Archive for August, 2008

Week 2/104: What Shall I Do on My Vacation?

August 26, 2008

Went to have my lesson today, finally. Confirmed my suspicions about why I’m having wrist and forearm pains, because it felt a lot more natural to play at a real piano. Upon coming home, I put some more cushioning on my chair, and thereafter was able to play without any discomfort of the forearm for an hour and half, although my wrist is sometimes weird because it sometimes needs to make wide turns. Still, it feels much better. HOWEVER! My back is much more tired. I was sitting up straight the whole time so I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is because the cushioning slides around on the chair and I use the muscles in the lower back to stay in place. I amn’t sure.

I made a lot more mistakes in front of the instructor than in the comfort of my home, and I wasn’t even nervous. This makes me wonder how I will do performing for a real audience. Of course, if I were actually performing, I would know the piece COLD, not lukewarm like with Alfred’s. Instructor asked me to polish a few pieces for our next session, so I’ve started doing that today. Each piece I played through 10 times and stopped (except for the last couple, where I got tire), and so pretty much have memorized. Since I’m going to be polishing them, I figured I might as well record them. So I’ll put them online sometime.

Instructor found a few problems with my playing. One is that, on parts where the left hand is playing repeated notes (and therefore unable to play legato (continuously) because the hand must lift off the note before striking it again–actually, he told me the mechanism by which advanced players can play legato even when repeating a note, but that’s too hard for me right now…) the right hand also stops playing legato, because the natural instinct is to sync both hands. I am to work to stop that.

Also, I haven’t been working on my crescendos at all, because they felt too hard the first time I tried it. Additionally, I completely glossed over the marking on a piece where I was to play the melody in the RH fairly loudly but the accompaniment softer. So I am to put in more dynamics in general. This can’t really happen until I am fairly familiar with a piece, so I suppose that’s why I’m polishing up these songs.

He also told me to depress the pedal after the first note in the pedal bracket has been played (probably to make it easier for later, when I’ll need to pedal successively). It’s funny–when I was at the lesson, he told me that I was doing that already, and asked me why, because he was going to tell me to do that later, and most people hit the pedal before they start playing the note. I told him it was because I cannot process everything at once. I start playing the note, then my brain thinks, oh shit, I need to pedal here, so then I pedal. And I know that I can start pedaling any time after the note has been hit and before the finger lifts off it and it will still sound the same, so I don’t make an effort when practicing to start pedaling earlier. The funny thing is, now that I’ve practiced my pieces and start to memorize them (playing them 10 times in a row makes me MUCH more familiar with them than playing 3 times in a row, as I usually do) and can play at speed, I’ve started hitting the pedal the instant I hit the note, and must now train myself to put in the delay.

I think by the end of the week, I will have worked my way to the end of the book, and will have polished quite a lot of the songs. It might take another week to polish all of them. By that time I should also have Prelude to performance grade. The problem is, I’m leaving for NJ on Saturday and shan’t return until the start of Fall quarter. I hope it hasn’t all decayed by then.

I wanted to stop the countdown clock for while I am on vacation, since I wouldn’t be practicing at all, but my roommate wouldn’t allow it. I was going to construct an argument, but I’m too lazy. Right now we’re on week 2/104. What I’m going to do is, on the weeks where I am vacationing and not practicing, rather than increasing the first number, I will decrease the second number. That way, the first number always denotes how much practice I’ve had. The second number is variable and will denote how much total practice time I will have had until the end of the bet, which will always be August 14, 2010. So for example, when I come back on 9.25, it will be week 3/101 (I actually lose 3.5 weeks, but whatever, no system is perfect).

I also think that, to gauge my progress, I shall have a mini-recital once every 3 months (quarterly), by which I just mean record a few pieces and put them on youtube. By the time week 9 rolls around, I should be able to play some real, non-Alfred pieces. I’ll announce the program when I have a better idea of what kind of stuff I’ll be capable of by then.

Goals:
Prelude & Alfred’s: finish by Week 3

Week 1/104: Almost done with Alfred 1

August 24, 2008

Progress with Prelude is slow and with Cavatina, almost non-existent. But, I am pretty far in Alfred’s–pg 73. I stopped here today because the next page is a new concept (a new key). There’s only 20 pages left and I think I could probably finish it in a week.

I think this is actually a good thing. Using the method book gives faster progress because it breaks down the complicated tasks into simpler substeps, which are individually mastered quicker. I feel like after I finish this book, I could actually manage Minuet in G–the thing I was having the most trouble with, the different cadence in the LH and RH, Alfred’s addresses at several points. If I had spent a whole week working on nothing but Minuet, I might also be able to play it, but then I would also not be able to play anything else. As stupid as these toy pieces in Alfred’s sound, I feel vaguely satisfied that I can play them.

