I am your stupidest student – eleven years of piano lessons

2022-07-06

I remember someone said that there must be a piano on the first floor of a Chinese home in North America, and a ping-pong table in the basement. As far as I know from living in North America for thirty-six years, this statement is basically true. But if you ask, how many days have the piano made a sound and the ping pong ball bounced on the table? The answer is probably various. Very few people of my age who come from mainland China have learned the piano. If so, most of the pianos at home are for children to learn. When the kids leave home for college and work, I’m sure most people’s pianos are idle at home. What about the ping pong table? This is very bad to say. It is easy to know whether a person can play the piano, so it can be inferred whether the piano at home is idle. But the Chinese who can play table tennis have very different levels of investment in this sport. The ping-pong table at my house has rarely had a ball jumping on it for several years. This is not because we don’t like to move, but because we love outdoor sports too much. When there is no snow, I play tennis or run or roller skating outside every day, and when there is snow, I go cross-country skiing every day.

But the piano at my house has never been idle. This Baldwin Hamilton upright piano was bought for a child in 1995. At the time it was about the same price as a Yamaha, half the price of a Steinway upright, but three times the price of South Korean brands like Young Chang and Samick. I didn’t buy a Yamaha at the time because I thought the Yamaha’s sound was too bright, while the Baldwin was softer. This piano accompanied the education and growth of my two children, and I was able to immerse myself in the beautiful and beautiful sound of the piano every day.

This situation did not change until the eldest daughter left home to go to college in 2009 and the second daughter, who was very talented in music, decided to specialize in the flute in the summer of 2010. No one plays the piano every day at home. In the fall of 2010, who had always had a great interest in classical music but didn’t know the staves or play any instruments, I realized that maybe this was the time for me to learn the piano.

At the age of nearly fifty, although I always liked music and sang a few words when I was happy, I didn’t have any “musical cells”. The Red Little Soldiers Propaganda Team in my elementary school is well-known far and near because of the organization and choreography of a talented teacher, and every student wants to participate. When the teacher interviewed me, he asked me to read a third paragraph in Mandarin, and there was no news after reading it. As for singing, my brother often said to me who was very interested in singing, “Can you read the score before singing”.

No “music cell” is born and cannot be changed. But learning is better than not learning. I didn’t learn before because I didn’t have the conditions, but if I don’t learn now, it’s my own reason. I didn’t want to regret it later, so I suggested to the “leader” that I wanted to learn the piano. When the “leader” heard it, he immediately supported it, but also pointed out that I had “no talent”.

With the approval of the “leader”, the next step is to find a teacher. In Ontario, I believe all the piano teachers who are registered with ORMTA (Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association) can teach me. The biggest advantage of asking a teacher to teach is that learning the piano has become a “daily lesson”, and I have a goal every day. And the teacher knows what you can learn and how far you can learn new pieces. “No talent”, I was ashamed and didn’t dare to go to my daughters’ piano teachers. In fact, there are many people who want to learn piano with these excellent piano teachers. These good teachers either only teach students whom they have brought up by themselves, or they only teach students who are already at a high level and have considerable talent. Even if they were paid more than double their tuition, they were disdainful to teach beginner adults. More importantly, adults learn piano to enrich their lives and improve their understanding and appreciation of music. Asking a high-level teacher to teach is not only unnecessary, but probably not a good choice. It’s like asking a math PhD to teach addition and subtraction to illiterate adults.

So I found my daughter’s teacher and recommended several teachers who taught both children and adults. After a year with my first teacher, I decided that I had to change teachers. The reason is not that the teacher is not good enough, but that I am too stupid as a student. Students learn that two plus four equals six without understanding why three plus three equals six. The teachers were all surprised why the student continued to study. I can also feel that the teacher does not have any fun in the process of teaching students like me, it is purely for income, so it is difficult to get the teacher to give his heart.

