Saturday, June 9, 2012

Learning To Write From Chopin

When I was a kid, I figured Chopin was just mean. It seemed like enough of an imposition on my new skills to load up the key signature with flats and sharps, but then, just to mess with me, he'd flat the flats and sharp the sharps so that the page looked like it was all croutons and no soup. I took it personally. "If he wants me to play an E natural," I whined, "why doesn't he write that instead of making it a double-flatted F sharp?" People get mad when they feel stupid. Which, of course, is kind of stupid.

Well, you get over it. You grow and sharpen yourself up and realize that Chopin liked to hover and flit and dip on the black keys, which are actually easier to play, and was, if not affectionate, not overtly hostile to you at all. But he had eccentricities, and those became your problem. It's one thing to learn how to play three notes in the right hand to every two in the left. Or eight to six; or some other mathematically comprehensible challenge. You can get the hang of that pretty fast. Chopin likes to lull you into complacency and then slide in eleven notes in the right to six in the left. Then in the next measure, twenty-one notes in the right to the same six in the left. Or pi. Or some other thing with no gazintas in it. It's irksome. Everything's going along great and then all of a sudden a bazillion little notes flock in like birds on a wire, and you have to somehow jam the whole chirping mass into a little box without losing any.

First thing you try is to figure out roughly where some of the notes should line up, but it won't work. They won't go. The only way you can do it is to allow part of your mind to come loose. At first it's like a race, and your left hand keeps winning. But finally in one blessed moment of grace your mind lets go and quits trying to make sense of the thing, and there it is, your 21 notes flapping into the sky and back again, and that much more beautiful because Chopin has taken away your sense of control over the music. He's going to slay you with unpredicted beauty.

That moment when it falls into place is exquisite, like a miniature enlightenment, when you allow your mind to court chaos. It's like looking at those 3-D dot-pictures until something gives way and the image assembles and looms, and you can't imagine not being able to see it. It's a little surrender, containing its own relief. And it's something that gets easier with practice. In fact, my problem is not in letting part of my mind come unstrung but in keeping the whole damn thing from kiting away. I want all parts back together and home in time for dinner. I had to quit smoking pot years ago because I couldn't trust my mind not to stay out all night. It's a worry.

Or a jay, or whatever you happen to have on hand.
So for some things, a supple mind trumps a sharp one. The ability to play a screwy passage in Chopin is the same ability that makes writing possible, when it's done right. A writer stretching her thought-muscles tends to look, to an observer, a little distant and dim. But that's the price you pay for metaphor. If I want to describe something by means of something else, I have to cut my mind loose to bob about in experience and sensation until something chinks into place, and when it's right you can just about hear it snap together. You can't force it. I once read an article about writing in which the author said "writing humor is tough. It's as tough as a chicken-fried steak," thus making her own point. She wasn't cutting her mind loose. She was playing Family Feud. "Things that are tough: Survey SAYS?" Bong! Here are your top five answers, including Chicken-Fried Steak. Pick one and stick it in your sentence.

It's the difference between plunking a pigeon with a shotgun and sending a falcon out after it. The falcon will return to you, but you don't know where it's going. You gotta trust the falcon.

No point in trusting the falconer, though. She may be nodding in all the right places, but she looks a little distant and dim, and probably hasn't heard a word you said.

63 comments:

  1. Some of my favorite things are Chopin. There is even one particular note, I believe it is the very last one, of a second movement of something I believe, that is one of my most favorite notes. I wiLL see if I can find it, it has been awhile.

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    1. I found it! Thanks, YouTube. Its Piano Concerto No 2, part 2,.

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    2. Why, that IS a particularly lovely note!
      I did laugh at your "favorite note," but Mozart can routinely kill me with one note. I didn't appreciate him when I was a kid, either.

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    3. What is reaLLy cool to do is to listen to that particular concerto using a PC with Media Player with a visual display of the music with (not sure of the eXact names here) a histogram chart with vertical spikes for each note, and it leaves a single square at the maximum height.

      I also reaLLy like some particular notes when Itzak Perlman plays Tchaicowski's (sp) Violin Concerto in D Major, definitely one of my favorite pieces of music. I have Itzak's signature on my CD jacket, after he played in Topeka.

