Lessons Five and Six: Pain and gain

 |  Feature


Are you ready to read about my piano lessons? Take a break. Pull up a chair.

I guess I shouldn’t bury the lede. I started to feel a little pain in my hands, especially the right one, before Lesson 5. I probably shouldn’t have used the word “pain,” really; it was more like a stiffness and a dull ache. But I used the “p” word when I told Lee Ann Leung, my teacher, and she was immediately very concerned.

I didn’t really feel it when I played. It was afterward, kind of like the ache you get (at my age) after exercising. Nothing extreme. Oddly, perhaps, it was in the back of the hands. The worst I felt was when I closed my hand around the gear shift in my car, and then there was an actual twinge. Anyway, to state the obvious, pain in your hands while playing the piano is absolutely not acceptable from a teacher’s point of view, and Lee Ann started quizzing me about it, and watching my hands closely as I played. There was nothing untoward that she could discover.

And the ache gradually lessened over the two weeks. I chalk it up to my age, mostly, and to my loyalty to practicing. I haven’t really played the piano at all for 40 years, and now I’m playing every day. Something is bound to happen.

I now have three pages of warm-ups (and they are certainly causing no pain). They are from a children’s book; they have stick figure drawings with them and have cute titles such as “Skipping” and “Hopping” and “Cartwheels.” They are so easy that I’m slightly embarrassed to play them when anyone can hear me. Baby steps. But they do what they do, gently easing the hands and fingers into activity, teaching them legato, staccato, intervals and scales.

My other pieces — by Bach, Bartók and Stravinsky — are coming along, but I’m beginning to get performance anxiety, because I can’t get through any of them without making a flub or several. One has to practice these pieces so much, it seems, that they become second nature and you can play them under pressure. I definitely flub more when playing for Lee Ann. What will it be like when I try to record them after Lesson Eight?

A musician friend of mine, hearing of this, suggested I do takes in the recording session. In other words, do what all musicians do when they make a recording. If I make a mistake, go back and fix it, and splice it in. I’m not completely sure if this is the right thing to do under the circumstances; the recordings were supposed to show the results of my eight weeks of piano lessons. I’m currently taking the issue under advisement with myself.

Boredom and frustration have entered the picture now, though in a mild and fleeting way. One naturally gets bored playing the same pieces over and over, even good ones. Ideally, one would learn the pieces faster, before boredom sets in. That’ll come later, I hope, when I’m a better player. Frustration comes with the lack of perfection: Both in making mistakes in the same old places, and in making mistakes in new places. Every practice session feels like I’m stuck in the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” trying to make good on the same exact thing.

The opening of the Bach prelude, specifically the first four measures, appears to have me spooked. There is nothing particularly harder about them than the rest of the piece, but I just can’t get through those opening measures without some minor snafu, different every time. After those four measures I usually get into the flow. There’s nothing to be done, I think, except practice them more. But I noticed that sometimes I was paying more attention to the fingering (denoted by small numbers) than to the notes themselves. When I told this to Lee Ann she suggested that while I play those four measures I should say the names of the notes out loud, in rhythm. So that’s for this week.

She usually has a drill ready for problems I run across in a piece. In Bartok’s Mikrokosmos No. 77, the phrases are made up of little micro-phrases consisting of four sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note. Sometimes these are scales, but sometimes they also have jumps in them. They’re tricky. So Lee Ann is having me isolate them, play them by themselves, faster and faster, and aim toward the eighth note as the loudest note. I am to move my wrists parallel to the keyboard. Nifty.

Though the first pianos were invented and developed during Bach’s lifetime, their vogue came after it. He wrote his keyboard music for harpsichord and its relatives such as the clavichord, which was made for domestic use mostly. It fit on the top of a table and wasn’t very loud. Here’s the prelude (and the fugue that follows) that I’m working on played on the clavichord by the great pianist Friedrich Gulda. The player could even produce a vibrato on the instrument, as you’ll hear partway through the video.

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