Sunday, January 3, 2010

Returning to the Piano

I’ve talked about how wonderful it is to be able to combine the best of yesterday and today in today’s world. One of the things I most love about the modern world are all the resources available for the budding classical musician.

Not that I’m budding. I’m too old for that. But now that we’ve moved back into the presence of the old grand piano, I find myself aspiring, musically, for the first time in years. This is a great surprise.

The aspirations are modest. I’m not shooting for scholarships or admission to Juilliard or even a high score from the piano teachers’ guild. I’m not expecting to perform in front of thousands (or even dozens) of people and I’m certainly not competing for a recording contract from Columbia records.

I used to hope for these things. In fact, back in the day, they seemed inevitable. It was simply a matter of applying ass to bench and shoveling hours of practice into the keyboard. My mom said I was the cleverest boy in the conservatory. (She also said I was the handsomest boy in school.) My teacher didn’t contradict her, so it seemed only natural that fame and fortune would come as a matter of course as the hours and years of practice accumulated.

A few things knocked me off course. Predictably. Piano skills were a wonderful tool for acquiring a high-school sweetheart, but once she was acquired, spending another weekend in front of the keyboard wasn’t as thrilling as, say, making out on a sofa. Meanwhile, none of my guy friends could be troubled to sit through a ten minute piece which I’d worked at for months. When none of your friends give a damn about the thing you love, it sort of punches a whole in your motivation.

Then I noticed that when I went to classical concerts I was usually the youngest member of the audience. Who would my audience be, I wondered, when I was the eccentric old bat up on stage?

I might have had more encouragement had I grown up in a city. Then again, there’d have been more competition, too. Even from Cape Cod, I was starting to realize how fiercely competitive a life in music would be. Less than 1% of Juilliard graduates make a living as performers. My teacher started to hint that a dual major from a place like Columbia might make more sense than a straight degree from a music-only school. “Not that you don’t have the talent to make it., but you’ve still got to look at the numbers.”

I thought, if I’m going to do this, I should really do it 100%. What’s the point of splitting my attention half-and-half with some other subject? I liked absolutes, as do most teenagers.

So I stayed stubborn until I burned out. I took a break for a couple of months to see what life felt like without hours of practice every day after school. When I sat back down to play something, my repertoire had degraded to the point where I’d embarrass myself if I tried to perform. It really just needed a little brushing up, but it was maddening - like coming back from vacation and finding your library stolen. How unfair that painters can take a month off and find their canvasses just the way they left them. Music practice weaves its patterns into brains which are fungible and short-lived.

Too bad I didn’t have any talent for painting. I decided to dedicate myself to a creative endeavor that wouldn’t disappear if I spent a month or two away from it. This was about the time I got the bright idea to be a science fiction writer.

That’s all a long aside to let you know where I’m coming from as a relapsing musician - from a cultural sand-dune with no peer-driven support network for music students. Pre-internet, access to any kind of classical music was hard to come by out here. Sheet music was costly, and while folks would photo-copy, that involved finding someone with the original copy. (It also involved finding a Xerox machine.) My teacher was generous, fortunately, and would lend me a book of Chopin Etudes and suggest I flip through and pick one I liked. But my sight-reading skills are terrible. I’m not one of those people who can flip through a book of sheet-music and hear it in their head. (My strengths lie in memorization and interpretation.) So aside from the bars she’d play for me to give me an idea of the theme, I often didn’t know what a piece was meant to sound like until I memorized it. In some ways, this was exciting. I discovered new harmonies and moods as my technique and tempo with a piece increased. But it prevented me from looking at the large-scale form of music.

Cassettes and records were just as expensive as sheet music, and after the cost of lessons I wasn’t about to ask my mother to pay for albums as well. So except for what I heard on the radio, I missed experiencing much music beyond the little bit I had the time to study.

Cut to today: I can go on Youtube and search for just about any sonata or etude, and watch it performed by amateurs and professions alike. Meanwhile, the Petrucci Music Library is making available thousands of copyright-expired scores (and that means the vast majority of western music) for free on their web site.

