Takeoff

I got my first piano lesson in beginning of 1977 when I was 11 years old, after being in the queue to the music school for quite a while. Once I got the lessons, I also got a piano – a real piano!!! – as my parents and my grandmother had promised me this, and so it all began for real. I was a piano student! I was to learn how to play the piano. I was so happy, although I had to wait forever for that piano to come to our house, and then I was not allowed to play it until the piano tuner had paid his visit as well.

I know what I should be writing here. Something about my marvellous career ever since, including all my concert triumphs and my casual life among the elite, you know, those who take high level piano playing absolutely for granted and cannot imagine a life without it.

I am sorry, but I don’t have that story. Instead, it went the other way – the usual way for 99% of all young piano students, I suppose. OK, not at once of course. At first I was sparking with enthusiasm and I played and played and my teacher was delighted, because when I’m “on”, I really am. As a recorder player I was already very familiar with music reading and all the other basic stuff. Actually I think I had much of what you call “talent”, but that concept … um, I don’t like it very much anymore. Talent is a strange thing. You can acquire it, you can lose it, you can enhance it and you can ignore it. I often suspect that it is a very vague description of something else, something we have no words for. Like when we address subconscious thinking as “intuition”.

But piano education in the 70’s was not what it is today. No, not everything was better in the old days. Yet, my teacher was kind and experienced and we had a good relationship over the years, until I had to quit at the age of 19. As the music school was the municipal music school, you had to leave it when you graduated from senior high, these were the rules. I was so sad when I had my last lesson, I cried bitterly. But I will not pretend my 8 years as a young piano student were a total success story. In fact, I spent the major part of this period feeling like a big disappointment. My enthusiasm in the beginning faded out rather quickly. If I had been a person who knows how to quit, I probably would have, but I wasn’t. There was also this strange, nagging feeling that I actually loved to play the piano …

But I did not like to practice. It was terribly boring. The first thing I ever learned to “play” was a Hanon exercise, actually. Not that I ever heard the name Hanon, but I knew it was an exercise and I dutifully tried to practice it. Up and down, one hand, two hands, all the keys in the basic Circle of Fifths. Then the scales. C Major, G Major, D Major … Portato, staccato, dotted! One octave, two octaves, counter movements … And then more Hanon. Five fingers, four fingers, three fingers, wrist movements …

I know many people who swear by this so called warm-up even today. And if you like it, you should do it. My problem was that I did not like it and it completely killed my piano ambitions. Today I play exercises when I feel that they are called for, instead of playing exercises just for the sake of it. What happened was that after this rigorous “warm-up” I had no energy left for my actual assignments, or perhaps got interrupted, and so yet another day got wasted. After all, I had school too. My practice time diminished … and progress halted, of course! You know what happens when you don’t make any progress? It gets boring. And I was not wise nor experienced enough to ask myself those important questions: why do I feel like this? And is there another way to do this?

Another thing I really hated was performing. We all like to get praise and approval, and a little part of me also longed for the triumph, for being that shining star on stage who could make everyone go whoah. But my stage fright was too severe. I wanted much, but I did not work hard enough, at least that was my constant feeling, and then the recitals at music school became torture. The only thing I liked about them was that we had them on the big grand of the music school, an impressing Bösendorfer. But most of all I remember my ice-cold, shivering hands, my stiff neck, and the horrible moment when I sat down at the piano and felt like I had never seen such a thing before, not to mention the strange cipher on the paper that was supposed to be notes. (Guess this is what we call Panic.) Before me there were other little students playing, and some of them looked just as terrified as I felt, and they totally lost it.

I totally lost it too. When I finally figured out how to start playing, I was even more horrified by the uneveness and the pathetic little sound I created. It was like I was betraying both myself and the composer. And my poor parents, who were sitting in the audience and were so proud of me, even though they had heard me practice this terrible piece to death already. I knew they loved me, and that they did not care about my mistakes and stops and poor renderings. Still, I died out there, every time. My nerves let them down, let my teacher down, let me down, and it was all my fault, just mine … because I was so stupid not to be prepared enough, yet agonize too much over such an unimportant event. I felt like an idiot.

So, how can anyone enjoy this kind of life? How do they do it, those who step out on stage and play super complicated pieces without making one million mistakes? Honestly, I still don’t know because I still make those mistakes, but I’ll come back to that later.  At least I understood that a pianist career was nothing for me. (I became an engineer instead.)

I remember one little guy I saw on TV once, when I was thirteen or something like that. Not this clip, but a similar one from about the same era, and the same guy. Two years younger than me and playing Rondo Alla Turca perfectly and with no shaky hands at all. I struggled with the same Mozart assignment during this period and let’s say my version wasn’t exactly flawless. In fact, I trashed it totally. My head knew how it should sound, but my hands could not comply. (I guess my mother, who overheard my practice, learned to hate it too, ha ha.)

