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Posts Tagged ‘misadventures in piano’

things I have forgotten

Dynamics.

Oh, I remember what they are. Pianissimo, piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, etc. But what do they sound like? How quiet is mezzo-piano? How much louder than that is mezzo-forte?

I know this is a matter of interpretation, not actual decibels. But I’ve lost my sense of proportion for such things. And it’s even more complicated when you’re playing a digital piano: this thing has a volume knob and you can adjust the touch, so what constitutes quiet vs. loud depends not only on what I do with my hands, but what settings I’ve got the instrument on. It’s going to take me a while before I re-develop my feel for the dynamics of the pieces I’ve been playing.

Also, I should mention in passing that I didn’t realize how accustomed I was to playing pieces out of instructional books until I started playing lots of new-to-me music that doesn’t have suggested fingerings marked on the page. <g> Howard Shore is a particular challenge on that front, or rather whoever arranged the Lord of the Rings score for piano is.

But I’ve had the Precious for nearly a month now, and I’ve played it virtually every day (barring when I was in Boston this past weekend — and even then, I managed to play a different piano one afternoon), so I think it’s safe to say that I’ll get plenty of practice in the months and years to come. ๐Ÿ™‚

what works and what doesn’t

As mentioned before, I’ve been deathmarching through a variety of projects lately. But my brain has hit the stage of “no worky don’ wanna YOU CAN’T MAKE ME” this afternoon, so I think a brief break might be in order. First I played a bit of piano, and now I figure I’ll talk about how that’s going.

1) As mentioned last year, when I spent a few hours dusting off my piano skills, I am slooooow at reading music. I do okay with stuff inside the treble clef, but once you involve ledger lines or (god help me) the bass clef, it gets trickier. And I’m prone to forgetting accidentals. I spend a fair bit of time peering at the music stand, and make more than a few mistakes.

2) My hands have also forgotten a lot. One of the basic skills of piano-playing is knowing how to position your fingers to play a third or a fifth or whatever, how far to shift your arm to move up an octave. I allllllmost remember that stuff, but not well enough ton trust my hands to do it without looking. (When I try, sometimes it works — and sometimes I miss by just the right interval for it to sound horrible.)

3) And yet, having said all that . . .

. . . sometimes I can just play.

I don’t mean the stuff I can just play by reflex. I mean that sometimes I’m peering at the music, going “okay, that’s an E-flat and, uh, what is that note –” and then I realize that while I was busy doing that, my hand went ahead and played it. Without me even knowing what I’m doing.

It happens the most often on pieces I used to play. Not the ones I memorized (the ones I can play by reflex — when I don’t totally blank on how they go), but things I played fifteen or twenty years ago. But sometimes it happens with new things, too, the ones that are arrangements of pieces I know. It’s because I know how they should sound: either from playing them before, or from listening to them a lot. And some part of my brain goes “this is how you make that sound,” without going through the intervening steps of reading the music or figuring out which keys to hit.

When that happens, it’s my sense of pitch at the wheel. I know the sounds, and they happen. Given more practice, I think it will return to a more conscious level of control, rather than the weird subconscious instinct it is right now. But at the moment? It’s freaky, man. <g>

Anyway, I have a whole pile of sheet music now: a lot of it old, some of it new, not all of it within reach of my skills even when I had ’em. But I intend to keep on trying . . . .

Pieces for the Precious

As mentioned before, I intend to blog my progress (at least in the early days) of dusting off my long-neglected piano skills. I’ll have more detailed things to say in a while, but to start off with, I figured I’d give a run-down of what exactly I’m trying to play.

There are two basic categories. The first is “Operation Remember How It Goes.” Right now I’m working on pieces I used to have memorized, and can play in their entirety or very near to it . . . so long as I don’t think about what I’m doing. The instant I pay attention to my fingers, fffffffffft. Goodbye. My mother will be mailing a stack of old sheet music to me, so I’ll be able to refresh my memory, and eventually move on to the pieces I can’t play anymore, but used to know very well. For now, however, there are three major things in this category:

“No Holly for Miss Quinn” — this is an Enya piece off Shepherd Moons that I taught myself to play by ear. It’s very simple, and I really can still play all of it; I just have to not let my mind wander, or I end up stumbling onto the wrong arpeggio. I’ve been using it as a warmup, and the goal is to get back to the point where I can reliably play it in my sleep.

