Thursday, January 31, 2008

I Think Thuddy's a Girl

Stephen asked for some manly pictures of Thuddy, and I felt obliged to oblige.

Thuddy was in a mood for pictures. Here he is, smiling for the camera.

Here's a nice one of Thuddy in profile.

But then Thuddy didn't want me to take a picture of him from the back. He thought his butt looked too big.

"Hmm," I thought. "It's not a 'guy' thing to worry that one's butt is too big. That's really more of a 'girl' thing, isn't it?" Sure, consoles and spinets and uprights have reason to be bashful about their butts, but still ...

"I'm sure your butt looks fine," I told Thuddy. "Now pose." I walked around to snap the picture.

Then I realized something.

Thuddy is a girl. No self-respecting boy piano would dress this way.

BTW ... My apologies for the grainy pictures. This was the best I could do with my cell phone.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Piano Practice as a Mardi Gras Thing

Today’s analogy is a really bad one, but it’s the one that comes to mind, perhaps because it’s the “holiday season.”

My practices lately have felt like Mardi Gras. Only sober.

Let me explain.

Say you’re in New Orleans at a Mardi Gras parade. People on the floats are throwing all kinds of trinkets, beads, candy, etc. If you try to randomly catch everything that’s thrown, you’re not going to catch anything. But if you look a float-person in the eye and yell “Throw me something, Mister!” you’re likely to get a handful of beads zinged right at you (unless, maybe, the float-person is not a mister).

I don’t know if that’s how it really is. I haven’t been to a Mardi Gras parade since 1989, and I haven’t been sober at a Mardi Gras parade since … before that.

All these new piano pieces—Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich—are like Mardi Gras trinkets and beads sailing past me. They’re all so pretty and shiny and fun … I don’t want to have to spend my limited practice time focusing on just one. I want to enjoy all of them! Now! Throw me something! Everything!

I think it’s important that I focus on at least three (if not all four) pieces each day. My practice time is roughly 50 minutes. If I spend five minutes—OK, ten minutes—warming up, that leaves me with about 40 minutes. That leaves me an average of between ten and 13.33333333333 (ad nauseam) minutes per piece.

So I’m trying to look each piece in the eye and hope I can catch whatever trinket is there for the offering.

Onward to today’s practice …

After warming up, I started with the Fugue. Worked on the RH for mm 37-46, focusing mostly on the last few measures, where the LH and RH are tossing the alto part back and forth. I think I got some good work done for those 10 minutes.

Next, the Prelude. Did rhythms for mm 12 and 14 for about 10 minutes. So much fun to play.

Next, Beethoven. Worked on the LH run sections: mm 12-15 and mm 26-29. Did some rhythms, but the truth is, the notes fall so naturally beneath the fingers that rhythms seem less than necessary. (Ha. Rhythms are always necessary … particularly, perhaps, when they seem otherwise.) 10 minutes.

I spend the final 10 minutes on Shosti. Worked on RH only, mm 21-27 and mm 45-53.

So, those were the trinkets. I think I did OK. I focused intensely on short sections for short periods of time. It’s a different way of practicing—these short bits and pieces of time—but I think it’s what I’m going to have to do for now.

I’m ready for Saturday—I get to have marathon practice sessions on Saturdays! Lotsa beads!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Another "Getting Acquainted" Session

There was a ladies’ luncheon going on outside of Thuddy’s quarters, so I headed over to Zan the Grand’s sanctuarial abode today.

There’s something wrong with Zan. Sure, he’s a Steinway, but there’s something even more wrong with him than that. The high notes are sticking. As in, I try to play several notes in a row, and it sounds like I’m using the damper pedal for a foot-rest. Sigh.

Enough complaining. The kind folks at the church are letting me use Zan, Thuddy, and any other piano I desire for free, every single day, for an hour a day. I appreciate them a thousand times over.

Today was another “short bits and pieces” practice session.

After warm-up scales, inversions, and arps, I started with Shosti. I worked on the “A” section yesterday, so I went straight to the “B” section. A bit more of the “oom-pah-pah” in the LH—pretty simple—and lots of repeated notes (but some tricky fingerings) in the RH. I spent more time on the RH, playing and re-playing slowly, getting my RH fingers comfortable with what was being demanded of them.

