Tuesday, March 2, 2010


My last post was two months old when I discovered it in the draft folder. I went ahead and posted it anyway. I recall being fired up to play again with the prospect of resuming lessons in Spring.

As it turned out, my teacher was once again overloaded with music majors and unable to take me on. That's okay. The motivation hasn't left, and in fact I've made quite a bit of progress on the pieces mentioned earlier. I'm quite a bit more fluent on the Bach C minor prelude, although I've set it aside for now.

What's weird, though, is that lately I've been spending more time on, of all things, rock and pop pieces, specifically a handful of Brian Wilson songs I've always liked. God Only Knows is a fun one to puzzle out because so much of the character of the voicing is in the bass parts (he plays fifths instead of the usual roots.) I've substituted the instrumental bridge lead with a figure that the Beach Boys used to use in their live act, which happens to be much easier on the piano (I found it on YouTube--where else!)

Caroline No is another fun one. I've been trying to figure this one out for years and I finally forced my self to sit down with the iPod and pick out the voices. It's neither minor nor really major either; the Fm7 has an Ab in the bass (again with the odd bass notes) which makes it sound like an Ab6. But it's not! I love this song--it's Brian Wilson saying goodbye to the California Girls era of his musical career, against the wishes of his bandmates who subsequently conspired to undermine him psychologically during Smile project and force him to abandon it. But I digress (frequently, apparently)

And what a segue to my next piece--one of two R.E.M. pieces I've been working on featuring interesting (to me!) piano parts. "At My Most Beautiful" was inspired by Brian Wilson, and is definitely the band at their most beautiful. I can't get this song out of my head--it has ruled my mood for the last two weeks, and I just can't NOT play it at least a couple of times a day. I'm starting to work lyrics into it as well. As is the case with so many of Stipes lines, the melody line is free form and hard to latch onto with out repeated listenings. You might say it's not exactly catchy, but that's not really the way R.E.M. works anyway.

More on this later. The main point here is that, for some reason, these pieces are coming to me much more easily all of a sudden. I seem to have been visited upon by some muse.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

And He's Back!!!

[This was written December 10 2009 and remained in draft form until today's publication]

I was somewhat surprised to find that my last post was late in April! I shouldn't be, as my practice scheduled tapered off to almost nothing by mid-June. I attempted to stay on top of things with a few Hanons everyday (figuring that something beats nothing, even if not by much.)

as well as scale patterns from the viral PDF "Musically Useful Scale Practice." But eventually my motivation dwindled. Not having a teacher over the summer, I had no regular assignment schedule, nor did I have that regular feedback that usually kept me moving along. Oddly enough, it wasn't for lack of desire to play; it's one thing to dream about how great it would be to play such and such sonata/invention/characteristic piece." But every so often I get bogged down with the realization that there's a lot of work involved getting to that point. The payoff doesn't seem to be there. You need to have discipline to play even on days when you don't feel like it, and you need to be able to believe that it's going to pay off. Yes, there's a lot o faith involved in this exercise--even if you don't necessarily think of it in a religious sense. Faith can be as simple as having the imagination to see "the prize" for your pains, even if it seems somewhat delusional to believe that you'll ever play anything more than, say Mozart's Sonata in C. You have to believe it's possible, otherwise there's just no reason to do anything but vegetate in front of the TV.

My summer assignments were the Frank Lynes Sonatina in C (Opus 36 No 1), Burgmuller's "L'Armonie des Anges" (with pedal markings added my my teacher to get me going on pedaling more.) Plus, with a few omissions, she is having me finish up the first v. of Hanon (through 20, and the first half of 21, which is provided as a teaser--actually I just went out and bought v. 2 anyway.) I got a good start on Lynes, through the second movement, then I got sidetracked while working on parts of Burgmuller by the realization that I am now "qualified" to play an actual Bach piece--Prelude Number 1 (Book 1) in C. I got so excited that I bought the Snell edition of his little fugues and preludes and fugues as incentive to keep working towards more Bach pieces. I came to realize that those are far more difficult, however, and the prelude I've been working on is probably one of the few Bach pieces I stand a chance of mastering in the near future.

Then, mid to late summer my teacher informed me that she was unable to take me on this fall due to a glut of incoming music majors. This is a good thing for the school, but I would have to wait until Spring at the earliest to start thinking about lesssons again. Since I hadn't really worked on the assigned pieces as much anyway, this gave me a bit of a reprieve, even if I didn't really take advantage of it.

