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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Pain

Ironically I planned to write a post about my injuries.

Now I must postphone it a bit as I am injured. No, it was not due to piano. It was my job, my translation job. I have worked so hard lately that I suddenly felt pain. A tendon in my right hand – it seems so very little, it is almost ridiculous, but … it is not that fun when you struggle to make a deadline which is the most important this year. It is not fun when your whole income relies on your hands.

Piano playing does not hurt much but still, I must save my hands for my work. Hopefully I will recover soon, I think it is better today than yesterday.

Practice: One of those days, you know

I really wish I would never write a post like this, but I have to, and most likely I will do it again …

My workload is still insane. This evening I decided to take a break, though, and play the piano instead.

It was not a success. I don’t panic over a few days without practice; I know it happens from time to time and that I quickly will regain what I have lost, but nevertheless I have lost quite a lot and I get so tired over all these incomprehensible mistakes that suddenly occur everywhere. It is that particular bar (no. 17)  in the Chopin etude, I really need to work a lot with it in order to find the right keys, but this evening I just didn’t have the energy for it. Instead I tried the Fanny Mendelssohn Nocturne which I worked so hard with the other day. The other day I also was very pleased with the results I got, it felt like I was getting somewhere with it. This Nocturne is technically not the most challenging piece I have tried, even though it is not exactly elementary either. But it is hard to make it sound good too.

Today it was more or less disaster. I suddenly felt that I could just as well call it a day. Anyway, I do have some important progress to report: anyone read the post about backward chaining?  I mentioned there that it made memorization more easy too. And I have been working, away from the piano, with a simple little piece. I did it, I finally managed to memorize it! I can play it by heart! Really! As I have not been able to memorize anything at all in many many years, this was fantastic progress. One funny little thing I noticed here was that it much easier to memorize when I am not sitting at the piano.

So I have mentioned that it is very important to summarize your progress after a practice session. What did I do well today? Ok, I fixed a lot of those mistakes in the Chopin etude. I proved I could play a whole piece by heart. And I have also memorized about 6 bars in the Chopin b minor walz … Not bad, really.

I can also mention that I have worked quite a lot with the Carreño walz lately and there a lot of things have happened, so I have not been totally passive. But today … was not a very good day. I work far too much and I am starting to feel confused and alienated. Typically stress. I’ve better doing some meditation exercises instead of fighting with Chopin right now, but next lesson is very soon.

Next practice session will be the parts of the Carreño walz that I have hardly ever played. That must be prio 1 at the moment. Then it must be the last page of the Mendelssohn Nocturne. There are a few bars where I fumble around like I-don’t-know-what and where I have marked that I should use the sostenuto pedal. This pedal – the middle – is very useful but it is only available on grands. As my digital is a digital grand, it has it, but my teacher has an upright. I was proud when I finally learned to use this pedal this summer, but it is still rather difficult.

There.  And I keep on doing memorization when I don’t play the piano.

BTW, here is the Mendelssohn Nocturne, the only recording I have found. I am not too fond of it, though. I want the tempo to be a bit slower … but it will take some more (read: an awful lot more) time before I can record my own version, as I still struggle to find the right keys here and there …

My best piano teacher

I want to introduce you to the best and most important piano teacher I’ve ever had. Jimmy, my faithful friend and companion – here he is:

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So, how can a dog be a piano teacher, you ask? Well, most dog owners know that a dog can teach lots and lots about faithfulness, unconditional love and the importance of living in the present moment. So did Jimmy. He was a shetland sheepdog, and they are very loving dogs, very sensitive to signals and easy to train. If you use the right methods, that is. Yelling and harsh punishments don’t go well with a sheltie. On the other hand, they are very suitable for “clicker training“, a method with growing popularity. It is fun for both dogs and humans. The principle, if you just don’t bother following the link, is simple: you have a gadget called clicker, a little thing that makes a clicking sound – you can use any signal gadget including your own voice, but the point is that you teach the dog that each time this sound is heard, it means he will get a reward. Often a treat, but some dogs prefer to get access to a toy or something like that. Anything that the dog really wants.

