My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The shortest post ever!

This has been another crazy spring semester for me which is why I haven't been posting much here.  Sorry about that!

In case you're interested I do try to post regularly on my Facebook page that is a companion to this blog - you could call it a mini-blog.  So feel free to pop on over and to "Like" the page if you want my posts to show up in your timeline every now and then.

And soon, very soon, the semester will be done!  I have a lot of posts up my sleeve so be prepared.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lessons about music and accompanying from a cricket

I've always loved children's literature which makes having a child a wonderfully convenient excuse to revisit it all.  Last month I was introduced to a classic tale which I had somehow missed growing up - George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square.  It is a sweet story about a cricket from Connecticut who suddenly finds himself in the hustle and bustle of New York City.   While reading about Chester the cricket's adventures in the big city I was surprised to stumble upon a page that reminded me of the value and power of music.  After accidentally burning down the newstand owned by the Bellini family and where he resides, the distraught cricket does what any musician would do - he cries through his music-making...
So Chester started to chirp again.  He was in such disgrace anyway, what difference could it make?  The piece he was playing was called "Come Back to Sorrento," and by the greatest good luck, it happened to be Mama Bellini's favorite song.  Back in Naples, Italy, when Papa was courting her before they came to America, he used to come beneath her window on a moonlit night and sing this ballad to the plunking of an old guitar.  As the cricket chirped, the whole scene came back to Mama: the still, warm night, the moon shining down on the velvety Bay of Naples, and Papa singing to her.  Tears welled up in her eyes as she thought of the bygone times, and very softly she began to murmur the words to the song.
Music and memory - such a powerful a combination.  And one that can magically turn the lights on a moment of tragedy with just a few heartfelt notes.

Even better, the story continues with this paragraph that gave me chills.  It's a wonderful lesson in the art of collaborating...
Chester Cricket had never played with so much skill before.  When he heard Mama singing, he slowed his tempo so she could keep up without straining.  When she was loud, he was too--and then softer when she got choked up with emotion and her voice dwindled.  But always his chirping carries her along, keeping her on the right beat and the right tune.  He was the perfect accompanist.
What I love about this passage is that it shows a lot of understanding about what it is I do at the piano - that my job is more than that of a musician, that it also involves sensitivity to my partner's state of mind and his or her needs at any given moment.  I wonder if George Selden was a collaborative type himself.  He definitely knows what he's talking about!

Most children's book authors do.

They're worth reading.

Even when you're not a kid.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Banishing stage-fright in the practice room

When I started livestreaming my practice sessions a few years ago one of the most frequent comments I received was something along the lines of, "You are so brave!"  Next in line was, "I could never do that!"  When I started my practice coaching business last summer and I mentioned to potential clients that I would like them to videotape a practice session so that I could see them in their natural element I was surprised by the consistent reaction of pure terror.  I would go so far as to guess that I've actually scared away clients by my request for me to enter their practice space in this way.  I even have a student with whom I regularly work that absolutely refuses to indulge my request to let me see her practice even though I'm offering to help her at no cost to her.  Her excuse?  "I don't even let my husband listen to me practice!"  

All of these passionate responses make me wonder what's going on here.  Why are musicians so reluctant to let others in on their practicing?

I think many musicians are genuinely embarrassed about what goes on in the practice room which makes me even more determined to get out there and to help people find a way to practice in which they can take great pride.  If people felt so good about their practicing that they could do it in front of others I am convinced that they would see dramatic improvement in their ability to learn music more quickly, accurately, and musically.  They would wake up wanting to practice rather than dreading it.  

What is it that we do in the practice room that makes us so embarrassed?

We don't know what to do.  
Our practicing would require lots of censoring.
We degrade ourselves.
We make a lot of mistakes.
We play unmusically.
We repeat things over and over again.
We think that what we're doing is boring.

Does practicing have to be like this?  Please wait a moment while I quickly run up the highest mountain to shout, "NO!!!!!!!!"  (Hear the echoes?  You should because I shouted that very loudly!)

We can begin to solve many of these problems by starting with one simple strategy - treat yourself just like you would treat your best friend, a student of yours, or a child of yours when they are trying to learn something new.  Would you swear at them?  Would you constantly jump on them for making mistakes?  Would you expect them to know exactly what to do at any given moment?  I don't think so.  So then why do we so often treat ourselves that way and have such high expectations of ourselves?  Although it can be challenging at times I strive to phrase things to myself in a positive or a neutral voice rather than a negative one when I'm practicing - "I think I need to do that passage more slowly" rather than "*&(#*&$(#!!  What was that?"

