"Did you like the way you played?"
Ever since I joined Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been thinking in status updates. I package each moment into a blurb. This used to really bother me; I thought of it as a kind of infection. But maybe this status-making-mentality keeps the mind a little more objective, a little more outside of itself, and a little less invested in the emotions it produces, especially when they’re triggered by conflict. A negative episode just becomes part of a narrative, the (Face)book version of my life. It isn’t happening to me, per se, but to my character. Maybe status-thinking helps train the mind to establish a healthy space between experience and self. And isn’t this way of looking at and objectifying our thoughts, at least in some regard, an aim of meditation and Zen practice?
Many piano teachers say that finger exercises will give us, if we try really hard for a really long time, a better technique. But the technique I discovered—not acquired or earned or built over time, but discovered—following several years of various drills, philosophies, and regimes, didn’t come from an accumulation of these dogmas coalescing into one superknowledge of the piano, with my microscopic muscles finally chiseling into shape. No, my technique rose from the ashes of all those previous approaches after they failed to work. Or at least when they failed to work for me. One could argue that I needed them to direct me toward my own technical truth. Fine. But I really, truly don’t think I’m playing good octaves and fluid scales now because I put in two hours a day from high school through college practicing them. And thirds. And arpeggios. And broken chords. And trills. And strength in my fourth and fifth fingers. And. And. And.
I listen to recordings from my teens and early twenties, and in some ways my technique surprises me—I sound better than I expected—but when I think about how I prepared for those performances, I remember feeling vulnerable and powerless, hoping for the best. I think of playing scales at 7 a.m. in a cabin in Adamant, Vermont (at the Adamant Music School), followed by a gamut of arpeggios and octaves, all to get myself “warmed up,” so I thought of it, for a 9 a.m. daily masterclass. I remember this early-morning routine continuing, and indeed growing, through my time at Indiana University, where in the beginning I would wake up around 6 every morning and practice until my first class. At this point my technique drills lasted at least two hours. I wouldn’t dare touch my repertoire until I’d hit every corner of my facility in every imaginable way. I’d come to school in the darkness of morning and leave in the darkness of night. My first roommate, who was expelled halfway through the year because (so I supposed) he was selling drugs out of our room, had never seen anything like it, and reacted violently. Literally. One night, after I returned and went to bed, he rose from his computer and began punching me as I lay in the top bunk, sort of playfully but also sort of not, wildly laughing and asking why I did the things I did regarding my practice schedule. Shrinking away from the blows, I thought: “Well, at least someone’s noticing.”
I consider my sophomore year “The Year of the Metronome.” To this day, I shy away from the device and scarcely recommend it for any of my students. During that sophomore year, all of my technical exercises and all of the music I learned went through the metronome. I’d set the click at a low speed and then gradually increase. I was gearing up for a kind of mid-undergraduate performance exam called Upper Divisionals; literally meaning a point where the faculty decides, or divides, who will stay in the music school and who will not. I prepared a Mozart sonata, two sets of Bach preludes and fugues (C# Major and minor from Book II of the WTC), the last opus of Chopin nocturnes, the Op. 18 Etudes of Bartok, and all of this music depended on a metronome to get to performance tempo. If I didn’t slowly grade up to that tempo, I couldn’t play the pieces at all. This, my friends, is a black hole, something like a full-blown addiction at its most unrewarding peak, and certainly not a very secure place to end up when one should have their music ready to go in any circumstance. That’s the thing: this process of metronome gradation took a long time per piece, requiring several repetitions of an entire work before it reached the optimal speed. It was a time-suck, and indeed time sensitive. I remember when I had the actual Upper Divisional, getting everything ‘ready’ and then running up to the exam room, afraid that the music would expire before I had a chance to play it.
What a mess.
I also remember the music sounding icy and feeling foreign in my body (Jeremy Denk, a faculty member at the time, agreed), and I still don’t even feel like I learned that program. I passed the exam, sure, but the whole experience felt awful. I never went back to the metronome for much of anything, except occasionally when I’ve turned it on away from the piano while studying a score to check on a composer’s tempo recommendation.
Still, I continued my hours of technique drills every day.
