Brain Waves

I’m angry at my brain. It no longer functions the way it once did.

I’m 74 years old. I don’t think this is Alzheimer’s. It’s just being old. My brain still functions pretty darn well, but not in real time. Sometimes it takes a little mini-vacation between one thought and the next.

For the past two weeks I’ve been making a point of doing some serious piano practicing every day. I enjoy playing the piano (when it’s going well — no guarantees). I’d like to keep at it, because it’s good to have a few regular activities that you enjoy, especially when you’re old and you live alone. So, piano.

I learned piano as an adult. Because of that, the neural pathways in my brain will never be as secure as the pathways with which I play cello. I get that. There will always be a little more insecurity in the piano technique. But the literature for one piano by itself is hugely more extensive than the literature for one cello by itself. So playing the piano is a lot more musically rewarding.

My brain plays assorted tricks on me. Occasionally it skips a note entirely. Sometimes it knows the notes but forgets the fingering, which causes a train wreck a few notes later because my hand can’t get to the next pattern of notes. Sometimes the visual center suggests a wrong note. Sometimes the message “reach further for the next note” goes to the wrong hand. Sometimes a finger touches the right key but doesn’t press it down far enough to make a note. Sometimes a message goes out to a finger too soon, so that the note is played early. Once in a while I forget the fingering entirely and have to open up the music book to consult the fingering for a piece I’ve been playing for years. Sometimes I know the harmonic content of a measure so the brain will pick out a wrong note to play because it fits the chord. Sometimes I get distracted by an itch or by thinking about what piece I want to play next.

Lately I’ve started seeing a few sequencing errors (heading off in the wrong direction after a passage that’s very similar to another passage elsewhere in the piece) — I never used to have that problem. The other day I started a piece I’ve been playing for years and played the second fugue entrance in the wrong octave. That has never happened before.

I have about two dozen wonderful pieces memorized. Haydn sonata movements, movements from the Bach suites and partitas and the Well-Tempered Clavier. As I try to learn a couple of new pieces and struggle with the same measures day after day, it occurs to me that today I probably couldn’t learn some of the pieces I already know, because the learning process is not working very well. The ability to store and sequence new patterns is getting shaky.

Should I continue to struggle in the hope that somehow things will improve if only I practice more industriously? Should I give up the piano entirely because it’s just too painful to watch things fall apart? Or should I wander into the living room a couple of times a week and bumble my way through the pieces I already know without worrying about the assorted mistakes and without trying to learn anything new? Would massive doses of coffee help? Is my brain not getting enough oxygen because I forget to breathe while concentrating on what my hands are doing? Who knows?

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