The Casual Blog

Tag: piano

Dodging the hurricane, music therapy, and photo processing

A tiny lizard last week at Durant Park

Hurricane Florence got our full attention in Raleigh this week.  I usually take storm warnings with a large grain of salt, since there’s usually a lot of media hype in a feedback loop with people’s tendency to exaggerate certain kinds of danger.  But early projections showed a storm big enough to cover North Carolina with powerful winds and massive amounts of water, with the eye headed right towards here. We got extra food, charged our batteries, and filled the bathtub with water.  Sally’s sister Ann, who lives in Wilmington, heeded the official calls to evacuate, and came to stay with us.

The storm hit Wilmington hard, but then turned south and west, dumping record amounts of rain and causing widespread flooding.  In Raleigh, we got rain, but not in dramatic quantities. We had time to talk and do indoorsy things.

Like playing the piano — some Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Bartok.  Why I enjoy this isn’t so clear.  There’s close to zero chance that making music will improve my economic or social status.  And there are negatives — periods of social isolation, time lost for other things, and possibly annoying the neighbors.

Part of the answer was suggested in a podcast I heard a while back about music therapy, which was being used in hospices to help dying people.  Most days just by playing I give myself some music therapy, relieving stress and anxiety, finding comfort and peace. But at the same time it’s challenging and energizing. Also, at times there are new discoveries, leaps across space and time, engaging with great musical minds of times past.  

Lately I’ve also been learning to play by ear.  This was not a part of my early musical training, and with so much else to learn about the written language of music and technique, I just didn’t get around to it.  But it turns out to be fun. There are large quantities of children’s songs, hymns, and assorted pop tunes rattling around in my head, and it’s entertaining to try them in different keys and styles.  I’m looking forward to sharing the songs of my childhood with my future grandchildren.

Because of the rain this weekend, I did not get outside with my camera, but I spent some time looking at and refining recent images.  These last few weeks I’ve been getting help from D.A. Wagner, a/k/a The Lightroom Guy, in getting my digital photo files organized and improving my Lightroom and Photoshop processing skills.   My processing typically involves cropping and experimenting with small variations in exposure, tone, and color in different parts of the image.  D.A. recently gave me some helpful ways to approach spot removal and similar edits, some of which I used with these pictures.  

 

Getting some lessons

On Saturday morning I had another swimming lesson with Eric and worked more on my butterfly stroke.  It’s a very different way of moving through the water, and not easy to get your head around.  It surely does get the heart rate up.  I can now do intervals of 50 meters without being disqualified or dying, which I consider an accomplishment.

While figuring out the butterfly, I’ve been working with Eric on refining my freestyle, breast stroke, and back stroke, which are all by comparison quite relaxing.  It recently came into focus that swimming has always been for me a struggle  — at bottom, a thing to do to keep from drowning.  And now, finally, through the struggle to be a butterflyer,  I’m finding it can actually be fun.  

I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten even this far without a skilled teacher helping me.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  if you want to learn a complex skill,  find a good teacher.  There’s no substitute for having a guide in difficult unknown terrain.  You may get to where you’re going without a teacher — now and again people do — but you’d have to be more-than-ordinarily lucky.   

For this reason, I’ve continued getting lessons on the golf swing from Jessica at GolfTec, and had another this weekend.  We talked about hips, shoulders, and wrists.  Jessica knows a lot about the swing, and she also has helpful technology tools — sensors, computers, and video. I’m seeing improvement, both in my measurements and in how the ball flies, and I understand a lot more about how a good golf swing works.  But it’s hard to change ingrained habits.  When you fix one problem, you may create another.  I’m starting to understand that although there is improvement, there is never perfection.

I was hoping to also have a piano lesson this weekend, but Olga said she was too busy.  With a new baby, a full teaching load, and concert commitments, that’s understandable, but I was disappointed.  Among other things, I’ve been working on Chopin’s famous Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, and I’m eager to get her take on it.  Recently I had a minor epiphany that there would never be a point when her response to my playing would be:  that’s perfect, and there’s no way it could be improved.  In the great classical tradition there are always new possibilities and new things to be explored.  

