Useful for any instrument

There’s a harpist dude on YouTube named Josh Layne who posts lots of fairly in-depth harp-centered lessons and dives into various pieces, and a lot of what he says goes for any instrument. I’m curious about harps (chordal, multi-line, mostly portable where “portable” is defined as “not requiring you to herniate yourself or worry about putting dents in the door to move it around”), and his videos are great watching.

Anyhow, a few tips he gives for getting things right on the jumbo gilded cheese slicer that is the harp are extremely useful for the piano (and anything else) as well:

  1. Practice playing things super-slowly. Going fast lets you hide problems.
  2. Practice playing things quietly. Loud also lets you hide problems.
  3. Practice in multiple rhythms, dotted in all directions. This builds flexibility and a real awareness of the rhythm.
  4. Practice stressing the notes that fall on the upbeat, the “ands” of a phrase. Do this in the right hand, and your left hand will stumble.

Seriously, just do this. Over and over. And combine them in many ways. I can’t tell you how much it helps.

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I wish I’d known how to practice as a kid.

But at least I know how to do it now, and I can get more done now when I have less time to do it as a working adult. So I suppose now is when I need the knowledge of how to practice efficiently the most.

Nevertheless, I’m constantly struck by the way that hard things become easy when you know how to approach them. Not just when you “work hard,” but when you know how to work. When I was a kid, “practicing” meant doing it over and over and over and expecting it to get better eventually by magic or something — or at least that was the theory. It never worked, and always resulted in a crash and burn on stage. It always resulted in the out-of-control feeling of having no influence over my fate, and whether something would go right or wrong was just a matter of blind chance.

Well, not really. Under stress and on stage, it wasn’t blind chance. It was 100% chance of blowing it.

And now, when I’m supposedly “too old” to learn how to get better because “everyone knows” that the adult mind can’t learn things as well as kids, I’m suddenly burning up things I would have had no chance at as a kid. Oh, there will always be things I’m not that good at or that feel clumsy under my hands. (I’ve read Emmanuel Ax say the same thing though, so I don’t feel so bad about that.) And I won’t be playing Rachmaninoff any time soon — or ever, mostly because I still can’t force my brain to sit still on someone else’s dots long enough to learn them anymore.

But still — I’ve seen myself take a methodical, informed approach to things that were intimidating as all hell, and I’ve been able to bring them into the realm of doability or into the realm where I know that with time, I would be able to do them. I have less time and am (supposedly fatally) older and yet am better than I was as a kid.

Past, future, and NOW

Every time it stops being “now,” I get lousy on the viola. Every time I start thinking, “I did that already, I’ve got that,” or “I have to plan ahead for learning X,” it gets screechy and messy. The only time I am any good on the thing is when I pick it up and just concentrate on what I’m doing there and then. I guess this is part and parcel of not being “native” in an instrument.

Holy crap.

I bought Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. It looks like they started out life as blank pieces of paper that were covered in honey and buried in an anthill. Holy crap.

Oh, well. Gotta do it.

Organ annoyances

Okay. I tend to ignore the parts of my body that are not my brain, hands, or mouth. I love languages, I love thinking, and I love making stuff. The rest of me I regard as necessary peripheral crap to cart the brain, hands, and mouth around, and keep them going. Organs don’t work so well that way — you need a broader awareness of your physical self to play this thing. Either I will settle out as one of many amateur organists who aren’t very good, or my awareness of my physical self will gradually expand.

I can see why Cameron Carpenter states that dancers make good organists and why he chugs down a gallon of whole milk a day to keep from becoming underweight. Playing just these simple little pedal studies (I’m talking simple here) reminded me of the very few times in my life when I’ve been on the back of a horse and had to use muscles that I didn’t realize I had. I can easily see why a good organist at that level would need 5k Calories a day to keep from going gaunt.

I’m also becoming irritated at the placement of the Great and Swell stops. I like using my right hand on the Great and my left on the Swell, and if this were a touch-screen VPO, I could probably reverse the stop banks and get this. Instead, I’m stuck adjusting to yet one more device built the total opposite of the way I want it built. Yes yes yes, it’s a right-handed world. No kidding. After 46 years, it’s beginning to grate.

Fun with pedal etudes

They’re getting better. At first, timing was an issue since I just wasn’t used to using those muscles in a timed sense at all, so I was all over the map. It’s gotten way better.

The shoes are interesting — I don’t walk in them at all, and I haven’t put weight on them, either. I get onto the bench, pull them on, and then remove them before getting up. They’re very narrow, but about normal for my typical shoes. I just have to get used to how they feel, and how to distinguish the normal feel of the side of the shoe on the side of my foot versus the feel of touching a pedal on the side, which indicates that I’m about to press two pedals at once.

Still poking at Keating’s “Lost,” on it, too. 🙂 Fun device. I can see why people like VPOs, though. The organ was sort of the world’s first live mixing board. Adding looping capability to that would be completely insane and in the best possible way. 🙂

Pedal etudes and scales

I need to either cut the binding off of that Gleason book or else get a good spiral-bound book of pedal etudes. My organ shoes came in the mail (very retro-butch since I didn’t want the ones that looked like Mary Janes), and I ran into a difficulty when I went to play some of the pedal studies in Gleason and Gleason.

The book weighs enough that putting it on the music desk on the Rodgers makes the desk tilt forward and (nearly) dump the book into my lap. It’s also book-bound, so it won’t lie flat.

