Things to keep in mind

Okay, so in the last post, I talked about the stuff I keep in mind while doing exercises. So why not list them?

  1. Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation. Always be aware of using your hands and arms in such a way as to make it easy to maintain suppleness. Experiment with this. Healthy, relaxed play is the single most important thing to keep in mind. This is the top of your focus.
  2. Keeping the long bones of the hand and the long bones of the forearm lined up.* Bend your wrists as little as possible. When your hands and your forearms are not lined up, you are playing with what Dorothy Taubman and generations of pianists call a “broken arm.” Do not do this.
  3. Make the hands “float.” The arm, as I speculated to my teacher, is like a selfie stick for the hand, moving it back and forth; her term for it is a crane which is superior since it denotes articulation. The hands, attached to the arm, should float in space.
  4. Keep a clear, vibrant 3-D image of your instrument in your head (of the strings/pedals/etc.) as you work. You almost need to have a proprioception sense about your instrument. Always maintain a 3-D picture of your instrument in your head as you play, and strive to remain aware of where you and your hands/feet are in relation to it.

Beyond that, in terms of results, what you want is evenness and beauty of sound. But those are Step 1. The stuff above is Step 0. If you don’t have those four things lined up, you aren’t going to have evenness and beauty of sound, or you won’t have it for long before you hurt yourself and have to stop playing.

* To be picky, these are the metacarpals and the radius and ulna. They should be fairly well lined up as much as you can manage; of course they can’t be perfectly lined up, but you should always aim for a straight, supple wrist. The tendons that control your fingers run over that joint, and you don’t want them having to slalom around on a wildly gyrating or kinked-over wrist to do so.

Continuing my left hand work

Yes, it’s still hard, but it’s improving — slowly. Painfully slowly, and I’m trying to focus on making sure that the word “painful” remains a metaphor. I’m still settling on a good left hand position, and it will probably be a continuing process.

I’ve realized that my pinky position has a huge impact as well on how well my fourth finger can manage things, which should come as no surprise. It’s extremely hard to make my pinky not do things it shouldn’t, though. It’s much easier in my right hand, probably because of the hand position; I don’t have to reach across myself or the instrument to use my right hand, so it can stay more relaxed.

At any rate, relaxation is extremely important in both hands, but particularly my left. I should probably be sure to do more of my Inaudible Insomniac Practice Sessions at 2am focusing on the left hand exercises. Sitting at the harp while one is somewhat bleary and trying to be very quiet in the dead of night is a surprisingly good way to force relaxation.

In other news, I’ve semi-finished up a piece with a nice Alberti bass pattern, which has put one nice tool in my toolchest, and have begun a waltz with a typical bass/chord/chord thing in the left hand, which is a giant pain in the gluteal area on the harp. It’s much, much harder to manage precise, confident jumps in position on the harp than on the piano, at least for me thus far, and it’s also hard to repeat a chord in the bass without buzzing.

So anyway, things are progressing, and I’m enjoying myself. I think I’m like one of those dogs that needs to have a rawhide toy to gnaw on or else I’ll end up chewing the table legs to splinters and otherwise destroying the house.

Nice so far

So things are going nicely with my teacher. I’m pretty pleased — she’s doing exactly what I wanted, which is giving me exercises and short pieces to work on to correct defects and lacks in my technique. She’s great at picking things that will stretch my ability just a bit, so that I’m not struggling too much … but just enough. And each exercise has a definite success point where I know that I’m doing it properly.

I know it won’t stay this way as time goes on; eventually, I will start to get into greyer areas technique-wise. But for now, it’s very nice, and I’m being pleasantly surprised by my ability to learn these strange things that I didn’t think I’d be able to do.

I have had to make some changes to the short piece that she asked me to learn — the beginning of a piece called “Song of the Heart.” There’s one C that I must turn into an A or else my head will melt, and there is another part where I need to bump a C down to a G because it just sounds much better to me. None of these changes are technique-related; each would be easier to play as they are. But … I’m sorry, my ear keeps expecting an A there and hiccuping when there isn’t one, and that G sounds better walking down to the F than the C in the left hand.

I’m one of those, apparently.

“Flow” and the fun of working

Just read an article about the … well, the bullshit of “flow”. I’ve always had a nit to pick with the way that deliberate practice is characterized as not much fun, hard work, much less fun certainly than turning your brain off and going with it.

For me, “turning the brain off and going with it” feels like Chinese water torture. I never felt quite like a human when people observed that deliberate practice was hard, sweaty work and hence “not fun.” Even if everyone else likes nothing more than to stop thinking, that drives me up the wall.

I remember being told to practice when I was a kid, at the piano. At that age, and according to the adults around me, “practice” meant to do something over and over and over a million times while you turned your brain off, and it would just get better by magic.

I couldn’t do it. It was awful to sit there and be mindless, so I rarely to never practiced without getting frustrated as all hell, to the point of breaking piano keys, which I’m a bit hesitant to admit to.

It wasn’t until I learned — as an adult in my 40s — about deliberate practice, slow practice, and Leopold Mozart’s trick with the dried peas, that practice became fun.

Yes, you read that right. Deliberate practice, contrary to the common wisdom, was fun. Suddenly, I enjoyed it and could easily lose myself in doing something over and over the requisite number of times until I got it.

Deliberate practice wasn’t unpleasant. Deliberate practice, for the first time in my life, made practicing fun.

So maybe I’m just not set up for “flow,” whatever it is. I’m sorry, but if my brain isn’t engaged, I’m bored out of my mind.

I also have a very, very hard time focusing under someone else’s gaze. I can focus by myself just fine, but when other people are watching me, I feel like a seal being stalked by sharks. Between my love of nitpicking and detestation of being watched, I suppose it is no accident that my favorite way to be a musician is to accumulate technique and then arrange and compose. 🙂

Suckage.

You know, the problem is that when you get a bit better, you paradoxically start to suck for a while. When you get a handle on something new, for a while it undermines everything else because you have to start integrating the new knowledge into the existing structure that you’ve already developed.

Also, I’m an idiot because I totally forgot that I already said this on July 10.

Okay, so.

It’s the Friou exercises, full scales in both hands (4-fingered in the right, 3-fingered in the left), arpeggiated and rolled chords, and slow four-fingered trills. Them’s the basics, skill-wise.

How to do a four-fingered turnaround

(And not collapse the distal knuckle of your middle finger.)

Three things:

  1. Your left hand knuckles will need to be slightly more horizontal and your right hand knuckles slightly more vertical.  Not much, but a titch.
  2. Keep the long bones of your hand aligned with the long bones of your arm.  This will allow the tendons to function without impediment.  Breaking that line is fatal (on both harp and piano).  Given #1, this is why you need to keep your elbows up.
  3. When you reach out with the ring finger, keep it curved or else the middle finger knuckle will lose every ounce of firmness and collapse.  Those two fingers share a tendon; they either curve together or they collapse together.  To keep the middle finger curved and firm at the knuckle, the ring finger must be curved as well.

All of these things work together.  A year after getting my harp, I can do four-fingered turnarounds (although not quickly) without pain or difficulty.  These three points made it possible, and they took me a year of stubborn analysis to work out.