Monday, June 28, 2010

The Home Stretch

I'm just finishing my first six months of lessons. I'm also entering the home stretch of Volume one of Alfred's Adult Piano Course. I just finished the A Minor section and next Monday we begin the last section, D Minor. There are three pieces to learn, then I'm finished. VOlume One can go on the shelf.

After that--Volume Two. Which is Second Year. Hoorah!

I really try to keep my nose to the grindstone, but life interferes. Nevertheless, I make progress. I hope this progress sticks with me. My sight-reading continues to improve steadily (as long as I'm not too tired) and my keyboard dexterity is improving rapidly. I learned to do those nifty flourishes (called Mordants or Turns) the Baroque guys loved for the Minuet in G. So I think all is going well. I just truly wish I had begun ten years ago, or that I had more time to practice.

But I am tired. I mean deeply tired. The kind of tiredness that's in the soul. I badly need a vacation or something to delight my spirit. An Epiphany. Something which refreshes the heart and mind.

Is there any magic left in the world?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Whee, Take me Away

I have been literally assaulted by life lately. Busy with shows and other professional demands, odd allergic reactions, turning fifty, dealing with crazy people, and a run of bad luck with mechanical devices on which I depend on in my business. I'm on the thin edge of hysteria. yet I cling to sanity by a fingernail. Don't ask me how or why. I have no answer. Madness beckons with tantalizing seductiveness--just dive in, sweetie, and leave your cares behind--yet I maintain a clarity of thought in order to sweep away these petty annoyances as best I can.

One bright spot was the pilgrimage Son & I made to Cincinnati to witness firsthand the co-production of the Cincinnati Opera with the Metropolitan Opera (yes, THAT one) of Wagner's Die Meisersinger, a five-hour opera which is one of my favorites. Cincinnati is a four-hour drive from here, so our Hero's Quest involved eight hours round trip as well as the five hour operatic marathon. We arrived back at my home circa 3 AM. As it turned out, my son needed to be back home in Tennessee the next day, so I transported him there , crashed at his place, then came back to my hometown--12 more hours of driving.

So today I am wiped out. So is my computer. Apparently the motherboard is fried. I've had this happen two other times in my life so recognize the symptoms. I'm typing this from my laptop. Since I'm about three weks behind on my business, this is not a good thing. I recently updated my computer to Windows 7, so just now got all my programs reinstalled and where I liked them when this happened. You see, this is Life: something good happens, then something kicks you in the pants to remind you that you live in an awful world, so don't get your hopes up. However, I have about two hundred operas on DVD, and FUTURAMA is back in a renewed sixth season, so who cares if it's a crappy world?

Plus there's always my piano. I'm working on a new piece, called The Wild Horseman, by Schumann. My teacher assigned it to me after expressing satisfaction with my performance of Bach's Minuet in G. She also gave me advice on Pachelbel's Canon in D, the most sensible advice being it will take me some time to learn it. I also have a piece from Alfred's book to learn. So tomorrow, I'm spending at my piano, I don't care if a meteor cracks the earth in half.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Do I have Stones or What?

I've decided since I'm well on my way to mastering the Bach Minuet in G (all it needs now is more practice to gain facility) I'm going to move on to something really challenging: Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. I figured I might as well stay in the Baroque period for a while. It may be a long while, because this is a bear of a piece.

I've begun practicing the D Major Scale, which has two sharps -- C# and F# -- in preparation for wrestling my way through the first few measures of this masterpiece. It's a daunting task for someone with six month's training under his sinews, but hey--I ain't gonna live forever. and fortune favors the bold, eh? Wish me luck.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Learning and burning

To learn a piece of music you have to memorize it (of course) but more than that you must understand it. This means you have to figure out the tempo, all those marks denoting dynamics, notations telling you to play faster or slower, louder or softer, to accent certain notes, all that stuff. It takes time. And in the meantime--unless you're a kid or rich or retired-- real life with all its attending responsibilities keeps interrupting you with annoying insistence.

It's fascinating to me that when you look at a piece of paper covered with all those dots and lines and chicken scratches that--if you're not hip to the secret code--look like some esoteric calculus formulae-- you're looking at a written description of the same piece of music the symphony or the pianist or the violinist is playing. Isn't this magical? People figured out a way to transpose the sounds they heard in their heads onto paper in a way that others could interpret and recreate them. Hoorah for human ingenuity. Now if we can only quit using it to destroy ourselves.

But more than just interpreting the written language, each player has leeway to make choices in the interpretation, which is why no two players will sound exactly alike. This is why unless you're a fan, you may not understand why I have five different DVDs of Wagner's Tannhauser, or seven of Tristan und Isoulde. Different interpretations, you see.

