A small step for mankind

I have come back to the surface again. The big job is delivered, deadline was kept. I collapsed a bit, but just a little. Now I think I am slowly coming back to life. I can even think of piano playing again – it was sad that when I finally got time to give the piano a glance again, I just could not make myself sit down and practice. I went to bed instead.

At least I made some money. That is useful too …

On the other hand, I am worried about my hand. This is the real danger with the kind of job I have – when the workload is peaking, you work insanely lot – 12 hours a day or even more, and of course you forget to take breaks. I have good equipment, I have invested a lot in ergonomy and all that, and still my right hand got a bit too much of typing-and-mouse-clicking.

Yesterday I googled my symptoms. It could be carpal tunnel syndrome. Noooo! So I guess I have to be gentle to myself for a while now. Of course I am not happy with the situation, but all I can do right now is to accept what is happening and try to adapt.

So the culprit wasn’t piano playing this time, but it affects my piano playing of course, and that is a sad thing. And of course it was not a good idea to devote to housekeeping right after the document delivery. (What was I thinking???) Yes, the oven looked like a nightmare. Yes, I spent two hours cleaning the glass panel. You do the math …

But I wanted to tell you about my first year as a rebounding piano student. I ended the post about how I was “lured” to start playing again, with a sarcastic remark about the Swedish dumb-and-dumber attitude when it comes to big chances. I was not joking, it really is like that here. Of course not because people are stupid, it is a matter of moral standard and attitude. The Law of Jante is really strong here. Everybody knows about it, everybody hates it, everybody lives by it. If a teacher, in this case a famous pianist, offers his/her services, we don’t ask if this teacher is good enough in first place – we wonder if we are good enough for this teacher … I know it seems silly, and the most fantastic thing is that absolutely noone, including me, even question this kind of attitude. At least I didn’t, until I realized that it doesn’t have to be like that.

But ok, I did not follow the stream this time. First, I had managed to interview the famous rock star Ola Salo, hadn’t I?  So I was cocky enough to accept any challenge. Second, I knew the guy (Per) well by now, so I was not frightened.  Actually I knew the guy enough to know that those lessons could come … much much later … if ever … But I did not care. My life was not centered around this particular fact, I decided to practice as if I had these upcoming lessons. With this goal in mind, paired with the wisdom I had gained from my beloved friend Jimmy, I started to practice. It worked, soon I was practicing like never before and I was incredibly enthusiastic and delighted. For the first time ever practicing was fun! (And if you still doubt my claims here, I want to point out that this happened five years ago, and my devotion for piano playing has just become deeper since then.)

But, well. This little thing – like never before. What I had learned about ergonomics when I started my pianist career in 1977, was simply this: hold your forearms reasonably parallel with the piano keyboard, and play with your fingers slightly curved. Voilá! Nothing wrong with that advice, but … it worked fine for someone who practiced 20 minutes a day, and soon no more than 20 minutes a week etcetera. But if you are more ambitious, you have to know more …

I did not know that you could get injuries from piano playing! True, I did not know. But I would learn soon enough, the hard way. After about two months I got my first muscle inflammation, I think it was my left triceps or something like that. (Don’t ask me how I did it, I just know that I had to play with just my right hand for a while, while my left arm was hanging there, feeling heavy as if it was made by concrete. Then the pain moved down to my forearm, then it was the other arm, some wrist issue, then the tendons in my right hand, and I still remember the long, tedious period with my thumb joint.)

Yes, I watched those videos with the Taubman technique. Yes, I used diclofenac unction and everything else. Yes, I worked hard with ergonomy, but I was in despair. Now, when I finally had found the key to motivation, when I finally was so motivated to play that I could have spent hours every day at the piano I … could not. Practicing that first year was a constant battle against pain here and ache there.

I would discover that the only thing that really helped was to rest. Boring, right, but it helped. July 2012 was very hot, and for nearly a month I did not play the piano at all because it simply was not very tempting when it was 30 centigrades in the living room.  So I had a month completely off piano, and when I returned to it I was so happy to discover that the pain in my muscles was gone and that this break did not force me to start all over from square one once again. (And that it was more fun than ever to play!) So, even this first year I learned that it is not harmful to take some “piano vacation” from time to time. To me, it is a good idea. When you return to the piano after a break, you will feel a little bit rusty for sure, but after a few days you are back in shape again, and sometimes you find that you now play better than before.  At least, this is how it works for me. Some other people may say that it is not like that for them – we are all individuals.

