Tuesday’s Top Tune – Clementi Sonatina No. 3, Op. 36

The sonatina begins nice and gently, a C major arpeggiated scale over a rocking left hand accompaniment. I close my eyes, the muscle memory established almost six years ago taking over. As soon as the memories return, so did the bad habits. I open my eyes and told myself to pay more attention to the dynamic markings and observe the staccato. I remember to take my foot off the pedal, an amazing dynamic tool that recklessly when I was last taking lessons in middle school. Get off the pedal! my music teacher used to say, you’re drowning out the sound. On Baroque pieces where pedal is completely stylistically inappropriate, we would have an argument that ended up being repeated so much it could have been scripted. This music was written for pianoforte or harpsichord, she would say, they didn’t have pedals. How are you going to observe the staccato markings if the pedal is always down? But it sounds better this way, I used to respond with exaggerated exasperation. There would be a little back and forth. I always won.
I make my way through the second movement, a beautiful, short piece of music that moves at such a slow pace that although my memory is a little hazy, I am able to sight read it. That’s what surprises me most. Although I have rarely looked at piano music these last few years, I find that I am much better at sight reading. It’s part of what pushed me to restart lessons. After always thinking of myself as a piano player that sings for fun, after a few years of choral singing, voice lessons, and no piano lessons, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being more technically accomplished at my “on the side” singing than I am at what I thought of as my primary instrument.
I start in on the third movement. At once I start to feel things falling apart. After too long of only playing octave bass lines, my left hand is having a hard time playing the even and precise accompaniment. My scales in my right hand are lagging. I feel like I am just starting the scale and hoping for dear life that I can hang on. Sure enough, I screw up the Alberti bass in the left hand and get completely off the scale in my right. Fuck, I mutter to myself. I immediately play a jazzy show tune cadence. It’s a tic I’ve developed lately, probably a desperate action to persuade myself that I am not as bad at piano as my current studies make it seem. But I should be better because I’ve played this before.
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was an Italian composer that worked most of his life in England. He was a friend to both Mozart and Beethovan, an excellent harpsichordist and organist, and is acknowledged as the first composer of solo piano music. He wrote over 100 piano sonatas, and many more shorter works of which Op. 36, a collection of sonatinas used often as teaching pieces, is, by volume alone,  his most performed work. Ironically, it is this popularity that until recently hurt his reputation as a composer. Of course, being in competition with Moz’ and the ‘Thovan is no easy business for any composer, but the popularity of his sonatinas led to Clementi being dismissed as a “children’s composer.”
And what children! As I was looking for videos of this piece on Youtube, I found about thirty videos. The oldest pianist that I saw was 16. The youngest was 4. They range from videos taken in living rooms to recitals (including one recital where they had grafted some Frankensteinian string and woodwind accompaniment. It literally made me want to vomit. They changed the chord structure and everything. No respect). The performances ranged from mechanical and robot-like to excessively rubato and, yes, too much pedal.
Probably the way that I performed it when I was thirteen. I remember the first time I played it in a recital. I had the piece completely memorized. Sigh. I used to be able to do that. Unfortunately, I hadn’t paid particular attention to the repeat symbols, and found myself trapped in a circle, playing repeats over and over again while I desperately tried to remember how the transitions worked and the piece ended. Finally, I just improvised an ending. I’m still good at that. Only my music teacher noticed.
I also remember when I was applying for a place at the private prep school I attended. My personal reccomendation from my music teacher was the crown jewel of my application, so when my interviewer invited me to play for him, I jumped at the opportunity. The sonatina was the most impressive-sounding thing I had memorized, so I played that for him. I was accepted to the school, and when that admissions officer left the school the same year that I graduated, he told me that he still remembered that performance.
I return to the first movement, but the mistakes in the third have made me nervous, and so I decide to step out and have a drink of water. As I walk down the stairs, I can hear everybody in the building practicing. It used to be the residence of the president of the college, and there was no soundproofing done when the house was converted. I can hear a piano student practicing a Brahms sonata. A bassoonist is practicing arpeggios. A clarinet is wailing and squeaking out the opening solo from Rhapsody in Blue. All seem to be taunting me. I get a cup of cold water and step outside. It feels so humiliating, to be showing my piano skills  in college to a new teacher with the same piece that I started high school with. That I started learning in middle school. I feel so much older and mature than I was then, but it seems like some things haven’t grown along with everything else.
Of course, I still played piano. But without formal lessons, the repertoire that I had built up languished and was finally forgotten. No new technical skills were gained. I started singing, and used the piano to accompany myself, and gradually found a fairly unique gospel influenced piano style that I could use to play anything. The performances I gave in high school sparked a fire that I hope are never extinguished. And yet, as I try and reorient myself as an academic musician, I realized that my stagnating formal piano skills were going to become a liability.
I go back inside, and check my cell phone. It’s getting late. The building technically closes at midnight, but I’ve never been kicked out. I practice for a while longer, finally getting the piece to where I am confident that I won’t embarrass myself. My new teacher is a specialist in historical pianoforte and harpsichord performance, and I worry that she will look down on my crude approximation of a Classical piano piece. At any rate, it’s too late to do anything about it now, the lesson is tomorrow and I have class before the lesson. I go back to sleep, grateful that my dreams appear to be largo, not vivace.
I exhale, hands trembling. I am never nervous about performing for others, but I have so little confidence in myself as a classical pianist that I am as jittery as an abused cat. I start to play, but immediately have to restart; the shakes in my hand caused me to not press hard enough on the keys, giving a weak, inconsistent tone. I start again, playing fine through the first repeat, getting ready for the scales ahead-
“You can stop now. I’ve heard all I need to hear,” she interrupts
I stop, trying to reorient myself, still mentally rehearsing the phrases to come. Belatedly, I start to process her words. I don’t know her very well, is this good or bad?
“You play very well, and very easily and smoothly.”
I may have been humiliated to open lessons with that piece, but recently old Muzio and I have come to an understanding. Now that I will never have to play it again, I can accept it as a beautiful piece. At the very least, I have a debt of honor to the piece, considering how it has helped me at various stages in my life. Now that lessons have again become a part of my weekly routine, the old feeling that I am going somewhere with my music comes back. Who knows? Maybe the sonatina will be a part of my music if I can progress to a professional level. If it is at all in my power, however, it will be just as an encore.
MP3’s feat. Monical Alianello courtesy of http://pianosociety.com/cms/index.php

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