One of my greatest modern indulgences is to plug an old monitor into my laptop so that I get a dual-screen display. I can display sheet music on one screen while Glenn Gould or Marta Argerich performs the work on the other. I can hear what those fussy trills I always struggle with are supposed to sound like. I can watch one artist and then another perform the same piece and really get an idea of the range of interpretation. This is miraculous! My high school self would never have dreamed of investing in two different recordings of the same piece.

Hell, I can even watch performances of music on instruments I don’t play. This would have been the height of luxury before - spending money on a piece of music that wasn’t intended to advance my career.

I’m not sure what this means for today’s classical musicians. I know the RIAA makes a hell of a fuss going after file sharing and music piracy, suing kids out of their college tuition in hopes they’ll make an example of a few poor schmucks and scare the rest straight. Meanwhile the volume of file sharing just goes up and up while the music industry makes record profits, so I’m not really sure we’ve correctly identified the victim here. I do know I’m listening to lots more music than I did even four years ago (when we bowed to the future and brought in broadband). Not that this impacted my buying habits. In the five years before we got broadband, I probably bought a total of four classical music CDs. When we lived in Boston, we attended a few performances at Symphony Hall as well as all the free performances under the Hatch Shell at the Esplanade. We may be fans of good music but we’re certainly not patrons of the arts in any financial sense. I’m curious to know what folks who make their living in classical music think of the big picture today.

Meanwhile I’ve got these new and ill-defined aspirations for my piano. They mostly center around getting it tuned, having a good time, improving my sight reading to the point where I can have a little more fun with a score before investing weeks of study, and keeping my mind sharp and my fingers quick.

I hadn’t intended to return to music in any big way. In fact, all that precious old sheet music got lost in one of our moves, so when the compulsion to practice struck, I spent a couple of weeks just going over my scales. (Major and minor, four octaves, performed in octaves, thirds, tenths, and sixths, working around the circle of fifths. Once you’ve gotten them back in your fingers you can complete this exercise in about 45 minutes.)

Then, when I discovered I could, I printed up a stack of Bach’s Two Part Inventions. They sound great at any tempo, which means I can play them slowly without offending my family. Plus I can get my head around them more quickly than, say, his preludes and fugues. Just a little at a time, I told myself. Don’t tackle anything too ambitious and burn yourself out.

Then Pandora (another great resource) served up a bit of Haydn. This reminded me of a sonata I never quite finished back in the day. Why not get the last two movements down and have a complete sonata in the repertoire? Before I knew it I was spending five hours a day sitting on the bench every weekend.

It’s the sort of flow experience and time-sink you expect from a Playstation or Xbox. It gives me the sense of incremental progress towards victory without that stretched-out, wasted afternoon feeling. It’s something I can be a perfectionist over. I can repeat a passage as many times as it takes to get it right. This is satisfying. Perfectionism isn’t something I have the luxury of indulging at work. Contrariwise, I don’t have any plans of performing or competing, so my own standards are really all that matter. I’m just making it perfect enough for me, not a teacher or a judge.

It’s recreation, in other words. I’m surprised and delighted to find it so satisfying. If only practice felt this much fun back when I had a shot of making a career out of it...

But then it wouldn’t have been recreation at all, would it?

1 comment:

  1. I did not have the "luxury" of having a musical education when younger. At the young age of 48 I took up the bassoon; I could not effectively read music. Music has far exceeded my expectations. What you describe as the flow experience, I describe and as having a "feeling of well-being."

    I currently play with a two community orchestras. They both play Classical music almost exclusively. In one orchestra we play music from the Baroque period to the Classical Period. In the other, the conductor really prefers the Classical Period to Romantic Period. Seniors are the main patron of the concerts.

    Few friends or family are interested in my musical adventures. I don't expect them to be. What bothers me, however, is how many people find it necessary to announce to me that they really dislike classical music. What do they want me to say? I just smile and think they are "uncultured."

    Music, Art, and Home Ec.