Saturday, December 15, 2012

Middle C Is The Key

At the Van Cliburn competition, a blind pianist brought down the house. Nobuyuki Tsujii played Chopin and Liszt without flaw. The Liszt gave him more degree-of-difficulty points and he totally stuck the landing. Liszt is a nineteenth-century Hungarian composer renowned for jamming in more notes in his pieces than anybody really needs. Fully eighty percent of them are extraneous. He was a rock star and loved to write things no one else could play. I don't like much of his stuff, but it sure is notey.

So Mr. Tsujii earned his applause, based on notes banged out per second. Someone helped him off the bench and steered him to the wings, where a breathless woman was waiting to interview him for a documentary.  "How do you play all those notes?" she gushed. Well, like everyone else in the competition, he probably practiced for ten hours a day for a decade. He shrugged politely.

"I mean, because you're blind and all. What do you do? Can you sense the center of the piano by where the pedals are?"

Well, she's got him there. She nailed the secret, and now that she's blabbed about the pedal trick, probably just anyone can play the piano. People had a terrible time before pedals were invented. Early harpsichord players were frequently embarrassed in concert when they misjudged the center of the keyboard and played the whole program one or two notes south. They could tell right away that they had missed, but were helpless to correct it without the pedal.

Many of them developed coping methods by measuring the keyboard with outstretched arms and centering themselves accordingly. But if one arm was shorter than the other, which was a problem with your frequent masturbators, they were left in the lurch again. Many had to simply trust that the bench had been properly centered and then they could feel the correct position by the butt-cheek depression, which is why people prefer using their own benches. But any stage-hand with a prankster's disposition could throw everything off.

Our interviewer was astounded by the ability of a blind man to play the piano. In reality he is only slightly more inconvenienced than anyone else who reads music. Your average chamber musician flies through difficult pieces without once consulting the keyboard, because she is looking at the sheet music. She is able to judge the distances between the keys using the same method that makes it possible for people to pick their noses without poking their eyes out: muscle memory. Similarly, with a little practice, even our interviewer could probably learn to find her butt with both hands on the first try.

But that is not the only tool in the piano-player's shed, because he also has The Bumps. With the bumps, even without a method for finding the center of the piano, a player can feel his way across the keyboard. The raised, narrow black keys could have been designed to be the same size as the white keys and all lined up square, but that would have made the keyboard the length of a station-wagon and playing Liszt a more aerobic experience than it already is. So they squoze the keys together and made the bumps. Initially the regular notes were black and the bumps were white, but they changed that over when pianos replaced harpsichords. There was quite a transition period when sighted players were confronted with the exact opposite color keys--a period known as the heyday of blind musicians everywhere, who were at a distinct advantage because they had been using the bumps as Braille all along.

Our Van Cliburn competitor was enough baffled by his interviewer's grasp of the making of music that he replied with diffidence. He was probably worried she was going to ask him how he was able to hit the toilet. But whereas he might have been inconvenienced by his blindness in learning music, it might not have been as much as one would think. The interviewer drew her own conclusions. "It's just a gift from God, that's what it is," she swooned. Well okay then. He still had to open the gift and take out the tissue paper and get the instruction manual and devote a number of years to getting it to work properly.

Or maybe it's just that the people who only know "Chopsticks" got the heavenly lump of coal.

61 comments:

  1. Franz Liszt was a piker. You wanna hear some notes, listen to Fats Waller and a little boogie woogie. Now there's some piano (pronounced pi-an-er) paying. And he played most of them on the bumps, not having the advantage of well tuned royal pianos to play on (The Palace Saloon didn't put too much stock in piano tuning).
    Every time Dave Brubeck sat down at the piano the first thing he did was center himself with outstretched arms. Come to think of it, so does Sister Mary down at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

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    1. Sister Mary didn't use the pedals because her feets were too big.

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  2. Your story has sparked pianist envy here...

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  3. What a shame that the foolish interviewer is unlikely to read this post. It is painfully clear that many journalists go to 'ask a silly question' school and that numbers of them have graduated with nothing less than an A+.

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    1. She was enthusiastic, I'll give her that.

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  4. I always centered myself by a little chip on E above middle C. Unfortunately, that was the extent of my expertise; my ear was good, I can read fine, but my fingers misbehave. I poke my eyes on occasion, too.

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    1. Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I miss my mouth when I eat and read at the same time.

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  5. I took piano lessons as a child. I was horrible.
    I took piano lessons as an adult. I was horrible.
    Bumps or no bumps, pedals or no pedals, black or white keys, sight or no sight, I just can't do it.
    But I have a bucket list for my next life, and being able to play the piano is one of the top list items.

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    1. Oooo! I didn't know we get a bucket list for future lives! I'm going to be able to swim, and one other thing I'm not going to tell you about.

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    2. I figure that if Romney gets his own planet after this life, the least the rest of us should expect is a new bucket list in our next life.