Next: Kenny, a.k.a. the Beethoven. I love this piece so far. I love the “call-and-response” feel of the playful motives. I played HS, stopping at places that didn’t feel so natural, and, again, working to get comfortable with the fingering and the notes.

Then it was onward to the Bach Bb fugue. I played through each individual voice and made notes about the sections that seemed like they would be the most challenging. Tomorrow I’ll think more about that, and Thursday I’ll probably begin working on the “hardest” measures.

Last but not least: The Bach Bb prelude. I didn’t have a lot of time left, so I played through the first two pages (slowly), then went to the last page and played through individual measures several times each.

Yes, I’m still in “getting acquainted” mode with each of these pieces. Haven’t started anything HS (except for the prelude), and haven’t really started drilling anything yet. If all goes well, I’ll begin more intense work on all of these as the weekend approaches.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Practice for Monday, January 28, 2008

After Saturday’s (somewhat) disappointing lesson, I decided to try to spend a few minutes of this practice on each piece.

Scales and arps, blah, blah, blah. Sounding fine. Deborah said we could start doing scales in thirds if I want … I didn’t answer. I don’t know if my brain is ready for that yet.

Beethoven: This is a fun little piece. It’s an interesting little piece. I started working on it HS and made analysis notes as I played through it. It seems a little schizophrenic, yet it is utterly charming.

I once knew a guy named Kenny who was schizophrenic yet utterly charming. Maybe I’ll start calling this piece “Kenny”.

So Kenny (the Beethoven piece, not the person) and I were on something like the first blind date today. I’ve run through and written in all the fingering, sized him up so to speak, and now it’s time to get to know Kenny, to start getting a sense of how he feels in my hands.

OK, this is starting to sound R-rated. Suffice it to say that Kenny (the Beethoven piece, not the person) feels quite nice, thank you very much.

So, after a whopping 12 minutes of Kenny, I moved on to Shostakovich. Didn’t do anything particularly challenging—just played through the “A” section HS a few times, using the fingering that Deborah recommended, replaying/drilling any fingering that didn’t come “naturally”.

The Lyric Waltz has the typical “oom-pah-pah” in the bass, and Deborah has said to use a my “3” finger on the low notes instead of the “5”. I understand her point—using the “3” is more forceful and gives a greater sense of balance—but it feels weird. So I did some practicing of this, and it wasn’t long before it started to feel more natural.

I took a short interlude to run through Schumann, blocking the chords for "The Elf". I’m hitting all the notes, but she said I’ve lost some of the dynamics that I had earlier. So I just blocked the chords and trained my laser-sharp focus on dynamics.

Onward to Bach. Didn’t allow myself to touch C#. (Yes, it was tantalizing. But I yielded not to temptation.) Went straight to Bb.

Just a few minutes allowed for the prelude. Did the same thing as I did for the other two pieces: played through the first couple of pages (up to the big chords), getting a feel for the fingering.

I’ll try to scan some of these pieces for this blog so my readers can get a better idea of what I’m doing when I say I’m working on the fingering.

I didn’t get to the fugue. Hoping to squeeze in a half-hour or so of practice tonight after I get home.

Negativity & Uncertainty

Last night I dreamed I was railing at my piano teacher. Then I dreamed I went to my old piano teacher--the one I had in junior high, the one I did not get along with--and told her how much better she was than Deborah.

Why did I do that? A student's attitude and motivation (and lack thereof) has a lot to do with how "good" or "bad" a teacher is. I had a bad attitude when I was 13. I like to think I have a much-improved attitude now, 25 years later.

Strange how times long past can pop up in dreams, and bring all the emotions and intensity with them.

So I had a lesson Saturday and had several moments when I just wanted to cry.

I hadn't had a lesson in a month. More than a month. For that time, I practiced 4-6 days a week, averaging approximately 50 minutes per lesson. Not as much practicing as I'd like, but it's what I was able to manage, so I was OK with it. Practice sessions were focused mostly on scales, arps, Schumann, and Bach. I didn't want to lose "The Elf" or my C# Prelude & Fugue, so I was playing all of it through, at least twice a day, and having a blast doing so. After all those months (OK, more than 20 months) of learning the notes, working out the fingering, and drilling, drilling, drilling, I was so happy just to be playing the blasted fugue, start to finish, at a nice tempo. It felt good, and it sounded good.

