So how’s the piano playing going?

Thanks for asking.

It’s going great! Wish I could practice more. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Memorizing is harder than when I was a kid but not impossible. If I practiced more, I’d have a lot more stuff memorized.
  • I don’t have the attention span to work on long, difficult pieces. If I had more time…
  • Balancing between mastering pieces and sight-reading is my biggest challenge. I could spend a lifetime just working my way through this book:

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  • Nobody cares that I play, and that’s fine. It’s not like every house I visit has a piano, and people are dying to hear a little Bach. That might have been the case 80 years ago when Cooke wrote Playing the Piano for Pleasure, but not anymore.
  • I’m definitely expanding my repertoire — more Brahms, more Schubert, more Debussy, more Lennon & McCartney.
  • I bought a book of scales and chords with a firm purpose of improving my technique and my music theory. Can’t say I’ve made much progress, though.
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What’s the point of practicing the piano?

My brother-in-law gave me a copy of the classic book Playing the Piano for Pleasure, which I first read many years ago. The author, Charles Cook, advocates playing the piano for an hour a day and dividing up that hour as follows:

  • Forty minutes of working on your repertoire–that is, a couple dozen pieces that you want to absolutely master (including memorizing them)
  • Ten minutes of working on your technique–he considers this optional
  • Ten minutes of sight-reading

The question I’m facing is how much effort I want to put into absolutely mastering a bunch of pieces, as opposed to knowing them well enough to derive please from playing them. In particular, what’s the point of memorizing them?

Here’s a piece I’ve been playing–the Brahms Waltz in A-flat Major, played by Evgeny Kissin:

This isn’t a hard piece to play. It lasts under two minutes, and there are only a couple of moderately tricky measures at the end. I played it through ten times or so and I was pretty comfortable with it. But to memorize it, I’ll have to hammer it into the ground for a couple more hours, and then continually review it to keep it in my fingers. That’s assuming my aging synapses are still capable of such feats.

Playing the piano, of course, makes you constantly aware of how far short you fall from what has been achieved by the geniuses who lurk among us. This site tells the story of the teenage Martha Argerich learning Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in her sleep, while her roommate played it in the same room. When she revisited the concerto later, she had to unlearn some of the mistakes her roommate had been making.

Well, as John Lennon said, we’re all doing what we can.