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  2. Lord love a duck, woman. Is there anything you aren't brilliant at? I just walked by my piano and it flicked out a cabriolet leg to whack me in the shin like a testy horse, saying "See...see??? What we could be doing if you spent less time on the internet faffing about?"

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    1. You do make "faffing about" sound sort of splendid. I think I'll go do me some of that.

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  3. You can write about anything and make me laugh, it seems. Glad you aren't letting your mind stay out all night any more. What did you do with your stash? You sure don't seem to need it to be brilliant. :-)

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  4. Ah, the mind like a falcon -- brilliant! Except I send my mind out after a duck, it disappears, and I track it down to find that it has taken down a giant tortoise. Your mind, on the other hand, comes back with flamingoes and phoenixes. AND it enables you to play Chopin!

    Thank you, thank you for the recital! I had no idea.

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    1. Well it's a falcon if it works. Sometimes you just look at your wrist and it's all pigeon poop.

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  5. Well, for heaven's sake! Both the math side and the language side of your brain are brilliant!

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    1. Yeah, nuh-uh. I always loved math, but I have to spank things around to get them to come out right. Not a natural, at all.

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  6. Well, darn your talented hide. A lesson in Chopin, good writing, and a fine demonstration of both. "Unpredicted beauty" and "miniature enlightenment," indeed.

    P.S. Better keep an eye on DJan. I think she has her eye on your leftover stash. Leftover stash - silly girl. Hi DJan! ;)

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    1. I know! Someone just asked me about any "unconsumed beer," and I didn't know what that meant, either.

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  7. You are going to make me think about metaphors all day. I love the way you write about music. My brain doesn't work where music and math are concerned.

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    1. As long as it gets you from bed and back in it again without major mishap, it's doing a fine job.

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  8. I feel like a better person for having listened to that.

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    1. Oh, if I didn't have performance anxiety, I should have played the whole piece. Nocturne #1--youtube it.

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  9. Dang, this is a great post. I wish I could have thought of half of it, and believe me, I've tried. I used to wonder what an MRI of my brain would look like between those moments I played piano from the music book, and those moments when my hands just took off and flew on their own, knowing where to go, feeling the music, while another part of my brain kept saying holy shit, how is this happening, I wonder how long I can do this until I screw up- that's about where I screwed up. I always believed there was something other brained happening in those moments. And I never have tackled Chopin, but I love my Tori Amos, queen of the e flat minor, black keys galore, except c, which is b flat natural, naturally. The first time I heard her play Winter, I bought the music book and dusted off my piano and it's been my version of midlife therapy. Thanks for playing for us, you should do that some more.
    And double ha ha to your mind staying out all night, because that happened to me too. Getting older changed me from mellow to super-hyper ADD spazz brain, which pretty much defeated the whole purpose.
    Gave mine away :)

    Thanks for making me laugh and for making me think about playing some piano today.

    And

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    1. You know, I think I'm wrong about b flat natural, I think it's just c and f that aren't flat in that key. I'm a little foggy brained from pain meds, so I wouldn't trust much of what I say this week, except that parts where I say how great your posts and your writing and your piano playing are :)

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    2. "holy shit, how is this happening, I wonder how long I can do this until I screw up- that's about where I screwed up." I know that bit. Boy do I know that bit.

      Don't know Tori Amos.

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    3. Yes, I also know that bit. And a lot more bits besides, since I can't read music and just have to let my fingers find what I hear in my head. Maybe I need to smoke something...

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  10. Thank the Lord I was raised Jewish and therefore cannot understand the chicken-fried steak analogy at all. Subtle as a meataxe, as Yaakov Smirnoff would say...

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  11. I know nothing about piano, but after hearing your description and then listening to you play--whew! I always thought it must be beyond difficult to get both your hands to coordinate in the first place--but with that piece...two falcons...flying off in different directions after separate prey!! Kudos!! :):)

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    1. I always tell people it's easier to learn when you're an adult. In case you've harbored desires along those lines--it's not like foreign languages. You can get decent in a hurry.

