Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bringing Back the Romance

The fateful first chords that ensnared me forever
You know how familiarity has a tendency to wear off that initial starry-eyed enthusiasm one has for something cherished?  Practicing a piece over and over again, picking apart passages a phrase at a time or even a note at a time - ad nauseam - is inescapable if we are to play something well.  While that is all well and good, the rigors of study can make us forget why we even liked the music we're playing to begin with!

I fell in love with Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales at first sight (or hearing) at around age 8 while watching a 1966 recording of the Bolshoi Ballet perform excerpts of the simply titled ballet "Ravel Waltzes." It was hands-down the most romantic, mysterious, intoxicatingly beautiful work I'd ever encountered.  Since then, it had been a (sometimes forgotten) dream to play these waltzes.

The View from the Trenches
Since reigniting my efforts at the piano earlier this year, I've now been in the trenches for several months with Valses Nobles.  Eight waltzes, each of a very different character, have stretched my reading, understanding of phrasing, listening, hands (literally - there are some magnificent chords), and most prominently, my patience.

Whether it was getting the waltzes into my body the first time or memorizing them, it's been a challenge.  All of a sudden, passages I'd counted on playing smoothly would fall apart.  There were days I felt like I couldn't play at all - my hands simply wouldn't obey.  I'd play certain tough passages, each time the result worse despite herculean efforts at concentration.  I'd throw my hands up in the air with the drama of Moses in a classic MGM film and exclaim, "WHY?!"

On a particularly trying night of practicing, I sat in silence at the piano bench and felt rather empty. Suddenly, I knew I had let go for the time being.  I had to step away from the piano, and go back to find the romance within me I'd felt so keenly since childhood.

Recapturing That Feeling
I cued up a playlist that would run through an orchestrated recording of Valses Nobles with Charles Dutoit, and then the original piano solo version with Louis Lortie. I got comfortable on my bed, and closed my eyes.

It's amazing how sound can bring back so much.  I could picture it perfectly: A ballroom full of revelers who move purposefully yet chaotically.  Two people make a piercing connection but find themselves constantly thwarted in their attempts to reach one another. I could feel their desperation, their hearts' yearning.

I could smell the perfume and the delicious sensation of yielding to the intoxication of the first bloom of tentative but undeniable romance.  As the waltzes cycled I felt hope, desire, regret; the embers stoking once again. I could hardly sleep that night; the music swirled in my head and demanded attention.

And Then ... 
This past weekend I played all eight waltzes from beginning to end, entirely from memory for the first time.  After the final, haunting bass G note died away, my teacher Mr. LaRatta sat in silence for a moment.

"Do you know how proud I am of you?" he said slowly, his hands folded over the music book.

I looked expectantly at him, not quite believing what I was hearing.  My playing had been far from perfect ...

"No, I'm really impressed," he continued, "you're doing some very wonderful things with the music. I can see you dancing to this; I can hear it in your playing."

He could hear the dancing - that broke me out of my freeze.  He could hear the dancing in my playing!  That was the best thing I could have heard.  It meant that I'd begun to, in some way, recapture the wonderful feeling of the waltzes I'd cherished for so many years.

Before I knew it, I'd launched both fists into the air above my head and exclaimed, "YAY!"

And now, whenever I feel bogged down by the inevitable rigors of practice, I'll know when to take the occasional step back.  I'll know when I need to revisit my memories and stir up the timeless, magical feelings within me wrought by beautiful melodies.  It'll be time to bring back the romance.