So at my lesson we focused mainly on things I hadn't focused on in practice sessions. I hadn't worked much on the Shostakovich because because I had many questions about the fingering and hadn't wanted to learn everything with the "wrong" fingering. I hadn't worked much on the Beethoven because I wanted to make sure Deborah was OK with me working on it. I hadn't worked much on the B-flat fugue because ... well, I spent more time on the prelude.

Her first comment upon seeing the C-major bagatelle: "That was the one I was least interested in having you learn." Hmph. I asked why, and she said it was because it had more of a late Beethoven and she wanted me to start with something that had more of an early Beethoven sound.

I said, "Well, I really liked A-minor, too. We could do that one."

"No, C-major is fine."

I'd finally decided against the A-minor because it reminded me of "The Elf," and I wanted something with a different "feel" to it.

My assignment for next time: Write in all the fingering.

Then onward to Shostakovich. I had written in the fingering as assigned, but I'd been very confused about it. She said I'd given it a good effort ... then proceeded to erase everything and work out new fingering (with my input) and write it in. Yes, I felt like kind of an ignorant, even though she said that Shostakovich is like a foreign language to me (since I've never played anything by him), which makes sense ... but still.

The low point of the lesson came before we started working on the P&F in B-flat. I asked if I could go ahead and play the C# P&F, since I'd practiced it and wanted to play it for the group class in February. "Sure," she said.

I made it about a page into the prelude before I finally gave up in frustration. Nothing was working. My hands were running over themselves. It sounded like I hadn't practiced for a month, when in reality I'd been playing it--and playing it well every day.

So I decided to play the fugue instead. Same thing. A page in, I stopped. Was this the same piece I'd been playing every day for a month?

"I don't know why I can't play these today," I said.

"Well, you haven't had a chance to practice them."

How many students have looked into their piano teachers' eyes and told this bald-faced lie: "But I did practice!"

I felt like I looked the very picture of the lying student when I said that on Saturday: "But I did practice!" Only I was telling the truth.

She finally said that I shouldn't "perform" it every day, then gave me the one nugget that I'm going to carry away from that lesson: "Performing loosens screws. Drilling tightens them."

So I need to focus more on drilling and less on playing the piece through. OK.

I'm just so tired of drilling. I want, at least once in this life, to play that P&F for someone besides myself, and play it well.

Needless to say, I've been in a funk ever since that lesson. And I'm wondering why I ever thought I could be good at piano, or could quality for the Cliburn Amateur's Competition, or anything like that. It seems like I am stuck in "advanced intermediate" and will never get beyond that.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

January 24, 2008 Practice

Practices have been both wonderful and frustrating.

We’re working shifts, so I have one hour—no more, no less—for practicing. I’ve begun practicing on Thuddy Theodore every day simply because Thuddy is about four minutes closer to my desk at work than Zan the Grand is. Multiply by two, and I lose approximately eight minutes of practice time per day—that’s 40 minutes per week!) if I decide to practice on Zan. So Thuddy is my man these days.

My scales are up to 88. They’re sounding good, and they’re looking good—by that, I mean my arms are doing more of the work and my fingers are relaxed, even when I’m playing the sixteenth notes in contrary motion. Today I played through A and f#-minor and it sounded flawless. So much fun to play these scales when I know I’m doing them right and they sound good and my hands don’t get tired.

Arpeggios are at 56, or somewhere around there. The technique seems to be working there, too. I’ve never, ever felt comfortable with arpeggios, and I still don’t … but, as always, I get a little closer to the comfort zone with each practice.

“The Elf,” now a warm-up piece, sounds great. Each day I play it through a few times—sometimes slower, sometimes faster. Sometimes I have a lazy elf, sometimes a sprightly one, sometime a downright manic one. Sometimes an angry one, sometimes a sweet one. It really is a great piece for experimenting with different moods, since it’s so short (about 30 seconds, if that long).

