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.

March 27 Lesson Recap

Friday's lesson probably went better than I like to admit, but frankly I didn't play any of my pieces as well as I would have liked. The exception was my first, "Nannerl's Minuet" from the Denis Agay "Bach to Bartok" collection. I got the distinct impression from my last lesson that this is something I should have hit out of the park long ago, and my teacher basically said she'd give me one more week on it, so I spent a lot of time smoothing it out. I don't have any trouble understanding what's going on in it; I just have a lot of little accuracy and coordination issues to iron out, and I suspect that I just need to keep working over pieces like this to overcome them.
I played through it twice with only minor glitches, so at least I feel like that one is up to speed.

Clementi, movement two has a lot of rough spots. I'm actually amazed that I made it all the way through; I got lost several times, and in other spots I just blew right through, wrong notes, wrong fingers and everything, like a runaway car through a road block. I'm surprised she had anything good to say about it at all, but at least she acknowledged the rough spots too. Sometimes I feel like I'm being humored, but then she drops hints that some things shouldn't be giving me as much trouble as they do.

Burgmuller's Ballade is coming along too, but because I spent so much time worrying over the block chords, the major middle section didn't get as much attention as it needs. Fortunately, there's a lot of repetition in this one and I should have it done in a couple of lessons.

She assigned me two more pieces; Soldier's March by Schumann (more block chord reading!) and the A section of Clementi, movement three. I'm still ironing out a lot of the second movement; the fingerings are all very logical, but they just dont' stick in my head without constant repetition. I keep trying to find mnemonics, like shapes and patterns to help me remember, but I think the key is really just in getting the habits down, and I can't see doing that without a lot of repetition. I can already see a few patterns that recur from piece to piece, but there are also a lot curve balls out there to overcome. I've specifically asked for more pieces like Soldier's March so that I can get more practice reading vertically.

I think there are six lessons left to go this semester.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


When I'm working through a piece such as the Second Movement of Clementi's Sonatina (op.36 no. 1) I find myself, more often than not, making the same mistakes over and over and it's driving me nuts! For example in the forth bar the triplet arps move down to the second inversion of the chord, and I can practice it forever hands apart and get it right, and as soon as I put them together I space on the position shift. So, I go back REALLY slow-glacially slow-and maybe get it right a couple of times, but then when I come back to it cold later on and try to play it through--dang it, I space on that shift again! It feels like none of the repetition is doing any good, although I should think it has to sometime.

Earlier I was having a dickens of a time on bar five, which begins with the original triplet figure (except starting with the ring finger in my edition) and continues into the next octave with the right hand. I've finally managed to work the kinks out of that one. Took a while though.

The common thread here seems to be that NO progress is possible without taking things real slow and deliberate, and just going over it and over it. My teacher says you can do that too much, but I'm not sure how much is too much. If I don't get it down, it doesn't make sense to just give up and move on, but that's usually what I end up doing anyway. I mean, I gotta sleep and eat sometime. And then there's this "w" thing that always gets in the way of my practice--unfortunately it pays my bills an mortgage, so I don't have much of a choice.

The progress I have made since January suggests that eventually I get over these humps. It just seem like it takes forever. Being the impatient type, I have my sights set on goals so far along down the road that the necessary steps along the way seem more like obstacles than the necessary means to getting there.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 20 Lesson Recap

This was my first lesson in several weeks. I take lessons through the college where I work, and although taking classes is not discouraged, I feel as though I have to sneak off to get in my 11:00 lesson on Fridays. Two weeks ago I was scheduled for a budget appointment with our CFO, and I didn't feel as though I could just say "Sorry, but that's my lesson time!" And, then Spring break was the following week, so no lesson then either.

