Scales and Birthday Parties

There are two things I tried to avoid actively as a child – practicing scales and attending birthday parties. I always dreaded going to birthday parties for no good reason. I always made up my mind that they would be dreadful – although I can’t think why. Anyways, I’d get an invite and I’d try to think of all sorts of ways to avoid going to it. Ofcourse my mum would make me go – my excuses, creative as they were, never fooled her. Sure enough, I’d grudgingly go to the party and end up having blast and coming home with a smile.

Scales are the musical equivalents of those birthday parties for me. I disliked learning them and came up with all sorts of excuses to avoid playing them. And then ofcourse, the more I avoided them, the more dreadful the image of them became. And thanks to lack of practice, they didn’t sound great when I did play them which only reinforced my dislike of them.

But I finally hit the point with beginning my journey of Beethoven Sonatas that no amount of Bach or any other composer could justify avoiding scales altogether. So, I finally my prejudice aside, and confronted them with an open mind in the safe space of practice. I began playing them – slowly, leisurely, with careful thought behind each finger and note. Lo and behold, very much like those birthday parties I so harshly misjudged, they turned out to be the complete opposite of what I imagined them to be once I actually played them.

My biggest excuse so far was to deem them being exercises that would bore me to sleep. Granted, scales are not exactly music masterpieces, but they aren’t quite as boring as I thought either. One of my favourite quotes on playing scales is by Rubinstein:

Scales should never be dry. If you are not interested in them, work with them until you do become interested in them.

I took that advice to heart. The point of scales is more mental than physical and keeping the mind engaged is important. For me, this means practicing scales in different ways. On the first day I decided to play scales again, I stuck with plain old C major and kept myself engrossed in it for a good half hour. Satisfied with it in unison? Comfortable with the finger positions? Try contrary. Then alternate between unison and contrary motion to keep it mixed. Once that was easy, I switched it up and again tried playing it in thirds. Once I was satisfied with that, I switched to playing it in sixths. Then move on arpeggios or broken chords – you can see how this list goes on. By the time I had learned to play it in thirds and sixths, half an hour flew by and I barely noticed.

Fast forward to to day, I have moved beyond C major and now play the entire circle of fifths. Some key signatures are less intuitive than others – my personal kryptonite was F# major in contrary motion. While playing them, I feel as though I’ve got to know the key signatures much better – and not just how many sharps or flats they have – but their quirky personalities and the moods they bring. That is one of the greatest advantages of playing scales – getting to know to each key in its entirety.

So far, my fingers have certainly benefited from playing scales and I intend to keep it up – but Rubinstein’s advice still guides me through it all. They aren’t meant to be flown through to see who has the fastest fingers – they are just as much exercises for the brain as they are for the fingers!

Inspiration and Encouragement

Pursuing what you love to do can be trying – always second-guessing whether you’re doing the right thing walking uphill while everyone else seems to be going the other way. Inspiration and encouragement can come from the most unexpected of places. For me it came from a beautiful post written by Knowthesphere titled “The Good Fight”. It’s a wonderful read.

In life we often think about our goals, our dreams and our ambitions. We focus on these often at times, sometimes not so often, other times not at all. Sometimes we lose sight of them in our busyness, being caught up in life, set upon by trials, obstacles, regrets or other turmoil beyond our control. Yet with some, the focus on dreams and ambitions remains vigilant even in the darkest light, even among the heaviest of trials. Spheres of headlong focus, and fighting to achieve dreams exist within us all, if we should only grasp these pearls and know of their strength.

It is the fight. The good fight; a fight to realize our own truths, to grow into who we truly are. Without our fight, without our dreams, our soul becomes stagnant, suffocated, struggling to breathe. It is in the dying of our selves that we become what some call “wiser” or “grown-up.” We look back to what we now consider foolish pursuits and say, that was a waste of time. But, was it? Or does the time we waste belong in the action of non-pursuit? Was the time that we spent dreaming, conjuring, planning and setting course to achieve wholeness truly wasteful? My answer is no.

It is in pursuit of dreams where we are the most alive. This is realized in both the peace and excitement that we feel while pursuing our dreams along our path. It is realized in the discouragement we feel when we think we’ve failed, yet we remain unaware that we’ve only begun. It is realized in the sense of accomplishment we feel when we end the last page, sign our work, receive our degree, or plant a new seed in our garden and cover it with Earth. It is fully realized when we stop chasing after our dreams and our heart beat is then muffled, beating quieter when we are not actively pursuing our dreams.

Read the rest at Knowthesphere.

The New Year Plan, 2015

A little late getting this one out but better late than never! I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I’d like to do this year musically – not just in terms of repertoire but in pedagogy and music theory as well. Here’s what my list looks like thus far:

Blog more! My writing is somewhat divided between my piano journal – which is more a nitty gritty daily thought collector, and my blog. Sadly, I’ve been neglecting the blog and I’d really like to get the pace up on posts and thoughts. Something I always wanted to do was to make a little spot for analysis of pieces. My idea is to do this in a purely practical way – that is from the perspective of the performer or listener, not necessarily an academic. Analysing a piece at even a basic level does wonders for interpretation and memorisation and as I work through pieces I’d like to have an analysis to keep as a kind of record of it.

Finish out the Beethoven sonata (Pastorale): Somehow, I just had to pick the sonata that has four movements instead of three movements…really. Just have to get down to reading them and having it completed.

Finish out the Mozart sonata: Ditto.

Start work on completing the partita: This one is a tougher one to complete so I’m not too surprised I haven’t done it yet. Part of the reason why I switched gears to my fugue obsession right now is I felt like I didn’t have the experience to tackle the entire partita. I can feel the difference already with just two new fugues so, slow and steady is the key to this one here.

New Chopin etude (Revolutionary): My new etude for the year.

Easy Pieces: I’m adding this category to my practice plan – to always have something “easy” (as in not a monster to work on) while I’m working on the challenging stuff. For March, I chose the waltz by Chopin in c# minor and it’s been a lot of fun to sight read. I want to make sure I have one “character” piece as they call it to weave into my repertoire.

Record new pieces: This is another area I’ve really been slacking off on. I’m considering doing a couple videos rather than just audio but the ultimate goal here is that regardless of the medium, I really need to record my new pieces at some pieces. They don’t have to be perfect, but just getting them recorded and listening to them myself will go a long way in helping me tweak them better and get them performance ready.

That’s about it for now. 2015 is going well so far and I’m excited to see what I’ll be playing this year! 🙂