Friday, August 31, 2018

Lunch Break with Henry

Today I took my lunch break with Henry. We worked on those runs in the Chopin that I was writing about earlier. I decided to record myself playing them so I could get a different perspective on how those runs were actually sounding.

It's been a long time since I've recorded myself playing this piece. As I listened to my first few measures, I realized something, and it had nothing to do with the runs:

The first note of each measure in the LH is unnecessarily heavy. Too heavy. In fact, it has a funereal sound to it, or maybe just the sense of heavy, tired breathing: a slow BOOM da da da da da, BOOM da da da da da ..."


My beautiful, thoughtful nocturne sounded tired. It's a nighttime-evoking piece, but "tired" is not the effect I'm looking for! I may have even heard a hint of labored snoring.

At first I wasn't sure why it sounded to sluggish, so I listened to my beloved Rubinstein, and then to me, and compared. Ahhhh ... something I never noticed. Many of Rubinstein's bass notes sound like they're just a tiny bit lighter and softer than the five that follow. My bass notes, on the other hand, were definitely the loudest of each respective grouping.

Another thing: I'm not playing each unit as a unit. It's more like the bass note is its own thing, while the next five are their own little unit. In the Rubinstein, the bass note is part of the six-note unit, not monopolizing it, not setting itself off by being noticeably louder or softer. It's very smooth. Mine sounds like we're taking a plunge every six notes.

I think I may also have been pausing just a little between that bass note and the others--not so much to disrupt, but just enough to give it a slightly ponderous effect.

So I'm going to actually practice this tonight. I'll record, listen, focus, work on achieving an evenness of tone that, who knows, perhaps I haven't had in years.

That's the hard thing about playing old pieces for years without a mind for continual improvement. You fall into habits without realizing it, and you're blind (deaf?) to them unless, which picking up the pieces at age 48, you sit down and play your own rendition back-to-back with a master's.

This is why I need a teacher! And it's possible my new piano teacher will have her work cut out for her.

I only played for ten minutes over lunch, but what a productive ten minutes it was! Looking forward to a good, and much longer, practice tonight.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Tracks of My Chopin

It has been a lovely morning. I woke up, did some writing, listened to some Horowitz, listened to Rubinstein playing my Nocturne, and then played for a few minutes myself, all before waking up the kid and getting her off to school.

Considering how little I've played in the past few weeks, and particularly how little I've played in the past 10 years, Op. 9 No. 1 is not sounding too bad. My new teacher may have  different opinion, but for now, I'm going with my own judgment. I feel like I don't have too far to go to get this into "recital" shape.

What's left?

  • Memorize. I have a lot of it by muscle memory, but I haven't actively worked on memorizing it.
  • Analyze. As a composer wanna-be, I want to look at every single unit of this piece and understand what makes each one what it is. This probably isn't a necessary step, but it's something I want to do.
  • Learn the notes. Ha ha. OK, so I already know the notes, but there are just a few areas where I'm stumbling. Here is the biggie:


This starts at about 4:13 in the Rubinstein recording linked above. I have the notes, and it's easy as pie to play this hands-separately. But put 'em together? My brain goes haywire.

Once upon a time, I could play this. So I know I have it in me. The tracks have been laid down in my brain somewhere. I just need to find them, or possibly re-lay them.

There are two other similar measures, but both of them are simpler. The second one isn't bad at all, just a series of 2-against-3. The first one, right at the beginning of the piece, is more challenging. I can play it, but I would like for it to be smoother.

As for the rest of the piece ... I have the notes, but I don't have the confidence of having the notes. That confidence will come with practice and memorization and probably those fun little analysis sessions I want to have. And as I gain more confidence, I'll be able to play with expression more consistently.

So maybe I have a longer way to go on this piece than I thought.

I should have three delicious hours for practicing tomorrow night. I'll spend some of that time on voice, but I'm also planning to spend a good chunk of it on this piece right here. I don't start my lessons for another week and a half, so I'm really not sure what to practice ... so I'm focusing on this one for now.

If you are really bored and read old posts from this blog and my A Sort of Notebook blog, you'll see that this piece has been with me a long time. Whenever I start dabbling in piano again, I come back to it. I've never totally lost it, but each time I've come back, I've been acutely aware that I have work to do if I want to get it back into recital shape. In years past, I haven't had the time or the energy to do that work. Now I do. (Not really. But it made for a nice concluding sentence.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Taking a Seat on the Pianocoaster

I did it.

I signed up for piano lessons. One evening a week, for an hour. I've found a good, serious teacher, and my first lesson is next week.

It feels kind of like I'm strapping myself into a roller coaster. I'm really excited, even though I'm sure the whole experience will have its scary and stressful moments. And there just may be a time or two when I want to yell, "Stop this thing! Let me off!"

The last time I took regular lessons was 2005. I studied with Deborah for about a year and a half, and then I got the teaching job, and then we moved, and then ... well. We tried to start up lessons again a few times, but it never worked. Our schedules didn't match up, and I was busy with a full-time job and a small child.

I'm no less busy today, but I've been doing a lot of thinking about priorities. I've also been thinking about where I am in life: My child is more independent, we're financially stable, and my health is good. My parents are elderly but still healthy. My husband and I both have steady jobs. Life may be as stable and calm and easy now as it will ever be. Things are going to get much harder in the years to come. I will need music. And now is as good a time as any to start working on it again.