God, I hated that little kid on TV for a while. Hated his skills and his goddamn Rondo. Another one of these apparently insignificant episodes in my life … little did I know that this brat and I would cross our roads some thirty years later, and that he would be the one who got me back into piano playing. I say like Forrest Gump about life, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Prologue

When did this piano thing really start? I feel I need to tell the whole story, just to have it somewhere, so that I don’t forget again. Because I do that occasionally – I forget, and then I have to think for a while before I remember, or think I remember. So, I will tell one version of the story right here and now.

Some days ago I found a “memory” in my Facebook flow where I could see that I had made a proud posting five years ago – a link with the Mozart K 545 Sonata in C Major. I called it “my new project”. I made it somehow official that I had begun to play the piano. Again. I am 50 now, I was 45 then.

But it all started a long time ago. Maybe not quite 50 years ago then, but not far from it. I remember the big, black upright piano in my grandparents’ beautiful flat. I must have been very small because I only remember how awfully BIG this piano was. It was a mystery to me, but a fascinating one. Sometimes, or rather whenever I could, I took the chance to play. OK, play in the literal sense. It was impossible for me to make music, or anything even slightly close to music. So I just made some noise, and the I probably gave up, or was dragged away from it. I could not figure out how to handle this thing, but still I remember that it was enchanting, in a way I really cannot describe today. Maybe it was similar to the fascination many kids have for advanced computers or gigantic trucks.

From that time, and forever on, I considered people who had pianos in their home very lucky. It was a piece of glamour to me. Later on, I would get friends who had pianos and who took piano lessons. O-oh, I envied them so much! When they did their piano home work, I was sitting by, stunned by admiration and enviness. They could play, the music just kept flowing under their fingers. I could not play a single tone, I did not even understand how to do “Heart And Soul”. There was no piano in my home, and yet my parents encouraged me and my sister to play instruments very much. Flutes. My sister played the flute. I played the recorder. This is indeed a very underestimated little instrument, quite delightful in many ways, but … so thin. A piano was the real thing to me. It could sound as a whole orchestra. You could play any music on it – one sad disadvantage with the recorder is the rather restricted tone span.

And there was Marvin Hamlisch. We got a record with the movie soundtrack to “The Sting”, and I loved the ragtime music so much. My dream was to be able to play “The Entertainer”. Sometimes, when I listened to the music, I pretended I played on an invisible keyboard. Unfortunately I could not understand how to move my hands unsynchronizedly. When I did one movement with my right hand, the left hand did the same, sometimes mirrored, but I could not force them to make different patterns with different rythms.

Four years ago I read a news flash that Hamlisch had died. After all these years, I suddenly remembered him, and remembered what it meant to me to hear him play this piece when I was 9 years old. It is fascinating how seemingly unimportant events can have such an impact in your life. So this post I hereby dedicate to my old piano heroes Marvin Hamlisch and Scott Joplin. Without them, there would have been nothing more to write here.

Why? Really, why?

Occasionally I write a piano practice journal, where I plan what to do in my next session, and after practice I add comments on the result, and make a new plan for next session. Sounds good? Yes, really. Too ambitious? Yes, sometimes. But still very helpful when I really do it. It would be an ideal situation to always have such a disciplined and effective structure when it comes to piano practice …

… but truth is, as everybody knows, that life not always admits this kind of planning. Not just sometimes, but in fact quite often … I am an amateur, a pure hobby player and I have not been doing this, I mean playing the piano, for that many years. If we count the active years, that is. My time is limited and most of the time I just have to conclude that either I write a journal or I practice the piano. It goes without saying that the latter usually is the smartest thing to do.

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I have a private diary, well protected from the evil cyberspace, a place just for me and my thoughts. It will never be shown to anyone – why do I even mention it? – but it is precious to me. A place for “grounding”, so to speak, to make a reset and straight my confused thoughts out and really talk to myself. So I know the value of a diary with random thoughts, as well as a journal with what-did-I-do-today’s and what-will-I-do-tomorrow’s … For the latter it means, in the piano case, all those little things we seldom mention to others as they normally are quite boring, as well as a bit embarrassing. Sometimes I just cannot believe how much I have to work for such modest progress … Am I the most untalented pianist in the world? Well, I guess the answer to that question is totally irrelevant anyway. I am what I am and I happen to hate comparisons.

I have also noticed that I have many piano playing colleagues out there, who might find something valuable in the thoughts of “just an ordinary amateur pianist”, so I decided to put my journal online from now on, and also write it in English.