So now, the end of the semester approacheth, and as the season changed from fall to winter I suddenly found myself motivated to play again. I've been revisiting and reviewing old pieces, nailing down difficult sections of Lynes, ironing out arpeggios in Burgmuller, and I actually found another Bach prelude to work on--the C minor (BWV 999) that is also known as as Lute prelude, and which I have played on guitar. So, hopefully by late January I'll have an armload of new pieces to play and be ready for another productive semester!

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 24 (Final) Lesson Recap

My last lesson of the semester was this past Friday. I can't believe how time has flown!

As a faculty member at the institution where I take lessons, the recital requirement for the applied credit was waived, so my last lesson of the semester was really a private recital of sorts.

I started out with the three Burgmullers I worked on over the semester, La Candeur, L'Arabesque, and Ballade. Despite some stumbling here and there, I managed to play all of them from memory. I concluded with Clementi's Sonatina, and again played all three movements from memory. I didn't play the little pieces; she's been trying to wean me over to larger pieces anyway, so the Schumann "Soldier's March" is the only assigment from the semester that never got touched. Pity too, because, for all its brevity it has been one of the most instructive pieces I have played yet. Block chords have been a stumbling block for me, but seem less so now that I've had this workout.

My teacher seemed impressed that I was able to play all six pieces from memory, so much so that she remarked about it to the student who came after me. I felt sorry for the student, so I downplayed it a bit with the qualification that it didn't mean I played them all that expertly! I guess the memorization part didn't seem like that big of a deal to me, but her students are only required to play one piece from memory per semester, so I actually exceeded the quota sixfold!

And they really weren't all played to my satisfaction, but judging from the comments she wrote down in my book, I'm doing some things right that I'm not even aware of, e.g. phrasing. Where did I learn that? I don't know, but something is working. I am, on the other hand, weak on other areas that I am WELL aware of--such as pedaling! I suck at pedaling! It is the mains reason the middle section of Ballade went as badly as it did. But, I muddled through each rough spot and made sure I finished everything.

Overall, I felt good though. I really didn't think I'd finish Clementi by semester's end. Now it feels like pieces are coming together more quickly. My summer assignment includes another Sonatina, this one by Frank Lynes, which I was able to read through fairly easily over the weekend. The Burgmuller she assigned me is another pedaling exercise: "L'Armonie des Anges"--not real difficult, fingering-wise, but the pedal will throw me for a loop.

I didn't discuss any other pieces with her, but I've alread started on Prelude 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavier. It's easy enough, so why not? I may as well play as much "real" music as I can at my level, as long as I don't get overly ambitious and bite off more than I can chew. The prospect of playing real Bach is exciting indeed, but realistically the "good stuff" is still years away and I'm just going to have to curb my appetite.

I have also begun looking at some of the early Haydn sonatas contained in a Snell edition I picked up. I have the Jando recordings of all six on a Naxos download and quite like them. They're supposedly at an intermediate level, but I can see some scale bursts and ornamentation that will require a bit of work. I'll just have to keep these under my hat for the time being. Maybe if I polish off the assigned pieces over the next month or so I can give those a go.

It will be interesting to see what nearly four months of no lessons does to my motivation. I don't have any trouble making time for practice, but having specific pieces to work on keeps me from wandering all over the place and accomplishing nothing. Wandering is fun, but my motivation tends to dissipate after a while if I don't have a task to stick to.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 17 Lesson Recap

My second to last lesson for the semester took place last Friday, and it's hard to believe it's nearly over now for the summer. This is one of the disadvantages of taking lessons for credit--they only last as long as the semester. It will be interesting to see how the summer goes without that weekly carrot on a stick! It's not just the assignments and the struggle to avoid making a fool of oneself, but it's also the ongoing feedback from a teacher. Particularly when it's encouragement--even though it seems undeserved at times!

I started of my lesson with Hanon 14, slow then with "quickfingers," as she likes to call them. Amazingly I didn't do too badly on the fast take. She assigned 15, which is sequential thirds, to be played strictly hands separate. She was adamant on this point, so I don't think I'll try to hot-dog it and try hands together anyway. Sometimes it's hard to tell if they're trying to save you the trouble, or if there's a genuinely pedagogical reason for doing it this way. In such cases I figure it's best just to follow the directions on the box until I understand the reasoning behind them.

