Practicing …

About the Chopin walz op 69:2 …

What I need to do now is to practice all the different semiquaver figures – or whatever you call these combinations – separately until I do not miss half of them and end up somewhere out in the marshlands. A terrible way to ruin such a nice piece of music, I am ashamed every time it happens. As it happens far too often (read: all the time), I suppose I must do a lot of slow playing here. I have also identified an issue with my wrist – the movements in these sections require a very precise pre-positioning of the wrist, or else I will stretch my fingers in several awkward angles and the result is nearly always that I miss the right keys. At least I think this is what I need to do – I will try this approach and see if it works.

Yes, it worked! My translation workload is still heavy and I will have to have low ambitions for the rest of this month thanks to this, but I have managed to squeeze a few practice sessions in, focusing mainly on this walz. Today it felt so much better than before. I am pinpointing the remaining difficult spots better, and I will keep on working with them separately. Cannot make up my mind about the tempo here – slow and tranquil, or more cheerful and energetic?

At least the key change is easy now. I used to think it was tricky, because I am not used to these … A sharps? Well, after having sighed over that 10:6 etude, I am not that scared anymore. There I have to remember to play C flats. C flat, how strange. Oh well, I’m getting used to it now.

Anyway, I should try to memorize this walz more. It is just that … I loathe memorizing. It is so difficult and so boring, and it always ends with me crying “what’s the point anyway???” and giving up. But fact is, that I understand the point very well. I simply play better when I don’t have to stick my nose right in the music sheet all the time and feel like Rowlf from the Muppet Show.

Ohmygod, I really look exactly like him, hahaha! Maybe a little less cute, though.

Addendum after my lesson 16-11-17: My teacher was very helpful with this piece, helping me to sort the fingering out in those tricky semiquaver passages. The piece does not feel that difficult anymore and that is a good sign. Of course you are never totally “finished” with a piece, there are always things to improve, and improve a bit more, but at least I am soon reaching the point where I can put this piece in the “decent standard” pile. 

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… I know it doesn’t make sense, but still:

One cold winter evening in the end of January 2007, my life took a most unexpected turn. Not that I knew it was a turn by then, of course. Some of your milestones in life come with the big drum rolls – like the birth of your children or as disasters like earthquakes and terror attacks or whatever. But some are so modest and apparently unsignificant at the moment that you don’t know until much later what impact they made on you.

This event was “nothing”, for sure. I just checked a music video out, and it was three minutes. Actually it was just a casual glance at the final acts in Swedish Melodifestivalen, the qualification round to Eurovision Song Contest. Americans have their Super Bowl, Sweden has Melodifestivalen. (Let’s say it is also ridiculed quite a lot, from rather good reasons as well, but nevertheless, it is a big TV event.) Most songs were the usual rubbish to me, with the exception of the last one, performed by well-known glam rock band The Ark. And it was something about them that got me totally hooked. Still, I cannot fully tell why, I just know that I watched and then, boom. I had to watch it some 10 times more.

The Ark were a well established rock band in Sweden but I had missed them. In fact, I had missed most of what happened in Swedish music life because I 1) had other things on my mind by then and 2) found most of it highly uninteresting, dull and mainstream anyway. So, perhaps I should have listened better, I don’t know.

But The Ark were different. They were the real deal, offered happy glam rock in the days when Oasis ruled with their stone faces and black clothes. They were very nice and down-to-earth guys without diva attitudes, and their music was terrific, the performance amazingly professional, the lyrics excellent – good poetry with intelligence and depth. They fetched their inspiration from my own old rock heroes like Queen, Pink Floyd and David Bowie. And lead singer/composer Ola Salo had a certain star quality an charisma that I had not seen since the days of Freddie Mercury.

