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Tag Archives: iteration

what I re-learned from Franz Schubert
about mental self discipline

Well, I sat down at the piano last night for the first time in a very long time. Despite the numerous compositions I have learned and played and perfected over the years, I tried to recall a piece to play, and drew a complete blank. And it bothered me. It bothered me a lot. There was a time and a place where I could play for stretches of time with my eyes closed — fingers placed with absolute certainty, each note and tone reflecting flawlessly the intended emotion, each subtle variation of intricate notes or pattern in a seemingly repetitive measure perfectly memorized and performed.

I thought back to the last time I sat down to play, and one at a time various pieces started to come back to me…

“Moonlight Sonata” – my hands knew exactly where to place themselves. As I started to play, I remembered how I had worked on refining the muscle-control in my right-hand finger #5 (ie. the “pinky”) so that I could properly emphasize the upper melodic line (controlled by the pinky) separate from the rest of the notes being played by the right hand. I could still play it – a bit clunky, but still there! Then I hit a wrong chord, and that was the end of that – all I could remember without the music.

“Jump” (by Van Halen) – not exactly classical, but definitely a classic. Not particularly difficult chords, but it took a bit of practice initially to simulate the bass and lead guitar and keyboard parts and get the left-hand bass beat and right-hand riff and chord changes together properly.

“Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (by Dianna Ross) – great vocal piece with beautiful accompaniment – I could remember the words but not the music – had to go digging through the sheet-music pile to find it. It goes through several key-changes throughout the piece – can’t play it from memory any more.

the list went on…

Now, while I was digging through my sheet music, I came across a piece that I wanted to learn when I was in my senior year of high-school, but never had a chance to before graduation – Franz Schubert’s “Impromptu #4 in A-flat” [from Four Impromptus, Op. 90]. It is a fairly complicated piece (Grade 9 or 10, I believe, by Royal Conservatory standards), and to be appreciated properly needs to be played at an insanely quick tempo (in order to sound somewhat like an ‘effortless, trickling waterfall’ – I remember my old piano teacher saying something like that). As I looked at the piece of music in my hands, I thought – rather spur of the moment – why not learn it now?

And so it began. I spent about half an hour learning, practicing and repeating the first 4 bars. Right hand – get the notes right, then the fingering, then the speed. Left hand, get the chords right and the timing. Put it together. Repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat. And repeat. I can almost play it properly [just the first 4 bars], but not twice in a row with no mistakes. Not yet. But I will learn this piece of music. It is 13 pages long, with approximately 4 bars to a line and 4-6 lines per page – I estimate that if I were to learn 1 line a day, it would take me 65 days to do a “first pass” on becoming familiar with the entire piece.


So, what does Franz Schubert have to do with my mental self discipline?

Well, it’s not like Franz walked up to me and said “So, Lisa, howz it goin’?”. But beginning to re-learn intricate, difficult piano music, even for a mere half an hour, had some hidden benefits I wasn’t expecting. It reminded me that:

  • working on complex issues in discrete chunks works quite well
  • the details make more sense when you can, and do, imagine the end result
  • there is beauty and empowerment in simplicity as well as complexity
  • the sum of the parts can indeed be greater than the whole
  • my hand and finger muscles appreciate a good workout
  • consistent routine, albeit boring, achieves a desired result
  • my thinking and typing both become faster after playing the piano
  • a mental muscle is just as valid a concept as a physical muscle
  • I think I will continue to learn this piece. Will I learn it in 65 days? I don’t know. Will I practice daily? I don’t know. Will I benefit in other areas of my life by allowing myself to do something I enjoy? I don’t know. What I do know is that half-an-hour a day is 3.5 hrs a week.

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