When you train the dog, you click when he is doing something you like, and then he gets his reward, and if he does something wrong, you just ignore it. This is also called positive enforcement – you encourage and enforce behaviours you like, and ignore the undesired behaviour until it vanishes. Your student, the dog that is, will think this is great fun. Like playing a computer game. Both Jimmy and my other dog Frodo – still around, thank God – jumped with joy whenever I showed them the clicker. Work? No way! Let’s play the clicker game! Come on!

Jimmy learned more than 20 commands in a short time, and also showed great talent in agility. He also got the chance to try some herding, and it turned out he had all the instincts needed to herd the sheeps. But in that case I needed no clicker, which is interesting – to be with the sheep was the best reward for him. We had to drag him out from the sheepfold when his training session was over, he did not want to quit.

The herding instructor was good, by the way. She told us that in order to make the dog “ignite” for herding, it was absolutely forbidden to bash him when he was in the sheepfold. All we must do was to praise him. Praise him for everything he did in there, including peeing at the fence and scratching himself behind the ear. We were equipped with a light plastic staff in order to protect the sheep in case the dog would be a bit too enthusiastic and try to bite them. (You just put the staff between the dog and the sheep.) Not that it was necessary in Jimmy’s case – he turned out to be natural talent and knew almost at once what to do, and not what to do. In his whole life, he never was aggressive to anything or anyone.  But I still remember the instructor’s constant call to all the course participants: “Don’t forget to praise! Praise, praise!”

So what I learned from my dog was that no progress is so small that it is not worth praising, and that the real key to dog training is to maintain their enthusiasm. An experienced, “clicker wise” dog gets very active whenever he sees the clicker. He starts to test all the kinds of behaviour he can come up with, in his wild attempts to get that click, so he is extremely alert and active, and you cannot get a more attentive student. A dog that gets punishments for wrong behaviour, though, will feel fear when it is training time. He knows it can be painful. His best strategy will be to be as passive as possible, and to hope for the training session to end quickly …

I don’t think I need to tell you which method gives the fastests results. Anyone with the slightest grain of intelligence can figure that out …

Or?

Or?

This is where it becomes interesting. Now we are talking piano again. When I had decided to start playing the piano again, and was determined not to make the same old mistakes once again, because this meant too much to me, I first had to identify what these old mistakes really were, of course.  And then find a way to solve the problem.  I happened to look at my dear dog, always at my side, and suddenly I sort of heard that herding instructor again, her voice echoing in my head: “Don’t forget to praise! Praise, praise! Let him know that nothing bad can happen to him!”

From all my training sessions with Jimmy I also knew that you cannot work too long with a dog. Sooner or later he will get tired of it, and then he will just stop listen to you and start sniffing on the ground instead. It is his way to tell you he has had enough at the moment, he will not learn anything new now. To insist would just be harmful, because he must never feel that training is something negative …

Then I recalled all the moments I had been sitting at the piano, critizising myself: “there I go again! Why can’t I learn this? Oh, I suck, I must be the most untalented piano student in the world …”
I know this is quite common behaviour. We all do it, more or less. First, self-punishment has been regarded as a virtue since long, in order to get enlightment. The flesh is weak and blah blah blah. I am just a lousy little sinner, please forgive me, God. Second, in the absence of that strict teacher we all believe is so good, we have to be that teacher ourselves. And third, I suppose we think that by being so strict and self-critical, we mark how important this is. No half-hearted dabble here, thank you very much!

Our school system is designed this way too. When the children first enter school, they are usually curious and enthusiastic, but after a few years they certainly have learned the lesson: this is no playground! He we work! Blood, sweat and tears! And the most crazy thing is that we believe this is how it should be, even though we already have seen the happy spark fade away from children’s eyes and be replaced by desillusion and resignation. Even though we have been there ourselves.

