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It’s so hard to face an empty piano bench

Somebody posted a link to this video on Twitter (was it you? I bet it was you!), but the original link’s embed code wouldn’t work. Luckily I was able to dig it up on YouTube, and with Spanish subtitles, no less! Now you can improve your language skills while pondering why it’s so hard to face an empty page, and it’s so hard to face an empty piano bench.

For the full video in one piece, check it out here.

It’s so hard to practice with all these interruptions, Number One

Don’t you hate it when you’ve settled in for a good solid practicing session, and just when you’re getting into the groove of things your subordinate officers keep barging in to tell you that you’re losing your battle with the Borg? I know I do.

Note: For those of you who are not Star Trek geeks like me, this never actually happened in an episode; someone spliced together completely separate scenes. Also, you are a snob. Trek is awesome! Well, maybe not Enterprise. Except for the dog. I liked him.

Free concerts/noise violations

My inspiration struck around 7:15 pm last night, as I walked from the gym back to my apartment building. It was a quiet, drizzly, and entirely un-muse-like evening.

Then I heard it.

Buh… buh buh buh buh… Buh duh SQUEAK duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh dah dah duuuuuuuuh…

Can you guess? A portion of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony number six, as rendered by a decent but – SQUEAK – clearly still amateur french horn player hidden somewhere in the apartment building I was passing. I was all the way out on the street and I could hear him clear as day. Including the SQUEAK.

And I thought back to that horrible night I attempted to play the violin again, and how I cringed and tried to remain pianissimo lest the neighbors hear me. And then I thought about Artur Rubinstein. “Sometimes,” he said, “when I sit down to practice and there is no one else in the room, I have to stifle an impulse to ring for the elevator man and offer him money to come in and hear me.”

That guy on the French horn was playing with all his might, mistakes and all. I, on the violin, spent half an hour trying to play as softly as possible and then five minutes stifling my own impulse, which was to jump up and down on top of my violin until it was so many toothpicks. And Artur Rubinstein, of course, always hoped that somewhere out there someone could hear him.

I can’t be sure, but I’d say that horn player was completely oblivious of his captive audience; he wasn’t thinking about them at all. Whereas I was thinking about it entirely too much, and it added another unfortunate layer to my doomed proceedings. Rubinstein, of course, was only disappointed if he had no audience, so between the three of us, we have things pretty well covered, no?

So – where do you fall on this spectrum, either as player or neighbor? How does it make you feel when you practice and you know you can be heard? And have you ever wanted to pound on the wall and scream “SHUT UP” to the tone-deaf clarinetist next door?

Playing with playing

Play (verb)
1. To occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation.
8. Music: To perform on an instrument.

Remember in the Suzuki method how every book has somewhere in the area of 32 – 57 pieces by Vivaldi? I remember sometime in late middle school I was practicing one of the violin concertos and still had, oh, fifteen minutes of practice time left.

Of course the smartest thing to do in such a situation would be to spend that fifteen minutes practicing, right? Honing the craft and whatnot. Well, as I pointed out last week, I HATE honing the craft, so I went a different route: I decided to try swinging Vivaldi.

I wasn’t very scientific or intelligent about it; I wasn’t concerned with the nuance of my crossover. I just wanted to amuse myself for a bit. So I played through the whole concerto messing with rhythms, stretching and contracting, syncopating to my heart’s content.

And what did that accomplish? Not a damn thing as far as I can see. But the memory did make me think – how many people ever take a few minutes to just mess around with their instrument? Can any good come of it? I’m sure my readership is composed primarily of very serious and dedicated musicians who are all hyperfocused on technical improvement and virtuosity, but how often do you play?

Playing an instrument does not make me happy

I love music. We know this because I write a blog called Ain’t Baroque.

You love music. We know this because you read a blog called Ain’t Baroque.

But today I would like to talk to you about how music causes me BLINDING RAGE.

