through the dark night of the soul and suffering the tortures of the damned for the past few days. (Maybe that's a little extreme, but things have been pretty bad.) Piano is the one constant I can keep going back to. I'm finding so much solace in it these days. I can't do too much of anything else, but at least I can play scales and drill single measures and repeat small groups of measures over and over again.

Today I had two practice sessions. For Session 1, I worked on scales, arpeggios, inversions, and Liszt. Even though I've only just started spending more time on scales, I can already see the difference. I continue to play with rhythms. This time I played funky jazz-sounding rhythms, with lots of syncopation and odd assortments of fast and slow notes. I repeated notes and "riffs" here and there (always the scales in similar and contrary motion) ... and it was fun--A whole lot more fun than just playing up and down the keyboard with the metronome. And when I did go back to the more traditional way of playing the scale, it sounded so much better.

Folks, I think I have a fun new way to practice scales.

The latent composer in me is screaming, "Write an etude! Write an etude!" But I'm ignoring it for now. Right now I want to focus on learning those scales as well as possible. If a mini-etude gets written in the process, then so be it.

Arpeggios, too, are benefitting from the added attention. They are starting to sound really good. Even the ever-pesky Gb major and Eb minor arps didn't sound too shabby today.

For my morning Liszt practice, I worked (again) on the 9-against-4s. Sigh. So frustrating. But it's coming. It's just a matter of time. I made some headway today--learned that if I focus more on the triplets in the RH rather than the eighth notes in the LH, I don't get so confused.

I also focused on a very small section that includes the "echoing notes." I can play it, but it's not 100% comfortable. So I drilled and drilled and drilled. Worked really hard on making the main theme come out and having the "echo" play softly, almost as background. It gets a little tricky at times.

Here's a tangent: I love watching David Effron conduct at the Brevard Music Center. He is a true showman. He's very animated up there, and he looks like he's having so much fun that he makes me wish I'd become a conductor myself. When he wants the strings to quiet down, he'll but his index finger to his lips like he's whispering, "Shhhh." It's great. He whispers "shhh," and the strings die right down. Just like that.

So when I was practicing the Liszt today, whenever I got to an "echo," I had this image of David Effron whispering "shhh" to the orchestra. And it helped me to remember to "shush" the echo. As I continued to practice, I imagined having a conductor in my head, motioning to increase the volume, speed up a little, "shhhh," etc., depending on what the music said to do. It was so much fun. Kind of like being my own little orchestra with my own conductor. I think I'm going to do more of that.

Tonight's practice focused on Bach. I did more scales and arpeggios first because they're immensely therapeutic, then I went on to the fugue.

I feel almost like I'm taking a step backward with the fugue, but I think it's a necessary step. I wrote about it in a previous post, so I won't go into details here. The sections that I've learned by memory (and have drilled a million times) are sounding very, very good. I'm so happy with how they sound and how my hands are molding into the their roles. I haven't covered a lot of ground in the fugue this week because I've been working so hard on such small parts. But I've gone deep rather than wide, and that's important, too.

And you know what? I'm in no hurry to master this. No hurry at all. It'll happen when it happens.

Time for sleep.

Today's total practice time: About 130 minutes.

Arpeggio Lesson Online

Here's a short video on arpeggios. I must admit that, when I first started taking lessons again a few years ago, the first thing my piano teacher did was to dispel the myth that one needs to be all wrist-twisty when playing arpeggios. My previous piano teachers had taught me to play them legato, which required a bit of awkward twisting of the wrist whenever the thumb goes under. For the past couple of years, I've been doing something like the small "leap" discussed in this video. The instructor here says that there will be a small pause during the leap, but I've found that practice makes the pause barely noticeable. Also, if I don't try to play them super-legato, the pause isn't noticeable at all.

All of the practicing has contributed to a legato sound in all of my arpeggios. It's not something I worked toward, but I've noticed that they're sounding much smoother and not as "jumpy."

Small goals. Little victories.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sunday, July 9

What a long day I had today. Didn't get to sit down at the piano until 10:15 tonight.

