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Back on the saddle again (Read 1383 times)

Offline esmusssein

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Back on the saddle again
« on: August 17, 2015, 08:15:28 PM »
Hi everyone,

I am new to this forum and need your advice. This will be long, so I apologize in advance and ask for your indulgence. My situation is quite unusual. I am European and used to be an advanced pianist, i.e. I attended the conservatory for 15 years and had earned two advanced degrees in piano performance (BA and the equivalent of an MA). The third and last one, which I presume would be called Diploma of Artist in English, or something like that, was all that remained. My main interests were Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff and had been able to play some really tough stuff! Unfortunately, when I was 18 years old, I was misdiagnosed with … tennis elbow and tendinitis due to repeated injury from playing. Another doctor even added a "torn deltoid muscle" to the list of ailments, but fortunately that diagnosis was soon proved to be wrong. They all told me to give up the piano altogether, or I would have to deal with pain and finger numbness for the rest of my life. I lingered on for another 5 years to at least finish something, and then, 23 years ago I stopped altogether. To say that it was a very very painful but presumably necessary decision is an understatement, and it still hurts. Nevertheless, my professional dream had always been to become something else, so I sold my beloved Schimmel, and I became a very successful something else. :)

Anyway, a few years ago, and after I had long concluded that my piano degrees were best suited as wall decoration, if they weren't a painful reminder, and I didn't even dare add them to my resumé, I began to have the same stupid symptoms again. This time around, however, I had moved to the US permanently, and my orthopedist was a) famous and b) tended to an NFL team. He took a look at me and told me that my problem was genetic spine degeneration and that he could fix it in a week!!!!! And it was true: it was degenerative disk disease, and a disk had been hitting a nerve due to posture, and that had been causing the symptoms. After a week of physical therapy that was it. Never had the problem again, and so long as I do my exercises, my spine doesn't bother me at all.

Anyway, I was also cleared for going back to the piano. It took me a few years to actually come to terms with what had happened, and three months ago I bit the bullet, bought a piano, and dug up my substantial score library. Things are really weird. My technique was obviously gone, and the first day my fingers felt weak, while the next day I had … lactic acid pain! However, things improved, I would say spectacularly, given what I had expected, and my muscle memory is impressive. The fact that I'm older, more mature, and have a minor in forensic anthropology, and a research interest in neuroscience have all allowed me to understand much much more, even be a better interpreter. And now I need your help because it's all overwhelming, and I don't know how to go about it.

I began with Hanon, but now I know there are two schools: one loves it, the other one hates it. I therefore stopped and thought I would dedicate the first three months getting reacquainted and playing pretty much anything I want, without reference to teachers or critics. :) I obviously take care when practicing. So here is what I've done so far in terms of going back to the past:

1) Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata which I played during my preliminary exam for my Bachelor's in Music one million years ago. It's in decent shape and in more or less correct tempo. I think I have a loooooooooooong way to go until I feel really good about it because I sometimes feel like a student and that I don't give it what I can.

2) Two of Schumann's Kinderszenen (nos. 1 & 7). These are decent enough to even be performed in front of humans in the hopes that they will not throw tomatoes at me. :)

3) Schubert's Impromptus opus 90 nos. 3 & 4. They were both my "trademarks" of sorts back when I played seriously. They are almost on tempo, but I don't think I would venture to perform them before humans yet. My dog seems to enjoy them though. :)

4) I played a little Bach (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Vol. 1) and Rameau (Allemande in A Minor). Of these, the Rameau is totally new to me and, I must admit, really hard! Yes, harder than the Moonlight Sonata or either Schubert, but I suspect this has to do with muscle memory than anything else.

I NEVER practice more than an hour, and I really started slow. I also NEVER practice without stretches before and after playing. I am also currently much more fit than I was as a teenager because I do bodybuilding, so my upper body looks much much different. So far I have not had a single symptom of pain or numbness. And if I have a problem, my orthopedist and chiropractor are a phone call away. Plus the US appears to be 50 years ahead of everyone else in Medicine.

