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.

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.