Music writer takes on the piano: Lesson One

 |  Feature


So I decided to take some piano lessons. It seemed like a decent idea to me and others that I mentioned it to thought so as well. I was well placed for it. As a part-time writer-in-residence at OC Music & Dance, a newly launched community arts school in Irvine, I had access to a distinguished piano faculty and a place to write about my lessons, OCMD’s blog. It would be a mini-series. To make it “interesting” (as a gambler would say), I decided that at the end of eight weeks of lessons, I would record a few pieces I had been working on and share them online, for readers to laugh at or admire, as the case may be.

I had done this type of (George Plimpton-ish) thing before, writing feature articles for a newspaper on joining the Huntington Beach Concert Band for a summertime concert in a park, and also on performing Shostakovich in Segerstrom Concert Hall with Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony. Both of those efforts had been on my own instrument, though, the trombone, which I had studied in college and later played professionally.

So, why piano? Other than that it’s a great instrument with a magnificent repertoire, of course, I had some past experience with it. As a teen (40 years ago), I took private lessons on piano for a year or two; and as an undergraduate music major not studying the piano as my main instrument, I had to pass the standard proficiency tests. Also, there’s a piano in my living room. I wouldn’t be starting from square one with these lessons, in other words, but I hadn’t played in years. I’d be a rare mix as a student — able to read music, conversant in theory and history, and yet utterly inept at the keyboard, little more than a beginner.

Lee Ann Leung, my teacher, sounded enthusiastic about my idea when I first told her over the phone. Luckily, after my first lesson Tuesday, she still sounded keen about it. I had very much liked what I had read about Lee Ann’s approach to teaching — particularly, that she felt it was important for students to practice music they liked and that she fostered “stress-reduction performance skills.” I thought it would be nice to learn how to enjoy performing — I had always been a nervous performer — and I liked the idea of choosing my own repertoire.

Accordingly, I brought some pieces along to the first lesson, held in a spacious OCMD practice room with two pianos. I purposely had not practiced beforehand and in trying to get through Anton Reicha’s Etude No. 1 — which I had recently heard on Alex Ross’ website; it sounded easy enough — I realized I should have. A few measures in, I broke out into a deep sweat and as I slogged through it at a snail’s pace I realized it was much harder than it seemed. Poor Lee Ann, I was thinking as I played. But when I finished, she remained unfazed. She liked the piece (heretofore unknown to her) and wanted me to keep at it, at least for a few weeks. We both knew that it was unlikely to make my final playlist, though.

But first, some fundamentals were in order. Lee Ann had me start with a sheet of warm-up exercises, basic stuff in C major. Scales from C to G (no shifting of the hands), in quarter notes, eighths and sixteenths, first legato and then staccato. Then an arpeggio exercise over the same span. Then an exercise in thirds (two fingers on each hand at once) up and down the fifth. Simple, but I could feel the exercises doing what exercises do, and I could hear that I could stand to practice them and make them better.

Then she had me read through Bach’s Prelude in C (No. 1 from “The Well-Tempered Clavier”) and, you know, everyone plays it and everyone knows it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a gorgeous piece worth mastering. I got through it with effort, stumbling from chord change to chord change, but I’m optimistic about my eventual chances, at a moderate pace.

Finally, we played through a couple of Stravinsky’s “Five Easy Pieces” (my idea), for piano four hands. Stravinsky wrote these with his kids in mind, the first (or Primo) part being fairly easy, the second (or Seconda) demanding a more seasoned pianist (in this case Lee Ann). You may hear some or all of these in eight weeks. They are delightful.

Lesson done and my hands were tired, as if I had typed out a chapter of a Dickens novel. I told Lee Ann and she wanted to make sure there was no pain. None, other than to our ears.

Now excuse me while I go practice. Until next week.

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