Leah's Practice Diary (updated 1/18/23)

I started playing the piano about six years ago. I think the hardest part for me has been bringing my adult expectations to an activity where I started with as much experience as a child. The last year and a half I’ve been making a concerted effort to work through significant performance anxiety, and I’ve made enough progress that I can post videos here.

 

What am I working on? Being happy with where I’m at, accepting my mistakes, enjoying the fact that this is a challenging hobby that takes time. At the end of the summer, it finally sunk in that I could keep playing and taking lessons for another 50 years, so there really is no reason to rush.

 

I take lessons with a teacher in the city where I live, and we focus mostly on repertoire and some technical exercises. I’m interested in composition, so I recently committed to taking lessons twice a month from a teacher in the UK who is going to help me with other aspects of musicianship like sight reading, theory, keyboard harmony, aural training, and composition.

 

I think it would be fun to keep a record of my progress. I’m hoping to post an update every 2-3 weeks. Please feel free to ask questions or give feedback. That’s helpful to my learning process :-)

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    • Leah Olson
    • Leah_Olson
    • 3 mths ago
    • Reported - view

    October 24, 2022 Update

    I have three videos to post this week.

        The first is Czerny Op 299, No. 3 (School of Velocity). I think I’ve been working on this for at least three weeks. In the past, technical exercises, especially ones with arpeggios, made me anxious and tight, so my teacher and I focused mostly on repertoire to help me relax. Now that I’m less self-critical, I wanted to return to this kind of work. I’ve used a few different techniques to help learn the piece, but overall my teacher encourages me to focus on creating a story or characters, and making sure to take physical pleasure out of playing with each hand. Right now, I’m playing this with a very heavy pedal so that I don’t worry about the arpeggios sounding too choppy. As I improve and it becomes more fluent, I’ll lighten the pedal.

        The second video is of the first two pages of Schumann’s “Aufschwung”. I’m about two weeks into this project. In the next two weeks I will focus on fluency and balance between the two hands, as well as learn the next two pages. I’m going to try and be better at incorporating some days of very slow practice, as I tend to get too excitable and play too fast while I’m learning things. (I'll fix the mic for the next recording.)

        The third video is a sight reading piece written by the composer Florence Price, followed by a piece I wrote. I’m absolutely terrible at sight reading, which is why I signed up for the two-week intensive on Tonebase, and chose it as a focus for the work I’m doing with my composition teacher. He works within the ABRSM system, and he’s having me start at level 1, which I’m happy about. There’s no pressure, so I can look forward to learning this instead of dreading it. For our first lesson we looked at reading the shape of the line rather than the individual notes, and looking ahead to the end of the phrase so that you have an idea of where you’re going. He explained it’s like when you’re driving and you mostly look right in front of you, but you also are aware there is a stop sign at the end of the block.

        I can also use each piece as a theory lesson, look at overall form, try sight-singing the piece before I play it, etc. I decided that I’m going to write a mini piece inspired by each of the sight-reading pieces. It gets me in the habit of writing, it’s very low stakes, and you can critique each piece, helping me see what was more or less effective and how I could change it.

    Like 3
      • Michelle R
      • Michelle_Russell
      • 3 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Leah Olson Leah, these are beautiful! I probably shouldn't admit this, but the Czerny exercise actually brought tears to my eyes, you played it so beautifully.

      Since I'm right at the beginning of my piano journey, I don't have much in the way of pianistic-comments, but I understand being self-critical. This can be a great assett, for it allows you to see areas in which you can improve - but it can also paralyze you, and create a feeling of "never-good-enough." I coached gymnastics for over 30 years, and one thing that reallly helped the athletes (and myself) was positive visualization. Most people tend toward "negative" visualization, so you have to train yourself to imagine playing/performing well. Often, this can help to change self-critical from a bad trait to a good trait. It helps you to see the good for what it is - GOOD - and recognize the areas where improvement may be needed as opportunities for even more good-ness. I find that it makes it easier to be happy where I am, still knowing that I can/will continue to improve.

      I find it kind of funny that my younger son (age 14 - you'll see him on Tonebase) was born full of confidence and enthusiasm and has no concept of performance anxiety. I have never been like that! I think I consciously raised him so that he would keep that confidence. Of course, now we are having to watch for and work on the tendency to be over-confident.

      Good luck on your journey. I look forward to more videos. They can be helpful to remind you of how far you have come.

      Like 1
      • Leah Olson
      • Leah_Olson
      • 3 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Michelle R Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. That's a beautiful gift to have given your son :-) I completely agree with you--the ability to critique yourself can be a gift or curse. I haven't used much visualization up to this point. I'll give that some thought before I post my next videos. Thank you!

