Saturday, October 31, 2009

Switch Back Rag

I feel that in the last two days I've finally found my groove again at the keyboard, for the first time since I came down with the flu a few weeks ago. The trigger has been finding a piece that's just plain fun to play.

I tested out using my demos of Sibelius First and PhotoScore to scan in some sheet music so I could play it back and hear what it was supposed to sound like (a process that went remarkably smoothly, once I got past the recalcitrant scanner). One of the pieces I listened to was called Switch Back Rag from First Ragtime Pieces by Dennis Alexander, and since it was catchy enough to get stuck in my head, I decided to learn it. It's at just the right level to be challenging yet doable, but longer than anything I've learned thus far (two whole pages! :) ).

The challenge for me seems to center on the areas where the left hand is playing a normal 4/4 background while the right is doing something syncopated. My usual strategy of learning HS and then putting them together isn't working as well as usual because part of the time the melody moves from hand to hand, and then when they're playing together the individual parts are straightforward enough -- the whole problem is interweaving them effectively.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reading scale degrees

I have been having a very rewarding week as far as music theory awareness and depth of music reading skills go, but I haven't been playing a lot of piano. Though I've been good about practicing my sight reading daily, that's been about all the time I've spent at the piano.

But meanwhile, I've been playing my late-beginner repertoire CDs and following along on the score, but all of a sudden there's a new dimension of depth, because my brain has figured out how to see each note's scale degree based on the way the notes of the key's tonic triad line up on the staff (i.e. the way they alternate being line-line-line space-space-space line-line-line space-space-space as the eye travels up the staff or ledger lines.

This new "x-ray vision" is, I think, a result of the time I've spent trying to make myself read intervalically when sight reading, helped along by some odd little flash cards I made to help me develop an eye for where the tonic triads of each key lie on the treble or bass clef.

It feels like I'm doing a bit of math when I look at the notes on the staff and figure out the scale degree -- I'm not conscious of doing the calculation, but it doesn't happen quite instantaneously.  But it's clear that practice will improve velocity, so I've continued to quiz myself with my flash cards, and work on recognizing chord patterns in the sheet music as I listen along.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Activities to hone music-reading skills

I wrote this a couple of days ago yet neglected to post it (didn't feel finished? so what, post it anyway...):

One thing I've been doing is mentally breaking down the skills that get called upon in reading music, whether a prima vista or at one's leisure, and figuring out ways of honing these skills individually, with computer/internet trainers, and by creatively different ways of approaching and learning from the variety of sheet music & recordings I have floating around my life/computer.

There's a lot of interesting material at PianoWorld and elsewhere on the internet about the characteristics, actions & perceptions of skilled and unskilled sight-readers, from self-reports to outcomes of studies. Having recently figured out that musical literacy seems to be a primary goal of mine, I've enjoying reading them and trying to extract an awareness of the many skills related to fluent music-reading, and think of ways to isolate these skills in order to practice them individually.

Perhaps it would be optimal to hone them all at once by doing infinite sight reading (though I'm not sure about this), but I find that merely accumulating sufficient "fodder" for prima-vista perusal imposes a financial limitation. But in addition, I find that my attention span is extended by cycling through different learning/self-testing media, and I think there's perspective to be gained by viewing a task from a variety of different angles -- correlating the perspectives re-enforces basic patterns, if that makes any sense.

As examples of the kind of things I'm talking about, there's of course Practica Musica and the various web-based trainers I use. But I was thinking of  things like taking the sheet music that's too hard for me to sight read, and doing things like:
* go through and just identify intervals as quickly as possible (like in hymnal or chorale)
* tap out the rhythms, one staff in each hand (in music with one voice per hand)
* look at a measure, then look away and see how much of it I can reconstruct from memory (practice for reading ahead when sight reading)
* play through an unfamiliar piece at the keyboard, not sight-reading, but letting rhythms slide a bit, repeating bits as necessary to achieve musical sense, and focusing on hitting correct notes
* play along with a (slowed down) recording of a less familiar piece, concentrating on real-time reading -- prioritizing playing in rhythm on major beats
* reading along with a more difficult recording (just reading, not at the keyboard), following the rhythms
* reading along with a recording (not at keyboard), looking and listening to be aware of what scale degrees the music is moving through, as well as listening for the melodic & harmonic movements that correlate with the patterns of theory visible in the notes on the staff -- which entails recognizing intervals, chords, broken chords, etc.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Trying to do new things

It seems that being sick has allowed my practice habits to waste away to the mere act of warming the bench daily for some scales and/or sight reading. Looking back, I'm unsure about the value sticking to my practice-every-day commitment when I felt so crummy, because i now have an image of practicing as desperately hanging in there while feeling like crap.  I feel like I might have been refreshed by taking a vacation while I was sick -- but really I need to finish out the year of practice-every-day before I judge the value of sticking to it no matter what.