“Solfeggietto” — C.P.E. Bach. One of the last pieces I learned, back when I was still taking lessons. It’s a fun, impressive-sounding thing, but the basics of it aren’t that hard; it’s just hard to play well. Right now I forget bits and pieces and have to jump past them to continue on, so I’ll either need to cudgel my brain into coughing up the rest, or wait for the sheet music to arrive. Then it will be time to act like a grown-up and do the exercises my piano teacher set me back in the day, that I hated at the time. They’re boring as hell, but kind of necessary to make sure you play the piece evenly, without the sixteenth notes lurching around like drunkards.

“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” — J.S. Bach. Learned this, or rather the first part of it, at the same time as “Solfeggietto.” I remember much less of it, and will definitely need the sheet music to get all of it back. But it’s also fun and cool-sounding (especially now that I can play it with an organ tone instead of a piano one). Barring a few bits, it isn’t very hard, either.

The second category of music are the project pieces, i.e. the new songs I’m trying to learn. Right now there are two of these, both chosen for their relatively low difficulty level.

“Roslin and Adama (Simplified Version)” — I reported on this before. I’m nearly at the point where I can play both hands together at tempo; it’s just a matter of getting myself reliably back to the point where my fingers (especially on my left hand) remember their way around a keyboard well enough that I don’t have to watch them all the time. I also tried the non-simplified version briefly last night, and nearly fell over with hysterical laughter — I don’t think I have EVER played a piece that actually used that much of the piano’s lowest register. The amount of time spent counting ledger lines before I could play the next chord . . . yeah. My brain needs more of a refresher course before I can do that one.

“O” — from the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name. Again, my left hand needs to remember more of its former competence before I’ll have this one down; there are too many stretched arpeggios that it has to be able perform without direct supervision. But we’ll get there.

I have a few other things I’m dinking at, but that’s most of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go spend more time with the Precious . . . .

The Precious

When teleidoplex was living in Oakland, I drove over to the East Bay several times to play the piano in her co-op’s living room.

We’re talking a half-hour drive each way and a $5 bridge toll. To hang out with a friend too, sure — but if it weren’t for the piano, I would have been pressuring her to come to the Peninsula instead. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And, as I said at the time, it made me really want to buy a keyboard for myself.

A year later — well after she’d moved out of the co-op — I was still thinking about it.

No, thinking is too mild a term. I was longing for a piano.

There’s a store not far away that sells keyboards. I went and tried some out. Found one I liked. Went back today to play it more extensively, see if it was really the one I wanted. Was allllllllmost happy with it . . . then tried a keyboard one tier up in price.

Yeah. It’s worth it.

The difference between this one (inadvertently dubbed “The Precious,” due to a brief Gollum-like incident in the store) and the stuff one tier down is that in this one, each key samples not only the individual note, but also the resonance of the other 87 — the strings that would be vibrating, if this thing had strings. The difference is very, very audible, if you play piano. And the touch is better, and, and . . . yeah. The Precious.

The touch is right, the pedal is right — hell, even the texture of the keys is less plastic-feeling. It has more bells and whistles than the picture would lead you to believe; they’re catering to a consumer like me, who doesn’t want lots of buttons and LCD displays de-piano-ifying the look of the thing, but if you read the owner’s manual, there’s an impressively non-intuitive system for using those eight buttons to achieve some interesting effects. You can adjust the touch of the keys, and also the brightness of the sound, in addition to the usual ability to change basic sounds — more than I really want, but I will admit the ability to play “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” with the sound of an actual organ is gratifying. ^_^ And I appreciate both the built-in metronome and the headphone jack, especially since the latter lets me play while kniedzw is watching TV without bothering him (or inflicting all my wrong notes on his ears).

And? It will never need tuning. <g>

So, yeah. I am now the proud owner of the most piano-like thing I could buy short of buying an actual piano. It makes me exceedingly happy. Look for more posts in upcoming days, as I begin my journey through remembering how to hell to play this thing . . . .

A long-delayed report

I mentioned some time ago that Bear McCreary, composer of the score for Battlestar Galactica, had released a book of piano arrangements from that show. After squeeing over this, I promised to report back once I’d had a chance to test them out . . . but I forgot all about it, until yhlee gave her own report. So here, much delayed, are my thoughts, on both the arrangements and my own experience with two sessions of playing.

So, um. First. My skill at playing piano? Not what it used to be. I took roughly seven or eight years of lessons, but that ended around 1993. I continued to play casually while I lived at home, but haven’t had regular access to a piano since 1998. Kept playing French horn until 2001, which means I can still read treble clef without too much trouble — mostly; once you get up into the ledger lines I have a lot more trouble, since horns rarely go above a high G — but gah, bass clef. When I sat down to try out these arrangements, I was actually having to do the thing where you go “Okay, that space is C, so this is E, G, okay, the note is an A-flat.” Really. My sight-reading ability warmed up with renewed use, but it’s still verrrrry slow.