For awhile I thought I should exaggeratedly lift my fingers before striking each piano key. The movement, I thought, would build strength. (Some technique books, Hanon in particular, still encourage this way of playing.) Only after half-a-year of playing this way did a teacher, maybe Emile Naoumoff, point out that the movement was a complete waste of energy, and that in any fast passage I simply wouldn’t have time for the arbitrary lift.
I went through a phase, inspired by another teacher, where I believed that my technique relied on tiny, un-exercisable muscles in my hands that needed constant strength-building through massage and a long list of odd-looking exercises that would help form and solidify my hand structure—particularly the shell of bones and muscle between my knuckles and wrist—while keeping my body, arms, wrist, and hand agile, ready, and working together. I still believe in some of those theories, and indeed my hand is strong, even if the bones in my wrist snap, crackle, and pop if I as much as rotate it, which I do obsessively.
I read all of Abby Whiteside’s books.
I analyzed and color-coated the voicings of all my scores, playing them in different combinations.
I copied scores and passages completely. I tried to copy some from memory.
I learned lot of music one hand at a time. Another waste of time.
I could stretch my reach to an octave and a half, and usually a ninth or more between every finger.
I started working my way through Brahms’s house of horrors technique book, a regime so brutal that Brahms himself requested that for the cover, “all possible instruments of torture should be represented, from thumbscrews to the Iron Maiden; perhaps some anatomical designs as well, and all in lovely blood-red and fiery gold.” I tried to do every exercise in every key.
And this ever-changing and ever-expanding technique regime continued after college. I didn’t, after all, leave IU with any particular sense of technical accomplishment. My primary teacher, Shigeo Neriki, lamented, “You have your technique, but your brain doesn’t believe it yet. Your mind hasn’t caught up to your body.”
When I prepared for my fifty-state tour and had little time to learn the music, spending most days working to save money for the tour, I had to shave off my technical drills considerably, if not altogether. In fact, part of my motivation for the tour was to force myself out of the inefficient routines I’d built and the false conviction that I needed to go through them for hours a day before laying a finger on my repertoire. I knew I wasn’t living in the real world and that, once on the road, I would have to play full recitals on little preparation.
And I did. However, I still occasionally played technical exercises on the silent practice keyboard I toured with. The featherweight action of its keys made practicing my repertoire almost impossible, and I wanted to move my fingers if I had downtime between concerts. The unmusical practice device matched the mindlessness of the drills.
After the tour, scarcity of practice time in the face of real life responsibilities and musical deadlines once again cut the luxury of extensive technique practice out of my life.
Now, I’m writing this after about two weeks away from the piano, vacationing on Cape Cod and visiting family in Vermont. I’ve studied my scores almost every day and, regarding my return to the piano, I volley between two emotions: optimism and despair. I keep cracking my joints, wringing my hands, stretching my fingers, and thinking about what I should do first when I go back to the piano, as if I’m approaching a dangerous, once-socialized animal that has forgotten all its people skills.
Earlier this year, I started doing scales again, and it felt good. Well, for a time. I kept things short and simple, with strict boundaries on the time spent and the scope of the practice. But the boundaries soon loosened and before long I was insecure again and spiraling back into my old ways. Like someone who can’t have one beer but needs the whole 12-pack, I couldn’t play just one voicing of arpeggios, I needed to do every voicing in every key, hands overlapping with cross-rhythms and polytonal this-and-that. Quickly I lost all moderation, and certainly all perspective. The stakes seemed, as they always have, insufferably high, and I felt that if I couldn’t do everything with my technique practice, I might as well do nothing. But if I do nothing, so I always tell myself, I have no future. My hands stay brittle. I can’t play. I die.
I stopped again. But two weeks away from the piano is a long time, perhaps my longest in decades, and maybe some simple scales could help serve as a nice transition back. Yes, just some simple scales if I have the time…
(to see Part One of this series, CLICK HERE)
(to read about another one of my approaches to practice, CLICK HERE)
I have an obsessive, paranoid, guilt-addicted personality that bleeds into every corner of my life, including the musical. In fact, my musical life may actually have set the stage for all the obsession, paranoia, and guilt. After all, I don’t remember attaching responsibilities to every second of the day (and dire consequences if I failed to meet them) before high school, the point at which I started practicing for conservatory auditions, the point at which I decided to give music my all.
