Teaching Those Fingers To Tickle the Ivories

I've recently taken up the piano. I'm not a rank beginner, it's true, since I had maybe six months of lessons when I was 10. And I've dabbled at the instrument, without benefit of instruction, off and on since then. So my fingers sort of worked already, and I was able to read music. But actually studying the piano and trying to get good at it was new to me.

What triggered my decision was my son Ben's departure for college, which left an opening in our children's piano-lesson schedule. We could have just told the teacher to give the slot to someone else, but I suddenly got a yen to fill it myself. I could find an hour most days to practice, I thought, and along the way I might even learn to play well.

One of the benefits of having a teacher in anything is that he or she makes you focus. You have a week to practice three or four pieces, then you have to perform them for this super-critical listener. In my dabbling days, I would sight-read a piece, play it badly, then move on to do another piece badly, then another, until I felt fulfilled. But now, any temptation I might have to move on prematurely from, say, Beethoven's ''Rage of the Lost Penny'' to Schumann's ''Wild Horseman'' was banished quickly. It was ''Rage'' not ''Horseman'' that I had to perform on Wednesday, so I'd better stick to ''Rage.''

Never having been exposed to ''focusing,'' as our children are today, I nonetheless learned the ropes quickly. I learned to ignore the easy sections of a piece and to bear down on the difficult parts. I learned to go over those hard measures again and again.

To make my unschooled fingers move with greater accuracy and enthusiasm, I followed my teacher's advice to play things in different rhythms and with different touches. I'd play a legato passage staccato, for example, play Bach in swing time, or play four-octave scales with accents every fourth note. I learned what it was to really play a piece, to lay in a tolerable trill, to manage a clean appoggiatura, to play what was actually written on the page, not something akin to it. I learned the value and the great rewards of methodical work in a narrow field.

Since I was not a rank beginner, my teacher catered to my whim of tackling the Bach ''Two-Part Inventions,'' a set of pieces of varying degrees of difficulty, but each a thick mat of notes. Some pieces were within my reach, albeit at the far edge of it. When the Bach ''Inventions'' are played at the proper pace, which is only a twitch off light speed, you lose track of the individual notes and hear only great undulations of sound with an ever-changing texture. Something like a sea of tall grass swaying with a fickle breeze, where the grass color changes unexpectedly as the wind shifts.

My teacher gave me ''Invention IV.''

I could begin only one way: one note at a time, one measure at a time, one hand at a time. A field of grass is made of blades, I reasoned, and Bach's ''Invention'' is made of notes. And I have five little workers at the end of each arm that will have to produce those notes. I could pretend they are two teams of horses, I thought, that will have to pull together. I'll work Team 1 very hard and fast for a few measures, then Team 2 at the same speed for the same measures. Then I'll put them together and drive them more slowly, see if they can remember where the chuckholes are, where the hill gets steep, where the slippery rock is. Then I'll separate them again and push each one hard over the same ground.

Much to my amazement, within two or three weeks I was able to play the complicated piece in baby steps. Over the ensuing weeks I brought the pace gradually to a brisk jog, and, at present, am moving like a respectable miler. My fingers actually know what to do. Recently, my teacher - no doubt tired of hearing ''Invention IV'' - turned me loose on ''Invention VIII,'' and the process has been the same. What seemed impossible at first is now not only possible, but has caused my wife to say once or twice, ''That sounds nice.'' So my fulfillment has been fairly complete. It's true that there have been only momentary sensations of grass flowing before the wind, but the breeze is freshening daily.

I catch myself spending increasing amounts of time on the piano bench. Gone is that budgeted hour, that notion of piano in its place. I snatch extra moments and will gladly squander an hour and a half or two hours in playing if I can. I am eager, my success feeding upon itself. Even my family, quick to close the piano-room door when I am practicing, has noticed.

And now I have my eye on a nice Haydn sonata I'd like to be playing in two years, and for the near term, I'm sneaking up on ''Invention XIV.''

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