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CAROLYN ELLIS writes about
her battle with Gershwin and the metronome


Since my childhood piano teacher of forty years ago never used a metronome, it was not until I returned to piano lessons in 2008 that I was introduced to 'the dragon', that is, the metronome. The only way I was able to endure 'the dragon' at all over the next year was that the music I was playing pretty much had a 'clock' written directly into it -- be it a nice lilting three-four time waltz tempo or a carefully metered left hand. With or without the dragon, however, playing Gershwin this year has proven to be my undoing. When my piano teacher suggested I set the dragon at cut tempo and count out loud while tapping my fingers on the piano desk -- no playing at all -- I knew at once that I would have to either 'slay' the dragon or be conquered myself.

Slaying 'the dragon'

Three days of dutifully tapping my way through the opening pages of the Gershwin arrangement I was working on at home, I eventually got to a point where I became so discouraged that I considered simply giving up -- not just giving up playing Gershwin but giving up lessons altogether! Oddly enough, in the midst of this turmoil I was reminded of my college days back in the seventies.

While long ago I sailed through High School by simply paying attention in class and doing my homework, once I got to college it became clear that I would have to devote hours to memorizing and studying if I had any hopes of passing my courses, something I was entirely unprepared to do since I had never acquired the habit of study. By the beginning of Sophomore Year I was so exasperated that I dropped out of college -- permanently. In other words, as a college student when I was faced with the 'dragon of discipline' I caved in and ran away from my problems rather than work through them. This time, however, instead of giving up when things got challenging, I ultimately found the strength and motivation to press on.

The breakthrough that turned the tide for me in all this was finally learning how to get my tapping to line up with the dragon's unrelenting beat. Now two weeks into my Gershwin piece, I cannot say that I have entirely conquered the arrangement I am working on but I have at least de-constructed the tempo enough to recognize that I will ultimately be able to give a fully creditable rendition of Gershwin's lush lyricism.

Persevering and learning to temper my zeal for the piano with a kind of precision, as well as humility and discipline, which I have never achieved before, has been very healing for me -- especially when you consider that the dragon I really slayed here is not the metronome but rather my own lack of discipline. O the wonder! How appropriate that the name of the piece I am working on is You Can't Take That Away From Me.

Copyright © 18 November 2009 Carolyn Ellis,
Texas USA







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