A couple weeks ago I was ever-so-gently railroaded into auditioning as an alum for my grad school orchestra. Although I have always hated practicing, I have also loved being inside the music; I thought, hell, may as well give it a shot. So I set up an audition time, borrowed my old violin back from my mother, and set about putting together an audition piece. I unpacked the violin, jury-rigged a shoulder rest, opened up an old Sukuzi, and…

God did I sound awful. Half an hour later, I canceled my audition.

Look, I haven’t played violin in, I don’t know, four years? And I knew, somewhere in there, that I wasn’t going to be able to just magically pick it up again ’cause I felt like it. I did know I could work at it, and get better, and eventually make something akin to real music. But the fact of the matter is this, was this, has always been this: it doesn’t feel good to play.

Holding the violin was not like coming home. It was not an old friend. I didn’t smile ruefully at my own incompetence, and I didn’t decide, with the great ambition and determination of the heroine of a novel, that I was going to practice every day until I could play Beethoven’s Spring Sonata with the same easy grace I did in eleventh grade.

Because even when it was easy and graceful, it was never easy. Even when my fingers flowed and my intonation was right on point, I never felt graceful. At my peak, at my best, my practice time yielded mostly anger. My successes brought me little pleasure. I can – I have – listed the reasons, my justifications, for why I don’t like to play, but the ultimate truth as that it does not make me happy.

There. I said it. Playing an instrument does not make me happy. It makes me angry. It makes me hate myself because I can’t do it right, and it’s not just a matter of practicing harder. Improvement does not make me happy either. For me it has never been enough to be quite good. If I can’t be Itzhak Perlman then I don’t want to play this game.

So. I tried again and nothing was different. And that makes me sad. I wish I could do it, I do. It’s just not where I belong in the music world. But I can write about it, and when I do, I sometimes find myself in a groove where all the words flow, and it’s easy and graceful. That makes me happy.

I may not be a musician, but damned if I don’t just shoehorn myself in among you anyway! There is a place here for all of us – sometimes it’s not behind a music stand, that’s all.

On practicing

Confession: I hate practicing. I hate it so much I simply don’t do it anymore, and that’s why I’ll probably never be an active musician. I hate it because I know what I should sound like, and I have never, ever made it there. I spent most of my high school orchestra career, when practicing was a mother-mandatory activity, in the throes of a violent inward frustration. Some day, if I can ever afford it, I want to buy a really cheap violin purely for the pleasure of chucking it through a window. It will be a decade-long fantasy come true. Ah, catharsis.

Now that I’ve finished endearing myself to the musical masses, I have a (hopefully redeeming) observation about listening to someone practicing.

My brother is a freshman at Peabody, and although he’s a violist (hee hee hee) he takes a piano class – I think it might be a requirement? Anyway, he’s taking a piano class and currently working on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. My mother’s piano is in a room right off the kitchen, and I could hear him working on it as I ate lunch last weekend.

It was a curious experience, and one that I don’t think would apply to all pieces, maybe even all instruments. I’ve also heard him practicing viola for half my life and this is only now occurring to me. My brother has by no means yet mastered the piece and is not a pianist by trade; he’s a musician, so his rendering was competent, but there were decided stumbles and hesitations.

And yet somehow… in this case, it worked. The Moonlight Sonata is naturally pensive, touchingly so in the right hands. These were not the right hands. But they were hands that, in their pauses and tiny hiccups, writ the music’s meaning anew. Rather than darkly brooding, this Moonlight was timid and a little scared, but nonetheless resolute. It was… I don’t know, like Piglet in the trenches. Like an eighteen-year-old kid trying to sleep the night before hitting the beaches at Normandy. Or something.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but what I’m trying to articulate here is that the practicing transcended itself and became a new interpretation of the piece. Naturally if Beethoven had wanted it that way he would’ve written the pauses in himself, so I don’t recommend that concert pianists all adopt this as a new performance standard. What I am saying is that practicing has its own curious… lens through which to see, maybe?

But don’t mind me – I’m obviously a crazy person. Speaking of, does anyone have a cheap violin they don’t want?