My piano


When I was in college, I was interested in concentrating in music. At that time, however, a prequisite was to have enough piano technique to sightread the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach. As I was growing up, however, our family had sufficient means for its daily needs but hardly enought to dream of such extravagences as a piano. (That changed later, and they got one.)

I have not spent a lot of money during my life, so fortunately I have had a chance to have the things that really are important to me.

The Well-Tempered Clavier · May 2, 2015

Well-tempered Clavier

J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is a monument of the musical literature, something like Mount Everest in its reputation and true beauty. I have always expected that the likelihood of my playing it was pretty much the same as that of my climbing Mount Everest; that my realm would be the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, written for nine year-old Wilhelm Friedeman Bach. Recently, listening to Glenn Gould performing The Well-Tempered Clavier, I was struck that some of the pieces might be within my reach.

So, I am giving it a go, beginning with the F# major Prelude and Fugue from Book I. That pair is rated as one of the more approachable. Those six sharps create a little bit of an intellectual challenge that I think my mind can cope with. They also make a lot of the notes happen on the black keys, which are much easier to feel under one's fingertips than the white keys. We will see. So far, I am enjoying it very much, aside from feeling happy that such things may be possible. I have the sense that Bach was playing, enjoying the sounds of a melody and harmony he had discovered, rather than created.

Finding the keys · January 4, 2015

§. 21

Damit man die Tasten auswendig finden lerne und das Noten-Lesen nicht beschwerlich falle, wird man wohl thun, wenn man das Gelernte fleissig auswendig im Finstern spielet.

So that one can learn to find the keys by heart and the music-reading not be arduous, he will do well if he assiduously practices learned material in the dark.
Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu Spielen (Study of the True Art of Playing the Clavier), Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach

I am working to take this point to heart, if not literally keeping the lights out. Lo and behold, little by little it is paying dividends.

First fugue

fugue line

Praeludium und Fuge A-Dur
BWV 896

Though I’ve been playing the piano for many years, it is only recently that I was able to manage to get my mind (and fingers) around a fugue. It was a relatively simple one in three parts from J.S. Bach’s Kleine Praeludien und Fughetten. Curiously but clearly, this accomplishment was enabled by experience of learning to love tree climbing, overcoming a lifelong terror of heights. The feat of tree climbing, for its part, reflected reading Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind. It was a question of finding a side of my mind that wasn’t coming out and opening it up, not a matter of repeating more often drills that hadn’t got there before.

Jan Dismas Zelenka

Jan Dismax Zelenka

When I was younger, I used to worry that in a little while I would have become acquainted with the best that music (or literature) had to offer, and that there would be diminishing returns after that. A young person’s idea! I had it wrong by about 180°. It’s like a question of counting stars. The closer you look, with bigger and bigger telescopes, the more there are to see.

I was driving home one evening a while ago when I tuned the radio into a Baroque trio sonata being played on woodwinds. The music was masterful, with complex harmonies and intricate counterpoint. Each of the voices was a marvel in itself, yet each was dancing along with the others. My thought was, only Johann Sebastian Bach could have written such music. But it as a manifest impossibility that this music could be Bach’s, because his trio sonatas were written for keyboard, and I doubted that there would be one I didn’t know and recognize. It turned out that the answer was Jan Dismas Zelenka, and that he was a composer very respected by Sebastian Bach (who wasn’t easily impressed).

I acquired a set of CDs of these trio sonatas. Clearly I would like to hear more by this composer, but a lot of his music hasn’t even been recorded.

Musical notes · January 2017

After my mother died, I estimated that it would take me about two years to bring my piano technique back to where it had been at its top. That was about right. The question now, of course, is improvement from here…

It has been marvellous to have a fresh start with the piano, as with the rest of my life. Practice as repetition by itself accomplishes almost nothing, I have learned to appreciate. One needs to be paying attention, evaluating, and adjusting course all the time. If sometimes the smallness of the steps is challenging and frustrating, it is also rewarding that the activity provides continual and immediate gratification. I have learned much better how to learn.

Over the last several months at the keyboard, I have found the philosophical observations of Robert Nozick very insightful. He speaks of the function of consciousness as being to evaluate concordance between information coming in various ways. Techniques has many different parts to it. As simple a task as finding a given key may be approached by looking at the keyboard, by proprioception through wrist and shoulders, by imagining where the key is without looking at it, or by feeling it. I have been struck that the errors never involve playing more than one key at a time, but always a wrong key. Our fingers are continually feeling the spaces between the keys and using them to guide motion, without the interstices rising to the level of conscious attention.

