Mission impossible?

Learning music is a journey: sometimes – often! – it’s an amazing journey of discovery with new horizons and vistas constantly opening up before you as you travel through the score. As you grow more intimate with it, you find interesting bye-ways and twitchells. Sometimes, you come across a short-cut: a clever way to resolve a tricky passage, a fingering scheme which is perfect for a run of difficult chords. Set a piece aside for a few months and then go back to it, and you find even more, things you might have missed first time round, or elements which you appraise in a new or different way.

But occasionally it’s a journey fraught with pitfalls, cul-de-sacs and u-turns. Doors are closed, alleyways prohibited. Access denied. It’s rare for me to give up on a piece of music. I’m tenacious, persistent and perfectionist, and it irks me horribly if a piece gets the better of me, but now and then I take on something which just does not suit me, and no matter how long I spend with it, I just don’t progress. And so, in the end, I become a hostage to it, confronting the same page of score day after day and not moving forward. Shades of ‘Groundhog Day’! A few examples:

Delius – ‘Scherzando’. A really beautiful, lyrical piece, playful and spritely, which I started learning last year when I was going through my “English Romantics” phase (including Ireland and Bridge). but my hands – and head – simply could not cope with all its weird and awkward arpeggios, which did not sit comfortably under the fingers. It’s harder than it looks!

Delius – Three Preludes

Gershwin – No. 1 of Three Preludes, Allegro ben ritmato e deciso. I learnt the middle piece of this trio and performed it in my students’ concert last summer, a lazy, languid prelude with motifs redolent of the composer’s more famous work ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. The first Prelude is exuberant, opening with a 5-note blues motif on which virtually all the material in the piece is based. This was no problem for me: but the syncopated rhythms, based on a Brazilian baião, completely foxed me. Unfortunately, I mis-learnt the rhythm and then found it virtually impossible to un-learn and re-learn it. After days spent playing the rhythm on the fall of my piano – and nothing else – I had to admit defeat. But it’s a piece I would like to return to when I have the time to learn it properly.

Gershwin  3 Preludes

Shostakovich – Prelude in D Major, Op. 87, No. 5. This piece, from the LTCL repertoire list, was supposed to herald my first serious foray into Shostakovich’s repertoire for the piano. Arpeggiated chords over a simple, tranquil melody, first in the bass, then in the treble. Sounds easy? Looks easy too…. But my left hand refused to play the game of arpeggiated chords, and the right hand got tired too easily. Even with some helpful tips from my teacher to relax the hands, I found this piece painful and awkward. It was with great reluctance that I had to set it aside, and rest my right hand. I intend to return to this piece, but when, and only when, my right hand is 100% fit.

When I was learning the piano as a child, I remember labouring over the same wretched piece week after week, my teacher insistent that I was jolly well going to learn it. It was demoralising to have to struggle through the same thing each week, and I grew to despise certain pieces. Thus, when I am working with my students, I always play through a new piece to them so they can hear it and tell me whether they like it, and, most importantly, would like to learn it. There’s no point forcing a child (or indeed an adult student) to learn something they don’t like (though I do occasionally impose certain pieces on students for the purposes of improving technique or studying a particularly aspect). Some of my students have very clear ideas about what they would like to learn: one child, Sam, 8, is keen on jazz and has a real affinity for it. Sadly, I do not teach jazz, but I do try to accommodate his wishes. Another, Ben, loves Beethoven, and his treat this week will be to start learning a simplified version of the Moonlight Sonata. (Ben can already play the opening measures by ear, correctly transposed into D minor.)

If a child is really struggling with a piece, despite requesting to learn it, we will abandon it. Much as I dislike admitting failure, sometimes it’s necessary to just move on and select a new piece. It also reminds students that there is a wealth of fantastic repertoire out there just begging to be discovered.