Practice: Who wants to live forever?

It has been a tough time for a piano player but I am finally gravitating against some kind of balance again. I even have had some practice time that was not too bad. And I had my first piano lesson for this year last Thursday. (Which made me prioritize practice time over blogging, sorry about that.) A good lesson. The student, however – me – was not too good of course, but I enjoyed the hour a lot anyway.

I am proud to say that the Chopin 10:6 etude is starting to get shape, or however you express it. No, it is still very far from recital level etcetera, I am not trying to pretend I am Ashkenazy or something here. It is not even reasonably good, but when I look in the mirror I can conclude that I have come far from where I began and that is what counts. I also believe it would be of great benefit to memorize this visually, as the pattern on the keys is far more comprehensible and logical than the note annotation.

“And then you can spend a lifetime refining it”, as my teacher said. We agreed that we will work with this etude for one more lesson, then we put it aside. (I keep on working with it on my own, that is.) Instead it is time to tackle the 10:3 etude. Earlier I wrote that I started with the section that looked hardest and I think that was a good idea. The “punishment” is that this etude is as ready to be played right now as a helicopter is ready to fly when you have dismounted it totally and spread the pieces over the workshop floor. On the other hand, this challenging section is not that difficult anymore. %e2%81%acchopin10_3

I can only play it very, very slowly but it has got some kind of structure. The coordination between the hands is quite amusing, what a great idea he got here. Same chords in both hands, but moving in the opposite directions nearly all the time – this creates a funny sound effect.

My teacher gave me advice on how to practice this section in order to play it technically right, lot of bounce work here, and this is what I am working with now.

The other tricky part on the previous page was not nearly as hard. It sounds more complicated than it is. Aaaand then there is the rest and nothing is trivial. I try a bit here and there, I have listened to some recordings, trying to get a grip of it. Yeah, this will need a lifetime, I know, but I think it is fun.

Then we talked about analyzing and music theory. Sometimes I get annoyed with myself because I cannot identify chords properly. Yes, I know the basics, but I constantly see a need for more deeper knowledge.

Oh, I need some more lifetimes …

Carreño and Mendelssohn have been put on hold for some weeks now, as my practice time over Christmas was so hopelessly restricted, but maybe today is the day?

That darned brain plasticity thing

When I had decided to re-start my piano studies, I spent a lot of time on the Internet, doing “research”. One reason was that I spend a lot of time on the Internet (it is a part of my profession, actually) and another was that I simply had nowere else to go and noone nearby to discuss these issues with. There is noone in my vicinity that plays the piano, nor is interested in this.

Of course I soon landed in a few discussion boards … I read a lot of articles … other online stuff. I learned a lot of fascinating terms that I had never heard before, at least not in English – like sight-reading, recital, masterclass, progidy. And “brain plasticity”. What was that?

It is a popular term among piano students and piano know-hows. It is a good explanation, and also a good excuse, and also something nice to wave in the air when you want to add some extra dignity to your words. But I want to warn a bit about it. The first thing you should know is that these “scientific facts” change over time, and one day they might be as true as the statement that women are mentally incapable of higher university studies or that it is physically impossible to run an English mile under 4 minutes or climb the Mount Everest without an oxygene mask. For long it was an established fact that certain skills were totally assigned to certain areas in the brain, and once such an area was destroyed, the knowledge and the skill was lost forever. Today we know that it is not entirely true.

Recent research indicates that you don’t lose your ability to learn new skills when you grow older – but you learn in a different way. I like that. I mean, the thought that you are incapable to learn after the age of 15 is rather depressing, isn’t it? So during the rest of your life (some 80 years or so) you are supposed to do what? Prepare your funeral? Holding laments over everything you did not learn before the gate closed?

Besides I am a living proof that the importance of this brain plasticity thing is, if not rubbish then at least highly exaggerated. When I made my restart as a pianist, I was really rusty, I have already written about that. I practically had to begin from the very beginning once again. But today I play much better than ever before and I think it is much easier to learn new pieces than it was when I was a school kid. I play pieces I used to joke about 30 years ago as “impossible”. I am light-years away from professional concert pianist standards, but I am also far ahead of my teen years. According to this brain plasticity theory, this should not be possible. I could, as best, come back to my former standard but never surpass it.

