Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I don't usually go in for the latest fad, but last week practically everybody in my working environment came down with the flu, so I just had to try it for myself.

I don't recommend it, actually.

I spent the first three days with something that felt like an exhausting head cold, but on Thursday I got a nice fever of 103 and spent the evening on the couch. Up until then I had actually been managing my rehearsal schedule, including choir practice on Wednesday night, during which I called our confused director from 15 feet away on my cell phone and explained to her that I was under quarantine and that if any new music needed to be delivered to please put it at the end of the piano and I'd retrieve it so as not to come too close to anyone. I parked the piano in the middle of the sanctuary, about 20 feet from the choir loft, and stayed put. By Thursday I wasn't fit to rehearse with anybody.

As it happened, on Saturday I had a short program for a group at our church. It was only a half and hour and mostly involved accompanying a soprano, with a couple of solo pieces thrown in. On Friday I spent half the day wondering if I was getting over the flu. By evening, it looked like I had. But on Saturday I was still pretty gone. The symptoms had left, but my head was not all there if you know what I mean. And I hadn't practiced any of it.

The singer and I had a short rehearsal on right before the program. And then it was time to basically sight-read two solo pieces in front of an audience. I hadn't touched either one in about a year and I had to trust that somehow they would be alright. Sound like your idea of fun?

In the first place, I chose a couple of pieces I thought would let me get away with that. One was very short and slow and pretty easy. The other, longer and faster, still had gone pretty well the last time I played it in public about a year ago. I hadn't thought of it since, but, hey, here goes....

If you are wondering how I thought I could make this work, that is the point of this blog. Because the piece I played, a little Mozart Rondo, sounds like it has a lot of things going on. There are quite a few fast runs, lots of notes per square second, enough to saturate the ear with details. But the details aren't what I was fastened on to. To give just one of numerous examples of how a professional pianist must be able to think, here's one pretty simple passage toward the end of the piece:

Now, you might be looking at a lot of notes. But to me that's just a D Major scale. I can play one of those in the dark backwards while whistling When the Saints Go Marching In and reading the paper. What my eye wants to know is simply where the landmarks of that passage are. What note starts the ascent and when does it end. In other words, I see this:

The dots that are left are unique to the passage itself. The rest (represented by those lines in between) is just a scale, with its pre-learned, prefabricated fingering and all. It's about pattern recognition.

This, I think, is probably the biggest difference between a practicing professional and the person who has been practicing the piano for years and yet still needs a year to learn a Mozart sonata and is afraid to play it for anybody. Not only do your fingers need to be in shape, but you need to be able to think differently. Size up the details and realize pretty quickly that they are parts of patterns. What are those patterns? Not "what are those notes" but "why are those notes there?" The example above is pretty much like a "whole word" exercise for piano. When you read words, or a sentence, you don't have to stop and sound out each letter anymore like you did in first grade. If you have to think about every note on the way up a scale you will never get to the next level.

If you see a measure and know that, say,  Mozart is modulating to the dominant, as usual, and that the progression he is using to get there involves a V of V, which is, say, and E major chord, or that it takes him five bars to get to the recapitulation, or that the coda is just a repeat of the second theme in a new key--all terms and buzzwords which may or may not mean anything to you--if you can see all that, it actually slows things down and means you have less to think about because you are thinking in larger units.  If you have to concentrate on all those details, details that you may not really understand, you'll never gain any speed in your playing. I don't know about you but my mental processor isn't that fast. So it helps a great deal to be able to think of an E major chord as it goes by and not "ok, I have to play a G# followed by a B and E."  That's just too much at large information roaming around unsupervised!

I won't suggest that I played the piece perfectly on Saturday. Under the pretty powerful influence of dizziness and confusion, I played a couple of passages in the wrong octave, and fluffed a couple others--enough to annoy any concert pianist with my inaccuracy. But the interpretation wasn't bad, and probably 98% of the notes were there, too. When you aren't all there, it really helps to paint on a large canvas and trust the details to take care of themselves most of the time. That's when you really find out what you know, anyway--when life throws you a curve and things aren't like they were supposed to be--with plenty of practice time, warm up time, no stress, no worries, no audience! In the real world, that seldom happens anyway. What really happens are lots of obstacles you hadn't planned on, which is why it is always wise to be far readier far sooner than you think you will need to be. In case, for whatever reason, your head isn't on straight.

Don't get me started on the "virtues" of jetlag!

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