Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ducks on the Pond

Gotta love it!

I can hardly believe it's been barely two months since I began piano lessons again, and while I have a tendency to only see what I can do better, even I am cognizant of the progress I've made.  I feel stronger, literally.  Mr. LaRatta focuses on technique: his approach is to "know your keyboard" so that you have the ability to tackle anything that comes your way, rather than learn technique as it is encountered through certain pieces.  As someone who prefers a cover-your-bases, academic method of learning (think university textbook vs. Rosetta Stone for foreign language methods), I am thrilled!

As a result, I spend time every week on Hanon and scales, working my way around the Circle of Fifths.  Each week I wonder what I'll get since it's not just straight up Hanon.  I play each exercise as is, of course, but mainly in an alternate way that makes these admittedly dry little pieces so much more fun!  I've been playing them with varying dynamic ranges, switching rhythms, transpositions, etc.  My teacher, in his usual sardonic wit, said a few lessons ago, "I mean, I could teach a monkey how to play this like it's written ... but like this," and here he briefly played my assignment of switching hands over/under and transposed a half step up, "That's the difference!"  And, it doesn't have to be boring!

The scales, too, keep me busy: up and down, contrary, starting at the end, the middle, what have you.  "How often do you look at your hands when you're typing?" he'd ask.  The whole point is to know the keyboard so well that you can feel comfortable with anything, "and be smug about it!" We both laughed at this, but for me the laughter stemmed more from the wistful thought, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice someday."

To get to that glorious someday, I'm working on all those lovely scales this way and that, with my eyes closed.  Yep, I love that part.  And even though F# kicked my butt, within a week it felt so much more comfortable.  I'm beginning to feel the space between the black and white keys, to be able to anticipate the relationship from one key to the next and to make a subtle shift in my fingers to do the right thing.  It's really working!  

In other words, the way I perceive the piano, and my relationship with it, has already shifted.  It's only been a couple of months since I began again so I can hardly even begin to articulate what this is, but I can feel the enormity of it.  It's breathtaking and exciting.  It's going to have a hugely profound affect on my approach to the piano (indeed, it has already begun).

Although to be honest, the vast majority of the time as I practice I don't think about this; you'll find me repeating sections ad nauseam in various ways, muttering under my breath such inspired statements as "why is this so hard right now?" and more emphatically, "Argh!!!"

(I am also working on the first three Etudes from Op. 25 by Chopin, and Ravel's "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales".  More on these to come!)

In the end I know that whatever I do, I need to trust Mr. LaRatta, myself, and the piano.  It's the basics I need to constantly turn back to, the same way I start every dance class and rehearsal at the barre.  Hanon and scales are the plies and tendus of music.

At the end of my lesson yesterday, Mr. LaRatta turned his large, bespectacled eyes to me and proclaimed, "You're not bad for a beginner; next week I'll teach you "Ducks on the Pond"!"  It took me a second to realize that he meant this cute little piece meant for the budding piano student.  Ha!  But from what I know about my piano teacher so far, this was a real compliment and he meant that I was making progress.  I've got to love and embrace the basics, to get my little ducks in a row and eventually be able to cross any pond and fly to any destination.