Figure 1 The teacher’s player piano

Besides learning piano with this teacher, there are a few things to remember. One is that there are two pianos in the teacher’s house, and this one is for the students. Because the teacher is afraid of noise, she turns down the volume very low, so it is impossible for a beginner like me to play loud sounds on it; The piano in her living room (picture 1) is not only an antique (made in 1910), but also a player piano (a self-playing piano that can be driven by compressed air) that is rarely seen in ordinary homes. Figure 1 The white paper roll in the center above the keys and on the piano table is the so-called piano roll. Figure 2 shows the structure of piano roll. The gap is the place where the sound is pronounced, and the length of the gap determines the length of the sound. The teacher specially showed me the piano roll of the Prelude (prelude) that Rachmaninoff played in her collection. I can’t remember which one it was, but it certainly wasn’t the prelude in G minor that everyone loved. Speaking of piano rolls, before the millennium, celebrated composer John Adams paid tribute to the medium with his piano concerto “Century Rolls” for pianist Emanuel Ax and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Another thing that made both teachers and students unhappy is that the teacher said after learning that I liked Beethoven’s piano sonatas very much (32 pieces in total) and said that in history, only Chopin knew how to write music for the piano. Lots of money to listen to recordings and concerts of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Figure 2 Details of the piano roll

In the second year I changed a teacher. It goes without saying that the “untalented” student is still “untalented”, but the new teacher is patient and serious. She knows how to “individualize”, especially with adults. So many of her students are adults, most of whom have studied with her for many years. She treats me, and I believe other classmates, too, pays great attention to the correct sound. Of course, it was easy for her to learn the works of the lower grades, but the repertoires played by the upper graders were not so great, especially those that she was not familiar with, the Bach and Beethoven repertoires that the students found by themselves. This is naturally her performance of listening and reading the score carefully when the students play. I had a classmate in my Ph.D. class who was a violin prodigy when he was a child. He learned that when I learned piano, he said it was a good choice, because the wrong tone of the strings was harsh, but the piano was not so bad. There is also a teacher who attaches great importance to fingering, and she marks the important and difficult places for me if there is no such thing on the score. If I’m fingering differently, she’ll notice and stop me to analyze it for me. She also pointed out the chords on the score to me, but she did not require students to have this ability. She almost never explained the connotation of the work to me, and she didn’t care about my musical performance of the work. She knows that if the requirements are too strict for students, especially “untalented” students, it is very likely that many students will not be able to learn. It’s like teaching math to middle school students.

From September 2011 to Christmas 2015, the teacher basically asked me to follow the textbooks of The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM). She usually selects six or seven pieces from the textbooks for each level to teach me, especially emphasizing that the left and right hands must be played very well individually before practicing with both hands. Since I have a good memory and the songs in the lower grades are simple, after a few times, I can play by memorization with my left and right hands alone. What amazes me is the ability of these two hands to memorize alone. When I started to practice playing with both hands, they didn’t come together naturally, as if they needed to be relearned. So for each piece, my learning process is three steps: the right hand, the left hand, and then both hands together.

However, the results of my daily practice did not satisfy the teacher most of the time in the weekly class. In fact, aside from the belief that practice is better than no practice, I really don’t have the ability to know what to practice and how to practice. What is lacking most is the ability to analyze the results of the exercise and then feed it back into the exercise. Maybe that’s why you need someone to teach you? The problem is that I have “no talent”, and I have many problems in any aspect. The teacher can only point out some main ones, and there is no “integration” for me.

When the teacher saw that I was studying hard but earnestly, I couldn’t help but once asked what my goal was? I answered looking forward to one day playing a complete or Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven piece, instead of being adapted and simplified. The teacher couldn’t help laughing when he heard it. You are playing Mozart’s Menuetto in D Major (Minuet in D major), KV 6. This piece he wrote at the age of six was not adapted or simplified and included in the textbook. It’s Mozart’s violin sonata for keyboard and violin, this minuet is the third movement), but you’re still not good at it, otherwise you’ve achieved your goal!

Christmas 2015 was a turning point for me to learn the piano. My eldest daughter, who was on vacation at the time, looked at the score I played, listened to a few pieces I played, and suggested that I study Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Prelude in C major (BWV 846) in Book-1 (hereinafter referred to as WTC-1). Bach’s WTC is the “Old Testament” of the “Bible” of keyboard music (the “New Testament” is Beethoven’s 32 sonatas), which is worshipped by all music lovers. I, a music blind who didn’t even know wireless sheet music five years ago, can also learn some of these pieces? The eldest daughter saw my fear and yearning, and said understandingly that you should learn, I can help you.

