Friday, March 20, 2015

"Don't practice until you get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong."

There is no source for this quotation, which in itself is inspirational: pedagogue musicians have perhaps been saying it to their students for the last two or three thousand years. At work, we've been enduring "Traffic Week", (a colossal exercise in "teslik"), and everyone was given a kind of party bag containing colouring books and crayons, (dished out to grown men, mind), and a pack of cards to play some kind of Happy Families safety game. So I've given each of the cards a value from the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano syllabus scales and broken chords.

For example, the card "Follow The Speed Limit" on a red background = A minor harmonic RH. That was the first one I turned over, and I set about learning the scale, playing it again, again, again; looking at the music, looking at the keys, looking at my hands, looking out the window, slowly, quickly, pianissimo, fortissimo, again, again, again. The same mistakes kept coming up, mis-playing the F on the way up, or playing the G as a natural... slowly, slowly, it took shape. I could look out of the window and feel (for example), the F sharp brush against finger 3 but not sounding as I played the F natural on the way back down, hitting its sweet spot right at the top of the key.

And this morning I've drawn "Pedestrian Crossing Zone" on a blue background, which is D minor harmonic LH. That should keep me out of mischief this weekend. Hitherto, I was a bit snooty about playing these single handed scales, wanting to play them all two handed. But now that I've spent a week with A minor harmonic, I understand what the ABRSM syllabus designers have done: single handed scales and broken chords are the smallest building blocks at this Grade. One needs to get a really intimate knowledge of that scale or chord, how it sounds, and looks on the staff, and feels under the hand. Again, again, again.

It feels as if this is where the actual work starts, this is learning to play the piano in achievable wee chunks: scales, chords, pieces, grade by grade. And when I'm watching my hands and fingers as I play without any conscious input, playing as if I can't get it wrong, they are beginning to look like a piano player's hands.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Get your skinny white arse onto that piano stool, and don't get off it until you've learned The Lincolnshire Poacher!"

It's been Oscar Peterson, no less, who's gotten me back to the keyboard. Together with a final shove from my IRL teacher, Flora, who deeply impressed me last week by playing the first dozen bars from Chopin's Ballade from memory. Oscar is the new role model because he brought a concert pianist's discipline to jazz, which tells me I can play all the standards one day, but I need to work at all the scales and arpeggios first.

Although I've had a two month lull with not much practice, when I got back to it I realised that I've actually learned a lot prior to this recent hiatus.  Grade 1, after all, is NOT a beginners exam.  Flora was very impressed that I'm playing between the keys, and I was even more impressed to learn that my straight-line wrists are looking pretty good.

My date with the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano has been postponed to November this year. Procrastination over. Now I'm doing exactly what it tells me in the syllabus, that is the scales etc given (with hands separate, apart from contrary motion in C maj), and the three pieces, firstly The Lincolnshire Poacher:

I'm not blogging again until I can come back with a video of me doing that. I may be gone for quite some time...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Something Has Happened

I learned that grade 1 arr. of Imagine. Someone on FB pointed out my shockingly droopy wrists, and yes, they had a point. So I moved on to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, determined to get the wrists right. And I noticed the wrists took care of themselves if I played high up the keys. I got so absorbed in all this, playing G major scales properly, with the fingers right, and high up the keys... That was when I realised that those fingerlings enabled me to play high up the keys, and fit neatly into the gaps between the black keys, and that's why, perhaps, the black keys are arranged as they are in twos and threes...

After several years of being a little intimidated by the keyboard, its contours suddenly began to feel friendly, familiar, home-like. The hurried advice I had from Flora (my Sauchiehall St teacher) at last fell on fertile ground: it's actually much easier with your wrists high... It's ok to lean forward... Those two half hour lessons back in October have got me out of the barren place I was in during the summer, wondering, where the hell am I going with this? 

So I got online and ordered the ABRSM Piano grade 1 pieces for 2015/16, though God knows when they'll arrive out here. And tonight I went back to the scales in the syllabus, single handed and all the proper fingers, as required. I know I want to play all the 20th century popular classics, from Ivor Novello to The Pogues, and of course Tom Waits, but I need a bit of structure to get me there, so with a little help from the ABRSM and wee Flora, I'm going to do all of the grades, starting with 1 in June. Everything I've done so far has been leading to this - grade 1, I've read, is not for beginners, but I'm past that now, I can do it with an hour a day. And then a grade every six months, maybe a year, depending on how life goes. And once I get to Grade 8, I've also read, I'll be a good quality amateur, and ready to go where the fancy takes me, blues or jazz or folk. I might even try the accordion. But I need my ABRSM straight piano chops first. 

