Lesson Four: Age and aptitude

 |  Feature


I’m halfway through. The original plan was to take eight piano lessons, to see what I could do in that time, and I’ve now taken four. I’m beginning to get a sense of what can be accomplished in this short span, accomplished by me, at least. Not that I expected that much could. I’m a musician, I knew. I’d like to be able to say that I’m making remarkable strides or that I’m failing in spectacular fashion — both options being fun to write about — but the truth is that I continue to make modest progress. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to share the Bach, Bartók and Stravinsky I’ve been working on when the eight weeks are up, though they aren’t ready for that now.

People wonder if it’s more difficult for someone my age (50s) to learn to play the piano than it is for a young person. I may be perfectly placed to answer that question, having taken lessons in my teens (thanks, Mrs. Nason) and also studying a little in college (I was a music major, but not a piano major). I have to say that I don’t think it is more difficult. In some ways, I feel it’s a little easier, because I know more about certain musical matters as well as about certain technical matters (such as, never force it). I know, too, more than I did then, that most everything is cured with more and better practice.

But if there is anything at all to the age thing, I’d say it’s this: I’m more convinced now that you have to have an aptitude for the piano if you’re ever going to be any good at it, and that I don’t really have the aptitude. I can get better with diligence and practice, but I don’t think I’ll ever amount to much.

During Lesson Four, my teacher Lee Ann Leung and I discussed some of the difficulties I’m having with the piano. The instrument I mastered and became a professional musician with, the trombone, makes entirely different demands on the practitioner. A trombonist, for one thing, is much more responsible for producing the tone (with his embouchure) than a pianist is (who merely presses a key), and has constantly to be vigilant about intonation (something a pianist can do nothing about).

And where the trombonist has to play a single line of notes (except in very rare cases such as Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V, in which multiphonics are required), the pianist has to play many notes all at once, in both hands, often in different rhythms and moving in different directions. From the standpoint of physical execution, the two instruments are as unrelated as knitting and golf. My mastery of the trombone doesn’t help me much when I sit down at the keyboard.

As a music critic taking up the piano, others wonder, do I have something to prove? Not at all. I do not (nor did I ever) think myself comparable to the musicians I write about. It was never, “I can do it better,” and it never is with critics. Listening is different than performing, and as a critic, I am a professional listener. I write about what I hear. As Samuel Johnson once said about the practice of criticism: “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”

Lesson Four began with me playing my two pages of warm-ups. I still have a bit of a problem with sixteenth notes in my left hand (they’re uneven); Lee Ann wants a little more focused exertion (louder) there. I was still hesitating and missing some notes in the Bach Prelude I played next (I taped it), though it’s improving week to week. Lee Ann had an interesting suggestion for practicing it, which she called “bursts.” Basically, you take one bar, and one bar only, and play it quickly, quicker than you would in performing the piece. Then you try it on the next bar, and so on. It gives you a different feel for the notes and then, later, when you perform it at tempo, it seems slow. That’s the idea, at least, and we’ll see if it works this week.

I’m also adding the 12 major scales and arpeggios to my warm-ups this week, but not quite. That is, Lee Ann wants me to play the first five notes of each scale up and down, all with the same fingering of 1-5, 5-1 (which isn’t the traditional way to finger many of these scales). Anyway, I’m all for it — it’ll just get my hands and fingers friendly with all the key signatures.

I was supposed to be working on two octaves of the C major scale in both hands with a metronome. (I was to play eighth notes with the metronome set at 95 beats a minute for the quarter note.) But I couldn’t find my metronome, which I’ve owned for nearly 40 years now. Then I had an idea. I googled a metronome on my iPhone. And there it was. See? Old dogs can learn new tricks.

Here’s the Prelude by Bach that I’m playing and also how I’d like to play it:

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