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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A little night-music)
Right after my piano lesson, on a sunny Friday morning, my teacher asked me if I would like to perform at a little private concert that she was putting together for her students. I hesitated a little and reluctantly answered affirmatively. My teacher was so delighted that she immediately began looking for pieces that I could perform. This by no means was an easy ask – I have been learning for just about 3 months. And even there, I’ve missed a few classes due to my haphazard work schedule. The challenge here was to pick a piece that is simple enough to fall within the purview of my limited performing abilities and yet is interesting enough to sustain the audience’s attention. My teacher flitted through pages of my piano song book, tried out a few random bars from pieces in the book and finally selected a little composition called the “Haunted House”. At just 16 bars, the piece was small (though not without its technical difficulties – more on which later) and so she supplemented my performance with another two short works that I had recently finished learning.

Your biggest nemesis when learning piano at the ripe age of 26 are your own fingers; they loose their suppleness after years of disuse. Not to say that you don’t use your fingers in your course of daily life, but holding a pen between your thumb and index finger is an exercise very different from playing the piano. Even typing on a keyboard for years does not work your ring and little fingers like piano does. Clearly, we are dealing with a very different kind of use here. The other challenge is that of synchronization between digits of your left and right hands. Works for piano are usually scored in two parts – the treble clef (nope, not terrible cleft), is played by your right hand, the bass clef, (pronounced as ‘base’) by your left. Now thanks to the queer ways in which our anatomies have been structured (a brain with two halves where left half controls the right half of your body and vice versa – God must’ve been an inscrutable thinker), attaining this very left-right synchronicity is a slightly teasing business when you get down to it.

The “Haunted House” was trickier than the trickiest pieces I had ever handled (not that I had handled many pieces, but still). It spanned two octets on the piano and the prescribed fingering involved stretching my little finger awkwardly to hit an accidental, not to mention both hands got an elaborate part.

The first 4 bars from the “Haunted House”:

The 5 parallel lines (beginning with what roughly looks like a big ampersand - &) form the treble clef, the lines below it are the bass clef.

And so began those practice sessions in right earnest – I had only 10 days for preparation. My teacher was a great help. She worked out a relatively simpler fingering that differed from the default suggested in my book, and took into account my strengths and weaknesses (which even now are far numerous than my strengths). She also suggested that I first get acquainted with the treble parts (right hand) of the piece independent of the base parts, instead of attacking the piece with both hands in the very beginning itself. With in a week I was playing the once daunting piece with relative ease (though I was still ‘stuttering’ in places).

The final performance was organized at a beautiful quaint bungalow (my teacher’s granny’s place) just a few paces from my house. Seven of us (including me) were to perform. We gathered at our teacher’s home an evening before our recital and it was here that I met my co-performers for the first time. Five of them were much younger than me, with at least three of them in single-digit age group! I dearly wished that I had started learning a little earlier. Somehow seeing these kids at piano, strengthened my resolve to work harder – what I’ve lost in years, I would make up for in my rigorous practice routine. We then went to the venue of our performance, practiced there for about ninety minutes on the wonderful sounding Steinway upright, and decided to meet once again for another set of rehearsals the next morning. That night I had a tough time sleeping – I was still hitting a few notes wrong and my fluency left a lot to be desired. Only more practice could iron those deficiencies out. After about seventy iterations or so on my synthesizer I was satisfied (and exhausted) enough to take to bed without the fear of being haunted by nightmares.

Our second round of rehearsals was lot better than one last evening. Our fingers had now apprised themselves of the tactile feel of the Steinway’s keys. The younger students, especially the two little boys who were listless till last evening now played with the grace and ease of a budding virtuoso. We parted once more only to meet again thirty minutes before our performance in the evening.

When I reached the performance venue (a two minute walk from where I stay) with three friends (my unsuspecting private audience) only one of the students had arrived (with his parents and younger brother). (I shunned my dear jeans in favor of formals to respect the sanctity of the occasion – a western classical pianoforte recital! (clears throat)). The piano on which we were to perform was lying open and was being tuned. Call me staid – but this was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I’ve seen a Steinway upright before; I’ve read volumes about the piano, its history, its evolution, and its inner-working but to see one being tuned in front of my very eyes left me spellbound. The complex mechanism of taut metal strings, levers and hammers lying open, bare, in front of my eyes brought a glint in them which even the sight of world’s greatest treasures cannot summon. The tuner after having satisfied himself by playing a few random notes replaced the piano’s lid and my teacher’s uncle sat down to play a little piece. He played (what sounded like a nocturne) brilliantly and at the end of it we could not help applauding. He turned around and modestly uttered – ‘just testing’. I wish I could test a piano like that!

