Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Cursed Animosity

Warning: This frightfully long post may be unbearably boring for non-piano players. Heck, it may very well be boring for piano players. But please give it a try. I'm thinking of making an essay out of it.
I think it was Ruskin who coined the phrase, "the cursed animosity of inanimate objects." Hmmm ...

I hate to think of George as my opponent. He's my beloved and treasured piano, after all. But lately, he's been rather uncooperative. It's these blasted contrary-motion scales. They're easy enough in C major. But add a black note or two ... and I'm struck with a weird musical aphasia. Major and minor scales--the playing of which comes as naturally to me as driving or writing--seem to have become complete strangers. Let's look at A-flat major, for instance.


Waterfall v. George, Round 1

Object: To play A-flat major ("Ab") two octaves, first in similar motion, and then in contrary motion, and then again in similar motion. (Phases 1, 2, and 3)

I (Waterfall) approach George confidently, but George is unmoved. He shows no fear. I begin playing the Ab scale in similar motion (both hands going the same way). Easy enough. I can sail through this without thinking, and I do.

Then Phase 2 (Contrary Motion) begins. If I was skimming and sailing before, I seem to have quickly sunk into knee-deep sludge. I slow down ... and stop.

"Now, do I play that white key there (C natural), or that white key to the left of it (B natural)?" I know note names better than my own name, but I seem to have gotten a sort of musical aphasia.

"So I'll try the note to the left."

Plunk. CLANG. Cacophony ensues for a split second. Combined with poor George's out-of-tune state, it's not pleasant for either of us.


Waterfall (0) v. George (1), Round 2
I sigh hard in frustration. This can't be that hard. It's freakin' Ab, for goodness' sake. I've known Ab since the fifth grade. Maybe longer than that. Ab is one of my favorite keys. Or used to be.

So I try again. The hands move thoughtlessly through Phase 1, sail once again, dance like Wordsworth's daffodils on a breezy day.

And then we get to the Phase 2 sludge. Thick, deep sludge. Nasty, smelly sludge. Slow down. Pick my way through those contrary motion notes. Get the "C" right this time, purely by a stroke of luck. Then ... I play a G-flat.

Plunk. CLANG. Cacophony ensues, this time a little longer as I melodramatically bang the offending G-flat several times in a row.


Waterfall (0) v. George (2), Round 3

Get up. Pace. Sit back down.

I've played the piano (on and off) for 30 years. Why can't I do this?

OK. Ab apparently has a C-natural and a G-natural. Who knew? I knew. But it's not something I really think about. Even with all the music theory I'm studying. Ab is just Ab. It plays itself. It's played itself for years. In fact, my mind seems to turn off completely as I begin playing the scale.

I look at George, determined. I cannot bear to think of him as my opponent. We're working together here. But why won't he cooperate?

"This time," I tell myself. "I'm going to THINK about C and G."

I start playing. Phase 1. My mind flits away and perches somewhere on the curtain rod. Or the bookcase. I don't realize its absence until I hit the Phase 2 sludge, slow down ... and ... stop.

Real cacophony ensues, only this time it's a groan from me, not George. I give up and try to move on to Mozart, but I'm tired and more than a little disheartened. Plus, it's late. So I go to bed.


Waterfall (0) v. George (3), Round 4

Next evening, I skip the preliminary practice stuff (Suzuki, regular scales, inversions, etc.) and go straight to yesterday's Ab contrary motion drill. It's no longer just a drill for me; playing this stupid scale has become a mission.

Ab is still a stranger. Not the docile, easy-on-the-hands Ab that I've always known and loved.

Predictably, I sail through Phase 1 and hit the sludge just a few notes into Phase 2. No cacophony ensues. I stop before playing a wrong note. I don't groan in frustration because I'm not frustrated yet.


Waterfall (0) v. George (4), Round 5

I take a deep breath. This time I'm going to con-cen-trate.

"OK," I tell myself. "Every time I get to Ab, I need to use the third finger of each hand on it. That's the anchor. Third finger.

Sludge. Etc.


Waterfall (0) v. George (5), Round 6

I continue talking to myself. "It's C-natural, not B-natural! Not C-flat! Just plain old, oldest-friend-in-the-whole-world C-natural! And"--wonder of wonders!--"both hands use the first finger (a.k.a. Thumb) on C!

So I try again. Slowly. A-flat ... B-flat ... now a white key ... which white key? "Um ..."

Yup. You guessed it. Sludge-fest.

Plunk. CLANG. Cacophony ensues.


Waterfall (0) v. George (6), Round 7
I can't even play the scales in Phase 1 now! WIth all my knowledge of basic theory and key signatures, with all my experience playing this supposedly inanimate object I call George, I've forgotten how to play a simple Ab scale in the normal way.

So I look at the keys, stroke my imaginary beard, and realize I've been thinking of the D-flat note as a C-sharp all this time. And that's why I'm getting confused. Though right now, it doesn't seem natural to think of it as a D-flat, any more than it would to think of B-natural as a C-flat.

But back to the scale. "Self, you need to think this time."

And this time, I manage to keep my mind focused, and I make it through D-flat before ... yup. Sludge-o-rama.

Plunk, etc., etc.


[... time-lapse blogography ...]


Waterfall (0) v. George (?? I've stopped counting), ad nauseam

Practice, practice, practice. Would you believe I've had to think hard on every single note? And I had to play it ever so slowly, the whole thing. And when I'm creeping along like that, my mind wants to flit away and perch somewhere, anywhere, besides the inside of my head where it belongs.

But I did it. I kept my mind in place, engaged it in every note. Didn't let it wander one bit, no-sirree.

Perfect. I played the whole thing perfectly. Well, almost. The timing is off. I'm scared to use the metronome.


Waterfall (1) v. George (??), as nauseum

So I click the metronome on. It's on 40, the slowest speed. I stumble through the contrary-motion scale, feeling like I'm in a race against time. Funny how the metronome makes one feel that way. Kind of like a ticking bomb.


[... time-lapse blogography ...]


By the end of the practice session, I can play the Ab contrary motion scale perfectly and in time. It's 9:30. Time to get ready for bed.


Waterfall v. George, Final Round

After turning the metronome off, I can't resist playing the scale just one more time ... at a nice, brisk pace.

And George can't resist taking that final jab. Of course I hit the sludge. I look for my skittish mind. The quick motion scared it off. It's under the bed.


Waterfall v. George, Overtime Rounds

Mind back in place and metronome off, I play the scale slowly a few more times, usually without missing a note. The faster speed will have to wait.

Upcoming Event

I'm supposed to drill the F minor contrary-motion scale tomorrow.

I sure hope George is ready for it.

2 comments:

  1. An interesting way of describing the playing of scales on one's instrument.

    It somehow reminds me of the time when I get frustrated over playing scales. Then I would try to remember my learning points from the book titled "Inner Game of Music", and become aware that I could have landed myself in a "Self One" mode. *winks*

    Thanks for your recent comment. I am honoured that you offer to put a link to my blog. Yes, you could do so. Thank you.

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  2. This didn't seem "long"...painful, perhaps, but long no. Such memories of my fingers and my clarinet not getting along. Reminders of frustrated moments with the oboe. Laughter over the ridiculous (to anyone who might be listening outside my door) conversation I had with my cantankerous guitar.

    I hope the experience with the next scale goes much, much more smoothly.

    Blessings. (I think it will make a wonderful essay.)

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