02 November 2009

Piano Proficiency (i)

I have a complicated relationship with the piano. It should be more complicated, actually, since that's usually what happens when you invest a lot in a relationship; my investment, though, has been made inconsistently, in spates, and in that scattered, dabbling way that yields smaller and more trivial rewards than it would had all that work been more focused and occurred over a shorter period of time.

There were two harpsichords and zero pianos in the household I was raised in. Some of my earliest memories are of jumping on the couch while my dad played the music of Bach, Rameau, and Scarlatti. I called it "Bouncing Music," much to the chagrin of my mother, who had the best interests of the couch in mind. She told me that someday, I would bring my girlfriend over to sit on that couch, and that I wouldn't want it to be saggy and uneven. Predictably, that admonishment had no effect on a 5 year-old.

I came downstairs one day on my birthday and found a handwritten version of "Happy Birthday" waiting for me on the stand of one of the harpsichords. It was my mother's last best effort to get me interested in playing music, but was, like all previous efforts to that end, quite unsuccessful. I think about that day a lot, sometimes every day for stretches of weeks as I now ponder my musical strengths and weaknesses and how they might be different had I not been so decisively scornful of music until I reached junior high school.

Around the time I turned 12, a friend and I took it upon ourselves to investigate a moving sale taking place just up the block, and stumbled on a more-than-serviceable upright piano on sale for $200. It cost $250 to move it down the block, but my parents knew what they had (even if the seller didn't), and so they took the plunge. I was thusly introduced to the piano music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven through my dad's suddenly incessant practice (a neighbor called us on the phone and asked us to stop playing the record we'd been listening to all day, since it was getting late). Because this was around the time I had started playing in the school band (which I only did because we had to join either band or choir, and I was not going to sing), I started to dabble with the various keyboard instruments that now dominated our house, developing what I would later come to understand was a very strong understanding of basic music theory concepts, yet without so much as a hint of proper keyboard technique.

While I've learned quite a bit over the years, and even had to pass a piano test in college, my relationship with the instrument has hardly changed since this early stage. I never invested the least bit of time in developing any real technique, most especially in the area of independence of the two hands. My college piano class for music majors was all about applying theory to the keyboard, not about actually playing the instrument, and I was able to skate by putting forth minimal effort since this was, in fact, the only piano-based skill I already had at that time.

I sat down no fewer than 5 separate times in college and told myself that this was the time when I would get serious about playing piano. It never lasted more than several days, save for one isolated incident where I practiced the first Two-Part Invention religiously for 6 weeks, finally giving up having not once gotten through it at even a moderate tempo without making at least one basic technical mistake. After a while, when the impulse struck me to give the instrument another shot, I simply thought back to all of the previous attempts and how they ended (not well), and simply abandoned the idea. That's where I've been for the past 5 years or so.

The reason I'm taking to time to relate all of this is that, through a combination of many factors, I have as of a few weeks ago finally found whatever it is I needed to find in myself to get serious about the piano for the first time. I plan on sharing more about what exactly these factors have been in the very near future.


Anonymous said...

I must recommend any of the simpler MOzart Sonatas, and if you are serious about this, return to the Bach. I would actually be glad to help you with fingering sequences, that being my own largest challenge with Bach- fugues at least.

Only problem is then I can't remail anonymous. hmmmm, not sure if its worth it.

Stefan Kac said...


Thanks for your offer, whoever you are (obviously someone I know). I have to graciously decline, though. I was careful to save my course packet from undergraduate class piano. It's got all the scale and arpeggio fingerings and a bunch of exercises. If I decide to go that route, I could spend years just working through that stuff, probably on my own, but if not, there are many people around me that have formal piano training and could be of assistance, including (apparently) you.

If you read the later entries in this series, though, you'll notice that I mention wanting to approach this instrument differently than I've approached the tuba. I'm not aiming to become a piano virtuoso, though I'd take it if I could get it, and I don't say that because I'm anti-virtuoso. If you're a regular reader, you know that I'm quite the opposite. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued at the prospect of approaching an instrument as an autodidact, and believe that doing so is the best reason I have to undertake this project in the first place. I want to find another voice, one that I'm increasingly convinced is in there somewhere. I want to understand the process of self-teaching in a way that I don't currently understand it. I want my technique to grow up around the music I'm interested in (not Mozart and Bach so much these days, though there was a time...) rather than the other way around, which is how it too often happens. Hopefully that makes sense. Let's talk in a couple of years and see if I feel differently.