Jul
31
2017

Lesson Three: Commitment

By tmangan 0

By TIMOTHY MANGAN
Writer-in-residence

It was a little difficult to practice this week. But I made the effort. As repairs on the slab leak continued, we were staying in a hotel. I had to drive home to visit the piano and get a session in. It felt like an accomplishment to do so, in a good way. The house was nice and quiet, too, conducive to practice.

But even under normal conditions, it’s not easy to get practice in. I’ve sometimes had to do it late in the evening, after a regular day of work. Not complaining in the least. It’s rather nice to sit down to it, perhaps with a glass of red sitting nearby. But I was reminded of something my trombone teacher told me in high school. He said I’d have to give up a lot of things if I wanted to be a musician, parties and other occasions, he meant. You had to make time to practice. I usually did it willingly. One summer in college I even decided to practice eight hours a day, and followed through with it.

Still, it’s not like I’m improving rapidly. It’s a slow process, and frustrating. I still make some of the same mistakes. The Bach Prelude sounds so easy, but isn’t. The etude by Anton Reicha, though I still practice it, I’ve pretty much given up on ever performing. Lee Ann is having me try a couple of new things.

One is to pick out four or five bars of a piece and work through it five or six times in a row. Next time you practice that piece, you pick out a different four or five bars for the same treatment. Eventually the entire piece will have been practiced in meticulous detail (or as close to it as I can get). I’ve started in on this method and I already think it’s helping. I used to do the same thing on the trombone, of course.

The other thing she wants me to do — for now — is to exaggerate my wrist and elbow movements, to get a more flowing motion going with my hands and arms as I move up and down the keyboard. As said, I have a tendency to jab at the notes as if I’m sitting at the typewriter. In the Bach Prelude, I want to keep my fingers on the keys so I can easily find the notes again the second time around on the repeated arpeggios. But that doesn’t sound as good as when I let my wrists turn and release the keys after I press them. Also, your hands start to stiffen if you don’t move them.

I’ve been a little reticent to do all this arm and wrist swooping stuff Lee Ann wants because as a listener I’ve always hated musicians who make a lot of motion when they play. Like Lang Lang, for example. I close my eyes or look down when I hear him in concert. But Lee Ann doesn’t want any motion for show. It’s a technical thing and after trying it a little it feels right.

A couple of professional pianist friends want to give me lessons too. Will this continue after my eight weeks with Lee Ann? I don’t know. I’m thinking of buying the Bartók “Mikrokosmos” books to have around. Maybe if they’re sitting there on the piano, I’ll make a habit of playing a little every day.

As I’m plodding my way through the two Bartók pieces (Nos. 71 and 77 of “Mikrokosmos”) at my third lesson, struggling to find the right notes and fingerings, Lee Ann points out a bit of detail that I’m completely missing. Bartók has supplied phrasing marks — where breaks and breaths occur; suggesting contours of lines — and not only does the music sound more interesting if you follow them, but the hands and fingers start moving with a greater purpose. I started to craft little gestures with the phrases, rather than a dull succession of notes.

While the pianist in the YouTube video can play No. 77 faster and more precisely than I can, he’s not following Bartók’s phrasing. I think I may be able to play the piece better than him. Eventually.

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author: tmangan

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