One Note at a Time

2 February 2019

Black and white. Everything is black and white when it comes to learning a piano piece. Simple little black dots weaved into the 10 black lines, 5 for treble and 5 for base; all arranged on a white sheet of processed paper. The keys, both black and white and glossy glide under my fingertips. I reach for the lamp’s knob and twist it. Click, click, click and the white light is illuminated. Gleaming, the bulb reflects off of each ivory key and a glare can be seen off of the raised ebony cover. Searching through the pile of sheet music stacked on the black Grand Piano I notice, placed directly to the right of the music stand, that special piece I’ve been anticipating. A challenge, most definitely, but a beauty in itself; the composition will be entertaining for me to play and for an audience to listen to. I place it into the caressing music stand. It cradles the arrangement for me and keeps the exposition safe amidst the upcoming journey.

My hands fondle the music. Analyzing each detail of chords, pedal movement, and the count of each note, I single out the melodies by placing my pointer finger at its location on the music. Then, one hand at a time, I locate their partners on the keys for both clefs. Measure by measure, four beats at a time, I focus on the first note in the first line. Is it a half note, quarter note, or whole? As I take into account the meter time, which would resemble a base or drum beat in any modern song. Take Cyndi Lauper’s well known song for example, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. Four beats in each measure decides a half note held for two beats, quarter notes for one beat, and a whole note obviously counted for four beats. I’ve determined the meter time and counted out the notes. But what note is it? An A, B, or possibly a G? There are seven different notes; A-G in the alphabet, however, where those notes stand on the staff, the five horizontal lines where music is written, is difficult to remember. A simple trick I have learned that greatly advanced my note reading abilities are the acronyms. For the treble clef the lined notes proceed as following from bottom to top: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. As for the spaces, they spell out F.A.C.E. The base clef is even trickier, with an acronym for the spaces saying All Cows Eat Grass, and for the Lines, Great Big Donuts For Alvin. Memorization and time has helped with the agility of this technique. Learning song after song makes it easier to read the notes than the time before.
After I have read each note carefully and acknowledged where they lie on the keys, I then challenge the brutal chords. These beastly stacks of notes are initially confusing to finger on the keys but after much practice, my fingers comfortably fall into place. Slowly starting from the beginning of the first line, I play the tune until the end of that line. I return back to the beginning of the piece and run through to the end of the line once, twice, three times more. Choppy and disassembled sounding at first but by the third or fourth trial, my performance has become somewhat fluid and naturally melodious. I have quickened the metronome on the first line, however, I must continue to the following lines. I repeat my steps of reading the notes and fingering the chords almost mechanically. Progressively moving down the sheet music and onto the next page, I study the music. At an expressly demanding interval, I halt and examine the melody. A mixture of sixteenth notes and rests, slurs, sharps and flats engulf the staff. I practice these sections 5 to 7 times instead of 3 to 5. Little by little my fingers memorize where and how far they must move to get from one key to the next; from one chord to an arpeggio (the notes of a chord broken up and played as a succession). Before long I must advance: to the end.
The entire piece welcomes my familiarity with it once the weight of my hand presses down onto the last chord or note. Yet, the piece lacks rhythmicity and emotion. A rehearsal of the entire piece is practiced day and night until perfected. Over and over again it is engaged in recreation if a section requires precision in accents or dynamics.
What is the product? A final recital expresses my personality and emotion telling a story dependant upon interpretation. Each period sets a mood of excitement, tranquility, or possibly passion with indescribable blends of notes and all that is known is the generation of pleasing endorphins. Yet, it is still black and white; plain and simple. The melody is fact, and the euphonious chords are unchanging. Harmony so constant and firm would never emerge without any one of the small portions which compose this magnificent expression.

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