the subtle art of giving the right f***s.

I saunter into a piano store feeling like I have all the time in the world.

Jamming out on all those black and white keys, I realize I’ve fallen for a Petrof.  It’s a white baby grand, and it charms me silly with its chipped golden rococo design.

Normally indecisiveness is an understatement when it comes from me. What’s the difference this time?

“I’m thinking of saving up for this one,” I say to Pan, hoping I don’t come off as crazy.

The white Petrof with chipping gold paint is $69,000.

 

 

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How to Get Past a Piano Practice Plateau

How to Get Past a Music Practice Plateau

This question is from one of the Artiden readers:

Dear Grace,

I’d like to know how one gets from being a pretty advanced player to someone who can play at least at the level of a good conservatoire graduate. (I’m not even aspiring to be a “great” pianist like Zimmerman or Le Plante, say!)

I apply nearly all of your practice hacks in my own playing – but I seemed to have reached a plateau. I probably went overkill on Hanon – I developed a good “mechanical” technique, but it did almost nothing for my playing and musicality. I haven’t had a proper look at Czerny’s studies and maybe that should be my first step.

Here’s what I’m up against and maybe you have some ideas already or can give me some pointers:

There are so many pieces that I’m really struggling to get a handle on – like most of the works by Debussy or Grieg or Schumann (Robert and Clara) and I can hardly play anything by Brahms or Liszt. For instance, I’ve been working on the Bmin Sonata for a while and – using chunking and muscle-memory “automation”. (Grace’s Note: Here’s an article about the chunking technique and muscle memory.)

It took me ages to master Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestück Op 12 no. 5 (In der Nacht), especially the middle section that is ironically marked “etwas langsamer”. But after a good year of half-hour attacks at very small chunks of music, I managed it in the end.

So I thought, well if I can do one of the fantasy pieces now, the others can’t be that much more difficult.

But actually they are. At least they seem to be at least AS difficult, requiring perhaps another year to painstakingly chunk through one of the pieces.

That’s the background. So the question then is: how do I get to the next level? I want to be able to play the pieces by Liszt, Schumann (R & C), Brahms, Debussy (beyond the Arabesques), Rachmaninoff – and the more difficult Chopin pieces.

How do the professionals and conservatoire students do it? Were they already highly-talented at 10? (I saw a 7-year-old play Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu op 66 better and faster than I can play it now after two years of study!) Or do the not-quite-genius-level players get some magical instruction that we ordinary folk don’t get?

My own experience is that virtually none of my teachers ever taught me HOW to learn and practice – they seemed to focus more on the interpretation on the music, but never gave me any inkling of how I could achieve that either technically or by thinking about it. Until I met a teacher in Israel who was preparing me for the conservatoire entrance exam – he got me thinking about how to practice, managing my time, listening to the music (as opposed to “playing” it), etc. etc.

I sometimes wonder whether I’m just a “slow learner” (when it comes to piano playing) because the other piano students at school could easily perform things like Schubert’s Ab Impromptu (op. 90) while I found it too difficult (now I don’t see why) and I couldn’t even play Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turka evenly and without my fingers collapsing towards the end.

On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any “magic” to playing really well, because so many people can do it – at least those who get into the music schools and conservatoires. I’ve missed every opportunity to study full time because I had other commitments, mostly to do with earning a living; so I’ve been teaching myself ever since.

So do you have any ideas? I live in Thailand now. There is a music school in my city (Payap University in Chiang Mai), but I still can’t study full time and I wouldn’t know what a teacher could do with me.

I suppose most people ask how to improve their basic techniques, but if one already has a fairly decent technique then what could I do to be able to tackle and master the more advanced repertoire that I mentioned above. Is it even possible for people like me who are probably just mediocre players (let alone the baby geniuses like the Chopin-playing 7-year-old)?

What did YOU do?

Thank you gratefully in advance.

Wishing you all the best in your endeavours.

Kind regards,
Gary

Hi Gary,

That’s a really good question! I was in your spot and I assure you that everyone hits a “glass ceiling” at some point.

It’s great that you’re doing Hanon and it’s a good sign you’re aware that you’re now lacking musicality. If you don’t already, listen to more classical music in your free time and close your eyes to appreciate the temperaments; when I’m sitting on the bench, I would also close my eyes to hear the sounds in my head. I didn’t really listen to the pieces until I reached a plateau, so plateaus are opportunities to mix up your routine and grow.

I would also listen to other interpretations of the pieces that I play. Look into mental practice.

 

To get to the next level in terms of technique, you have to learn to practice properly. There is a chance that you are not practicing efficiently and to be very honest, I only learned this by switching teachers at some point. Speaking of practice, this is a quick intro to what I call “chunking”, or breaking a bar apart to practice a few notes at a time.

You are not a slow learner; it just sounds like you haven’t been breaking the pieces down and practicing properly. If you listen to a performer really practice and drill into a piece, it doesn’t sound like they’re practicing a piece; they are just playing a few notes at a time or a few sections at a time, or even just one hand at a time. This lets you really focus into that section.

Have you seen the movie the King’s Speech where they teach someone who has a stutter to speak, by repeating a word syllable by syllable? This is what you have to do as a pianist – practice syllable by syllable until you get every syllable right. Sometimes it’s not the most fun, but if you can get through Hanon, I’m sure you can get through this. (Side note: I highly recommend Hanon for improving technique and getting faster fingers, but it doesn’t make you a more expressive pianist.)