Discipline! You need strong self-discipline, or else you are a weak person, a bad person! Yes, isn’t it strange that we easily understand how worthless it is to train a dog this way, but we do it to our children and ourselves, maybe with the poor excuse “but piano playing is more complicated than retrieving a ball!”
Come on, the principle should be the same no matter what you learn. I am a living example that this is true.

I remember when I read those innocent words Per wrote when he offered piano lessons: “it is fun!”  He really wrote that, he thought practice was fun. I thought “noo, my dear, it is not. Playing the piano is fun, though. But practice – that is for fakirs.”

Now, after all these years, I suddenly got this insight: does it really have to be hard and boring? If I had trained my dog following the same principles I used for practicing piano, he would have learned basically nothing. And he would have been miserable too, with bad self confidence and no desire to learn anything more. What if … I looked at it from his point of view? What if the same principles that worked for him, could work for me?

So, as a human piano student I don’t need a clicker and a treat with liver taste. But I need encouragement. I decided to focus on my progress instead of my mistakes. To let my piano be my own “sheepfold”, a place where nothing bad could happen. Otherwise I would never “ignite”. My modest starting point was to practice 10 minutes a day. More than that could be too ambitious, I thought. So I had to sit at the piano for 10 minutes, at least, and not leave the piano until I had made a short summary on my progress. I had to find something every time. I lowered my ambitions to nearly-although-not-quite-zero and then I praised myself a lot for having sat down even that day, for having turned a page, or for having improved one lousy bar a little bit. Anything that made a positive difference, no matter how small, was worth my attention. Mistakes? Flaws? Ok, I renamed them “improvements to come”. It was a good name, actually. Had a more encouraging flavour, so to speak.

When I tell people about this, my “dog method” as I call it to honour the one who enlightened me, I sometimes get funny reactions. It sounds too simple and too silly. Many ambitious piano students even seem to get a bit provoked by it, because they want to feel that hard word pays off, self-discipline is a virtue, no pain no gain and all that usual rubbish. Hey, I practice 12 hours a day until I faint – please tell me I am a very good student! Look at me, I bleed!

Here I also must point out that pushing yourself hard is not the same thing as self-torture and self-bashing. When you really have ignited your enthusiasm you will be able to push yourself very hard, even complain loudly about your suffering, and still enjoy the pain. It may seem a bit masochistic to an observer, but nevertheless – it is a good feeling deep within. Like pushing hard at the gym, that feeling is also quite good sometimes, right? But first you must light that fire and make it burn steadily. Then you can start pushing, because then you are like the happy sheltie in the sheepfold – the activity has become self-rewarding and then you are safe. Same with mistakes – of course you must observe and work with whatever needs to be improved, but don’t let mistakes be “the proof of your worthlessness” as they used to be for me.

But never let yourself down. Never forget that self-praise. (Just don’t ask anyone else to join in – you may appear totally unbearable in that case. This should be very internal.) I write this, because this was the method I used to get going again, and it worked.

I really mean it. It worked. When you leave the piano in rage, feeling like a failure, you will not likely go back there next day with more enthusiasm. That was what happened to me when  was young, that is what happens to far too many and that is why people quit. When you feel progress, that something is happening, that you are going somewhere – never mind how modestly – you will be eager to go on. You will be like the dog who anticipates yet another treat (with or without liver taste) and who cannot wait for the next training session. Just by avoiding self-critizism and self-bashing, instead telling myself I did well, that piano chair seemed more and more attractive to me. It was a place for success, instead of failures. And my poor 10 minutes-a-day did not fade out like they used to do. Instead they got extended.

This happened 5 years ago. Today my fire is burning,  I don’t have to persuade myself to practice, I don’t need to seek motivation. Instead I often leave the piano most reluctantly because I have other duties and obligations. (Oh, that tiresome phenomena called Real Life!) But I can honestly say that it is harder not to practice than to practice in these days. When I turned 50 earlier this year, I had two big wishes for birthday gifts: 1. A Beethoven bust to put on the piano. 2. To be allowed to practice as much as I ever wanted that day, without getting disturbed or interrupted.