So I probably need to get it cut and the chapters separately bound to cut down on weight, or just find a good pedal technique study book that’s lighter and spiral-bound so I can figure out how to do scales and things the approved way.

ETA: On the other hand/foot, I did buy Joyce Jones’ “King of Instruments” … which I promptly stashed in the bench and forgot I had … Think I’ll whip it out a bit tonight and see what I can get done.

Speaking of those 39,000,000 repetitions …

I really need to learn to take it easy, or find a way to manage a rapid-fire fortissimo without thrashing the nerve running up the thumb-side of my right hand. *sigh* I have those rice packs in my freezer; I should actually use them.

I’ve always said that I never had a serious problem with pain or injury as a musician, and I do think that having loosely strung joints is a good thing in that case. However, I’m beginning to realize that I was in no way putting the kind of athletic effort into playing that the top-flight types typically put into it. I was like someone who runs the occasional lazy 5k in beat-up sneakers wondering why Olympic athletes get torn ligaments and other nasty medical issues.

I can absolutely see why most virtuosos state that a student needs no more than 4 hours of practice, maybe 5. Not only can you pack a lot into a little if you work smartly, but you have to work smartly, because practicing for any longer means running a very serious risk of injury.

I need to find another way to practice this thing, or else simply don’t play it fortissimo just yet. Even the rocking octave triplets were making my hands sore until I felt comfortable with them and started to relax. As I feel more and more at home with this particular theme (triplets, but not simple rocking octaves), I should find myself relaxing more and more — my mission for the moment is to not hurt myself before I reach that point.

Aside: This is my 1,061st post. And I’m all proud of myself because I saw that number flashed up at me by WordPress and went, “Hey, that’s prime!” I can almost always find the “fracture planes” in a number to get it to break up into its constituent bits in my head with enough thought, and I couldn’t get that one to come apart on me. (And it is prime! Barbie was dead wrong — math is awesome!)

2nd aside: You know, as annoying as it is to have to worry about how not to injure myself, it’s also kind of cool. I mean, it’s like a puzzle. How do I arrive at Goal X without having Bad Thing Y happen? It’s neat, in a way. As long as my hands stay healthy. 🙂

Got the second method book

Gleason & Gleason — just arrived. It’s an old hardback, which I love — 8th edition. Unfortunately, it’s not an old library book; I love it when I buy old hardbacks that are old library books. Don’t know why, but there’s something about opening it, seeing a stamp, and finding that old paper envelope glued into the back cover, sometimes with a stamped card tucked in it. I remember those paper cards from when I was a kid getting books from our super-tiny local library, and I think I’m nostalgic.

Looking forward to poring through it.

Write or woodshed? More on Edberg’s post

A quote from Eric Edberg’s review of Zoe Keating’s performance:

“She has great technical chops for what she does. At the same time, she probably couldn’t play much of the virtuosic solo classical repertoire. This is not a criticism, just a fascinated observation. She rarely plays in what cellists call thumb position, where the thumb is on top of the fingerboard. When she does, she doesn’t go very far up … [M]aybe she can do what she does because she didn’t spend years killing off her creativity, learning to play this sort of thing.”

This jumped out at me as a possible oversimplification only because I’ve been running into the same annoyance lately. I often say that the second thing that popped into my head after I realized I could write music was, “I can’t do this and keep studying viola.” (The first thing was, “HOLY SHIT!”) I knew that when I had achieved the epiphany I needed in order to write music, that mechanical woodshedding had to give way on the viola; I couldn’t be 30,000′ off the ground and a half-inch off the ground at the same time.

What I hadn’t realized at the time was that the same thing went for the piano as well. It takes an unbelievable amount of time to get really, really good technique-wise. Really. If you want to play Rach, you really do have to devote your life to mastering technique uber alles.

But if you are composing, that also pretty much owns your brain. It seems that the only people who can do both are people who started young enough that they were able to accumulate insane amounts of technique before they realized what was happening (Rach).

So I am constantly struggling to master a certain bit of technique I need, and will invariably be blindsided by another idea. Or I will be in the middle of writing a piece, as I was with the canon-y thing, “Before the Fire,” and working my @$$ off figuring out how to hit that crazy 5-note monster chord reliably, not rolling the sixths, hitting the octaves cleanly and not losing the top note … but meanwhile, I can’t devote too much mental space to that, because I’m still writing the blasted thing.

So I don’t know if technique really murders creativity in quite the way that Edberg was talking about. Certainly, being judged in a hostile fashion on technique will murder one’s ability to perform. When audiences are uniformly against you (as they often are for young classical performers, let’s face it), that will kill your musicality. But for me, I haven’t found that technique inherently harms my spirit or anything.

It just sucks up too much time. Maybe I could do both if I found myself a winning lottery ticket or a senile 90-year old Texas oil baron, but until then, I balance my free time like a wirewalker, and for now, I value my own writing more than finally getting a decent trill down. I imagine Keating feels the same. She could either take the mornings that she devotes to music and spend that time getting her own ideas down and moving toward completion on her own projects, or she could crank out four hours of thumb position exercises. The exercises would “kill” her creativity only because they would occupy the four hours that she would otherwise spend on creating her own stuff.

You can only do so many things in a day. I’m a pianist who works at a non-musical job for a living, and a fairly demanding one. Keating is what amounts to a small international business owner and a cellist at the same time. Another finished piece, or flawless thumb position? You really have to pick your battles.