The Casual Blog

Tag: Olga Kleiankana

Some photography, a piano lesson, and the pain of golf

The weather here is getting hotter, but the last few days have been pleasantly mild.  I’ve been getting out early with my camera most mornings to see what’s going on in our local parks and gardens.   In the last few days I’ve been to Shelley Lake, Durant Park, Lake Johnson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, as well as Raulston Arboretum and Duke Gardens. I didn’t see any uncommon animal or plant life, but I thought some of the dying flowers looked pretty.  As is my usual procedure, I’m sharing here photos I made this week that were my favorites for the week.

I had my first post-retirement piano lesson with Professor Olga Kleiankina at her studio at NC State on Sunday.  I’ve been working on Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, with its thundering intensity and exotic lyricism. Olga coached me on touch and sound production, including more use of the back muscles, but she also diagnosed a fundamental problem: I was hearing things as I imagined them rather than as they were.  She thought I had failed to completely and fully listen. She noted that this is sometimes true of professional musicians, and further observed that if ever I learned to truly listen, I would no longer need a teacher.

As I told her, the idea of full on listening reminded me of a central aspiration of mindfulness — being fully present and attentive — which is also difficult to achieve.  Anyhow, I found helpful her ideas around listening and practicing slowly and carefully. She suggested that rather than a two hour lesson once a month, we meet for an hour every other week.  I was grateful that she doesn’t think it’s hopeless to try to help me, and am looking forward to climbing up to the next level.

I also took a golf lesson with Mike Sullivan at 401 Par Golf.  I hadn’t seen Mike since last fall, and in the meantime had developed a fairly bad case of the yips in trying delicate shots close to the green.  Mike is a very upbeat guy and knows a lot about golf.  He had some good ideas for chipping, and I’m hoping to see improvement now that I have a more time to practice.

My feelings about golf are certainly mixed. It is, of course, associated with privilege and elitism, and so sits uncomfortably with my concerns for fairness and social justice.  It is far from eco-friendly. It is generally expensive. It’s frustrating. And it sounds like a sad cliche for a guy to be retiring to play golf.

But, that said, there are things about the game that are worth defending.  Like every sport, it has its moments of drama and humor. Unlike most sports, it has as an essential component the values of honesty and integrity.  It can help build friendships and cooperation. It is beautiful, both in its landscapes and kinetic arcs.

And at every level of play, it demands of the player a mix of intellectual, physical, and moral qualities.   It poses challenges that potentially make us better. It’s unfortunate for the game that the current American President is such a golf lover and super-sized example of dishonesty, immorality, and stupidity, but let’s just consider him the exception that proves the rule. 

Gabe and I have been getting out for a game most weekends, and it’s been inspiring to see him dramatically improve his game.  With some putting improvements, he may soon be breaking 80.  For me it will be a longer, tougher journey, but still, I look forward to it.

Canoes at Umstead Park


A lovely Friday cocktail, Bill Cunningham, the anti-gay vote, David Brooks’s The Social Animal, learning to listen while playing the piano

How nice it is to have a cocktail and relax at home on Friday evening! Of course, strong drink must be handled with care. A glass of wine with dinner is certainly a pleasure, but the habit can sneak up on you, and a glass of wine can so easily turn into three.

A few weeks back, Sally and I decided to limit drinking to weekends. Among other good effects, this makes the Friday evening drink particularly delightful. Last night, Sally made us margaritas with fresh lime. For the first time in years, I had a sudden urge to listen to Stevie Wonder hits from the seventies, which we now can easily stream from Rhapsody. I dedicated my streaming of the wonderful Signed, Sealed, Delivered to my sweet Sally.

We watched a documentary called Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham is a photographer whose specialty is candid shots of New Yorkers wearing interesting clothes. He has a feature in the Sunday NY Times style section in which he shows this week’s street fashion trend, which, although I’m far from a fashion person, I always enjoy looking at. But I didn’t know him by name, and would have missed the documentary but for Sally’s putting it at the top of the Netflix queue.

It was sweet and kind of inspiring. Cunningham is in his mid-80s. He’s still snapping pictures all the time (using 35 mm film), publishing weekly in the Times, and travelling by bicycle on the streets of Manhattan. Age may have slowed him down a bit, but he’s still passionately creative. He’s got a great, boyish smile.

We voted in the North Carolina primary this week, which involved primary races for governor, secretary of agriculture, and various other offices, and an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Why a gay marriage ban? It’s mysterious, and bizarre. I am stunned that it passed by a 20-point margin. Raleigh, the part of North Carolina in which I spend most days is multi-cultural and tolerant, with a visible and completely uncontroversial gay population. (I blogged about this visibility a while ago.) But most of the state is rural. What is going on in the heads of homophobes? I’d like to understand, but I don’t get it. It’s a different culture. I believe that that culture is eventually going to change, but for now it’s still alive and kicking.

Speaking of culture, I’ve been reading The Social Animal, by David Brooks, the NY Times conservative columnist. Brooks has collected recent ideas on psychology and culture, including those of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, and woven them into a readable and, in places, intriguing book. The theme, which is getting considerable attention lately, is that people are primarily driven by unconscious perceptions and desires, rather than rational thought.

But Brooks views this in a positive light, arguing that although our brains make all kinds of mistakes, they work better than a completely rational system running in real time could. He argues that behavior is best viewed as a function of those around us and our surrounding environments rather than of individual intelligence, and proposes that we think about meaning more in terms of relationships and cultural systems. I don’t much like his device of two imaginary characters who gradually discover or rub up against the various theories he explores; the characters never really come to life. But I think it’s worthwhile — I’m more than half way through, and likely to finish.

