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Make yourself feel good at the piano

There’s a sliver of optimism in the air here in Canberra at the moment. COVID-19 cases have barely increased in a week in the ACT. All around Australia, this strange, slightly claustrophobic Easter seems to be paying dividends. Despite the stunning Autumn weather, most Australians are playing by the rules, going out only in ones or twos and staying close to home. Infections are no longer doubling every few days as they were in March. As the public health experts and politicians keep reminding us, it’s not over yet; all we’ve done is buy time to prepare for the approaching wave. But we are entitled to feel a little proud that we have managed this small push-back against the virus.

And so I find that as I sit at the piano in the cooling evenings, I want to reflect this slender positivity. I want to feel good while I play.

Of course, in one sense I always feel good when playing. Like most pianists, I’m not a masochist. If we didn’t get any enjoyment from it, of course we wouldn’t stick with it. But sometimes it’s the enjoyment of making tiny progress towards mastery of a tricky technical hitch. Or the grudging recognition that I played a piece just a tiny bit better today than yesterday.

But for now, I want a less complicated, more expansive experience of ‘feeling good’. Here are the strategies I’m drawing on.

First, I revisit lots of pieces that are now well below my technical limits. In other words, I go back and play pieces I may have learned years ago, even decades ago. World-class composers from all eras have given us a world of wonderfully satisfying and not-too-technical piano pieces. Peter Skulthorpe’s Left Bank Waltz, Ludovico Einaudi’s Dolce Droga, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Lullaby for Nick, Beethoven’s ‘easy’ sonatas 19 and 20, Yann Tiersen’s Les Jours Heureux, Joe Hisaishi’s Memory, Cecille Chaminade’s Gigue and other pieces from her Album des Enfants. Playing pieces you once struggled with as a beginner or intermediate student is a great way of reminding yourself that you have progressed, which sends you off to bed feeling terrific.

My second strategy is to sight-read lots of unfamiliar but easy-looking pieces. For my sight-reading smorgasbord, I flip through some of the many collections on my bookshelf and try the pieces I have always skipped before, often for no good reason. For example, in the Hal Leonard collection River Flows in You and other eloquent songs for solo piano I made myself stop and sight-read all the pieces. In the process, I discovered I love Liz Story’s Hymn and David Lanz’s Cristofori’s Dream. In Dan Coates’ Complete Advanced Piano Solos, I found myself sight-reading Coates’ arrangement of Menken/Ashman’s sweeping romantic theme from Beauty and the Beast. And from The Library of Modern Piano Music I stopped and tried pieces by Tan Dun (The Eternal Vow) and Joby Talbot (Cloud Watching), Gabriel Yared (Lovers On Balloon) and John McCabe (Snowfall In Winter). All utterly delightful! I will return to most of these pieces for more serious polishing on another night.

A feast of sight-reading can make you feel good in many ways. For starters, you realise you’re able to turn unfamiliar dots on the page into something vaguely musical; and you can feel totally relaxed uncritical while you play. But perhaps the best reward is the invigorating discovery of wonderful pieces and composers you had never previously explored.

Which leads to my third strategy for feeling good: acquire new repertoire by composers or arrangers whose level you know you can manage. How best to do this will be the topic of my next blog post. In the meantime, I wish you luck finding the strategies that make you feel good at the piano as we live through these challenging times.


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