Then I played Burgmuller 15 ("Ballade") and I really expected it to go better than it did. The A sections aren't too bad, but I still miss the block chords from time to time, and this was one of those times. The middle section is supposed to be pedalled, and I still don't do pedalling well. Still, the criticism was very constructive and more concerned with dynamics than missed notes.

I wound up with movements 2 and 3 of the Clementi Sonatina. Two went a lot better than the first time I played it. Again, there are a lot of dynamics I could "exaggerate" better than I do. And I really do need to exaggerate them. It's a lot like taking a drawing class--beginners always shy away from using the really black charcoal, sticking instead to the various shades of gray which, while they convey some sense of depth, they really don't bring out the light and dark contrasts. The more practiced you get, the more you realize how important those contrasts are to conveying the illusion of depth. And that's what I need to really work on--bringing out the contrasts, both in volume and in tempo. I do okay for tempo (ritards and such). I'm much better at it now than I was as a kid--all those dynamic markings used to just seem like a nuisance. Now it's making more sense to me--particularly when I have a teacher who can demonstrate it well.
Once I get the pieces memorized I find it's easier to play with the dynamics.

My assignment for this Friday is to play everything I've played so far this semester. That would be:

Clementi Movemens 1-3
Burgmuller 1,2 and 15
Rameau's Rondino
Nannerl's Minuet (Leopold Mozart)
Schumann's Soldier's March

I haven't played the last one for her just yet. It's not fully formed anyway; it's block chords all the way through, and even though I have it "memorized" it's not nearly as smooth as it will be.
So, if she forgets that she assigned it at all, I will consider it a bullet dodged!

I wasn't sure I was going to finish Clementi before the end of the semester, so if I make it through I will consider that a major triumph. For that matter, the Schumann piece will have been quite a triumph as well, as I consider that to be a fairly difficult piece, and an important "rosetta stone" for playing pieces built around block chords. From here on out, working through the hymnal will be a lot easier.

We haven't discussed summer pieces yet, but I've just discovered that the Bach Prelude No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavier is actually quite easy, so I think I'm going to get that one nailed down for sure. Right now I'm looking for an efficient way to memorize it, and it seems that since each bar is a single chord, learning each of the chords before arpeggiatting them would be the way to go. The little tailpiece figures at the end can be handled separately. I think I can have this one memorized within the month. The question will be whether there are any others out there that I can tackle next! I might as well start looking for real music I can play now, rather than seeking out adaptations that I'll have to unlearn later on when I attempt the real scores.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Break

No lesson this past week, and in fact my wife and I split for up-north for few days to get away from ringing phones and such. Of course, this meant leaving the cats home by themselves to contemplate what manner of destruction they might wreak had they been blessed with thumbs. And, of course, it meant no piano for a few days.

Not that I didn't think about it. We visited our favorite music store out of town and found that it had fallen on hard times--still open, but with vastly reduced inventory. So, none of the music I was searching for was available, but I was impressed with what they did have. I concluded that I have enough music for now anyway. While it might be nice to have large collections of sight reading material to work through, I don't have as much time as I'd like to for that. I think I'll stick with the Alfred Level 2 collection and the Hymnal.

I took today off from work and did a lot of playing to make up for the weekend. In a way I think the time away helped to clear my head. I didn't lose much coordination, and in fact found that Soldier's March picked right up from where I left off and got better as the day wore on. Clementi too is coming along nicely; I have almost the whole thing memorized now. Even after discovering how much rust had accumulated on the first movement, I found that a few run-throughs were all I needed to get it back into shape. I still have to take all three movements at a pretty slow pace, however I get much less frustrated with myself now that I've acquired that discipline. A couple of weeks ago I was feeling like I was in one of those fever dreams where you keep repeating the same thing over and over and it never changes. I think I've broken out of that.

I picked up that Snell collection of Haydn--"Six Easy Sonatas." They're not quite as easy as the title makes them out to be, but they're probably a lot easier than his later work. They're later intermediate level--just beyond my grasp, but within visual range at least. The first couple might even be doable now. However, I might give the Beethoven Sonatina a go first. I like that one, and it has some technical issues I'd like to work through.