Anyway, I would GREATLY appreciate any advice you may have on how to proceed and what to avoid. Do I need a teacher? I think I still know what I'm doing, but I may very well be making mistakes I shouldn't be. I would also appreciate it if you shared what kind of repertory I should be playing. Just, please, please, please, don't tell me I have to go back and play those hundreds of Czerny's Études I had to play from age 7 to 22!! Should I just focus on music that I like because that's exercise too, or should I go back to scales, Cortot, Behrens for Left Hand, Hanon, and Moscheles? I know I can get back to where I was, I feel it deep in my soul, but I have a long way to go, and I would really like to enjoy this.

Any ideas would be most welcome. And thanks for reading this too! :)

Offline indianajo

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #1 on: August 19, 2015, 02:50:47 AM »
Proper posture is important to spine health.  My mother popped a disk permanently due to a day of typing at an incorrect table and chair and posture at a new job, so this is very important. To play piano I was taught to sit straight up with my eyes out level at the music, hands drooping down from the elbows slightly with the wrists straight and the fingers arched.  I've been playing that way 57 years and no spine problems yet.  I see on the Ft Worth piano competition TV show all the finalists hunch over the keyboard like gnomes, and I think they are idiots.  Especially after looking at a factory ergonomics textbook.  Listen to your physician, and if you can find a teacher that sets up posture like mine did, listen to him/her.  I sat on a pad of hymnals until I grew enough to sit correctly on the bench, and if my bench didn't allow me that posture now, I'd cut the legs down or something with a saw.  
I found after a 16 year break from piano due to education and supporting myself, that my muscle tone had deteriorated but the memory of movements (many call muscle memory, it is the brain really) was fine.  I was fascinated with Scott Joplin at the time I went back, and all those octave stride chords are great for building up the strength in fingers 4,5 especially.  Besides, SJ is not boring.  I suppose Hanon and Czerny are great, but I already know how to rotate the wrist and all those physical tricks, so I didn't fool with them again when I went back to practice, either.  15 minutes of SJ rags 4 or 5 nights a week is my regular routine to maintain my arm strength, then if I have time and inclination, on to some piece more challenging or rewarding, but less physical.  SJ rags do make me breathe deeply a bit and elevate the pulse a little, even though I am in cardio good shape and can ride my bike 10 mph for 27 miles a trip these days.  (a mountain bike with baskets full of food water and supplies, not a racing bike). 
Good luck on your journey back to your art.  I find it an art, not a profession or livelyhood only at the very top level.  I think you may have guessed, you're not going to be playing symphony halls for pay in your future.  But piano is a beautiful and rewarding art, and has some cardiovascular benefit as well, if you keep on playing into your nineties.  At least I know several pianists and organists still playing successfully in their nineties, whereas fans of the Barca-lounger, sports on TV, and fishing from boats, tend to go to their reward much earlier than ninety. Live long and express yourself!  

Offline ted

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #2 on: August 19, 2015, 06:39:08 AM »
It sounds as if you want to rebuild your musical and physical technique but would rather not traverse the orthodox learning paths again. I can make two suggestions. Commence improvising and devise your own studies to attack your own difficulties in ways which are musically interesting to you. Secondly, if you can acquire or access a Virgil Practice Clavier and use it with discretion, it might greatly accelerate your return to full dexterity.    
"When I was young they said, 'Ah, wait until you are old, then you'll see.' Well, now I am old, and I have seen nothing." - Erik Satie

Offline esmusssein

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #3 on: August 23, 2015, 11:10:05 PM »
Thanks so much to both of you! :) I really appreciate the time you took to offer me such great advice. No, I am not planning to "resume" my piano as a career given that my heart really belongs to Archaeology. lol However yes, the piano was and is my Art, and I'm very happy to be able to play again. I also know that I can get to where I can and have always wanted in terms of technique. I acquired the score of Scott Joplin's Complete Rags and was actually very very nervous to venture to unknown for me territory. It's a lot of fun, although I'm still at the point of butchering the first rag. The greatest challenge is the different style and expression. I caught myself playing at times as if this was 19th century music from the Classical period.

