PLAYING LIKE A CALLIOPE -- IN A BAD (BUT INNOCENT?) WAY
Updated: Oct 12
Calliopes are usually associated with the joyful experiences of riding on colorful and fanciful merry-go-rounds when we are children. A number of music composers have pieces in their children's albums entitled and reminiscent of the music played by just that magical mechanical wonder.
But playing compositions mechanically like calliope music (which could be said to sound like Musak music) -- especially pieces by composers from my favorite Romantic Era when melody and gorgeous harmonies reigned -- gets boring, at best. At worst it fails to honor the composer's brilliance and intention to reach deeply inside and gift us with pure musical bliss.
As badly as I feel when I let myself down by playing mechanically "like a calliope," not to mention disappointing any piano teacher whom I deeply respect, I hate to misrepresent the composer. I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to those who hear far more than I could ever hope to hear of the angelic melodies that populate the heavens* and, accompanied of course, by a deep study and understanding of music and composition theory, are miraculously plucked down to earth in the pen of composers of the music we most love.
It only took16 months of piano lessons as a returning adult in May 2019, to figure out how not to play like a calliope!
WAYS TO NOT SOUND LIKE A CALLIOPE:
Three or so months into lessons with my third piano teacher, they played Amy Beach's children's album waltz in a non-calliopic way. The piece sounded with a different tone and dynamic heard almost note-to-note. There were interesting swells of dynamics; minute and appropriate rubato pushed and pulled the rhythm, and phrasing became distinct to my ear.
The teacher suggested a story line to enhance my dull and visionless interpretation, and it led to my own vivid mental image as I played in a new way.
Because I really heard how my accomplished piano teacher played it, the next day in practice I was able to mimic or approximate it, and both of us were gobsmacked; "a night and day" difference my teacher said in response to the recording I sent for feedback. I was thrilled! (You can find my recording posed, by clicking the navigation button or scrolling to the "Women and Music" section of my home webpage).
A CAUTION ABOUT ACCEPTING ANYONE ELSE'S "INTERPRETATION":
My new interpretation sounded better than any other pianist's rendition I had previously found on YouTube. That included a doctoral student's final performance for an advanced music degree, and a performance by the director of a college music department!
With this adventure in YouTube, I learned yet another lesson. Nevermore shall I take at face value any YouTube presentation nor be swayed by "credentials" of the pianist interpreting a piece I am working on or want to learn. Nor shall I be swayed even by the playing by a composer of his own composition. For example, I really don't like how Khachaturian so cavalierly and without feeling plays his own poignant composition, "Ivan's Song" (aka "Andantino"), one that I so adore! Even a composer friend agreed with me when I referred it to him to take a listen. "Proof" he said, "of how a composer is sometimes the worst interpreter of his own composition!"
ANOTHER WAY NOT TO SOUND LIKE A CALLIOPE:
A few days ago I was gobsmacked when another approach came to mind to avoid sounding like calliope music when playing an arpeggiated etude No. 15 in "25 Etudes Op. 36" by French composer Lousie Farrenc (1804-1875). I had been playing it for 10 months but never had had feedback from a teacher. Less than a week ago I pulled out the score once more, and started to memorize it to add to my repertoire. Nice, but no cigar; something was missing, but what? It then occurred to me that there well may be a melody line in this Romantic Era piece, just as there so typically is in pieces by other composers from this era and genre of music. Why had I missed it?
But where was it lurking? I decided to play through the etude and start by emphasizing the top most note in the right hand. That meant more work for my right pinky which was already in rather delicate shape from hand tendinitis striking precipitously and painfully last April. However over the past six months and by now pain had disappeared and discomfort was rare. I limited my practice as I do these days to only a few repetitions and then I stand up and do other things before returning some hours later to practice some more, but never in an excess of 15 minutes at a time.
