My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Play it again, Sam...and again, and again, and again...

I am stuck...very, very stuck.  More specifically, my Bach Well-Tempered Clavier project is stuck and it really doesn't feel good at all.  I'm actually downright discouraged at the moment.  So what has happened?  How did I get to this lovely wall that I'm standing at?

Problem #1: I dislike the act of recording myself playing music.  Recording is really kind of an unnatural act, at least for me, because I work best when I have a physical, present audience to interact with.  I love to see and hear other peoples' responses to the music, whether the feedback is a barely-perceptible sigh of release or a restless turning or dropping of a program.  When I am recording, when I get to the end of a movement or a piece, I get...nothing.  It's just me, the microphones, the computer, and the worst audience member you can ever have at any performance, my brain.  Oh the things my brain comes up with during these sessions - it can get downright psychologically bloody up there with all the dissecting that comes with recording.  "Did you hear that?  The first time through I did OK on the first half of the fugue, but then in the second measure of the second half, I bungled that third note in the left hand.  And my tone was so bad!" or "Was the second performance better than the first or was that the previous movement that the first performance was actually more accurate than the second?  What piece did I just play?"  These conversations start almost immediately too - it's not like I have much of a window of inspiration.  In a live performance I am pretty good at pushing all of those inappropriate comments out the door so that I can enjoy the moment but I just can't get myself to that point with recording.  

Problem #2: The C-sharp minor Prelude perplexes me and the Fugue is a finger-twister.  I went through and learned all of the book II preludes and fugues a year ago.  I considered that time around as prep-work for more serious study.  I remember how I felt about the C-sharp minor Prelude when I first started working on it - I simply didn't get it and I never felt an urge to just play it through during my non-practice times.  That is very unusual when you're dealing with me and Bach - I can almost always play his music with a sense of peace, reflection, or meditation.  Perhaps it's my tendency to play this particular prelude too slowly, or maybe it's the the long length, about 8 minutes long.  There are also the ornaments, appogiaturas, and acciaccaturas (what the heck are those?!).  I can handle pieces with a sprinkling here and there of this fancy stuff, but when the ornamentation is actually part of the whole point of the piece?  It shows just how green I am with what used to be natural to your professional church or court musician.  Recently I enlisted the help of a local harpsichordist who can play this type of music like I envisioned they played it during that period in history.  She gave me many great ideas about how to approach it and it has gotten a little bit easier, but I still feel like a foreigner trying to speak a language I don't intuitively understand.  

And the fugue...ah, the fugue.  If you ever need to see something scary, just turn to this lovely fugue.  The piece is an endless braid of fast notes.  I have tried my own tried-and-true methods to get notes comfortable in my fingers and in my head.  I have also tried a new method that I described in an earlier blog post, "Living life on the edge - a new practice technique discovery."  Although playing it in small chunks up-to tempo and beyond has helped increase my confidence, I am still unable to play through the entire fugue without stumbling.  Something must be missing.  I put a "tweet" out on twitter last week, bemoaning my situation and was thankful that many twitter friends responded with a new recommendation to try practicing the fugue, hands separately, and then here's the kicker, backwards! Now I talk about learning and memorizing pieces backwards all the time but I have never done it note-for-note backwards.  Sounds a little unbelievable to me, but this week I did start trying it and it can, indeed be done.  So, we'll see what happens.  If it ends up working, I think I'm going to owe @JoseSPiano and @craigswanson a drink of their choosing!  If it doesn't work...well, I'm not going to go there.

So I don't really know why I decided to blog about all this.  I suppose it's largely because these problems have been taking quite a large portion of my energy lately and I thought it would be good to share the bad stuff along with the good stuff.  For now, I'm putting the Bach a bit on the backburner since I don't have an official deadline but you can be sure that I will not give up!


  1. Have you tried just letting the recording run and just do a bunch of "takes" at once? Instead of thinking, okay let's see if I can do it on this take, you'd just record yourself for an hour, warts and all. That way, when you finish a part where there would normally be some sort of reaction, you just keep going, either repeating the whole thing or playing something else.

    I used to play in the subway in Boston and New York, and it helped tremendously to let go of expectations. Some people react, some people don't. You just keep playing. You get into a zone where you just let things happen (and believe me, in New York, things happen on subway platforms), both things you do and things outside of you.

    I'm wondering if just letting the "tape" run, as it were, you'd get to a point where it stops mattering and you can just make music.

    Good luck...

  2. Funny that you mention that, "la rose"- just the other day I unintentionally started recording that way simply because I was tired of getting up and down to stop/start the recording! It did seem like it was easier and more conducive to a positive experience. And it's helpful to hear about your experience in the subways...of course it brought to my mind the whole Joshua Bell incident, where tons of people just walked on by without even noticing what phenomenal music was coming from his corner of the station. I think I just need to get back to that feeling that keeps me playing music in the first place :-)

    I will definitely try recording with your comments in mind - thank you!