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  12. A perfect post. Whilst studying music in school (and they seemed to favor Bach for some reason), stuff just wasn't explained like this. Required reading for Music Appreciation.

    And perhaps Word Appreciation too, were there such a thing.

    I concur. You should should display your music talents more often. To come here has now become a feast for the senses.

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    1. Just to put my two cents in, I totally know why they favor Bach. That's the bearded dude on the cloud in the Sistine Chapel, as far as I'm concerned.

      Jerry, wait till I get Scratch 'N' Sniff technology for the blog! Them poop posts is gonna pop!

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  13. I was brought up to believe that everyone has a special talent. It is now getting a little late for me to find mine and I come here and discover that you have stolen it.. You have way toooo much talent for one individual.

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    1. I ain't stolen nothing. I don't even know how to put italics and bold lettering in my comments.

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  14. You can play pretty good! Taking any requests...I'd like to hear you play Chopin's Winter Wind etude.

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    1. Yeah, I'd like to hear me play that, too.

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  15. Exquisitely written, Murr. And delightfully played.

    You have so delightful described the writing process. Into which we have to enter, I would argue, with a sharp, subtle, and wide-open mind. I knew a writer who was so open-minded that, one day, his brain fell out.

    The last bit was really right falcon on!

    ~ Dim and Distant Bear.

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    1. I'm really afraid of that brain thing, Rob. Accepting bear hugs now.

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  16. Fats Waller used to confound people trying to copy him because he played on the black keys. Unlike Chopin, he played the black keys because they were the only ones in tune on the honky tonk and bar pianos on which he played. Brilliance comes in many forms. Great post.

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    1. Loves me my Fats. I ain't buying that about the black keys though. They were either all out of tune or none of them were out of tune. He might have had fat fingers though.

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  17. Annoying isn't it? Almost sightreadable, then you turn the page and - argh!

    I'm still amazed how practice works. You just keep doing those bits over and over thinking, how on earth am I ever going to get that up to speed? And heypresto, it suddenly falls into place. Trouble is the older I get the longer it seems to take.

    I've been bashing through some of the easier pieces in Bach's 48 recently - really good nasty key signature/double sharps and flats practice, I discovered.

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    1. It's cool how you can get things up to speed by playing them very slowly but with perfect timing (no hiccups). Your brain is assembling its neurons and giving them marching orders. They'll do it overnight, if you put in a good five minutes of slow practice before bedtime. They'll even do it if you IMAGINE playing the notes.

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  18. "It's like looking at those 3-D dot-pictures until something gives way and the image assembles and looms, and you can't imagine not being able to see it." Brains are amazing, some more that others. This post has me on the edge of an ah-ha! moment but after a good night's sleep it's still not clear. My grandfather, father and son are all gifted, professional musicians. Although I cut my teeth on classical music, I personally got stuck at Donkey Serenade and after my 4th recital with that piece I decided to slouch away from that undertaking. I also can't do aerobics, tee off a golf ball (short game is good) and most sad, see those 3-D pictures at the mall. Ever. Blind in one eye since birth, I need to wear 2-D glasses because 3-D movies make me nauseous. But the brain compensates marvelously for short comings and I don't notice that I have no depth perception or peripheral vision except when I can't do very specific tasks. Is it possible it requires two eyes to play Chopin? Probably not; consider Nobuyuki Tsuji who played all 12 of the Opus 10 Etudes to win the Van Cliburn. Heaven knows, I tried. I give my parents credit for their hopeful efforts as well- every year at Christmas they gave me a new Viewmaster with discs of the Wonders of the World. Anyway, I always enjoy your posts, this one esp. with the musical interlude. You are a wonder in this world. Thanks.

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    1. I'm going to blame the Donkey Serenade. That had to be a logjam. I know a blind pianist who doesn't have trouble hitting any of the notes. I hate her.

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  19. I visited Chopin's grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, waiting patiently for all the Asian tourists with their cameras to move away. Thinking I had him to myself, I thanked him out loud for his music, especially his Nocturnes. From behind his headstone a very French accented voice said "You're welcome". Bent me double with laughter!