Enjoying the Olympics, a short scuba trip, and a piano lesson

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We can go literally for years without any special yearning to watch gymnastics, swimming, or beach volleyball. Yet every four years, like a periodic cicada, our inner fan emerges, and we are rapt before the summer Olympics. Of course, it is annoying to watch the same advertisements over and over, and listen to the commentators’ unhelpful hype and drivel. But the athletes are stupendous! It makes you proud to be part of the same species. All that drive and dedication, for years and years, and then the ultimate mastery at the decisive moment. It makes you wonder how much more each of us might be capable of.
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These photos are from our diving trip last week out of Wrightsville on the wrecks of the Gill and the Hyde. The water was murky — only 10 feet of visibility in places. But we still saw a lot of life, including sand tiger sharks, barracuda, and lots of little fish. On the Hyde, about 80 feet down, I lost Sally and Gabe near the end of the dive, as can so easily happen in poor visibility. Then I couldn’t find the anchor line, which was the planned route back to the boat. My air was getting low, and it occurred to me that things might turn out really badly. But I surfaced in an orderly manner and found the boat close by, and family safely aboard.
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Last week I had my last piano lesson with Olga for a while, since her baby is soon to arrive. We worked on Liszt’s Sospiro and Chopin’s first Intermezzo. As usual, she made me listen more closely, and think about new musical possibilities. And as always, there were little technical issues to address. For a long time now, she’s been trying to make me practice each hand separately. The idea is to get out in the open the little rough spots, and also to allow for the hands to have separate personalities. I’ve quietly resisted this kind of practice, because it just isn’t that much fun. I’ve decided, though, to make a point of it. I like getting better.

My Saturday: dog care, the arboretum, spinning, piano, golf, and Chinese food

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Sally went to Greensboro this week with her tennis team to play in the state championship, so I took over the primary dog duties – walking, feeding, and petting. Stuart, our friendly Beagle-Bassett mix, dropped into our life as a rescue pup 13 years ago, and grew up to become the best dog ever. In the last few months he has lost a lot of his sight and almost all of his hearing. But he still loves his walks, his food, and being petted. And I like petting him. It’s warm and calming.
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On Saturday morning, after taking care of Stuart and Rita (the cat), I went up to Raulston Arboretum with my camera. It had rained all night and stopped shortly before I got there. The garden was very lush, and the plants were glistening. There was hardly anyone else there, so I felt particularly privileged to see these beautiful blooms at their moment of perfection.

From the arboretum, I drove to Cameron Village to take a spin class at Flywheel with the peppy Vashti. She announced she was getting married next week, and seemed particularly energized. I battled hard with another rider for second place. My final score was 311, two points ahead of my rival. My average heart rate at 155, and my sweat was copious.
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That afternoon I worked on my photos in Lightroom, started writing an op-ed piece about transgender issues, and practiced the piano. I’m memorizing some gorgeous lyrical music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and trying to master some challenging flying Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. For some time, I’ve been meaning to do some recording of my interpretations, which I will share on YouTube if I ever do.
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Afterwards, I went up to Golftec to practice my swing and check the results on their video monitors. After several weeks of lessons with Jessica, I’ve succeeded in eliminating some of my old, bad habits, and I understand a lot more about the elements of an effective swing, but my muscles are resistant to doing what’s needed. It’s discouraging. It could be that I’m close to the promised land, but I also might just be starting out on a long sojourn in the wilderness. It has occurred to me that it might be best to chuck it. But I still enjoy practicing and the beauty of the game, so I’m planning to forge on, at least for a while.
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Sally’s team won some and lost some, finishing in the middle of the pack, and she came home in the afternoon. For dinner we tried out a new restaurant in the neighborhood, China-O. Back in the day, Chinese was our favorite ethnic food, but then we moved on to other ethnicities, like Thai, Japanese, and Indian. China-O seems to be a sister of the adjacent Sushi-O, with similar mod decor, and seems to be emphasizing the Szechuan style. There were plenty of vegetarian options. Our dishes were spicy and delicious, and we’ll be going back.
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Our Thanksgiving – spinning, piano, football, eating, and talking about terrorism

Mowgli Tiller

Mowgli Tiller

Thanksgiving morning, after I walked the dogs and read the newspapers, Jocelyn and I went to Flywheel for a spin class – our first together, and her first Flywheel experience. After getting the bike adjusted and bike shoes clipped in, the music started, loudly. I pushed hard, in a close battle for first place, and ended with a score of 325 – 10 ahead of the nearest male competition (and well behind one amazing woman). It was my first ever first, and I was kind of proud! Jocelyn also did well, staying well out of the cellar.

