Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Rewiring my brain: A musical offering

For the last six months or so I am having to rewire my brain. That's because I am taking formal classical piano lessons for the first time. The piano lessons are making my brain do things it has never done before, and it's taking even longer for the message to get from my brain to my hands. But it's been an enriching experience so far, and I am getting there.

I have been playing the piano and keyboard for more than 20 years. My school and college days were filled with music as documented before. But being congenitally lazy, I never took the effort to actually formally learn to read and write music. I also used to let my fingers run willy nilly over the keyboard, fingering be damned. My parents and others never got tired of telling me what a difference it would make if I actually learnt something formally, but like many other things I dismissed their wise advice with cheerful repudiation. To some extent I myself was to blame for this state of affairs. That's because I have a reasonably good memory for music and can remember the main parts of a musical piece after hearing it a couple of times, unless it is hideously complicated. Since my memory filled in for formal instruction I never felt the need to learn how to read and write.

While learning to play by ear served me very well for all these years, it also had some distinct drawbacks. Many notes in a musical piece are contrapuntal notes, sometimes playing in the background, gently cajoling louder notes, making the musical landscape richer. But these notes are usually very hard to decipher because of their transient nature and low amplitude. Many of the "contra melodies" both in eastern and western music fall into this category. Thus, while learning by ear is adequate for the general structure of a piece and entirely satisfactory for most Indian songs which did not have dominant contra-melodies, it fails to various extents for more involved pieces, and fails spectacularly for compositions by composers like Bach who was the unmatched master of counterpoint.

Thus my musical education has always been somewhat lacking. So it was with immense trepidation as well as anticipation that I looked forward to my first lessons. The first lesson was terrifying since my music teacher asked me to directly compose a piece of music and write it; I almost felt like running away. Fortunately I realised that I have found an extremely patient piano teacher who, when I confessed to her that I could be abysmally slow, dismissed my concerns by pointing out that she has even taught mentally challenged children with special needs. The piano lesson is at 9 PM which also makes things slightly challenging. But her enthusiasm and patience rub off, and even after a long day at work I find myself feeling energetic after a while.

The last six months have been quite an experience. Learning how to read and decipher music felt like being someone who has lived his life until now in a candlelit room and has just found the switch for the 100 watt lightbulb.

At first the going was tough and not much was possible; I was learning how to play the classical equivalent of nursery rhymes. In addition I have to say this; a lot of musical notation is not exactly meant to simplify things. For instance consider the 22 notes spread across the treble and bass clefs. Each line as well as each space corresponds to a note (A, B, C etc.). However, the fact that the line and space are of unequal width make this notion counterintuitive, and a beginner tends to regard only spaces as notes (more so because that's how the notes on a piano would look if turned by 90 degrees). However upon further contemplation it becomes clear that the particular notion employed is a considerable space saving device, since one can essentially represent the entire spectrum of the instrument in a short space.

But even that experience of playing the most elementary pieces was immensely valuable as I could truly develop my left hand for the first time, that left hand which until now had been engaged only in playing chords and no melody, acting more as a substitute for rhythm than as my right hand's equal.

It was only in the last three months that I have progressed to intermediate stage. If beginner stage is like riding a bicycle, intermediate stage is like driving a car. Landscapes that were previously inaccessible suddenly bloom exponentially in front of you. Relatively few pieces by leading composers are at the beginner stage but many more are at the intermediate stage. Once I got to this stage it was like opening the door to a garden full of exotic flowers. I could take full advantage of which has a lot of sheet music from various composers. Intermediate stage is when the turbo charging starts. I could branch out from what my teacher taught me and strike out on my own a bit.

I started with simple pieces like Bach's Minuet in G and Beethoven's Russian Folk Song, but even here the advantages of learning formal music were eminently clear. I would never have been able to disentangle the relatively complex intertwining of notes in these pieces by ear alone. I felt like a physicst who has previously performed experiments to watch balls rolling down inclined planes, but who knows no mathematics to understand what's happening in all its fine glory.

However, curiously, my musical memory which has served as an asset until now actually became a liability. That's because the moment I painfully deciphered one part, my brain would immediately commit it to memory, which meant that the next time I could play it without looking. Now that would be a good thing if I weren't actually trying to learn how to read! But learning how to read means getting enough practice at reading and re-reading the notes and symbols, just like learning a language. Memory opposes this process.

The most difficult thing has been to learn and stick to fingering. Previously, certain of my fingers have been used to playing certain notes. The interrelationship of the fingers to each other has also been hardwired because of years of using them that way. For instance, for certain patterns of notes, my index finger will invariably arch over my thumb, whereas traditionally it would not be done that way. Every time I am supposed to use specific fingering, my fingers strain to break free of the new rules that their upstart owner is trying to impose on them. They prance around and resist and have a life of their own, like Dr. Strangelove's gloved arm. They insist on obeying their own laws of motion. I have to constantly command my brain to rein them in. It is sometimes excruciatingly painful and yet I know that after some effort, order will be restored to this unruly landscape.

So this is the first time that I am having to actively suppress my memory. Part of this effort has also meant that I deliberately ask my teacher to give me pieces which I haven't heard before, so that my memory does not help me play them at least during the first time. This is not very easy since I have listened to a substantial amount of classical music until now. But the treasure chest of classical music goes deeper than I think, and she always finds something. The latest effort is for a long transcription of Bach's famous Air on a G string. The measure is slightly tricky at times, and the piece should keep me occupied for some time.

Mostly I spend my time practicing these assigned pieces, but with my newfound ability I sometimes cannot resist the temptation to go beyond what she is teaching. In this spirit I have tried several pieces which I have heard before, which I could even play to some extent before, but which have acquired a whole new quality now that I can pry their notes apart. I tried "Fur Elise" of course, and I am trying out Schumann's beautiful "Traumerei" and Chopin's Mazurka in D which is a real challenge.

The most challenging of these right now in terms of coordination is Mozart's fast "Turkish March", the 3rd movement of his 11th Piano Sonata in A Major. Before I had spent literally months listening to this piece hundreds of times before I could get the right hand reasonably accurate. But the left hand's role was hidden in that sheet music, waiting all these years to be uncovered. And now that the left hand can dance over the landscape on equal terms with the right, life has acquired a golden hue.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now we know that we READ a word by reading first few alphabets of a word and Guessing the rest. Does reading the music is done same way? or once you know the piece and practice it, your brain will take over and you can play it even if you dont read all the notes?--PK

7:02 AM  

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