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I was able to attend a piano recital tonight. It was a lot of fun, which isn’t something I can say about every piano recital I’ve been to. The students played beautifully. I was especially happy to see some adult students. There were a couple of standouts. I remember seeing a little boy named Quinton play last year, and thinking he was a very talented child. He played again tonight, and did not disappoint. He has a great grasp of timing, played rhythms many children older than him would have trouble with. I could tell that he actually feels the music. One of the most impressive things I saw tonight actually involved a student making a mistake. An adult student made a couple of mistakes playing Clementi Opus 36, No. 1. What was impressive was her graceful recovery. I was almost glad she made mistakes so I could witness her ability to recover quickly and without calling attention to herself or the mistake. Many students could learn from her. This is definitely not easy to do, and she did it beautifully.

I left feeling happy, uplifted, really glad I was able to go. I also felt so bummed about having 3 more weeks to have this splint on my right hand. I want to play so badly! Hearing Katie play tonight brought back memories of learning to play the first movement of Moonlight. Must have been about 20 years ago! Suddenly I’m feeling kind of old (not really). It’s a piece that’s easy to put feeling into, and I remember that I enjoyed playing it. I know it’s a piece that many intermediate students play, but I never get tired of it. Maybe when my splint comes off I’ll pull it out and play through it.

The recital also included some music by Rebecca (piano teacher whose students performed in the recital) and friends ~ some jazz trio, quartet, band. I was fascinated by the bass guitar player in the jazz band. He played a lot like Trevor (my baby boy), and I suspected instantly that he plays classical guitar. A classical guitarist plays bass much differently than your average bass player. I asked him afterward if he plays classical guitar, and was not surprised when he said that he does. It was very obvious, having seen Trev play bass after years of classical lessons. The kid tonight was great fun to watch.

There were many other fun musical moments tonight, but my hands are screaming for rest. But I must say, the end of the recital (a video of Katie ~ student of 6 years, who graduates this year and was performing in her last recital for Rebecca) was so moving. I cried. Katie is such a lovely girl. Not surprising, considering her awesome parents 🙂

All in all, a very very very good night!

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I didn’t practice yesterday. In fact, didn’t touch my piano at all. Due to health reasons, I will be taking a one month hiatus from practicing. I’m having a really hard time with this, because since January, I’ve been eating, sleeping, breathing piano. Thursday I went to J.W. Pepper Music and made a list of music I planned on buying this weekend. I don’t know now if I’ll go ahead and get it, or wait and see what happens after the month is over.

So here’s the deal. I’ve been dealing with hand pain for about 2 years. Really bad pain. It was impacting my daily life pretty severely. When it was at it’s worst, I wasn’t able to open doors with handles that turn, open jars or bottles, fasten my own seat belt, walk my dogs, squeeze my shampoo bottle (had to buy really small bottles for my shampoo and lotions). It hurt to dry my hands, wring out a washcloth, pick up a cup, type, brush my hair. You get the picture. The pain was in my hands and wrists. It felt like a combination of my hands being asleep and hitting my funny bone. The pain was pretty constant. My doctor believed it was carpal tunnel, and suggested surgery. He first sent me for an EMG to confirm carpal tunnel. Turns out there was no sign of carpal, and he sent me for several weeks of physical therapy. I had custom day splints and night splints. I didn’t work for a couple of months. The PT and splints helped, and I returned to work and lived with less pain (not entirely gone, but tolerable) for a while. I continued to have times of severe pain, and times of moderate pain.

About a year ago, I developed a painful, pea sized lump on the outside of the knuckle on my right thumb. My doctor said it was a ganglion and would go away by itself. It did not. Shortly after that, I switched doctors (for other reasons), and my new doctor also told me it was a ganglion, and that it would not go away without surgery. Although it was painful, it wasn’t unbearable, so I opted to live with it.

In February of this year, the pain became worse than it had ever been. Within a two week period I developed another painful lump, about marble size, in the “V” area between my right thumb and index finger. It was very painful. And larger mass in the fleshy part of my palm/thumb ~ at the base of the thumb where it joins to the wrist. This was very, very painful. And a lump smaller than a marble and bigger than a pea, in my right wrist. Almost unbearably painful. Also the severe overall pain, numbness, tingling returned worse than ever. It hurts to drive, tie my shoes, dry my hair, put toothpaste on my toothbrush. Pretty much anything I do with my right hand is painful. This time I began having the same pain in both feet, and also had a pea size lump on the bottom of my right foot at the base of my toes.