Unlike Freddie Mercury he wasn’t dead, nor was he on the other side of the planet either. I got so curious about the music that I wanted to ask Ola about it. Actually I wanted it so much that I did it – I asked for an interview. Only problem was that The Ark were just a little bit too popular. Everybody wanted to meet them and talk to them, it was not just like giving them a call and say “hey, wanna talk for a minute?” Oh no, it was merely like trying to force your way into Fort Knox. All kind of communication had to be through the publicist or some other “official channel”. Everyone assumed you were yet another crazy (overaged) teen fan wanting to date the pretty idols. I found the whole thing both disgusting and quite degrading. To idolize people and devote to worshipping is so much against my nature, I despise that kind of behaviour. The Ark seemed to be surrounded by people (mostly women, as usual) who either were madly in love with cute Ola, or had decided he was Messiah reborn and their only and true Saviour. I was neither (ok, I admit I am a woman and not gay), I just liked the music and the show.

Of course nobody believed me. I suppose most people still don’t. Ok, so they are ignorant. I have learnt to live with that, but back then it was annoying and a bit humiliating.

There was another little issue as well: I had no experience at all from making interviews. Interviews with cool rock artist were made by self-appointedly cool journalists, and I was a total rookie in that world. Actually the whole idea was so crazy that everyone told me it was no use, it would never work, and besides … well, why did I do this anyway? This was SO NOT ME. And still. Yet. There was some drive within me that just could not be stopped anymore. I found that feeling intriguing as such.

To make a long story a bit shorter: I finally got the interview, and I was more than pleased to get inside the head of a creative artist and serious musician for a while. Ola turned out to be just as professional, nice and clever as I had hoped him to be, and to get a dialogue with him was sheer pleasure.
And … I notice even today that I have difficulties describing this strange feeling, this “drive” I called it in the paragraph above. Somehow I knew this whole The Ark thing and this interview was not about them nor Ola at all.  My relation to the band was rather irrelevant. They were never the centre of my universe, rather some kind of catalyst. Because this was about me, just me. I even expressed it to Ola once, I said “I know this will lead to something more, but I don’t know what yet”.

Maybe it is rather symptomatic that he managed to describe the feeling better himself, in one of his most famous songs. I know it is supposed to be a romantic song about teen love. He probably meant that himself, I think he said so once. But … today, the lyrics describe something else to me. Some kind of love that was not about a person.

What, then? Well, this is still a blog about piano playing …

Practicing Chopin

The typical amateur phenomena recently occurred: I got a sudden heavy workload and therefore piano playing must be restricted. Being a freelance translator, I cannot afford to decline jobs when they show up.

Sometimes I see posters on different discussion boards who talk about “work discipline” and brag about practicing 12 hours a day and so on. As a first reaction, I always want to shout “AND WHO IS DOING YOUR HOUSEWORK THEN?”  Or who is paying the bills? Obviously all “good” piano students are either millionaires with an employed household staff, or they are letting their mommies wait upon them, or let someone else take care of their children or they live on delivery pizza or something. I don’t know. I am probably just jealous because my own life is so different from this.

Anyway, this is about practice. Chopin is in the pipe today. I recently picked up the old and abandoned project with the b-minor walz, op 69:2. Lovely, dreamy melody and mood. It seemed rather easy at first. Maybe it is too, but … after a long struggle I realized that the fingering in my copy is not optimal for me. I had to change it, from something that did not work to something that felt better … but … as most pianists know, it is harder to change something that got wrong from the beginning, than to do it right from the beginning. So now I need to both un-learn and to learn something new.

What I need to do now is to practice all the different semiquaver figures – or whatever you call these combinations – separately until I do not miss half of them and end up somewhere out in the marshlands. A terrible way to ruin such a nice piece of music, I am ashamed every time it happens. As it happens far too often (read: all the time), I suppose I must do a lot of slow playing here. I have also identified an issue with my wrist – the movements in these sections require a very precise pre-positioning of the wrist, or else I will stretch my fingers in several awkward angles and the result is nearly always that I miss the right keys. At least I think this is what I need to do – I will try this approach and see if it works.

