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What it's like to be a beginner - Part Three
Three Years Later as a Continuing Piano Student

Pianist? Golfer?

November 20, 2005 was the fourth anniversary of my beginning piano lessons, undertaken to put myself through the process of learning something very technical, rich and rewarding (like golf) from the ground up, with a fresh perspective as a beginner. The last installment to this series of articles was three years ago. And it appears that, in that time, I have become an "intermediate" piano student. Surely that represents significant progress -- hoooah! smile

To report on the level I have reached, on December 5, 2005 I played the C-sharp minor Waltz (Op. 64, No. 2) of Chopin in my piano class recital in front of somewhere around 100 people. To give you a feel for what that's like in terms of golf it is probably about like a golfer with four years of experience playing a relatively mild course from the regular PGA Tour rotation and getting by without losing any balls and actually being able to keep track of a score -- in front of a gallery! Since in piano playing one's "score" is subjective I would evaluate my score (in golf terms) in that particular "round" to have been below 90 but not below 85. Try to imagine a golfer with four years under their belt playing one of the easier PGA Tour courses and shooting 85 to 90 with a gallery watching every shot. Also, in a piano recital one is seated, basically holding still and in a spotlight... it's brutal. smile I have also included below a list of pieces that I have learned since my last report three years ago. Certainly some people could have accomplished more than I have in the same period of time and some less; that's the way it goes with anything. Given the fact that I have averaged an hour a day of practice I certainly I wish I was better, but I'm also pleased at how far I've come since beginning. Note: I had much more than one hour a day to practice as a developing golfer due to my age and lack of responsibilities at the time.

So far this experiment in learning to play the piano has been a great experience and I intend to keep going. It continues to give me perspective on the process of developing skill and helps me to relate to my golf students and the experience that they are having in developing their golf games. My strengths in my piano pursuit have been perseverance and consistency born of enthusiasm (just like in my early golf development) and my weaknesses have been getting frustrated easily, trying too hard and focusing too much of my available practice time on playing pieces of music and not enough on practicing technical exercises and fundamentals (this is also similar to my early golf experience and similar to what I see from many developing golfers). Well, no matter where you go you always bring you with you, eh? It's not surprising that my behavior in both pursuits would be similar. My weaknesses mentioned above sound very familiar in terms of what I observe with many golf students. Golfers expect to improve too much and too quickly, they get frustrated very easily, they try too hard (including swinging too hard) and usually focus on playing golf more than on practicing fundamentals.

Which leads me to an observation: if a person has a limited amount of time to put into the pursuit of their golf game, how do you think they are going to spend that time - playing or practicing? The answer is probably that they are going to do whatever gives them the most enjoyment, and for the majority that is probably playing rather than practicing. I understand this completely and can't hold it against my golf students when they come to a lesson having played once or twice since the last lesson, but not having practiced at all. In my piano practice I spend a lopsided percentage of the time working on playing pieces of music rather than on working on scales, sight-reading and technical exercises focusing on fundamentals. That is because to me playing pieces of music is much more fun than working on fundamentals. If, however, my number one goal was to get as good at playing the piano as I possibly could, I would do more work on the fundamentals and spend less time playing pieces - at least in these earliest stages of my development. Obviously, then, my number one goal must NOT be to be as good as I can possibly be; my number one goal must be to enjoy myself.

That is an important thing (for me as an instructor, and for students of golf) to know. If you're not getting as good at golf as you want to get, or as fast as you'd like get there, ask yourself if getting good is your number one goal, or is something else your number one goal? If one is an extremely enlightened individual who can enjoy the process of developing skill for its own sake I wonder if perhaps they can have the best of both worlds: enjoyment and results. Note: I have observed a rare breed of golfer who enjoys practicing regularly and does not play at all.

Anyway, the purpose of this experiment has been to gain perspective on the pursuit of early skill development. Some important points that I have had reinforced by this process are

  • Get good information - instruction and feedback from qualified high quality professional teachers, books, watching and interacting with highly skilled players
  • Long term consistency is more important than short term intensity - have patience and keep "chipping away" at the details, realizing that in pursuits of this kind there are always peaks and valleys in progress
  • Focus on the weak links in your technique - I tell my golf students to notice what areas of their game cost them strokes when they play, and to focus lessons and more practice time on those areas. I have gotten better about this in my piano practice, but still have a ways to go and have to remind myself repeatedly to do this
  • Enjoy the process of practicing in addition to any progress you make or any goals you achieve

I may write another installment to this series of articles at some point (like maybe if I ever become and "advanced" player smile), but I'll let it rest for a while. I hope these articles have provided perspective on the pursuit of developing (golf) skill, as the experience of learning to play the piano has for me.

Here's a list of pieces that I have learned since the last article three years ago. At any particular time I have a few of them in memory, and could relearn any of them in a short period of time.

