Lesson Seven: Eclipse and flow

 |  Feature, Video


We had a little eclipse gathering in the parking lot at work this week and a couple folks from Orange County Music and Dance, next door, joined us, including Marc, the director of community relations there. I asked him about my proposed recording session in a couple of weeks, specifically could the OCMD’s recording engineer (Ian) bring down a microphone to the grand piano in the black box theater to record me. Marc said that he could. So that’s set. I’ll have a fine instrument.

He also thought that editing my performances wouldn’t be a problem. If I made a mistake while recording a piece, I could go back and record the measure again where I made the mistake and then it could then be inserted into the recording. At Lesson Seven, I spoke to my teacher Lee Ann about the ethics of this and she admitted she was of two minds, like me. Originally, my idea had been to record myself at the end of eight weeks of lessons, flaws and all, to show readers what progress I had made. But since I didn’t record myself on day one no one will know how far I’ve come anyway. So I kind of like the idea of making the best recording possible of each piece. And I won’t pass them off as unedited.

I got into the flow of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” during the week once or twice. It felt really nice. I knew and felt what was coming next as I played and it all seemed easy. I could even mold the phrasing and dynamics a bit, so comfortable did I feel. It’s best to relax like this when you play (if you can), it sounds so much better. For fun, I even tried out the articulation — legato followed by staccato on the arpeggios —that Glenn Gould used on his recording, which helped my hands feel even more relaxed.

Lee Ann liked the progress I had made on the Bach, though I didn’t play it for her perfectly, by any means. She suggested a couple of solutions. Sing through the rough patches. Yes, just sing through them, without playing. Then go back and play them. (I had noticed during the week that my ear was guiding me in several places in the piece; I heard the notes first and my fingers went to the right keys.) Singing will get those notes in my ears. I’ll do it when no one’s home.

Another suggestion she made was to play the piece through very slowly, so slowly in fact that there is no pressure to find the notes, so slowly that even if you have a moment in which you’re searching for a note, you have time. I’m sure this will help with comfort and flow.

Playing through the Bach these dozens of times, one realizes more and more how ingeniously it is put together. The steady and unchanging rhythm of the arpeggios would perhaps become tiresome were it not for the powerful harmonic progression throughout. In tonal music, the strongest chord change is between the dominant seventh chord (in the key of C, a G major chord with an F natural) and the tonic (C major). In the first four bars of this Prelude, Bach moves from C major, to a D minor 7 (which essentially serves as a dominant chord to the next chord), to a dominant seventh G chord, then back to C major. It’s simple, but as unstoppable as a freight train.

The two Bartók pieces I’m working on (Mikrokosmos Nos. 71 and 77) are intricately designed as well. Bartók is like that though. In college, I had to analyze the first movement of his “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste,” and it turned out to be a slow fugue in an arch form, the theme based on intervals from the Fibonacci series (or something like that), the climax occurring at the Golden Mean, after which the piece moves backwards, becoming a palindrome.

In Mikrokosmos No. 71, called “Thirds,” and featuring the interval of a third in both hands, he keeps the hands moving back and forth in opposite directions while he also adds random rests and sustained notes (in one hand), creating irregularity. As a player, you can’t just feel it; you have to pay attention.

Similarly, in Mikrokosmos No. 77, called “Little Study,” he has the hands playing the same thing two octaves apart, and just when you’re getting used to that feel, he makes you go in contrary motion. Your brain objects, at first. There’s a funny little detail in that section of contrary motion, too. The right hand goes down four notes of a scale, then jumps a third, in four sixteenth notes and an eighth. In the same rhythm, the left hand goes upward, but instead jumps the third first and then goes scale-wise. You feel as if Bartók is toying with you.

Lee Ann liked the way I played “Thirds” this week, even though I made a couple of mistakes. She said overall it had a nice dramatic shape. That was gratifying to hear.

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