By TIMOTHY MANGAN
The young, it seems, never like to practice. Or at least not most of them. The child forced to practice his or her piano lesson before being allowed outside to play is almost a cliche of American life. As an adult, though, now in my second week of piano lessons, I’m finding my daily practice session to be something I look forward to and enjoy, even a kind of refuge from the worries of daily life.
Admittedly, my daily life is rather fraught with worry these days. Specifically, we have a slab leak — that is, a water leak in the foundation of the house, in our case under the kitchen floor — which has necessitated the removal of said kitchen floor, the tearing up of walls, the re-routing of pipes, the roaring of fans and de-humidifiers and the removal and entrapment of asbestos. I worked from home in order to welcome an ever-expanding parade of workers to the house, all while the water was turned off and my sanity challenged.
Practicing amidst the wreckage (after the workers left) proved a wonderful way to shift my thoughts. At this stage of my game, playing the piano, even the easiest exercises, requires a great deal of concentration and a focusing of physical resources. Asked to play a C-major scale with the right hand and to also say the fingering out loud (1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5, then backwards) as I do so turns out to be a great way to get your mind off your troubles, or the plumbing bill.
Adults don’t really practice anything at all and it’s kind of a shame. If you play a sport — golf or tennis, say — you might practice that occasionally, but more often than not you just play, rarely improving, making a hash of it year after year. Very few adults, other than professional musicians, practice an instrument. But though I am still little more than a beginner I have felt warm feelings of satisfaction at the end of my modest practice sessions, the kind of feeling you get after meditation or a long walk.
Lee Ann Leung, my friendly and enthusiastic teacher at OC Music & Dance community arts school, assigned some new pieces at my second lesson. I get to play Bartok! Specifically, two pieces from his collection for budding pianists, “Mikrokosmos” — No. 71, called “Thirds,” which, if taken at tempo, lasts a minute and 15 seconds (according to the score), and No. 77, “Little Study,” which lasts an entire 36 seconds. A lot is packed into both of these exercises though, and right now they take a whole lot longer for me to play. I like them both, they are modern and fresh and unpredictable. No. 71 has a series of deliciously peppery dissonant chords in it; No. 77 gambols in modal unison lines two octaves apart. Your hands mirror each other.
Lee Ann also added onto my warm-ups with three simple but I think nicely designed exercises. One is called “Deep Breathing” and you must play its two alternating chords — C major and G major with a minor 7th — with the richest, broadest sound possible. “Deep Knee Bend” adds some octave leaps to these chords, to get the hands moving. “Stretching” leaves out the chords to concentrate on leaping from one octave to another. (When I make that octave leap, Lee Ann advised, lead with the elbow, rather than just jabbing at it with the hand. It felt right immediately.)
She wants these exercises played at a comfortable forte volume, not to “hold back too much on the mechanism.” A subtler touch will be developed later.
Meanwhile, she prefers musicality even as I’m learning. As we played through some of Stravinsky’s “Five Easy Pieces” (for piano four hands), she asked me to shape the melody more and to honor the expressive markings — and rightly so, I was plucking away as if I was sitting at a typewriter, not a musical instrument.
As I play through Bach’s Prelude in C (from “The Well-Tempered Clavier”), I begin to recall one of the obstacles that stood in my way of mastering the piano when I was a teenager. It’s the way my mind works, which isn’t so bad, but it is slowly. The Prelude, which consists of a series of broken arpeggios, changes harmonies, and therefore fingering and hand position, bar by bar. When that barline arrives, despite having looked ahead and prepared myself, there is a confluence and confusion of events, all of which I seem not to be able to handle at once. There are the notes to be read (in two clefs) and also the right fingers to put on the keys (because if you don’t put the right finger on them, you’ll pay for it in a second or two when you run out of fingers), as well as the next series of notes in the arpeggios, which arrive rapidly. As I look down at my hands quickly, then back up at the music, there’s a flash of brain activity that dazes me for a nanosecond, and I miss a note, or hesitate, or botch a fingering.
Progress on this piece and the others I’m practicing seems pretty slow. I was at a friend’s house and he had a book sitting on his piano that included the Bach Prelude I’d been working on for more than a week (though my friend didn’t know it). I sat down and started playing it, hoping to impress. “Nice sight reading,” he said.
Oh well, I’ll just keep at it. It’s a victimless crime.