Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Teacher Vanished

At the beginning of October my piano teacher told me she was going in for a surgery and I would hear from her in two weeks. Alas, Tomorrow is November 1st and so far, no word and no answer to emails. I'll try calling tomorrow and find out how things stand. Hope she's all right and just recovering from surgery, and that nothing bad happened. She's a very good teacher and started me on the road to achieving a dream I've had for many years.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How Hypnosis is Cool (In Piano Technique)

Sometimes (quite often actually) when you play an actual piano as opposed to a synthesizer or whatever those things are you hear as electronic backbeat in modern music, you have to vary the weight of your hand. I mean that literally. To play pp (very softly) or ff (very loudly) depends on how much force is applied to the key. There are two ways to transmit force: by how hard your finger strikes the key and by how much arm weight you allow. In other words, you can play either heavy-handed for loud tones or light-handed for softer tones. This technique prevents finger fatigue during passages with extended ff for one thing and provides more control over long passages where you might be playing a left-handed bass clef line and a right handed treble-clef line in the upper octaves, where you really need to make them sing out. The right hand will have to be heavier in order to transmit more force to the higher keys.

So I've read various suggestions on this. One was to think of one hand as a 500-pound wrestler and the other as an 80-pound ballerina tinkling lightly along the keys. The image of Stone Cold Steve Austin straddling one arm while a lithe Lithuanian Prima Donna clung to the the other was simultaneously appalling and arousing, so I had to abandon that notion because I was getting nothing accomplished but fits of unconstrained giggling.

However, there is an effective visualization performed by stage hypnotists--including me--which is known as "the light-and-heavy-hand." Now if this isn't beautifully synchronistic then I'm not known in certain circles as the Ron Jeremy of the American Midwest. I tried it. I visualized a huge bouquet of helium balloons tied to the light hand and an enormous, leather-clad (not ballerina) but dictionary balanced on the other. For good measure, I placed two large, blue bowling balls on the dictionary. For this to work, by the way, you have to really SEE these images, and feel the weight of the heavy objects and feel the pull of the helium balloons. If you close your eyes, hold your arms out in front of you and do it correctly, one arm will begin to drop while the other will begin to rise as the "balloons" pull it into the air.

I did this visualization until I could summon the sensation effortlessly. Then I practiced my troublesome passage. I could immediately tell a difference in the hand's independence. I could easily make the left hand lighter and the right hand heavier. It takes a little practice but man does it add another valuable tool to your kit, and much faster then trying to learn it by muscle-memory, without the aid of visualization and auto-suggestion.

I think the reason this works is because the body already knows how to react to light and heavy stimuli, so there's no need to re-learn an entirely new skillset when all you have to do is apply what you already know to a different situation. I wish I could do this with scales and arpeggios; I would accelerate my learning curve immensely.

I don't know how many people actually read this blog. I mainly do it to keep my thoughts in order, and because I don't have anyone to discuss piano with, and I love it so much sometimes it sort of bursts out of me and I have to put it somewhere or I can't concentrate. Sort of like mental binge/purging. But if you do read it, do you enjoy how it starts out as one thing and then ends up as something else; like how fish evolved into reptiles, then apes, then into men; and then in the Southeastern United States back into apes?

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Broke My Brain

Is it possible to overdo? I think it is. As a textbook obsessive-compulsive, I sometimes lose sight of the idea of "moderation." In fact, I literally don't know the meaning of the word. I just tried to write down the definition and couldn't do it. The part of my brain where the definition would normally be stored apparently kicked the entire concept out as rubbish. It wouldn't have it. My brain evicted it. I'm surprised the very word "moderation" is tolerated in my OCD brain. I suppose as long as my brain doesn't know what the word means it's safe--unrecognized, like the name Shostakovitch is to Rap music fans.

I've used terms like OCD and obsessive-compulsive without really believing in them. These convenient psychological titles don't really mean anything except some people are more driven than others. And some people overdo things. I'm not sure I buy into the notion of mental "illness" any more. I've lived both with and without the idea and it doesn't seem to mean anything except as a therapeutic tool. Centuries ago, a club to the head was considered a therapeutic tool too. I'm not sure, spiritually speaking, these psychiatric titles are much better.

I used to overtax myself when I was thirty. Now I'm fifty, and the mind is still pretty sharp, but the engine which powers it sometimes sputters. I just finished a new book for the specialized performing market in which I work. I released a similar book last month. This should be enough for anyone, but I also performed a number of shows this week and I'm trying to perfect the couple of pieces of music I already committed to memory and learn this new one. Yesterday I felt like I was trying to crawl out of my skin. Everything I tried to play I tore to pieces. I took a break and visited with family; engaged in "guy talk" with my father-in-law and a couple of other chaps. I got away from the pressures of work and my own person demands. I got a good night's sleep and today I feel as bright as a ten-dollar hooker.