Since my first lesson, which was January 30, I have been working on Clementi's Sonatina in C, op 36. No. 1. My wife calls this "The Infamous" and it must be one of those rite of passage pieces, like Canon in D and Fur Elise because she played it when she was younger. It sounded familiar to me when my teacher first played it for me. Last Friday I played the first movement from memory for my teacher for the first time. I thought it could have gone better; the first half (before the little minor interlude) still has a lot of little parts that I only nail half of the time. I think I have tendency to get psyched out by trouble spots, and despite constant "ironing" out I still have an anxiety about them. The second half went much better. Curiously my teacher thought parts went well that I thought sucked! But, she was thinking about dynamics and articulation--I'm still preoccupied with not missing notes.

I think she must have "passed" me on this because we're moving on to the second movement. However, I intend to stay on top of it and keep at those stubborn rough spots.

My second piece was "L'Arabesque" by Burgmuller. This too could have gone better. I had it memorized--except for the repeat in the B section, For some reason I wasn't going back far enough to the repeat sign and only to the previous rehearsal marking. How messed up is that?
The sixteenth note runs are tough to get nice and even, but they're coming along slowly.
Nevertheless, she "passed" me on this one and now we're skipping over to "Ballade." I like this one. Burgmuller reminds me of Carcassi, the Italian guitar composer--flashy sounding pieces that aren't prohibitively difficult, yet have just enough meat to make it challenging.

The real low point in the lesson was "Nannerl's Minuet" from the "Bach to Bartok" collection. This is one of those pieces that looks like it should be easier than it is. Or perhaps, maybe it's my attitude. This collection is for "Late Beginners" which I most certainly am, but I feel like I should be at the point where these should be tossers. However, as my teacher points out, many of these editions underestimate the difficulty of counterpoint for players at this level. I ran into this a couple of years ago when I started playing the first two Bach "Notebook" pieces. Nasty bit of business for someone looking for a re-entry point on the piano after years of inactivity.

"Nannerl's Minuet" has a bit of counterpoint in it and has taken me longer to nail than I expected. What's more, my teacher let out her first involuntary "sigh" as we started going over this. She's not planning to belabor this one for more than one more lesson, but I got the impression she thought this one should have been easier too. Well, it wasn't so we're just going to have to keep at it until it gets that way I guess.

The one high point was that my Hanons seem to be making a difference. I'm playing them much stronger now, if not faster. The speed is coming, slowly but surely, however there is a great deal of concentration involved with speed. It's not just the physical aspect of moving faster. I suppose strength has something to do with it, but for me it's a matter of staying focused and not getting too self-conscious. As soon as I become conscious of my self trying to maintain speed and not miss notes--guess what happens? I start missing notes!

This was my sixth lesson of the semester. January 23 should have been my first one but I completely blanked out on it. I've missed one other scheduled lesson due to the aforementioned conflict.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Welcome to the Ol' Mothbox! A piano re-starter's blog.

Welcome to my blog! I have some catching up to do, as I actually had my first lesson (in eighteen years, that is) this past January, and I hadn't even considered keeping a public record of my progress until recently. I've never felt compelled to blog about anything before because I just don't think I have anything to say that is worth putting out in the blogosphere. However, this is something I actually think might be an inspiration to someone else down the road. I have for many years labored under the belief that there is such a thing as starting too late. And, while this might be true for someone delusional enough to start violin at age 46 with the ambition of becoming a concert violinist, I have no such ambition. I merely intend to get as good as I can possibly get. Consequently, for most of us, it's only too late when you're dead and buried. Until that happens, there is still a great deal to be accomplished.

As I think I said in my description, I started piano again quite some years after taking a piano class, and then not having a piano on which to keep up my meager chops. I got good enough to play two-handed scales in all 12 keys, arpeggios, and some pieces like Rameau's "Rondino."

Meanwhile, I got married--to a pianist--and a few years ago she reclaimed the Baldwin she grew up with. My wife plays well, but not often. I keep telling her how jealous I am of her playing! She seems to take it for granted, but then I think many people do when they start out younger and it comes relatively easy to them. In any event, I figure as long as we've got this piano sitting around the house, it's high time I got off my duff and back on the bench.