That afternoon, I practiced the piano with a view to getting ready for a lesson with Olga on Sunday. I’ve been working on several challenging and beautiful pieces, including Liszt’s Un Sospiro, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau, and Schumann’s Arabesque. I’ve also finally felt strong enough to take on Liszt’s powerful Vallee d’Oberman. I think I’ve gotten off a plateau and climbed a bit higher. My playing lately feels more technically secure, and also more fluid and imaginative. Olga has certainly been a wonderful guide and inspiration. The meta lesson she gives is simple in concept, but hard to do: listen, listen, listen, more closely, and then more closely still.
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Then Jocelyn and I watched most of the Carolina Panthers v. Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers were 10 and 0 coming in to the game, a streak that had caught my interest and turned me into a fair weather fan. Jocelyn said that the Panthers were considered underdogs, which we agreed seemed disrespectful, and we were particularly happy to see them score early and go on to win decisively. Eleven and 0!

For Thanksgiving dinner, Jocelyn, a former professional bartender, created a new cocktail that she dubbed Apple Pie Manhattan, which involved infusing bourbon with apple, vanilla and cinnamon, and adding maple syrup, and dry Vermouth. It was delicious! Sally’s sister, Annie, brought Diane and her friend Debbie over, and Sally served a righteous butternut squash soup, black rice, and Mexican lasagna. Just like the Pilgrims!
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We spent part of the meal discussing politics, and debated whether Obama had been sufficiently forceful in opposing the anti-refugee backlash, and whether Trump had gone from being a mildly entertaining fool to being an instrument of evil. By using his media platform to demonize Muslims, he’s giving permission and energy to a large racist element of the population. The Times had a report on New Yorkers harassing and spitting on Muslim women, which is appalling and frightening.

At the same time, there seems to be a growing consensus that the solution to the terrorist threat is a coalition of nations to wipe out ISIS. This seems to me a bad strategy. We’ve spent the last 14 years using bullets and bombs trying to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban, without success. Indeed, our military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq helped spawn al Qaeda v. 2 – ISIS.

The source of terrorist violence is not particular individuals who can be killed, but social conditions, like poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism, which produce feelings of alienation, desperation, and rage. When we kill one terrorist, we inspire new ones to swear vengeance and take up arms, and the cycle repeats. If we obliterate ISIS, without social change, there will be a successor to ISIS. Bullets and bombs will never work.

I wonder if there is already a good name for our tendency to insist on a direct or even violent solution to a scary problem, even when part of us can recognize that there’s no quick fix. If not, there should be, because we do it over and over. I suggest calling it Fear Control Activity Disorder. The person or society with this disorder seeks to overcome a feeling of fear with a feeling of control by taking action that is dramatic though unlikely to address the actual source of the fear. We crave the feeling of being in control, and insist on seeking control even when it’s objectively unachievable. The disorder could account for a lot of our military adventures, our overimprisonment of criminals, and our overspending on medical goods and services.
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This Saturday: irises, exercise, protest riots, Schoenberg, Indian food, and soccer

Iris, Raulston Arboretum, May 2, 2015

Iris, Raulston Arboretum, May 2, 2015

As usually happens when I travel, I picked up about three pounds, which I’d very much like to drop. Three isn’t a lot, but it can so easily become six, or twelve. And it’s so much easier to add than to subtract! With reducing in view, I’ve been focussing my exercise recently on fat burning, adding 15 minutes to my usual 30 of morning cardio, along with the usual resistance, core, and stretching. I’ve been doing various combinations of machines (elliptical, stairs, rowing, treadmill), classes (spinning, yoga), and outdoor running. On Saturday morning, I considered spinning at Flywheel or yoga at Blue Lotus, and decided to go to O2 for an aerobic martial arts-type class.

But first I went up to Raulston Arboretum, getting there a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. The big story this week was irises of various colors, boldly blooming, and still dewy when I got there. I spent an hour strolling and trying to capture their spirit, and then headed to the gym.