While my peers in the same age go on exclusive holiday trips to celebrate the big 50, I asked for piano practice time. I know I am crazy but I don’t care … anyway, both my wishes were fulfilled and I had a very, very happy birthday.

Jimmy left us in deep grief August 15 this year, 2016, after a period of tough illness. But he blessed my family with his wisdom and devotion for 11 years, we are grateful for that. I dedicate this post to the kindest, loveliest, wisest angel that ever has walked this earth on four little paws – my best friend. Without you, I would never have started to play for real again.

I miss you so much.

Ow, wouldn’t it be loverly?

The Ark split up in September 2011, after twenty years in business. That was all right with me. I met them and gave a little speech of gratitude some months earlier on their last club tour and then I let other fans manage the crying and grieving. Still, it was a speech of gratitude, because without The Ark,  I would never have found my way back to … my love of the piano.

So there was a music video, then a rock band, then a rock star interview with lots of research, then a symphony, then a pianist … and then:

Beethoven. Ludwig van Beethoven.

When I, as a young piano student, was assigned to play some Beethoven, I was not happy with it at all. OK, there was Für Elise of course. Then the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata … one of my “aces” for a long time, but I fell and failed miserably already at the second movement. Further, there were some less inspiring pieces, like the 49:2 sonata in G Major, and that awful Rondo in C Major. I used to describe Beethoven as a grumpy old man. After all, he looked very grim in most portraits, and his music was angry too. Cumbersome. Old-fashioned. I associated it with stiff old men in tailcoats, von Karajan, violin bows going up-down-up-down like military gymnasts moves. So my associations to the name of Beethoven were words like “bitter” and “heavy”, which is not very inspiring, right? By the way, in reality he did not even look as good as he does in this famous portrait, where he isn’t too pretty and cheerful either.mti2ntgymzixotcymju5ndu5

Per had started to record the whole Beethoven Sonata cycle, and he is still ongoing, and I had got slightly involved in the CD production. As I had endless remarks about layout and proofreading – after all, my present profession is much about that – I was “punished” by getting some proofreading of the CD booklets. Not that it was a punishment for real, of course, rather a tempting offer. I don’t like just sitting in the audience; when I get enthusiastic about something I love to participate in some way, so I jumped down from the stand and, blushing with pride, made my little active contribution by checking that the commas were in the right places …

But as Per not just recorded the sonatas but also wrote interesting blog posts about it, demonstrating a lot of aspects with the music that I had never thought of before, I slowly became more intrigued by Mr. Beethoven and finally I was totally hooked. Today, I have no idea how I could find his music dull, and why I did not like that Rondo. Not that he, as a person, stands there as the Mighty God Above All Gods to me. Not even as a composer, as there indeed are many, many others. But he is definitely my favourite by now, and it is something very fascinating in listening to music, written by someone who died almost two centuries ago, and suddenly think “I understand. I know what he meant by this”. Like extending your mind and read another person’s inner thoughts over time and space, way beyond any words – that it is magical.

I will write more about Beethoven later. Don’t worry! Anyway, once my mind opened up to the miracle, it was impossible to abandon it again. And among all terrific Beethoven pianists I have listened to ever since (about all there are, it seems), Per is the terrificest I have ever found. But this ranking of best-second best-third best is silly, though. (Like, who would you put on place 72 and 159, then?) After all, when you come to the world top division of pianists, it is just a matter of personal taste and preferences … but I write this from my own point of view, soooo. Therefore, getting the chance to read the booklets and give my opinions before their release, was a big pleasure.