But I definitely also admit that I learn differently today. I have noticed that my ability to understand music never has deteriorated during the years, on the contrary. I am simply a much better listener today. Remember, I wrote that I thought Beethoven was boring …

I remember, though, that I was a marvellous student when in middle grade. At the age of 11, I could read the book all the way through in almost one sitting and remember almost everything afterwards. There was a rumour about me that I did nothing but study when I was at home, that was why I always did so well at tests. Well, that was not true. I only prepared for tests the evening before. My brain simply was very receptive, my ability to focus was very good. Then, when I came to adolescence, this changed. I had to struggle harder the older I got to learn things. So it was true that my learning capability changed over the years. I have also written in this post that my first years as a piano student was a success story where I learned everything rapidly but then I sort of hit a wall, boom.

But I do not want to accuse just my ageing and stiffening brain. There were many other factors playing a role here. I strongly believe there is too much emphasis on this brain plasticity thing, therefore too little on these other factors. Factors that you, actually, can counteract if you are just aware of them.

If you want to learn like a child does, you have to think like a child and be like a child. But maybe it is not totally necessary to be a child. On the other hand, like I said before, maybe you don’t have to learn like a child either. After all, as an adult you have other advantages – like experience and a critical mind. On the other hand again, experience and critical mind are often exactly those things that prevent us from learning. We have to be aware of that, so that we use these characteristics to our advantage and not the opposite.

I also think that the major reason why “noone, ever” can become a successful concert pianist if starting late in life, is that it is nearly impossible to find enough motivation and energy by then. Because it is hard, incredibly hard, no doubt about that. If you want to become rich and famous there are certainly easier ways. And when you are an adult, life is filled with duties, responsibilites and interests. I may stick my neck out quite a lot here, but I believe it is possible to start very late in life and still “make it to the top” if you like – in theory. The reason it seldom or never happens in reality is not because it is impossible, but because nobody is willing to pay that price.
But I also think it is a pity if anyone does not even dare to try, if you feel this is your true calling and passion in life. I am convinced that we are our own worst enemies in this case as we set our own boundaries, and yes, Henry Ford was absolutely right in his famous statement:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right“.

You can always remember all those pioneers in human history, who boldly went where no man had been before (yes, I am a Trekkie). If they had not, we had never climbed down from the trees. (If you like to call that progress, that is.) The fact that nobody has done a certain thing before is no proof that it cannot be done.

So, if you have a passion for playing the piano, if you really love playing the piano and if you also think practicing is great fun and an interesting challenge, there is no reason not to do it. Certainly not the worst excuse of them all: I am too old. After all my ramblings here in this blog you may also have discovered my belief that practicing becomes fun and interesting when you know it pays off. So this “I am too old, my brain cannot learn anymore” is a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a universal truth. Just suppose, just for a moment, that everybody had said “you will learn faster and more efficiently the older you become” – do you think that would have made a difference? I do.

I wasted all my school years believing that I could not play piano very fast. My fingers seemed too slow. God knows where I got that idea from – anyway, it turned out to be false. I can play very fast if I like to. However, I did not realize that until a teacher pointed it out to me. I have also spent all those years until now believing I cannot memorize. In this post I described how I discovered a method of working around this “curse”. Voilá – I can memorize! It is not even difficult anymore!

Recently I found this article which is inspiring reading as it describes pretty well a situation we adult amateurs recognize. But again I see this strange expression about brain plasticity. My suggestion is that you take any statement about brain plasticity very light-heartedly from now on. It is probably just as true or untrue as you want it to be. And if you cannot learn in a certain way, there is probably another that suits you better.

In short

Christmas holidays + a lot of work + New Years festivities + even more work turned out to be bad news for my piano playing. Seriously bad news.

So I survived mayhem at home. (If anyone thinks I was out partying somewhere, I simply have to confess that no, I have been at home. In my kitchen.) I even survived the last insane job assignment, but I had to rely on the good ol’ night shift.