I discovered long ago that learning, for me, isn't a progressive process. I have what seems to be instantaneous breakthroughs--"Aha" moments. I'll plug away at something for a long time, with no discernible progress, then suddenly, I can do it. It's as if my mind absorbs the information but holds off until it completely understands it, then it allows me access to it. I think the first time I consciously became aware of this was when I took Driver's Ed in school. My teacher told me "I almost gave up trying to teach you how to drive. Then one day, you were driving." Looking back, I realized some teachers had given up on me, deciding I was either hard-headed or unteachable. Perhaps if my math teachers had stuck with me a little longer, I would have had similar breakthroughs and might have surprised them.

This could be for a variety of reasons. I have some slight brain damage from a car wreck I was in as a small child. I was unconscious for several days and the Docs weren't sure whether or not I would wake up. Apparently I did, as you're reading this via the Internet and not channeled by a Spirit Medium. I think my brain rewired, as there are some holes in it when I try to learn certain things. I'll run into walls, where I draw blanks, and I have to stop and work around these "dead spots" until I can make new connections. I think this is why my sense of humor and creativity, especially in my writings, forms non-linear connection the way it does; it's the way my mind works because it has to.

So how this relates to music follows. I'll find there are certain passages in piano pieces I find extremely difficult. I simply cannot play them. There were a couple in the Minuet in G that completely threw me. And they weren't the most difficult passages either. There was just something about the combination or arrangement of notes that my mind couldn't comprehend. I couldn't grasp the connection between them or something. I can't explain it. I learned these passages hands separate, and could play them just find--as long as I kept my hands separate. But as soon as I tried to play them hands together, my mind fell apart.

I knew from past experience that this was a temporary problem, and if I stuck with it eventually the problem would fix itself. The first few times this happened in piano practice, I could see my teacher couldn't comprehend it, as I seemed to be learning very quickly, then all of a sudden I would reach a back hole and my brain would freeze. I just asked her to be patient with me and it would work itself out. And it did. In its own time. The only problem is, I never know how much time; sometimes it can happen in a few seconds, a few minutes, or days. Or weeks. I recall it took weeks before I understood one card sleight.

In the case of the passages from the Minuet, it took four days and probably almost a hundred iterations before the blessed"Aha" occurred. And it literally happened between one playing and the next. I stumbled though the six-note passage once, then -- oh, I get it--it was so simple! I played it perfectly. And it was no longer fractured away from the rest of the piece.

So that's my story this week. The Minuet is coming along, still stubbly and unshaven but I have confidence that I'll be able to play it eventually.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

More on Alfred and Bach

I've worked through two more Alfred pieces, a somber piece in A-Minor called Jericho and and one called Strangers, also in A-Minor. A-Minor is a a cool key in which to play, it has a somber, melancholy sound.

I'm also studiously memorizing the last half of the Minuet in G by Bach. I pretty much have the first half committed to memory, both right and left hand parts, and am working on dynamics now. Dynamics are things like staccato and legato. Staccato is when you hit the keys sharply to produce rat-ta-tat-ta-tat sounds, while legato is smoothly-connected, flowing notes, like a stringed instrument might play. There are also variations, such as accents, which means you play the indicated note or chord strongly, but not quite staccato. Also, the notation P means piano, which means play it softly, while f means forte--loudly. An ff is fortissimo--very loudly. Wagner used a lot of those. See, isn't this stuff cool?

My teacher strongly suggests I memorize each hand's part of the music before combining them, and sometimes I listen to her. I find with the Bach piece, this is essential. Now memorizing a melody is fairly easy--we all know how it sounds. But Bach composed in the Baroque style utilizing what is sometimes called a "figured bass," that is, an archaic style called Basso Continuo, so the bassline itself plays out its own melody of sorts. It's not just a series of chords and notes but a type of notation which is a whole 'nother story. Bach's basslines are full of little melodies, counterpoints and all kinds of things which you have to play for yourself to really catch. So imagine trying to play two melodies at the same time, one with each hand. It's really like that, I think. But terrific. There's no better way to get into a piece of music than to live with it in this manner. You delve into the mind and intentions of the composer.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New York is Cool

Just returned from five days in new York, where, among other adventures, wife & I saw Phantom of the Opera. The music was okay mostly (with occasional ascensions into loveliness) but the staging was spectacular. The staging was like watching a very good illusion show with theatrical content. The scenery transformed before your eyes from the backstage dressing rooms to the phantom's undercellar dungeon lair within seconds. It was true theatrical magic.

Five days and nights without my piano was grueling at times. I found myself playing an imaginary keyboard on the edges of tables and on my knee. Unfortunately, my portable keyboard, a roll-up keyboard (see below) was due to arrive the day after I was to leave on my trip, which did me no good on this foray into the Big City. Alas.

It was good to see my New York contingent of friends. Being involved in the wacky world of show business, I literally have friends all over the universe. We had a get-together which lasted around five or six hours where we all caught up and talked shop. It was, as I said before, very cool. I love that city.