Monthly Archives: April 2017

Half Speed

Sometimes I think I’m jinxed. The last few times I’ve played Beethoven’s sonata (opus 109) at my lesson, the music has fallen apart. I make clumsy mistakes. I have memory lapses. Why can I play it well at home and so disastrously at my lesson?

Dr. B is much kinder and more patient with me than I am with myself. Even though my disappointment is obvious to him, he always comments on the bits I played well: a phrase here or there, perhaps correct rhythms, or good dynamics.

“The piece just needs more time to mature,” he said. To me, it’s had enough months to mature. Perhaps not.

“To get it more solid,” he continued, “you need to slow it way down. Work with the metronome. Then gradually increase the speed every few days. After several weeks it will be much better.”

Dr. B always has techniques for improving difficulties. I do what he suggests — I’ll either prove him right or prove him wrong — because what I’ve been doing obviously hasn’t created success.

The next day I set the metronome at 50 — half the speed I’d been playing. Immediately I realized I couldn’t play the music slowly. My fingers didn’t automatically get me where I wanted to go, which meant my memory wasn’t secure. I studied the difficult spots, and worked until I could play them slowly. I also noticed dynamic markings that I’d overlooked in my rush to play faster.

Playing slowly was harder than I thought. Several days were required just to play the first page correctly. And this was a piece I already knew!

Eventually I worked my way through all six pages — at 50.  At every stumble I rechecked the music, drilled the tough spots, checked other markings on the music. Once I could play with no mistakes, I increased the metronome to 55. After a few more days, I increased to 60. And so it’s been for the last few weeks.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • My memorization wasn’t as secure as I thought, which explains disastrous playing at my lesson.
  • Slow practice allows me to pay attention to the details: rhythm, dynamics, articulation, notes
  • Slow practice is about being careful and getting it right and listening.
  • “Perfect slow” will eventually be “perfect fast.” It’s the only way to get there.

My questions for you are

  • What are you trying to accomplish at full speed before you’ve mastered the details?  Where do you find yourself repeating the same mistakes or continuing to have the same struggles? What if you slowed down, looked at the details, and worked them to your satisfaction first? What if . . . .

 

  • Where are you speeding ahead because you don’t think you have time to slow down? What if you decided to give up on mediocre and sloppiness? What if . . .

 

  • Where are your personal disappointments? What if, instead of declaring yourself a failure, you slow down, look at the pieces and parts, and create a plan for small changes.        What if . . .

In all my years of piano playing, I’ve never understood the value of slow practice until now. I was always in too much of a hurry to play full speed.

Dr. B wants the music right first. Speed comes later.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

The Death of Dickens

I killed Dickens. Last week. On a warm spring afternoon.

I hit delete and he was gone from my life.

You see, I read him once in high school. A Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t like it much then but it was required reading.

In recent years, as I’ve added classics to my regular reading, I’ve often thought I might enjoy A Tale of Two Cities, now that I’ve acquired some literary maturity and experience.

So I downloaded Tale to my phone. Occasionally I read snippets, but mostly I read for extended periods of time. I managed to get halfway through the book, with nary a hint of engagement with Dr. Manette, his daughter Lucie, Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, or Madame DeFarge.

I tried. Really, I did.

Leaving anything unfinished is difficult for me. But, as Charlie said to me last week, “Life’s too short . . .” Two days later, on that fateful spring patio afternoon, my neighbor said, “The earth won’t stop and lightening won’t strike if you don’t finish the book.”

I knew they were both right.

Not only did Dickens fail to engage me in his story, he caused me to give up my morning reading habit. That is unforgivable — and that’s what caused the crime.

So right then and there, with one witness to the event, Dickens met his demise.

Sometimes we need to stop what we’ve customarily done, if it’s no longer working for us — particularly if it’s keeping us from our best, dragging us down, or robbing us of precious time.

In another situation, I have three musicians in my life who hear me play regularly and who offer critical comments. Of those three, there is One for whom my playing is never good enough. Comments about sloppiness or mistakes bury the rare word on what I’ve done well. My progress is seldom mentioned. Few remedies, tips, or solutions are offered. The other Two musicians, always offer positive comments before the criticism and along the way, when they see I’m struggling, they offer words of encouragement. They work with me to learn new techniques for improving my playing. With them I believe I can play better. The criticism of the three may be the same, but the way it is delivered is quite different.

It’s like I have a musical bucket that needs to be filled every once in a while. The Two give me enough positive comments along with constructive help that I continue working and improving. The One, on the other hand, has created a hole in my bucket — a bucket that cannot hold nourishment or sustenance for the journey. I only experience discouragement and defeat.

Like Dickens who didn’t engage me, the One musician drags me down, offering no enticement or interest to keep me forging ahead.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. That’s the way life is. I always want to tip the balance toward the best of times. This week I’ve been reminded to examine some habits and routines and experiences and people who fill my time.