The C# major P&F, my other warm-pieces, are among the greatest joys of my life these days. I am having so much fun with them. I am listening to myself more than I am concentrating on getting the notes and the techniques right--I have them down cold, so there are few, if any, missed notes or issues of lost concentration. I am listening to my own playing the way I might listen to a recording, focusing here, then there, on how this voice gives way to that one, or how the other voice melds with the first while the second one is picking up the main subject again … pure, unadulterated joy, it is. I feel like I’m dancing.

This week, for my “new” piece, I’ve focused mostly on the Bb Prelude. I can play through the entire piece; it’s really not that complicated (at least compared to the C#), though there are a few tricky places. But I’m not going to let myself be fooled by the “not-that-hard” myth, or I’ll end up putting not enough effort into it. I have been working on three- to six-measure bits each day. Drill, drill, drill. It’s been painstaking (though never boring), and when I played through the piece today, at a slow pace, without stopping, it sounded far smoother than it did last week, when I played it through without having gone through all the drills.

Shostakovich, Beethoven, and the Bb Fugue have been on the back burner this week. Oh … would that I had more hours in the day for piano!

It’s been a good week for practicing, though. Practice sessions have been all too brief (which has been frustrating), but I think I’ve made good use of what little time I’ve been able to take.

Monday, January 21, 2008

January 21, 2008 Practice

Length of practice: about 45 minutes
Piano: Thuddy Theodora

Today’s lunchtime practice went quite well. When I got to the church, Lou the Organist was practicing in the sanctuary, and some old folks were meeting in the choir room, so I was relegated to Thuddy Theodora in the downstairs chapel.

I hadn’t played Thuddy in a while. I think Thuddy has been tuned. Thuddy didn’t sound quite so Thuddy today.

Of course, it may have something to do with the human element. My technique has improved by leaps and bounds since I last practiced on old Thuddy.

I went through two sets of scales instead of the usual single set. I was just having too much fun. It felt so good to be back at the piano again. Between work, being snowed in, and being away from home this weekend, I’ve managed to go several days without practicing. Not as many as are implied by my lack of posting here, though.

When I was playing my chords and inversions, a man knocked on the door and peeked his head in. “Those chords are beautiful,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that.”

Deborah has said the same thing at my last few lessons. Apparently my chord-playing is improving, too.

Then I went on to arpeggios and they’re sounding pretty good.

Then I played through my “warm-up” pieces of The Elf and the C# Prelude & Fugue. Can you “hear” love being played on a piano? Deborah swears that she can hear my love for these pieces coming through when I play them. If love for music can be heard, then it was ringing through Thuddy’s little chapel today. My hands felt electric (in a good way).

Then it was time for the Bb Prelude. I haven’t spent much time on my other pieces because I’ve been having so much fun with the last page (all of the scaly runs) of the prelude. These runs are addictive. I love them.

I can really tell that the “arm” technique is starting to feel natural. It’s taken four years, but I’m finally getting there. And what a difference it’s making.

I didn’t have time to move on through the queue of pieces—the fugue, the Beethoven bagatelle, and the Shostakovich lyric waltz. I’ll try really hard to work on one or more of them tomorrow.

I love piano. Can you hear the love? I can hear the love. Yeah.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Practice for Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Duration: 55 minutes
Piano: Zan the Grand

Remind me not to schedule my Carnegie Hall debut for the week before my period.

Yes, I had a PMS practice today. (Sorry if that’s TMI for some of you.) My fingers feel like five little water balloons at the end each hand. In addition to that, I have the requisite UMS (Ugly Mood Swings) to go along with it. So you’d think today’s practice wouldn’t be so good.

It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t too bad, either. Kind of lukewarm. A four on a 10-point scale.

I started with the usual scales and arps and played them pretty well, considering I had water balloons for fingers. I’m at 80 for scales and 54 for arps. I’d gotten a lot faster on them until Deborah said (noticed? realized?) my technique had gone back to pot, and that I was being all finger-y and not arm-y enough. So I was demoted we backed up. Way up. Or down, I guess I should say. And now I’ve worked my way back up to 80 and 54 after what has seemed an eternity. As my arpeggist friend says of the glacial rate of improvement for adult students,
"It's like five years spread over fifteen; it may have only been five years of study, but because of intervening time making the total fifteen, it seems like fifteen years of study."

