Learning and Playing by Heart : Page 2 of 3
Learning and Playing by Heart
But when I got into the more challenging choruses later, where we would sing Palestrina and Handel and Bach's B-Minor Mass (not to mention some atonal pieces where nothing could be learned without the handhold of reading the written score), I had a piano by then and I taught myself to read music. At first it seemed impossible, all those meaningless squiggles on the page with sounds attached. But slowly, at least the lower notes in the treble clef came into my eyes' and hands' understanding. And gradually, the upper notes of the bass clef did the same. I was lost when it came to the very high notes, the ones that rose above multiple dash-length horizontal lines (indicating notes that went beyond the five horizontal lines of the music staff), and the very low notes (the ones that descended below the fifth horizontal line, when the last note I could barely recognize, the low "F," fell away). I felt myself to be a clumsy player, a clumsy reader. But it was better to have some access than none.
When I came to the point where I believed that, with effort, I could play most simple-to-intermediate pieces, I realized that any piece of music was open to me. This was not only an epiphany, it was a holy invitation. Heartened, I went to the music room of the main library; and as I looked over the threshold at the shelves and shelves of packed-in sheet music, which anyone, including me, could take out with only a library card (no requirement that I already be good at playing them), I felt like going down on my knees right then and there, like prostrating myself at the threshold. Instead, I started taking out sheet music. Most of which turned out to be beyond me.
Time passed, other things took the ascendancy, and music became background again. But I still had my piano. And one day, I got an email ad from a sheet-music store online, having a sale. Suddenly it came to me to see if this store sold music that I might love to play. I scrolled through, and came upon their Bach section. Within that were offerings for different levels of playing ability: Beginners, Intermediate, and Advanced. I knew I wasn't advanced, and hoped I wasn't a total beginner, so I investigated the Intermediate offerings. Not being able to see the actual sheet music, I couldn't tell if these pieces were beyond my reach. But when I came to the Bach "Two-Part Inventions," which I had heard others play ~ Peter Serkin and Glenn Gould ~ I thought, "Oh! If only I could play that, too." And then and there, I decided I would buy the Two-Part Inventions and see if I could manage to play them.
When the sheet music arrived in the mail, I was as excited as a child at her birthday. I tore open the brown shipping envelope and turned the pages, looking chiefly for levels of simplicity and complexity. "I think I can do this," I thought. And I sat down with the music at the piano and tried to play the first few bars of the first piece ~ which was not totally impossible, after all, and I had heard the music so I knew it in my mind ~ and then the second piece. By the third piece, I realized that I was up against a challenge currently beyond me. That was when I said something to myself that I had never said before, characteristically eager to master things right away and avoid the boring steps along the way: "I will give myself a year to learn this. " There were fewer than 20 pages involved.
Because the motivation was entirely my own and I had no pressure to do anything with it ~ to prove myself, to perform, any of that ~ it seemed like taking a year if need be to learn these pieces was a kindness to myself. I had never overtly given myself that much time to learn something I cared about. It would mean I could go slowly, make mistakes, not understand, do it again, come back to it, and so on. It would mean allowing myself to learn in a way that no one had ever taught me, had ever taken the time to teach me. In choruses, though I usually did catch on eventually, it was often a matter of diving in and hoping for the best. I had never had a teacher just for me, patient enough to care not only that I learned, and even how I learned, but also to care about me; how it felt inside to be doing it.
I would be the teacher I had always wanted. Patience, dedication, and listening would help me though my ignorance.
I chose the first piece to start with, because my ears were familiar with it, so the phrasing made more sense. I tried the right- and left-hand parts simultaneously at first, and some degree of coordination happened; but it felt too disparate; the right-hand learning and the left-hand learning did not happen at the same pace. The right hand came easier, though the notes were more intricate. So I decided to do each hand separately, which, I realized, is probably how most piano teachers urge their pupils to begin. One piece at a time, getting good at it before adding on what you haven't yet mastered. So the right-hand part, again and again, until it began to fall into place, its nested rhythms having a place to sink into, so that the intricacy of the notes were heard as having both a gravity and an ascending leap.
"Good," I praised myself. Then I went on to the second of the Two Part Inventions, and did the same thing.
By the third piece, I recognized that a year would not be too long to consider for this project. Bach may have used similar structures and original conventions in all the pieces, but some were assuredly easier than others. I skipped the ones that were still squiggles to me and went on to those I could do some of. But I did not despair. My "Oh well" meant simply that it would take longer, not that it was beyond me forever; even though it seemed to be, right now.
Time passed. The sheet music receded from my awareness. But then some days would draw me to the piano, needing the cohesion and patterning of the Two-Part Inventions; needing the profound healing that came with the playing of those notes that went up and down in certain patterns, climbing and side-stepping down the scale, then varying themselves just a bit, but in such a way that a whole other mode was called in: a C-major start of the sequence now was in B minor, that harkening back to the familiar but adding shade and question marks and timbre to it.
Sitting there working out the right-hand and left-hand parts, I lost track of my self. The music was compelling enough that it absorbed all my attention. I could feel my hands on the keys, my eyes reading the notes, my body breathing, my weight supported by the piano bench; but there was no separate sense of "I" there. The music, and my passion for it, had swept me up and nestled me inside some angelic bosom I had longed for always.
When I was able to play three of the Two-Part Inventions well enough that it sounded like genuine music and had some emotional depth to it as well, instead of moving on to mastering a new piece I found myself (not a premeditated plan) beginning to memorize the right-hand of one of the pieces I already was familiar with. I watched myself do this: start at the beginning and look at the notes on the sheet music, then look down at my hands to see which notes I was playing, so I could remember where to go by looking at the keys instead of at the sheet music (after having put years of effort into learning to read music). And I also registered how it felt to have my hands on the keys, and could even begin to feel the span of the exact intervals between the keys as my fingers spread out. "It feels like that far to the next note," I sensed; and often, I was right ~ the music came out with the correct notes. When it didn't, that told me my finger-span was off, and I adjusted it until the notes came out right. With infinite patience and interest, I went through this process for the first few bars, reading the notes and playing them, looking at my fingers on the keys and memorizing their placement as best I could ~ a phrase, the next phrase; going back, until my hands had learned the small part. Until my heart had.