La vie est belle !

The strange ways of memory and learning – Piano

Caution: beware the ensuing “long post.” If you would save yourself, turn back now!

 

I posted a quote from Anne Lamott a couple of weeks ago, in which she tells us to “tell our stories.” In that quote she basically says that it’s okay to tell all your stories, even if they speak unfavorably about someone in your life, but I think it is perhaps more important to tell the stories of the people in your life who have merited favorable story-telling. I’m pensive today. Sometimes when I get in this mood I do certain things. One of them is to pull out a few music books and play the piano. At this point in my life, I don’t play the piano to learn new piano pieces, just to “skim” music that I have had for ages, for relaxation. Usually I end up with a hymnal, but today I found some of my old recital pieces, and it never ceases to amaze me how our memory works. Two recital pieces that I recall most fondly I played in high school. When I was around 16 years old, I discovered that there was this enticing “big world” out there, this world of truly great musicians, who studied music night and day, who lived in the company of other great musicians, who played in giant music halls and knew all the works of the great composers by heart, who knew all about the history of the music, who could play scales at lightning fast speeds, who competed with each other, but also encouraged each other, who actually made a living as performers and composers. It was at this time, around 1987-88, that two things happened to make me aware of the world of the musical “elite” as it were.

The first thing that happened was that I met a girl named Daphne. She was a year older than me, but we were in the same gym class. She was beautiful, and talented at the piano. I mean like super talented. She lived in a “fancy” house and wore very chic clothes, and she took piano lessons from the new “Artist in Residence” at the local junior college. He was just teaching in our town for a year or so, normally residing in Santa Fe, a city full of artists and musicians, even back then. Maybe more so back then. Daphne would normally travel to Santa Fe several times a month for her nearly day-long lessons. She studied very very hard, and she had good grades at school in all her courses. Moreover, she was a very kind person, sincere and nice to everyone, even to a shy, socially awkward girl like me. She was the sort of girl you’d love to hate, but you can’t because she’s too nice. She let me hang out with her sometimes, and she told me about how she had to practice five hours a day most days for her lessons, and how, when she was preparing for the three-state-wide competition that she won in Texas the previous year, he had stayed in town for three days and came to her house and worked with her eight hours per day. I believe that she was planning to try to get into Julliard. I heard her play with the local symphony when they had “young artist” night, and I could see how her hard work paid off. She made it look easy, but thanks to her friendship, I knew that it was not. She inspired me to practice harder myself; she gave me dreams of this world beyond Small Town, New Mexico.

The second thing that happened was that I was allowed to take lessons from her teacher, too, during the year that he was “Artist in Residence.” Anyone could sign up, and the cost was just the normal junior college fees. He was a real-life concert pianist, world-renowned, and he was Polish, like Chopin. Not surprisingly, he knew every piece that Chopin ever wrote, and he played them all beautifully.  I got to hear a recital he gave at the college, and I was blown away. Completely star-struck. It was the first time I had encountered piano playing like he taught me. Because of my determination, I was able to learn the traditional exercises and études that he gave me, from the likes of Czerny and Rachmaninoff. I worked really hard on it. Most things in life that I have really wanted, I have gotten by sheer determination. Être déterminée, it’s a blessing and a curse. In this case, I really wanted to play the works of the masters, and I would have practiced as many hours as he had asked me to. I’d never met anyone like this before. Remember, I was sixteen, and he was handsome, talented, sophisticated, and had the most gorgeous accent I’d ever heard. To this day, Chopin’s piano music represents to me everything that is smart, elegant and refined.

Up until this time, I thought that piano was learned in a little classroom with five other students, two of whom played “real” pianos while the rest of us pretended on plastic keyboards which made no sound. Life in piano class was determined by which color book you were in; there were something like 40 “books” in the method, which in retrospect, was a method “so seventies.”   I still have some of the books and in looking back at them, I find them very “trendy” pedagogically speaking.  I wonder what kind of piano player I’d be if I had started with a traditional method instead. This method used unconventional hand positions and non-traditional notation for beginners, which meant that you had to learn to read traditional music, hand position and fingerings later on.  It did not emphasize the time-tested scales and exercises,  nor the learning of the standard repertoire, until quite late in the series. I think it was a bit like learning twice. The odd hand position was called the “braced 2” and was opposite to the “open hand position.” According to the book itself, this “…allows the student to move freely over the keyboard without extensive facility with scales and arpeggios…[it] allows the hand to perform as a single entity, causing increased security and consistency of sound.” 

My first piano teacher fully embraced this entire method, and used it exclusively. Now, like most “new” things of the seventies, it sought to entice the students by trying to be “cool.” In music this meant that one was “rewarded” with the assignment of the “rock” or “jazz” piece, most of which were written exclusively for the method. In hindsight I think that by doing so, it de-emphasized the importance of the standard repertoire, particularly if one wished to study music seriously later on. I think that the authors of the method really believed that they had broken new pedagogical ground, but in doing a cursory internet search, I can find no references to this method or hand position being currently taught, and I saw that the original company who produced the books is no longer operating.  (I could write a whole post about “weird stuff from the seventies that no longer exists because it was too trendy to endure”, but I’ll probably spare you that one. Then again, maybe not 🙂 ) 

Anyway, back to the topic. Today I came across the two most memorable recital pieces I ever played, memorable because I played them in real recitals, in a recital hall (not just my piano teacher’s living room) with real audiences, and I learned them in the “traditional” fashion. The thing that amazes me is that I can still play them remarkably well for not having practiced in earnest for many many years. I think this speaks well of M. Pytel-Zak’s instruction. My hands remember those pieces, they remember the fingerings which I painstakingly learned, the nuances of dynamics which le prof wrote on the music and drilled into my head with his beautiful accent as I played. Those markings are still on the music, and I remember the lessons that went with them, even now. I see the “X”es which indicated “safe spots” to jump to should I lose my place when playing these pieces I had memorized (just like a real concert pianist). That was one of the tricks, you see. To memorize sections, and to be able to begin from any of those spots. It gave one confidence, and a fall-back position in case of stage fright!