The exercise class was called Body Attack, and involved an hour of rhythmic footwork, punching, and kicking, to a throbbing club-type beat. I’m a highly non-violent person in real life, but I must admit, shadow boxing with a group is fun. I succeeded in sweating a lot and getting my heart rate into the mid-150s, and avoided either accidentally kicking or being kicked.
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After showering back home, I drove out to Cary for a haircut with Ann S, my hair cutter of many years. I always enjoy talking with Ann about our families and doings. Part of her news this time was sad: their 14-year-old dog had to be put to sleep this week. The diagnosis was liver failure. I mentioned that I’d been thinking of our sweet Stuart’s mortality (as I noted last week), and we both struggled to articulate what is lost when a beloved pet goes.
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On the way back to Raleigh, I stopped at Swift Creek Bluffs for a walk in the woods. It was muddy from recent rains, and most of the wildflowers were gone, but things were green and lively. The creek was burbling, and a wood thrush sang brilliantly. I ran into Matt J., a fellow photographer who knows a ton about wildflowers, and we talked about plants and cameras. I saw this little guy:

Swift Creek Bluffs, May 2, 2015

Swift Creek Bluffs, May 2, 2015

On the drive back, I made a stop at the Washaroo to get Clara a shower, and listened to NPR reports on the protest violence in Baltimore. I was not aware, since I almost never watch TV news, that the right-wing media had been demonizing the protests. That’s crazy! I think I have a pretty good idea why Baltimore’s poor blacks (like those in Ferguson and many other cities) were angry. I learned a lot from Alice Goffman’s excellent book, On the Run, which vividly lays out what it means to live in a city (in her case, Philadelphia) where the police take the view that you are either a criminal or potential criminal and constantly harass and intimidate you.

It’s a harsh reality. It is unusual to be able to have a normal job, a loving family, and a comfortable place to live, and usual to face violence from both police and gangs, poverty, and betrayal. A legal system organized around criminalizing recreational drugs and draconian punishment for violators is a basic part of the problem, but there are other layers, including police militarization and racism. The people who are the victims of this system mostly suffer in silence, and so middle class America is mostly oblivious to the depth of the problem.

But that may be changing. When people destroy their own neighborhoods, it’s a wake up call – we at least know something is very wrong, and maybe we wonder what it is. I was cheered this week to read a news story that the leading presidential candidates on both sides agree that the system of mass incarceration for minor crimes needs to be turned around. Can our political system fix this humanitarian disaster? Repealing overly harsh sentencing laws and ending the war on drugs would be a good start.
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In the afternoon, I read some and practiced the piano. At the moment, I’ve got on the workbench polishing and memorizing Chopin’s Preludes in C and G, Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, Schumann’s Arabesque, Debussy’s Reverie, and Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 1, while working on my first music by Arnold Schoenberg – his Six Little Piano Pieces. Schoenberg wrote this in 1911 and uses his famous twelve-tone system, which systematically avoids traditional harmony. It’s highly angular music, and not easy to love, but seems much more approachable to me now. I’m finding strangely haunting melodies, and a sensuality not so far from Debussy’s.

On Saturday evening we went to see the Carolina Railhawks play Tampa Bay at the soccer park in Cary. We enjoy our soccer outings, but figuring out a food option has been challenging. There is no healthy vegetarian food on sale, and our system of smuggling in a sandwich went down last season when they began checking in bags at the gate (and we had to consume our Jimmy John’s veggie special standing in the parking lot). Sally had read a review of a new southern Indian vegetarian restaurant on Chatham Street just past the soccer park, and we tried it out before the game. At Sri Meenakshi Bhavan, the chaats were delicious, and there was a great selection of dosas. The décor was purely functional, and there was no alcohol, but the price for this marvelous food ($35 for two) was most definitely right.

At the game, it was a bit chilly, and we were glad we’d brought our sweaters. There were some exciting sequences, but I left displeased with the Railhawks’ sloppiness. We were fortunate to get away with a 1-1 tie. I’m hoping it was just an off night, and not a step down from the high level of play of last season. I was also displeased with the broadcasting of local advertising by a booming PA system during the course of play. There were several such ads in the second period, which were very annoying. Who thought this was a good idea? I intend to complain.

