Archive for the ‘Bach’ category

True Intent

March 22, 2009

I was studying my Chopin recital program this afternoon, minding my own business, savoring the Sarabande from Bach’s English Suite No. 5 as played by Andras Schiff. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful dance in the suite, with plenty of room for expressiveness. I haven’t started to learn notes for it myself yet–I’m still somewhere about halfway through the previous dance, the Courante.

But ever since the first time I listened through this program, I’ve had a special affinity for the Sarabande. It feels very intuitive to me, as if it just floated out of my mind and materialized before me without any interference or effort. I feel as if I’ve already played it, and every harmonic turn holds a feeling of nostalgia.

It’s an easy piece for me to get drawn into, lose myself, and leave all the mundane stuff of life behind. It’s meditative, contemplative music, and I want to savor every moment of it.

I was drifting in that peaceful place, my mind free and open, enjoying every note when–

“TRUUUUUUE INTENT!”

A voice came blasting into my thoughts, completely shattering the tranquility.

“What the hell was that?” I thought. The phrase was odd, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything. “OK, I must just be tired, and my mind is playing–”

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!!!”

“Oh, come on, concentrate,” I told myself. “This is good practice for distractions during your recitals next year. You never know what–”

“TRUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT! TRUE INTENT IS THE SPLIT SECOND BEFORE THE PERSON MOVES. THAT IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING! TELL HIM!”

It was as if a bright orange splotch had suddenly appeared while I was looking at a delicate watercolor print of fog rising off a lake at dawn. I wasn’t really alarmed–I didn’t think I was “hearing voices” in the clich├ęd way that people do in movies when they’re losing their minds. I’d received too many messages from the universe, and I figured this was just another one.

“Crap,” I muttered, and started the track on the CD from the beginning again. It was getting harder to ignore whoever was saying this stuff. I was still going over these things in my mind when the voice broke in again.

“TELL HIM! TELL HIM TRUE INTENT IS THE KEY!”

“I’ll do it later–I’m sure I won’t forget.” I was getting annoyed. I’d had a weekend away from home, hadn’t had time to sit at the piano, and today, at about one, I’d finally had a few moments to listen to my practice disc. And now, the dogs were resting quietly, my husband was reading, and I was–

“TELL HIM NOW! YOU HAVE TO TELL HIM RIGHT NOW!”

“Fine,” I said internally, and then, because I figured that part of the message was in the delivery, I shouted:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!”

Ah, that felt better, even if I had no idea what I was talking about. (“I don’t have to understand it–I only work here!”)

“What?” My husband was perhaps just as surprised to have his wife blurt something random while he was trying to read.

“You know your Daitoryu?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Apparently, I’m supposed to tell you that true intent is something that comes a fraction of a second before someone moves. And it’s the key to everything.”

“How do you know that?”

To put it charitably, the only thing I know about martial arts is how to spell “martial arts”. It would be like my husband, a non-musician whose background is in engineering, computers, and, at least lately, shiatsu and Oriental medicine, giving me a twenty-minute dissertation on the evolution and execution of mordents in Baroque music.

“I don’t know anything. But while I was listening to this Bach Sarabande, someone kept saying this and wouldn’t quit until I told you.”

I handed him headphones and the CD player.

“Here,” I said. “This is what I was trying to listen to.”

I waited until I knew the piece had begun, then shouted:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!”

“Stop,” he said, laughing a little.

I waited a few more seconds, then repeated:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT! THAT IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING!”

I don’t remember what his response to that was, but I didn’t interrupt again. When the music had ended, he handed back the CD player.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That is a really beautiful piece.”

Yes, I know it is. If played right, it can be heartbreakingly tender. It is such a great contrast to the mischievous, light and cheerful Passepied that follows.

“Well, at least the message got to its intended recipient,” I said. After all, that’s all that was happening. My mind was open, and whoever wanted my husband to know about “true intent” knew I was a reliable messenger.

Art and the transmission of art, the craft and knowledge of it being transferred from one person to another, is a deeply mysterious thing. You can read all the books in the world about an art, cram your head with facts and figures, theories on how things are done a certain way and why.

Yet without that person-to-person connection, the knowledge is meaningless and useless.

I’ve discovered that, if you are passionate about your art, you will be given a teacher that can transmit that art in the most perfect way for you to absorb it.

At other times, though, the transmissions come from unlikely directions. Today, I was responsible for transmitting something of an art form totally foreign to me. For me, it will always be a good story. For my husband, whose art is impacted by the message I passed, it is something valuable.

I could have ignored the voice–and believe me, I really wanted to! Couldn’t the universe find some other way to send this information without bothering me?

Maybe not. Often, a message has more import when it’s received and delivered by someone who couldn’t possibly make it up if they tried.

I’ve got at least a day or two of learning before I begin the Sarabande. When I listened to the piece later this afternoon, there were no interruptions. But even if I never hear that voice again, whenever I play the piece, somewhere deep in my mind, the words will ring out along with the notes:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!”

Advertisements

Courtly Dances: Courante

March 2, 2009

Today, we had snow–not much, but enough that my two students who come down out of the Helderburgs to study canceled because of bad road conditions.