      Like 1
    • Leah Olson Hi Leah, great that you play the Czerny musically and expressively, and not like a study. The balance in the voicing betwen the melody and the bass in the  Schumann piece sounds nice. Lastly, your sight reading  sounds much better than you think. Good work! 

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      • Leah Olson
      • Leah_Olson
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Natalie Peh thank you so much. It's so kind of you to spend time encouraging people on Tonebase. I really appreciate it!

      Like 1
      • Michael M
      • Michael.16
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Leah Olson Nice you have a Florence Price piece! I recently discovered her Symphony No. 4 and was blown away. Beautiful piano by the way. Keep up the good work! I think your pacing in sight reading is pretty good, I felt like the piece was moving even if there were hiccups.

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      • Leah Olson
      • Leah_Olson
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Michael M Thank you!

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    • Leah Olson
    • Leah_Olson
    • 2 mths ago
    • Reported - view

    Here’s my update for 11/7/22:

     

    Sight reading/Composition work:

    I’ve been continuing with sight reading and managed to write 4 little pieces, each inspired by a different sight reading piece. I meet with my composition teacher tomorrow. I told him I needed to get over feeling silly about starting at the beginning, both in terms of sight reading and composition. I asked that he give me feedback on what was effective in my pieces, what wasn’t, and why. I might post a few of those in another update. We’re also going to talk about what defines success for sight reading. Using his suggestions, I felt I was able to capture the spirit of the piece rather than reading a bunch of disconnected notes. It definitely helped to look for patterns and cadences. At the same time, I still had mistakes and hesitations, and given how easy these pieces are, I’m not sure if that means I can move on or if I need more practice.

     

    Memorization work:

    At the beginning of the semester I learned the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. My teacher told me there was no way to continue avoiding Beethoven. I got the piece to what I would consider a “second draft” stage, and then asked if that was good enough and she said that was fine. After a week’s break, I decided that I did like the piece well enough to memorize it. I have to memorize a piece in order to play it as expressively as I would like. The video attached was a cold run-through with the purpose of determining how much I could remember. It’s not very musical, tempo is all over the place, etc.

     

    I’ve been working on it for a few days since the recording, feeling stuck with it, not making much progress. I realized last night that I’ve been trying to take shortcuts and memorize this by brute force (lots of repetition), which never works for me. I need to take a step back and do the following: Finish my harmonic analysis of the piece, map out the piece with my interpretive/emotional plan, find the images that help me feel connected emotionally to this piece, make a memory palace so I can easily sing the score in my head away from the piano, work each section in layers (eliminate the triplets and focus on the structural elements), play each section with a different emotion word so that I’m not locked into one reading of the piece. I’ve avoided this work because it takes time, but I’ve noticed that if I do one of these things for just one practice session (like playing the structural elements without the triplets or using five different emotion words for one section), I’ll see a significant jump forward. It’s enough to break me out of the rut, and then I need to return to repetitions in order to build fluency.

     

    New repertoire:

    I’ve got an update of the Schumann piece “Aufscwung”. I had a good lesson last week—got a pep talk from my teacher that I needed because this piece is quite challenging for me. She reminded me how important it is to practice Schumann in layers because his music is very polyphonic. To interpret it, I need to be aware of the different lines. Otherwise it ends up as mud. It’s coming along. I decided to keep this recording, full of interruptions from my husband and kids, because I think it captures many things about my experience of learning piano—trying to fit it in between other commitments.

    Like 2
    • Will Green
    • Mystic/Musician
    • Will_Green
    • 1 mth ago
    • Reported - view

    The Schumann is such a rewarding piece to learn. Thank you for sharing your process with us. Looking forward to hearing your work. 

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    • Will Green Thank you! I will be posting an update shortly :-)

      Like 1
  • I think I had a breakthrough this week. My teacher has suggested several times over the last few years that I be consistent about making recordings and critiquing them. She (like every other teacher out there) has said it is the fastest way to make progress. After a useful discussion on why I've avoided following her advice, coupled with a great CBT technique on establishing a new habit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF0g-F69MMU), I sat down this morning and recorded all of my current projects. I played without any warmup, as she recommended, the better to see where things fell apart.

    The breakthrough part is that as I reviewed each video, it occurred to me that rather than call this a "self-critique" (scary, ugly word), I would call it "making my weekly to-do list." I love to-do lists. My plan is to repeat this every Wednesday morning before I go to my lesson.