My three-hundredth post

Yates Mill Pond, October 11, 2014

Yates Mill Pond, October 11, 2014

Early Wednesday morning I saw the lunar eclipse. On Thursday I reinstituted my meditation practice after a long sabbatical. On Friday evening I attended an inspiring recital by the great pianist Richard Goode, and reconnected with several of my good piano friends. On Saturday, for the first (and possibly last) time, I finished first in my spin class at Flywheel, and happily read the front page headline of the first gay couples in North Carolina to experience legal wedded bliss. These would ordinarily be potential subjects for this week’s post. But this week is special, inasmuch as it’s the 300th edition of the Casual Blog.

Many moons ago, I set myself the goal of writing one post a week on my non-professional activities and thoughts, and that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I’ve been trying to think what to say about this milestone, and it occurred to me to explain why I create the Casual Blog, or what I get out of it. But if I’m honest, which I try to be, I must admit I’m still not completely sure.

I enjoy finishing a post, but starting one always involves a degree of existential dread. Once a week, I ask myself, do I have anything else worth saying/sharing, and I always worry that the answer is no, I’ve run dry. And so it was this week. But I’ve already succeeded in writing three paragraphs!

I generally dislike writing about writing, and now I’ve gone and done it. But onward! There’s some odd part of me that enjoys the exertion of forcing the buzzing blooming flood of experience into the narrow channel of language. Writing about an experience usually shows me something about the experience I hadn’t known before. And there is at times a joy in language that has less to do with the meaning than with pure sound.
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Then there’s always the struggle for understanding, for meaning. Things happen. Events flow out of other events, sometimes cohering in an orderly way, with pleasing patterns, and other times cracking and scattering. What does it all mean? Blogging will likely not yield an ultimate answer, but it creates a platform, a workbench for reviewing experience that yields new perspectives.

As with Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, we can’t observe and record our lives without changing them. That is, writing about one’s life changes the life. The imperative to make a post non-boring could lead to inauthenticity, but not necessarily. It could also inspire curiosity and get you out of your shell. The blogging commitment could lead to adventure!

Most important, there’s also the complicated sensation of communicating with another human. For the writer, the reader is ever-present as an as idea and concern, but almost never physically present. Without the reader, the writer would never write, but the connection is always tenuous. Who is the reader? Open or closed? Friend or foe? Can we connect? The writer in the act of writing is never certain.

And whenever we reach out to another human, trying to be honest, showing something about ourselves that’s real, there’s an element of risk. There’s a chance we’ll make total fools of ourselves. This gets the juices going. It’s kind of exciting. Actually, it is exciting!
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But it is also difficult. Whatever words are chosen means other words are not chosen. So many possible words, and possible choices, but whatever the choices, however good they are, others just as good will be excluded, sacrified. You know this when you start. But something still causes you to reach out, to explore, to experiment. There are satisfying little discoveries, and sometimes there’s evidence that you got through, made a connection.

So, you ask, what lies ahead for the Casual Blog? I really don’t know. Part of what I like about it is it’s voluntary, unnecessary, and contingent. It doesn’t have to be any particular thing, and could cease at any time. As I said, I’m always aware of the possibility of running dry, and I would stop posting if it stopped being fun. Or if my readers disappeared.

But part of me feels that I’m just getting well started, and I’m still enjoying experimenting and learning. If there were somehow more hours in the day, I could imagine writing a number of more specialized blogs, in addition to my professional writing. It would be fun to tend blogs on scuba diving, playing the piano, travel, global warming, opera, golfing, animal rights, ballet, political corruption, vegetarian restaurants, exercise, neuroscience, nuclear weapons, nature photography, poetry, artificial intelligence, the surveillance state, migratory birds, history, books I’m reading, etc. We shall see.

A monarch in downtown Raleigh, October 8, 2014

A monarch in downtown Raleigh, October 8, 2014

A forced break from piano playing, and thoughts on autodidacts and other learners

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After work on Friday I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to check on the flowers and insects. The rose garden was gone – nothing there but dirt. But there were still plenty of things growing, and bees and other insects hard at work. I particularly liked this uninhibited butterfly.
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It’s been a whole month now that I’ve been unable to play the piano. I’ve been following my hand doctor’s orders and keeping my fingers taped up, hoping that the torn ligament serving the middle finger of my right hand will heal. Practicing the piano every day is a habit of many years. While I wouldn’t say I’m going through withdrawal, I certainly don’t feel as happy and balanced as usual. Piano music is a big part of my life, and I miss it.