I delivered the job. Then, I though, I would be able to go to my piano. Nope. I have spent two days in an armchair instead. Or on my bed. Batteries are out. I feel depressed.

 

Tomorrow, maybe.

Practice: Chopin addiction?

It just happened that I tried some more Chopin … As the 10:6 etude now is not “ready” (there are still some tricky spots that need a lot more repetitions before I stop making those mistakes, ehrm!) I know I should be working with just that, but as I have written somewhere before, I am an impatient little thing and I know that boredom is my worst enemy. So why not add yet another little etude …? Just for fun?

%e2%81%acchopin10_3

This is the 10:3 etude, very famous. Starts deceivingly simply and then it gets a bit more complicated. Sort of. I decided to take the wise approach and start learning this framed section first. It is rather funny, but I guess I will stay here for quite a long time. Anyway, I do as I have done recently – start from the end of bar 53 and try to work back to bar 46. Actually this section is not quite as horrifying as it looks, as there is a clear structure. Besides, it turned out to be easier (!) to play HT than HS, but nevertheless I assign myself to learn it properly HS, I think that will be very beneficial in long terms.
And I suppose memorizing just cannot be avoided here! This is typically such a section you cannot sight-read comfortably, so to speak … It is also easier to understand it if you look at the pattern on the keys rather than stumbling around among all these sharps and restores and try to count the help lines (or am I the only one who ever sigh over such things?) all the time.

One thing I don’t like with this etude, and the other one too by the way, is that Mr. Composer obviously thought you should have hands in the size of a toilet lid or something. I, who have woman average size, with a maximum span of 9 keys, have to stretch in a most uncomfortable way. I prefer to play pieces that don’t hurt.

But I keep on struggling with this, and with the 10:6 etude, and the B.133 walz, and the B minor walz … and then I have the rest. Need to get rid of the Chopin addiction.

And unfortunately my fingers are still “burning” from time to time. Not when I play, but I have the uncomfortable feeling of being balancing on the edge. When will it be too much?

My next party song

I had my last lesson for this year last Thursday. It was embarrassing to come there, after three weeks, and not having made any progress whatsoever since last time, all thanks to my job. And my upcoming injury (which is getting better now, thank God). But at least I had done a lot of mental practicing and memorizing. As this memorizing thing is so new to me, I was very proud to demonstrate my progress in this field.

As I told my patient teacher, I feel it is good to have some pieces memorized. It is always so embarrassing to suddenly be in a venue where there is a piano and is there anyone who can play anything? And there is me, who can play both this and that but … only with the score. So without that book or that paper, I cannot play anything at all except Heart and Soul, and half of Für Elise, sooorry … There was a time when I could play Ballade Pour Adeline too, but that was many decades ago.

So I am working hard to change this, I told my teacher this. She came with an excellent comment – I don’t understand why I haven’t thought about it myself before! She said: “when people spontaneously ask you to play something, they don’t want something long and complicated. They just want to hear something short and easy-going. Why don’t you learn a few simple pieces for such situations?”

It was so very true. I believe most of us piano students tend to underestimate the “easy” little pieces. First, when you have practiced something to death, you tend to forget that the audience is not as fed up with this piece as you are yourself. Second, we are deeply entangled in our latest project most of the time, and for a student the latest project is often also the hardest we have ever played so far. That is quite natural.

But thing is, that we then sort of forget the easy repertoire, which of course is much below our present level. It may feel a bit shameful to play such easy pieces. If we struggle to learn the Fantasie Improptu, that is what we think everybody expect from us, as it is our best shot (and we spend soo much time with it at the moment, right? It fills up our whole world …)  But my teacher reminded me that it is a good thing to have some easy repertoire “in store” as well. So now I have got some short works as Christmas assignment, to be learnt and memorized.

So here is my latest project, and I hereby proudly announce that I have almost memorized it completely now. Just a few bars of the left hand accompaniment to go … Yes, I memorize one hand at a time, I just cannot do both simultaneously.

 

 

It is also nice work when you need to restrict your piano practice a bit. (Oh, and I bravely admit that I cannot play one single note of Fantasie Improptu.)

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.