My doctor’s first suspicion was peripheral neuropathy. I’m not diabetic, but I was told that it can occur in people who do not have diabetes. Before confirming that diagnosis, he wanted to rule out carpal tunnel, so sent me to a neurologist for another EMG. The neurologist did several procedures, along with the EMG. No evidence of carpal tunnel. She also ruled out peripheral neuropathy. She sent me for an MRI and MRA of my back, and MRI of my brain. Among other things, she wanted to check for spinal compression. While they didn’t find compression, or any problems with my brain, they did find that I have osteoarthritis in my lower back. I’ve been dealing with back pain for a few years, and have been to the ER several times for it. That’s another story and has nothing (not much, anyhow) to do with piano. So ~ my doctor decided to send me to a rheumatologist to investigate the possibility of Lupus or MS. Both were ruled out, and the rheumatologist believed it was Rheumatoid Arthritis, and that the masses were rheumatoid nodules. After xrays and bloodworked, RA was ruled out because the bloodwork didn’t support that diagnosis. Lupus and MS were also ruled out. He suggested that I see an orthopedic surgeon to have the masses cut out and biopsied. On May 6, I saw an orthopedic hand specialist. He had xrays taken, bloodwork, and ordered an MRI of my thumb/wrist. He also prescribed Trammadol for pain relief. It has helped some. The xrays didn’t show any arthritis, and the bloodwork showed nothing suspicious. I had the MRI on May 9. I went back for the results of the MRI yesterday, May 13.

So here’s the diagnosis. Masses/lumps on knuckle of right thumb and wrist are osteoarthritis with bone spurs. I questioned why arthritis did not show up on xray. He said sometimes it doesn’t show up on xray, but does on MRI. The mass/lump between my right thumb and index finger is a ganglion cyst. The mass/lump in the fleshy part of my palm where the thumb joins the wrist is Basal Joint Arthritis, for which he gave me a cortisone injection. Yes, you’ve heard right. They hurt. Then he sent me to the physical therapy area to have a custom splint made, which I have to where for a month. It starts just below my elbow and goes to just below my fingertips, also separately isolates my thumb. After one month, he’ll reevaluate, and determine what surgery I need. If the total hand/wrist rest has helped calm down the inflammation and pain, he’ll remove the ganglion and continue to treat the arthritis with splints/therapy/pain medication/cortisone as needed. If there is no improvement, he’ll remove the thumb/wrist joint and graft in tendon taken from my wrist or forearm. The first surgery has a recovery time of several weeks. The latter has a recovery time of 3-6 months.

Bottom line ~ no piano for one month, the reevaluate. Possibly return to playing at that time. Or possibly surgery with a recovery of several more weeks. Finally, possible surgery with recovery time of 3-6 months. If I have to have the basal joint surgery, my thumb will never be quite like it was, but will be usable (and most importantly, flexible).

So ~ that’s the story. Maybe I’ll update occasionally with other piano-related activities. I may do some composing, some music study, some ~ I don’t know. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t discouraged. But as a friend who is in a wheelchair with MS reminded me ~ it could be worse!

So tired today, I’m actually having trouble staying awake. But I still hope to get in four hours of playing today.

My right hand is hurting a lot, so I’ll have to practice in small sections with frequent breaks. The new pain medication my rheumatologist prescribed is helping a lot with my hands in general. Not nearly as much tingling/pain. But right at the base of my thumb, which is where the largest mass seems to be, is very painful today. More than usual. Unfortunately, the medicine isn’t helping with the arthritis pain in my back. But I’ll take what I can get. Just to have the tingling in my wrists reduced is a huge deal. I’ve gotten tired of always feeling like I just hit my funny bone x2. Tomorrow I get the results of the MRI on my thumb/wrist to try and determine what the masses in my right hand are. So hopefully we’ll get some direction and a plan.

I’ve been noticing this week that using the metronome when I play the Minuet is really helpful ~ more than I expected. It’s been many years since I’ve used it. I think it causes me to look ahead more. I can’t stand to not be exactly with the metronome. If I’m behind by a quarter of a beat, it’s crazy-makin’ and I have to stop and start over. I’ve gotten much better at keeping pace with it. So today I’m going to practice all of my music with the metronome, and see what difference it makes. I believe I’ll find that my tempo on each piece is less steady than I thought.

Today I’ll spend most of my time on The Lord’s Prayer and Reverie. Not as much on How Great Is Our God/How Great Thou Art, and hopefully Minuet is solid enough that I can just run through it a couple times. I added another scale this week ~ B major (4 octave scale, 4 octave arpeggios, I-IV-V-VII cadence). I’ve also spent more time sight reading. Okay, I really only spent more time sight reading yesterday. I had been forgetting about it, and realized I need to write it in my plan book/journal from now on.