I practiced for about 70 minutes tonight. About 20 minutes were spent on scales and arpeggios: Eb major and C minor for scales, and C major and A minor for arpeggios.

Eb major and C minor are two of the easiest scales to play in contrary motion because they're "mirrors" of each other. I had no problem with the initial playing of either tonight, so I quickly went on to "scale variations" of all kinds. Tonight I worked on staccato/legato, plus a fun loud/soft exercise: The RH starts out soft, and the LH starts out loud (or vice-versa). As I move up the keyboard, the RH does a crescendo and the LH a decrescendo. As I move back down, they go back to the original.

I'm able to do this. I have to focus on the crescendo/decrescendo to the point that I forget to focus on the notes. And I still played them correctly! The muscle memory is finally kicking in! Yay! The scales are sounding smooth and polished, too. I'm playing them at 80 now (can't remember if I mentioned that before.

Oh, and I also tried playing them two octaves apart (rather than one octave). Would you believe, I find them easier when I play them that way? Go figure.

You would think that C major and A minor would be among the easiest of arpeggios, since they consist of white keys only. Nope. I find the black-white-black arps, like Eb major and Ab major the easiest. Bb and B are pretty easy, too. The all-white and all-black keys are more challenging.

Still, C major and A minor sounded fine tonight. I did some similar games with dynamics and rhythms. I played them with a swing rhythm, then made up a few other rhythms, and at some point I realized I was having fun, I mean, really enjoying myself. Go figure. :)

Then it was onward to the Bach Fugue in C#-major. I approached it the same way I did in yesterday's practice: chose a handful of measures and drilled the hell out of them.

In the past, either because I didn't have enough time or because I didn't know any better, I would drill something--a measure or a handful of measures--five or six, maybe ten times before moving on to the next few measures. I never really counted. Now, however, I'm drilling small sections a minimum of twenty times each, with the metronome, by memory. I speed the metronome up a bit--not nearly to the prescribed tempo, of course. I got up to 60 tonight, working HS on measures one through eleven.

Why drill it so many times when I actually feel like I've "gotten it" after five or six?

For one thing, only five or six repetitions do not constitute "getting it," even if it feels that way at the time.

But here's the main thing: around repetition number fifteen, something happens. My hand falls into its own rhythm and suddenly seems to acquire a gracefulness--the kind of gracefulness and ease of movement I usually see in the hands of concert pianists. It is pure delight to watch my hand dancing so easily across the "stage" of the keyboard, and to hear each note executed with clarity and conciseness and charm. No, I'm not bragging about my playing. Just trying to explain the joy of working really hard at a fugue and experiencing the tiny victories that come with setting small goals and reaching them.

As I mentioned earlier, I've decided to start trying to memorize it now, even though I'm still in HS stage. (I should have started learning it HT this week, but we never got around to the fugue at my last lesson.) See, I can play the whole thing, relatively smoothly, hands separately. Because it sounds only relatively smooth (relative to how it sounded the first time I tried to play it!), I decided that wasn't good enough, and that I wanted to use this "extra" week to really learn it.

While learning HS the first time around, I would think to myself, "This is going to be a bear to memorize. How will I ever memorize this?" I usually like to memorize a piece as I learn it, thus saving myself the hassle of having to memorize it later. I think I shied away from trying to commit the fugue to memory because ... well, because it's a big, convoluted piece with seven sharps. It's possibly the most difficult piece I've ever played. It's big and mean and scary.

But it's not mean in a bad way. I love this piece. I listened to all of the Book I preludes and fugues, and I loved this one the most, and that's why I'm learning it now. I was a little anxious about the seven sharps, but I've found that I actually like playing in seven sharps. But the thought of trying to memorize this lovely fugue was ... intimidating, to say the least.

I bit the bullet and started working on the HS by memory. And I now have measures one through eleven seared, seared in my memory. I'll have the first two pages in the old noggin by the time I go to bed tomorrow night. At least that's the plan.

I didn't get around to poor, neglected Liszt tonight (it's very late). I'll just have to make up for the lost time tomorrow. :)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Saturday, July 8

No time to write at the moment, but I wanted to put this down before I forgot.

