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Piano lessons

I may post a riff later today on NASA and its direction or lack thereof, and about this new entrepreneurial venture to take people to the moon (see my story in today’s paper), but for the moment I’m going to defer to my favorite college blogger, who has written a nice piece about taking piano lessons for college credit. Normally I’d just link to it, but I like it so much I’m going to paste the whole thing in and hope she doesn’t sue me for copyright infringement. (No doubt there are some musicians out there who can share their own stories in the boodle.)

By Paris Achenbach

I was outside of the Conservatory the other day when I ran into my friend Devin, a third-year double-degree student (in computer science and composition). He asked me what piece I was learning this semester on the piano. “Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major,” I told him. “The second one, the famous one.”

“Nice,” he nodded. “That’s a beautiful piece.”

“Yeahhhhhh,” I started to agree. The truth is, it used to be my all-time favorite song on the piano – gave me goosebumps when I listened to it, sometimes made me drop a tear. But now? “I don’t know. I feel like because I’ve been learning it and practicing it all semester, it’s lost a lot of its magic.”

“Wow, I’m sorry,” Devin said, looking genuinely sorry. “That’s really sad.”

I shrugged. “It’s just the way it is.”

And somehow I’m okay with it. It didn’t take me long to realize, after starting secondary lessons in the Con, that when you learn a piece – even if it’s the most beautiful, kinetic, awe-inspiring music you’ve ever heard in your life – inevitably you take out its mystery. You have to: In the process of breaking it down, you’re discovering the twists and turns of the music that make it so powerful.

And Chopin’s Nocturne is no different, unfortunately. Now when I listen to Arthur Rubinstein’s rendition of it (the best rendition, in my opinion), I don’t feel the climatic build-up at 3:25, nor do I feel the familiar goosebumps when the piece drops at 3:36. I hear the precision of his trills, and wonder how can I do that?? I hear the quickness of his left hand – the subtleties of his chords – and feel agitated that my left hand sounds so clunky and distracting when I play it.

Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

But after almost three years of piano at Oberlin, I understand just how naïve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

Yeah, good luck with that. There’s no way, right?

Except that so many people here can do that, and do it every semester. I swear, from just my 2-credit piano lessons, I’ve gained an entirely new respect for the musicians here at Oberlin. I honestly don’t know how they do it – how they play their music with such bravery and intensity, don’t buckle under the pressure. You have to be such a strong and confident individual to be successful in the Conservatory. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.

Earlier this semester, I told my friend Adrian Jewell (fourth-year double-degree in neuroscience and piano performance) about my fears of “ruining” Chopin’s Nocturne by playing it.

“I’m afraid I won’t do it justice,” I told him back in September. “Or, even worse, that I won’t like the piece anymore, that it will be ruined forever if I try to learn how to play it.”

He nodded. “Yep, you probably will,” he said matter-of-factly. “But you know, that’s okay. You’ll gain a new appreciation for it. You’ll hear someone play it at a party, or a recital, and you’ll hear the beautiful ways in which they play their trills, or how seamlessly they make the transitions, and you personally will understand how hard it is to do that. You’ll hear the piece in a brand-new way.”

So I have. And I think that’s worth much more than just two credits.




Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · December 4, 2012

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