People soon started trickling in. Most of them were friends, family members and acquaintances of the performing students. Within twenty minutes of our arrival, it was a full house. All of us (students) went into a small room behind the main performance hall and waited for our names to be called out.

Everyone did splendidly and very soon it was my turn. I introduced myself and the pieces that I were to perform and sat down to play my first piece – “March of the dwarfs” – a duet for four hands with my teacher. I got it woefully wrong – though since my teacher had an elaborate part in the piece – it did not sound jarring. My second piece – “Halloween” – was lot better; just one minor error in the end. Then came the “Haunted House” – my best piece which I had saved for the last – and at that very moment I got a terrible attack of nerves. My fingers quivered and stopped taking orders from my brain; as if all of them had evolved a little mind of their own. The piece went fine till the end of first four bars after which I lost track of what I was playing – no I wasn’t improvising. Blood rushed to my cheeks as my fingers continued to keel on the keys and somehow ran through the remaining twelve bars. My stupor was broken by the applause from the little gathering. Distraught, I got up and joined my friends in the audience. One of the advantages of playing an obscure, beginner level piece is that no one knows what it sounds like. Nor did we give score of my performance to the audience. Thus, all in all, my follies, both big and small, went on unnoticed. Had it been a Beethoven Sonata or a Chopin Nocturne, the composers themselves would have risen from death to chide me handsomely.

I consider myself a reasonably satisfactory public speaker. I can elocute and extemporize without even modicum of stage fright – irrespective of the size of audience (the more the merrier!). But this (wobbly fingers) was a humbling experience. I knew upfront that learning music is a lifelong journey – but I now know that the journey from being a pianist and to being a concert pianist is even longer, for this leg of the journey will be in my very mind and I’ll be carrying heavy baggage of shame, pride and knowledge accumulated over years, with me.

Once back in the comfort of my living room, I could execute the piece flawlessly. Here is a little recording that I made off my synthesizer recently (Windows Media Audio format, requires Windows Media Player to play):

Haunted_House_Piano.wma (~500 KB)

While a keyboard is a woefully inadequate substitute for piano, it does offer your one merit that the piano doesn’t – you can make a keyboard synthesize sounds of a hundred other instruments. (That the purported accuracy of reproduction of those instruments is highly questionable is another matter altogether). Nonetheless, here is another recording of the same piece using a different instrument (synthesized voice - ‘voice/bass oohs’). In fact, ‘voice bass/oohs’, do give the piece a haunted feel (I can imagine lots of tiny, cute goblins having a merry Halloween party, rejoicing in the Haunted House):

Haunted_House_Voice.wma (~500 KB)
posted: 31.10.04


This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Avis, at 1.11.04  

Both the links point to haunted house voice. Though I guessed the filename for the piano version would be Haunted_House_piano.wma and could get to hear that as well. Cute stuff. Not very long from now, I hope to hear a Chopin nocturne from you. :) All the best with your rigorous practise sessions and cheers!

By Blogger Avis, at 1.11.04  

This post is so beautifully written! It's like music for the eyes... Thank you!

By Blogger Deirdre, at 1.11.04  

I enjoyed reading the post too and the rendition. Look forward to hearing more....

By Blogger 'Anil' Radhakrishna, at 1.11.04  

One of the best ones till date...I book myself (and everyone reading your blog is a witness to this) for writing a preface to the book that will emerge out of your blog enteries some time in the near future!!Way to go!---Jyoti

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2.11.04  

Thanks for your wishes Avis! From my current standing, a Chopin Nocturne appears like a daunting, insurmountable crag! I hope I can persevere (and do it for long enough!)

By Blogger Deepak, at 3.11.04  

Thanks Deirdre, Anil!

By Blogger Deepak, at 3.11.04  

Thanks Sis! A book is far away - I still have lots to learn :). Given the erudite scholar you'll be (not that you aren't one already), by the time I pen down one, it'll be my honour to have it prefaced by you!

By Blogger Deepak, at 3.11.04  

"While a keyboard is a woefully inadequate substitute for piano, it does offer your one merit that the piano doesn’t – you can make a keyboard synthesize sounds of a hundred other instruments."

Agreed, a keyboard is inadequate in the classical sense. But there are real good ones in the market today that come amazingly close to the real instruments. Which one are you playing on?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4.11.04  

I use the touch sensitive, 5 octave Casio CTK-551: http://world.casio.com/asia/emi/standard/ctk551.htmlIt is a little dated but it is the best I could afford - partly because I wasn't sure if Piano was going to be a passing whim.

I've looked at Kwai electronic pianos in past and they come frighteningly close to the real thing.

Here is a small write-up on the little adventure I had while attempting to buy a second hand piano:
http://deepakg.blogspot.com/2004/09/how-not-to-sell-piano.htmlI'll also love to hear your recommendations!

By Blogger Deepak, at 5.11.04  

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