I think after playing fairly well today I starting to get that "I can do anything" feeling, which can be delusory. All it takes is one bad practice to bring me back down to earth! That's fine as long as it doesn't kill the momentum. It hasn't yet. What might pose a greater threat is the distraction of so much music. I was looking at the Snell collection of Scarlatti Sonatas today thinking "I could play these!" and I had to force myself to put it back--one step at a time! Maybe someday, but for now I need to master what I have in hand.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

April 3 Lesson Recap

I went into this week's lesson feeling like I had not progressed at all. The pieces I had been working on, Clementi 36.1.2-3 (opus number, work number, movement), Ballade by Burgmuller, and Soldier's March by Schumann should have been further along in my estimation. I warmed up with Hanon No. 13 and got 14 as an assignment. Next I went on to to the A section of Clementi movement 3. I obsessed on one bar of that for many stretches of practice time, all because the fingering for the dominant arpeggio (4-3-1, from 4-2-1) would never stick. I noticed my teacher playing it 5-4-1 (from 5-3-1, a more logical fingering for the root triad anyway), and when I went home and tried it, it played itself. It still kind of bugs me that I couldn't nail down the suggested fingering.

Schumann has required the most HS practice I've put in in a long time. We played it as a duet, switching right and left hands, and I realized that I need to play with a metronome WAY more. My timing is way different from hers.

We wound up by picking out some duet music for my wife and I to work on. We bought a collection of teacher/student duets weeks ago, but when I showed them to my teacher she said "Oh, those are way too easy for you!" so she offered to find us some others. And she did--an arrangement of Galway Piper and a Mozart piece whose title escapes me now.

I asked her a bit more about how she decides what is "too easy" versus an appropriate level. For example, I cannot even sight read those "too easy" pieces, though it's conceivable that I could have it nailed down in a matter of days. Apparently, that's the point. I shouldn't be able to sight read at my appropriate level, but I should be able to work up to an acceptable level of playability in a matter of weeks. This has been about right for the pieces I've worked on so far. It took me about 2-3 weeks to "pass" on the first Burgmuller. It has actually taken me almost a month to get the second movement of my Clementi Sonatina smooted out at a glacial pace. The third movment won't take me as long. But, at least now I have a much better idea of what sort of progress I should be making.

This was my last lesson for two weeks, since school is closed on Good Friday. My assignment workload wasn't much heavier, however. Basically, HT on the Schumann, finish Movement 3 of Clementi, and memorize Ballade. I think I may have Clementi Movement 2 memorized by then too.

Monday, March 30, 2009


I've been listening to a lot of piano music over the past few months, mostly for inspiration, but also just to immerse myself in the literature. The more I struggle with my own pieces, the more I start to notice about REALLY good players. For one thing, when you don't play yourself, you take a lot for granted--like, how they never make mistakes in their recordings!

As I got to digging around, I started revisiting an old, old, old ambition of mine, which was to play ragtime. Like a million other people in the mid-70s, I was introduced to rags through the Sting soundtrack, and it always killed me that we we never had a piano in the house. I think I asked once if we could get one, but I'm not sure where we would have put one even if my folks had said "yes." Meanwhile, I have always been jealous of people who could just sit down and toss off something like "Maple Leaf Rag" or the "Entertainer."

So, a month or so ago it occured to me that now that I had this "piano thing" back on track, I actually might have a shot at reviving that old "flame." Funny--the idea never even dawned on me when I started taking lessons.

I checked out a copy of the Dover edition of the Joplin Rags a month or so ago and started looking it over. Obviously, this stuff is way beyond me for now, but because I listened to the Rifkin album over and over again so many times I can replay most of these in my head from memory. For now, I can at least understand and appreciate what's what's really going on in the score-that four octave arpeggio in Maple Leaf for example! I've even started mapping out some of the chords and left hand parts from the Gladiolus Rag (IMO the most cosmic of all Joplin rags.) Right now, I can't play much more than a few bars of some of the left hand figures--but it's a start! Now I'm wondering what would happen if I just kept doing this--working out little bits at a time, and gradually fitting them together into larger sections, like a puzzle. Well, that's basically what I'm doing at this point anyway, so why not keep it up? Eventually, with the other pieces I'm working on I'm bound to catch up. I don't think I'm deluding myself this time--I think this is actually possible.