Sunday, March 27, 2005

Musings on Playing Piano

Happy Easter. We've succeeded in actually wearing out Chester from having a few friends over for a nice Easter dinner. He now has assumed his typical evening position on the floor of my home office.

This morning I played the piano at the "sunrise" service at our church (8AM). I accompanied my Wife (a professional singer) on a simple call to worship piece, and then I played 6 hymns.

Again, this was done on a piano. Most hymns are written to be played on an organ. The bottom notes in the "left hand" are really supposed to be played with the organ's foot pedals; on a piano, even my fingers with a pretty long extension are unable to bridge the intervals between the bass and tenor lines.

It's so interesting...I'm a pretty good pianist. I've been playing since I was five, I have a BA in music where I studied at a well-known conservatory, and I often identify myself as a musician before I discuss things like my career or family. It's a pretty big part of my life. But playing church hymns is a totally different experience for me...I find it very difficult. What's so weird is that hymns are typically not as complex as the solo work I've done like Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, etc. The funny thing is that I never really learned how to sight-read. When I agreed to play the morning church service, I said to myself, "Sure - it will be a good excuse to practice a bit and get something ready to go for church." But man: I made mistakes all over the place. Something about the pressure I put on myself when helping others to make music. Solo piano is all about the soloist; if I make a mistake, I crash and burn myself and it's up to me to get myself out of the wreckage. With playing hymns, I think of all the people relying on the instrumentalist to get the notes and made me all nervous.

Couple that with the fact that I went out of town for five days during the week prior to Easter: it's no wonder I really didn't find much time to practice. Also...I muist admit I wasn't really motivated with practicing. Playing hymns with no singers around is BORING! I enjoy singing hymns a great deal (especially when there's a chance to harmonize), but playing them on the piano...YAWN.

In all honesty, once I got through the interlude to each piece and the congregation started singing, it really didn't matter. No one could hear the piano, and most of these folks knew all of the tunes. And more important, I do love Easter with the upbeat music and messages of starting over and renewal. It's truly one of my favorite times of year at church.

These musings on piano, they may relate to a notion I'm exploring in the theory section of my dissertation. As a decent pianist, and a quasi-composer too, it's hard to NOT play well in front of others and feel "out of my element" with something that is such an important, natural part of my personality. This notion of feeling "out of my element" with something I typically do well may arise in my research on Academic Identity. After all, I chose a different, non-musical, career path, partially for some of the reasons discussed in this post. And yet, how can it be that I still feel such a close connection and a have a relatively high level of skill for something that just doesn't sit entirely well with me? Something to ponder, I suppose.


Hugh said...

Playing hymns with no singers around is BORING!

What? WHAT??! You know I can't let that pass.

Rob said...

Tee hee. Hugh - I'm impressed you can actually play the keyboard with both your hands and your feet at the same time: remarkable! I can't get my brain around that. I think if I ever got comfortable enough playing them, then I'd enjoy the challenge of improvisation and flourish that I'll bet you've been doing for a long time. That's probably how I'd find the passion in playing hymns (I do enjoy singing them). Until then, give me Brahms or Chopin any day! :-)