Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Goldberg a Day

About a year ago I saw the film "Julie and Julia," based on a book of the same title. The author of the book (and one of the title characters in the film) sets out on a journey to cook every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in the space of one year. I enjoyed the film (even though most would describe it as a "chick flick" - but I just love watching a show about cooking!), and it made me think about seemingly impossible tasks, that become feasible when divided in to manageable daily chunks.

So I decided, about a month ago, to try to learn Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, a monumental work that I have never really grappled with simply because it seemed too huge. There is a theme and thirty variations (followed by a repeat of the theme), and I realized that I could learn the piece in a month if I worked on one variation each day. Today, December 31, I am happy to report that I can now play through the piece - it isn't polished or consistent, and it certainly isn't memorized. It will take considerable work (and time living with the piece) to feel confident enough to play it for an audience. But (and this is VERY unusual for me) I can honestly say I don't care if I play it for an audience, not for the moment anyway.

For me this project has been important for a number of reasons. Normally I only really work on something when I have an external deadline, like a concert or a recording. That doesn't mean I don't learn new music - what I do is schedule a new piece for a concert at some future date, and that forces me to learn it. But I have a tendency to procrastinate (a byproduct of being a fast learner) and once in a while I have to back out of a repertoire plan because I don't leave myself enough time to learn something.

But I worked on the Goldberg Variations for *me*. I made my own deadline. This was really art for art's sake - no one is paying me to play this piece in a concert. As a young person growing up, many if not most of the pieces I learned were for this kind of purpose - artistic growth without immediate thought of practical or professional gain. But as I got older, got married, had children - I had to think more about how the hours I invest produce dividends not only for myself but for those under my care. After all, there are only so many hours in the day! Now I am obviously not talking about a total "sell-out" - I am still in an exceedingly impractical profession! But my day-to-day priorities have not been consistently focused on artistic goals for their own sake, but some mixture of artistic and career-related goals. For that reason, this little project, only a month (and only really requiring about 1 hour a day, sometimes a little more), has been a wonderful reawakening.

This was also important to me for another reason: to prove to myself that I could finish a big project without anyone else making me do it. I am by nature a bit of a "crammer" or perhaps a "sprinter" - I can accomplish a lot in a short intense period. But I have trouble with the "marathons," usually. I am glad to prove to myself that I can follow through with this one-hour-a-day - but EVERY day - project, culminating in accomplishing something significant.

So now, as we enter 2012, I am thinking about what big musical projects I have meant to tackle, and how I can divide them in to smaller, more manageable daily or weekly projects. If you are like me, a procrastinator, you should try the same! Would you like to read all the Shakespeare plays this year? Read one every week, and you'll be done in 9 months. Would you like to read all of "War and Peace"? If you read 30 pages a week (3-4 pages every day - not very much!) you'll be done in a year.

A side benefit to this project: I have been spending time in the mind of Bach every day for a month. It has been a wonderful gift to have this time. One of my teachers, Bruce Sutherland (about whom I have previously blogged), urged his students to play some Bach every day. I hadn't done that in years, focusing instead on whatever repertoire I needed to be working on for my concerts - when the concert included Bach I'd work on it, but otherwise I did not. I can say that Bruce was absolutely right - Bach has been good for my fingers and for my soul this past month.

Happy New Year, and stay tuned for my next project - once I decide what it's going to be...! And feel free to post your own project in the comments!


Stan said...

I wonder if procrastination is genetic? Because I know where you got it. For example: I'm posting this comment a week after you wrote the blog entry. hahahaha. But very true what you wrote, and the way to overcome it sounds good too. Structure really helps.

tae said...

max! i haven't checked your blog in a while. funny enough, i was re looking at the goldberg today, wanting to learn it again.. but i do have this utmost desire to learn diabelli...

when i mentioned about learning that piece to patricia zander several years, she simply chuckled...

one a day!

Max Levinson said...

Thanks for the comments!

Tae, I remember you playing the Goldberg Variations years ago. And now you want to learn the Diabelli Variations - that's fantastic that you challenge yourself. Nowadays with people's shortening attention spans, it isn't always practical to play such monumental pieces. But most of the best art isn't practical.