Monday, August 5, 2013

The Piano in Fiction

My mother started teaching me to play the piano when I was five years old. I loved it so much that by the time I reached third grade, I was composing my own pieces and submitting them in competitions. I made it all the way to state level once. I learned to play the organ for my church, and got to the point where I could sight-read any hymn. I played for school choirs many times. I even accompanied a piece on live television. 

So when I tell you I'm pretty good at playing the piano, that's where I'm coming from. I'm no professional--I could never practice for more than an hour or two a day, and I'm by no means perfect at the songs I play. Sometimes I'm asked to play a piece and have to bluff my way through it because I only have a week to practice--and did I mention there's no piano at my apartment? But I'm pretty darn good at it, and have some knowledge for writers out there.

1. There is a proper way to play. Tips of the fingers on the keys, fingers curled, wrists up. A lot of kids play with their shoulders slumped and their wrists down, so they're often reminded not to do that. It's okay to lean in, to drive more power into it, but slouching will make your back ache after about half an hour. There are some examples of awesomeness who break the rules, though, like Ben Folds, who often plays standing up.

2. Most adults can reach an octave or a little over one. Rachmaninoff, I am told, had a ridiculously huge reach, like 12 white keys instead of 8. I can stretch to 10 if I really have to, with my left hand. Right hand, not so much. Also, the right hand usually plays melody, so being left-handed can be a challenge when you're supposed to bring out the melody and your stronger hand is naturally on accompaniment.

3. Know what the words "arpeggio" (broken chord), "forte" (written as f, it means loud), "piano" (written as p, it means soft), "scale" (a string of ascending and descending notes), and "octave" (interval between say, C4 and C5) mean, so you don't fall into the mistake of using them improperly. 

4. The notes go from A to G and then start over. b stands for flat,  and # stands for sharp. Also note that Cb is actually a B, B# is C, Fb is E, and E# is actually an F. So unless the sheet music would use those two because of  weird keys and accidentals that exist solely to confuse us (I swear, it happens) don't say, "She played E sharp." You'll avoid snickers from the musicians.

5. Do NOT do what Twilight did, because it was obvious that somebody did not understand what constitutes impressive piano skills. Debussy wrote some fun and beautiful pieces, but Clair de Lune is not hard to learn. If Edward were really a hundred-year-old musician who wanted to impress, he'd at least choose something like Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# minor, which requires all ten fingers and speed coupled with pianissimo delicacy. That piece also includes a lot of accidentals, so it's mighty hard to read the sheet music.

6. You have this thing called muscle memory. When you've repeated a motion often enough, your body remembers how to do it even if your mind isn't paying very good attention. It's what helps you type the right words on the computer so quickly. It's also the reason I can daydream in the middle of a song and still play the piece well. It also works the other way around--my mind sometimes gets in the way if I suddenly stop daydreaming, and suddenly I can't play it anymore. My fingers know where they're at, but my mind has no clue.

7. In real life, there is one question I am constantly asked which drives me insane. "Can you play Fur Elise?" Does this happen because people like that song, or just because it's the only classical piece they know? Either way, it makes me crazy because one, it's ridiculously easy; I can play it by ear. Two, I hate that song; it's so clunky and loopy and gross. So don't ask. I will prolly sigh and roll my eyes at you. I won't be offended if you ask for that other song everyone knows, though. Ya know, Clair de Lune. The one I just told you was not impressive. Why? Because, as I also said, it's fun and beautiful.

Well, I hope this is at least somewhat useful. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have any other questions. Happy writing!



  1. I don't have a single musical gene in my body, much less any piano skills, so this information was all new to me, and so informative, too. If I ever have a pianist for a character, I could definitely see this post helping! BTW, so cool and impressive how you know how to play the piano. I'm always amazed by people with skills like this!

  2. I think you need to record you playing on the piano and post it here!

    Muscle memory is a great thing. Having taken martial arts all my life and being a college athlete, the mind forgets but the body does not. Although at my age, my body reminds me very often with aches and pains!

  3. @Heather - Thanks. <3 I was one of the lucky ones born with musically gifted parents. But I'm still in awe of people who perform on a regular basis. It must be such hard work! I don't have the patience for it.

    @Jay - Hm... recording... I don't have any on hand, so I'll see what we can do.