In the meantime, I'm going to go with yesterday's plan and shake things up a bit, trying to do new things, or old things new ways.

Something I'd been completely neglecting was my repertoire maintenance, so yesterday and today I went to back to brush up on some older repertoire, only to discover that my smoothness with it had entirely evaporated. It all seemed familiar enough, but my fingers had lost their coordination. This was unfortunate, because I'd been feeling like playing something easy and just making music -- which is where I used to be with the pieces in question, but sadly, that is no longer the case.

Also to shift things around a bit, I decided that having been playing without looking at the keyboard had been a good exercise, but what I want to start doing instead is to alternate playing while viewing/memorizing the pattern of my hands on the keys, then playing again without looking, but visualizing the keyboard under my hands as I play. The goal is to develop here is a more convincing "inner keyboard", using both my inner eye and my kinesthetic sense. Also, the shifting of states makes me more alert, less likely to get hypnotized by repetition.

Today I also did something which I had been meaning to do for ages, which was to practice playing the melodies of my piano pieces on my pennywhistle. I've actually done it before, but, oddly enough, only when I'm "out in the wild". When I arrive someplace ahead of schedule, I sit with my whistle in the parking lot, and do my bit to keep Portland weird. Because the melodies of my piano pieces often rattle through my head, I had figured them out on my whistle. Yet for whatever reason, I'd never actually practiced them on the whistle at home -- I'd always practice the piano version instead. 

What I discovered is that I really need to do is scales on my whistle. In each of the two major scales available on the whistle, there is an awkward patch of fingering where the lower and upper registers of the instrument's range meet, and it's particularly inconveniently located in the scale I need for my piano melodies. Whenever I go a while without practicing my whistle, this is the first area to fall apart.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

attempting to replicate my last good practice

Somewhere among the many sticky-notes on my computer desktop, there's one that says "When my music practice isn't working, it's time to try something new".

I do have a tendency to try to reproduce the most recent good practice session I've had, instead of letting each day be open to the development of its own unique themes and techniques. Somehow it seems like the obvious thing to replicate the approach which worked last time (and then feel musically impaired when it doesn't work as well as it did before).

I think that's an unconscious (as in non-mindful) extension of the mental habit one can get into when doing a lot of the repetitious splinting, smoothing and polishing kinds of practice. I think it would help if I could get myself to remember to look at he lists I've gradually accumulated of different practicing strategies and areas to focus on. While there's a set of practice tasks that need to be attended to daily (or at least regularly), there are many different approaches toward each of them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dizzy again

I've been having good to very good practices for the last few days, so it was kind of a disappointment when tonight's didn't go as well. Maybe it was just that I had such nice practices yesterday that my expectations got raised, but I felt pretty let down when, in the middle of working on my Telemann Gavotte, I started feeling dizzy and nauseated again. So I quickly phoned in my mandatory pages of sight reading and called it a night. Now I'm drinking strong ginger tea, which seems to help with the nausea.

My practices have been simplified because of the BPPV, consisting of some major scales, hands together and eyes shut, then work on the Telemann and that little "Starter Rag", and finally recycling some easy sight reading, but using the metronome this time around. I think that the sight reading is actually more fun with the metronome, but perhaps only because this one-hand-at-a-time stuff would be mind-numbingly easy without the metronome to spice things up.

I'm having trouble finding sight reading fodder that's focused at the level where I need work, which is playing hands together, but in a very, very simple way. The sweet spot is what the Hannah Smith book does at the end of each of the beginning sections. where she switches from hands playing in unison to having more notes in right hand, with fewer long notes in the left hand. Most of the sight reading fodder seems to progress too quickly past this stage to where it starts having unpredictable or irregular note patterns in the left hand (though still fewer in the left than in the right). What I seem to need is for the left hand to be rhythmically very predictable while I simply get used to reading and playing different notes with both hands simultaneously.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Back to work...

I feel like tonight was my first real practice since coming down with the flu almost 3 weeks ago. Though I nominally haven't missed a day on my MOYD/sight-reading commitments, really all I've done is a few token pages of sight-reading per day. With the exception of the few good days between the end of the flu and the onset of my BPPV (during which I started this blog), I've been too exhausted and apathetic to focus very well at all.