    Totally agree about untethering our minds and letting them soar free. The trick is letting them come back and roost in the cranium of their own accord. I've always suspected that Icarus said "Oh ye gods, I'm flying!" and that's when he plunged to earth.

    This was a special post, Murr. You hit us on a whole bunch of notes here.

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    1. One day while delivering mail I looked down at my letters and realized I'd put the wrong mail in the last mail slot and as I was going up the steps to a house I said "Oh, God." And the roofer called down "yesss?"

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  20. Wonderful post! And so appropriate for me at this time as I'm working on a new manuscript about a little musical genius. One of her great challenges involves those trills and runs that Chopin is so famous for. I loved listening to you play. Thanks.

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    1. Oh, I wish I'd just gone ahead and played the whole piece--it's not hard, but I always goof up so much in public. And it turns out my little camera is public. I thought I'd just confine myself to the first page.

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  21. Your posts make my day. Other bloggers worry about writing boring stuff, I doubt you could do that if you tried.

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    1. I worry about writing boring stuff, too.

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  22. Wonderful stuff here. Everything from finding out youtube has classical stuff (no, I didn't know) to the fact that you play some mean piano to realizing perhaps your wonderful writing doesn't spring from your fingertips as quickly as we can read it but requires actual thought ... the amount of light you shed today nearly blinds me :) Thank you!

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    1. Oh shoot, I use youtube to look up people playing pieces I'm working on, so I can find out what it's SUPPOSED to sound like. Or sometimes even figure out a fingering.

      Sometimes writing springs from my fingertips but most of it gets sent through the wringer before I hang it up to dry.

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  23. Oh my gosh, that was beautiful. I used to play, years ago. Hearing that makes me want to play again, or at least buy a couple of CDs so I can do some serious listening! I enjoyed your description of letting the brain go, too.

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    1. Actually, that phrase "letting the brain go" scares me a little. But I know what you mean.

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  24. Is it ever too late to start learning the piano? I took a year when I was 16 and asked my teacher if I could play if I was blind. He paused for a moment and then said: "I don't think so". So I stopped going. Because I wanted to be really good. And what's the point of playing piano if you can't play when your eyes go bonkers? Which can of course happen any moment. I already knew that at 16. So, is it ever to late too start learning the piano?

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    1. It is not only not too late, but adults learn a lot faster than kids do. It's not like learning a foreign language. I'm in a recital group that includes some adults who have just taken it up, and they progress in a hurry. It's partly coordination, hand size, and desire.

      That's weird, though, about your early thoughts about blindness. Kind of makes you wonder why you did ANYTHING. And blind people play just fine, so your teacher was off base.

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  25. And I'm asking because, by golly, that was beautiful what came out of you!

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  26. I just loved this essay and share the admiration for that one note ending.

    Thanks!

    S

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    1. We could all be geniuses and compose a one-note piece. Has to be JUST the right note, though. Oh wait--didn't Ravel already do it?

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  27. Aw, Murr, you are just too damn good at everything you do. I love Chopin and worked with him for years. He was a tricky devil and must have had extraordinarily long fingers. But I still soar when hearing his compositions. Wish I could say the same about my writing.

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    1. You worked with him for years? How old ARE you? :)

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  28. Wonderful post, wonderful playing! Your talent is what I'm dreaming of while I'm plunking away at the keyboard with all the subtlety of a bag of hammers.

    My brain explodes when the notes don't line up. Now I have to go and clean the goo off my walls. Again.

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    1. Fortunately the hippocampus is responsible for maintenance.

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  29. Hey Murr! That was you? Outstanding. I have minimal musical ability and swoon for those who do. I take my hat off to you; both hats, in fact. But sevens and thirteens? Bastard! Indigo x

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    1. He's really doing us a favor, making our brains fall apart like that.

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  30. If you ever get a chance, watch the film "Impromptu" -- I love it just for the music. About Chopin, Listz, Geo. Sand.

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    1. I remember it. Hugh Grant in an early role before we got used to him being cute in light comedies. Pretty hot, as I recall. I don't remember who played George Sand, but I remember the scene where she was lying down under the piano listening.

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