How Varied Was Today? Repetition vs. Practice

First, I’d like to consider Rachel’s questions from yesterday:

“Do you think that the concept of theme and variations ties back to the very idea of sitting down at an instrument and performing (relatively) similar, yet different, acts each day? And can we see our writing practices as similar?”

Yes and no. Yes in that each day presents a “theme”—morning, noon, and night. A simple canvas, you might say. Or a repeated melody. Or a few lines of a poem. 

Sometimes it seems as if my August days get into a routine: I do my back exercises in the morning, eat breakfast, read the NYT and the Milwaukee Journal, go to the piano, walk the dog, swim, write, fix dinner and (hopefully) watch a winning Brewers game. At least that’s my recent routine. There are small variations: when and how I exercise the dog, the days that I have yoga class or sail, when my husband Steve makes dinner or we go out. But basically the day presents a template, a theme.

(Mostly I like routines—and want no jokers, no surprises. And of course my routine activities  are reprioritized during the days, weeks and months I am teaching or mentoring, or when there are increased friend or family responsibilities. But still: My new neighbor to the north asked me one day if I was the pianist he heard playing. When I said yes, he said that he’d always wanted to play. I said “do it! don’t wait!” As Alan Rusbridger  so eloquently showed us in his book Play it Again: An Amateur against the Impossible, it is possible to “practice” with only 15-20 minutes a day, if you are determined. I think that is the key: you have to WANT it. Amateur, after all, means “lover,” and the desire just has to be there for whatever you choose to spend your time doing. )

When I sit down at the piano I can either repeat the “theme” of the day: i.e. just “play” what I played yesterday, straight through, or I can “practice”: i.e. take a small piece of what I’m working on and explore it, tease it apart, look for stumbling places, for complexities of tone, rhythm, key changes I might not have noticed before. 

If I do the former, it is mere repetition: playing the same “theme” over and over again. If I “practice”—and this word means something different to me now since I’ve heard it applied to things like meditation and yoga, I have a greater chance of noticing the differences as they are being created.

One of my favorite movies (still) is Groundhog Day with Bill  Murray (1993). I love to see how (and this is one of the few movies I would watch more than once), caught in an endless day when the same things happen over and over again, he first tries to escape—even to the point of killing himself (unsuccessfully)—but then starts to “practice”—using the formerly unseen opportunities within each day to create something new.

That’s “practice.” I learned to swim as an adult, and have “practiced” now almost every day—mainly for my health but also because I was never allowed the joy of swimming as a child because of the polio of which my sister died. But slowly, and quite nerve-wrackingly, I taught myself as an adult, with a few very good teachers, because I wanted it so damn much. The beautiful and effortless swimmer Esther Williams beckoned.  In the past year I have had to learn to breathe on both sides during the crawl because of shoulder issues. Now I’m learning to use my legs more to strengthen my hip and back. I am still trying “variations” on the theme of that stroke, those same 18 laps.

It’s said that when Ted Williams “practiced” batting, he welcomed “failure” because it showed him that there lurked beneath the surface something he hadn’t realized before—something he had never noticed. There was something different to do with the same “theme”—hitting the ball. He was also, reportedly, a a rather unpleasant perfectionist, but perfection is not what I’m talking about.

So: Today I practiced for a little more than an hour: four specific variations, two of Beethoven’s and two in the Rachmaninoff.

I have to confess that I have played Beethoven’s op .109 before, but years ago when I had a teacher who believed that you had to walk on water even to attempt Beethoven. Whatever I did was never good enough and so I left my lessons usually feeling like shit: inadequate and anxious. Luckily, I now have a teacher who encourages and allows. Right now (in August) Stefanie is away and I am using the time to “learn the notes”: e.g. to work up the difficult passages in each piece to at least playing level. In most cases this involves learning the fingering and internalizing the correct rhythms, so that is what I am doing.

For me, the two most difficult variations in op. 109 are the last two—so difficult, in fact, that I gave it up before. Now, however, I am more optimistic.  Variation 5 is a fugue. Fugues used to frighten me and to some extent they still do. But I have learned to separate the voices and to hear each one and to finger each one before putting them together—hard work for someone like me who is impatient by nature. I had to re-finger measure 133 at least four times today to find something that would be playable at Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast). Ha!  I tend to forget that one can pedal the fugues in Beethoven (I choose not to in Bach because he didn’t), so that will help when it comes to stringing together the voices. But pedal can facilitate cheating if you’re not strict with yourself (the pedal sustains what your fingers should sustain). Fugues, of course, are “rounds”: another instance of theme and variation. One voice begins the theme and then others join with it at different times, changing it in the process. And so one comes up with theme and variations, but vertically, not just horizontally (linearly).

One of the things I really, really like about Beethoven is the time he takes between variations (usually) to prepare the listener for the change in mood. He does this between variations 5 and 6 (the last one). In variation 6 we are to return to the original theme’s tempo (andante molto cantabile ed expressive—essentially, slow as if singing with expression). And then slowly, we move from eights to sixteenths to thirty-seconds and we are moving along at a fair clip. THEN (and this is where I gave up before), at measure 164 he moves into a double trill with other fingers of both hands doing unimaginable things. Twenty measures that were a deal-breaker for me six years ago. Now I am going to learn them and practice them every single day, no matter what else I’m practicing. Most of the issue is physical strength, and of course, one gets stronger with practice. That’s why I practice in the morning when I still have the energy. The reward for all this, at the end of variation 6 is a return to the song of the initial theme, but now with traces of all that has come inbetween in the variations. It is gorgeous.

 And then I turned to the Rachmaninoff variations. After variation 13 comes an Intermezzo. I’m not sure why he does this; it’s not smack in the middle (there are 20 variations), but it does break the spell in the middle of the whole experience and gives both pianist and perhaps audience a bit of time to reflect on what has been going on. It is rubato—at your own pace—and consists of some exquisite chord changes followed by quick passages in the right hand which play with the quick key changes going on. It starts in the key of F (as does the entire piece) but then changes halfway through to D flat, and that key  then continues on into the next two variations: 14 and 15. Fourteen is a return to the theme but in such a different key that they whole thing seems luminous with change. And 15 is dolcissimo (most sweetly) in 9/8 time (essentially triplets) that are so beautiful that I leave the piano replete with beauty. An amateur.

As someone who never formally studied music theory or history, I always believe that there is something I don’t yet know about whatever I’m playing—something it has yet to show me, to teach me. This is the carrot (or tempting apple)–what I don’t yet know.

On the way back from the bank and dog park, Elliot and I stopped at Mickey D’s and ate lunch while listening to  “Billy Boy” with Red Garland (piano), Philly Joe Jones (drums) and Paul Chambers (double bass).  Talk about a simple theme (you know the traditional song)! But when it comes under Garland’s fingers (just talking about him for the moment) you don’t recognize it unless you listen very, very carefully. But it’s still there. All of it.

I did not return to finish “Flic Flac” as I am fondly calling the new Flash poem—partly because I am tired and partly because I have only one more thing to do before I try it out to see if it works. And of course, there’s that fear that it will not work and I will have to “go back to the drawingboard.”

But so what? We go back to the drawingboard every day.

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