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.