Music

My piano

When I was in college, I was interested in concentrating in music. At that time, however, a prequisite was to have enough piano technique to sightread the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach. As I was growing up, however, our family had sufficient means for its daily needs but hardly enought to dream of such extravagences as a piano. (That changed later, and they got one.)

I have not spent a lot of money during my life, so fortunately I have had a chance to have the things that really are important to me.

The Well-Tempered Clavier · May 2, 2015

J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is a monument of the musical literature, something like Mount Everest in its reputation and true beauty. I have always expected that the likelihood of my playing it was pretty much the same as that of my climbing Mount Everest; that my realm would be the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, written for nine year-old Wilhelm Friedeman Bach. Recently, listening to Glenn Gould performing The Well-Tempered Clavier, I was struck that some of the pieces might be within my reach.

So, I am giving it a go, beginning with the F# major Prelude and Fugue from Book I. That pair is rated as one of the more approachable. Those six sharps create a little bit of an intellectual challenge that I think my mind can cope with. They also make a lot of the notes happen on the black keys, which are much easier to feel under one's fingertips than the white keys. We will see. So far, I am enjoying it very much, aside from feeling happy that such things may be possible. I have the sense that Bach was playing, enjoying the sounds of a melody and harmony he had discovered, rather than created.

Finding the keys · January 4, 2015

§. 21

Damit man die Tasten auswendig finden lerne und das Noten-Lesen nicht beschwerlich falle, wird man wohl thun, wenn man das Gelernte fleissig auswendig im Finstern spielet.

So that one can learn to find the keys by heart and the music-reading not be arduous, he will do well if he assiduously practices learned material in the dark.
Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu Spielen (Study of the True Art of Playing the Clavier), Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach

I am working to take this point to heart, if not literally keeping the lights out. Lo and behold, little by little it is paying dividends.

First fugue

Praeludium und Fuge A-Dur
BWV 896

Though I’ve been playing the piano for many years, it is only recently that I was able to manage to get my mind (and fingers) around a fugue. It was a relatively simple one in three parts from J.S. Bach’s Kleine Praeludien und Fughetten. Curiously but clearly, this accomplishment was enabled by experience of learning to love tree climbing, overcoming a lifelong terror of heights. The feat of tree climbing, for its part, reflected reading Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind. It was a question of finding a side of my mind that wasn’t coming out and opening it up, not a matter of repeating more often drills that hadn’t got there before.

Jan Dismas Zelenka

When I was younger, I used to worry that in a little while I would have become acquainted with the best that music (or literature) had to offer, and that there would be diminishing returns after that. A young person’s idea! I had it wrong by about 180°. It’s like a question of counting stars. The closer you look, with bigger and bigger telescopes, the more there are to see.

I was driving home one evening a while ago when I tuned the radio into a Baroque trio sonata being played on woodwinds. The music was masterful, with complex harmonies and intricate counterpoint. Each of the voices was a marvel in itself, yet each was dancing along with the others. My thought was, only Johann Sebastian Bach could have written such music. But it as a manifest impossibility that this music could be Bach’s, because his trio sonatas were written for keyboard, and I doubted that there would be one I didn’t know and recognize. It turned out that the answer was Jan Dismas Zelenka, and that he was a composer very respected by Sebastian Bach (who wasn’t easily impressed).

I acquired a set of CDs of these trio sonatas. Clearly I would like to hear more by this composer, but a lot of his music hasn’t even been recorded.

Musical notes · January 2017

After my mother died, I estimated that it would take me about two years to bring my piano technique back to where it had been at its top. That was about right. The question now, of course, is improvement from here…

It has been marvellous to have a fresh start with the piano, as with the rest of my life. Practice as repetition by itself accomplishes almost nothing, I have learned to appreciate. One needs to be paying attention, evaluating, and adjusting course all the time. If sometimes the smallness of the steps is challenging and frustrating, it is also rewarding that the activity provides continual and immediate gratification. I have learned much better how to learn.