But I’m trying to stay positive. The hand will get better eventually, probably. And I’ve used some of the time freed up from practicing to do ear training exercises that should make me a better musician. I had some exposure to these in my student days, and learned enough to pass the theory course, but not enough to feel really competent. The reason I didn’t do more was, it’s more work than fun. But I see now how a richer understanding of intervals and harmony could help me as a sight reader and interpreter.

Anyhow, I’m learning something. It feels normal to me to continually be learning new things. I tend to think that being curious and having the stamina and gumption required to take on new intellectual challenges is itself a gift, bequeathed by my parents and their ancestors, and also a product of my friends, teachers, and the books and other information that shaped me. But how it works, and why not everyone gets it, are mysteries.
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There was a piece in Slate this week about education that suggested folks like me were outliers, “autodidacts,” and part of a minority able to learn without teachers, classrooms, and surrounding students. I suppose that’s possible. But I did not agree with the author’s premise that schools as they currently exist are optimal learning environments for most people. I suspect that as often as not schools destroy kids’ natural love of learning and at the same time fail to give them the tools they need to pursue their own learning paths.

So what is the best way to learn? Scientific American this month had a piece on recent research on this. The central idea was that we’ve done very little research into the most effective methods of helping people to learn. Instead we simply keep repeating traditional methods. The field of science-based education methods is still in its infancy, but there’s already enough to suggest that a lot of our methods are not very effective, and that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
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No illusions, but not disillusioned

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At my post-surgery eye checkup on Thursday, after being scanned, poked and peered at, I was happy to hear Dr. Mruthyunjaya declare, “I like what I’m seeing.” My retina was back where it was supposed to be. This doesn’t mean everything will be just fine. Vision in my left eye is quite blurry now, and it will be some months before we’ll know how much there will finally be. The likeliest answer is substantially less than before. But as Dr. M’s fellow, Dr. Martell, pointed out, even if there’s a lot of blur, it could still help with peripheral vision, and serve as a backup in the event of a right eye catastrophe.

Anyhow, it is what it is. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died this week at age 82. I have not read his work, but the Times obit made me think I might like it. It quoted Nadine Gordimer as saying he was “a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.” A good way to be.

I was also happy that Dr. M cleared me to resume exercising, though he suggested I wait another week before my next killer spin class. So early Friday morning, my usual spinning day, I happily did a functional fitness routine and a half hour on the escalator stairs. The stairs are a relatively new machine at O2 Fitness, and they are remarkably effective at pushing up your heart rate. As usual, while sweating away I listened to some opera (the incredible second act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro) with my MP3 device and read on my tablet device.

I reread some on the ideas of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, whose name is pronounced “Hite,” as I learned this week when I heard him give a lecture at Duke. My earlier thoughts on Haidt’s theory are here, but I’m still processing his big ideas, which point dramatically away from traditional political theory and its reliance on rationality. His TED talk on the differences in ethical systems between liberals and conservatives is a nice introduction to his theory.

As Haidt observes in the TED talk, there are two types of people: those who like new ideas and experiences and those who prefer the safe and familiar. He notes that the latter are the people who like to eat at Applebee’s.

On Thursday Sally and I tried for the second time to eat at a new restaurant in our neighborhood, Dos Taquitos, and again failed. The place was cheerily hopping but the wait time was too long for us, so we went down Glenwood Avenue to the uncrowded Blue Mango for some Indian food. We had a delicious meal featuring masaledar allo gobhi (cauliflaur and potatos) and eggplant bhartha. We couldn’t finish it, and I asked for a take-home box, which I carefully prepared and then accidentally left on the table. Darn!

For more new musical ideas, I had a piano lesson with Olga on Saturday morning. It was invigorating! I played Liszt’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love) No. 3, a famously beautiful piece (here played wonderfully by Evgeny Kissin). She gave me a massive compliment, and I quote: “Wow!” She thought I’d vastly improved, and was getting a richer sound. But of course, it can always be better. We worked on getting a more stable connection between the body and the instrument, including not just the fingers, but also the back and the core. She showed me on a type of touch involving a very relaxed hand with mostly arm movement. She also gave me some new ideas on pedaling, including using a slow, slightly delayed release. As she noted, it makes magic.
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How to learn to play the piano

My working days are long, interesting, and often stressful. It’s hard on the brain. To refresh, most evenings I spend a little time playing music on the piano. It works. After a few minutes, my load has magically lifted.

