Thursday, May 29, 2008

does this mean I have to admit my mother was right?

I had a strange evening last night.

I'm house-sitting for my teacher. They have a piano. MaryAnn plays a good bit, at least judging by the constantly-rotating and fairly complex music on the stand.

Last night I had this weird urge to sit down and play.

Friends, I haven't touched a piano in 18 years. I quit when I was sixteen. Mom insisted I take lessons from the time I was seven--she made all of us study an instrument for a few years, insisting that we would wish we could play when we were older. (Looking back on this now, I wish I'd had the insight and moxie to suggest that *she* take piano lessons, since she was obviously the one with the yearning.) Fortunately she let us quit when it became obvious that our skills and passions lay elsewhere. I never missed it. I also sang for several years, and I missed that when I left college, but not enough to make time in the rest of my life.

Recently I've had a periodic desire to play. It's an "I wonder if I can do this" kind of urge, because I have noticed that many things are easier now that I'm old, because I have figured out how my brain likes to learn and I know now how to teach myself.

So last night I dug through the music looking for something relatively easy, or at least familiar. I came up with Fur Elise and the Moonlight Sonata, both of which I had memorized as a teenager.

No, don't get all excited. The muscle memory was long gone. For the most part, I could barely remember which line on the staves was A, B, C, etc. I remember now I always had trouble with F and G, the same way I have a mental stutter about my 7-times tables.

But.... but. I sat down and pounded out Fur Elise. It's an easier piece than I remembered it being. Of course my timing was very erratic and there were some definite pauses and clunkers, but the really fascinating thing was how my fingers could find the keys without my eyes looking. That makes it a whole lot easier to keep your place on the page. And somewhere along the way, my spacial-relations brain had come to realize how those lines and spaces corresponded to the keys, as opposed to what the silly letter-name was.

I have to think now that my poor old-lady teacher was not a good teacher for me. She insisted that I learn and transcribe the letters for each note, which meant I had to look at the note, discern its letter, and then translate that letter value to a key on the board. Whereas now, I just look at the notes and they automatically correspond to my fingers.

I played for more than two hours after dinner. I fought my way through the Moonlight Sonata, oh, at least six times. And the whole time I was struck by the irony of my diligence. I played slowly, I tried to keep some tempo going, I paid attention to the pedalling. When a passage gave me trouble, I went back and played, sometimes one hand at a time, to hear and see and feel the chord progression.

How did this understanding come upon me? I have felt this synthesis of knowledge before--when I dropped out of college and had writer's block for a year. When I started writing again, I found that, lo and behold, much of what Prof. Walters had told me was accurate--he wasn't just blowing hot air. But the way he'd taught it to me hadn't been useful--I'd had to find my own way of using it.

And now, of course, I think of Sit, and the masters he quotes: "No one can teach you kung fu. I can show you the moves, I can show you what I know, but you have to learn it for yourself."

I finally quit when it was past bedtime and my wrists were aching--I'm not used to that octave spread anymore. I still love the Moonlight Sonata--I know it's an overplayed piece of music and probably trite to many critics, but I love it. Funny thing, too, how over the course of those two hours I noticed the patterns of notes--how the C#'s and G#'s and E's went together, and how the F#'s and D's went together, again and again. My little-old-lady teacher never taught me scales or key signatures, either. I wonder now if she knew them. She was quite a good sight reader but I don't think she had much theory.

Now I wonder how easy it would be for me to teach myself the key signatures and scales. I doubt it would take very long at all. My memory is quite good these days, and thanks to the tai chi I'm very good at seeing patterns and remembering sequences.

Is it a good thing I don't have access to a piano? I'm pretty sure I don't need another hobby.


AJ Milne said...

But the way he'd taught it to me hadn't been useful--I'd had to find my own way of using it.

Heh. Often true. And also, I think, you have to want to do something enough to bother long enough. No one's ever gonna be able to teach you that, exactly, either.

And there's nothing trite about Moonlight. Overplayed, sure, but it's got a certain durable simplicity. Like much of Bach, it's close to indestructible--you have to really work to wreck it. There'll be annoying ringtones of it in 2315. But it'll still sound good played on the right instrument.

Holly said...

annoying ringtones ... tee hee hee.

Better that than Fur Elise. After thirty years I still can't play that song without hearing the McDonald's commercial lyrics.