Pure Slush

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<  Jerusalem Syndrome

by Maude Larke                  Survival  >


I began playing piano again at age 51, returning to Czerny, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  These four have been good to me, giving me confidence in my return to the keyboard, but they have created a surprising struggle.  I know the particularities of their styles from having bathed in them at a young enough age.  Their familiarity is what tricks us all.

“Us all” are those involved in this new endeavor to play.

The ten fingers, including the thumb which no longer wants to pass underneath the hand for a scale passage.

The muscle memory, which cries out, “I remember this!  I’ve done this before!  Let’s go for it!” and pushes the fingers to speed through the exercise.

The muscles themselves, especially those in the forearms, which go “AAAARRGH!” as soon as the muscle memory begins “going for it” and which halt and burn halfway through an exercise.

The brain, which most often is simply going “Huh?”

The negotiations, the arguments, the juggling among these different participants become a tangible conversation.

Sometimes the exchange is direct.  The fingers call out to the brain: “Help!”  The brain says, “Huh?”  The fingers cry out anew, “Quick, help me with this passage!”  The brain says, slowly, “You’re on your own.”

And of course by then it is too late; the muscle memory has pushed all the participants through the measures in whatever state they managed to stumble through, like city slickers walking on a gravel slope.  The muscles say “AAAARRGH!” then gradually quiet down as the piece ends.

At times it is the other way around.  The brain, engaged for a change, commands, “Finger, go down.”

Silence and immobility.

The brain, more imperiously, commands, “Finger, go down!”

The finger looks up and says, “What?”

The brain, testy by now, commands, “Will you just go down?”

The finger sulkily answers, “Oh, all right.”

But it is too late.  The muscles and the muscle memory, for once in agreement, have stopped to watch the contest.

But this happens when the brain is engaged.  It may not be.  It has a very marked tendency to sleep.  Apparently even “simple” pieces of music send so much information to it that it tires and begins dozing on its stem halfway through the piece.  In the longer works it likes to wander elsewhere, abandoning the whole apparatus to itself.  It can be quite irrational about this.  To ponder the tendency for Mozart’s seventh sonata in C to resemble more a string trio than a piano work is understandable.  To drift off to a dentist’s appointment that took place in the late 1970s is rather irresponsible.  Where it finds some of these thoughts to evoke in mid-moderato is inexplicable.

However the brain shows its dereliction, the fingers must find their way alone, and they do after a fashion.  The muscle memory can help more once the muscles have ceased their screams and have resigned themselves.  But the brain can still be solicited from time to time.  For that little balletic rond de jambe of the fingers needed to negotiate that rising passage.  For the stretch from index to pinkie in the other one. 

And of course for keeping track of the sharps and flats, and of their cancelations, coming and going quickly within a measure and tripping everybody up.  I remember that, when I was first learning, I needed to tell myself, “Now, you see that F sharp?  You repeat it here, got it?”  Then as I developed more dexterity and musical knowledge, I could say, “OK, we’ve modulated into THAT key.”  The signs ceased to be a surprise.  Now our animated discussions have shown me that I have lost the second, more sophisticated method, which had obviously replaced and erased the first, more primitive one.  Both are gone and I play Bach like jazz or Stravinsky.

Besides such specific problems, there is the larger one of general coordination.  In one Czerny exercise, there are parenthetical notations underneath the staves: “(not change)”; “(laugh at mistake)”; “(jealous, 10)”; “(Rach)”.  These are indications for a comedy routine that I invented one day when I was laughing at my attempt to master the exercise.  The routine is for a “chamber work for person and two hands”, with the left hand being rather wayward and unhelpful and me giving many explanations.  It forgets to play, then to change from chords to scales, then misses the fingering and needs a demonstration from the right hand.

“Jealous” is when it sees the right hand get the brilliant scales; it wrestles down that hand and puts itself in its place, only to be punished for its violence by being ordered to climb to the top of the piano and “drop me ten.”

Later it insists on accelerating; the right hand keeps up the pace, but the left hand refuses it when the brilliant scales return to it.  I reprimand it, at which point it shows contrition and caresses the right hand apologetically.  I compliment it.

“I’m very proud of you.  That shows you’re growing.” 

The hand becomes very excited; I ask why, and it makes a leap from one part of the keyboard to the other. 

“No, I didn’t mean growing physically.  You’ll never have a Rachmaninov handspan.”

It sulks.

“Oh, come now, cheer up.  You already have a better one than Beethoven.”

It leaps joyously back into activity for the end of the exercise.

Such a child, that left hand.

One positive thing that we have acquired from returning to the piano is an insight into how Beethoven composed for us.  Paul Lewis, the finest Beethovenian living, said in a radio interview that Beethoven’s piano writing is “almost unpianistic.”  That’s not quite it.  Some composers put at the top of their hierarchy of values the melody.  For others the physical brilliance is put to the fore.

Then there is Beethoven.

Above the value of finger dexterity, above the value of the music, is the value of the piano keyboard as a space.  Beethoven is reveling in that geography, choreographing for his hands.  The pianist who wants to master him must think spatially, like a dancer.  Perhaps this is why I get along well with Beethoven; I can sense his space.

That does not mean that I play his “Tempest” sonata well, at 54, mediating all the debate and discussion murmured or shouted through me while I try to jump from low- to mid-keyboard for the chordal pattern of the recapitulation, or make the keys sing like “Yankee diva” Joyce DiDonato singing Romeo in the Largo, or descend an octave and a half from thumb to fifth finger in the exposition like the strings leaping from the edge in Pulitzer-Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon’s compositions.

But at least the brain gets it.  It is quite happy with itself then.

The rest of us follow along the best we can.


published 12 March 2011