This Prelude in C major by Bach seems to be “like a lark who is learning to pray” for me to start learning the piano from this point to today. This “Sound of Music” lyrics is derived from the “Bible-Old Testament” King David Psalm about prayer being sung from the depths of the heart. It symbolizes a state of being completely oblivious to both things and myself. Every day I look forward to sitting down at the piano, and this Prelude in C major by Bach is the first one I play every day. Playing once is far from enough, and sometimes I will play it six times in a row. It has become my talisman and my prayer, intoxicated by the sounds that come out of my hands, make me believe in myself, and I always pray that this wonderful music will lead me to learn more Songs that I have loved for a long time.

Figure 3 Keyboard music “Bible-Old Testament” page 1, Prelude in C major, Manuscript of God

Since I studied Bach’s Prelude in C major WTC-1, I have asked my teacher to continue to learn more Bach instead of following the RCM textbook. Both the teacher and I know that RCM’s teaching materials are a set of well-known and step-by-step teaching materials formed by the experience of many famous teachers and decades of practical application. It is the best choice to follow this set of teaching materials. But my interest has completely shifted to Bach, and “interest is the best teacher”; more importantly, I was 55 years old at the time, and I had no interest in exams and grades, and just wanted to learn something to indulge myself Enjoy life with endless music.

“The sun and the moon suddenly disappear”, I have been playing Bach’s WTC-1 Prelude in C major every day for six years. During these six years, I have studied twenty-four pieces by Bach, most of them in the two volumes of the WTC, including nine preludes and five fugues. The biggest impact of the rampant Covid-19 pandemic on me is that I can’t go to my weekly piano lessons. At the beginning, my teacher and I also took video lessons a few times, but the effect was too poor to continue. So I taught myself Bach’s symphonies in E major and g minor (Sinfonia No. 6 in E Major, BWV 792 and Sinfonia No. 11 in g minor, BWV 797) and the G in Bach’s “French Suite”, which I like very much. French Suite No. 5 in G major, Allemande, BWV 816.

At the beginning of 2019, the teacher said that I had only studied Bach’s pieces for three consecutive years, and she suggested that I should also learn some works by other composers, such as the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. For me, this suggestion is almost to tell an illiterate teacher to tell that student that you can also read some sentences in the Bible-New Testament. This is something I never dreamed of, but it is a reality. After that I studied the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata (Sonata Pathétique in C minor, Op. 13).

These two Beethoven pieces have been part of my “playing every day” ever since I learned them. Needless to say, many of Bach’s tunes are naturally played by me every day. Among these “Tiantiandan” pieces are Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major, L463, K 430. His keyboard sonatas are my favorites. Many years ago, I borrowed all Scarlatti sonatas (555 pieces, 34 CDs) recorded by the famous harpsichord player Scott Ross from the library in the 1980s. for several months. Scarlatti’s well-known Sonata in E major, K 380, was too difficult for me. Of course I don’t think the K 430 Sonata in D major is equally difficult, even though it is in the RCM 9th grade textbook. Another non-Bach non-Beethoven piece I play every day is Sonata in C Minor, the third movement by 18th-century Italian organist and composer Giovanni Battista Pescetti. This sonata collected in the eighth grade textbook of RCM is almost his only work that has been handed down to the world, and it is very cute.

I am the third movement of Pescetti’s Sonata in C minor, which I started in 2019. After playing it once, the teacher said that if it is a grade test, you can get 80 points for what you just played. I was a little surprised when I heard it, because the teacher never asked me if I wanted to take a grade test, nor did he ever grade my playing, and it never happened again. The most she said to me was much better than last time or I could see that you practiced a lot, always encouraging. As for the faults and mistakes that she pointed out and wrote in my notebook last time or before, she did not bother, she knew that I was not a student who could understand and correct me at that point, I did not have the ability to accept, let alone The required level will be understood and manifested after a short period of time.

