What happened?

It went all quiet many months ago. Very quiet.

It was not just my blogging, unfortunately. My whole piano practice life sort of stalled. Yes, I am still working, still playing, but it is a struggle. Maybe I see the light at the end of the tunnel now, I have got more practice time lately.

But, what happened? Well, Real Life happened. As this involves other people than myself, my family members to be precise, I will not give out any details. So, everybody is still alive and it was not about a divorce, nor any economical disaster, so it could be worse, I suppose. But piano playing had to be de-prioritized.

Some good things happened as well. I went to see a piano friend in Finland this summer, very nice journey, and we went to a great concert with the marvellous Sokolov. Later on I went to a Beethoven festival in Sweden where I heard all 5 piano concertos + the Choral Fantasy during three magical days and it was as close to heaven as you can get, in my opinion. Now the memory stays with me in shimmering light and with the most pleasant feelings.

And I started to play Mozart again. For some reason, I have not been able to during these last years. I probably got an overdose when I was young. I can LISTEN to Mozart, that is fine with me – Sokolov played Mozart, by the way – but to play was torture. Until this fall, when I suddenly did it again and got a bit hooked.

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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.)