Tag Archives: piano playing

The Third Annual Piano Recital

It seems just a few months ago I wrote about my first piano recital: how I’d never done it before, how I’d overcome a life of nervousness, and how it felt like jumping off a cliff. And I wrote that I survived the event.

Actually that first recital was April 2015. I only invited a few people, close friends who already loved me, and would continue to love me no matter how I played.

The next year the event was enough bigger to do a small rehearsal for a select group before the main event.

This year there were two main events: the first for 15-20 neighbors, the second for 15-20 friends.

Here’s what I’ve learned with these annual recitals:

  • Friends enjoy hearing my music. They often say they had a fun afternoon at my house.
  • I’ve learned to focus on the first few measures of each piece before I begin to play. That makes for a better start — and a single start.
  • Listeners like to learn about the composer and the composition before they hear the music. Informed listening is engaged listening.

Each performance is unique and music is always a work in progress. A piece is never totally finished, even though Dr. B has blessed it.  Music I played last year is way better now because it’s had time to settle, mature, and become more expressive. There’s always more practice to be done and more nuances to be incorporated. Always.

If I wait until my playing is perfect, no one will ever hear my music. My passion for Beethoven and Schumann and Debussy will never come to the light of day. Talking about my music is not the same as actually playing it for others.

Life, like musical performance, is the same way. If we hide ourselves until we’re perfect, no one gets to experience who we are, in all of our wonderfulness and quirkiness and fabulousness and uniqueness. If we’re always apologizing for our errors and mistakes and shortcomings our successes and accomplishments and milestones remain hidden with us.

My playing wasn’t perfect. In fact, I made mistakes in unexpected places.  There was no silent self-beating for my imperfect performance. No one cares about my mistakes; in fact, they rarely notice. I didn’t apologize — because I played my best. “Beethoven may have just rolled over,” I shared after the sonata. “I know he’s never heard it played like that! In fact, I was a little surprised myself.” We laughed together.

I ventured out of my comfort zone — again — and actually looked forward to the afternoon performances. My friends enjoyed my music and visiting with each other over cookies and lemonade. “Thank you so much for inviting me!” was an oft heard comment.

What more could anyone want?

So, get out of your box. Rid yourself of the excuses you’ve hidden behind. Challenge yourself. Take a new step.

Stepping out is not easy. Growth is not easy, either, but it’s worth your effort.

Until next Tuesday . . .

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 . . .

 

When Hard Work Shows Up

I’ve often written on this blog about doing our work, doing our practice, taking small steps, one after the other. Our small, consistent efforts accumulate over time. Eventually we can see the difference.

In 2015 I began learning Beethoven’s sonata, opus 109. Since then I’ve learned and memorized both the first and second movements. I was hoping to skip the third movement (a theme with six variations) because I believed it was beyond my ability. The theme is simple, lovely, and slow, but variation VI has pages of trills in one hand while the other hand plays “thousands” of thirty-second notes. In my opinion, such music is best left to professional pianists. But Dr. B believes in learning an entire piece of music, so I had my assignment.

I delayed starting on it for several days. I felt defeated even before I began. Finally I began my feeble attempts to play the notes at a snail’s pace. After a few weeks of  work, I said to Dr. B, “I need help! I just don’t know how to play this.” He patiently explained techniques and practice methods, and explained the fine details of the tough spots.

During the few years I’ve been Dr. B’s student I’ve learned his practice techniques work. So I continued to work according to his suggestions.

After practicing variation #6 week after week, I finally began to see the possibility of actually playing it myself. Something  had clicked. Something had changed. A few hints of real music came from my piano, sounds that were more than a jumble of notes haltingly played. With a bit of progress, I felt encouraged to work even harder.

At my last lesson Dr. B and I worked for an hour and a half on Beethoven’s theme and variations. Page by page I played, he commented, then I played again, trying to incorporate his suggestions. After I played variation #6, the dreaded impossible variation, he said, “You’ve really improved! Good work!”

I was thrilled that my weeks of hard work had actually showed up at my lesson. My “home playing” and my “lesson playing” were the same. That doesn’t always happen — but that day it did.

He knows, and I know, I still have a long way to go. We both know I will continue to work hard and eventually I will get there. What was once impossible is now possible.

I write about music because it’s what I know best. What’s true of learning new music and the discipline is practice, works for anything else you want to accomplish.

Show up. Do your work. And keep doing your work. And then work some more.

Claim the results when they show up in your life.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

French Threads

I count on Dr. B, my piano teacher, to expand my repertoire with new composers I’ve not studied before.  And that’s exactly what he’s done in the last two years. In addition to Chopin, Beethoven, and Debussy who have been with me for decades, I’ve now experienced  Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Ravel, and Faure.

