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Capturing the first sunrise in our practicing and performing

I always ponder the process of learning a new piece and how I want to experience and re-experience a freshness that seems to come with my earliest exposure to the printed page.

As I set out my fingering, isolate lines or voices, in a Bach Three Part invention, for example, or even within the Adagio of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” with its choir of voices worth parceling out and singing individually, I want to preserve a sense of awe and inspiration that permeates each stage of learning.

That’s a big order.

For many piano students, regardless of age or playing level, the doldrums set in as they weather the challenges of reading new notes, fingering them, and having to practice consistently with focused concentration. The “newness” infatuation often vanishes after a few awkward, stumbling sight-reads.

Getting down to business, is just that for them–an officious task that steals time from video games and sports activities. Do I have to do it? they sing in chorus.

While we all have to come to grips with DETAILS on the music page, doing our housekeeping, counting out measures, we can still marvel at each step if we don’t separate what drew us to a masterwork from the journey to expand our consciousness about it.

Since I teach mostly adult students, those having returned to piano after years away from lessons, I suggest that they keep a journal of their personal awakenings as they start a new composition.

Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being At the Piano, did the same, even at her very advanced playing level. She poetically described the physical sensation of contacting the keys, and the suppleness of motions that drew a gorgeous singing tone from the piano.

“As I discovered a new awareness or as an insight came to me, I would make a brief notation. Before I began to keep a journal at the piano, awakenings would come over me, be forgotten, and then return again, sometimes years later. I finally brought a writing pad to the piano and whenever an idea took hold, I made a note. This helped me to remember the experience of a particular moment.”

She stressed the importance of “developing a sensory awareness of the sound, touch, of what the entire body is experiencing, so that each tone may sing.”

Her words provided a compelling paradigm for learning, since they fleshed out a living, breathing, in the moment encounter with sound without value judgment:

“I am now able to reach a state of being at the piano from which I come away renewed and at peace with myself, having established a harmony of mind, heart, and body.”

More specifics applicable to practicing:

“Every skill acquired at the piano can easily involve kinesthetic pleasure. Even though the total act of playing is complex on an advanced level, it consists of many simple natural movements which are dovetailed. Portney Chase describes”release and responsiveness,” the elements of which “give us the freedom to pause in our playing without stopping, to provide accent in our playing that is strong but also tender, to express subtle fluctuations of mood.”

She emphasized practicing as “living in a constant state of discovery and increased awareness.”

The word “discovery,” has a child-like character since it rekindles our memories of nature’s first sunrises, sunsets, ocean tides, etc.

Why not apply this to the piano in our daily journeys of self-realization. (Not forgetting to breathe deep, natural breaths as we play)

A piece of music has a fresh landscape to explore and the explorer pianist should “feel” the pulse of discovery in every exposure.

Apropos, this is one of my favorites, “First Sorrow,” from Schumann’s Album for the Young, that I learned years ago, and recommended to an adult student. In reviewing it again, I wanted to feel its “newness” by following an inclination to “breathe” through phrases that had their own organic contour. The distance from my first learning encounter seemed to favor the sense of surprise I experienced when revisiting it.

Jeremy Denk, concert pianist, speaks wisely about capturing “freshness” in performance. He alludes to “having a continuous state of wonder about the music he’s playing.” (Please note his final words about “recording” and how to overcome the “decay” of notes with a surmounting soulful, singing expression) He seems to have an innate sense of playing in the moment, with an eternal reverence for his ongoing journey.


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