A piece of cheat

Today I got a friendly, probably not too serious, challenge from some Facebook friends to play Debussy’s Arabesque 1. Piece of cake, as I learned it long ago … right? No, not quite. “Learned it” is definitely a big exaggeration. I rather have struggled with it over the years, without ever reaching performance level … Wrong again. Without ever having learned it properly!

This phenomenon is very familiar to me, it happened so many times when I worked with my novel during the 90’s. I have been a writer all my life, but now I talk about my most serious project, which finally lead to a published novel. I am still very proud of the result. But: countless of times I thought I was “almost finished” (because I just had written something that was close to perfect, in my own opinion) but the next week I had got a new perspective of it, and I realized that I was just in the beginning of the trail, because this looked more like a promising first draft than a finished masterpiece … sometimes it was a most unpleasant wake-up, because it made me understand that my judgement before had been dreadfully bad. On the other hand, it also made feel a bit wiser. I kept on working. After a while I came back to the “this is very good” stage, then I found new embarrassing flaws, I kept on working …

Of course this also happened, and still happens, in my piano playing. I work like I-dunno-what with a piece, then I proudly play it for someone dear, or maybe a teacher, and expect them to do the wave … and then the verdict comes: “oh, that was pretty good start”. Or even “good for being a first attempt” as I got once. I was not happy about that. I want everyone to notice, and to praise, the time I already have spent on this. Not to inform me that the major part of the work is still to be done …
But that it is how it works, people. Nobody will care about anything but the final result, and by then nobody cares if it took you fifteen minutes or fifteen years to get there, actually. I have had many, many moments when I have considered myself the Most Untalented Pianist (or Writer) On Earth, as I seem to have to work twice as hard than anyone else to get even a mediocre result …

But I suppose I share this feeling with quite a few. Anyway, I have been at “almost finished” with Arabesque a few times.

Let me quote myself from the earlier blog posting “She makes it look so easy!”

We think that “it is better to get a general hang of the whole thing first, then see to the details and do some polishing here and there afterwards” but I have concluded that this approach is not the most effective one. In 99 cases out of 100 we never finish that polishing, or we even abandon the piece too early, thinking it is too advanced or something like that. “Better to get it perfect from the beginning, and you will actually learn the whole piece faster” as Westney said. Yes, I have evaluated that advice thoroughly, and indeed he is right.

The Arabesque is quite interesting in this aspect as I have worked with it in portions from 1984 and onward – basically giving it 30 years of rest since 1984 to 2014, then trying to re-learn it, now trying a third time, of course with some vague attempts of cheating myself through it inbetween these actual practice periods. It is also a brilliant example of the “old sin curse”, that is, when you have learned something wrong and then try to fix the errors later on. Everybody advise against such post-fixes. It is much better to learn it right from the beginning, just as I wrote myself before. Indeed it is. On the other hand, I cannot believe that I am the only one having a number of such wrecked old skeletons in my closet, and I refuse to think that once it is ruined, it will be impossible to get in shape again. So, sleeves up, start digging.

At least I have now gained enough experience not to panic when I discover the real state of the “almost finished” pieces. When I started again with the project in 2014, or whatever it was, I felt that I had become so much better than I was 30 years earlier, and I could smile a bit at the memory. It was amusing to realize how ignorant I had been in 1984. I mean, I played with such a poor control of myself by then, I literally fumbled over so many sections in the stupid hope of improving them on the go, and without ever bothering to investigate what the problems were. And I also recall how scared I got of complicated key signatures. Everything with more than two sharps or flats felt impossible to decipher. The teacher I had some years ago ensured that I would get used to it, and of course she was right, but it took time. Anyway, the Arabesque starts with four sharps (yikes!) then shifts to three (gaaah, just to make me confused, right?) and then goes back to four, with lots of restoration marks added here and there, of course.

Today I started all over again and now I smile at my old self once again. The difficulty with the infamous three-against-two combination remains, simply because I have never learned it properly. But now I feel that I will make it. Now I have the courage to stop and dismount the problem to its atoms and not give up until it sounds like it should. I think I spent fifteen minutes exclusively on bar 1&2, by the way. They are very easy when you look at them, but for the first time I realized that there is something called phrasing … I also have got many seriously bad habits in my earlier attempts with this piece, like not knowing which key to hold down and which one to release, as Debussy just loves to blend chords together. This needs to be reworked, the post-fix I mentioned before. It works fine when I play extremely slow, but when a piece is too familiar it is just too tempting to speed it up a little, and then all old sins and mistakes rebound immediately … so a big challenge with this almost archeological restauration work is to hold myself back and not fall back into bad old patterns.