Another issue is the walz beat in my left hand. How heavy should the first beat really be? This is not a ragtime stomp tune, but on the other hand a bit of “push” will make it more interesting, I think.  I cannot make up my mind about this. My teacher suggested me to play just the first beat in every bar until I have got my right hand better – poor woman, my “version” of this walz was rather horrendous when I was there, but I hope to have improved a bit to next lesson. Anyway, I really have practiced a lot of HS playing in this piece. She also added more emphasis on the ritardandos, I think she wants more dynamics in general. She politely remarks that I play neither p nor f, rather mf all the time … um. Probably because I felt to unsecure with the notes and with the piano. That is what I keep telling myself, but I cannot use that excuse much longer … so more dynamics then. The solution is usually to exaggerate for a while. Insanely exaggerate.

Well, main thing is to get those semiquavers right. I think I will fix the rest once I have stopped dabbling around on the keys with those. So they are first priority. Probably I would do much, much better if I was able to memorize them so that I can look at the keys … but problem is that I really suck at memorizing. Don’t know why, really. My memory is excellent otherwise, but not when I sit at the piano.

Then the “real” Chopin project – the 10:6 etude in e flat minor. I bought the whole collection with the etudes this summer and I really wanted to learn them – I mean, I wanted to learn one, to begin with. After a lot of pondering and discussion we decided I should try the 10:6 etude. Said and done … it is a slow one, so you don’t have to stumble over the keys. Actually the biggest problem seemed to be to decrypt the note jungle. Lots of flats … double flats … restores … suddenly a double sharp … I am working my way through this, bar by bar, it takes forever but sooner or later I will know where to go. I’m sure, aaah.

Second little problem was the theme itself. It is built by slow harmonies, beautiful and tranquil, but in the middle there is a steady accompaniment of sixteenth notes in a very special pattern. I won’t tell you how long it took before I had learned the first bar, because this certain pattern was strange to me. But after a very long struggle I got it, and the rest is … well, the same. Or seemingly the same. My teacher warns me that it may look the same, but it should be played with a different feeling here and there. Um. Then there is the question about the balance – this ongoing accompaniment should be just in the background of course, with the long harmonies making the lead voices. Finally I got it right on my own piano, but on my teacher’s piano it sort of collapsed into a undefined murmuring so I guess I have to work a lot more with this. I can play the whole piece now if I skip those sixteenths and practice them separately instead. The fingering is also very difficult in some bars – but at least I approve this suggested fingering, I just need to learn it. Just need to be patient and stubborn … So, more separate practice for the different voices here. That is the major attack strategy.

Whenever I get the time to go to the piano again.

Interlude

I graduated [from the Swedish equivalent of senior high] in 1985 and left music school and even my piano behind when I went to the university. I could make a fast forward over two or three decades here, but I have to mention that I tried to play the piano several times during these years. I bought a Yamaha Clavinova in 1991, one of the first decent digital piano models, and I was very optimistic about the outcome. Finally a chance to practice with headphones, not feeling that awfully exposed anymore when I was practicing – this would do it! Because my stage fright even concerned my practicing sometimes, especially when I struggled too much with something and got comments from my family members like “that is awful!” or “isn’t that piece a bit too hard for you?”
They meant no harm, I know. They were just humans. I would have done the same … not to mention that I often agreed with them. Today I do it even more. I mean, how stupid is it to try to “miss a mistake” by speeding the tempo up instead of decreasing it? Or by pressing the keys even harder? Very stupid indeed. A faulty note will not get more correct in that way … Yet, I did just like that but my defense is that nobody had taught me how to learn a piece, just how it should sound. Again, this was a long time ago. Piano studies seemed to be like this in general. But the reactions weren’t very encouraging. I wanted to practice in private, to be as bad as I wanted and needed at the moment in order to solve my problems.
Actually I have exactly the same approach today.

Being the proud owner of this new funny Yamaha gadget, I faithfully tried to maintain my former repertoire, which had peaked at “Clair de Lune” in 1985 … but somehow it was just too difficult. I tried. As I mentioned in previous posting, there were questions I never asked myself … finally I would, but it took many years. Life had to teach me a lot of things first, things that certainly had nothing to do with piano playing.

Instead, piano playing has a lot to do with life. But I’ll talk about in a later post.