One hour of practice today. About 20 minutes on scales, arpeggios, and inversions. More time than I'm "supposed" to spend on them, but I find them therapeutic.

About 40 minutes on the fugue. Lots of drilling on small sections. I played one small section probably 40 or 50 times. It sounded much better after all of that.

I like this drilling ad infinitum thing. Like the scales, they're therapeutic, and that's what I need right now.

Friday, July 7: Piano Notes

I wrote about yesterday's disastrous lesson here. I have this bipolar thing going on, and I've been allergic to the 2,381 meds they've tried, so I'm currently unmedicated. That can make for some awkward situations, and yesterday's would-be piano lesson was one of them. Luckily, I have an understanding piano teacher.

Today, after a full day of editing and spending some time with my parents (who were in town for a few hours), I finally had a few free hours for piano.

I'm up to 80 for my scales and 63 for my arpeggios. For scales, I did G major, E minor, Ab major, and F minor. For arps, I did B major, G# minor, F major, and D minor.

Here's what I do for both scales and arpeggios:

One octave, similar motion, one note per beat
Two octaves, contrary motion, two notes per beat
Three octaves, similar motion, three notes per beat
Four octaves, contrary motion, four notes per beat

Scales sounded quite good. I'm only "supposed" to do a major with its relative minor each day, but I'm flying through them so fast that I added a second set today. I played each scale through five or six times, giving myself a new challenge each time: legato/staccato, loud/soft, dotted notes, etc. Finally, after at least a year of doing this, those contrary motions scales are getting to a point where I can play them without having to give each individual note 100% of my attention. So it's good news that I was able to add the dynamics and rhythm variations and still play them.

My arpeggios are ... hm. They're not bad at all. But they're not ... good. Mr. Opinionated Arpeggist, perhaps you can give me some advice here. I want smooth-sounding arpeggios. They sound great until I get to four notes per beat. They still sound OK--I'm hitting the right notes, and my timing is good--but they're ... wimpy. The timing is even, but the volume isn't. One note will be louder than the other, then the next one will be too soft. Or I'll completely miss it. I won't hit the wrong note; I just won't hit the right one hard enough to make any sound.

It sounds OK at 60 and at lower tempos, but it still doesn't have the smooth, consistent sound that I'd like. What's your advice? To slow down again? Aaarrrggghhh ... I did work in rhythms tonight, and consciously made myself play with more force. That helped, I think. It didn't sound very pretty, but at least I was pressing all the notes down with equal force.

Next was Liszt. I thought I had the 9-against-4 thing, but I didn't. I tried just "winging" it, but that doesn't work, either (would that it did!). My brain wants to make it 12-against-4, timing wise, would would be oh-so-easy. So my right hand starts at the tempo it would need in order to play twelve notes ... and it's, of course, too fast. So, when I consciously try to play the RH more slowly, guess what ... the LH slows down, too. I guess this is just something I'll have to keep practicing until I get it right. It's just very, very frustrating. I'm not used to not being able to do something after a couple of tries. Here I've tried it at least 100 times, and I still don't seem to be able to wrap my brain around it.

After practicing the 9-against-4 measures ad nauseam, I went on to the next section: the one with the echoes. I'm being wishy-washy about the fingering. Here's why: it's physically impossible for me to hold all the notes that need to be held while playing the other notes that need to be played. The truth hurts, but there it is. I'm 5'2" and very petite. I have Mozart-sized hands. Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Brahms ... those guys weren't thinking of me when they were composing, no sirree. I can comfortably reach a ninth on the white keys. And I can reach up a ninth to the next black key (say, from middle C to the Db one octave up). But that's about it.

Well, I'd worked out some rather awkward fingerings that worked (they involved weird things like playing 2-against-3 with a single hand), but were awkward. My piano teacher said I should do the less-awkward fingerings and compensate for my hand-smallness by using dynamics and pedal. I'm not sure if I agree with her on that, but she's the one with the D.Mus. from Indiana University. I'll try her method, and if I just can't get used to it, I'll try mine again.