So perhaps today went well because I was able to resume with lowered expectations. I started out with hands together scales in C, G, and F, which went better than expected. Before I got sick, I had recently had a breakthrough with my hands-together scales (which had been a particular nemesis of mine), and even graduated to doing them with eyes shut. The muscle memory seems to have been stored in brain cells which survived the flu, because these all came back nicely. I decided not to push my luck, and didn't try D or Bb.

Then I decided that I had pretty much sleepwalked through all the sight-reading I've done while sick, and not really gained much skill from it. So I decided to go back to the beginning of the John Kember book and start over, only playing with the metronome this time, and being stricter about not "stuttering" back to fix mistakes. Playing with the metronome was kind of invigorating, and definitely helped with the stuttering, I used the metronome built into the DP, which has different meter settings so that the downbeat of each measure gets a bell tone instead of a click. That way, if I stuttered i would lose my place in the metric pattern, which proved motivational. Did quite a few pages, but it was pretty easy stuff, being the beginning of Book 1...

I also tried to focus more on reading by interval, which doesn't come naturally to me -- too many single-note flash cards, perhaps? It was hard, though, because there's a lot more space between the notes in each measure in the Kember book than there is in Hannah Smith, so the eye has to travel further without losing track of the lines & spaces in the (melodic) interval. Also I had the metronome set a bit faster than I should have, so I was scrambling  to keep up, and often didn't have time for scruples about how I was reading, just needed to get the next note under my fingers.

And then I put in some more practice on my little "Starter Rag," which was fun. Somehow I forgot all about my little Telemann Gavotte, which I have been shamelessly neglecting for weeks...

Friday, October 9, 2009

First Fun with Ragtime

At my Dr.'s visit, I was diagnosed with a post-infectious (i.e. caused by my bout of H1N1) case of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. Our starting strategy will be to wait a bit and see if it goes away on its own -- which actually seems to be happening. I'm no longer having room-whirling "paroxysms" of vertigo, just some milder dizziness when I move around. But I'm still queasy from the ongoing sense of motion sickness, and I have trouble walking in a straight line once I get tired.

So overall it's not been the best climate for piano practice. I've persisted with my few pages of sight reading per day, in spite of wondering whether I should just call in sick on MOYD until my world holds still (heh, Freudian slip: I almost spelled "world" as "whirled").

But!!! Tonight I finally took some of my new sheet music upstairs to where the DP is, and had a really good time starting to play from it. The book I was playing from is called First Fun with Ragtime, and it has very easy arrangements of classic Scott Joplin rags along with some easy rags composed by the arranger, Hans-Gunter Heumann. I bought it along with two other elementary ragtime books, but it seemed to be the easiest of the three, so that's where I started.

I've been on quite the ragtime kick this past month or two. It started when I was thinking about what keyboard music (besides Bach!) has ever made me think, "Ooh, I want to be able to play that!!" and the obvious answer was Scott Joplin. So I've been using my eMusic download credits toward stocking up on ragtime recordings, and before I got sick, I had downloaded sheet music to various Joplin rags and was working on reading along as I listened.

Actually, I found reading along with Joplin scores surprisingly difficult -- for all that I'm used to hearing syncopation, I'm not used parsing out what I'm hearing, and found myself easily confused distinguishing primary beats from accented backbeats. But since I've been sick and dizzy I spent a lot of time lying in bed listening to music, and tapping out the beat as i listened has helped me sort out this confusion, as well as enabling me to orient what I was hearing more firmly within a standard 4/4 call & response phrasing structure.

Anyway, it was quite fun to play some syncopated music tonight, simplistic as it was. With a very few exceptions, all of the music I've learned so far has been very foursquare and upright and predictable in its rhythmic movements. I've been pleasantly challenged by the small tastes of rhythmic unpredictability I've run across here and there, and find myself looking forward to enjoying many similar challenges from my new baby-ragtime books. I'm not usually a fan of simplified arrangements, but I'm just dying for some rhythmic variety in my musical diet, and hopefully these will provide it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ugh! I feel horrid...

Ugh, I had wanted to try to post daily, but I seem to be relapsing with the flu, or having some strange post-flu complications. I remain remarkably stupid, and am having vertiginous dizzy spells along with headaches, a stiff neck and general backache, with vague nausea as a cherry on top. The voice of hypochondria diagnoses viral meningitis, but I see a real doctor in the morning.

