A few weeks ago, I gave myself what you might call a self-administered reality check. I went to my shelf of music books, and pulled out a few "old friends": Bach’s "Two-Part Inventions" and "English Suites", Mozart’s "Rondo in A-minor", and Brahms’ "Fantasy Pieces, Op. 116". I had studied and performed a couple of Bach’s "Two-Part Inventions" early on, as almost all piano students do and will continue to do. I occasionally dabble with the English Suite in A-minor (Bach for grown-ups!), and the Mozart has always been one of those pieces that I know I will play some day. As for the Brahms, they were part of my Senior Recital in college (along with some Bach, Ravel and Ginastera).
My own "Classical Period" basically ended almost as soon as I graduated from college. Since then, I’ve made my living playing shows and show music. Broadway shows, tours, some cabaret work, and lots(!) of auditions. Due to orchestrations and economics, whenever I play in a pit of a show, I’m usually playing on an electronic keyboard (synthesizer), and not a real piano. Consequently, my fingers get and have gotten lazy over the past couple of years. No matter how "good" the feel and action is of a weighted keyboard, it will never truly feel the same as playing on a real piano. The vibrations just aren’t there. Of course, what do I usually practice on? -A Kurzweil PC-2X that I bought a couple of years ago. It has a decent piano sound, a decent "feel", but it is still nowhere near like playing a real piano. Not even the beloved Chickering upright my parents bought when I first started taking lessons. (Alas, my parents gave away that Chickering a few years ago without telling me. Even though it was not really my piano, it still was my piano. I still remember how I felt that day when I came home to visit, and noticed that the piano was no longer in the garage. An old, dear friend had gone away, and I never got a chance to say, "Goodbye.")
Even though I still listen to Classical music on practically a daily basis, I don’t play Classical music every day. So, every once and a while, I go back and read through some of the music that I grew up on just to keep my fingers "honest"; to remind me of how I used to play, and to reclaim (hopefully) some of the dexterity I’ve lost since finishing my degree.
I started with the Mozart. What a truly magical and mystical piece of music. Thankfully, it fits well under my fingers, and, technically speaking, it’s not that difficult. So, it was an easy read, and once I was done, I felt like I had spent enough time with it for the time being, and put it away. I would definitely come back to it again later.
I moved onto Bach. I started to read through the A-minor English Suite, and about eight bars into opening Prelude, I sadly realized that it had become a stranger since the last time I had pulled that score off the shelf. It was no longer in my fingers. OK! Moving on —
As soon as I started playing the first Two-Part Invention in C-major, there was something automatic, something very familiar. -And after that debacle with the English Suite, there was also a welcome sense of comfort and relief. After I finished the first one, I just kept turning the pages, playing each of the succeeding ones, sometimes stopping to fix things, sometimes just playing on. After I had read through all of them, I went back to the one in F-Major. The F-Major Two-Part Invention is one of those pieces that just says, practically yells, "I’m Bach!" And I’d bet if a person only knew one or two pieces of Bach, this would most likely be one of them. Or they would at least be able to identify it as Bach if they had not heard or seen it before. -Thank you, Wendy Carlos!
I went back to one of the fundamental ways of practicing: hands separately. I started with my right hand, playing that single line that is sometimes melody, sometimes accompaniment, sometimes both. Then I did the same with the left hand. Then it was back to the right hand. Wow! Was this piece this difficult when I was ten-years old? My brain just started to notice things it never noticed before, and those two lines of music became so much more than the sum of its parts. When I finally put both hands back together, I had a few train wrecks, a few stumbles… Oh, the counterpoint!.. Oh, the figure does this here, then this there… Hmm, I would love to check another edition to see if that note might be different… After spending more time on that than I ever thought I would – and after playing it through with almost no finger slips – I moved onto the Brahms. My fingers were warmed up, and my brain was most certainly in gear.
Out of a sense of respect for Brahms – which, in retrospect, was more like some sort of pianistic machismo coupled with eager foolishness – I programmed the complete set of Fantasy Pieces on my Senior Recital. I probably should have stuck to four or five of the seven pieces, but since I saw the whole set as One, I learned the whole set. Of course, at that time, not all of the individual pieces were exactly "recital ready", but as long as I had the opening and closing movements down, the rest of the stuff in the middle would, well, be in the middle. The set starts with a bang, and ends with a bang, and as long as I hit that final D-minor chord, well, that was all that mattered. -Foolishness, I told you.
I knew even before I opened my well-worn Henle edition that it was not going to be an easy play-thru, so I went ahead and stuck to the greatest hits as it were – a.k.a. the slow ones, the easier ones – but I did tramp through the opening and closing pieces just to replay, to relive that final "bang". After I had hit that final chord — and after I had stopped giggling at the musical mess I had just slopped through, I went back to the fifth piece in the set, the Intermezzo in E. I didn’t "hands separately" this one, I just wanted to play it again. It has always been my favorite of the set.
I reacquainted myself with the tempo marking – Andantino teneramente – as well as the instructions to play dolce e ben legato, took a deep breath, then put my fingers on the first E-major chord, and began to play. I wanted to get this one right. I sensed something different as soon as I finished playing the first short musical phrase. As I continued playing, and even though my fingers were treading familiar territory, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. When I got to the B-section, I suddenly knew that I had to adjust my touch in order for that restless, melancholic, fragmented melody to fall into relief against the spare accompaniment figure. By the time I reached the end of the piece, playing those final measures, the final cadence, the final notes, I had tears in my eyes.
I just sat there for a few moments. Still. I could hear people walking by on the sidewalk just outside my window. I felt the low, distant rumble of the A train running somewhere beneath my room. I looked at the wall behind my music stand, and noticed that I would have to buy new calendars in a few weeks.
What fingering did I use for that left hand figure? Has that low E always been in the score? Did I ever play that final low E? How did I play this piece in college? Can I ever play that way again? Did I ever play that beautifully? Was the Music always that beautiful?
When I finished playing that first short phrase, I no longer questioned why Brahms’ chose to end the phrase on a weak beat with a falling gesture. It was just supposed to be that way, it was perfect. Consequently, I now knew that I had to take a small, imperceptible breath before starting the next phrase. Each succeeding phrase just grew out of and into the next. By the time I played the final cadence, with that aching resolution of the harmony – again on a "weak" beat – it was truly like some sort of door had been unlocked in my head. I’m still not sure if it was a door that had been open at one time and then closed, or if it was a door that had been locked until that very moment, but something did click. Something did open. It all finally made sense.
Brahms’ music has been categorized by some as "old man’s music" – no doubt fueled by the many portraits of "Old Man Brahms" sporting that great, voluminous old man beard. Now that I’m an "old man" myself, or at the very least older, I guess I finally caught up with Brahms. A benefit of having birthdays. *Brahms did compose the Fantasy Pieces in 1892 when he was 59 years old, just five years before his death. "Old Man Music", indeed. (And for the record, I will turn 40 this year.)
It has been about two weeks since I’ve played through the Brahms – or the Bach or the Mozart (or anything else Baroque, Classical, Romantic or Modern) for that matter. But whenever I do choose to sit down again and play through those pieces, I know the Music will still be there. Even if my fingers and head, my Heart and my Soul may take a few minutes to find it again.