The injuries were not my only problem, though. Looking back, I am actually amazed that I overcame this first comeback year as a pianist. When I started to practice seriously again, I was horrified to discover how bad I played. I literally had to start from scratch again, at least it was how it felt. My fingers were stiff, the playing uneven, everything sounded terrible. My dear old Clavinova was 20 years old and its weaknesses became very apparent. Even digitals get old, and even though this piano was state of the art in 1992, it was outdated in 2012, to say the least …

Not until fall 2012 I was getting close to the standard I had in 1985 when I stopped taking piano lessons. And not until fall 2012 I could even consider learning something new. This was a big step for me. Finally I had reached the point where I didn’t just dust old skills off, but was ready to advance. It was thrilling! My first choice was Beethoven, my new love, of course. One of Per’s favourite encores by this time was the Pathétique Adagio, which I always was delighted to hear, and I found out that I actually had the scores in my old Beethoven collection which I had bought in 1981 or something like that … so it occurred to me that I could actually try to play this myself.

Me. And the Pathétique. A small step for mankind, but a giant leap for me, I’ll tell you that. You see, the art of learning a new piece is certainly also an art. For the first time in decades I looked at notes I had not known for ages. It was a goddamn jungle. And lots of flats too. Aaargh. (Why, oh why cannot everything be in C Major, huh? At least that was what I used to think before I saw the Waldstein score.) How could something, that sounded so calm and simple, be so complicated in writing? I tried to play the first bar with my right hand, and what I heard had no resemblance at all with the melody I already knew so well from Per’s recitals. I was as helpless and lost as a total piano beginner, and it took me days to make my way through the first (1st) bar. No, I am not joking. It would then take about two weeks to learn the first 10 bars, and 3 months in total before I could play the whole piece. It was that difficult to re-learn how to learn. To read the notes, to translate them to hand movements, to bring those movements down to the keys and not get totally lost on your way, that is not totally trivial. I had not thought about it until I sat there, with this note mess in front of me.

After those two weeks and ten bars, I happened to go to Växjö again, for another Tengstrand piano festival. The first person I met when I entered the concert house – which is the same building as the hotel – was Per. Happily and very proudly I informed him that my piano studies now were getting somewhere and that I had started to learn that adagio. I had a few questions about a certain ornament, though … among other things … (Yes, I was very proud to be a real piano student now and not some wannabe. Indeed I was – I was learning the Pathétique, right?)

“Good,” Per said, “I am having a little seminar for adult amateurs this afternoon, why don’t you bring the scores with you?”

Oh yes I did. We were just a handful of people, Per had a little enlightening lecture about how to sit at the piano and other basic stuff – those things I should have learned 35 years earlier, that is – and then he asked me to enter the stage with my Beethoven questions. Oh yes … One advantage in getting older is that such a situation is not quite as frightening as it was when you were a teen. But I had not told him that I had not touched an acoustic piano, an acoustic grand, in many, many years. And I had never touched a Steinway before.

So I took place there on stage, I fumbled a bit when I tried to place the book right, and I boldly lifted my hands to touch the keys and play those first bars of the Adagio. Hey, what a moment. It was already 4 years since I had been in this concert hall for the first time and heard that lovely Liebestraum. What a journey since then! Here I was on this very stage, to try the Pathétique adagio by myself! What if I had known that, back in 2008 … So this really was a defining moment.

And if you want to know how this first brave attempt sounded … I must confess that it did not.

I pressed the piano keys and all we heard was silence. Which was good, in a way, because I had started with the wrong key anyway. Oops. How much worse can you do, really?

“Now, let’s make an exercise”, Per said. “You lift your hand about half a metre above the keys and then you just relax your arm and fall down on them … oh, wait,  you have to take care, because actually you can break your fingers. I’ve better put my own hand inbetween.”

So he put his own hand over the keys and I was supposed to hit it from a height of half a metre. His wife should have been to this festival too but she had been forced to cancel as she had broken her ankle while she was skating. Now this night’s remaining soloist, who was to play the Appassionata for me and the rest of the audience, asked me to give his hand a Miss Piggy karate chop?

Ok, I chickened out. In other words, my powerful fall on the keys became a little friendly slap. Whoopsi daisy! But at least we got a good Appassionata later that night, without another pianist in plaster.

To make a fast leap ahead in time – three years after my “impressing” Steinway debut I finally got those private lessons with Per, and they were certainly worth waiting for. I started with this Adagio, actually. (Let’s say it was out of sentimental reasons.)  It was not a brilliant rendering, in fact it was lousy even for being me, but as Per commented, with a grin: “This time you got a sound from the piano.”

Here a version which is a bit better than mine.


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