When I say that I’m on pg 73, I don’t mean that every piece up to 73 has been polished to performance grade. Rather, the pieces are at varying degrees of polish. However, for any given piece, I could probably work it up to performance quality in a few hours or so. I don’t bother because there are so many of them that it would be uneconomic to do so, when you don’t need to be able to play flawlessly to learn the concepts within.

At the beginning of this week I just practiced haphazardly out of my various sources, but gradually I’ve figured out a system. At the beginning I spend about 5 minutes warming up–towards the beginning of the week, with 5 finger exercises; now, with scales (I have 2 out of 24–I discovered that as a result of my failed attempt at learning Minuet, I already knew the G major scale, so it wasn’t totally useless). Then I just go through Alfred’s, playing every piece a few times, skipping the ones I think are stupid (like happy birthday). I am still not very good at sight reading–the first time I’ll need to look for the keys if it’s a newish piece. I thought that interesting, actually. The first run through within a session, it’s almost as if I’m playing it for the first time. But by the second or the third run, the practice from the days before activates and I’m able to play faster and with less mistakes. In other words, if we think of our memory during one practice session as a cache, then it seems like yesterday’s practice’s main effect is to decrease the load time–what’s in the cache is still lost from session to session. Of course, if you’ve played it regularly for a long period of time, then some of it still stays in the cache.

Anyway, so after some time I’ll finish all the songs I’ve learned, and then I’ll start working on new ones. I play through them maybe 5 times or so, until I learn the basic movements and can get the cadence within the phrases (switching phrases may be halting). Blow the Man Down gave me a lot of trouble, because the beat in the LH goes 2-2-2 and the RH goes 3-1-2. So what I did was to play that rhythm at a stupidly slow rate, like 1 second per 8th note, until the hands understand the rhythm, and then repeated that bar, gradually increasing the speed.

So it’s like a layering process. Each time I refresh everything I’ve learnt up to now, then add some more, moving on before I’ve mastered a concept. This should be more effective than trying to master a concept completely before moving on, because a lot of the learning happens after the session, during sleep. If, say, each concept takes a fixed number of practice-sleep session pairs to learn, then obviously to maximize throughput, you need to work on multiple concepts at the same time. The staggering occurs because you need to know something about concept 1 before you approach concept 2. So it’s basically pipelining.

After I’m done with Alfred I’ll play through Prelude for a few times. I have started working on the second half, but progress is not as fast as on the first half.

I noticed, though, that I didn’t seem to be adding as many songs each session lately as before. Yesterday I only added 2 pieces. But my session was still like 2 hours. So, I’ve started cutting out the really old pieces from my routine. For example, I really liked Harp Song when I was working on it, because I felt it would help me figure out pedaling (and it has). But now, I don’t feel like I’ll get any more benefit out of reviewing that. There are other songs that also use pedaling, and they’ll teach me to pedal while doing something mildly more complicated.

Oh yeah, I also figured out that the reason my wrist hurts is because I’m not sitting at the correct height because my bench hasn’t arrived yet. I don’t know when it will either because I’m still in the middle of sorting out the damages on my piano from UPS.

Progress update:
Prelude: don’t know how to finger the last phrase, fingered all the other bars. Can play first 19 bars at speed.
Alfred’s: 73/94
Cavatina: kill me now.

Time log:
Week 1: 13.5 hours
Week 0: 11.1 hours

Week 1/104: My Wrist Hurts =(

August 18, 2008

For accounting purposes it is easier for my weeks to start on Monday and end on Sunday, rather than start on Thursday (when I got the piano) and end on Wednesday, since that is how I track my time for everything else I do. Week 0 (Th 8/14-Sun 8/17) I spent 11 hours playing the piano. I may have overexerted myself because my forearms feel a little carpal-tunnely, as they were wont to do when I used to play computer games.

I’ve got the first 19 bars of Prelude memorized (I have to think about it, though, and pause for a long time at certain points–definitely can’t recall at speed), and the next 16 I haven’t looked at at all. It’s a natural stopping point since he starts in G and through a mysterious sequence of chord changes ends on a G one octave down. Presumably he should then work his way back up in the next 16 bars, but, since that part is completely unknown to me, it amuses me to suppose that I can practice by beginning on the (second) highest G on the keyboard and simply repeat these 19 bars, moving towards the low end one octave at a time, until there are no more Gs left on the keyboard. I shall call it “The Idiot’s Staircase.”