Life is too short — to spend it with people who bring us down, activities that keep us from our best, and habits that are no longer effective.

Check your bucket for holes.

Until next Tuesday. . .

 

What the mouse ate . . . and other weirdnesses

Life’s been a little strange lately, on several fronts. So strange, in fact, that I thought you’d want to know.

Front #1: Mouse in Pantry

Over the last couple of weeks a mouse, or perhaps a whole herd of mice, has been ravaging my pantry. So far, the mouse has nibbled into

  • 3 bags of coconut
  • 2 bags of cornmeal
  • 2 bags of ladyfingers
  • 2 stacks of crackers
  • 1 box of graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 bag of dried beans
  • 1 bag of Dove chocolates
  • 1 rolling pin cover
  • 1 bag of marshmallows
  • 2 bags of powdered sugar
  • I box of oatmeal

I’ve caught one mouse. I’ve cleaned up all the mess (several times), put all vulnerable items into tight plastic tubs, but there is still a mouse in my pantry, despite 5 traps that are set and waiting for him. Somehow he manages to eat the peanut butter in the trap without setting if off. Yes, I’m sure it’s a him. Don’t ask me why.

Front #2: Ordering Hot Dogs

I ordered two identical hot dogs, each with mustard, catsup, mayo, relish, and onion crispies. What I got was

  • 1 hot dog with chili, sauerkraut, mustard, a few shreds of cheese, and onion crispies
  • 1 hot dog with chili, onion, lots of shredded cheese, relish, and onion crispies

The lady wrote down my order. I have no idea how it all went wrong.

Front #3: Printing a Page

I only needed to print one page but my printer refused to cooperate. It seems one ink cartridge was empty. The red light was blinking. I always have extra cartridges on hand, so no problem. However, the new cartridge refused to slip into place. In an effort to see better, I repositioned the goose-neck lamp on my nearby desk. The lamp, now precariously off balance, fell from its perch, spilled the dish of paper clips, and sent the stapler flying onto my keyboard. My beloved blue elephant planter, nestled on the base of the lamp, smashed on the floor. The jolt destroyed the bulb in the lamp, the very lamp that was to provide light for my task. I finally got my one page printed — after cleaning up the mess, replacing the bulb, and restoring order to my desk. The elephant is in the trashcan.

Such occasions defy our best efforts to control events and get things right. Our pride and self-confidence take a beating when things are on a downward spiral. We wonder what will happen next.

I have no magic solutions for avoiding such incidents. My only advice is to choose your attitude. You can allow such things to (1) ruin your day or (2) reinforce your image of personal clumsiness and ineptness or (3) remind you, once again, that the universe is conspiring against you or (4) cause you to check your horoscope, the phase of the moon, or alignment/misalignment of the planets or (5) adjust your self-image to one of circumstantial victim.

Or . . . Or . . . You can say “Weird stuff sometimes comes into my life, through no fault of my own.”

You can ponder the weirdness, perhaps even record it in your journal or on a blog.

Then move on, with a shake of your head, a wink in your eye, and a sly grin on your face that makes your friends question what you’re up to.

Treasure the momentary weirdness — it’s too funny not to.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

Salt Water Taffy

I’ve been exploring new ports, though I’ve cruised the Caribbean several times. This time I spent more nights at sea and travelled further. The onboard experience doesn’t vary much from cruise line to cruise line. Some of the ports are similar too — at least that’s my opinion — though a few standout as unique.

What was different this time was the ocean itself. As we left Panama heading to Costa Rica the ocean took on a roughness I had not experienced before. It was so rough we were unable to dock at our scheduled port in Costa Rica. Several huge freighters waited in the harbor until they could safely dock. In spite of its stabilizers, our ship rocked from side to side for three days and nights. We staggered like drunkards in the corridors. In bed at night I wanted to brace my feet against the wall to keep myself in the bed. Some people got woozy, some got stir-crazy, some were ready to go home.

Me? I loved watching the waves, boiling and churning, turning the ocean white in places. Our ship parted the waves with high splashing as it plowed ahead. The waves looked fiercest from the portholes on Deck Two. I could best judge their heights and troughs from there, but not being a seaman, I had no point of comparison for these waves. The dishes stayed on our dining table and our drinks remained in our glasses. The waiters didn’t lose a single heavily laden tray. So, compared to stories I’ve heard, our experience was a mild one.

What I remember most is the morning ocean with the sun just coming into its own, its gold and orange rays poking the clouds. The view from Deck Nine was spectacular. Great waves of water, rising, rising, before curling over into the ocean again.  The rising water was like royal and teal and white iridescent satin — shiny, smooth, glistening in the sun. I was reminded of the satiny hard candy pillow squares of childhood Christmases.  Every wave different; every wave gorgeous and powerful.

I have no photos — only the memory of being mesmerized by the ocean and the sun and the early morning light.  I’m hoping to see it again one day — at least something similar.

Until next Tuesday . .  .