The really funny part, though, is the extent to which I still have certain reflexes, but they don’t work right anymore. I’ll be going along, eyes on the music, okay now that left-hand chord is a fifth — but my hand doesn’t quiiiiiiite remember how it should position itself for a fifth, so I hit a sixth instead, and then have to stop and look at the keyboard to figure out why the music sounds terrible.

Mind you, this being Bear McCreary, sometimes the reason it sounds terrible is that I’m playing too slowly. And that’s where we get into the arrangements, instead of my butchery thereof.

See, the reason I love his music is its complexity. He has lots of odd, syncopated rhythms, weird harmonies that aren’t quite what you’d expect, extensive use of both the high and low ends of the staff, etc. And it turns out that all those things I like when I’m listening . . . become a nightmare when I have to play them. How do you count this bit? What the hell is that note three ledger lines below the staff? Is the chord crunchy because I overlooked an accidental, or because it’s a deliberately discordant suspension that would sound a lot better at tempo? At my level of non-skill, it can be surprisingly hard to tell.

I haven’t attempted everything yet; my focus has been on my favorite pieces. To rank those in order of difficulty:

“Roslin and Adama” (simplified) — with a bit more practice, I’d be able to play this one just fine, and probably upgrade to the non-simplified version soon after.

“Kara Remembers” — a small amount of practice would get me to the point where I could play the primo line of the duet. The secondo part, not so much; see previous statements re: odd syncopated rhythms, and fill in lots of sixteenth notes.

“The Shape of Things to Come” — a much larger amount of practice might bring this one within reach. I blundered my way through the entirety of this one during my second session, nowhere near up to tempo, and was very proud of myself for being able to dust off my musical skills and work out how to count the bits in the last line. (For the curious: it’s in 6/8, and each 3 consists of an eighth note, a sixteenth-note triplet, and another eighth note. Been a while since I had to deal with anything like that.) So this one is achievable, I think.

“Prelude to War” — ahahahaha NO. This one is, shall we say, aspirational. In large part for reasons of tempo: this one contains lots of very rapid sixteenth-notes in a pattern whose name I can’t remember. (What do you call it when you have a three-note arpeggio cycling across a 3/4 measure? GBDG BDGB DGBD. I know there’s a term for this.) Anyway, it’s is currently way out of my reach, though by the time I get to anything resembling competence with “The Shape of Things to Come,” I could probably tackle this one.

I should also try “Passacaglia,” which looks entirely feasible.

In general, I would say this book has been handing me my head. But if you ask me what I think of it . . . well, visualize me clapping my hands together and bouncing up and down with an idiot grin. Probably the best recommendation I can give is that after two sessions of playing at a friend’s house, I’m seriously looking into the possibility of acquiring a keyboard for myself. And not one of yer wimpy little short-range plastic keyboards, either, but an 88-key weighted-hammer machine — a piano that happens to be digital. (I’d get an actual piano, but we have even less space for that than we do for a keyboard, and it would be a pain in the ass to tune/move/etc.) I’ve purchased another book of piano arrangements — Cirque du Soleil music this time, which I can also report on later if there’s interest — and want to photocopy the stuff I left at home, too. So in short, this book has re-awakened my love of playing piano, and I really can’t think of a higher recommendation.

Yoons and others may be interested

I need a piano icon for this, not a French horn.

Bear McCreary, composer of the utterly freaking awesome Battlestar Galactica score, has put out a book of piano sheet music for the series. It includes seventeen solos (two in both simplified and advanced forms), plus one piano duet (“Kara Remembers”) and one piece for piano and soprano (“Battlestar Operatica”).

A lot of really good stuff is here. “Kara Remembers.” “Prelude to War.” “The Shape of Things to Come.” Some of my favorite pieces are missing, but they’re largely the ones that don’t suit themselves to the medium: “The Signal” may be Totally Badass, but it is also Totally Percussive, and would make an abysmal piano solo. Probably the only thing I really want that isn’t in the book is an arrangement of “Gaeta’s Lament;” you might be able to make that one work without the drums. But hey, maybe he’ll put out a second book later.

I haven’t yet gotten to play any of the stuff, as I lack a piano. Fortunately, teleidoplex‘s new place has one! So I will report back later. The report will likely document how this book handed my ass to me; it’s been fifteen years and more since I played seriously, and the look of some things in here makes me want to hide under the piano bench and wibble to myself. But I have to try. I like trying to pick pieces out by ear, but it’s a lot more satisfying to play a proper arrangement.