    Current projects:

    • Continue to work on Aufschwung (video below). Besides technical issues, my biggest goal for the week is to work on voicing. The secondary material is too heavy. I'm going to try "ghosting": playing the main material firmly, but playing the secondary material so lightly that it can't be heard. The purpose is to exaggerate the difference then work back towards a balance I like.
    • Continue with a new Czerny exercise--Op 299, no 4 (my final run through of Op. 299, no. 3 is below).
    • Polish the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. I like how it's shaping up, but in focusing on the larger structure, the right hand triplets have been on autopilot, and they sound like a metronome. My teacher's suggestion was to play the triplets with the right hand and sing the top voice.
    • Start a new piece--Ritual of Fire Dance by Manual de Falla.
    • Polish the secondo part of the first waltz in Brahms Op. 39.
    • Start a new piece with another duet partner--an arrangement of a Siciliano by Bach
    • Continue with sight reading practice and start a new keyboard harmony exercise with my composition teacher. I'm really excited about this project, and appreciated his advice to have fun and not worry about the fact that I'm stumbling around the piano. He said fluency will be a goal for further down the road. I attached a picture of the first exercise (he provides the melodies, I decide how to harmonize them).
    Like 2
    • Leah Olson 

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    • Leah Olson 

      Like 4
    • Leah Olson  

      Like 1
    • Leah Olson I love this advice about recording! Going to face the music (literally) and plow through my pieces with recordings tomorrow. 

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    • Leah Olson Beautiful playing, Leah! It's coming along nicely. Thank you for sharing your process and thoughts with us. It's very interesting and enlightening, so keep it up! 

      Like 1
    • Sindre Skarelven Thank you!

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    • Khoa Phan Howard Good luck!

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    • Leah Olson n 3?

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    • Leah Olson love how you set out the goals for each piece in such an organised way. And your playing sounds good!

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    • Natalie Peh Thank you!

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  • (Decided to put this in my practice diary as well) I'm going to amend my resolution list. I started learning the piano as an adult about six years ago, and developed terrible performance anxiety, in part because of some negative experiences with my first teacher. I now have a wonderful teacher, but when we started working together I dreaded lessons and found it painful to play in front of another person. My teacher suggested making recordings of myself, but as soon as I hit the button my phone, a loud voice would start shouting at me in my head to the point that it was difficult to follow the music in front of me.  I decided to tackle this problem two years ago, and found the book "Feeling Great" by Dr. David Burns tremendously helpful. In addition to some great cognitive techniques for perfectionism, I've been engaging in gradual exposure therapy. Joining Tonebase and posting videos in my practice diary has been part of the process.

    I now enjoy my lessons and can make a recording for a friend without having a panic attack, but I still find myself avoiding posting videos of "finished" pieces. I tend to fixate on all the things I would like to improve, rather than celebrate what I've achieved.

    My piano resolution for this year is to post videos of pieces I've finished, without any apologies or excuses, and to list two things I like about my interpretation.

    Below is the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata that I learned earlier this fall. I was stuck at home with COVID for New Year's and decided to take a couple days to revisit it. I'm happy that I'm getting better at voicing. I felt I committed to my interpretation and maintained that focus through the piece. Thanks for watching!

    Like 3
    • Leah Olson
    • Leah_Olson
    • 8 days ago
    • Reported - view

    I finished the fall/winter semester of lessons last week, and took some time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t during the last 4 months of practice.

    My biggest takeaway is that Czerny is not helping me. The pieces look like they should be relatively easy to pull off, but they take so much work (at least for me) to bring up to any kind of reasonable tempo cleanly. I practice and practice, and at the end of it, all I have is a Czerny etude. It’s been frustrating, and a bit demoralizing. So I kicked Mr. Czerny to the curb and started a Chopin prelude last week. Played it today at my lesson and got a lot of good feedback for making forward progress. (Slower tempo, loud counting to control the rubato with my voice, wider dynamics, more of a singing tone in the top voice of the left hand.)

    I mentioned Czerny to my composition teacher, saying maybe I should just go back to scales and cadences. His opinion was that scales focus too much on fingers 1-3, and suggested I learn the first 30 patterns in Hanon. He said, yes, Hanon is dangerous if you bang away on it too much because it can lock up the hand. However, he thought using it judiciously was a nice workout for fingers 4 and 5, the patterns are easy to learn so that you can focus on playing with different touches, and that it’s beneficial as a beginning transposing exercise because it’s easy to take around the circle of 5ths. He also said in his experience the way to really get familiar inside a key isn’t to memorize cadences, but to practice harmonizing a scale. So I’m experimenting with those two things in between repertoire work.

     

    I have my first meeting with my new duet partner on Saturday. I hope it goes well because she signed us up to play at a recital on February 5th!

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      • Michelle R
      • Michelle_Russell
      • 5 days ago
      • Reported - view

      Leah Olson I hope the meeting with your duet partner went well. I so enjoy watching your hands - there is a lovely stillness and simplicity to them when you play. (and you played the Chopin beautifully, too!)

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      • Leah Olson
      • Leah_Olson
      • 4 days ago
      • Reported - view

      Michelle R Thank you so much! Duet meeting cancelled due to COVID, but we'll get there! Hope you're finding time to practice, and your son's new teacher is working out.

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