So I sat there at my little piano and I got mad at myself, because I felt my skills as a pianist were going backwards, however that could be possible. Every time I returned to the piano I played worse than before. (Could be that my musical hearing also improved a bit when I was not practicing so much. Angrily working your way through Hanon exercises is a good way to make you tone numb if you don’t watch out. So, this musical wake-up and welcome-to-the-real-world was painful.) Finally my whole pianist life was restricted to playing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eves and inbetween make some sloppy and uneven versions of “Für Elise”. But at least my loving and faithful husband was supportive enough to appreciate it.

I forgot about classical music, I mostly listened to the same hit list music as everyone else did. But I could never make myself say “I used to play the piano”. It was just too hard for me to conclude that it once was, but would never be again. Like saying a beautiful love story is over, sort of. A little bit of me refused to give up and still clinged to the thin thread of “I play the piano”. 

Practicing Valse le Printemps

This morning I decided to practice Valse le Printemps by Teresa Carreño. And now I think I’ve learned a new English term – appoggiatura. (Grace notes, but many of them.) If you play Carreño, you will very soon know what this is, I promise.

Well, I suppose my practicing habits are not always to be considered as “wise” or “effective” – or maybe that is what they are, I don’t know. As Boredom is the real kiss of death when you practice, I do anything not to lose my interest, and one little trick is to have lots of projects … actually too many of them, which means that my progress in each one of them may seem a bit too slow. Therefore, this walz has been peacefully resting for more than a week, while I had to focus entirely on Chopin and Fanny Mendelssohn for a while. On the other hand, I did not notice today that this has been bad for my dear Carreño. It did not felt dusty at all.

This is a walz, and before it I had some silly and vague ideas that walzes are easy, as the accompaniment in the left hand usually is very standard um-pa-pa. Problem is, that some of these um-pa-pa beats include long jumps over the keyboard and that is not totally trivial, especially in a fast and powerful piece like this one. So today I have made a lot of HS practice with just the walz beat. Have to be careful not to overpractice, though, as it is quite tough for my left arm. And how heavy should the first beat be, really? Need to think about it.

But hey, I love this piece. It is so cheerful, a real show-stopper so to speak. And be welcome to enjoy this video visually as well – the footage is delightful. This is also the only recording of this walz I have found on the Internet.

I brought this to the summer school in England last year, when I had not started with it “for real”. My teacher last summer, Philip Fowke, enthusiastically exclaimed “oh, I love this kind of music!” when he had tried a few bars. leprintemps1On the other hand, he also made some very strict remarks when we were sitting with the grandiose intro: “What are the harmonies here? You don’t know the harmonies? You will never learn a piece like this unless you don’t know the harmonies!”

I suddenly felt a bit unsure what a harmony really is, by strict definition, so there was a moment of slight awkwardness. Ok, but I think I have understood what he meant. Chord progressions. And being a dutiful student, I have really tried to pick out the chord progressions and play just the harmonies in pieces ever since. Yes, it has been helpful.

I also have a big, framed quote beside my notes, with his very firm directive DON’T MOVE UNTIL YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING.

That was also a real good piece of advice. Still I often bust myself when my hand is making some kind of vague waving in the air. No, I am not trying to conduct an invisible and unexistent orchestra, even if it sometimes may look like that. I am trying to quickly determine where I was going. Read my words above again about long jumps in fast walzes. Far too often I play a chord, then lift my arm to go … um … wait … and then I have to check, and if the chord is complicated I also need to investigate it once again, as I don’t know the piece well enough to have it perfectly memorized.

Some kind of poor sight-reading, that is. It was good that someone pointed this issue out to me, or I would not even have been aware of it. So, when I deliberately work with this, I let my hand rest on the previous chord while I plan my move, and then I make a very quick move. It may break the rythm a bit if my tempo is too fast, but I avoid the mistake. This is what I was doing today.

I have now also learnt the little trick of playing the lower bass note as an octave, which means that the thumb is supporting the fifth finger (as I am dead sure on how to play a simple octave, this is engraved in my hands now). This will make the long jump much shorter, and then it is not difficult anymore. Another tip which I got from, among others, Philip. Thank you!

Then the “complicated” chords – today I decided to play just the upper and the lower notes of a chord if I still hesitate. Yup, it worked. The notes inbetween just fell in place then I focused on upper and lower instead.