So, I took a glass of hot, sweet tea downstairs and set about learning some Bach, particularly the Courante from the fifth English Suite.

It’s a much more lighthearted dance than the preceding Allemande, which gave me fits because of all its chromaticism.

I learned the first half of the Courante and thought very seriously about trying for the whole thing. I read through the left hand part for the second half, even looking to see how many pages it took up in Braille.

But with the struggle for the Allemande fresh in my mind, I thought better of it. My mind conjured up an image of a greedy snake who tries to swallow an entire mouse in one gulp. It’s certainly possible, but, like that snake, I might be rendered mentally immobile for some time and get stuck trying uncomfortably to digest what I’d taken in, all the while making ugly sounds and floundering around in confusion.

No, better to wait, even if only until tomorrow morning.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

March 1, 2009

Frederic Chopin lived from March 1, 1810 to October 17, 1849. He is recognized as one of the giants of pianism, and his playing and composing impact the art even today.

Chopin was a master of smaller-scale works, and most of his output was for solo piano. He was equally at home making grand and dramatic musical statements as well as small and intimate ones.

Drawing on the traditions of great keyboard player-composers of previous generations, particularly Bach and Mozart, he developed his own unique approach to melodic writing. His melodies in and of themselves are often minimal in character, and taken out of context, they appear to not even be melodies at all–more akin to kernels or seeds than full-bloom creations.

However, he mastered the art of using ornamentation–trills, scales, arpeggios, sequences of notes played “outside of time”–and these elements are what create the momentum that allows the melodic kernel to soar.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. As a pianist, I am keenly aware of history and the heritage I am drawing on when I play. Up until now, while people said I had the talent, I did not have the mindset to play at a world-class level. I couldn’t imagine myself taking a year to study a recital program–I was afraid of boredom, but, perhaps to a greater extent, I was afraid of the weaknesses in my own technique that would be revealed if I focused so intensely for such a long period on such a small repertoire.

As my technique has gotten stronger and my ability and desire to play expressively have increased, my desire to apply that type of single-mindedness to practice has also grown.

So, when the idea for a Chopin lecture-recital pairing for 2010 came in the middle of the night earlier this winter, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I played with it, considering how I could illustrate Chopin’s evolution as a composer.

The program took shape fairly quickly:

Bach: English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810

Mozart: Sonata in B-Flat, K. 281

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28

I’d heard someone play the complete preludes on a recital when I was in college and always dreamed of doing it myself. But, while I started a few times, I was quickly deterred and discouraged, lacking the technique and the discipline to tackle such challenges as Prelude No. 3 (an all-16th-note left hand that required equal parts speed, smoothness and dynamic shaping); and I never even looked at No. 8 (if 16th notes were beyond what I could do, then 32nds were even further beyond my capacity).

But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, I have begun, taking half steps and whole steps as my mind and hands are able to find a way.

My most recent victory was to finish the fiendishly chromatic Allemande from the Bach suite. The first half was learned easily enough, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that I was able to hold the final few measures of the second half in memory from one practice session to the next.

I still often catch myself wondering how I’m going to accomplish what I’ve set out to do, especially since, as is often the case when we take an opportunity presented by the universe and run with it, the project has grown into a mission to play the program at least once in all fifty states.

Yes, it’s about Chopin, but it’s also about raising awareness of the fact that a blind person can play at the highest level, of showing the world that Braille music is a viable tool for independence, and taking listeners on a journey they might not otherwise embark on.

I could have done an all-Chopin program, and I’m sure many pianists will. The B Minor sonata is on my “must play” list, but not until my technique has grown even further.

In the twenty-four preludes, Chopin put all the different aspects of pianism in miniature form. For me, this is a journey of education. I’m allowing the pieces to teach me how to play, how to produce effects I once only dreamed of being able to achieve. Already, No. 8 has shown me that, by keeping the fingers close to the keys, you can bring out a melodic line and surround it with swirling notes that sound as if they have just blown in on a strong west wind.

Some days, I leave the piano exhausted, unsure how I will learn everything I need to if I want to play this program. I listen to the CD I’ve made of the recital pieces (Schiff on Bach, Uchida on Mozart, Polini on Chopin). With each listening, the music gets absorbed a little deeper into my being, and when I return to the keyboard, things that seemed insurmountable the night before make a little more sense. Even if I don’t have the whole solution, I may have the first step, enough to make my way through two more measures.

This coming Thursday, I will give the first semi-public performance of the prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5, the piece that will open the program next year. I will be playing for a meeting of the Etude Club of Schenectady. It is a group for women musicians who gather each month to play for one another. For me, the meetings and the performance opportunities they present are an impetus to bring a piece to the highest level possible, at least given the short time it’s been since I first began working on it.

Throughout the next year, I will set several such performance milestones for myself. For me, these are important because they will compel me to have things finished and in a coherent musical form in time to present them convincingly to an audience.

But by this date next year, I will be unveiling the first full-length public presentation of my program. More than ever before, I know that I can play this at a level of musicality and polish that I never could have in the past. I also am beginning to believe the people who have said all along that I am a great player, with something unique to present. I am beginning to understand that I should be heard by more than just family and friends. And, at long last, my heart is returning to my music, and my voice is no longer content to sing in just a whisper.