Over the last several months at the keyboard, I have found the philosophical observations of Robert Nozick very insightful. He speaks of the function of consciousness as being to evaluate concordance between information coming in various ways. Techniques has many different parts to it. As simple a task as finding a given key may be approached by looking at the keyboard, by proprioception through wrist and shoulders, by imagining where the key is without looking at it, or by feeling it. I have been struck that the errors never involve playing more than one key at a time, but always a wrong key. Our fingers are continually feeling the spaces between the keys and using them to guide motion, without the interstices rising to the level of conscious attention.

Approached as comprehending a bewildering complexity of notes, the task is not possible. One has to hear the sounds before playing them, and bring the body into a position to create them. If your fingers aren't right there when it's time to play the note, they won't get there in time. You have to be positioning your hand to flow from the previous note to the coming one.

In the last couple of years, I've worked at learning things I couldn't do. This included, first, playing without looking at the keys. More recently, it has been memorizing, a task I undertook with dread. My first piano teacher (who wasn't very a very good teacher at all, though he was a credible musician) remarked that it was 100 percent easier for people who started in childhood. Unfortunately that observation is not helpful at best, and – like the rest of his teaching – was actively discouraging: the message was, You can't, You can't. The next piano teacher, who was a much better educator, encouraged me to memorize because that brought attention to variations between different iterations of a theme, a key part of musicianship. Her take was that memorizing was a lot of work. I undertook the effort in the last months with dread, but had fair success. It was certainly true that the process brought attention to the evolution and formation of the musical material. – The next task, I think, will be learning some sight-singing, which I dread even more than memorizing. Curiously, I was told early in school that I wasn't a good singer and so didn't have to sing with the class. (I have run across many, many people who have received the same message.) Again, it was the same sad discouragement from learning of people whose job it was to teach, and who – I recognize now – generally had almost no clue about music and musicianship.

Music is the activity I spend the most time with each day. I can't remember a day when I haven't spent some time at my piano. It's unfortunate that it doesn't lend itself better to presentation here. The list of pieces I play provides a bit of an overview, which I sometimes stop to look at myself.

Neural networks · June 10, 2017

I recently tried out a series of YouTube videos for an MIT course on self-driving cars. I didn't complete the series. The instructor was a very poor public speaker, making eye contact only with the Powerpoint on the laptop in front of him, pausing long and frequently at random moments, reiterating and re-reiterating a few points while leaving out others that would have offered key logical connections, all the while relentlessly fidgeting with his water bottle. Still, I gleaned a few insights from partial listening.

Even self-teaching machines must have a very large dose of programming, or such tasks as creating self-driving cars would be trivial. (This topic is passed over in silence by the MIT course, which is understandable given the complexity of the issues involved, but still unfortunate.) What I found notable is the idea that the neural networks can accomplish a substantial amount of learning without anyone understanding how. In this way, they are like our brains, which can learn specific lessons, but acquire an immense amount of understanding just from observation and occasional reinforcement.

A Scarlatti sonata I am working on contains the repetitive figure shown above, at a tempo fast enough that thinking it out while you're playing isn't an option. It becomes much easier to play upon the reflection that it seesaws back and forth between higher and lower notes, descending the while, so one can accomplish a lot with a little rocking of the wrist. It becomes much easier yet upon the remark that it comes in groups of four notes, beginning with the second sixteenth note of each beat. The ear almost magically takes over from there, with the eye only needing to note where the hand changes position – conveniently, most often also on the second sixteenth note. Once I figured this out, it became much easier to play, and I was able to erase a lot of pencilled-in fingerings that were only distracting.

(I've noticed many times that I am able to play, the first time in the morning, a phrase that I struggled with for a number of days before. After this first time, technique tends to regress to where it was before. This is consistent with artificial neural networks have "learning periods" when they can't do their normal work, and the posited role of sleep in helping the human brain organize the experiences of the previous day.)