 Waltz (No. 19) in A minor, Op. Post. Chopin
 Waltz in G-sharp minor, Op. 39, No. 3 Brahms
 Song without Words, Op. 30, No. 6  Mendelssohn
 Carnaval, Op. 9, No. 11 - Chiarina Schumann
 Carnaval Op. 9, No. 16 - Valse Allemande Schumann
 "Bitten", Op. 48, No. 1 (transcription) Beethoven
 Waltz in A-flat, Op. 69, No. 1 Chopin
 Waltz in B minor, D. 145/Op. 18a, No. 6 Schubert
 "The Elephant" from Carnival of the Animals (arrangement)   Saint Saens
 Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2 Chopin
 Puppet's Complaint Franck
 A Little Girl Implores Her Mother Rebikov
 Danza de la Rosa Granados
 The Evening Bell Granados
 Mikrokosmos Vol. 4, No. 100 Bartok
 Nocturne (Homage to John Field), Op. 33  Barber
 Valse, Op. 12, No. 2 Grieg
 Love Song, from Three Sketches Barber
 Valse Noble Op. 77, No. 9  Schubert
 Valse Brillante, Op. 34, No. 2 Chopin
 Mikrokosmos Vol. 5, No. 126 Bartok
 Hungarian Melody, D. 817 Schubert
 Plastic Soldier Joachim
 Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2  Chopin
 Allemande, HWV 478 Handel
 Song without Words, Op. 19, No. 4 Mendelssohn
 Adagio from Oboe Concerto (transcription BWV 974)   Marcello-Bach 
 Moment Musical Op. 94, No. 3 "Air Russe" Schubert
 Prelude, Op. 28, No. 2 Chopin
 Sonata in E, K. 380 Scarlatti
 Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum  Debussy
 Nocturne, Op. 55, No. 1 Chopin
Piece perfomed in public recital

My resources
(since the last article)

In addition to my lessons/classes and the resources I mentioned in the first two parts of this series of articles -

I have read these books

Chopin, a Pictorial Biography, by Andre Boucourechliev
Chopin, the man and his music, by James Huneker
Chopin Preludes Op. 28: Analysis, Views and Comments, T. Higgins
Chopin in Paris, by Tad Szulc
The Sonata in the Baroque Era, by William S. Newman
The Heritage of Music: The Romantic Era (various authors)
Sergei Rachmaninov: An Essential Guide to his Life and Works, by J. Haylock
The International Library of Piano Music, Vol. 14 (short biographies)
The Heritage of Music: Music in the Twentieth Century (various authors)
Guide to Sonatas, by Melvin Berger
Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen
Great classical composers: appreciating their lives and music, by David Allen
The Lives of the Great Composers, by Harold Schonberg
The Literature of the Piano, by Ernest Hutcheson and Rudolph Ganz
The Great Pianists, by Harold Schonberg
The Chopin Companion, edited by Alan Walker
The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry, by Barry Green
Heritage of Music: Volume III: The Nineteenth-Century Legacy (various authors)
Harmonic Materials in Tonal Music, by Paul Harder
Harmony, by Heinrich Schenker
Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, by Josef Lhevinne
Piano Playing with Piano Questions Answered, by Josef Hofmann
What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body, by Thomas Mark
The Art of Piano Pedaling: Two Classic Guides, by A. Rubinstein and T. Carreno
The Pianist's Guide to Pedaling, by Joseph Banowetz
Great Pianists on Piano Playing, by James Francis Cooke
Frederick Chopin, as a man and musician, Vol. 1, by Frederick Niecks
Frederick Chopin, as a man and musician, Vol. 2, by Frederick Niecks

I have these videos or DVD's

The Art of Piano - Great Pianists of 20th Century
Great Pianists of the Bell Telephone Hour
The Golden Age of Piano
Yevgeny Kissin: The Gift of Music

And I have attended these performances

Mar 2003Pro Art Symphony, Berkeley
May 2003Lino Rivera, Walnut Creek
May 2003Pianomania, Lafayette
Oct 2003Frank Wiens Recital, San Francisco
Oct 2003Victorian Englander House Recital, San Francisco
Feb 2004Temirzhan Yerzhanov Recital, San Francisco
Feb 2004Faculty Recital, Los Medanos College
Feb 2004Pro Art Symphony, Lafayette
Apr 2004Pianomania, Lafayette
May 2004Catherine and Eric Thompson Recital, Los Medanos College
May 2004Daniel Glover Recital, Danville
Jun 2004Jon Nakamatsu Recital, Lafayette
Nov 2004Catherine and Eric Thompson Recital, Los Medanos College
Mar 2005Pianomania, Lafayette
Apr 2005Catherine and Eric Thompson Recital, Los Medanos College
May 2005Kids Play the Darndest Things, Lafayette
May 2005Eden Mendoza Sophomore Recital, Los Medanos College
Feb 2006Pianomania, Walnut Creek

I don't suppose anyone would hold me negligent in terms of getting input. smile

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