So I set out to find the melody -- and about fell over! I started to hear a melody that for all these months I had skillfully hidden from the ear by playing what Horowitz might have called "like a typewriter"* and what I call like "mechanical calliope music." At first I overly emphasized the top most note, trying to suss the melody out. Then I played as in the past in order to hear the comparison in the recordings, then I played somewhere in the middle, testing how loudly I should play the melody vs. how softly to play the left hand supporting arpeggios. I asked my partner Ron and my friend Joe for feedback. Ron was used to hearing me play it all the same, so he initially liked that version better. Joe wasn't definitive in his preference, and asked me to record and send him only the melody line.
Recently I recorded it again bringing out the melody line, and thought about Joe's request. It gave me the idea to listen to my newest recording and hum or vocalize at the same time, in order to clearly identify the melody line.
Humming the melody is an idea that my last piano teacher had suggested, as well as Noa Kageyama in the Psych Essentials class I took in January. I sat this very morning at breakfast and must have done so about ten times, the melody becoming more and more clear. And of course I sent this recording to composer/teacher Garreth Brooke and asked if during my November zoom class we could discuss my efforts?
As I hummed the melody, I developed a distinctly religious feeling and I felt tears start to well up. It was as if Farrenc had written this as a kind of adoration, or church piece. Now a "story" of sorts was developing that could inform my feeling as I play!
I emailed my latest recording to Garreth and told him that the idea to sing the melody line and bring it out, also came from learning his piece, "Loving" (recorded in this blog). Several months ago in a zoom lesson, he had given me some ideas about how to start learning his piece, which involves an evident top line melody in the right hand, along with an arpeggiated and beautiful harmony in the left hand, continuing up to the thumb and second finger in the right hand.
In that way "Loving" is similar to the Farrenc Etude, as I realized!
Since I use this blog mostly as a record of my journey as an adult amateur coming back to the piano and into a slowly improving pianism, I'll not be shy but post the newest and imperfect recording here and also on my Facebook page under my name "Ann Grogan." After all (I tell myself), it's progress and not perfection that I should expect of myself! (Wix does not support posting of MP3 recordings inside their blogs -- and it's beyond time for them to provide that service!)
Because I have not yet quite locked down the piece in my memory, there are a few glitches, but there is now definitely a melody line along with which I can easily hum -- and I'll bet that you can too! Now I'll see how to soften the left hand a bit more and add more inflection and phrasing to bring out the soft sweetness I hear inside my head, and I'll be back with an improved, memorized version in the near future.
* * *
*THE MYSTERY (From Vol.1 "Poetical Musings")
Ah! The mystery of it,
The composer’s soul,
Her talents and vision,
A story foretold.
His drive and his goal,
Then both enmeshed:
Technique and the dream,
With both he is blessed.
Where do they get it?
The mystery unfolds,
There’s only one answer,
That I now behold.
All melodies exist
Floating in air,
But not yet exposed.
So one day she hears
A gossamer thread,
Reaches to the skies
Where her ear has led.
Grasps at the thread,
And gently tugs down,
This thread then another,
‘Til many abound.
Then relying on grace
With undeniable talent,
She weaves a fine carpet,
Her time well spent.
But who is beneficiary,
The composer, or us?
Who flies on the carpet?
The listener, of course!
We mount to the skies
On her inspired grace,
His vision completed,
The circle in place.
TYPEWRITER PIANISM (From Vol II)
I shouldn’t like to “play like a typewriter” as dear Horowitz proclaimed, about how some pianists pluck the strings in a style he so disdained. He meant the attack of a pianist’s touch that transmitted not one whiff of spirit, but elicited recoil and Horowitz’s gentle fit. I’m pretty sure that’s not my sin, nor hunt and peck my style. I’ve feeling galore but need much more to practice tempo with The General,* then learn to bring a finer touch to make my melody sing, and tampen down the bass-most parts to delicate nuances bring.
*Nickname I gave my metronome shortly after sighing,
then eventually agreeing with my piano teacher
to use it regularly in practice.
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