And so those appoggiaturas, who make this piece so lovely and yet are so difficult to make light and even all the time. My present teacher suggested me to use one day to play the piece without them, and instead practice them separately. Done. I was quite satisfied with the result.

One hour with this walz, that was. And I have not even played it all through yet … Next session should be about Chopin again. Or maybe Beethoven. I haven’t made up my mind yet.

Takeoff

I got my first piano lesson in beginning of 1977 when I was 11 years old, after being in the queue to the music school for quite a while. Once I got the lessons, I also got a piano – a real piano!!! – as my parents and my grandmother had promised me this, and so it all began for real. I was a piano student! I was to learn how to play the piano. I was so happy, although I had to wait forever for that piano to come to our house, and then I was not allowed to play it until the piano tuner had paid his visit as well.

I know what I should be writing here. Something about my marvellous career ever since, including all my concert triumphs and my casual life among the elite, you know, those who take high level piano playing absolutely for granted and cannot imagine a life without it.

I am sorry, but I don’t have that story. Instead, it went the other way – the usual way for 99% of all young piano students, I suppose. OK, not at once of course. At first I was sparking with enthusiasm and I played and played and my teacher was delighted, because when I’m “on”, I really am. As a recorder player I was already very familiar with music reading and all the other basic stuff. Actually I think I had much of what you call “talent”, but that concept … um, I don’t like it very much anymore. Talent is a strange thing. You can acquire it, you can lose it, you can enhance it and you can ignore it. I often suspect that it is a very vague description of something else, something we have no words for. Like when we address subconscious thinking as “intuition”.

But piano education in the 70’s was not what it is today. No, not everything was better in the old days. Yet, my teacher was kind and experienced and we had a good relationship over the years, until I had to quit at the age of 19. As the music school was the municipal music school, you had to leave it when you graduated from senior high, these were the rules. I was so sad when I had my last lesson, I cried bitterly. But I will not pretend my 8 years as a young piano student were a total success story. In fact, I spent the major part of this period feeling like a big disappointment. My enthusiasm in the beginning faded out rather quickly. If I had been a person who knows how to quit, I probably would have, but I wasn’t. There was also this strange, nagging feeling that I actually loved to play the piano …

But I did not like to practice. It was terribly boring. The first thing I ever learned to “play” was a Hanon exercise, actually. Not that I ever heard the name Hanon, but I knew it was an exercise and I dutifully tried to practice it. Up and down, one hand, two hands, all the keys in the basic Circle of Fifths. Then the scales. C Major, G Major, D Major … Portato, staccato, dotted! One octave, two octaves, counter movements … And then more Hanon. Five fingers, four fingers, three fingers, wrist movements …

I know many people who swear by this so called warm-up even today. And if you like it, you should do it. My problem was that I did not like it and it completely killed my piano ambitions. Today I play exercises when I feel that they are called for, instead of playing exercises just for the sake of it. What happened was that after this rigorous “warm-up” I had no energy left for my actual assignments, or perhaps got interrupted, and so yet another day got wasted. After all, I had school too. My practice time diminished … and progress halted, of course! You know what happens when you don’t make any progress? It gets boring. And I was not wise nor experienced enough to ask myself those important questions: why do I feel like this? And is there another way to do this?

Another thing I really hated was performing. We all like to get praise and approval, and a little part of me also longed for the triumph, for being that shining star on stage who could make everyone go whoah. But my stage fright was too severe. I wanted much, but I did not work hard enough, at least that was my constant feeling, and then the recitals at music school became torture. The only thing I liked about them was that we had them on the big grand of the music school, an impressing Bösendorfer. But most of all I remember my ice-cold, shivering hands, my stiff neck, and the horrible moment when I sat down at the piano and felt like I had never seen such a thing before, not to mention the strange cipher on the paper that was supposed to be notes. (Guess this is what we call Panic.) Before me there were other little students playing, and some of them looked just as terrified as I felt, and they totally lost it.