Last year as part of my musical study I decided to read biographies of the composers I play, hoping to enhance my understanding, and therefore my playing, of their compositions.  I started with Paul Roberts’ biography of Claude Debussy, a composer I’ve played since my teen years. His musical imagery is unlike any other composer I’ve played. In my reading I discovered Debussy’s connections with other French composers, particularly Faure and Ravel. These French guys, as I refer to them, pushed the musical norms to create their own melodies and harmonies and musical experiences. I read that Faure was one of Ravel’s teachers and that Debussy, though older, was an influence in Faure’s life. I was particularly intrigued because I was learning pieces by Ravel and Faure for the first time in my life. I was spending hours every day trying to play their compositions; this glimpse into their lives and musical community added meaning to my endeavors.

Shortly after that, I read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. To my surprise, Faure’s music was referenced throughout the book.  I often thought, “Wow! I know that composer.” I didn’t expect such music in a book by a South American writer.

Just this week, I read Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.  Again, Faure’s music was mentioned several times — this time by an Irish author.

So I’ve been thinking about these composers and authors in my corner of the world.  What we learn in one area of our lives often pops up in unexpected and unrelated places. Dr. B may have a plan for my musical studies — the only thing I’ve told him is that I like to be challenged and I like to experience new composers.  And the books I read — I think I randomly pull them off my shelf. But perhaps not. Perhaps none of this is random or meaningless or coincidental.

I’ve been pondering this French thread that’s running through my life — a thread that I’ve just noticed. Why do French composers keep popping up in my piano lessons, in the books I read, and on my car radio?

I’ve discovered a bit of an answer.  One of my long-time challenges as a pianist is to play with emotion, to feel the music, and to allow those feelings to affect my playing — it’s a playing beyond the right notes, the right rhythms and the right dynamics. It’s a level I often lack, though I do get there some times. The French composers force me out of my classical, predictable, musical box; they make me learn new chords and harmonies, they create sounds and tone pictures I’ve never seen or heard before. They are exactly what I need. Even though most music is composed with emotion and feeling, I get it best with the French guys. One day I’m hoping my learnings with them will spill over to Beethoven and Chopin.

My question to you, my readers, is

  • What threads (ideas, concepts, quotes, nudges, connections, happenstances, coincidences) are running in your life?
  • Ask yourself “Why?” Why these things — here — and now?
  • What message does this thread have for me?

Take a look. Connect the dots. Ponder their meaning.

Then move in that direction.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

 

Beethoven’s Birthday

December 16 was Beethoven’s 245th birthday.  Sirius Radio’s Symphony Hall celebrated with a full day of his music.

Why do I care about Beethoven’s birthday?  Because I’ve spent years with him, decades even, learning his music.  Even today I will spend at least an hour with him.

He was a prolific composer. In my own moments of heightened creativity, I cannot imagine how he composed such quantity, quality, and variety of music. And by the time he was my age, he’d been dead for 13 years.  And his most admired pieces were composed in the last 15 years of his life, after he’d gone deaf.

I’ll never be a pianist or composer or genius like Beethoven.  I’ll never be a writer like Marcus Zuzak or Cormac McCarthy or Maya Angelou. But that’s not the point.

The point is that people like these show me it’s humanly possible to create excellent books and inspired compositions. You probably have your own list of admired people.

I don’t have to be like Beethoven and Zuzak but I can allow their work to inspire me, to help me know myself better, and to show me that the effort, the process, is worthwhile. They keep on keeping on.  They persist in spite of set backs and hard times.

It’s often tempting to compare ourselves to the creative geniuses of the universe, and say to ourselves, “Next to them, my work is nothing.  Why even bother?”

I’ve said the same words in reference to my mentors and teachers and my slow learning.

However, we can make a different choice.  We can decide to learn as much as we can from the masters.  We can read about their lives, learn what made or makes them tick, and explore their sources of inspiration.  The purpose is not to replicate, but rather to know their lives, and in the process better understand ourselves.

What makes you tick?  What gets your creative juices flowing?  What inspires you to become more than you’ve been?  What drives you to write better, to improve your music playing, or to expand your learnings and experiences?

Rather than compare my piano playing to Beethoven’s artistry, I compare my practice today to an earlier time when the piece looked too difficult, so difficult in fact I refused to begin for several days.  I’ve studied the musical notes and nuances, and I’ve practiced individual measures until the notes flowed in sequence. I’ve learned the value of controlled playing to bring life to the music, perhaps close to Beethoven’s intentions.

Rather than compare my writing to Zuzak’s lyricality, I study his writing, trying to learn how he puts words together. I copy his sentences, then create my own using his rhythms and cadences.  I practice writing metaphors, making connections between items and images.  While his style is not mine, his writing has increased my awareness of careful word choices.

Infinite talent and creativity exist in the world. The abundance that some people possess does not detract from what is available to each of us. Your job, and my job, is to continue creating, continue exploring, and continue using our sources of inspiration.   And continue putting our butts in our chairs to do our work.

Then, without apology, allowing the world to experience our creation.

Until next Tuesday . . .