Keeping the Plates Spinning

Back in the 1950s, when I was but a wee sprat, entertainers who had survived the days of vaudeville would show up on The Ed Sullivan Show and do their stuff for a national TV audience. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen — and less well known acts. There were guys who would balance plates on the ends of sticks and then keep the plates spinning so they wouldn’t fall off.

A couple of years ago I read a piece about amateur piano playing that said, in essence, if you can keep 15 pieces in your repertoire, why not keep 25? I thought, “Okay, I’ll try that.” I’m strictly an amateur pianist. I learned as an adult, and while I’ve made great strides, my technique has never been and will never be entirely secure.

What I’m finding now is that I can’t keep that many plates spinning. Oh, I know 25 pieces. They’re memorized. But they’re not secure. When I choose one that I haven’t played for a couple of weeks and set out to play through it, strange lapses happen. Most often, it’s my fingers that trip me up. My brain knows the music perfectly well, but suddenly my hands forget which finger to use on which note. Train wreck.

Obviously, I need to let go of a bunch of pieces. Either that, or spend an hour a day practicing pieces I’ve already played a hundred times, and never learn anything new. Learning new pieces is a wonderful experience — right now I’m coming close to mastering the first variation in the Goldberg Variations, and I have a longish list of other pieces I’d like to learn. I’ve let go of many pieces in the past; when I leaf through the Well-Tempered Clavier or my Dover edition of the Partitas, Suites, and Inventions, I find movements with fingerings marked in pencil from beginning to end, but I have only a vague memory of ever having played them.

Maybe I could rent an extra brain. Or an extra three hours every day, for keeping up with all of the music that I know. Or maybe I’ll give up the piano entirely and start a talking dog act. Do you think I could get on Ed Sullivan with a talking dog act?

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