Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Multum in Parvo

Sometimes before teaching, while I am waiting for a student to come, I play the piano. I do it because I really enjoy the music, and I do it to remind myself that I often ask my students to do things that are difficult for them to do. I never had piano lessons as a child, so playing the piano is difficult for me.

I remember at Juilliard we had to take class piano. I faked away horribly, relying on my ear and basic musicianship rather than on disciplined practice (not unlike many of my students), and the limited time I put into practicing scales only involved memorizing finger patterns--nobody took the time to explain the reason for the finger patterns, or maybe I was just not interested. I spent the rest of my playing-piano life having frustrated (and slow) fun at the piano, looking at my hands, most of the time.

Following the fingerings printed in piano music usually makes sense for me in musical context (though I usually just make up my own), but when I try to play scales in octaves, my fiddle player's brain takes over, and I confuse the numbers of my fingers. 3 on the fiddle is 4 on the piano. 1 on the fiddle is 2 on the piano. And I have to think three times when I see a 5.

Anyway, after playing through a movement or two of Mozart (slowly) while waiting for my 4:00 student to come, I got the sudden urge to try my hand (or hands) at some scales. I reached for my Cramer Pupil's Daily Exercises for Pianoforte and tried to play an F major scale in octaves. I kept getting myself twisted and flustered, assuming that I would be interrupted by the sound of not-so-little feet at the door. Frustrated, I opened to another page. A series of scales that began in C major and went through all the keys. The title of the two-page exercise was "Multum in Parvo" or "Much in Little." Two measures per scale seemed fine with me. Perhaps I could get through the whole thing before my next student came (it was clear to me that my 4:00 student was not coming).

I decided that I was simply not going to let myself get defeated by the fingerings, fingerings that six-year-old children can wrap their little fingers around without question. They are fingerings that make sense when you consider the way a pianist navigates around the keyboard. They have been used by countless generations of pianists. So I began. By the time I reached E major I started actually enjoying the physicality of playing scales on the piano. I started to relax my neck muscles, and listen to the sound. Two measures per scale is really much in little. Perhaps I'll do it again tomorrow, or maybe even tackle the minor scales this evening.

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