And it was a decision. I wanted a life in the arts, to be sure—really, I wanted to act, but I stunk at it—and I was naive enough to think that classical music would be an easier world to live in than, say, Hollywood. I figured everyone wanted to be a movie star, but that classical music was on the fringe and, inexplicably, a less-competitive field. To my advantage, classical music had become a valid emotional outlet and an authentic interest of mine over the course of ten years, a decade when artistic refuge became more and more crucial, less touchy-feely and more a necessity for survival, especially for a closeted teenager. The appeal of that outlet, not to mention an escape from high school hell, fed my enthusiasm, gave it a dash of urgency, and emulsified my relationship with classical music into something people might call passion.
Anyway, high school is critically late by classical music (training) standards, and I knew this, or at least the old-world myth-worshipping part of me knew this. Or created it. Or maybe it was a tick inherited from my grandfather, a self-taught but by-the-book pedagogue who actually wasn’t my teacher (my mom knew better) but who managed to instill in me a God-fearing standard of technical perfection that I’d carry with me always.
I started listening to repertoire around the clock—already I gravitated to music from the 20th century, which it still was at the time—traveling hundreds of miles in my pickup truck to recitals and symphonies, even dance performances. Though my teacher had begged me to learn them for as long as I could remember, I finally taught myself all the scales and played through them daily, sometimes before dawn—parallel motion, contrary motion, different keys at once, and so on. The point was to sweat. I would stretch my hands beyond mere octaves to ninths, tenths, elevenths, TWELFTHS, contorting my ring, middle, and index fingers into chords as the thumb and pinky quivered, outstretched. Maybe the point was to break.
And so began my first technique regimen, one of many that would turn my practice room into a kind of black hole.
This regimen, like the ones that would follow, was fueled—and I knew it at the time—by a sense of inferiority, a deep belief that I needed to catch up to other people. I pushed and pushed with these imaginary others in mind, and though I’d like to distance myself from such thinking now, only the details have really changed. While I’ve established a firm technique and made peace with the pianist I am and the pianist I’m not, I still feel the need to catch up to the professional lives of my colleagues, especially now that I live in New York. And with Facebook, these admirable others are much less imaginary. To quote Seinfeld, “They’re real, and they’re spectacular.”
So again there’s a feeling that I could have made a certain choice once upon a time that would have led to a more optimal state now. Ten years ago, I thought I should have worked on technique earlier in life so that I might have felt more equipped for conservatory and less insecure once I got there. Now, it’s a different matter, one of career. I don’t quite know where I went left when I should have gone right. That is, if I should have gone right. I want to blame something for feeling so professionally alone and lopsided. My time management? My lost years in Texas? My decision not to get a Masters degree? My… technique? “Maybe she’s born with it.” Maybe I wasn’t. The search for a solution and the temptation to overcompensate is as seductive and suffocating as ever. Just like that, I’m back in high school, wondering how I can fix things, push ahead, and convince others and myself of my validity.
But the only choice, really, is to each day return to the piano bench—my ritual, my duty, my necessity, my nutrition. My supplication. Guilt. Paranoia. Obsession. Sometimes I even start with scales.
I was sitting on a bench in Central Park one day when my mom called me in tears. "I’m so sorry to do this," she cried, "but I have to tell you what I just saw.” She described coming upon some stopped cars on our road, near where the pavement turns to dirt, and people standing in a circle. “So I stopped the car, too. I thought maybe there was an accident or something.” Instead, she saw that the small group of men, woman and children surrounded a deer lying on the shoulder of the road, struck by a truck. "It was still alive, though," she said through her tears. "Then the man who hit it went back to his truck and—you know, I thought he might call the game warden or something—but no, he brought out a gun.” I hadn’t heard my mother cry in about a year, and the sound paralyzed my body, left me immobilized. It always does. I felt a ball of pain growing in my chest, like I might cry, too. But I stayed silent and listened. "He walked over to the deer and raised the rifle on his shoulders and…” She didn’t need to finish the sentence. She gulped, sobbed, sniffled. "And you know the worst part? The people standing around, they didn’t even look away or cover their eyes. They just watched and plugged their ears.”
i sit high
It’s a distinctly gay phenomenon to open a first edition book by Edmund White from 1982, see an inscription on the inside cover from one friend to another, and wonder nonchalantly if either of them is still alive.