Friday, August 13, 2010

Beethoven Landed on Me

  At the age of fifteen I played the third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata for a piano recital. The first movement is the one most people know. But the third movement? It's in C# Minor. It's fast--no scratch that, it's like white lightening under your fingers, and complex, and monstrous. It was a pivotal moment in my life as a musician and one I grapple with to this day; it's why I still practice Beethoven. You can learn a lot from your failures.
  I understand why I endeavored to learn it. It's an extraordinary piece of music and at that age, and even beyond, I wanted the end results, the Van Cliburn patina, but didn't know how to go about the work that it took to begin to approach the final, crafted result.
  But what was my teacher thinking?  Did it sound decent in the studio? I can't imagine that it did. Was he gambling that by pushing me in this I would actually achieve the Third Movement? Or that I'd learn so much along the way that any so-called success or failure in public would outweigh the benefits of learned skills?
  I did have affection for my teacher. When my friend Ben first told me about Dennis Fortune, the piano teacher, I imagined a flashy Brit, who would wear suits and proffer funny anecdotes about his all-nighters  with Leonard Bernstein, and who would bedazzle me every second of every lesson.
  The actual Dennis Fortune was a large black man, somewhat melancholic, who, at least a couple of times, had trouble finding child care and so toted along his 3-year old daughter to lessons. A working musician, in other words, someone I can relate to now as a musician and  father myself.

Dennis is the one on the far left.

  I was a mediocre student, mostly, but I had my moments. And I think the third movement was one of those moments. I practiced it. A lot. At home, playing our Baldwin Acrosonic I'd close my eyes and have daydreams. I think half my motivation was the actual beauty and challenge of the work, the other half was the daydreams. I'd picture myself on a stage with a grand piano, my eyes would be half-closed and misty as I played, I would distill and emanate the essence of all the great artists--Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff-- their best work flowing through me. The world would take note of such genius.
  Or the other fantasy. I'd just be myself, at a party. Dara Rossman would be there. And there'd be a piano and someone would ask if anyone played and after a while I'd casually mention that I played a little, and I'd sit down. And play it. And life would never be the same. All those guys with their collars turned up and their Ocean Pacific shorts would experience transcendence. Dara and I would leave the party and walk under the magnolia blossoms and talk about Gone with the Wind (I was an odd fifteen-year old).
   In any case I wasn't prepared for the recital. I remember the morning of it wondering if I should warm up at all. As someone who's been a professional musician for years now, this seems like a no-brainer. Yes! At least practice your scales. Then do the hard passages. Then play through the whole thing. Twice. I remember thinking that perhaps something just takes over, God, or something and that I would just sit down and play it and Beethoven or the Force would be at the helm.
  It was a Saturday, the recital was in an auditorium. I remember wooden seats, and a grand piano. There were other students too. And my turn came. I was supposedly one of the advanced students so I was near the end.
  The rest is rather an awful blur. I bungled my way through it, the voice of Obi-Wan did not speak to me when I sat down, nor at any time during the movement. In fact mostly it was my own voice saying things in my mind like, "Oh shit here comes that really hard part", and then, "Wow I really fucked that hard part up!" I'll never know how badly I mangled it but when I looked up at him at the end, Dennis, who was turning the pages, quickly looked away. Betrayed.

  And that's when my real work of learning Beethoven began--when all my fantasies were shattered. I wasn't a prodigy or a genius.  I had a choice then whether to keep going with music or not. After some time, once the trauma had settled I decided to look at other works and something had changed. The daydreams were still there but I couldn't take them seriously. But I could take the work seriously. And I started to slow my practicing down, I started to really listen and to really look at the dynamic markings, the tempo markings. This was the beginning of actually building a relationship with the work itself. Me, the piano, and Beethoven.
  And I still practice Beethoven now. I did today.  Here's part of my practice session, mistakes and all. The work humbles me. And the beauty of having been at this so long is that now I can be my own teacher. "Wait, Eric, stop rushing. Play that half a measure over and over, slowly. Use the 4th finger there". At some point as an artist you humble yourself or are humbled and then the real work begins. I made a choice to continue Beethoven, piano, music. And that choice to continue emerges often. You can't let humiliation and the end of fantasies stop you. Sometimes that's where it all begins.
  I'll tell you one thing though..I'm not touching that Third Movement with a ten-foot Steinway any time soon.

1 comment:

  1. Having been out of practice for almost ten years, I wouldn't either...but I am slowly regaining perspective....This was really refreshing Eric, Thanks