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What it's like to be a beginner - Part Two
One Year Later as a Beginning Piano Student

Golfer? Pianist?

Okay, so November 20, 2002 was the first anniversary of my beginning piano lessons. How am I doing so far? Glad you asked.

It has been challenging, to say the least, and I have learned a great deal up to this point. In addition to the fact that my hands and entire body are beginning to adapt to some of the motions, and I can tell that I'm starting to relax a bit.

Those last two sentences could easily have been written by a beginning golf student, couldn't they? Again, there are many similarities between learning to play golf and the piano. Much of the process in both boils down to getting some information, understanding the information, developing that information into a feeling through practice and finally turning that feeling into a habit.

Of course, there are differences too. One difference that has become very apparent to me after this first year at the piano is what I have started calling the "just get the ball on the green" analogy. In golf there are no "style" points (I wish there were), it's just "get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible." So you can have the ugliest swing in the world and as long as you somehow scrape the ball onto the green and into the hole that's all that matters. Example: it is possible to completely "skull" the ball (almost topping it) on a par 3 and still make a hole-in-one - I have seen something very near to this with my own eyes and have heard about numerous similar instances. An analogous situation is not possible in playing the piano - that kind of luck is not available. In piano that would be like just throwing your hands at the keys, rendering something that was barely recognizable as music and having that be considered an excellent performance. There are most definitely style points in piano playing. In fact, at the highest levels it's pretty much all about that. In piano playing the only way you "make a hole-in-one" or "score well" is to reach an extraordinarily high level of skill and sensitivity through a great deal of time, training and experience. That is also the only way you can achieve long term high quality results in golf.

Yet another difference between learning golf and piano is what I call the constant-variable principle. In golf there are some default, or fixed, mechanical ingredients with no corresponding equivalent in piano playing. Example: If you keep your lever arm (left arm for right-handed players) always swinging full-length you have established an important constant in your mechanical system. There is no equivalent constant in piano, as all the joints of the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers are in a constant state of flux. Also, in golf your posture/spine angle can be maintained rather than varying during the swing, creating a constant point of reference and eliminating a variable - again, no corresponding constant in piano. The closest thing to both of the above constants in piano is to sit in the same position (center of keyboard), and at the same height and distance from the keyboard, as much as possible. In golf good mechanics (e.g., the two constants mentioned above) will assure better results and eventually lead to better feel and control. Since there are no analogous piano constants, the bottom line with it is that you actually have to be good. smile

So, where am I? What have I managed to accomplish so far? Well, as of March 1, 2003 I have had 33 lessons and have learned a number of pieces, 18 (or so) of which I try to maintain by practicing them regularly (list below). I can play most of the major and minor (harmonic) scales with both hands, in parallel motion, an octave apart, up and down for multiple octaves. To use a golf reference, what is my handicap or average score? Well, it's tough to compare apples to oranges like that, but my handicap is probably still very high (I might not even be far enough along yet to have a handicap). I'm hacking away with an ugly swing (unrefined and inefficient technique) and still not breaking 100, except on the easiest courses (pieces), hitting balls into water hazards and having to reload (wrong notes, "hiccups" and restarts) all the while.

I have had three outings ("performances" amongst the group of adult piano students in my area) which you could equate to very insignificant and relaxed tournaments (but tournaments in which every single player in the field was watching every single shot you hit -- attentively). The first event (about 3 weeks after I started lessons) was a total disaster. My performance suffered severely from nervousness -- okay, I suppose you could say that I totally choked. The second and third occasions were far better, but I still have a long way to go to be comfortable playing in front of others. That is another big difference that I have noticed between piano and golf: how much smaller and finer the movements in piano are. If you think putting under pressure is difficult try playing "pianissimo" (very softly) with a roomful of people watching you in total silence. I can only think of one other situation where I've had trouble keeping my hands from shaking like that: trying to set the ball on the tee at the national level of the Long Drive. There's just too much adrenaline for that small a movement. That much adrenaline comes in very handy for hitting long drives, but it sure makes holding the ball still enough to get it to rest atop a small wooden tee problematic, and from my experience it is a huge handicap in playing the piano with anything resembling touch. I think I need to start looking for an equivalent to a pre-shot routine in piano playing.

I have now also signed up for a class (Piano Workshop) at the local community college. This will force me to play with and in front of others much more frequently, so we'll see how that goes and if it helps. I'm sure I will learn from the experience of playing with others, as golfers learn from the experience of playing with other golfers.

My teacher thinks I'm doing well for the amount of time I have been playing, though I know that I'm only "getting the ball on the green" at best so far. I won't be ready for a real "tournament" (any kind of public performance for anyone other than family, or "friends that owe me") for a long time, if ever. I may just have to always be a closet player.

My experience so far has been like finding a treasure chest full of the most fabulous riches, jewels and rarities (the repertoire for piano), but the best ones are all too heavy to lift. There are nickels for the taking, if you can live with that, but you really can't carry enough of them to add up to much. (Or, imagine being in front of a table full of every imaginable variety of the most exquisite desserts, but all you can actually have is the JELL-O or the chewing gum.) So I keep "working out" (practicing) as regularly as I can, so that someday I might be able to lift at least something more substantial - just so I can see what it feels like, if nothing else.