It was also funny that I today also stumbled over this entertaining link to Tiffano Poon’s vlog, where she demonstrates her first recapture of the Heroic Polonaise after 6 years.

No, my first recapture of the Arabesque was not even close to this. First, it is quite obvious that Tiffany Poon is one zillion times better than me. But I also want to emphasize the important fact that she here recaptures something she learned for real, six years ago, not a project she abandoned early because it was too demanding at the time. It is quite typical that the hardest parts of the piece are those that seem to have stuck best with her.

I will not make a corresponding vlog about my first attempts to polish my rusty Arabesque, though. You wouldn’t like it anyway, but I hope I soon will be able to finish this one with style, and transfer if from the pile of cheats to my real repertoire.

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The Noble Art of Exaggeration

In my last post I talked about the importance of being “insanely detailed” and really deal with every flaw you encounter even if it means that you, seemingly, “don’t get anywhere” for a while. Now I want to talk about slow practice.

In these days, everyone has heard about the importance of slow practice, but it is too easy to get seduced by the image that is conveyed from stage and in certain movies, where the piano genious sit down and just play, in tempo, almost perfectly from the beginning. You can easily get the impression that once you have reached stardom, learning new material will be totally effortless. You just sight-read …

Well, if the piece is elementary I can also learn it rather quickly, or even play it reasonably well in my first attempt. If you encounter a piece that is far below your level of skill, you will probably be able to present a decent version of it in rather short time, maybe almost immediately. (An important skill in sight-reading is the art of cheating, by the way. Or simplifying, if that words sounds better to you.) Still, the traditional piano repertoire is filled with works that absolutely NOBODY can learn in an instant, pieces that are challenging for everyone.

So we all sit there with our slow and fractioned practice in the beginning. Of course. But then? Some piano students assume that you start slowly, then you gradually speed up the tempo and then you play fast and never go back. Many piano teachers – the good ones – emphasize the importance of slow practice even later, though, when you actually can play it faster but need to stabilize and affirm your knowledge a bit more. Going back to slow practice from time to time is good maintenance work as long as you have this piece on your repertoire, not to mention when you “dust it” after a longer period of inactivity.

Then there are two “schools” of slow practice, mentioned by, for example, Graham Fitch. One is speeding up in increments, particularly useful when you learn something new, perhaps? You start with the metronome at a low speed, you learn to play the piece perfectly at this speed, then you increase the metronome tempo in steps that are suitable for you, rinse and repeat. I have encountered many pianists who like to do this because they find it gives you a very reliable and stable foundation. Without a doubt, this method will help you finding all these little flaws I talked about before, so that you can get rid of them and finally present a full-tempo version that is virtually flawless.

On the minus side we find that this method also could be time-consuming and tedious, especially if it is a long piece, and there are some risks with it: one is that you might lose the music on the way, so that the final result will sound mechanical and dull. It does not have to be like that, but the risk exists. Another thing is a phenomena called “speed wall”. It is like walking. When you walk, you move your limbs in a certain way that differs from running, and no matter how hard you try, you will eventually reach a speed wall in walking, when you just cannot get faster, or you have to shift to running. When you play the piano, you also use different techniques for playing slowly and playing fast, respectively. This means that you have to shift this technique when the tempo increases, and this could lead to a problem if you are not prepared for it. But again, it doesn’t have to happen.

Graham Fitch describes an alternative method which he calls “Little bits fast” and it is exactly what it sounds like. Even if the piece is very advanced, you will probably be able to play a short section of it in fast tempo. So, you can do that, get a feeling of what it is like to play it fast, and then gradually make these fragments longer.

I use both of these methods, and I suppose that most people do, even if they are not fully aware of it. I believe you have to be a bit bold when you practice, that you must constantly test your limits, so therefore I find the Little bits fast method more fun and often more effective – but it really depends on the piece itself. There is no universal solution here.

