Posts tagged play

Piano Practice… Until It’s Done

Vancouver Island, Canada

So… i’ve had many students… MANY who have asked… “Well, how long do you want me to practice this for?”  To which my usual answer is “I dunno… ’til it’s DONE!”  Self explanatory right? Or so you would think… Seguay

Recently i’ve taken up trail running.  When i first started running only about 5 years ago on a treadmill, i thought 15 minutes was a breakthrough for me.  No sooner had i been doing that when i realised that i should have a goal.  Victoria (located on Vancouver Island), the city where i’m located has a 10Km race every year where THOUSANDS of people… like 14,000 run.  I thought… hmmm this would be a decent goal.  Knowing that this was an outdoor race, i switched from treadmill to outdoor running.  After running outdoors, no one could PAY me to go back indoors to run.  Victoria is on an island where there are beautiful boardwalks with ocean and mountain scenes.  Why would i even consider doing anything different?  I then started mountain trail running.  Most recently i did a three hour run/hike with an ultra marathon runner.  “Ultra” runners run through forests, scale mountains etc.  I thought i knew the meaning of endurance until i did this.  At one hill, this lady running ahead of me just kept plodding.  I had this overwhelming feeling somewhere between exhaustion and vomitting that i thought… this is CRAZY!  Only problemo… we were halfway around the run.  So stopping wasn’t an option. 

Summit view

By the time we got back to the parking lot my thoughts had changed to… “Wow let’s do that again!” Funny though… you don’t often enjoy the fruits of the labour until you push through the difficulties.

Back to piano… i have this motto that i ALWAYS get raised eyebrows from.  I was recording in a studio this last week… a musical marathon of sorts writing and recording for World Vision.  At the end of one late session (until almost 1AM) i turned to the engineer on the project and said “Well… you can’t love it ’til you hate it”.  He laughed.  But the sentiment is true.  Until you knuckle down and learn how to press PAST the easy stuff… press PAST the fun… press PAST the feelings of “DANG IT! MY FINGERS DON’T WORK LIKE THAT” and continue on to strive to completion, you’ll never become proficient at the instrument.  Being a professional is one who puts aside feelings if not momentarily to accomplish the goal. 

There have been MANY times i’ve recorded under the gun, played in bands, finished scoring for some project… or even… for that matter, practiced as a kid some Rachmaninoff prelude for festival.  It’s all the same… endurance to the finish line.  And once completed, you can then enjoy the fruits of labour… you can love it after you “hate” it.

Drive the Car

f1I was 22 years of age when i was hired by the local Baldwin piano store.  The owner was a technician and the first words out of his mouth were “Glen, you may be educated in performance but i just want to tell you that because you know how to DRIVE the car, don’t presume that you know how the car works”.  He then proceeded to tell me that the mechanic is not the driver in the Formula1.  And so i took his advice to heart.  I began to learn about the insides of the piano.  I will say however, that being a driver and a mechanic both have distinct advantages.  I remember this boss calling me to his workshop to try out a newly rebuilt piano. He’s all smiles and with big outstretched arms he points to the piano… “VOILA!”  He asks me to play.  I remember not being impressed by the piano and how put off he was because i couldn’t properly articulate what it was i didn’t like about the piano.  And then it occurred to me that regardless of what your thoughts are re: the makeup of the instrument, it’s the driver still that counts – they’re the ones who are going to play this instrument.

grandSo how do you properly test drive an instrument?  It’s funny because i get lots of students through my doors looking for pianos and who do they get to preview the piano? Why, the teacher no less.  But again, teachers are drivers and usually have very little understanding of what is going on in the piano.  They walk around the instrument and give the ol’ inspection “mmm hmmm’s”  but don’t really know what to say.  LOL…ok this is funny – so you know the grand lid on a piano? It’s the 45 degree angled part held up by what is called a prop stick.  After previewing a Steinway grand for her client… she finally said.  “SOooooo, this is one of those ‘one-stick’ pianos”.  (most pianos have 2 or 3) OK ok ok… i thot it was funny… kinda like judging the car by the antennae.  Anyway… here are some tricks and tips on testing pianos:

  1. Test the piano at different volume levels.  My trumpet teacher used to say “any 2 year old can blat a horn – it takes a master to play it quietly”.  Much is the same at the piano.  If a piano is ever going to misfire, it will be at soft volumes
  2. Play each key – find out if there are any sticking or problem notes – listen especially for buzzes and rattles
  3. Find the crossover.  The crossover is the spot where the bass copper coloured strings change to steel strings.  This is usually a problematic place on most pianos for consistency.  Great pianos will have a very gradual change in tone.
  4. Sustain.  Sustain is your friend.  Take one note – moderate volume – play it and listen to how long it takes to die away.  If it’s short lived, quite often the soundboard (the amplifier) is dead.
  5. Excessively loose or heavy action.  Take one key – depress the notes on either side then grab hold of the sides of the key and wiggle it back and forth – left to right.  Does it ‘knock’?  Worn out pianos usually will have a notable ‘click’ here.  As well, lift the very front of the key by the overhang – ever so slightly (you don’t want to rip off the keytop!)  It should rise only about 1/16″ but it should also fall on it’s own weight.  Newer pianos quite often are tight and if there’s too much friction here, they won’t fall back to rest position.
  6. Finally, test the workings of the pedals.  Make sure the damper blocks lift simultaneously and in a comfortable manner.

Oh there are many many other tests you can do… but these will cover the basics. Enjoy!

On the Fly


Santa Clara

Santa Clara

I once attended a seminar on piano – i’m surrounded by teachers and the guest lecturer posed the question “What is the definition of a professional?”  Many answers were thrown out on the floor like “one who is accomplished in their field” or another added “if you have enough skill to be compensated monetarily for your abilities”.  I’m thinkin’ to myself…if that’s the case, i woulda been a pro at age 5 when the senior in the old folks home tossed me a quarter for playing the piano.  lol.  Still others thought that it was the amount of years in the discipline.  Others suggested degrees etc.  Finally, the clinician offered, “In music, amateurs practice until they get it right.  Professionals practice until they can’t get it WRONG”.  Hmmm interesting.  I understand the concept – i understand the intention of practicing until there is a ‘safety net’ of instinct to fall back on.   But more than that, despite my best efforts in preparation, i believe that the inevitable happens and things go terribly wrong;  the slip of a finger, a distraction, a technical difficulty – and it’s that split second decision, that moment when you feel utter panic and then figure out on the fly what you’re going to do that in my books makes a professional.  As far as i know, the term “on the fly” refers to a flywheel which is a wheel that in the mechanical world moderates change in torque.  Quite often it’s constantly spinning but has the durability to withstand change.  In music, playing on the fly refers to making changes instantaneously.  So, to me, the definition of a professional is one who can play on the fly – one who can respond.  I’ve many a time heard people exclaim “oh that music is so easy… i could do that”.  Oh really? I read a book once called “The Inner Game of Music” where he asked “if you had to play happy birthday on the piano… could you do it? And now play that same song in front of 100,000 people.  Would that be different for you?”  My answer is YES!!!  I’d be way more nervous.  I’d be rehearsed – i’d know the song upside down and inside out.  Why? To ensure that i would be able to handle the situation.  Despite the difficulty level of music, it’s the preparation for ‘what-ifs’  that counts – it’s the ability to play on the fly.  Recently i was playing a gig in a band and my entire keyboard setup went up in smoke.  Split second of panic. Split second to regain composure. Split second to make a plan of action all the while i’m continuing to perform.  The music didn’t change, but the situation surely did.  It’s the multitasking and the reaction that makes the pro.  I absolutely LOVE what Oscar Peterson said once “there’s no such thing as wrong notes – just bad recoveries”.  Aye there’s the rub.

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