Reading music

August 29, 2004

Tim and I recently bought a piano, and I was pleased to find that I can still read music. I sat right down and played (slowly and haltingly and entirely without art) through a Bach prelude that I last saw about 20 years ago.

Not playing for a long time makes me realize that reading music is an entirely unconscious process, and in fact it gets slower if I try to think about it. I see the little mark on the page, and my finger goes to a key. If I try to think what key it is, I mess up. When you play a lot, you get to a point where you never have to think — you own that key, no doubt enters your mind about where it is in relation to the center-line of your body. After you stop playing every day, a kind of distressing uncertainty comes over you: your finger thinks the key is there, but it’s no longer sure. Remember that classically trained pianists do not really look at the keyboard when they’re playing — it’s all done by feel, mostly while reading music or looking in an unfocused way at the hands, but in theory they’re supposed to be able to play blindfolded.

I’m not sure how much I’ll actually be able to play the piano — it’s an awfully big time commitment if you want to not suck — but I’m glad to have the option again. Even just being able to play a couple of Bach pieces well would be good enough for this stage of life.

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