And of course I had started to play a little by myself too, back home, on my dusty old Clavinova. It did not work out very well, unfortunately. My hands were stiff and cramped. I tried to shape my Für Elise up but it was very difficult, it sounded like a limping walz or something. Before the Tengstrand festival in Växjö 2010 I bravely asked Per over e-mail how he thought it should be played. No, I did not have to make a request through a publicist this time, nor sneak behind the backs of other jealous fans in order to do that, nor have insane stalkers holding trial and creating fake profiles in order to spread false rumours about me (did I say that some rock band fans seem to be total freaks??)
I just asked – aah, the classical music world is so nice and uncomplicated compared to the rock star hysteria! Maybe I gave him an idea there, because when he played the introduction concert some weeks later, he opened with Für Elise. I was in the audience, and the famous pianist opened the festival, most surprisingly, with that piece, and I was the only one who knew the reason – awright, awright, was that flattering or what?

(And until you deny it, Per, I will keep on living in that self-aggrandising illusion. Ha.)

But the bad thing was that this brilliant version of Für Elise of course made my own poor attempts at home to appear even more pathetic. I was full of envy. I wanted to play the piano too. No, I am not an idiot, I know I will never be on that level and it is okay with me – if the best Beethoven player in the world is much better than me, then I can happily tolerate it. But it looked fun! Not to perform to an audience, that was still horror to me, but I wanted to make that wonderful music with my own hands. To start my very own love affair with Beethoven. To sit there all alone with a beautiful concert grand and make that divine music, sure it would have been lovely …?

Still, what I produced was terrible, it was torture for my ears. In short, it was anything but fun. Just a big fat reminder that I sucked.

Despite that, so I had tried to start playing the piano again, and it was not my first attempt during these years, and I already knew how it would end: like it always did. Coming to the age of 45, I had had my share of ambitious and grandiously wrecked projects, just like everyone else who has entered the thrilling world of being middle-aged. On the other hand, I was a bit wiser than I used to be. For example, I had learned that if you try to do something like you always do, you will end up with the same result as you always get. Goes without saying, right? Still, to many of us it takes a life-time, or at least half a life-time, to fully grasp this little rule. But the flip side is that you also realize that if you do it differently, you may get something … different.

Then Per got this crazy idea. This is not very traditionally Swedish, I’ll tell you that, in fact it is not the Swedish way at all, but he has lived in the U.S. for a long time: he offered to give piano lessons to adult amateurs. In Sweden, the elite of today normally only educates the elite of tomorrow. They don’t have time for anything else. You must not join a master class if you are above a certain age, or if you don’t have got enough grades from a conservatory and so on. This is due to our educational system which is free, and very fair in many aspects, but it certainly is of no favour to middle-aged hobbyists who are in the desperate need of an inspirational kick just to get up from the couch again. With inspirational kick I mean something a bit more powerful than that the tired old “ha ha, sure that would have been fun” at the coffee break conversation at work. Even to find an ordinary piano teacher when you are an adult is tricky if you live on the countryside like I do.
Yet, now one of our most prominent pianist stars, my big piano idol as well, offered to give lessons to a person like me …

…but you know what the typical Swedish reaction to such a non-typical Swedish offer is?

“Ha ha, that would have been fun, too bad I am not good enough, though. I’ll pass.”

Oh, and we love Jim Carrey.

Liebestraum – the awakening

During my extensive research for the interview I was also delighted to find that Ola had written other things than rock music. In 2007 he released a 15-minute symphony to the honour of famous botanist Carl von Linné, made on commission from his home-town of Växjö. One of the demands he made to write this symphony was that another Växjö celebrity, concert pianist Per Tengstrand would play the piano part. I really liked that symphony. It wasn’t Mozart standard but still, what a bold move from a rock musician. And even more I liked that pianist. I had, of course forgotten all about that progidy kid with Rondo Alla Turca by then, he reminded me about it much later. I just got intrigued by this perfect piano technique, so clear and confident. Here I let the clip begin with the piano solo part.

Not much later I listened to a recording he had made of the “Elvira Madigan” concerto and then I fell in love for real. This piano concerto has always had a special place in my heart, it has a certain soothing effect on me. I once told my mother how much I loved it, and she replied: “well, I used to listen and relax to it a lot when I was pregnant”. So, I had enjoyed this lovely Mozart work even before I was born, maybe that explained it.