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I might be going deaf.

Grace Lam

I woke up on Sunday morning and my ear was ringing. This is not a small issue. I had sharp ears and I could play things on the piano that I heard once.

It’s been over one week and I can’t turn it off and I’ve tried almost everything.

I’ve already befriended a few doctors about this.

They assure me that time will tell, that the tiny sensory hairs in my ear have been overloaded and are trying to fix themselves.

You’re more likely to get ringing in your ears as you age, or if you’re young and stupid, or if you have bad luck beside loud speakers or earbuds.

The ring in my ear is especially prominent in quiet spaces.

I wear an earplug in that ear to protect it from loud noises, and if you tried to sneak up behind me, you would be a bully because I wouldn’t ever be able to pinpoint where you were. You need both ears to determine where a sound comes from because the sound hits one ear before the other.

What is it like, being deaf in one ear?

When I’m sitting beside Pan at a cafe, I concentrate to separate his voice from the ambient noise.

“Can we switch sides so you’re close to my left ear?”

I’m close to tears and hope and wish upon every eyelash I find that that I won’t have to read lips in the future.

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Guide to Choosing a Travel-Sized Piano

Guide to Choosing Travel-Sized PianoRecently, a curious reader emailed us about getting a piano that fit in a carry on bag. Being a travelling musician myself, I thought this was genius. It’s so easy to get inspired in a new setting, almost as easy as it is to neglect practicing- even when you want to! So, I did a little research.

First, I asked myself:

a) How light is it?

(Airlines restrict carry ons to around 12kg. I can carry up to 15kg comfortably if I’ve been to the gym, but do my noodle arms WANT to?)

b) Does it sound nice? (A fair query, considering.)

c) Weighted keys or non-weighted keys, that is the question…

Well. I figure that a decent sounding mid-ranged piano = A composed travel buddy = An ideal vacation situation, pianist edition!

Sound too good to be true? Not by the end of this article!

Some links below are affiliate, meaning that if you’d like to purchase any of the products with the link below, Artiden makes a small commission. This does not change the price, but it helps Artiden sustain itself. I am not paid nor asked to use these links.

 

A Portable Piano for Composing

In Amsterdam I let my nails grow out, but miss playing without them too soon after. I’ll bet most most pianists prefer it when they feel the keys, too.

If you don’t think you can groom your nails when you’re on the go, consider getting a keyboard with narrower keys. You can utilize your hand-space better, keep up with where the notes are on the board, and be able to hear them too. There’s no point in doing Hanon if your fingers are going to be splayed flat.

The Yamaha Reface CP is a portable keyboard geared towards people who want to compose and hear the notes rather than keep up their technique. It may also be useful if you teach music online, because students are concerned with seeing the sequence and range of the notes and the mini keys might fit their computer screens better.

The Yamaha Reface CP weighs 6 pounds. Seriously. The portability is so amazing that if I bought it, this would be a serious contender with my laptop for desk space.

Yamaha Reface CP

 

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Five Things You Need to Know about a Digital Piano Before Getting One

Five Things You Need to Know about a Digital Piano Before Getting One

This is a guest post by Jonathon Antoon! I’m thinking of getting a digital piano soon, so I thought this would be of interest to some of you as well. Jonathon is a reader from the Artiden community.

Squeezing your grandfather’s 800-pound piano into your tiny apartment is not how you should spend your Friday night or your Saturday evening.

Say hello to the instrument that will help you sharpen your Chopin and crush that cover of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak without setting you back a thousand dollars. With a market dominated by Casio and Yamaha models, finding the right model is like finding the perfect straw in a haystack. This article will be your guide to choosing a digital piano.

If you want to see what models are out there, tab into the best digital pianos under $1000 to find an assortment of items suitable for all piano enthusiasts.

Transition from a Traditional Piano

The first difference between digital and standard pianos is the “feel” that one gets upon physically pressing the keys. A traditional piano has a network of keys that are attached to levers. When a key is pressed, those levers trigger a series of felt-covered hammers to strike the strings inside the piano.

This process is important if you want the keys on your digital piano to provide a similar feel to an acoustic piano. Digital pianos are not powered by the hammer and string system, but manufacturers use an electronic variation of this mechanism. Known as weighted action, it synthesizes the strings and hammer feel when you press down on a key.

Not all digital pianos have this option. Comparable to playing an organ, which some pianists do look for, digital pianos that lack this feature are not the first choice for traditional piano aficionados.

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What’s Your Story in Music?

I got caught up in what one very critical, important person in my life thinks of me. A lot of us have someone like this in our lives, and I’m getting used to the idea that people who are close to us might not always know the best for us.

We say we don’t want to care what others think of us, but it’s a cute little lie because we all know that we care to some extent about what people think.

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Journey Towards Mental Wholeness

Journey Towards Mental Wholeness Using PianoPan thinks I should see someone for my worrying. I keep thinking that I don’t have a serious enough problem to need a professional to examine my head. Actually, I was offended the first time he suggested it because it’s one thing to joke about being crazy, but another thing for someone else suggest that you’re damaged enough to need professional help. I always assumed that if I manage to get myself married I’ll need couples therapy or a shaman or whatever they go to to fix marriages, but not now – not for something as seemingly insignificant as worrying a little too much.

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