I totally lost it too. When I finally figured out how to start playing, I was even more horrified by the uneveness and the pathetic little sound I created. It was like I was betraying both myself and the composer. And my poor parents, who were sitting in the audience and were so proud of me, even though they had heard me practice this terrible piece to death already. I knew they loved me, and that they did not care about my mistakes and stops and poor renderings. Still, I died out there, every time. My nerves let them down, let my teacher down, let me down, and it was all my fault, just mine … because I was so stupid not to be prepared enough, yet agonize too much over such an unimportant event. I felt like an idiot.

So, how can anyone enjoy this kind of life? How do they do it, those who step out on stage and play super complicated pieces without making one million mistakes? Honestly, I still don’t know because I still make those mistakes, but I’ll come back to that later.  At least I understood that a pianist career was nothing for me. (I became an engineer instead.)

I remember one little guy I saw on TV once, when I was thirteen or something like that. Not this clip, but a similar one from about the same era, and the same guy. Two years younger than me and playing Rondo Alla Turca perfectly and with no shaky hands at all. I struggled with the same Mozart assignment during this period and let’s say my version wasn’t exactly flawless. In fact, I trashed it totally. My head knew how it should sound, but my hands could not comply. (I guess my mother, who overheard my practice, learned to hate it too, ha ha.)

God, I hated that little kid on TV for a while. Hated his skills and his goddamn Rondo. Another one of these apparently insignificant episodes in my life … little did I know that this brat and I would cross our roads some thirty years later, and that he would be the one who got me back into piano playing. I say like Forrest Gump about life, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Prologue

When did this piano thing really start? I feel I need to tell the whole story, just to have it somewhere, so that I don’t forget again. Because I do that occasionally – I forget, and then I have to think for a while before I remember, or think I remember. So, I will tell one version of the story right here and now.

Some days ago I found a “memory” in my Facebook flow where I could see that I had made a proud posting five years ago – a link with the Mozart K 545 Sonata in C Major. I called it “my new project”. I made it somehow official that I had begun to play the piano. Again. I am 50 now, I was 45 then.

But it all started a long time ago. Maybe not quite 50 years ago then, but not far from it. I remember the big, black upright piano in my grandparents’ beautiful flat. I must have been very small because I only remember how awfully BIG this piano was. It was a mystery to me, but a fascinating one. Sometimes, or rather whenever I could, I took the chance to play. OK, play in the literal sense. It was impossible for me to make music, or anything even slightly close to music. So I just made some noise, and the I probably gave up, or was dragged away from it. I could not figure out how to handle this thing, but still I remember that it was enchanting, in a way I really cannot describe today. Maybe it was similar to the fascination many kids have for advanced computers or gigantic trucks.

From that time, and forever on, I considered people who had pianos in their home very lucky. It was a piece of glamour to me. Later on, I would get friends who had pianos and who took piano lessons. O-oh, I envied them so much! When they did their piano home work, I was sitting by, stunned by admiration and enviness. They could play, the music just kept flowing under their fingers. I could not play a single tone, I did not even understand how to do “Heart And Soul”. There was no piano in my home, and yet my parents encouraged me and my sister to play instruments very much. Flutes. My sister played the flute. I played the recorder. This is indeed a very underestimated little instrument, quite delightful in many ways, but … so thin. A piano was the real thing to me. It could sound as a whole orchestra. You could play any music on it – one sad disadvantage with the recorder is the rather restricted tone span.

And there was Marvin Hamlisch. We got a record with the movie soundtrack to “The Sting”, and I loved the ragtime music so much. My dream was to be able to play “The Entertainer”. Sometimes, when I listened to the music, I pretended I played on an invisible keyboard. Unfortunately I could not understand how to move my hands unsynchronizedly. When I did one movement with my right hand, the left hand did the same, sometimes mirrored, but I could not force them to make different patterns with different rythms.

Four years ago I read a news flash that Hamlisch had died. After all these years, I suddenly remembered him, and remembered what it meant to me to hear him play this piece when I was 9 years old. It is fascinating how seemingly unimportant events can have such an impact in your life. So this post I hereby dedicate to my old piano heroes Marvin Hamlisch and Scott Joplin. Without them, there would have been nothing more to write here.