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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Fan Letter to My Favorite Modern Composer

After a ten year absence I finally returned to playing piano. Without a bit of false modesty I have to admit that I was always crap. I began very late in life and when you add to this handicap the fact that I’m not exactly bursting with musical talent you end up with mediocrity…on a very good day. This time around I have a lot more hope of achieving a lot more on the instrument thanks to a few new items in the mix.

First on this list of my new advantages is my Yamaha P45 electric piano. It’s an amazing instrument and infinitely better than almost any keyboard available back when I used to play. I had an upright acoustic piano in my apartment in Seattle and back then I swore that I'd never have anything but a “real” piano. Times change and technology changes at an astounding pace. My new piano is light and portable, two essential things when you live in an apartment building sometimes without a lift. If you're lucky enough to have a lift it probably won’t be big enough to accommodate even a very small piano. Moving a piano with a mechanical lift from outside the building will add at least 150€ to the purchase price.

My snobbery about the superiority of "real" pianos kept me from buying a keyboard so I lived without music. I didn't even listen to music. I finally reached a point back in February of this year (2017) in which not playing became intolerable. I shopped around and bought the Yamaha. I'm thrilled with it so far and I think that I made a very wise and lucky investment. So far I have one very minor complaint in that the force necessary to play keys between the black keys is a bit harder that it should be. The sustain pedal is pretty crappy but I can buy a better one. Another huge advantage is that I can play it wearing headphones so my neighbors won’t be disturbed. This means that I can bang away in the early morning or late at night which greatly increases my hours of practice.

The next new thing which has helped my progress immensely is YouTube, something that didn’t exist when I played back in Seattle over ten years ago. YouTube has been an amazing resource for finding new music to play as well as instruction. The videos posted by Brian Trobee (his video below) have steered me in the right direction at every step of the way. His explanations of technique, rhythm, and everything else musical have helped me to gain a much deeper understanding of just what it is that I’m trying to do when I sit down to play. I used to pay a lot of money for private lessons where I learned very little except that I was crappy.

Because of YouTube I now have a much better idea of what is necessary to become some sort of musician. I have learned how to make the most out of my practice time. I know how to practice and just how long I need to play if I want to see some improvement. I never lacked discipline before but I honestly didn’t know that if I was really serious I needed to practice a hell of a lot more. I’m practicing a hell of a lot more now. I also practice fingering exercises from The Virtuoso Pianist book by Hanon. I knew about these when I played before but I just thought that they were some technique developed to torture students. I can’t say if they are helping my technique or not but I can say that I’ve improved a lot in playing these exercises. They can also be fun, believe it or not.

When I played piano before almost everything I played was in the classical genre, simple pieces that most new students learn. I always admired ragtime piano but felt that it was much too difficult for me to ever think about learning. This time around I have discovered a composer of piano music especially intended for students. Martha Mier is an American composer who has written perhaps dozens of books of original songs intended for instructional purposes. She has a special emphasis on easier pieces to introduce students to ragtime, jazz, and blues styles.

These short pieces are so much funner to play than the classical stuff I suffered through before. I don’t even know why but they're just a blast to learn and play. I love the fact that this time around on the piano I’m exploring boogie, jazz, blues, and especially ragtime. Many years ago I was in some bar somewhere in Seattle that had a piano. My friends asked me to play something so I sat down and plucked out some classical piece. Someone asked, “Can you play something a little livelier?” I couldn’t. Now I can. 

Perhaps you've never heard of Martha Mier but if you're learning the piano you probably know her work. If you take a look on YouTube you’ll find thousands of videos of people playing her music, and not just hacks like me but quite a few accomplished pianists as well. Her music is so cool.


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