I know what's happening. Every autumn I take stock of my life to see what I've accomplished. And it always seems to me very little, and each year my shadow grows longer. I feel I'm running out of time and I don't know what to do about it.

Fifty is a number which seems graven in stone. I see people in deep denial about middle age, saying inane things like "Fifty is the new thirty" and other slogans advertising people came up with in order to sell us vacation packages, but when you actually look at it, and realize you have another fifty years or more to go before you punch the clock (and I know full full I could drop dead of an aneurysm or drunk driver, or my wife could smother me with a pillow tonight)--it's a big thing.

My fiftieth birthday was a pleasant affair and I marked it with my family and a few close friends. I didn't have the mid-life crash-and-burn associated with it. By nature, I tend to be a happy fellow overall. Yet I felt there should have been something spectacular about turning fifty; that some Magickal Being should have appeared to me in a vision saying, "Now that you're an adult, I've come to reveal to you your Life's Purpose." But the only Magickal Being I know is me, and as far as Omniscience goes, I have far more questions than answers.

Back to the original question: Can you overdo it? Yes, probably, but in most cases you get over it. I had a reaction yesterday to trying to learn too much too soon, in my thirst to make up for all those years I missed, but I slept it off and today here I am writing obsessively about obsession. I freed up more of my time by dropping off of some of my Internet Forums. I reluctantly bade goodbye to my Buddhist Forum because, believe it or not, many of the people there were too hostile and cynical. Can you dig that? It was popular to start long threads ridiculing other people's religious and spiritual beliefs and promote scientific rationality as though this were a belief system in itself. It seemed to me that many people follow Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins more than Buddha.

This turned out to be a good thing for me because it increased both my peace of mind and the amount of available time. It's been my observation if you practice Buddhism you may be better advised to keep your practice between yourself and your teacher and not try to be part of a Buddhist "community," unless you have a lot of time to squabble and scratch your head wondering what's wrong with people.

Some people don't get over overdoing it I suppose. Morbidly obese people who try to play touch-football during the Thanksgiving Day family get-together, and who drop stone-cold dead from a massive heart attack, come to mind as a prime example. Nor do those idiots who think they can drink five bottles of vodka at a party with impunity. But to my recollection no-one ever died from too much piano-playing, though I did once get a callous, so lemme alone, dammit.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together

As Hannibal Smith would say, I love it when a plan comes together. I'm on page four (of nine) of the epic Christofori's Dream which I've been working on now for several days (with a few days taken off for shows) and it's coming together. Of course I'm not into the truly difficult parts, with octaves and sixths, but hey--Joplin has prepared me for those, and compared to The Entertainer, this should be a piece of cake. But nine pages of memorization will take some time. I've divided this rather large, multi-phase piece into nine sections and am tackling them one at a time. The first four sections came together today, somewhat clunky and I make some errors unless I pay attention, but nonetheless--the plan is coming together.

Take that, fool.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I Go Newage

Scott Joplin is driving me crazy--although I am making slow but steady progress, so I decided I needed something easy to work on in tandem, so I'm working on a David Lanz piece called Christoforo's Dream. This piece also has an added advantage of incorporating techniques from some of my current lessons, which should please my Instructor. If you want to hear this sappy piece of music, you may go here:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Okay, Maybe Just One

I played for a friend the other day and he enjoyed it. So I suppose sometimes I will play for other people. But I don't intend to make a habit of it. I have a long way to g before I'm worth hearing.

Monday, October 4, 2010

SOLO Piano

It's quite possible I may be the only musician in my knowledge who never intends to play with any other musician, or for anyone else. I do this for an audience of one: myself. I have no interest, intention or desire to perform music for other people. I don't crave the applause of other people. I've had plenty of that in my life, and it ain't all it's cracked up to be. There's a price you pay for it, believe me.

I've loved music all my life and always wanted to study it, to take it apart piece by piece and understand it better. That's what this is about; taking a piece of music I love and looking at it from the inside out. To get inside the composer's mind and feel what he or she felt when they wrote it.

My teacher asked me if I've played anything for anyone yet and I said "No." She said I had a couple of pieces I could play, but I said I couldn't perform them well enough yet, and besides, I had no interest in playing for anyone else.