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  6. My dentist is continually astounded that I can knit while he drills, files and pokes at my mouth. Yet he can do all his work while looking in a mirror, upside down and backwards. Kinesthetic skills are amazing!

    You would think that journalists would take classes on how to interview. "Mr. Smith, you just watched your wife and seven children burn to death in the fire that destroyed your home, business, and everything that you own. How do you feel?" This is not a network news-anchor sort of question.

    Love your posts. Humanity is our best entertainment.

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    1. You knit while being dentisted? AND you found a dentist who lets you bring in sharp pointy sticks? Whoa.

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    2. Roxie is an amazing knitter! I think she could knit underwater!! I bet she could knit while riding side saddle on a horse! She could probably knit while sky diving!! Of course, I would not want her doing that. Have you seen her fish hats? So cute.

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    3. This sounds like a Dr. Seuss book!

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  7. I couldn't learn to play the piano if my life depended on it. Could NOT make my hands do two different things. But I could play the guitar and make my hands do two different things. And I can knit, making my hands do two different things. I am getting up there in years and I still do not understand my brain.

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    1. I don't know if it helps, but mostly the two hands are doing roughly the same thing. Ish.

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  8. I'm with Roxie. At least the question wasn't "So how does it feel to be play the piano when you are blind?"
    His only proper response would have to be "I don't know, how does it feel to be stupid when you are supposed to be a reporter?

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  9. Hi, there - big fan of Mr. Nobuyuki Tsujii "Nobu" here -- I am American. Thanks for a thoughtful piece that mentions Nobu.

    While it may not be as difficult as people might imagine for Nobu to find the keys, I have been told by another blind pianist that these things that Nobu does are phenomenal: (1) making large leaps on the keyboard seemingly effortlessly, (2) being able to acquire a repertoire of over 10 concertos.

    I was at Mr. tsujii's performance with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy when he played Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 flawlessly. THAT, my friend, is extraordinary.

    I am something of an expert on Mr. Tsujii - Please check out my site for his international fans here: https://sites.google.com/site/nobufans/

    Thanks again for this piece.

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    1. Thanks for visiting! He is phenomenal. No question about it. I was going to link to some video of him--should've done it.

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  10. Just looked him up & found this - playing "mere" Chopin etudes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDtT5sSu5VQ

    HOLY SH**!

    I'm lucky to "sense" the centre of my piano with both eyes working. On a good day.

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    1. Hey. A lot of people are lucky they don't smack into the thing on the way to the TV set.

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  11. Of course, I wanted to take piano lessons when I was a girl because you and all the others were taking piano. My parents couldn't afford the lessons, let alone the piano to go with it! When I was 15, they got me a guitar & some lessons. One of the exercises my teacher used to make me do was to practice running scales with my eyes closed. It really did help develop an affinity for the instrument. If only closing my eyes could help me get better balance, maybe I'd stop walking into things when I have my eyes open! Elaine

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    1. Those of us who walk into walls fully-sighted have a problem that must be solved some other way. As soon as I figure out how, I'll let you know.

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  12. Some days when I read your posts, I feel a little like I'm riding in a speedboat that's smacking into wave after wave of hilarious points at breakneck speed. Today was one of those days ... well done :)

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  13. My household members laughed companionably out loud at this one. Thanks for cheering us up on this miserable Pacific Northwest Saturday.

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    1. You're welcome. You should come over here. It's all rainy and gray and dribbly. Perfect! Oh, you call that miserable?

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  14. I can find Middle C with eyes closed. Doesn't mean I can play the damn' piano though!

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    1. But it sounds like you could get a hell of a start on "Heart and Soul."

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    2. haha! I never thought of that!

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  15. Bill Cosby used to tell a story about going to visit his friend Ray Charles one evening. Bill knocked on the door and Ray yelled at him to come on in. Bill opened the door to a completely dark place and said, "Ray, where are you?". Ray answered, "In the bathroom, shaving." Bill said, "How can you..." just moments before feeling like a total idiot. Ray was a pretty good piano player for someone who couldn't see the keys and he could sing all the words pretty well, too.

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    1. Yup. He could Hit the Road, Jack with his eyes closed.

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  16. Thank you for continually bringing a smile to my face.

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  17. At long last.

    The answer as to why one of my arms is shorter than the other.

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    1. Aw, honey. The rest of us could tell just by looking at you.

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  18. As always, you bring a fresh and irreverent eye to the subject at hand. I was in the audience during the Cliburn Competition when Nobuyuki Tsujii competed. Certainly he has talent, and perseverance, to have gotten that far. Some of his recital performances were indeed stunning, his concerti with orchestra less so. When the gold medal spot was split between Tsujii and the very young and extremely talented Haochen Zhang, eliminating the silver medal altogether, more knowledgeable listeners were indeed surprised. There were several outstanding players who were left out in the cold.

