Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Truths (In a Glass of Wine)

It all goes back to the major and minor scales. To really understand the piano, one must know its scales, simple as that.

scales (piano)Beginning adult piano students pose the question(s) all the time. Do they have to learn scales? Do they have to learn particular fingerings for the scales? Do they have to play hands together? It’s the word "have" that bothers me the most. I’ll lean forward in my teacher chair, elbow perched precariously on top of two crossed knees, and throw the questions right back at them, "But don’t you want to learn these scales, these fingerings, the hands together?" I, of course, benefit from retrospect. The piano teacher who presented me (oh so ceremoniously, when I had just turned thirteen) with her grid-like checklist of scales--the columns consisted of major and minor key names while the rows tracked the metronome settings for quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes; in parallel or contrary motion; in thirds and sixths, etc.--deserves my first born. That checklist, and its weekly assignments, kept me honest: it demanded daily attention or else. (Or else it shamed me ruthlessly on lesson day.)

Not long after I had immersed myself in a daily scale regimen, my teacher "assigned" me to pencil in the fingering for a Bach prelude. Every note. The following week, she reviewed my fingerings and offered corrections. At first, I did not consciously realize that these assignments were actually an extension of learning the piano scales, but the passages that called for a quick "thumb under" or textbook stepwise ascent were always the ones that I penciled in first. Figuring out fingerings in the repertoire--as derived from the major and minor scales--eventually became an intuitive skill, and even then, I never tired of imagining ways around and through the topography of various keys and their modulations. The g-sharp minor prelude and fugue from book two of Bach’s WTC? What a bitch! Yet trying to think of ways to route my fingers through that terrain as easily as its relative major (B) never fails to entertain my imagination. (Attention, adult beginners! Do you see that a working knowledge of scales is both fun and useful?)

A month ago I resolved, among other things, to make 2006 the year of learning about wine. At what amounted to my first serious "lesson," (a line-up of syrah--three from the Rhône and one from California) a friend suggested, "If you want to understand wine, you must first know and understand the grape." Learning to distinguish one grape from another allows one to raise the glass with a certain expectation, with an informed idea about what it might or might not have to offer. Expectations may be met (or not) and are sometimes even surpassed; weighing those assessments is the fun part of the study, and eventually the responses become more and more intuitive. When I sit down to a piece of music, I bring a developed awareness for the idiomatic patterns, twists, and turns of each particular key. The terrain under my fingers is completely familiar thanks to years of practicing scales; I know what to expect but can also navigate the unexpected fairly well. Understanding wine is, perhaps, no different; it's a subtle study, more subjective, but one that can always return to the fundamental truth, to the grape. The grapes--syrah, pinot noir, or viognier--and the piano scales (G, f, or C-sharp)--are all revelations of truth.

drink (like fish)Forget the rhapsodic, romanticized approach to wine tasting. "I’m not going to tell you what you should be smelling or tasting--what’s important are your own opinions, whatever those may be." Such methods are as amusing as a beginning student who waves aside the fingering chart, "I’ve come up with my own fingering for this scale, so that I don’t have to cross my thumb at all." Why reinvent the wheel when concrete truths exist? These are the fixed guidelines from which to measure (and sometimes laugh at) our own opinions and strategies. There must be wine instructors as thorough and methodical as my childhood piano teacher. We all deserve as much.


Thanks for the perspective. One thing that astonishes me as I read this a few days later is that my relationship to piano scales and key regions is so very tactile. Many other musicians may find this odd; scales and keys, to them, are likely an aural territory and the way their ears hear certain keys is as distinct as the tongue tasting all those grapes. And yet, I'm also completely swept away by the romantic notions of "terroir" in relation to wine (well, it seems so romantic to me; it's probably quite scientific). These various viewpoints: touch vs. hearing; the grape vs. the ground; what's concretely identifiable and what's more personally connotated...wow, it's all just fascinating.

By Blogger Heather, at 7:14 PM  

I was bound to comment :)

I agree that it's important to be able to distinguish between grapes and know what's expected of them ("heavy for a pinot noir", "lacks the acidity one would expect of a sauvignon blanc"). I'm also of the mindset that people need to find their own terms to differentiate those aromas. This is largely because smell is so closely tied to memory and intertwingled with mental processes.

The example I always give is a former wine instructor who hails from Brazil. He describes wines based on all these tropical fruit flavors; that's what shapes his vocabulary. He can distinguish between the grapes, but he's found his own way of vocalizing that difference.

--Derrick Schneider

By Blogger Heather, at 7:14 PM  

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