I think I may be looking for a new metronome. I’m using it for so long that I have to rewind it before I’ve finished using it for one piece. Granted, I play the piece overandoverandoverandover, but I’d really prefer not to have to rewind it so often. Plus, to put the cover on and lock it, the weight on the pendulum has to be moved down toward the middle. One of my pieces in “Lento” and I set the metronome for 50bpm. That’s close enough to the top of the pendulum that the cover won’t close. Small things, but surprisingly irritating when I’m mid song and have to rewind, or the dogs are all clamoring to go outside and I have to change the setting on the metronome in order to close it. If it isn’t closed when it’s set for such a slow tempo, it won’t be still and stop ticking. So ~ I may look for one that operates on AC or batteries.

I’ll update later with time practiced and progress made. Tomorrow is my lesson, and I have a doctor appointment beforehand, so won’t have much time (if any) to warm up before I play for JB. Today needs to be a really quality practice.

I don’t know if anyone is reading this, but I’d love to see some comments (as long as they’re not about how crazy it is for a 55yo woman to return to piano lessons after taking decades off 🙂

UPDATE; I practiced for 2 hours. Not a productive practice at all. I only worked on 2 pieces. Minuet sounded like I was sight reading. I was playing it at 84bpm, which is what sounded good yesterday. I was planning on speeding it up to 92bpm today. I ended up slowing it down to 68 bpm (!) and it still barely sounded okay. I stopped and tried to figure out what was happening. I was looking ahead, everything looked familiar, everything felt right. But I kept hitting wrong notes. Not just in one section, but through the entire piece. I was being careful to observe the dynamics and prepare for spots that have given me trouble in the past, but it just wasn’t working. I finally decided I was probably doing more harm than good, so I set it aside. Then I worked on Reverie, which I’ve been playing well for several days. Same thing. The syncopation isn’t a problem at all, I just kept hitting wrong notes. Again, I stopped and looked through the music. I honestly couldn’t figure out what was happening. So I slowed WAY down. Not much improvement. I went through the entire piece just playing the melody. This piece is a constant flow of eight notes, with a very syncopated melody in the top voice of the right hand. It also has a couple of time changes. Nothing really difficult. After playing just the melody a couple of times, I tried to put it together again. It was really just falling apart. I’m very frustrated. I’ve been working on these pieces for a few weeks, and expected to move on to new music at my lesson tomorrow. I’ve had these long enough to have them prepared to play well and be finished with them. I’ll take a break for dinner, and see how they sound later tonight. Maybe I just need a change of scenery for an hour.

Late night UPDATE: Played through everything once ~ slow and relaxed. Sounded fine. I definitely needed to take a step back.

I’ll be practicing soon, so it’s time to put together a plan. These are the things I’m working on this week:

-Scales ~ C, G, D, A, E, d, a ~ 4 octaves with 4 octave arpeggios and cadences. Minor scales are in 3 modes (natural, melodic and harmonic). Since I talked to JB at my last lesson about my desire to play hymns in a gospel style, I realize that I need to strengthen my technique, specifically in the area of scales, chords, arpeggios. I need to be able to do them in every key ~ in my sleep. I’m working my way through the circle of fifths, but have been taking my time. I think I need to spend more time on this daily, and get them under my belt and able to play all keys with confidence, with no hesitation. I’m good with the keys I’ve been working on, but I haven’t been adding new scales every week, and I need to step this up.

-Bach Minuet (from the Notebook for W.F. Bach) ~ a very simple piece, only one page. Memorize.

-Reverie (Randall) ~ I’ve had trouble playing a song perfectly the first time. After I play it a few times, it sounds good. Every day I have to repeat this with each song. So at my lesson I play a song, and it sounds like it needs a lot of work. If I play it a few times, it sounds much better. However, there isn’t time to play each song several times until it sounds good. This is an experiment JB suggested to see if it helps me to play a song well the first time I play it (for the day ~ not to be confused with sight reading).

-Day 1 – read piece through 3 times away from the piano, then play it once

-Day 2 – read piece through 3 times away from the piano, then play it once

-Day 3 – read piece through 2 times away from the piano, then play it once

-Day 4 – read piece through 1 time away from the piano, then play it once

The idea is that by the end of the week I’ll be able to look through the piece, then be able to play it well without having to repeat it several times.