For as far back as I can remember, I thought that the piano was an amazing thing. On holidays when my older cousins play Chopsticks and Heart and Soul on my grandmother’s spinet, I was (in retrospect, ridiculously) transported. I looked so simple, a black box, quite plain, but it produced music. All you had to do was press some buttons. But I quickly learned, when I tried pressing the buttons, it was harder than it looked.

Eventually I learned to play. In my less-than-perfect way, I’ve played the music of giants, running the genius of Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and many others straight into my head and out again, through my fingers, onto the keys, onto the strings, and into my ears, and sometimes the ears of friends. I learned the fundamentals of jazz and played the great songs of Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, and many others. Every Christmas, I play some carols and also some truly awful stuff that makes me smile, like The Christmas Song by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Another guilty pleasure for me is reading through transcriptions of Strauss waltzes and the marches of John Philip Sousa. It’s fun.

Of course, as they say, there’s no accounting for taste, and to each his own. But the piano accommodates an amazing range of musical expression. If you can’t immediately find a musical collaborator who likes the music you care about, no problem. You can approximate a full orchestra, melody and harmony, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, all by yourself. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

This is the unfortunate thing: it’s a complicated skill and takes a considerable amount of time and effort to learn. In an age when we are accustomed to instant gratification, the gratification of playing the piano is highly delayed. You need to program your brain for several new skill sets. Reading music is a bit like reading a foreign language, which is hard enough, but you need to read it vertically, on two staffs, as well as horizontally. The sign system has many odd symbols, like sharps and flats, and double sharps and flats. You have to learn about meter and rhythm and tempo. You also have to learn bits of Italian, French, and German.

All this is separate and apart from another big challenge: how to touch the right keys rather than the wrong ones. And even that is not the whole story. You can touch the right keys, but in the wrong way, and make sounds that resemble the music, but aren’t really it. In other words, making real music requires more than just playing the notes. It requires getting in touch in a deep way with what the music is, and learning how to translate thought and bodily energy into sound that in turn evokes feeling.

Although learning all this was, in retrospect, an amazing challenge, I have to say, I always liked it. When I played beginner pieces, I thought they sounded good, and when I played intermediate student pieces, I thought they sounded good. Because they were at always just beyond the edge of the skills I had at the time, they were challenging and involving, and I felt a sense of accomplishment when I mastered them. So what might sound like a dreary journey actually had many wonderful episodes.

So what is the secret to learning the piano? Everyone already knows part of it: you’ve got to practice. By practice, I mean a concentrated daily devotion to the musical problems before you. If you’re working, as I am at the moment, on Un Sospiro, a gorgeous piece by Liszt, you will need to use skills you’ve built over a period of years, and also some new skills that are not in your repertoire. For these, you need time in the workshop, like an inventor trying to solve a technical problem. It’s lonely work at times, but then there are satisfying breakthroughs. Practice means asking many questions: what is the the best way to play each note, each chord, each phrase, and all the phrases of the piece? The process is potentially endless.

So if you understand the meaning of practice, how do you get yourself to do it? You need to start with a strong sense of purpose. It takes a full-hearted resolve. And then you need to figure out how to fit thirty minutes a day or so in for the work. And then, stay with it, week after week, month after month, year after year. Eventually, it becomes a habit. At that point, there’s a shift, and instead of being hard to do it, it’s hard not to do it.

But it can’t be a mindless habit. You have to somehow keep it fresh and stay mentally engaged. This is a separate challenge, and for this you will almost certainly need a good teacher. As I noted in my last post, you should find a good teacher for any complex skill, but you’d be making a big mistake to invest a lot of energy into playing the piano without a teacher. You’d waste precious time and probably be so frustrated you’d ultimately give up.

You always remember your first teacher. My first piano teacher, Mrs. McGee, had white hair, bad breath, and hands that were red and scaly, like lobster claws. I was 12 when I started with her. In her living room, where I waited for her to finish with the student ahead of me, she had a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines, which I perused with great interest. But eventually it would be time for the lesson. And I would learn something I never knew before.