On Saturday I had my last piano lesson of the season with Olga Kleiankana, who’s headed to Moldova for the summer. We talked about some Rachmaninoff and Scriabin pieces for me to work on over the summer, and then worked on Scriabin’s second prelude (op. 11). Olga admitted that it sounded significantly better, but pointed out places where the tone seemed flat. She continued to emphasize the importance of gesture in sound production and expression, and when pedaling problems emerged she taught me how to test out pedaling improvements.

Then I played Debussy’s Second Arabesque for her for the first time. She pointed out that I seemed to be reading note by note, when many of the elements were repeated with slight variations. As she went through a quick score analysis, I had a eureka moment: score analysis was not designed to torture hapless students, but rather to make it possible to understand and learn music more quickly and effectively.

Finally I played Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, from Images, premiere serie. This is a gorgeous impressionist piece that calls to mind (especially after hearing the title) reflections in water. It has dazzling effects, some of which are difficult. Olga noticed that I got tense in my shoulders in the fast 32nd-note passages, and advised me that that could be fixed by breaking the passages into simple parts for practice. We also talked about the relationship of touch and tone color. At one point, I played a simple chord, and she said, with a pained expression, “Don’t just play the notes! You need to always think before you touch the keys!”

And she was serious. She listens with a level of concentration that’s almost scary, and expects me to at least try to do the same. I’m having occasional glimmerings of what this might be like. The sound seems richer, with more depth and detail. It’s like hearing in 3D. Of course, little flaws, like unbalanced chords or inappropriate accents, are more jarring. But when a musical statement works, it touches more deeply.

The Nutcracker and a piano lesson

We went to the Carolina Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker last week. Over the years, I’ve seen many Nutcrackers, from student productions to the NY City Ballet’s. In days gone by we used to listen to the Tchaikovsky music when we decorated the Christmas tree. I’ve never actually gotten sick of it, but a few years back I started to worry that it could happen. With the ballet music, just as earlier happened with the Brahms symphonies, I decided that I needed to be careful not to get so familiar as to lose the great joy of the thing. And so we hadn’t gone to the Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker for the last couple of years.

I’m glad we returned. The CB production was substantially upgraded with new sets and effects. I enjoyed the upgraded magic tricks in Act 1, and thought the costumes in the ball scene were opulent. Act 1 is the children’s act — with magic tricks and children playing, but not a lot of dancing. Act 2 is more for the grown-ups, with a variety of virtuosic classical dance. The leading female roles in the performance I saw were wonderful, including Lilyan Vigo as a regal Sugarplum Fairy, Jan Burkhard as an outgoing Dewdrop, and Lara O’Brien as an unusually poignant, melancholy Tea. The men seemed especially athletic (gravity-defying) this year, including a particularly impressive Richard Krusch and Nikolai Smirnov.

Before the show, we agreed to celebrate the occasion by relaxing as completely as possible and just drink in the production — that is, clear the mind of everything except the beauty in the moment. We mostly succeeded. There were a couple of rough spots with the props, including the giant book with the false back that didn’t quite get closed in time. The sound quality from the live orchestra coming through speakers was less than excellent. But mostly we were swept away to a beautiful, magical place.

We met up with Lola and her boyfriend, Rodrigo, after the show, and learned that she’d had to switch roles at the last minute and, due to another dancer’s health problem, perform in a position she’d never done before. She said it was one of the least enjoyable shows of her life, because it took so much work, and was very far from solid. Of course, none of that was visible to us — she looked great. It was good, though, to be reminded of how hard the performers work to create the appearance of effortlessness.

At my piano lesson last week, Olga touched on this point. I’ve been bringing at least some memorized music to our lessons, and from time to time memory glitches occur. To fix this, part of her approach is to minimize dependence on muscle memory and build security through harmonic analysis. At the same time, she recommends thinking about the movements of the arms, wrists, and fingers as choreography — that is, gestures that have beauty separate from the beauty of the sound (but contributing to it). Planning the gestures and getting them ingrained is part of learning the piece.

At the lesson I began with Chopin’s mazurka opus 63, no. 3 (c sharp minor). (It’s unfortunate that great composers of the Romantic period passed on giving their works names. With 51 published mazurkas, it’s hard even for musicians to keep them straight by number. I generally try to think of a name for the ones I learn. I think of this one as: Sharp Longing.) It has unusually strange, sad harmonies and dissonances. I managed to play it coherently, and was pleased that Olga noted some interesting and lovely things. But, she noted, there was still a lot of work to do.

It is daunting to face Olga’s listening powers. At one point she perceived, correctly, that I was not carefully listening to what I was doing. “You’re faking it,” she said. Note, I was playing the right notes, but not balancing them in a considered way. This is a high standard — not just playing right, but playing with deep understanding. She acknowledges that there are many possible ways to play a phrase, but it is not acceptable to just play the notes without understanding and feeling.

As best I can tell, she does not draw a sharp line between the physical, intellectual, and emotional aspects of playing the piano. She recommended that I think about touching the keys as though I were speaking, which I found helpful. She also forced me to consider carefully about how my thumb moved to contact a key as opposed to the other fingers. We also talked for a while about the role of the elbow in certain situations. Not to mention the wrists! And that’s before we even get to the form or the music, or what it is trying to say. After the mazurka, we worked on the Etude Op. 25, No. 1, and Debussy’s Reverie. At the end, I felt tired, but inspired: there’s so much more challenging, beautiful music ahead.