I realized that, this summer, I split my time between Disney and the paper, and as a result got nothing done for either project. Therefore, I don’t think I ought to split my time between too many projects. So, I’ve decided to just totally eliminate Minuet from my program. It’s very difficult (at this stage, for me) but honestly, sounds kind of childish, so I don’t think the difficulty to nice-sound (euphony?) ratio is worth it. (By contrast, the difficulty to euphony ratio for Prelude is quite low.) On the other hand, I have heard that one shouldn’t work very hard on one piece, but should rather work on several pieces at once and slowly improve on all of them. I don’t know.

Progress report:
Prelude: 19 out of 35 bars memorized, can play maybe 4 at speed
Minuet: returned to the store for a full refund
Alfred’s: around page 30 of 95 (there are many sketches (I wouldn’t call them full pieces) of varying familiarity. Sight reading is getting better with these easy pieces.)
Revolutionary: learnt the first chord. It’s a G7 with 2 extra notes. So, completed… 5 notes out of about… 1000?
[Edit: 84 bars. Maybe 20 notes per bar on average, so closer to 1600 notes. Where can I find an exact count?]

Week 0/104: Goals for August

August 16, 2008

Today I had my first lesson. My piano had come with a free book of sheet music, but almost everything in it is too hard for me (actually, Revolutionary Etude is in it!). I’d been dicking around with Bach’s Minuet in G since I know that’s a pretty simple piece. I’ve got the right hand worked out okay, but putting the left hand together with it is a challenge. Anyway, when I met with my instructor I was surprised to hear him say that he wouldn’t give that piece to someone until they’ve been playing for a couple months. He told me that I could do it in a month, maybe. I think I’ll do it in a week.

I showed him the book, and he told me that Bach’s Prelude is an easier piece, so I’ve started working on that, too. It doesn’t look easier than Minuet at first glance, because it’s got more notes, but having played through it some I see that it is, because the RH is just chord shapes, and the rhythm is simple so it’s easy to put both hands together. I’m hoping to get through that in a week, too, but there is significantly more to memorize than Minuet, something like 3x the amount of material.

I also purchased from him a copy of Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course Book #1. A lot of the stuff in the beginning is too elementary and of no interest to me, but I think it’s good because it groups lessons by concepts, and concepts are good to know as a general rule. I’ll be working on this book, too, but I don’t know if I’ll record videos of any pieces from there because a lot of it is stupid shits like Jingle Bells. Christmas has really killed Jingle Bells for me.

Finally, I really like this song, so I downloaded the sheet music for that as well, but this is almost surely too difficult for me right now. In the 4th bar, it is actually physically impossible for me to play it without the sustain pedal (I’ve got small hands that span about an octave). So I’ll need figure out how to use the pedal before I can play this piece–it’s just hard because I’m not used to doing so many different things with my body at the same time. The fact that it’s hard is offset by how much I like the song–that’s really the only thing that’s going to motivate me through this project. If I find a song I like then I’ll want to practice so I can be cool and play it, but if I don’t like something then I’ll be bored and never want to practice.

So anyway, to summarize:

Short term goals:
Minuet in G and/or Prelude (Wohltemperierte Klavier I No. 1) in 1 week
Cavatina in… 3 weeks? But I’m leaving on vacation in 2 weeks so I don’t know how that’s going to work.

Medium term goals:
Finish Alfred’s in… 6 weeks to 2 months? I want to get through the basics quickly and get to the fun stuff!

Long term goals:
Revolutionary etude in 2 years

Revolutionary Etude in 2 Years

August 14, 2008

I have taken it upon myself to learn to play the piano. At 23 years of age, my entire life has been completely amusical–I don’t know how to play any instruments. So now that I can do whatever I want, I am going to change that.

I’ve made a bet with my roommate. He doesn’t believe that I can learn to play the Revolutionary Etude in 2 years. If I lose, I’m going to have to buy him steak, and vice versa. It’s going to be a challenge, but I am confident I can do it (and I base this on absolutely nothing). He did lose the last such bet we made, so I’d say I’m the favourite going into this. I also managed to rope 3 more people into the bet. If you would like to get a piece of this action, let me know.

This blog is going to document my progress with this undertaking. I’m going to post videos of pieces on youtube as I learn them. You can find them here (revolutionaryetudein2years was too long for a youtube handle).

Having done some research, I spent about a grand on a Yamaha Arius 160. It’s a new model, just came out, and supposedly does everything the low end Clavinovas do but for less! Here is my set up:

Yeah, it was supposed to come with a piano bench but that hasn’t arrived yet. I’ve got the laptop up there so I can track my practice times on iGoogle.

2 years. It’s going to happen.