I continued the usual “warm-up” routine of the C# P&F and “The Elf.” Then it was onward to the new pieces …

Bach, Prelude & Fugue in B-flat

Prelude: Where to start? I’ve written in all of the fingering. I’ve studied it enough to have an idea of how the chords are progressing and how things are happening musically. I’m ready to start bumbling and fumbling my way through learning the notes.

The first step, for me, is to look through the whole piece and divide it into sections. I came up with 10 sections, which is a lot for a 3-page piece of music. The last five sections are all on page 3, though. Each new line offers a new cadenza-style challenge, so I figured each should have its own numbered section.

The next step is to eyeball the individual sections and determine which one is likely the most challenging, and to start working on it. I decided on Section 10, the very end. It was a good choice for two reasons: it looks like it’ll be the hardest most challenging most complex, intellectually stimulating, and downright fun. And I've long had a bad habit of learning the beginnings of pieces well, and then slacking on the endings. Not good. So the ending must come first, or at least not last.

So I started working on the last few measures, using blocked intervals.

It’s going to be a long road. I’m giddy, the same way I used to get, back when I was young and spry and in college, upon embarking on a really long road trip.

Fugue: I didn’t have a lot of time for the Fugue, but I did review what I had worked on yesterday. Amazing how after 24 hours, some things just seem to sink in. ("And then sink back out," murmurs Pessimist Self).

Shostakovich, Lyric Waltz

Next, I moved to the Shostakovich. The fingering on this one is tricky, and I am open to suggestions. I think I may be making this more difficult than it is.

OK, if the same note is to be repeated multiple times, it typically works best to let the fingers take turns playing the note. It helps keep the repetition from sounding tired and … well, repetitive (in a bad way).

What do you do if the same third is to be repeated multiple times? And then that third moves up by a half-step? And then that third moves up by a half-step? If I use the same 1-3 or 1-4 or 2-4, I get that tired and repetitive (in a bad way) sound. If I let my fingers take turns (on the higher note, at least), the sound is much better, but then I get a “back-against-the-wall” feeling when it’s time to move up a half-step.

Sadly, my practice session came to an end much too soon. I’ve been feeling PMS-y and yucky all day, and the practice session really helped me to get my mind off of it. Again, it wasn’t a great practice session … but I did get some good work done, I think. I do feel sorry for the church employees, who can't help but hear me practicing. I fear I treated them to what sounded like a bad rendition of the Raindrop Prelude, Shostakovich-style.

Ah, my days of playing through Bach and Liszt, working on “continuity” and “flow,” are definitely a thing of the past for those unfortunate listeners.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Practice for Monday, January 7, 2008

Duration: 45 minutes
Piano: Stubby

I’ve found that I like to swing my arms vigorously (kind of like swimmers do in preparation for a race) before I start to practice. It seems to relax my arms and hands, get the blood flowing, etc. Does anyone else do this?

Scales: Sounding good. Sounding professional. Woo hoo.

Inversions: Sounding awesome. The four-note chords now feel very comfortable in my hands.

Arpeggios: Sounding … better. Actually not sounding bad at all.

Warm up pieces:

Bach, C# P&F: Ahhhhh …

Schumann, Elf: Fun. Playing those last three notes is pure joy. (The rest of the piece is, too, but those last three notes especially so.)

Bach Bb P&F: This is all I had time for. I focused on the first 12 measures of the fugue, the soprano and alto voices. Played the voices separately, just working on getting them into my head. Played them slowly, concentrating very intently, listening, then played bits and pieces of the voices together to get a better understanding of what intervals were going on and how they sounded to my ear.

I am convinced that this is some kind of very intense, deep form of meditation. (I typed “medication” by accident at first … but then I thought, “It’s probably medication, too.)

So I felt like I was being awakened from a deep sleep when Lou the Organist tapped on the door to say hi.