Per had the right approach to this concert. It was full of life, not over sentimental and yet soft and sensitive, in my opinion.  And still that very clear, precise technique without “slipping” over the keys, definitely my cup of tea. Although I knew nothing about this guy – or so I thought – I immediately knew this: that was how you should play the piano!

 

In April 2008 Ola and Per united for a cross-over concert, gathering both fans of The Ark as well as fans of classical music. There I was, actually in both camps. No – I hereby must confess that I went there mostly for the piano. No matter how good Ola and The Ark were, I had got very tired of rock band fan life. (Not that I had been to many concerts myself, actually, but together with the interview research it had been an exhausting experience.)  It is fun for a while, but there are many ingredients in it that are not very pleasant.  I had booked that concert even before I knew Ola was to join in, because I was in desperate need of getting away from home for a little while, and I thought this could be the perfect little excursion. The winter was cold and snowy, I felt slightly imprisoned in my own home. Now, I decided to go on a concert trip, on my own, and my husband was very supportive and encouraging. This would be my little escape, for once. And my goal was the not very exciting little town of Växjö in the middle of Småland county, and a piano festival … The whole idea was so out of fashion that it was amusing.

So I bought the ticket and planned the trip with the triumphant feeling of doing something I wanted to do, without asking the trend gurus whether this was cool or not. But then Ola joined the festival too. Suddenly “everyone” was going there, so it became a bit more mainstream than I had planned, but … this journey turned out to be one of the best ideas I have ever got, and it certainly marked the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life.

Anyway, so there I was, in the Concert Hall of Växjö … According to the concert program, Per would start with “Funerailles” by Liszt. I had not heard it before, but the name Liszt immediately gave me the association to the famous Liebestraum piece, which is one of my big favourites. I thought “if only he could have played Liebestraum instead, but ok. This Funere… Funerai … oh, whatever, it will be fine too.”

Then, at the concert, the miracle happened. Per made a change in the program in the very last minute, I don’t know why, but he entered the stage and announced that he, instead of Funerailles, would play – Liebestraum!

I was shocked, but I was also so happy that I got tears in my eyes. To me, it was like coming home. After all, it was decades since I had been to a classical concert! How nice it was to sit comfortably in a chair, to close my eyes and just listen to one of the most beautiful pieces I knew, instead of doing the rock concert routine with queues in, queues out, queues to the overpriced hotdogs, queues to the outdoor toilets, harsh guards, earplugs … To quote The Ark’s most famous hit: “It takes a fool to remain sane” – this phrase is particularly true on rock festivals.

No, this was so much nicer. It was civilized, all I had to do was to enjoy. And this piano playing awoke so many memories of piano concerts I had been to in the past, so very long ago. Concerts with Staffan Scheja, Hans Leygraf, Hans Pålsson, Lars Roos and many more, all of them very renowned pianists. A whole life ago … Suddenly I remembered them all.

In the middle of this dreamy nostalgia I recalled that I actually had been playing the piano myself once. And that I, however incredible it seemed, had managed to forget it.

Practicing backward chaining

Someone reminded me of that good old trick “backward chaining” the other day and I am most grateful. I have used it from time to time but forgot what an excellent tool it is. So as I felt a bit stuck with the Chopin 10:6 etude, I tried this method and yes, what a relief.

As I already have written, this etude has a slow and steady tempo which means it should not be that awfully difficult to learn, but in return it is so filled with flats, double flats, restores, sharps etcetera and harmonic changes that it feels like getting lost in the jungle after a while. The reward is awesome, as it is as beautiful and hypnothic as only Chopin could do,  but for someone at my level this was a challenge:

Anyway, you patiently work your way through harmony after harmony and watch the key shifts carefully, adding note after note (I supposed better pianists can grab this in larger chunks than me, but for me it was really a note-by-note-approach, so far. I would have made one million errors otherwise.) And it is quite natural to begin from the beginning and work all the way to the end, right? Only problem here is that you are totally exhausted already after a few bars. So – you start all over again. Or work with just one bar at a time. But from a psychological point of view this is like going uphill all the time. After having grit your teeth over the first page, you realize that there still are two more pages to go. Sigh. This will take weeks. And that thought could be, let’s say, a bit crestfallening.

