Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Befriending B Minor

Do you ever think you like someone, or even love them ... but then you realize that you really don't know them at all?

This is what's happening with me and the key of B Minor.

I thought I loved B Minor. It's one of my favorite scales to play, as long as I'm not doing contrary motion scales. It goes up and down from white note to black note and back ... like a little roller coaster. At the same time, it has a deliciously spooky feel to it. Playing the scale softly feels a little like tiptoeing. Tipfingering, I guess.

Bach's Mass in B Minor is in, well, B Minor. When I was a working girl in Cubicle Land, I had a ritual. Every morning--every single morning--I would listen to the Mass in B Minor. If I only had time for a few minutes of it, I'd listen to the Kyrie or the Hosanna. If I had all morning, I'd listen to the whole thing. It is the most glorious music ever, ideal for transporting a bored, depressed Cubicle Dweller mentally into realms unimagined.

No, I'm not just using pretty words. It really did transport me ... somewhere. No wonder I was depressed. Whenever the Mass in B Minor was over, I would land flat on my ever-widening butt, back in my office chair and into my controlled-airflow home of Cubicle Land. Sheesh.

So. Back to B Minor. So I thought I loved B Minor. And I do. B Minor loves me, too, I think. But B Minor and I are just beginning to realize that we don't know each other as well as we thought.

See, I'm working on Bach's Sinfonia No. 15 in B Minor. It's a fast, playful piece for three voices. B Minor, like its relative major D, has two sharps: F# and C#. The harmonic minor has A# as well, which is typically used when you're resolving a cadence up to B.

Enough technical talk. Suffice it to say that there are three sharps that can be expected to show up in this B Minor piece: F#, C#, and sometimes A#.

So why do I keep playing G#? Every freakin' time I get to a G, I play G#. It's as if I'm trying to force the piece to be in another key.

This is not unusual behavior for me. Something in my brain always wants to add an extra sharp or flat. This is why I love pieces that have lots of sharps or flats. That way, I don't have to think of which notes are sharped or flatted. I just play black keys and it all sounds right.

So, I'm at my piano lesson today, and I'm playing the B Minor Sinfonia, hands separately. I periodically insert that unmistakable Waterfall signature: G#.

Of course, G# sounds awful, sounds wrong, is wrong. Like a typical piano student, I make a grunting noise and say, "I know that's not the right note." Uh-huh. Then I get to the next G a measure--or a few notes--later, and what do I play?

G#.

Hmph.

So today Deborah told me that I'm not thinking of this piece as being in B Minor, that I'm just reading the key signature and following the rules from there.

Hmph. There is a difference. It's the difference between just reading what's there, and understanding the context of what you're reading.

When I start a piece, say it's in B Minor, I do think to myself, "Hmm. B Minor. OK." Then that gets tossed out of the window. From the very first note to the end, I never think anything like, "Whee, this is fun! I'm in B Minor!" I just think, "Hm, remember to play a coupla sharps, F# and C# and ..." You guessed it: whatever other sharps I want to play. (Of course, I eventually get to where I play it right ... but for this same reason, I'm not a particularly good sight reader for pieces that only have a couple of sharps or flats.)

This is dumb, and it is silly. If I were a better pianist, it would be embarrassing. Perhaps it would be embarrassing if I had any sense of pianistic dignity. I just need to learn to lock the idea of "B Minor" in my mind--picturing the scale in my head or something--before I start practicing that B Minor piece.

So tonight, B Minor and I are going on a date. I'm going to focus on the B Minor Sinfonia for a large part of my practice time. I'm going to explore the scale itself and work on the contrary motion scale for same. Then (this will be very, very tough and will require lots of self-discipline) I will force myself--force myself, I say!--to listen to Bach's Mass in B Minor. At least once. For good measure.

[If any of you musically literate folks out there have a favorite musical work that is in B Minor, feel free to recommend it.]

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