Approached as comprehending a bewildering complexity of notes, the task is not possible. One has to hear the sounds before playing them, and bring the body into a position to create them. If your fingers aren't right there when it's time to play the note, they won't get there in time. You have to be positioning your hand to flow from the previous note to the coming one.

In the last couple of years, I've worked at learning things I couldn't do. This included, first, playing without looking at the keys. More recently, it has been memorizing, a task I undertook with dread. My first piano teacher (who wasn't very a very good teacher at all, though he was a credible musician) remarked that it was 100 percent easier for people who started in childhood. Unfortunately that observation is not helpful at best, and – like the rest of his teaching – was actively discouraging: the message was, You can't, You can't. The next piano teacher, who was a much better educator, encouraged me to memorize because that brought attention to variations between different iterations of a theme, a key part of musicianship. Her take was that memorizing was a lot of work. I undertook the effort in the last months with dread, but had fair success. It was certainly true that the process brought attention to the evolution and formation of the musical material. – The next task, I think, will be learning some sight-singing, which I dread even more than memorizing. Curiously, I was told early in school that I wasn't a good singer and so didn't have to sing with the class. (I have run across many, many people who have received the same message.) Again, it was the same sad discouragement from learning of people whose job it was to teach, and who – I recognize now – generally had almost no clue about music and musicianship.

Music is the activity I spend the most time with each day. I can't remember a day when I haven't spent some time at my piano. It's unfortunate that it doesn't lend itself better to presentation here. The list of pieces I play provides a bit of an overview, which I sometimes stop to look at myself.

Neural networks · June 10, 2017

I recently tried out a series of YouTube videos for an MIT course on self-driving cars. I didn't complete the series. The instructor was a very poor public speaker, making eye contact only with the Powerpoint on the laptop in front of him, pausing long and frequently at random moments, reiterating and re-reiterating a few points while leaving out others that would have offered key logical connections, all the while relentlessly fidgeting with his water bottle. Still, I gleaned a few insights from partial listening.

Even self-teaching machines must have a very large dose of programming, or such tasks as creating self-driving cars would be trivial. (This topic is passed over in silence by the MIT course, which is understandable given the complexity of the issues involved, but still unfortunate.) What I found notable is the idea that the neural networks can accomplish a substantial amount of learning without anyone understanding how. In this way, they are like our brains, which can learn specific lessons, but acquire an immense amount of understanding just from observation and occasional reinforcement.

A Scarlatti sonata I am working on contains the repetitive figure shown above, at a tempo fast enough that thinking it out while you're playing isn't an option. It becomes much easier to play upon the reflection that it seesaws back and forth between higher and lower notes, descending the while, so one can accomplish a lot with a little rocking of the wrist. It becomes much easier yet upon the remark that it comes in groups of four notes, beginning with the second sixteenth note of each beat. The ear almost magically takes over from there, with the eye only needing to note where the hand changes position – conveniently, most often also on the second sixteenth note. Once I figured this out, it became much easier to play, and I was able to erase a lot of pencilled-in fingerings that were only distracting.

(I've noticed many times that I am able to play, the first time in the morning, a phrase that I struggled with for a number of days before. After this first time, technique tends to regress to where it was before. This is consistent with artificial neural networks have "learning periods" when they can't do their normal work, and the posited role of sleep in helping the human brain organize the experiences of the previous day.)

Complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach · January 6, 2018

It is amazing that the complete works of J.S. Bach are a consumer item at all, let alone that the price is within the reach of ordinary folk. At the end of last year, I decided to go ahead with the purchase. The investment of time to listen thoughtfully was a more important consideration than the dollars.

I will start with the cantatas, probably one an evening. The cantatas are numerically first in the standard BWV catalog and hence in the CD set, but I probably would have started with them if there were no numbering. When I first started listening to them in 1972, Robert J. Lertsema of Morning pro Musica played one each Sunday morning, in the BWV sequence. At that time, there were no recordings at all for some of the cantatas.

It took me twenty months to make it through the set at the rate of perhaps twenty minutes and evening, about what I had expected. The quantity of music alone is beyond mind-boggling. Bach famously remarked, "I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well."

