7 Nov 2003 MichaelCrawford   » (Master)


I've been playing piano again. I've played since 1984, but haven't practiced regularly for about five years. For the last week I've played every day, and now I'm playing for an hour a day.

I taught myself to play the piano. I think I did so in the most difficult way imaginable - I would just hit keys randomly and listen to see if the combinations of notes sounded nice. I had studied clarinet and drums in school, but never much liked the way I learned, and had such a bad experience with a cruel music teacher in eighth grade that I stopped playing music entirely until I was 20.

For some reason, although I could play well when I was a kid, I never could read sheet music. I always had to get someone to show me how to play a new piece. I could play a song well once I had it memorized, and then the sheet music helped as a reminder, but I never could just pick up a new song from the music.

I didn't mind this random way of learning the piano back when I started. It didn't bother me that I didn't know how to play, just banging on the keys was one of the few things that gave me any peace back when I was crazy. That and drawing.

A nice thing about it though was that after a while I learned to improvise, and I could play at some length coming up with new stuff all the time, and actually have it sound good. I even composed a few songs. I've met a lot of piano players, who could play much better than I, who expressed envy that I could compose. They only knew how to play music someone else had written.

The problem was that I stopped improvising much after I had a few songs I could play really well. Not knowing how to read music I couldn't learn anything new. The last time I really put much effort into the piano was when I recorded Geometric Visions in the Spring of '94. I stopped abruptly when I got really depressed and didn't play much at all until 1997.

In '97, I decided the best way to start composing again would be to finally learn to read music, and to learn some music theory. I took lessons - the first in thirteen years of playing - from a wonderful teacher named Velzoe Brown, back in Santa Cruz.

I was just starting to figure out how to learn a new piece from its music when I got this really bad cold and stopped my lessons, and just never took them up again. Not too long after that I started my business and didn't have time for much of anything for quite some time. When I lived in Newfoundland my piano was in storage, and even after I got it moved to my place in Maine I only played occasionally, sitting down maybe once a month to play my old pieces.

I think maybe because I've been really stressed out for a while now I finally got the idea to calm myself by playing the piano again. At first it was really disappointing, as I made lots of mistakes, forgot sometimes how my pieces went, and my fingers didn't have the strength they once had. It made my right hand and forearm hurt to play my piece "Recursion".

Happily, I persisted and in a few days the strength returned to my fingers. This couldn't have been from exercise strengthening the muscles, I think it's more that my fingers have got limbered up and used to moving that way again. Maybe all the typing I do has kept my fingers strong.

I have a book of exercises called The Virtuoso Pianist by Hanon. The author says the purpose of the exercises is to give one's fingers strength and agility, and (importantly) strengthen all the fingers equally. If one learns by playing songs, some fingers will become better than others at playing, so it will be difficult to learn to play songs that use other fingers. But Hanon promises that if one practices each of The Virtuoso Pianist's exercises regularly, one will be able to play anything well.

There are sixty exercises total. I think I had learned to play the first fifteen of them before I stopped practicing regularly. I could only remember a couple at first, so a few days ago I dug through my stuff until I found my book, and yesterday I played the first ten.

I've decided I will learn one new exercise each day until I know them all, and learn to play them well. They're not all that interesting to listen to, being designed just to exercise one's fingers, so I never learned to play them very fast. I could tell yesterday that I had trouble playing several of them, so I would stop and play them again slowly until I could play them well.

Today I played eleven of the exercises, repeating a few of them several times, and after I played them I played them again in reverse order. That took an hour.

Tomorrow or maybe the next day I'll start using my metronome to improve my timing, and over the next few days I'll speed it up. Hanon says one should be able to play all sixty of his exercises in an hour.

My timing has never been very accurate or steady. That's never bothered me. With my own pieces I slow down or speed up as I feel like while I play, but with most pieces others have written that just sounds really bad.

In a month or so I expect I'll be as good again as when I stopped my lessons in 1997, and then I'll start looking for a piano teacher.

As I write this I'm listening to Philip Glass' Metamorphosis. I would like very much to learn to play it. I heard Glass play it live, back when I lived in Santa Cruz, and I think it is my favorite piece of all the music in the world. I would be thrilled to learn to play it, but I have a long way to go. I still can't read music, and Metamorphosis is about a half hour long.

You'll find Metamorphosis on Glass' album Solo Piano. I think it's out of print now but perhaps you can find a copy used.

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