But how do you play slowly, then? The question might sound stupid, but think about it. See above – as walking and running differ from each other, this means you should play the “running” version but in slow-motion, right? But that can be very tricky. Ever tried to run in slow-motion? It is not that easy … And what about other aspects like dynamics and expression? Then I know that many piano students assume that there is one and only one “perfect” version of a piece, so they learn this perfect version and then the performance becomes a disaster because the perfect version needs perfect conditions or it will literally collapse. Perhaps the audience will not notice, but you will, and you will get so disappointed. So you need to accept that your music is living material, and so are you. And this means you have to play the piece differently depending on your own mood, the time of the day, the audience, the piano, just to mention a few factors. And this in turn means you cannot act like a robot in your practice room either.

Therefore I have found that slow practice is an excellent opportunity to experiment. Nowadays I often make my own “radical covers” (well, maybe not that dramatical …) in slow practice. I do not play other keys than what are written, and I don’t change the fingering, because then I would confuse myself too much, but I take the liberty to experiment with all the other parameters. I do not keep a steady tempo, I challenge the dynamics and the expression, and if I discover some particularly nice harmony (here is where Beethoven shows his true qualities, believe me) I repeat it just to enjoy it and experience the full depth of it. Because this is a very enjoyable experience. It is like I make the piece personal. After all, my task is not to reproduce what I think Mozart “meant” back when he wrote this – my task is to play it in my way, to add my own personality and thoughts to the notes. Here I know that some people will yell “blasphemist” to me but really, that is not my problem …

I call this “exaggerating”, because that is exactly what I do. I make an overly-exaggerated version of the piece, or the section. I exaggerate so much that it probably gets hilarious from time to time, especially as I take the chance to make faces and sway around as well, if I feel like it! Well, that is good too. We need to get hilarious sometimes. Many pianists take themselves far too seriously, and that will affect the playing in a negative way. The practice room is not a concert hall, nor a temple. It is an experimental workshop and a playground, where you should be allowed to do whatever you like as nobody is watching anyway. In this way I get rid of the claustrophobic idea that there is only one, perfect way to play this piece, and that my job is to get as close to “perfect” as possible in every moment! (Very stressing, very restricting and eventually very boring as well.) And while I am aware that my exaggerated, sometimes almost psychedelic versions are NOT what I intend to show the world, I can actually come up with some cool ideas that I may want to show to others later on. Of course I don’t have to play everything ultra-slowly either. Why not add some “little bits fast” if I can? If I hesitate in certain spots, like I always do when I have not learned the piece fully, I can make it a so called artistical rest, why not make it a real long one … and in that way I eliminate the slight irritation that you easily feel when you fall out of tempo.

And when I afterwards return to the more correct, by the notes version, I always notice that I play it better now, that my technical security has improved significantly.

Therefore I recommend “exaggerating” as a fun and effective complement to picky detail practice. It will make slow practice sessions so much more enjoyable. Of course this does not eliminate the need of “correct slow practice” totally but I think it makes me learn faster as a whole. Most important: in order to polish the details and really make them shine, I need to know exactly what I want to achieve. Exaggerated, “free” slow practice will help me find out what I want in a fun and playful way.  Yes, you are supposed to listen to your teacher if you have one, and to learn from your teacher, that is what you pay for. But finally you must become the best version of yourself, not of your teacher …

“She makes it look so easy!”

For the moment I’ll pretend I have not at all been quiet here for two years. If I think too much about it, I will forget what I want to write right now, and I will get no further this time either.

However, after such a long period of silence I feel I should start with a reminder: I am by no means an expert in piano playing. I have no degree, no graduation, I don’t work as a piano teacher and I just play on an amateur level. So I’m writing here my own reflections, rather than “lecturing”.

Anyway, I participate in many discussions on the web about piano technique and I watch many videos. Rather often I see videos featuring some master and/or prodigy, who plays the most complicated works with apparent ease, sometimes even with a little happy smile … and the comments are most often half-admiring, half-jealous along the lines of “it looks so easy when he/she plays!” The reality is we all struggle hard with similar pieces and we just … cannot … overcome that … struggle. And often it does not sound very good either. Gaah! How do they do it then? How do they make it look easy, when we know it is so difficult?