-How Great is Our God/How Great Thou Art ~ I’ve had How Great is Our God for 2 weeks. It’s an arrangement I like from the book “Worship Together, Piano Solo Favorites.” This week JB asked me to integrate How Great Thou Art. Find a place that works to insert How Great Thou Art (chorus), then pick back up in to How Great is Our God. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. How Great Thou Art is just a lead sheet with melody notes and chord symbols. I’ve found that in order to play it well, I’ll need to memorize How Great Thou Art. The lead sheet is helpful, but after playing with it a few times, I realized that I’m using different chord inversions each time I play it. That’s fine, but when I look at the lead sheet, I try to play it the same way each time. When I look away, I’m more able to play by feel, and be more free with it (not by “hand feel”, but by what I feel in my head/ears). Does that make sense? So that’s the plan.

-The Lord’s Prayer ~ by Albert Hay Malotte, duet Arr. by Eric Steiner, published by Schirmer. I’m playing the Secondo part. It’s very beautiful, and I have pretty much no experience with duet/ensemble playing. I’m practicing this with a metronome so I can get used to keeping an even tempo, which is essential when playing with a partner. Especially focus on the harmonic triplet arpeggios with both hands. Also the Poco meno mosso section (For Thine is the kingdom…..forever), which has bass octaves with block chord triplets in the left hand against the melody in the right hand. I need to work on playing more smoothly the jump from the bass octaves to the chords.

-sight reading ~ playing through a hymnal

-next lesson I think we’re going to talk some more about playing hymns in gospel style

NOW ~ time to hit the bench!

UPDATE: I played for 2 hours, 45 minutes. I thought the Minuet was ready to memorize. I played it with the metronome, and found that there are several spots where I slow down and look at my hands. Then I speed back up for the areas where I’m more confident. So I’ll spend a day or two playing it with the metronome, and isolating the weak areas until I can get them up to speed. Everything else went well. The piece needing the most work is The Lord’s Prayer. The sections with octaves that jump up to chords played in triplets are pretty rough, as are the two hand harmonic arpeggios. I knew that already, just became even more aware of it today. All in all, a good practice. I may get in another hour this evening.

I’ve decided to start blogging about playing/practicing piano. I’ve wanted to learn to play, really play, for SO many years. Some people may say I’ve obsessed about it. I quit my job last November, and decided that this is the perfect time to finally devote the time and energy to pursuing my dream. At 55 years old, I’m aspiring to actually become a pianist.

Last year I bought a used Steinway 45″ studio piano. It’s 43 years old. I absolutely love this piano. I bought it from a lovely woman who had listed it on Craigslist. As soon as I played it, I knew it was the piano I was looking for. It has the feel and sound I was looking for. It sounds much bigger than a studio piano, but is just as easily played very softly. I love the fact that the piano was in her family for many years, and she (and other family members) learned to play on it.

In January I started taking piano lessons from a dear friend from my college days. She had majored in piano, while I majored in voice. She teaches at the college we attended in the early 70s. Judy is an awesome teacher. I’ve had some health problems that effect my hands, and she’s been amazing at coming up with ideas to minimize pain as much as possible, while continuing to get in as much practice time as possible. She works with my (weird? unusual? challenging?) musical background, and is open to requests and my many (many, many) questions. I’ve also had issues with memory and thinking clearly (possibly due to medication), and JB has great ideas for looking at the music on the page in different ways, and thinking musically about the piece while away from the piano. JB respects me as a musician, although my background is not in piano. She’s a teacher, encourager, dear friend.

I have a few piano heroes, who inspire me as I pursue this goal of becoming a pianist. First and foremost is my mom, Caroline Ruth Gulley. She started playing piano when she was five. She can play just about anything, from classical to gospel. She is an expert reader, and can also play by ear. I grew up listening to her play after I went to bed at night. It’s a beautiful memory. Another inspiration is the aforementioned JB, my current teacher. She’s a phenomenal pianist. I do believe there’s nothing she can’t play. Her technique is beautiful, and her passion is very evident. I could listen to her play all day. I first heard Judy play when I was 17, and had never heard someone her age play so beautifully. I’m honored to play for her every Friday. My other inspiration is our church pianist and my friend, Rebecca. It’s such a treat and a luxury to hear someone play so wonderfully every single week. Every Sunday I close my eyes and take in the beautiful music she makes. I hope to be able to play like that someday, but imagine it may be beyond my grasp.

So here I am, learning to play the piano at long last. I’ve had about 3 years of lessons along the way, if you add up the various times I’ve studied. Each time I took lessons, it was for a few months. There were many years in between lessons, and I never really got the strong foundation I needed. I’ve played on my own over the years, but haven’t attained any real proficiency. My plan now is to take lessons for 4 or 5 years. I plan to practice at least 2 hours a day, when I’m able. When my hands are terribly bad, I play for 5 or 10 minutes, then take a break. On a good day I can play for 4 hours. Beginning tomorrow, I’ll record my progress here ~ music I’m working on, how I’m going about working on technique, frustrations, successes, desires.

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