Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Piano lessons update

Jillian is flying through her assignments. Each week, PT assigns her 4 or 5 pieces, and each week, Jillian goes to work and completes them. At this rate, she'll be through the Bastien Primer B by the end of this month.

They spend a lot of time on note identification and counting. PT had noticed Jillian's creative fingering on the keyboard early on, made a couple of suggestions, and told me they would be returning to that topic on down the line. The suggestions were light, mild, and very specific to what Jillian was playing at the time. Thing is, having made those suggestions, Jillian's fingering has improved across the board, and at this time, it's really not an issue.

And most importantly, Jillian loves piano lessons. We'll milk that cow for as long as it remains true. Hopefully, years to come.

Me? Not so much improvement. With the possible exception of Guatanamera (hold that thought), there isn't anything I am playing better now than before lessons. While this is mildly disappointing, it is not entirely surprising. I had my own unique way of navigating the keyboard, and unlearning some of those habits is taking some time.

But there's more... my lessons are, right now, very music-heavy. We spend time talking about how to know if something is in the key of C or A minor, and what the difference is between tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords. I take it as a matter of faith that this will be relevant on down the line. But it isn't going to help me with problems I am having on Melodia Africana II. In fact, I am not really playing any Einaudi pieces at the moment. It's all Alfred's Book 2, all the time for me.

I practiced Guantanamera for probably 5 hours last week. I had hoped to play it well enough to move on in one week... two reasons for this. First, I am competitive, and wanted to prove PT wrong when she said we'd probably be spending a few weeks on it. Second, the piece annoys me, and I want to be done with it ASAP. No luck. I played it very poorly. So it's another week with Guantanamera. If I get it up to speed soon enough, maybe I'll grab a recording for you. We've not had any of those in awhile. And I've still got some time on my hands...

Last thing on piano lessons: I think I may have mentioned that there will be a recital in June. PT and I were talking about whether I should participate. I told her that, as much as I'd be a bundle of nerves, I think it would set a poor example for Jillian (and other future piano players in the family... hi kids!) to sit it out. She agreed, so we have begun discussing potential pieces.

I want to play Le Onde.

We'll see.


ral said...

Dear aw2pp,

I'm writing because you remind me of myself at an earlier time (competitive, trying to teach myself, sometimes struggling). As I've mentioned before, my piano life changed dramatically due to the blessing of finding a wonderful teacher. I'm sharing this experience in the hope that you will find something worthwhile in what I write.

First, regarding music theory. You seem to be a somewhat technical type (as I am) so I think you won't find it difficult. I didn't appreciate its value at first but now (5+ years on) I find that knowing keys, intervals, chord types, the circle of 5ths and so on makes learning new music easier. When I look at a score now I can notice, for example, a progression of broken chords. Practicing scales and arpeggios helps this too because my fingers "know where to go", so memorizing a particular measure is quicker.

I can't emphasize enough that what improved my playing most was enjoying the process of learning. This was the difference between night and day for me. Looking back, when I was frustrated it was a negative feedback loop -- I wasn't making progress so I was unhappy so I was unmotivated to practice and as a result didn't make progress. Practicing really works, especially if you like doing it.

From your description of Jillian's response to lessons, I think you have found a good teacher. Be guided by her suggestions but also speak up if you are having trouble. Teaching kids and teaching adults have, I think, somewhat different aspects and you may have to point out when you feel you're missing something. I find that learning as an adult I am more aware of certain details than I think kids are and can verbalize them. Sharing this with my teacher helps the process.

Finally, on recitals. I was a nervous wreck the first time I played for our group. I can't even quite remember the experience except for the fact that my hands were shaking (literally). Even though the audience (my fellow students) is the most supportive and encouraging one imaginable, it took me a long time to be comfortable. I still feel the butterflies when I get up to play but now it's mixed with enjoyment and I can come away satisfied with the result. This is practice, too. I mean, the only way to learn is to do it. I have always wanted to be able to play for others to hear, and now I can.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Thank you, Ral, for your informative response. I don't feel too frustrated at this point... after all, it's been, what, 3 or 4 lessons? And I do look forward at picking up the theory part, so I can derive the repeating patterns more quickly.

I made an earlier post about how the fingers feel like they are doing a choreographed dance instead of actually playing music. Your description of the learning process suggests to me that this is because I lack a firm understanding of the music theory. When that understanding comes, the patterns will be more easily recognized, learned, and played.

ral said...

I think I understand what you mean about a choreographed finger dance as opposed to making music. I'd guess that learning some music theory will help, but that's only part of the answer.

I happen to be a memorizer. This surprises some of my fellow students who play for the group with the score on the piano; some express admiration when I play from memory. But I don't think of it necessarily as an advantage -- I can't play confidently unless I have a piece well memorized. My sight reading level is way less advanced than my technique. I guess I'm lucky that memorization comes fairly easily to me.

Playing the piano, or any instrument is, I think, first a physical skill. Hitting the right notes in the right rhythm and with the right dynamics takes a lot of repetition. That is only the start of making music, though.

For me, music is a form of communication. It has a deep connection to emotions. It's possible to express feelings in a song or an instrumental piece that might seem trite or overblown when spoken.

But to express feelings well I first have to be on firm ground with the notes. Once I've got something well memorized I can start to connect it to my feelings, especially if it's a piece that I find meaningful. This is an area where my teacher has helped a lot, because small technical details can make a big difference in being able to play a phrase expressively. I think this is an area where hundreds of years of formal study have yielded a useful body of knowledge. Some people are naturals and don't need a teacher -- that's not me.

Your path may well be different; I'm just trying to give you the benefit of my experience.

BTW, I listened to your "Guantanamera." Nice.