The partly depressing, but also very encouraging answer is: it really is easy – for them. This may feel depressing if we think that it is not exactly easy for us, so those talents must differ from us ordinary mortals. It is very encouraging, though, if we consider that they, actually, are also just ordinary mortals like the rest of us and that if they can learn this, so can we. All it takes is some work – lots of work, to be more precise, but nevertheless “just work”. And those virtuosos have walked the same path as you.

Last summer I had the most amazing lessons with a teacher I consider to be one of the best you can find: William Westney, author of “The Perfect Wrong Note”, a book about practicing (piano and other instruments) that I strongly recommend. When I got the chance to have four lessons with him IRL I was thrilled, and I did not get intimidated or disappointed, on the contrary. You know it has been a good lesson when you walk out of there with more self-confidence than you had when you went in. I have also noticed, during the winter that followed, that I play better and learn faster and more effective than before, and that practicing therefore has become even more fun than before. (Mind you, in my private life I have been through hell the last year, I am happy that my family has survived this crisis, and I am also amazed that I managed to find any practice time at all during this chaos – well, during some periods I did not, but anyway, I have made some progress nevertheless.)

With Westney, we worked at a very deep level of detail, about as deep as when I worked with Per during the lessons we had in 2015. He pointed out some things that are very self-evident when you hear it, but perhaps you don’t always think of it at the time: if something feels difficult, it is because you haven’t really mastered it yet. This goes even for the tiniest of sections – if the transition between two chords or two notes feels a bit uncomfortable, you have to work more with it until it feels totally natural. Practice this transition, over and over again (remember to STOP after this spot and do not proceed with the rest of the bar or the rest of the piece) until it feels easy for your hands. Yes, this moment will come! What you need to do is “just” be very patient, and dare to break down the piece into such small segments that you can identify this uncomfortable feeling, exactly how it feels and where it occurs.

Well, patience must be one of the most important tools we need as pianists. Most of the time we do not have enough of it. We are so eager to make music that we don’t give ourselves enough time to attend to these tiny details. One million repetitions of the same half bar is not what I would call making beautiful music. We think that “it is better to get a general hang of the whole thing first, then see to the details and do some polishing here and there afterwards” but I have concluded that this approach is not the most effective one. In 99 cases out of 100 we never finish that polishing, or we even abandon the piece too early, thinking it is too advanced or something like that. “Better to get it perfect from the beginning, and you will actually learn the whole piece faster” as Westney said. Yes, I have evaluated that advice thoroughly, and indeed he is right.

One thing Per told me back in 2015, was that I should not try to deal with more than one issue at a time. Also very self-evident when you think about it, but clearly very easy to ignore … So if you really want to resolve the problems once and for all, you have to split  your piece into such small sections that you only have ONE issue to work with at one time. And yes, this could very well mean the simple two-note-transition I mentioned above. If you try to work with several issues simultaneously, it will often end in disaster – either it will “just” sound dreadful as a whole, or you will also risk injury because you get tense and frustrated.
Been there, done that.

But this insane level of detail is really satisfying as well, because you can hardly avoid making improvements when you work this way. Yes, you can also make it look easy, because once you have worked out this little movement combination, one-two, it will be easy for you too. Then comes the magical feeling when you discover that the thing that challenged you so much last week, suddenly is nothing. You just play it. You have made the transition from “ouch, this is tricky!” to “this is child’s play!” And afterwards you may not even remember why it was so hard in the beginning.

An old friend of mine, who is very smart and intelligent especially when it comes to his field of expertise (computer programming), said to me, with a clever smile: “you know, I only know the easy parts”. That summarizes the whole idea pretty well, I think. Actually the “easy parts” are the only parts you will ever master!
So I often think of this nowadays when I practice: it should be easy. If it is not, it is because I have not learned it well enough yet. (Note: it is not because I am a hopeless case and never will improve. It is very important to keep that in mind.) If I get tense, if my hands say “this is not comfortable” to me, then I know I have more work to do. Maybe I must slow down, maybe I must narrow down my practice segment, maybe I must work more with my fingering or make some exercises to get more prepared. Or it could be that I simply must learn the notes better – I often discover that my major issue is that I am not totally sure where to go next, then I hesitate for a microsecond, and this hesitation makes me tense up. But if I just give every little problem the time and attention it needs, I will eventually conquer it.  And the best thing is, that every time I solve a problem, I will become a little bit better than I was before.

 

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.

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.