    Learning music by ear is not so difficult as it sounds. It's a common exercise. First you learn the notes of a new piece, then you repeat it thousands and thousands of times until you've committed it to muscle memory. Some pianists read newspapers while doing the repetitions, never once looking at the keyboard. The notes stay in muscle memory long after the brain has forgotten them. Top pianists will have 60-80 plus concerti in their repertoire, in addition to their solo works.

    Mr. Tsujii is to be admired for his dedication. He is an inspiration and his success in the face of adversity draws a certain audience.

    The gushing ninny of an interviewer...hopeless and squirmworthy.

    OT: After watching the behavior of the press in NewTown the last couple of days, with their microphones on long sticks crammed into the faces of the shocked victims of a tragedy, asking the stock question, "How does it feel?", I seriously wonder if there is any moral high ground among them. Their desire for "a scoop" has them interviewing the girlfriend of the cousin of the janitor who worked at the grade school of the perp ten years ago to know what he was like and if they saw this coming (OK, I exaggerate but not much). Dozens and dozens of so-called news gatherers trying to come up with the "Barbara Walters' question", which doesn't even work for Barbara these days. Trying to interview traumatized kindergartners and televise the results. The public's need to know does not trump the welfare of children and parents in unimaginable grief. I hope you take them on.

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    1. Oh lucky you to have been to the competition!

      I didn't write anything about the behavior of reporters in Connecticut, but I did write a piece about that business. I'll put it in soon. It's not funny.

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  19. Thanks for the laughs, Murr. You certainly didn't come up short of talent in the writing with humour department.

    I have my mother's beautiful, old piano. I always wanted to know how to play but sadly, I'm limited to Chopsticks and similar pieces. Plus I leave smudge marks all over the keys from the coal. Thankfully my younger son is very musically inclined. It'll be his when I kick the bucket.. and I'll probably do that off-key, too.

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    1. Plus, you'll miss if you don't kick it squarely in the middle.

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  20. As a former rock musician, I was always amused when my classical musician friends would dog me, and other rock musicians, for our lack of skill and talent in playing music. Fair enough. I didn't play ten hours a day, or go to school to do what I did. The last band I was in did original songs, and we had over 200 of them, and we played at least one new song every gig we did.

    Fair enough, I'd say. But you, my dear musical genius, can't play a lick without sheet music in front of your face. You mean to tell me you can't play a piece from memory? And you can't improvise, either. So take that, butt head!

    Then we'd have a drink and make fun of jazz and opera people.

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    1. Oh no! We never make fun of anyone playing music. We loves the music. Maybe not Michael Bolton.

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  21. Well, my legs were too short to reach the pedals, which was just as well since I didn't know what they were for. I knew how to find middle C by sight, and eventually I learned to find it by sound.

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    1. And today's kids can find middle C with GPS.

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  22. I think Liszt is just a wannabe applied mathematician. Can't read a note of music meself but have often sat at Cecilia (my piano) and played by ear with my eyes closed. You end up in some surprising places doing that. Love the speedboat bumping off the waves analogy above!

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    1. I used to try to futz around and improvise way back when, and definitely appreciate it, but there's so much great stuff out there already written that it is a challenge to me to play that I just decided to hammer away at it. And leave the rest to others.

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  23. I am musically illiterate and the only instrument I can play is the triangle. That's why I dance, of course.

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    1. You just reminded me that we had a triangle in our toy box when I was a kid. I wonder why.

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  24. ...they squoze the keys together... I wonder if there was some sort of committee meeting before this event!

    In my next life, I'm going to interviewer school and then I'll ask Roxie, "But can you knit while playing the piano?"

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    1. Ooo! I'll bet she can yarnbomb a piano! You could still play it through the knitting. Sort of. I recommend she try it on someone else's piano.

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  25. Wonder if a musically talented dentist can play a piece using a mirror to sheet music? Now that would be a sight! not so sure about the sound part!!

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    1. Well the whole idea makes me say "ah..."

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  26. I have personally sat down at the computer keyboard and typed off a half page of gibberish due to being one or two letters south of my target area... so I can relate.

    And I once joined in a serious guitar banging party where someone insisted upon using a capo, which confused my mutinous fingers, because I played half of John Prine's "Paradise" with my fingers one fret too far down the board... I'm sure it sounded lovely to the people across from me at the party. That explains the funky looks I was getting.

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    1. Somehow those of us who are a little off need to come up with some way of persuading people that they'd get it if they were a little smarter.

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  27. By the way, if you take a close look at "The Last Supper", I believe Christ was doing one of those arm-stretching measuring deals, too... making sure he was at the right plate, I guess.

    Merry Christmas, ma'am!

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    1. Or keeping marauders away from his French fries.

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  28. I've got no quip just the observation, written musical notes are a true international language. Dots on lines, almost a computer code.

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    1. Or little birdies on the wire. Well, we went in two different directions there, didn't we Bill?

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  29. Awesome funny. I'm sure there is a joke about a 12 inch pianist somewhere. I will check out the You tube link in the morning. It is 1:30 am and I can't sleep but my wife can and is...

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