I have a road map, and I'm on my way. Whilst waiting for the ABRSM pieces to get here, I've got the Lynda Frith Grade 1 pieces to keep me going, and that feels like the right thing to do: learning as many as I can, but seeing them as steps on the road, learning devices, not really as pieces to be performed per se - though I will get them all on YouTube, to garner advice and bring an element of performance. And motivation. Now, I'm pushed to get We Wish You a Merry Christmas done (obviously) before Christmas, get it on FaceBook and show off my elevated wrists and high-up-the-keys style. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Making the Grades

I had a couple of piano lessons when I was home in Sept/Oct. My fingers were all wrong, and I've learned to do C, G and now D scales with the proper fingers.  And I've got a book of grade 1 pieces - not ABRSM pieces, but grade 1 nontheless, - and I've started with Imagine. Really it more or less just follows the sung harmony of the original song, with some simple wee harmonies in the left hand.  

The plan is to learn as many grade 1 pieces as I can now in Saudi from this book, (Scarborough Fair, Greensleeves, The Sound of Silence, California Dreamin') whilst I'm here. I hope it gets easier as I go along. Imagine is hard work, though I'm getting here. 

Come February, (or thereabouts), I'll be home again, and I'll get the 2014/15 ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus pieces to learn in time for the Summer 2015 exams in Glasgow. I'm hoping that I can more or less sight read grade 1 pieces by then. I'm just focussing on that for now. Grade 2 et seq will have to wait for now. My notions of doing the jazz piano grades, and of learning proper ungraded pieces of music, were overambitious. I need the structure of the ABRSM system, and a good teacher, if I'm going to make good progress... and oodles of practice too. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Blogging Continues, Nontheless

I read somewhere, (The Guardian, probs, but can't find the link now), that personal blogging is about done with, that most of us have moved on in social networking terms.  Subjectively, that's probably about right - I used to post here almost daily. And now it's monthly. But it's coming up ten years now, and this does a job that FB and Twitter don't do.  Really, it's a place to note how things are getting along with stuff I'm interested in, but that will tend to make anyone else's eyes glaze over when I start talking about them: photography, gardening, the piano. 

Photography is SO noughties, now. I use the iPhone to get photos - and that means I'm just concentrating on the image, no longer on the process and the gear.  And all that gear, like the Nikon F, I was going to put it all on eBay, but it was all purchased and taken so much care of over a decade, it seems a pity to part with it for mere lucre. So I'm going to box it all up and Molly or someone else can get the benefit from it in the future.  Ten years ago, I would have been overjoyed to get a treasure chest of cameras and developing gear and film, and I hope someone gets some joy, some time.

Gardening is back on the agenda.  I hope to be finished with Saudi next Spring, insha-bloody-lah, by which time I'll be advanced enough on the Kennyhill Allotments waiting list to get at least a raised bed, maybe a quarter-plot, which will be just right to ease me back into gardening. Hoping to get a full plot with a shed and a greenhouse, the whole bit, in a couple of years. 

Meanwhile, the old Kemble is settling in and growing on me. It's sticky keys have stopped sticking, (apparently Molly and her wee pal give it a good bashing once a week, whilst I'm away, which might explain that - it just needs plenty of use). It might be ever so slightly out of tune, but nothing hurtful on the ear, and I'll get it tuned to concert pitch when I'm home full time.  

Yesterday I walked across George Sq. There are a couple of pianos there now, I don't know if it's just for the Commonwealth Games or if they're to be a permanent feature, (and what happens when it rains?)  There were some kids plink-plonking as I passed the first time, but on the way back an old man was playing some boogie woogie - he was clearly an amateur, but competent. Quite a crowd had gathered, and they cheered and clapped when he finished.  

I'm still learning the keys. For each one, I do hands an octave apart, up and down, different tempos. Then contrary motions, then arpeggios.  I've got this routine down pretty well in C, D and E major, and made a start on F and G. In the last week or so, I've added the 12 bar blues to this routine, so far only in C, (two hands, octave apart) - I've got a feeling this is very important, though I'm not quite sure why yet. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Back to Basics

I've tried and failed now to learn three quite simple pieces, She Moves Through the Fair, Water of Tyne, and Down at the Old Bull and Bush, and it's been such hard work I've not gotten past a few bars on each of them.  So I'm leaving off the pieces until I've spent a whole lot more time with scales and arpeggios.  I was telling Chris at work about this, and he kindly pointed out that I haven't got a good ear - have to admit he's right there, he led us in some singing and he would have noticed.  

So I'm working with the scales, still C major, and now D major. I've got all the key's chords, scales and arpeggios on sheet music - an A4 page for each key, thirty or so in all. So I plan to be doing two at a time, until I get really good at one of them, so that I can play it all over the keyboard without even thinking about it, and then I'll move onto another key, always learning two at a time so that I don't get bored with it.  

