When I returned to playing the piano a couple of years ago, my vague idea was to broaden my repertoire of classical pieces. I’ve done that at this point. I’ve gotten reasonably up to speed on maybe three dozen pieces by Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Bach, and Debussy. I haven’t tackled anything extremely difficult, and I don’t bother memorizing anything — it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort, even though that’s what you need to do to really master a piece.
This yearI want to be able to sight-read chord notation, something I didn’t learn at all when I was studying the piano as a kid. I’m reasonably good at sight-reading standard musical notation, but show me F-7 and I have to pause to work out the four-note chord this represents (F-A-flat-C-E-flat). Learning this isn’t hard; you just have to stuff it into your brain and fingers.
The way I’m doing it is by using a web site, http://www.pianochord.org, which shows you all the chords laid out on the keyboard, and The Real Book, a book that contains hundreds of songs with the melody shown in standard notation and the accompaniment shown in chord notation (these are apparently known in the music biz as lead sheets). If I can’t work out a chord, I go to the web site (which is displayed on my iPad Mini next to the sheet music). After a few weeks, I’m going to the web site less and less. Now I just have to get to the point where I don’t have to work them out — I can just look at them and play the notes. I’m there with most of the common chords — C7, Cmaj7,G7… Eventually I’ll get there with the rest of them.
Theoretically, the eventual goal of being able to sight-read lead sheets is so I can improvise a left-hand accompaniment to a melody, based on the chord structure. There are books you can read that will teach you how to improvise. And then I can join a cover band, or get gits playing solo in bars where Ican take requests from the inebriated customers: “Hey Rich, play ‘Misty’ for me.” Not sure I’m gonna get there. But I can dream, I guess. “Misty” isn’t actually that hard.
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:
- 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.
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.
[Updated to correct an error pointed out by my smart brother.]
Here I talked about my resolution to learn Brahms’s Intermezzo in E-flat Major. I’m hard at work! Technically, it’s not especially hard. The sheet music I’m using for the piece grades the difficulty of pieces from 1 to 10, and this one gets a 5 — middle of the range. But, you know, my fingers aren’t what they used to be…
The piece is in standard ABA format. The middle section is in G-flat Major, which is also pretty standard. The problem is that G-flat Major on the piano has six freakin’ flats. Here’s what the beginning of the middle section looks like:
This is not hard music to play, unless you’re out of practice playing music with six flats, in which case you’re continually stumbling when you go to play a C and you realize that you should be playing a B, because the C is flatted in this key, and C flat is B. Right?
It also doesn’t help that Brahms has a pretty rich harmonic language going on here, so by the fifth measure of the middle section he’s temporarily turning those C-flats into C-naturals, and you have to remember that too.
The right thing to do is to just go ahead and memorize the piece so you’re not stuck trying to sight-read it. But, you know, that’s a lot of work. And I’ve got a novel to finish.
Happy New Year from the frigid wastelands of Boston’s South Shore.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to learn to play the Brahms Intermezzo Opus 117 No 1. Here is Glenn Gould’s version:
This will slow down my writing:
I used to play the piano a lot growing up, but finally ran out of time for it when the kids arrived. They took lessons for a while but were never especially interested, so the old piano (which had been in the family since I was a kid and had seen better days) went to piano heaven.
I got to be pretty good in high school, but I never had the drive to get any further than pretty good. Now, we’ll see.
The music in the photo is the Arietta from Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata. I am showing off–I can’t play the thing. Yet. Or maybe ever–it offers technical challenges that my fingers may not be up to.
While we’re on the subject, here’s a quick plug for my novel Summit, in which I get to imagine what it’s like to be a brilliant (and eccentric) classical pianist, in the mold of Glenn Gould.
Yup, I was there. Here’s what things looked like as we awaited the start of the show:
Note the Prudential Center lit up in orange.
Here Lady Gaga is singing a song that involved setting the stage on fire:
Here are all the cell phones lit up in a communal ritual of adoration as she sings “Million Reasons”:
And here she is at the end wearing her oversize cowboy getup:
It turns out that we are the best fans in the world, and she couldn’t do it without us.
Some more observations:
- I’m getting a bit old to stand up for two solid hours, even for Lady Gaga. On the other hand, 48 years ago I was pretty annoyed at having to sleep in the mud at Woodstock. So maybe it’s just me and not my age.
- The crowd was, by my estimation, 104% white.
- I have never seen fishnet stockings on men before. Maybe I need to get out more.
- Having said that, I also saw lots of folks who looked like me, including the gray hair. The crowd was basically PG and the show was PG-13.
- Lady Gaga is a good musician — she’s got a big voice, she dances well, she plays the piano and guitar. Her songs are high-grade pop. She also seems like a warm, pleasant person, in a show-biz sort of way. She had nice things to say about everyone in her family, including an aunt who died before she was born. She dedicated a song to a friend who died of cancer. I’d be disappointed if I found out she was a jerk backstage.
- I had no emotional connection to anything that happened onstage. Everyone around me knew all the lyrics to all the songs — and, what was more important, the songs seemed to matter to them. They hugged each other; they sang along as they swayed in time to the music… Me, I found myself checking the score of the Red Sox game in the Bronx (Final: Boston 4, New York 1).