Musings on (and off) the piano

Tonight I’m going home after work and I’m going to practice some piano.  I love the piano…in a lot of ways it’s my first love, musically speaking.  The saxophone is great and all, and it was the first instrument that I learned to play, but I’ve always been attracted to the piano.  I can sit for hours at the piano, whereas with the saxophone it’s a struggle for me sometimes to even practice for an hour. I think one of the main practical reasons for is is because I’ve always been learning classical pieces, so there’s something concrete already on the page to learn. With the sax, I’m always working on more conceptual stuff.  Also, at the piano it is possible to be completely melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically self sufficient.  Solo piano has it all!

My favorite composers for the piano are pretty standard: Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, and Brahms are all composers whose works I’ve studied in recent years.  I’m currently working on a couple of Preludes and Fugues from Book II of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and for the past year have been working on Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to play the last movement, but I keep trying!).  I also recently picked up a copy of the Chopin Nocturnes which I read through from time to time. 

This is essentially my second time around with the piano.  When I was going to MSM, I was taking private lessons with Jeffrey Cohen, an amazing pianist and teacher who was on the piano faculty at MSM.  I was pretty overwhelmed though by all of the amazing pianists that were there, practicing 6-8 hours a day and on the concert pianist track.  I remember one day struggling through the Berg Sonata No. 1 in one of the practice rooms and hearing someone next door to me ripping through a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.  I thought “I’m here at MSM to learn more about the saxophone, it’s time to lay off the piano for a while.”  It was almost a clean break.  I quit my piano lessons and stopped learning pieces.  A couple of years later I did have a few follow up lessons with Jeffrey when I decided to learn Mozart’s Piano Sonata in Bflat Major (a true masterpiece!).  Other than that, I haven’t had a piano lesson since. 

That hasn’t kept me coming back to the piano time and time again though.  I feel like my work as a composer, improviser, and performer have deepened my appreciation and understanding of the classical style, and have also informed my approach to practicing classical works on the piano.  Travis the Piano Player Version 1.0 had a great deal of technique and some excellent teachers, but hardly a bit of understanding of classical music as a tradition.  I never had really listened to any classical music, and yet I was trying to learn Beethoven Sonatas and Chopin Ballades, which is basically the equivalent of learning Bird solos out of the Omnibook, but not owning a single Charlie Parker album.  At MSM, this really turned around for me. although I wasn’t focusing on piano performance any more, I taking classes that focused on the history and esthetic of the classical tradition. 

Now, I’m taking a more casual approach to learning the pieces that I want to play.  They are no longer just a set of notes on the page that some dead person wrote down to stump me 200 years later, which is how I used to feel about them.  Instead, they are opportunities for deep musical expression and inspiration.  As I continue to delve deeper into these works, I’m continuously humbled and in awe of these pinnacles of human creative ability.  As they say, it’s always better the second time around. 

My dream is to someday, hopefully within the next 5 to 10 years, perform a full length classical piano recital.  It would include the Waldstein, a few Bach Preludes & Fugues, maybe some Bartok or Schoenberg (or maybe the Berg Sonata, I never did finish learning that!), and some Chopin.  Nothing too fancy or flashy, just something for family and friends.  Anyway, you heard it here first!


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