Haydn Sonata in G major

Four years ago, when my time of being a caregiver ended and I entered this new era of my life, I set myself two long-term goals for my piano-playing. One of them was the Haydn Sonata in G major, Hob. XVI, Number 40. I had thought that it might take me ten or twelve years to be able to play this music.

I am playing it now, hardly at the concert level, but well enough for a lot of personal satisfaction. I expect I will try it again in a year or two, seeing how my overall skill evolves by then.

The second piece is also in G major, Schubert's Sonata D. 894. That is still a way off. But I have been happy enough with the Haydn that in the interim, I will begin Schubert's Sonata in A major, D. 664. That looks as if it will be a little bit of a stretch for me, yet ultimately be attainable.

A quantum step forward

Learning to play the piano is pretty much an inch-by-inch affair, with magic moments very few and in between. One such moment recently came when I set out to learn to play octaves, a standard piece of technique that somehow din't make it into my years of lessons. I found an internet post (which unfortunately I can't lay my hands on right now, since I would like to ascribe proper credit) suggesting that before playing the notes, one should locate them by feel with the fingertips. I haven't mastered octaves yet by any means, but this approach turns out to be extremely fruitful overall, not just for octaves.

I noted long ago that of all the mistakes a pianist makes, hitting between two notes, and so playing both of them at the same time inadvertently, is extremely rare. I believe that the pianist conditions himself to feel the cracks between the keys, with the fingertips figuring it out long before any conscious feeling of a separation occurs, if indeed it occurs at all. If you watch a good pianist play, you will notice him continually reaching for and feeling out notes quite a bit before it's time to play them. (Of course, sometimes there just isn't time for such things, so full technique includes being able to make big leaps in almost less than no time.) A violinist, for instance, needs to come at things differently because there is nothing to feel about the notes; he has to hear them and rely on proprioception.

I think that, most of the time, playing a piano note involves a couple of stages. Usually, the first is feeling that the key is there. If you're expecting to put your foot, or finger, down on something firm, and it turns out there's a void then and there – the reflexes instantly say, "Oopsie! I need to let my friends know about this, and maybe even report it to the brain" – triggering consciousness. Meanwhile, motion tends to freeze up, and the muscles tense up because the hand knows it's supposed to be doing something, but it doesn't know what. It doesn't want to descend into an abyss. Tension makes things much, much more difficult. I have found that practicing for feel also is very conducive to building smooth motions. The next finger needs to be close to in place before the current finger does its thing. As one of my teachers remarked, it gets easier as it goes along – or so it should.

Passion and Resurrection music · April 12, 2020

Christianity was pretty much the religion of the West in the golden ages of classical music, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection the more important dates in that calendar. Regardless of one's own religious beliefs, a love of classical music almost inevitably carries into those events and their many musical settings. The story of conflict, tragedy and triumph lends itself well to dramatic treatments.

I usually listen to many passion and resurrection works during this time. There are any number of them. This time of pandemic makes the focus particularly apt.

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, St. Matthew Passion: called the greatest of all choral works, an artificial call – but I can't think of anything I would put above it
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, St. John Passion: somewhat smaller than the St. Matthew Passion, but with many memorable sections of its own
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Easter Oratorio: more like a cantata, in a mood of uniform triumph and joy
  • Antonin Dvořák, Stabat Mater
  • Franz Josef Haydn, Seven Last Words of Christ
  • Franz Liszt, Christus
  • Gustav Mahler, Symphony #2 ("The Resurrection")
  • Giovanni Pergolesi, Stabat Mater: a well-known classic from the small output of this gifted composer, who died young
  • Richard Wagner, Parsifal: not a hand-in-glove fit, but often programmed at this time – appropriately, in my view

Some would include Handel's Messiah as Easter rather than Christmas music. I am just becoming aware of his La resurrezione. I shall have to devote some attention to it.

Touch and sensation · October 1, 2020

controlled falling

I have continued to be intrigued by the puzzle of the hands moving far earlier and faster than the brain can follow them.

The Economist of August 29, 2020 notes –

The way that humans walk is sometimes described by biomechanists as controlled falling. Making a stride involves swinging a leg out and placing it down with small subconscious corrections to maintain stability as the mass of the body above it shifts foreward. Each leg works like a spring.

That is a good description of fingers landing on the keys. They head out as quickly and in the best direction that they can. Somehow or the other, before one becomes aware of it, they have felt the surface beneath them and adjusted their final course. It is a mystical process, if one's analysis focuses on awareness – but awareness seems to come long after the fact, when the fingers are playing any number of notes per second.