All right, that's enough whining. I am enjoying the process of learning and improving so much that I am still highly motivated to continue. I'll file another report at some point in the future. But the bottom line here is, beginners take heart and revel in the process of learning and developing.

Here's a list of pieces I can play (at least "getting the ball on the green," though honestly I rarely make it through any of them without a glitch here or there) smile

 Fughetta in G, from Aylesford pieces G.F. Handel
 Minuet in G, BWV 116 J.S. Bach
 Minuet in d minor, BWV 132 J.S. Bach
 Bagatelle Op. 6, No. 6 B. Bartok
 Minuet in F, K. 5 W.A. Mozart
 The Shepherd's Pipe, Op. 36, No. 55 A. Gedike
 The Clown, Op. 39, No. 20 D. Kabalevsky 
 Bulgarian Shepherd's Tune E. Harris
 Shepherd's Flute, For Children Vol. 2, No. 28 B. Bartok
 From Foreign Lands and People, Op. 15, No. 1 R. Schumann
 Romanian Folk Dances, Nos. 1 - 4 (of 6) B. Bartok
 Bulgarian Rhythm, Mikrokosmos Vol. 4, No. 113    B. Bartok
 Minuet & Trio in G, K. 1 W.A. Mozart
 Bagatelle, Op. 6, No.4 - Grave B. Bartok
 Prelude, Op. 28, No.7 in A F. Chopin

My resources
(since the last article)

Just in case you didn't think I was serious about this, in addition to my lessons and the resources I mentioned in Part One...

I have read these books

The Art of Practicing, by Madeline Bruser
The Pianists Problems, by William S. Newman
The Indespensables of Piano Playing, by Abby Whiteside
Pumping Ivory, by Robert Dumm
Super Sight Reading Secrets, by Howard Richman
Basic Materials in Music Theory, Paul Harder
Harmonic Materials in Tonal Music - Part One, Paul Harder

    ***** Biographical, Historical, Other Books *****
Beethoven: biography of a genius, by George R. Marek
Beethoven: his life and times, by Ates Orga
Critical Entertainments: music old and new, by Charles Rosen
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff
The life of Mendelssohn, by Peter Mercer-Taylor
The life and music of Bela Bartok, by Halsey Stevens
Bartok Remembered, by Malcolm Gillies
Handel, by Christopher Hogwood
Franz Liszt: a chronicle of his life in picture, by Ernst Burger (out of print)
The Heritage of Music: Classical Music and Its Origins (various authors)
Johannes Brahms, by Jan Swafford
Bartok, by Everett Helm (out of print)
Schubert: A Musical Portrait, by Alfred Einstein
Schubert, by Joseph Wechsberg

I have seen these videos or DVD's

Murray Perahia Live
Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven's Emperor Concerto
Claudio Arrau's 80th Birthday Recital
Richter the Enigma
Wilhelm Kempff plays Beethoven
In Celebration of the Piano (multiple pianists at Carnegie Hall)
The Art of Piano (Great Pianists of the 20th century)
Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts Series (8 videocassettes)
Highlights from the Glen Gould collection
Horowitz in Moscow
The Story of the Symphony: Narrated by Andre Previn (6 videocassettes)
Whole Notes Series (6 videocassettes)
Rubinstein in Concert
Mastering Piano Technique, by Seymour Fink
Concert Masterworks Series (4 part series of lectures by Robert Greenberg, 8 videocassettes)
Concerto Series with Dudley Moore (5 videocassettes)
The Loves of Emma Bardac (Impressionist era piano music featuring the Lebec sisters)

And I have attended these performances

Nov 2001Pianomania (5 pianists), Walnut Creek
Nov 2001Diablo Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, John Walker
Dec 2001Oakland Civic Orchestra, Beethoven's 7th Symphony
Jan 2002San Francisco Symphony, Beethoven's 7th Symphony
Jan 2002San Francisco Symphony, Freddy Kempf
Jan 2002Tassajara Symphony, Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, Matthew Edwards
Feb 2002San Francisco Symphony, Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, Yefim Bronfman
Mar 2002Lang Lang recital, San Francisco
Apr 2002Frank Wiens recital, San Francisco
May 2002Pianomania (5 pianists), Walnut Creek
May 2002Contra Costa Performing Arts Society recital, Walnut Creek
Jun 2002Young Chopin Competition winners recital, S.F. Conservatory of Music
Jun 2002Pro Art Symphony Orchestra with John Nakamatsu and Christopher Salocks
Jun 2002Daniel Glover recital, San Francisco
Jul 2002Temirzhan Yerzhanov recital, Walnut Creek
Sep 2002Piano Renaissance (6 pianists), Danville
Nov 2002Javier Gonzales recital, Walnut Creek
Nov 2002Gwendloyn Mok rehearsal, Walnut Creek
Feb 2003Pro Art Symphony "At Home" recital, Lafayette
Feb 2003Richard Goode recital, Berkeley
Feb 2003Arcadi Volodos recital, San Francisco
Feb 2003Daniel Glover recital, San Mateo
Feb 2003Pianomania (6 pianists), Walnut Creek
Mar 2003Temirzhan Yerzhanov recital, Walnut Creek
Mar 2003Frank Wiens recital, Stockton

Would you do all that just to become a high-handicapper? Maybe I'm crazy. smile

<<< ...Read Part One of this Article -- one year earlier

Read Part Three of this Article -- three years later... >>>


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