And I've got a few apps for my ear.  Or rather for the bunch of synapses or whatever it is that deal with my pitch recognition, currently apparently grown from cloth. I've just bought an iphone, and can spend any idle moments listening to singing blobs, and identifying the note each of them sings.  

And there's another app with a keyboard, a bit advanced for me yet, but it's tutorial had an exercise which I've heard before, and so it's probably a well known practice drill, not until this week known to me however. I really like it. Two eighth notes in the tonic, then a quarter one key up, quarter back on the tonic, rest, two eighths, and then up one more, and back again. So in C it's C-C, D, C; C-C, E, C; et seq. I've been practising it today in C, two hands. It's good because you're getting across the octave in one hand, with the 1RH and 5LH staying on the tonic. 

Seriously thinking of investing in a lesson or two when I'm home in a month's time. I need a good teacher.  I'll probably need to shop around, find one I'm going to get on with long term, so I may as well start now, it could take a while. I need some advice on getting structure in practice, something to fill an hour - I'm just not doing the hour that I should be.  Some days only 15 - 20 mins.  

On the other hand a day never passes when I don't sit down and do at least a few scales. I need a teacher's advice on ways to measure progress, help with my day to day motivation. At the moment, it's a vague intention to be able to play all kinds of stuff in a band by the time I'm 60. But there's a mountain to climb before that, a massive one, and I could do with some milestones. 

I've also realised that I need some competence with the virtual keyboards on tablets and phones. When I tell my students I'm learning keyboards, they naturally whip out their phones and ask for a tune, so I need to learn a few one handed ditties on my iphone. This new wee scale exercise, for starters. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

high up the keys

That's a link that's made me look at and feel the keyboard in a whole different way.  What he's saying about chords is interesting, but the main thing is about playing higher up the keys - something I've noticed all good piano players do.  I've been playing the ends of the keys, especially as I've been working in C major for the last couple of months.  But since I saw that video, I've gone back to basics, and started back on scales, (C major, one octave apart, up-and-down four or five octaves, arpeggios, and contrary motion) high up the keys.

It's a difficult adjustment, and I'm much slower and mistake-prone, but it (literally) feels right.  For example, on the contrary motion scale, I'm aware that when one hand's playing F, the other's playing G: I'm aware because being higher up the keys I'm more in touch with what key it actually is - the end of the keys in C are, after all, the same - only when you're high up and brushing the sharps and flats, can you get a feeling for each individual key. 

Friday, April 18, 2014


I said 'wow' out loud playing the first octave of a scale on that Broadwood in Biggars a couple of weeks ago.  It's made me think.  And then having got home and had some practice time on the Kemble, and it's coming out of the comparison very badly. Of course, I could get it tuned again, get something done about the sticky keys, and maybe even invest in some more significant resoration. but is it worth it?  Maybe I should get a Broadwood when I'm finished in Saudi? we could make a wee holiday of it, travelling the islands, visiting second hand piano shops.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Have scales, need tunes

Had the Yamaha keyboard two or three months now. Getting quite adept at scales and arpeggios in several keys. I do the scales two handed, an octave apart, across four or five octaves altogether.    I've got some tips on YouTube, learning to not waggle my elbows, and to sit up straight. I do ten or fifteen minutes every morning before I go out to work, and then another three or four fifteen or twenty minute practises in the evening, more at the weekend. 

I need to move on now, and build up a repertoire. At the moment it's pitiful, consisting solely of my old mate Lilliburlero, which I still play several times each day, now singing the There Was An Old Woman words - it was difficult to do at first, singing and playing at the same time, but it seems to be like riding a bike, and I've got the knack now. 

Home in Glasgow I bought a book of Songs You Think You Know, a hundred standards with "easy piano" arrangements - I've turned my nose up at these in the past, thinking I'd do better to work with the original arrangements, but I really need to learn to walk before I run. 

Typing this on holiday in Lanzarote, and not been on a keyboard for nearly two weeks - absence is making the heart grow fonder, and being reunited with the Yamaha will sweeten the pill of returning to Saudi, somewhat. I brought Songs You Think You Know to Lanzarote, and I've chosen Down at the Old Bull and Bush to get me started. The idea that's formed is that I want to be able to play songs people can sing along to, in a bar, say. 

After the electronic Yamaha, a couple of days at home with the Kemble showed it's very, let's say, idiosyncratic. I had a play on an old Broadwood upright in Biggars on Sauchihall Street and Oh My God it was gorgeous, very responsive and bright. At some point in the next couple of years I need to decide whether to get the Kemble restored or buy something better.