So I recently came into possession of an upright piano, the first acoustic piano I’ve had in my residence in about, oh, five years. Until the pandemic hit, I had mainly practiced at generous churches that let me use their instruments. More recently, I got a very serviceable electric keyboard that became a lifeline in the quarantine phase. But having my own real piano at home has been a revelation. I feel like I’m rediscovering the sound and feel of the instrument, and diving into repertoire that I had put on hold.
First and foremost was Beethoven’s Op. 111 sonata, which I had hailed as second-best from the Classical period in my sonata-ranking series. I had been sight-reading and faking my way through the Arietta movement since I was in high school. Occasionally I’d look at the technically challenging first movement, then give up. But at a certain point I determined that I needed to stop swimming in the shallows and just dive in, fully committing to this piece I loved so much. I cracked open my Henle Urtext edition and started to internalize the fingerings in the first movement’s running sixteenths.
Now, I understand that some of what I say in a moment is not particularly original, or that the sentiments may not be shared. This is a difficult, anxious time for musicians and all performers. Thinking about your instrument may bring feelings of sadness. But I’m going to share a few revelations from my recent practice that have brought joy.
1. Learning music is like a videogame
I’ve been playing lots of videogames in the Covid times, and there are so many concepts that directly translate. I’m thinking of the trial and error of practicing a short section over and over again, or the feeling of accomplishment when you reach a “checkpoint” in the music, having adequately executed what came before. In some ways it’s like a puzzle game, as you carry on an internal conversation with the editor who provided fingerings: “OK, I see your strategy here…I’m actually gonna change this 3 to a 2…” In general, the moment-to-moment execution and the multitasking inherent to piano result in quite a rewarding sort of game.
2. Learning music helps you to appreciate the architecture
Great composers create music that holds together under scrutiny. Studying a score, you may notice new supporting details that aren’t always discernible when listening. Beethoven is fun in this regard because of the motivic saturation in his music. The subconscious cohesiveness that you hear as an audience member transforms into a full awareness when you are playing it. I was delighted to find a crazy new passage in the left hand, appearing right at the end of the first movement exposition (which you can see in my photo at the top if you squint a bit). After some short call-and-response gestures in sixteenths, a low-bass version of the material spins out for several measures, rumbling around until it ascends in a scale. Playing the hand alone, it sounds almost goofy in its persistence. But it works! Another joy was playing slowly through the second variation of the Arietta, hearing every note click into place in beautifully churning counterpoint. It’s these moments, when you hear the full vision of the music coming more into focus, that are just so dang special.
3. Learning music is transporting and healing
While practicing in my apartment, in periods of sustained isolation, I have sometimes entirely forgotten what was happening in the world outside. Other times, I’ve felt like playing Beethoven Op. 111 was the only way to really express what I was feeling. It’s music of both darkness and light, of cosmic drama and intimate poetry. It has a lot to say about life.
And in the current moment of the pandemic, sometimes we need to reflect and escape, whether it’s through piano or videogames or whatever. I’m really excited for the future when concert halls can be full again, full of people rediscovering the power of live music. Until then, we’re finding our way. And we will be alone with our instruments for a while. So if you have one, treasure it. Give yourself a challenge to learn something you’ve been putting off. Dust off an old classic that has memories attached to it. Compose something. Whatever the case, try to cling to the beauty of music-making.