Lou the Organist practices at the same church where I practice piano, often at the same times (at which times I am relegated to either Theodore or Stumpy for pianos, rather than Zan the Grand). Now, Lou the Organist is a very nice person and a talented musician, so I always welcome the opportunity to chat with her about music. But today I felt jarred and irritable at the interruption. She had no way of knowing this, so it wasn’t her fault, and I hope my irritability wasn’t apparent. I was glad to see her, except for the fact that I was so focused on Bach, and my lunch piano hour is so inflexible at this time …

So we caught up a bit, for about 10 minutes, then I got back to the fugue. I wasn’t able to get back into the meditative state, though, since I only had about 10 more minutes available for practicing. I used those 10 minutes to work out a right-hand challenge (the third beat of measure 9, for those who are curious … I’ll try to remember to scan it tonight so I can do show-and-tell, which is ever so much more interesting). By the time I packed up to head back to work, I felt good about that third beat.

OK, break’s over. Time to get back to work. Later, y’all.

The Latest

I am long overdue for a piano update, am I not?

Does anyone even read this blog anymore?

Development season at my job is winding down, and support season has begun. Support season is more structured and less pressurized. So, while I have to be here at a certain time and take lunch at a certain time and take breaks at a certain time, I get to breathe a little easier while I’m actually at work.

The good thing about that required hour for lunch: take 15 minutes out for bathroom and transportation, and I get a good 45 minutes of quality piano time with Zan the Grand!

So … 45 minutes times 5, plus 2 to 4 hours on weekends equals … up to 465 minutes, or 7.75 hours a week, of practice time! I take what I can get, and I’m very happy with this arrangement.

OK, here’s that update I’ve been needing to post.

Bach C# Prelude & Fugue No. 3, WTC I: I’m very happy to report that I have “graduated” from these two, in that I’m no longer actively working on them for piano lessons. Of course, I’ve resolved to play them 3-5 times a day, every day, for the rest of my life so that I never lose them. I’ve been doing so for almost a month now, and can play the prelude and part of the fugue by memory (not just motion-memory; I’ve been actively working on memorizing it through the other avenues as well). It sounds good, if I may say so myself.

Liszt, St√§ndchen: Sad to say, I burned out on this one. I got so sick of it. The flame weakened, and practicing felt like resuscitation. How’s that for a bad mixed metaphor? (My creative writing skills have been temporarily taken hostage by my tech writing job.) Franzi and I talked about it, and Deborah and I talked about it, and George and I talked about it, and we all agreed that it was time to put this one to bed for a while. So to bed it went.

Schumann, The Elf: Deborah gets all happy when I play this one. She says it sounds like a professional recording. She sure knows how to shell out the compliments. I haven’t gotten the “professional recording” remark since I did the Bach A-minor invention. I’m playing it as part of my warm-up routine now and will play it for the February performance class if I’m able to go.

Now, for the new pieces … !

Bach, P&F in Bb-major from WTC 1: I’ve written in all of the fingering and am currently just playing with it, mentally and otherwise—working out separate-hands fingerings, analyzing the sections, thinking about how the voices are intertwining, etc. It’s kind of like being in that first phase of being in love—you’ve just met the guy, and now you’re getting to know him better, and everything but everything about him seems to offer something to love. Yep, that’s where I am with the Bb P&F right now.

Shostakovich, Dance of the Dolls, I: Lyric Waltz: There are seven short pieces in “Dance of the Dolls” suite, and I’m starting with number one—not because it’s number one, but because it’s lyrical and Deborah wanted me to have something lyrical and songlike. As with the P&F, I’m currently in the process of figuring out fingering (no small task—I have pathetically little confidence in my ability to do that) and getting a feel for the piece.

Beethoven, Bagatelle in C Major, Op. 119, No. 2 (I think I have those numbers right): Did someone say lyrical and songlike? I want to work on a Beethoven piece, and I wanted something short and not incredibly hard. I haven’t started on the fingering for this one yet, but will probably do so this week.

I’ll write my practice update in a separate post, just so I can say I posted twice in one day. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

Best wishes to all my faithful readers for a happy and prosperous 2008!

Wish I could write more right now ... but I have to get ready for work.

Happy New Year!