Sunday, January 29, 2012

Back to the Future

My Certificate of Merit evaluation marks from 10th grade!

Now that I had my dream piano there was no doubt I had to practice.  It started out as the thought, "Okay, I'd better be worthy of my Steinway M!  Better start working!"  Once I began, however, it was evident that I wasn't going to stop at just "getting my chops back".  I wanted to draw all kinds of melodies out of this amazing instrument, all the pieces I'd played before and more.  Much more.  I wanted to be able to play well pieces I'd never even touched before (and are beyond my abilities currently, unless you count what I call "train wrecks") notably Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso.

I started with scales and arpeggios.  Around the circle of fifths I'd go, and at first I was absolutely appalled by the fact that I'd managed to forget how to play the flat keys.  Muscle memory supported me most of the way, until I fell apart, of course.  I turned to Hanon to work some dexterity and strength back into my fingers.  I'd never been proud of my technical ability on the piano - my strength was passion, not clean technique - and now it was humbling to know just how far I'd fallen behind.  But hey, I had to start somewhere!  I was so happy just to be playing, and those scales were rendered heavenly to my ears by my wonderful piano.

When I visited my parents a couple of months ago, I dug through a pile of sheet music from years past and found my Certificate of Merit evaluation grades and comments.  I'd completed the advanced levels of this music study program and even earned a Senior Medal granted by the Panel before I went off to university.  Thinking back, I don't really remember much about how I managed to study the music theory required to pass these exams, much less prepare the 4-5 pieces for the evaluation each time.  I read the comments, fascinated by how insightful they were.

For my rendition of Gershwin's Prelude No. 2, that deliciously slow, lazy one, one panelist pointed out that I was (incorrectly) accenting the second beat in walking bass line and I immediately recalled how I'd struggled with that.  Pow!  I was taken back to high school and my afternoons practicing this piece.  It felt amazing, humbling, exciting.  It was like a window into my past and yet still present, yet somehow secret, self.

But then I saw all my good marks and letters of invitation to play in various festivals and recitals: Schumann, Schubert, Bach, Panel Advanced Students, etc. and thought, "Well, I must not have been too bad a player" - it felt nice.  And it made me hopeful.

And there was the music theory.  If I wanted to have a solid background in the study of music, I needed to know at least as much as I'd learned before, and much more for any postgraduate study.  I would wake up super early, needing to figure out a plan, and I'd research for hours online while the sky was barely light.  I finally decided on taking a couple of online courses from Foothill College, one in music history and one in music theory.

Online classes are a godsend to folks like me, who are juggling a full time job along with everything else in life.  I embarked on this path after requesting to meet with the chair of the music department, Dr. Hartwell, who welcomed me warmly and was very supportive of my goals.  He asked me if I was planning to take piano lessons again, and recommended a certain Thomas LaRatta.  If I was interested, I was to tell him so that he could make an introduction for me.  One doesn't just call Mr. LaRatta!  I took note, but thought, "He sounds like a master teacher; he probably wouldn't accept me as a student!"

I got in touch with the one piano teacher I'd studied with as I grew up and visited her one afternoon with my sister, who was also her student.  Sheila Raleigh's little house at the end of the quaint country lane looked exactly the same as I'd remembered - even the lamp was in the same place.  I wasn't sure that I wasn't 13 again, approaching her house and anxious because I felt ill prepared for my lesson.  But no, this was years later, and we had a lovely time reminiscing and catching up.  I'd told her I wanted to study again, but she'd already retired and had prepared for me a small list of teachers who might accept adult students.

When I mentioned Mr. LaRatta, her eyes widened.  "Good heavens, is he still teaching?" she asked with incredulity (apparently he is getting on in years).  But she went on, eyes still wide to exclaim that if he was willing to teach me then "by all means, yes! ... Call him first!"  Okay, I told myself, I have to give it a shot now!

I asked Dr. Hartwell for an introduction to Mr. LaRatta, and before I knew it, I had an audition on Christmas Eve.  I started to practice my scales with a quality that carried a tinge of desperation (time was running out!) and chose 4 pieces to present: Bach, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel.  I knew I was missing a Classical period composer, but I didn't have time to prepare something else.  I needed to show what I could do, now, and could only work hard and hope for the best (and expect the worst).  This was the beginning of my new beginning, and I was excited, scared, elated.  I was really going to do this, and that's what counted.