The upshot is that I haven't been playing much piano. As I did during the flu last week, I've been doing a few pages of sight reading a day, to meet my MOYD daily practice commitment alongside my promise to myself to do some daily sight reading.

Unfortunately my sight reading books are progressing while my mental capacity seems to be regressing. If I don't get my brain back soon, I may backtrack to the beginnings of my sight reading books and start again, working more on my intervalic reading. It's not as if any of this sight reading fodder is so musically memorable that I can't recycle it, particularly seeing as my musical memory is pretty lousy to begin with.

Two different batches of sheet music I'd ordered with budget (slow media mail!) shipping finally meandered in today, and I felt to crummy to even gloat over them properly. The normally exciting new-book-smell just made my stomach lurch. Phooey! Stupid flu...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The allure of musical notation

I've always felt the allure of musical notation, and been enchanted by the elegant patterns it creates on the page, hinting at mysteries of movement and texture, yet so entirely distant from actual musical sounds. Notes on the page are silent and static, entirely unlike the shifting kaleidoscope of sound flowing on the current of time; yet somehow musical sounds are encapsulated there on the page, waiting for human intervention to reconstitute them into vibrations radiating through the air, finding fulfillment in human ears.

Yet alongside my wonder at this mystery, there's been a concurrent frustration, that although human interventions is the magical ingredient to transform notes on the staff into music in the air, I myself as a human being am not adequate to the task. With great effort, I can render simple notation into sounds resembling music, but my skills are frustratingly rudimentary. Most music I can only stare at and wonder what it might sound like.

But I have an image that motivates me, one of spending a rainy afternoon with a not-overly-complicated book of music, and being able to take some previously unfamiliar tunes and turn them into recognizable music. It would be OK with me if it took me a few attempts to make things sound right: I just want to be able to effect that magical transformation from tadpoles dancing on the staff into molecules dancing in the air.

OK, so that's about all the formal English I can spew this evening. Some thoughts seem to demand that kind of writing to do them justice, while others would just sound silly phrased that way. I'm getting to the practical part now, and that demands more pragmatic language.

So how can I improve my music reading?

I've invested in a variety of sight reading books, and am working my way through them at a rate of 4-6 pages a day (well, 2 a day when I had the flu last week, but that's better than nothing). That's probably not as much time as I should be spending per day, but I'm somewhat limited in my attention span because of the medications I'm stuck with (very frustrating! I used to have awesome concentration...). Actually, I should time myself and see just how much time I am spending. I might need to adjust my page quota a bit.

The frustrating thing is that I've only been playing piano again for a few months, and only had a year or two of lessons (if that) as a child, so my repertoire level is pretty low, and thus my sight-reading level is even lower. On the bright side, I can sight-read pretty fluently if there's only one note happening at a time; it's the multitasking between two notes read from 2 different staves and played with both hands simultaneously that kills me. So I suppose I've graduated from the beginner-most level of sight-reading only one note at a time -- hey, it's kind of gratifying to look at it that way! Progress has been made!

One peculiar thing I've noticed though is that my flu seems to have killed off some useful brain cells. Before I got sick, I was getting better at doing intervalic reading, which was a new concept to me, but quite useful. But right around the time I started convalescing I seemed to become much stupider all of a sudden, and my new-found intervalic reading skills evaporated. I wonder what happened...

Friday, October 2, 2009

How it all started

As I got into my 40's, it happened that my friends and acquaintances began dying of cancer and other natural causes, instead of the adventures gone awry which had claimed lives when we were all much younger. This made me question what I wanted to do or experience before my own death, and I was surprised by the answer that came to me -- I wished to be able to express myself through a musical instrument. I had expected something more traditional, like exotic travel, or perhaps late childbearing, but playing music the unequivocal answer that came echoing back to me.

This was unexpected, given that I'd never shown the least glimmer of musical talent. I had inherited my father's infamously dire singing voice, and I was fired from childhood piano lessons "for lack of aptitude or application." Adolescent attempts at teaching myself guitar and recorder petered out into sore fingers and menopausal maternal complaints about infernal noise. Eventually I concluded that I was simply lacking in musical talent, and should contend with my writer's block instead.

Someday I want to write a deep and thoughtful entry about the wrestling matches with personal demons that I, as one of those persons repeatedly labeled as musically untalented, had to go through in order to feel justified in spending my time struggling against my own non-aptitude (not to mention justifying my antisocial acts of generating noise pollution along the way). But that will have to wait until my next deep and thoughtful mood.