Here are a couple of pictures of my old music, complete with the prof’s handwriting. I am considering whether or not I am brave enough to add a video of myself playing this “Polonaise” that Chopin wrote when he was merely 7 years old. Not because I think I’m any sort of piano player, but to make my point about how our hands can remember things from long ago, even if we wouldn’t have the skill to learn them “anew.” So maybe playing the piano is “like riding a bicycle.” I can play this surprisingly well considering that I had my last formal piano instruction in 1990!

The Second piece was Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which I remember playing at some sort of reception (I think).  All I really remember is that it was held at the home of a person who had a very high social status in my hometown and who supported the arts. I think it must have been something they did to support M. Pytel-Zak and his students. It must have been an honor to have been asked to play at this event. My memories are quite vague because I was an “airheaded” girl. Really! As Debussy is sometimes considered among the “Impressionists” it seems fitting that my memories of playing this piece are like impressions. But how strange is the brain that although my memories of the recital itself are “soft-edged” but that my fingers still remember the passage in the photo, because I practiced it a million times to get it right. This was one of the many French pieces which was probably the spark for my current obsession with all things French 🙂

What do you think, chers lecteurs? Should I post the video?  And you, do you have those “like riding a bicycle” moments with things you did 20 or 30 years ago? What were they?

 

P.S. What the heck. Jetgirl throws caution to the wind and posts video. Qui savait qu’elle était folle comme ça ?

 

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19 Responses to “The strange ways of memory and learning – Piano”

  1. tnkerr

    I, for one, would love to see the video. I would also welcome the post about the 70’s. I spent a good portion of that decade underwater and would welcome the opportunity to see what I missed. Keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. tnkerr

    Holy smokes. You must have two separate brains for your hands to work so well, so independently of one another. That was beautiful – BRAVO.
    Thanks, I loved that.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. suesconsideredtrifles

    I can’t watch the video yet as there is piano music on the radio! One of my friends calls it stem-cell memory, when you can play a piece of music that you learned in your youth. I am still learning new piano pieces. I recently mentioned my complete break from playing/singing. It was hard coming back to it, but worth the effort in the long term. My recollection of playing Clair de Lune in a concert was that I didn’t do it justice and afterwards, I was amazed that someone asked me if I was studying music. I never considered that as a possibility. Sue

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • jetgirlcos

      Ah! Stem-cell memory. Interesting idea ! I think “Claire de Lune” may be my favorite piano piece of all time, and I know I didn’t do it justice when I was 17, but I have these lovely memories nonetheless. Bravo to you for continuing to learn new pieces. I just don’t have the time to study my music too seriously these days. My “real” instrument is the flute, and I do that more often since I play in church and I still have one flute student. I play the piano just well enough to accompany her, but she is rapidly outgrowing my ability to do so. Luckily for her, her mother is the church pianist and is a truly outstanding player! (p.s. I love your “trifles” 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • suesconsideredtrifles

        I wonder whether our fingers remember the repetitive actions too. I watched your video – you play far more accurately than I do! And thank you for your kind words about my trifles. Sue

        Like

        Reply
  4. Bea dM

    Glad I stole some time from my … urgent work to read and listen. Such lovely relaxing music, and your pleasure in playing it for us is catching! Thank you. As to body memory, I can think of swimming after many years, or languages that come back out of nowhere after decades in total limbo (brain muscles?)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • jetgirlcos

      Yes, I suppose swimming would be one of those things. I myself actually failed the primary swimming test when I was 7 and never went back, so I never ended up learning how! Doh! Thanks for reading/listening 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  5. Sammy D.

    Just lovely, Kelli. I love hearing you play, and watching your fingers dance and prance is a bonus! I enjoy seeing the music sheets, too. Works of art visually as well as acoustically.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • jetgirlcos

      Thanks, Sammy 🙂 I was a little hesitant to do this one, but in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind. What’s the worst that could happen? Ok, the worst that could happen is that my old piano teacher could somehow see this and be embarrassed that I mentioned his name in relation to someone with what has undoubtedly become uneven arpeggio playing and bad hand position, but hey, it’s been 25 years since my last piano lesson! Everything since then has just been me messing around on the piano, not really “studying” it! Anyway, it is *highly* unlikely that he’ll ever see this, and if he does it is highly unlikely that he would remember a shy 16-17 year old girl that took 2 semesters of lessons back in the 80’s ! à bientôt !! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
    • jetgirlcos

      Merci, Mélanie. J’ai vu tes photos, qui sont belles ! Donc, tu as en effet un talent artistique comme photographe ! 🙂

      Like

      Reply
  6. Le génie

    Tu bien sais narrer les histoires du passé, celle-ci laisse des “touches d’impressions” sur la musique, le piano, un professeur polonais et le grand Chopin…
    Et si super K, se lance dans une “folle envolée” manuelle en oubliant la moindre des prudences qui oserait s’en plaindre…
    La musique s’envole, les “notes” restent…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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