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.