I'm taking a writing class and the assignment is always, "Write what you know." So I wrote an essay about Piano World. See below.
I belong to a chat-site on the Internet called Piano World, which has a subsection for Adult Beginners. People exchange tips on how to find a good teacher, what are the best pianos, and how to practice effectively. But the question that gets posted to Piano World over and over again is, “Can an adult learn to play the piano?” The answer to this question is obvious.
For me, taking piano lessons for the past two years has been 25 percent enjoyment, 75 percent frustration, which I consider a pretty good ratio. Some of the enjoyment comes from learning more about music. For example, I now have a greater appreciation for American composer Jerome Kern, who wrote the music for dozens of American musicals. But the main source of enjoyment comes from learning to play songs, or, as they are called in the music world, “pieces,” as in “What pieces are you working on?” Right now I’m working on three pieces--“Embraceable You,” by George and Ira Gershwin, ”Ondulation,” by Bela Bartok, and “Praeludium,” by a British composer named James Hook, whom my teacher refers to as “a minor Baroque composer.” Unfortunately for James Hook, he was born during the lifetime of Johan Sebastian Bach, so he is considered second rate by comparison, even though he was a musical genius who performed piano concertos publicly when he was only six-years-old.
Each of these pieces poses a different challenge, so my brain has to work on three different channels when I practice, which I do every morning at 7:00 a.m., when my husband is still asleep. He claims my practicing doesn’t wake him up; I choose to believe him. During the daytime when I practice, he puts on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which contributes to his unqualified support of my piano efforts.
“Embraceable You,” composed by the famous American Gershwin brothers, is the hardest for me to play, though it looks the easiest on paper. To begin with, it is what I consider a perfect song in terms of the words, written by older brother Ira Gershwin, and the music, written by younger brother George Gershwin. The song starts off with the simple two-word phrase, “Embrace me,” followed by one of the most seductive phrases in American popular song, “My sweet embraceable you,” which, with its pronoun twist, could have been written by artist M.C. Escher. The song continues from there, rhyming “embraceable” with “irreplaceable,” “tipsy” with “gypsy,” and “charms about you” with “arms about you.” It ends with the suggestive admonishment “Don’t be a naughty baby, come to Papa, come to Papa do,” which I’m guessing barely slipped by the censors in 1930, when the song premiered in a show called Girl Crazy.
The foundation of “Embraceable You,” though, is George Gershwin’s music, which opens with low, nonchalant tones and ascends to higher, more pleading tones as the song progresses. Dozens of singers have recorded this song; my favorite version is by Chet Baker. Though better known as a trumpet player, I like Chet Baker’s singing, which is languid and yet hopeful, as if he is exhausted by disappointment but still believes in love.
The fact that “Embraceable You” is a perfect song makes it intimidating to play. Any mistake mars perfection, like dragging a needle across a new LP. To do justice to the song requires a lightness of touch on the piano that I just don’t possess, particularly when it comes to playing chords, which require three or four fingers to play different notes simultaneously. “Your fingers should go ‘boing-boing-boing’ as if they are bouncing on a trampoline,” my teacher tells me. But mine go “plonk-plonk-plonk,” as if they were robots trying to dance "Les Sylphides." At one point I got so discouraged I stopped practicing “Embraceable You” altogether. This strategy, if adopted for the long term, is not a recipe for improvement.
The second piece I’m working on is “Ondulation,” by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Bartok was an early-20th-century modernist and a contemporary of artists such as Picasso and Matisse. In addition to composing and performing, he traveled the Hungarian countryside to record folk melodies, which he incorporated into his compositions. True to its title, “Ondulation” is a series of undulating, atonal scales that sound psychotically beautiful. I’ve just started learning this piece, so I’m in that 75 percent frustration zone where my brain and fingers conspire to make me play the wrong notes. What I’ve found is that every new piece takes me three or four weeks to learn, after which I can more or less play it from memory. If I don’t then play the piece every day, however, I quickly forget it. Currently, I am holding nine pieces in memory, but as new pieces come in, the older ones get pushed out, as if there were only nine chairs in the piano section of my brain.
The third piece, “Praeludium,” by British composer James Hook, born in the mid-1700s, has reached the 25 percent place of enjoyment for me—that window of time in which I’ve mastered the notes (mostly) but not gotten sick of them yet. Cheerful and bombastic, “Praeludium” is a classic march that makes me feel like a schoolgirl practicing my letters in a black-and-white composition book. I like playing “Praeludium” so much that I had a dream that I was playing it. In that dream I had a revelation. At my last lesson, my teacher told me that I needed to play the piece with more “direction.” At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant, but in my dream I realized what he was talking about. Playing the piano needs to be like walking or running—one needs to be slightly off balance to move the piece forward. I’ve been playing the piano as if I were marching in place, not going anywhere. I need, instead, to lean forward—mind, body, and soul, even if that results in more mistakes. “If you play with enthusiasm,” my teacher told me, “no one will notice the mistakes.”
That’s good advice for both inside and outside of the piano world.