Friday, 5 September 2008

Back to Bach (and chocolate)

I'm not sure whether what happened this evening is encouraging or depressing.

While having an exasperated rummage through a load of stuff earlier on (there are simply piles and piles and sheds and garages full of stuff here), looking for something else altogether, I happened upon my Grade VI piano exam pieces. Amongst a stack of SD#1's clarinet music, for some reason. 1975! How long ago that was! I was only a few months older than SD#1 is now.

I opened it up and set it on the piano. Only one piece seemed even remotely familiar - this one:

Still, since I had learned to play these to a proficient standard during the first year of my O-levels, and since I still occasionally sit down at the instrument - albeit mainly to accompany, in a very basic fashion, my children on their assorted fiddles, guitars, whistles and clarinets - I thought I'd see whether I could still play this . . .

The net result, unfortunately, has been ultimate recourse to my old friends in adversity - wine and chocolate!

It certainly wasn't one of those riding a bike moments - once learned, never forgotten. Although I could suddenly remember, quite vividly, sitting at my teacher's lovely Yamaha baby grand, with autumn sunlight streaming through the windows, putting my very soul into this piece. But when my hands hit the keyboard tonight, the truth was all too evident. It was gone. Completely.

I'm not an intuitive musician. How much this is owing to the way I was taught and how much because I simply don't have the right kind of brain, is something I've mused upon at great and probably unnecessary length over the years. I am reluctantly admitting these days that it's a nature thing, rather than a nurture thing. I'm just not musical. Which is a bit of a blow, frankly, because I can't imagine life without music.

On the nurture side of things, I was taught by a wonderful woman - a concert pianist of great talent. And she taught me to 'perform'. Perfection was her aim and I did my best to oblige and passed exams with flying colours. But anything other than rigorous practising of the required scales and pieces was frowned upon. 'Stop fiddling about and get on with your proper practice', my parents would call out when they heard me, well . . . 'fiddling around', I suppose: improvising, experimenting, exploring the notes on my own terms. So I knuckled under and passed exams but my relationship with the instrument was, I see in retrospect, a very limited one to say the least. And this is why I could (can) never play without music, never jam or improvise, never really 'make music' on the piano. Which is a source of huge regret.

And so tonight's two-hour stint with my Grade VI exam book has been a strained and strange experience. There's no doubt that, by the end of it, there was a marked improvement, which I suppose is encouraging. If I could set aside an hour every day, then who knows what I could achieve. But I know I almost certainly can't (or won't) do that.

It felt like learning the piece afresh, not re-learning, or recalling it - and that I found dispiriting, despite the intervening years. I really hoped and believed that it would all come flooding back and simply happen. But my fingers, which I'd imagined would be nimble enough from all the exercise they get tapping away at high speed on computer keyboards, just wouldn't do what I needed them to do. Though by the time I finally stormed from the room they had just begun to show some small understanding of how they were required to behave.

Discouraged or encouraged? Which shall I be? I can't decide.

I'll have another square of chocolate while I think about it.

Oh dear, it all seems to have gone.


Greg Dunn said...

NO SURRENDER! Get back on that horse immediately!And noodle for happy hours. Work out the melody part of the theme of EastEnders (extra points if you can remember Angie's execrable lyric), then bung a few random bass notes in until something sounds right, then start to fit bits together. Root it in C for maximum white key ease. Then you'll be a bona fide ear player, and you work it up from there.

I look from the other side of the fence, I am an ear player who'd give his eye teeth to be able to sight-read at playing speed, and my struggle to learn is equal and opposite to yours, but I'm not giving up, no way.

Keep at it, gel.

Juliet said...

G - Well I'm sorry, but if learning to play by ear requires having anything to do with the theme from Eastenders I'm afraid I'm staying right off that horse and it can gallop away without me! Ugh. The very idea. Is this supposed to be encouragment?!

Silly thing is, I CAN play by ear without any trouble at all . . . on the recorder!! Why on earth nobody spotted this and nudged me in the direction of woodwind when I was deciding upon a second instrument to learn at school I've no idea. So I took up the violin and then misguidedly swapped that for the cello at 11 (bad choice for someone short who travelled to school via two different trains with a footbridge change in the middle). I was getting to grips with a tin whistle quite well a few years ago, but then SD#1 purloined it, proved herself vastly superior (as in most things)and so I bowed out gracefully.

Juxtabook said...

I both sympathise with and envy you. My father has a wonderful ear for music and my sister plays the piano and did a music degree. My grandfather played the piano wonderfully entirely by ear and my grandmother was a piano teacher. I had music lessons too but to very little effect. (Grade 1 in both practical and theory - the dizzy heights, eh?? I was very good at the theory actually, it was the piano that threw me). What is worse still is that I cannot sing. I mean sing at all: I cannot hold a tune, not even a little bit. Even my 4 year old asks me not sing! I would so love to be able to make a tuneful noise some how! So I can sympathise with your frustration and disappointment in not being able to do it was well as you want, but to be able to even try a grade 7 piece is an enviable position to be in you know.

PS That looks extraordinarily good chocolate, never tried it, and I will have to get some to consol me the next I catch someone smiling when I sing!

Juliet said...

JXT - It was only Grade 6 actually! Poor you - that's really sad. But don't despair. I've met several music teachers (and read articles by others) who truly believe that everyone, bar none, CAN be taught to sing and that tone-deafness is a myth. It's a kind of musical dyslexia but it can be overcome. So don't give up hope - you might be able to find someone who can get you through and make your 4-year-old beg you not to stop!

And yes that chocolate is remarkably good - which surprised me because I generally only enjoy the extra-dark stuff and leave white to the milky-bar kids. But it was all there was in the house (someone gave it to me last month and I had hidden it away from greedy family eyes) so I gave it a whirl and I'm very pleased I did (though the scales will groan when next I clamber onto them . . .!)

Jane Badger said...

Ooh, that chocolate looks good. The piano will come back. When I started singing after a very long break I thought I'd never be able to sightread again (and I am no great shakes at it now, I have to say) but it did come back, as did a whole load of notes I never knew I had. Stick with it!

Anonymous said...

The number of people who can sit down and play a piano perfectly after just a few lessons is very small indeed and after a lifetime of not playing that must become an incredibly small number. If it's worthwhile it takes time, effort and bloody-mindedness. Please, please don't stop? I'm no great musician but I do know, since I started trying to play Bach stuff, that it gets better when you stop poking the instrument with fingers and start allowing yourself, your soul, whatever you want to call it, out through your hands. Learning is the mechanical process (that never stops for most of us). Sometimes though, when you let yourself out, you get to make music. I make millions of mistakes all the time. I don't care. I try not to do it again and I just take away the bits that went well, however few. There's always some good passages to take away and keep in memory as encouragement.