So my new teacher likes to have students work on four pieces from the major time periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century. To get started, I'll have three pieces: one Baroque, and two Romantic. One is my old Chopin Nocturne in B-flat minor (Op. 9, No. 1) that I want to get back. I expect it will take just a few weeks, and then I will move on to something by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. For 20th-century, who knows. We'll think about that later.

In addition to the Nocturne, I'll be working on a Schubert Impromptu (No. 2 in E-flat) that I started learning at the end of high school. I never completed it and always wanted to go back to it, so that's what I'm doing. I also need to pick out a Bach Prelude and Fugue. I've narrowed it down to D-minor and B-flat major, both from WTC 1. I started the B-flat major with Deborah, so I'm already somewhat familiar with it. The D-minor would be brand new. So maybe I'll do the B-flat major and then move on to the D-minor.

Once I'm done with the Chopin, that will mean I'll have two somewhat familiar pieces (Schubert and Bach) and two brand-new ones (something classical and something 20th-century).

We'll also be doing the usual scales, arpeggios, intervals, finger exercises, etc. AND we're going to do music theory! Yay! She said her adult students don't typically want to do music theory and that she doesn't require it of them. And I'm like, "But why wouldn't they want to do music theory?"

I also asked about recitals, and she seemed surprised, saying her adult students don't typically want to do recitals either.

I want to do recitals.

Ultimately, I would still like to do the recital: the one where it's just me, and I play an entire program. I never did that in college because of stupid depression and having to take a semester off my senior year. I still want to do that recital before I die. I don't necessarily need to play the same pieces I was working on back in 1992. But I want to do the recital. Maybe when I'm 50.

Oh, wait. Fifty isn't that far away. Maybe when I'm 52.

For now, I am stepping back into the life of piano-study. As before, it will be tacked onto and squeezed into an already too-busy life. But piano has a way of slowing things down and providing depth to the time that passes.

That truth totally doesn't gel with my piano/roller-coaster analogy, but oh well. Piano has always been a thing of paradox for me.

Of course, I'll be posting about the journey here. So, as always, stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Picking Up the Pieces

Last spring, I got Henry the Grand. It was a sudden kind of thing: I started taking voice lessons from Richard Cook, who is the music director for Reid Memorial Presbyterian in Augusta. He mentioned that the church had a grand piano that he needed to give away. Would I like to look at it? Sure! I suspected it might be a piece of junk, but he assured me that, while it wasn't in the greatest shape, it was a good piano.

So I went to the church, met centenarian "Henry," and said, "Yes, I'll take him."

We had him moved to my house. A few months later, we had him tuned. Between moving and tuning, I probably paid a good $1,000, but ... for a beautiful grand piano? Not a bad deal.

He's since been moved to another room, not right in front of a window.
That move--from one room to another--was $260.
I am in love with Henry. I know he's no Steinway, and no Bösendorfer (which, if I had my druthers ...), but he's mine. He has ivory keys, and I am now in love with ivory keys. I am so happy to have this piano. So happy. I can't even begin to describe it.

But ... so many times a day, I walk right past the music room. I'm too busy with work, huswifery, motherhood, and the rest. If I do go into the music room, it's to practice voice. (Yes, I'm still taking voice. And I can now (mostly) carry a tune, thankyouverymuch.)

I decided that that had to stop. I have a grand piano, for heaven's sakes. I am not going to spend my life walking past a grand piano on the way to pick up dirty socks and throw them in the laundry.

So I've started playing more. I'm picking up the pieces--pieces of my old life, pieces of my old poetic, creative self that too-often gets buried in day-to-day responsibilities. And I'm picking up old pieces--the Bb-minor nocturne, the C#-major prelude and fugue, the old G-minor invention that I love so much. My beloved Ständchen. And some much-older pieces: the Fantasie Impromptu. The Brahms waltz that everyone learns in middle school. The Eb-major nocturne. Old stuff.

As I pick up these old pieces of my life, I have this sense of nostalgia that is both delicious and a little sad. There was a path for me, the path of a professional pianist, a path I could have taken but chose not to take. And the price is that I'm now a middle-aged tech writer with occasional but intense yearnings for a musical life, and with hopes that that musical life is somehow still attainable. It can be a lonely existence, where your best friends are a handful of long-dead composers and a very heavy hunk of wood, strings, and ivory.

But there's still hope. I still love music as much as I ever did, and by some miracle, I can still play these pieces from so long ago, albeit not as well as I once did. I'm going to sign up for piano lessons if I can (meaning, if the piano teacher I want has any slots available for the fall). I'm going to work at this again. Life will (I hope) be somewhat stable for the next ten or so years. And I want piano to play a part in it.

So I've changed the name of this blog to "Picking Up the Pieces." In it, I'll write my progress as I re-learn old pieces, work on new pieces, and generally become re-acquainted with the piano. If you feel compelled to leave comments, please do so--it's nice to know that other people are sharing the journey.

Noodling on Cm7

This is the kind of thing I've been doing lately, now that I have Henry. I'll practice other things, but I fall back into "noodling"--just playing with a chord progression and pretending, I guess, that I'm at a piano bar, or maybe stuck in some elevator that has New Age piano music playing in the background.