After studying for so many years, there are some self-summarized achievements, but the disadvantages are far more than the advantages. I rarely play wrong notes, and the notation for sharps and flats on the score is very friendly to me. After learning a lot of Bach pieces, I found that switching from playing with left and right hands to playing with both hands is far less laborious than it used to be. While looking at the score, the ability to play with both hands on the piano has been greatly improved. Bach once said that playing the piano is actually very easy, all you need to do is hit the right key at the right time. For me, hitting the right key does the trick; but the right time? This problem is multifaceted. First of all, since I only started learning the piano when I was in my 50s, I couldn’t play the 1/16th notes of Bach and Beethoven at the specified speed. The attitude of the teacher and me towards this is the best effort. It doesn’t matter if you don’t play fast, the speed can be slow but consistent. However, it is not easy for me to be consistent. Like many students, I also have the problem of speeding up easy passages and slowing down in difficult places, which is of course related to how concentrated my attention is. Sometimes I don’t remember what the next sound is and think about it. The teacher speaks from the side, don’t slow down!

Even though the sound I made was hitting the correct keys at a consistent speed, it was still too far from “music”. The reason is that I have absolutely no ability to control the strength of each finger individually, especially the left hand. In this case, the strength of the left thumb is often too large, while the little finger is not enough. These shortcomings are less of a concern when playing Bach’s Prelude in C major and the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and others will know what I’m playing when they listen to them. However, when playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata 2nd movement and Schubert’s “Improvisation” in B flat major D935, Op142, No. 3, this problem is very serious, because I can’t show the harmony through the change of dynamics. Emphasizing the main melody, teachers and people who can read notation know that I am playing these songs, but I believe that ordinary people will not know after listening to the records of these songs and then listening to me playing them. The “leader” has said many times that the sound that my subordinates produce in the house all day long is neither noise nor music. What’s more, I’ve listened to so many records, how come I don’t know how to express music?

“Playing the piano every day” and “exercising every day” are the two most important things in my life outside of home. A day without them is not good, and a few days without them is like a lost soul. “Exercise every day” is actually not difficult. For example, in 2021, I have only two days without “exercise”. One day is because of diarrhea, and the other day is because of the whole day of physical work. “Playing the piano every day” is not easy, especially when traveling. Almost all decent hotels have gyms, and you can run on the road if you can’t. But looking for a piano to play? Fortunately, many of my trips are to the university, and when I have time, I go to the practice room of the music department to play a game. Anyway, no one will come to “check the account”. But I believe that the students in the aisle and nearby will feel very strange when they hear the sound of my playing. Looking back, I messed around in the piano room at Harvard, Oberlin, McGill, Toronto, and Calgary over the years. The self who “plays the piano every day” only hates not being able to play for three hours a day, just like not being able to ski for three hours a day in winter.

“Playing the piano every day”, I sat down in front of the piano, starting from Bach’s Prelude in C major, I would spend more than an hour playing a dozen of the pieces I’ve learned before, and then start practicing the pieces I’m learning now. This habit was formed after studying Bach’s Prelude in C major. At that time, the teacher knew that I played this piece every day, and encouraged me to slowly build up my own repertoire (song), and the pieces in this repertoire could be played at any time. But the “leader” and the daughters disapproved of me playing these tunes repeatedly, and asked me why I didn’t spend my time on the song I was learning, learn it solidly, and figure out all the details? And tell me they don’t believe anyone else learns the piano like me. I replied that first and foremost, I liked it. Playing these tunes that I love so much has never made me feel boring, just like a believer will not bother to pray; secondly, this is a manifestation of incompetence and lack of self-confidence. A frightened illiterate who has just learned the multiplication table will probably memorize it several times a day, but he may still make five, seven, forty-five mistakes.

This summer, I want to learn Beethoven’s No. 25 Piano Sonata, G major, Op. 79 (Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major Op. 79 “Cuckoo”), the second movement (Andante). After practicing a few times, I asked the teacher to teach me. After an hour, I ruined this song so badly that I couldn’t bear to listen to it. I really owe my teacher’s patience. I am sorry, in addition to thanking the teacher, I also expressly expressed that I used to be a teacher, and I know the difference between teaching a student with strong comprehension ability and a student who is not enlightened, and the feelings brought about by this obvious difference. The teacher smiled and did not answer. I added sincerely, “I am your dumbest student.” The teacher did not deny it, but said to my surprise: “You are my hardest student”.

God, if the stupidest I am still lazy, it’s best not to learn this piano, not only can it save some money, but more importantly, the “leader”‘s ears can be cleansed.

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