People have expressed curiosity about my progress and suggested I record my playing and post it. I even bought a midi cord to do this very thing. Then I struggled with midi programs and realized, "Why bother--I know where I'm heading with this. And do I need to hear the comments and (I'm sure) well-meaning critiques of others?"

No. Not really. This is something I'm doing for me. It's mine.

If I let other people into it, it would spoil it. I'll write about the process, because I find it fascinating, but the music itself--that's all mine.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lovely Obsession

There's something beautiful about being in the grip of an obsession which normal, even-keeled people may never experience. I don't mean addictive-compulsive obsession--the type that destroys lives; I mean the kind of obsession that drives you to seek out a perfect ideal in whatever it is you do.

I was always a perfectionist in my performance of magic and related arts. In my youth I practiced for weeks and months to perfect the subtle nuances of moves that most people would never even see. That is, they would never see these moves if the moves were performed correctly. And I practiced these moves to the point that nobody saw them, even other magicians.


I've been told some musicians in the classical field search all their lives to play ONE perfect note. Apparently Isaac Stern was one of these musicians.

My current obsession is learning one or two piano pieces well enough to play them through from beginning to end. Being me, I picked pieces well beyond my current skill level. Of course this makes my lessons pieces easier by comparison, but I'm really wrestling with these pieces. I know someone with two or three years of piano experience could sit down and learn these pieces much easier, but for a chap like me, with little over nine months of lessons, it's a bit of a burn. But much fun. I'm never happier than when possessed by obsession.

A couple of months go, I began learning an Intermediate-level version of Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. I can play it fairly well now so decided to move to the much-more-difficult original piece. I've learned the first phrase of it to the point where I know both hand's parts, very clunkiliy, now I'm smoothing it out. Obsessively. The most difficult part, and the most important I think, is the swinging, syncopated rhythm between the left hand and right hand parts. I have that pretty much hammered in my skull at this point and I'm transposing bits and pieces of the original composition over my simpler transcription.

I recall, not that long ago, when I looked at the sheet music for this masterpiece and thought "Oh no." Now I think, "I can play this, in time."

Friday, October 1, 2010


Pianophobia; probably not the correct word for this experience, but it's annoying. This is a freak-out my brain experiences when confronted with a piano other than my own. I can learn a lesson proficiently on my own piano and then when my hands touch an unfamilair piano the keys look completely alien to me, or feel wrong, and my brain circuitry misfires. I can't remember the piece. It doesn't last forever, it isn't as though dementia is creeping in on me. After several minutes, I become habituated to the keyboard and can play the piece, but not as well as I could at home. It's as if I have to relearn it. About half-way through my lesson, I become used to the piano and my brain relaxes.

I'm convinced this is a psychological quirk, so for the past couple of weeks I've been going to the Music School, (where my lessons are held) and practicing on pianos of various stature and nobility: rickety wooden uprights, wheezy Baldwins, and regal Steinways. Like a baseball batter swinging two bats before stepping up to the plate, this exercise accelerates my home efforts considerably.

Left to my own devices, without my teacher present, I've also been able to analyze the mechanics of this phenomenon. My piano is an electric piano, with semi-weighted keys, which approximates the feel of a real keyboard, but the feel isn't quite the same. The keys on a Steinway Grand Piano are heavier and the coefficient of friction is greater. There is more "drag" between finger and key. So the amount of effort to work the keys is marginally greater, and I think one of the factors leading to my brain's "freak-out" is it didn't receive the result it anticipated from its calculations. Hand, brain and ear fell out of synch. When my brain couldn't make sense from this new set of data it went into melt-down. My timing was thrown completely off.

Once I saw what was going on it seemed like all I had to do was concentrate on the finger-key interaction. I had to keep my eye on what's going on there and try to ignore what my ear was telling me--at least for the time being, until my hands could sort everything out. Otherwise, my brain was trying to accommodate too much new data and compare it to the old, familiar template. And after all, I'm fifty years old and while the gray machinery has its strengths, multi-tasking can overwhelm it. One of the strenghts of the middle-aged mind is tenacity and stubborness. It can sometimes work against you though; once you learn a habit it's danged hard to break, so if you learn something you'd better make sure you learn it correctly the first time.

But the point of this circumlocution is I seem to have gotten a leg up on this problem that's plagued me since my early lessons (not that nine months of lessons makes me an early settler); the problem of the strange piano. For a while I hoped my once-a-week lesson would habituate me to a strange piano, but it wasn't enough. The solution, of course, the obvious one, practicing on lots of different pianos outside of my lessons, was slow in coming because it entailed more effort on my part. Like anything worthwhile, you have to decide if the end result is worth going the extra mile.