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Onward, brave pianist

Everyone thought I looked fine.

Around this time of year, I get a lot of big thoughts. Cutting thoughts.

I’m having some of them right now.

A few days ago, I caught myself thinking about what I would do to spend even one more minute with my dad.

I caught myself thinking what-if, and those are dangerous what-ifs, so I’m not going to write them out. Those moments that I took for granted back home are so precious. Why didn’t I think to save his fuzzy voicemail clip?

It looks like I have it together, really. I decorate my home, I cook healthy food, I lounge around in the hot tub when I’m stressed. I even made a few friends in the city. I smile when I’m supposed to.

You wouldn’t have known.

That I was lonely, that I was dying inside, that nothing seemed to be working no matter how hard I tried. I dreaded going to sleep since I’d wake up in nightmares or worse, wake up in a dazed stupor fueled with caffeine.

I was alone, going home to a home that didn’t feel like home. With friends to call but none of them get me yet.

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Using Alexander Technique to Improve Piano Posture?

Hi Artiden friends! I ran the Alexander technique (mini) experiment last week, where I incorporated the principles into my daily life and my practice sessions.

The Alexander technique is a way to release tension to improve posture, alignment, and movement.

What did I do, and how did it go?

Watch the video below to find out!

To clarify, there were 500 patients in the study cited in the video. Here’s the Alexander Technique study published in the British Medical Journal (researchers from University of Southampton, University of Bristol)

This article may be a useful starting point for learning more about the Alexander technique.

If you’re interested in the actual experiment details, I’ve included them below.

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How to Truly Listen to Music

How to Truly ListenLast week, I saw another specialist for the sound in my ear, my third consultation in two weeks.

My back is hunched over in the soft cushy chair and my legs are crossed. The doctor hovers around my head to ask if I hear this sound or that vibration.

“Relax,” he says for the fifth time.

Before this room, I was subjected to a hearing test. Inside a small closed box, I am asked to sit and stare at a wall that is half a metre from my face. I follow instructions that sound from headphones.

The assistant administering the hearing test disappears for five minutes at a time and leaves me inside this space. I can’t even stretch my legs.

I began the appointment anxious, and it was only getting worse.

“I’m certain nothing bad is going on,” the ENT specialist says, “but I will do a full examination anyways to make sure you don’t have any tumours or weird things growing in your head.”

He presses a tuning fork onto various spots in my head and asks what I hear.

“We know the cause of that sound you’re hearing constantly is due to exposure to loud noise. That’s why it’ll go away when you are no longer exposed.”

He concludes that my ear is fine and my hearing is fine and the sound in my ear shall banish itself soon enough. He is certain of it.

My left ear is unaffected due to the shadow effect. The loudspeaker was on the right side of my head, so the left side was shielded from the sound waves. It’s probably the first and last time I will appreciate my balloon head for the size it is: huge.

“Is there anything I can do to help it?”

“No,” he says. “Just relax.”

So, for a while, I plugged up my right ear to prevent the poor thing from becoming even more sound-distressed. And for that while, I heard nothing in that ear except the ringing.

To get my mind off of the constant unfamiliarity, I turned to educating myself on the internet. Continue Reading

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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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What To Do When You Can’t Practice Piano

What To Do When You Can't Practice PianoFor my next stage of life, I decided that I want to travel spontaneously. There will be a gym bag in my closet packed with clothes and a toothbrush for last-second trips. I will drive to remote islands to lay underneath the stars on my SUV’s roof and grab my surfboard when I feel like it.

I will be away from my piano so often that my fingers will not be as light for Liszt anymore, but I will befriend someone who plays a ukulele so I can enjoy live music during my travels. I will still tune my piano every year so I can play whenever I can.

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When to start a new instrument

When people invest a lot of time into a genre of music, that genre becomes a template for everything they listen to. I have played classical music for so long that I almost guess which chord comes next. So, it’s refreshing to listen to a new genre and instrument.

After all, things that scare you also push you.

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