And the natural thing is to keep on polishing the beginning, as this is what you know the best, because we all love to excel in things that are familiar to us rather than constantly play as bad as only a beginner does. After all, we all strive to play the piano and make music, not just dwell in the “I do not master this at aaaall” phase. So it is very tempting to do this polishing even before you have reached the end of this project. The result will be the usual one – finally you can play the beginning brilliantly, then it quickly starts to deteriorate and somewhere near the end it is quite lousy. Not to mention all the where-do-I-go-now’s that I have already mentioned earlier. They create a lot of annoying micro stops that you, in worst case, stop noticing yourself and then the final result will be a rather limping version. Believe me – I know what I am talking about. When I have recorded myself, I sometimes have got some nasty surprises when I’ve listened to the playback …

In situations like these, the backward chaining is a marvellous tool. For those who have not tried it, the principle is very easy: you start by playing the very last note/chord of the whole piece. Do it until it “sits” nicely. Then you play the second last note plus this final chord, again seriously polishing it until it sounds perfect. Then the third last note plus the second last note plus the final chord, and so on, slowly building up the chain. If you should play HT or HS depends on the difficulty.

The big advantage is that you work “downhill” by this approach. The playing will become easier and easier because you get more and more familiar with the end of the piece, so instead of building up tension and agony on your way into the twilight zone, you get more relaxed and secure the further you get. Of course, when the chain has become very long, you should not waste time playing it all to the end every time, but now you have the comfortable feeling of knowing that you already can play that part. Another big advantage is that you totally get rid of those micro stops I mention above, as “next move” will always be more familiar than the previous one. But, note! This assumes that you do not cheat too much, which could be tempting. Cheating could mean that you learn to play, let’s say, bar 11. Then you learn bar 10, but from the beginning instead of the end, and there you already have a little transition between 10 and 11 that could be a potential problem, as you have broken the chain. (But if you have no problem with that transition, then why fiddle around with backward chaining – just play, then!)

And the third plus is that at least I can memorize the notes much easier in this way. Last night I read some music in bed and memorized about 10 bars from end to beginning, and today I could sit down at the piano and play it all from memory! Wohoo! But now let’s remember that I have worked with these bars before, although without being able to memorize them, and I could only play them HS. But to me this was real progress.

 

Anyway, the bottom line is that I can play the whole etude now – not perfectly, by no means, but in tempo, without stops and with not too many mistakes. The price I pay is that I have practiced this so intensely during the last few days that I am getting dizzy, so no more practice today. So backward chaining really is the shit when it comes to learning complicated pieces – could be used for just parts of pieces, of course!

(A little footnote about the tempo: I prefer about the same tempo which Pollini uses in the recording here. The notation says it should be played much faster, really – but hey, it sounds better this way, so I do like everyone else and don’t bother about the metronome annotation.)

But of course I must also mention some disadvantages as well. It could be rather challenging to bring a half-done piece to your teacher, as they always ask you to start playing from the beginning, and that is now your weakest spot and there is risk that your teacher interrupts you early and shows some disappointment: you don’t understand this piece, do you? Have you practiced this at all? So you have better explain your approach carefully before you begin. I did this with my teacher some days ago and it was all right, she is familiar with this way of learning. But she also mentioned that it could be a good idea to work from both sides simultaneously so I add this remark for my readers to consider. After all, what I write in this blog are just my own opinions and thoughts, by no means any expert “truths”.

The other bad thing … well, let’s conclude that this method is wonderful for the mechanical learning, but not for the musical idea. It is like reading a novel in the reverse order, it does not make very much sense. On the other hand, once you know where to put your hands, you can spend the rest of your life analyzing the piece and make it sing without agonizing over next technical hurdle and that end section which you haven’t practiced as much as you should have.  So you still have all that work ahead of you … but who cares, as it is now the fun begins?