I hadn't heard of the Virgil Practice Clavier, but it sounds like a great idea. I recently bought an enormous house and embarked on turning it into my dream house, complete with a music room on the main floor and a complete finished basement for my other endeavors, including a fully-equipped gym. Since I now exercise with my piano as well, I think getting a Virgil Practice Clavier may be a great idea to complete my collection of gym equipment. lol

Finally, Indianajo, you are absolutely right about the right posture. I sometimes see serious, professional young pianists who have embarked on a serious career and bend over the instrument in such a way that I get secondary neck pain!! lol As a matter of fact, I am now not only very conscious of my posture and stretch before and after, but I never sit in front of the piano without my Tush Cush that supports my entire spine.

Offline esmusssein

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #4 on: April 18, 2016, 08:48:40 PM »
I am posting this in case anyone ever gets into trouble like I did! It's been almost a year since I started playing the piano again after 23 years, following the successful treatment of the injury that forced me to stop in the first place. I did practice, although I cannot say that I overdid it or spent endless hours sweating. However, I am ecstatic to report that, to my great shock, most of my technique is back! Whatever is not back is due to the aforementioned not practicing for endless hours like I did when teachers and parents were chasing me to do so.

So I am currently playing Beethoven's first piano concerto which I had never played before, a couple of previously known Schubert Impromptus, some Schumann, Beethoven's Moonlight sonata, a couple of Chopin études, although not the really challenging ones (I haven't tried so far), Rachmaninoff's op. 3 no. 2, and a friend's Nocturne! I had played most of these before, so only Schumann, Beethoven's concerto, and the friend's Nocturne were really new.

My old ailment has not come back at all, but I am extremely careful with my posture and religiously do all my physical therapy exercises that got me here in the first place. I still visit my chiropractor, who fortunately knows a lot about piano performance, I have not had any issue that would force me to go back to my orthopedist, although I know he is one telephone call away, and all is going well.

The cons: back when this issue appeared, I developed stage fright and stopped trusting myself. Unfortunately, I still cling to the score for dear life and have only dared play in front of only two human beings and my dog, who has turned out to be my severest critic (long story)!

My conclusion: what we really learn is what we call muscle memory and the nitty gritty of piano performance. The technique comes back, even after an obscene amount of years of silence, and we don't need to start from scratch as I was afraid. I would say that at this point I play like a good advanced student, and I need about a year to reach the point I was at before the injury, when I had received a BA and an MA in piano performance.

Overall, good news then... :)

Offline pjjslp

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #5 on: April 20, 2016, 08:59:40 PM »
Very glad to read you are doing well! I was nowhere near as accomplished as you, but I also just got "back in the saddle" about a year ago after an extended break. Like you, I've been relieved to find that it was my flexibility and stamina that went away but not technique. Once I loosened up these poor joints and gradually worked up my practice time, it's almost as though I never stopped. And, I feel like it's easier for me to connect with pieces musically than it was in my teens.

Like you, too, my confidence is way down and I no longer have any desire to perform for anyone that I'm not first degree relatives with. I also can't seem to close the score without getting anxious, even when I'm home alone and no one will hear my errors!

Anyway, glad to hear that your good health has continued  :)

Offline toughbo

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #6 on: April 21, 2016, 08:05:14 AM »
Thanks for sharing, good to see some sun shining  8)

Offline esmusssein

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Re: Back on the saddle again
«Reply #7 on: April 21, 2016, 05:09:42 PM »
Very glad to read you are doing well! I was nowhere near as accomplished as you, but I also just got "back in the saddle" about a year ago after an extended break. Like you, I've been relieved to find that it was my flexibility and stamina that went away but not technique.

Thanks for your kind words. :) I forgot the loss of flexibility, yes!! Unlike you, I was not relieved at all, but rather depressed. You see, my body is generally very flexible, and I have these huge hands that helped me a lot with really difficult stuff! I could actually play Rachmaninoff as he composed the pieces with one exception of an accord in op. 23 no. 2 which I always blamed on the fact that I inherited my father's incredible hands with my mom's short pinky! However, going back to playing octaves was terrible! My hands physically hurt, and I was playing stuff that I had found so incredibly easy in the past. It's incredible how the hands are a microcosm in the context of a human body! Anyway, I am glad to see that I was overreacting. Things have improved now much because I was actually getting worried I was getting injured, which turned out not to be the case.

Thanks again and best wishes for your own rediscovery of this magnificent instrument.