November 16, 2011 at 9:20 AMLately, I've been playing Mozart with a talented jazz pianist on break from studying composition at Berklee. Wanting to work on his note reading skills, he mentioned the desire to read Bartok's Microcosms. "Funny you mention that," I said, digging through the file cabinet. "I just so happen to possess a copy of his first volume, and it's the very thing my teacher prescribed to me to help my own note reading skills." He took it home and returned it a couple of weeks later. Handing it to me after rehearsal, he noted, "Your teacher sure had you write in your book a lot. How old were you again?" Let's see... "Hmmm, third grade? Eight, I guess."
Curious, I sat down at the piano with the dog-eared, yellowed copy and reviewed.
Ah yes, third grade. At eight years old, I still sucked my thumb and wet the bed. My parents fought a lot. They were getting ready to split up the following year (though they are happily back together to this day), and every time they argued, I thought it was my fault. I thought maybe if I could quit wetting the bed, everything would be okay, but no one can explain to a third grader that such notions are fallacious and should be disbanded, because a third grader doesn't even realise that's how she feels, and even if she did, she wouldn't express it.
The piano was a vehicle to a magical world, and I enjoyed it the same way I enjoyed unicorns and fairy tales. I was quite advanced for my age, and sought out pieces that were way over my head, like arrangements of "Run for the Roses" by Dan Fogelberg, because I was obsessed with horses. Though my fingers had to stretch to reach octaves, I tackled them painlessly, driven by an intense passion to fulfill my dreams.
Unfortunately, my technique had become quite sloppy. My teacher, an older woman who loved gabbing about her experiences with various musical productions and had difficulty writing, assigned me to the Microcosms to wean me from my "crutch", which was this: I could play everything by ear. She assigned Microcosms, abstract pieces in various modes and challenging tonalities, to force the note-reading issue and improve my sight-reading skills. Handing me the pencil, she had me write my own prescription for the following week, regardless of spelling errors. Reading now through the pages, I can recall my weekly assignments in sinking chagrin.
She had me play it forward. On day two, I played it backward. Day three, I played it upside down. Day four: upside down, backwards. And then we took them and transposed them up a half-step, or down a whole step. Repeat ad nauseum.
I remember, she had this large stuffed animal, a beautiful dragon, perched on her piano. No one put it in my head, but I got the notion that if I played my assignments and practiced hard enough, she would give me that dragon as a reward.
And so I practiced. The pieces, written in various "ecclesiastical" modes, left me searching for some sort of familiarity, which was being denied. My Western musical upbringing had accustomed me to major and minor sceneries only, and without Do as my home base, I felt lost. I needed to go home, like a toddler needs a security blanket. Searching for it, I couldn't find it. The demand for notes that held no purpose other than to learn notes became overwhelming. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" I cried.
She never did give me that dragon. Unrewarded, I quit.
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