So I went through and changed some of the fingerings tonight. I spent a long time playing and replaying a section of about eight measures with the new fingering. A long time, for me. Maybe an hour or more. On just those few measures. I could have moved on to something else (say, Bach or someone), but dammit, I'm sick of having this piece not feel like an easy chair. If I have to play those eight measures 1,000 times for them to feel comfortable, then that's just what I have to do.

By the time I finished the practice session, those eight measures were sounding pretty good. And something else happened: I noticed that my fingers are starting to look graceful and relaxed as I play ... not like they're struggling to reach the notes and hit the right ones. That was a good feeling. That's what they're supposed to look like.

Only eight measures. I have a long way to go. This is so much work. Mind you, I'm not complaining about the work. I love the work. I don't love the fact that my time for the work is limited, but I do love the work itself.

And it is so much work. My admiration for professional classical pianists is increasing astronomically these days.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Monday, July 3

Tonight's practice was abominable. It lasted all of 10 minutes.

I was on the road all day yesterday and most of today. It was a very long road trip. On the way from Louisiana to North Carolina, we started out on I-10 and decided to go to Gulfport (Mississippi) and Hwy. 90 to see the damage from Katrina. I have many happy memories of weekends and holidays at the summer home of a friend's family and wanted to see what, if anything, remained of it.

Well, nothing was there. A few boards of the bingo hall on the corner were still there, but only the cement foundation remains of the house. That's all that remains of anything, actually. It was a sad drive.

I got back home this evening and, after a short run, decided to try practicing.


I'm too exhausted to play even a half-decent scale, much less anything by Liszt or Bach. I muddled through a couple of scales and arps before I quit. Tomorrow's a new day. I'll try and start over my practice session then.

Until then, it's sleepytime for me. I've lost two days of practice, but I worked on piano so much last week that I don't feel too bad about the missed time (other than that I've missed being with my favorite musical instrument in the whole world!).

Good night!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

An Hour in the Icebox

The LSU practice rooms are freezing cold. I guess they need to counteract the 103-degree heat and 90% humidity outside. I practiced for an hour this evening ... if I'd practiced any more, I think I would need to be treated for frostbite.

Seriously, it wasn't that cold, but I did stop practicing when I could no longer feel my fingertips touching the keys. I pity the LSU School of Music students.

I worked on Bach (again). Poor, neglected Liszt. As much as I adore the great Romantic virtuoso, my ever-bewigged Bach just has that je ne sais quoi (or would that be an Ich weiƟ nicht?). Yesterday, I played through the fugue a few times, hands separately, and noted the measures that didn't feel entirely natural to my hands after playing them a million times. For today's practice, I dug into those "trouble spots." I think it was a productive practice.

I'll be on the road tomorrow and Monday, so I may not be posting again for a while. I apologize for the spottiness of my posts lately. I promise, things will get better once I have access to my own computer at home!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Nighttime Practice

The great thing about being on vacation is that I've practiced not once but twice a day for several days. Yesterday's early practice was a two-hour all-Bach extravaganza!!. Actually an all-fugue extravaganza. Then, last night, I worked on the fugue for another 45 minutes. I played through the prelude a couple of times, very slowly, laying down the tracks in my brain. That took about 15 minutes. Then I worked on Sections 6-8 of the Liszt (the part where the melody is supposed to sound like a cello). Those three sections are probably the easiest of the entire piece. A little tricky with the handwiching, but I found good handwich combinations in just a few mintues of practicing. I worked on that for only about 20 minutes before I had to leave.

So. My hot date with Liszt didn't happen. He was usurped by my Beloved, Bewigged, and Bejowled One.

It's Saturday, and I'll spend most of the day editing a book. However, I do hope to grab a couple of hours of practice this afternoon. I won't be able to practice at all tomorrow, and I feel like I need to "cement" some of the things I worked on in the fugue yesterday.

My life (and my detailed practice updates) will return to normal on Tuesday.

P.S. I'm not sure how many hours I practiced this week, but I'm estimating it's been about twelve. If I'm able to practice again this afternoon, it'll be more.

Sigh. I love music.