Gestures in Music

Everyone has their own way of approaching a new piece of music. Most often we sightread through the first time,  just to get the “lay of the land.” Then, if it’s a piece we’re going to dig into, we go back and start the real work.

For young students (depending on their skill level, they may have skipped the sightreading step all together) this means practicing in small sections slowly, hands separately, section by section, and finally adding the crowning touch… the dynamics.

For advanced pianists this time for “getting down to business” may include working out fancy fingerings, analyzing chord progressions, slow practice for a beautiful tone, and untangling inner voices. Some add another layer of mental work by memorizing a piece as they learn it. These are all important steps and no stone should be left unturned when preparing a piece for performance.

However, for the purposes of this project, I’m determined to cut to the chase. This means learning pieces quickly and getting them up to speed before going back and polishing up all the details. Sort of like taking a chainsaw to a big piece of stone to reveal the music rather than building it up bit by bit. In other words, I’m trying not to be too precious about everything.

Part of my inspiration for approaching music this way came from my daughter’s art class where she learned “gesture drawing.”  She’d come home with her huge drawing pad filled with pages and pages of what looked like scribbles. But each one was a figure – twisting, twirling and turning. One of her favorite class exercises was following other classmates around the room, drawing them in motion.

We use gestures in piano when we find the sweep of the phrase, choreograph leaps and arpeggios and gauge our arm weight for sudden dynamic and articulation changes. I think there is a feeling of spontaneity that comes when we learn a piece quickly this way, without stopping to read every single note the first time through. Is it possible that this feeling is communicated to the audience in a slightly different way than when we perform a piece we’ve built from the ground up note by note and measure by measure?

The Brahms Intermezzo Op 119 No 3 is a piece I’ve always loved but never “worked on.” This week I was determined to get it in shape to post quickly. It is still a work in progress and I’m still whittling away to get to the finished product but now instead of a chainsaw, hopefully I’ll be using a chisel.

Mindfulness and Recording

Sunday night while I was recording the Bach-Petri version of “Sheep May Safely Graze” I realized one side-benefit of this weekly recording project is that I am forced to practice with heightened awareness. Pianist Jocelyn Swigger is learning all of the Chopin Etudes and shares her experience through a series of wonderful podcasts on her blog, Play It Again Swig. Here she talks about the element of consciousness that occurs when you practice in settings where there are people listening. She compares it to the aliveness that you feel when you’re performing on stage and talks about recreating that feeling in the practice room.

For me that “heightened awareness” comes as soon as I turn on my handy little ZoomH2 recorder. Suddenly I’m listening to inner lines, aware of every hesitation, and feeling the same adrenalin rush that comes with a live performance without the self-consciousness were there an actual live audience listening. Once I’m able to stop the mental chatter (where I question my sanity for giving up yet another Sunday evening to record a piece that’s still a work-in-progress and post it online for the whole world to listen to), I’ve actually experienced moments where my attention is fully on the present. This feeling of total awareness is what some call “mindfulness.”  This is when time passes in a blink of an eye. For me, it is these moments that will keep me coming back to these Sunday night recording sessions.

Rise and Shine

A teacher once told me, “You have to ask yourself whether or not you can live without playing the piano.”

But there was rent to pay and college loans were coming due, so like many pianists, I began to teach. For years I was happy to have music in my life even if it was just Middle C and the surrounding notes. I felt fortunate to be able to set my own schedule and work with many interesting and talented students.

But that question has always been gnawing at me.

Now that I’ve started this “project” I’ve hardly let a day pass without sitting at the piano. I feel like I’ve come home!

Today I was preparing a Brahms Intermezzo for next Sunday’s recording and I thought of this video my son and his friends made. (He’s the cellist.) Such wisdom in these lyrics.

You must rise and shine each day. Like there is no time to waste. You must get up, create, there is no other way.

Old Repertoire – Old Friends

old friends

Last night I recorded Chopin’s Nocturne in c# minor Op 27 No 1, the seventh piece in my “Go Play Project.” This particular Nocturne has always been one of my favorites. I find the opening strange and mysterious.  And I love how out of the stormy middle section comes a ray of sunshine before returning to the opening theme.

As I mentioned, I’m choosing only my favorite short pieces for this project, and this Nocturne was high on the list…even though it’s been decades since I’ve played it.Yes…decades. I actually used this piece  as part of my college audition program.

I found it interesting that:

  1. After only a few hours of practice, the piece was still in my fingers after all 30+ years, including the same stumbling spots.
  2. I vividly remember the room I performed in and what I was thinking while I was playing the L.H. octave section at my Oberlin audition in 1973. (there I said it… that many years ago!)
  3. I’m able to hear much longer lines and inner voices now and even though the piece remains an enigma, I’m confident that I can deliver a more mature performance given a little more time to prepare…

Lesson learned:

Never discourage a young student from learning a difficult piece. It will be with them forever to grow and mature. When they return to it later in life, it will be like picking up a conversation with an old friend.