Another strategy I use is to make my practicing as musical as possible.  I use repetitions, which are a necessary tool in the practice room, to constantly explore musical options.  Using different rhythms while practicing fast passages keeps my ear hearing how the notes can flow into and away from one another differently and tests how well my fingers, ears, and mind comprehends all the notes.  Choosing to feel one main beat per measure one time and then two beats per measure another time gives me a different sense of how the phrasing can be and tests my knowledge of how the rhythms fit within those different pulses - the bigger the beat, the harder it typically is.  All of these tools keep my very busy and even entertained while I'm doing work that could easily end up as being boring.   I also make it a point to explore sound while I'm doing any type of work at the instrument.  If I start to hear myself playing with a less than desirable sound that's usually an indication that I've temporarily lost my knack for creative, engaged practicing and problem solving so I know to either stop or to reboot my creative mind.

Once we're treating ourselves with respect in the practice room and we're being creative and musical we're well on our way to conquering practice room stage-fright.  And in my experience when I have those two things going for me I also find that I am not constantly making mistakes because I'm engaged, I'm focused, I'm being objective, and solving problems.  These are all crucial for effective, frustration-free practicing.  As my favorite poet Rainer Maria Rilke said in his book, Letters to a Young Poet,
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your in the question.
This is good, honest work in which we should take pride!  Why would this type of work annoy or frustrate anyone listening?  Why should we be embarrassed about this type of work?  Let's strive to practice in a way that we're proud of and that we're willing to share with others.  Does this mean our practicing will be perfect?  Does this mean we aren't going to be making any mistakes at all?  No, definitely not.  But no performance is perfect so why not get in the habit of accepting what's coming out of our instrument and ourselves and moving on with confidence even within the confines of our practice space?  It's also a good time to remind ourselves that very rarely does the average audience member have a clue when we've missed a note or a word here or there.  This is even more true when someone happens to be within earshot of our hard work.  We hear and agonize over every imperfection - they more often than not hear it all, wrong notes and right notes, simply as music.  I believe it's important to throw open the practice room doors ever once in a while so we can get over ourselves and our performance fears, learn from one another, and so that others listening can enjoy hearing and experiencing the almost meditative process that practicing can be.

So who wants to go first? 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Too young to accompany?

© laufer -
For years I have been wondering about something.  Why is that I rarely hear about or see young pianists accompanying?  As someone that started accompanying at a very early age, around 8 years old, I find it hard to comprehend what my musical life would have been like and what it would be like today had I not been given the opportunities I had.  Learning to work with others and realizing how much I wanted to support them musically shaped who I am now and paved the way for me to be able to sustain a musical career wherever I find myself.  I wish I saw other young pianists being given the same opportunities and guidance.

I can understand the concerns people might have.  There isn't enough time in lessons or in life to coordinate getting together with another individual, to learn the music, and to rehearse.  Accompaniments are often too difficult for young pianists.  It would be too risky to trust a less-experienced pianist to adequately support another young musician and it might lead to a disaster at performance time.  Young pianists might not have the sensitivity that is necessary for collaborating with others.  They may not be good at sight-reading or playing without stopping when they make a mistake.  Their sense of rhythm might be weak...

Wait one second...

Lacking sensitivity to another musician, not being able to sight-read or play without stopping, not having a good sense of rhythm...It seems to me that all of these issues could actually be helped by putting them in a position where they have a tangible reason to fix them.  Pianists are so used to spending hour after hour, day after day, alone in their practice room.  It can get lonely!  And sometimes it can be a challenge to see why it is we are trying to fix certain issues, especially when it takes hard work to turn things around.  But when a musician starts playing with others, when others are depending on him or her, it can provide instant motivation to tackle weaknesses head-on.  Even better, it's fun and social!  

I think one fear folks might have is that young pianists aren't good enough to handle the repertoire.  My response?  That's silly!  There's a lot out there besides Franck, Hindemith, and Bozza, some of the composers that tend to make a collaborator groan, panic, or roll their eyes when it ends up on his or her docket.  How about the earliest Suzuki books?  The first two volumes of the cello series (and probably also the violin and viola series) are very accessible.  Since many of them are arrangements of piano pieces that appear in beginning piano method books, the accompaniment ends up being easier than the original since the cello takes the melody.  Why not start with those?  And for pieces that might be a little more difficult, with a little guidance a young pianist could learn how to artfully leave notes out - I like to think of it as arranging.  This is a skill that seems to be virtually nonexistent except among seasoned collaborators.  In this world where perfection is the norm, many might see my penchant for "arranging" as scandalous but I see it as survival.  (For more on this topic, feel free to read my post, "Confessions of a Piano Collaborator."  The comments are also well worth a read!)

As for the issue of time.  Yes, it does take time and energy to coordinate schedules and to make it possible for young pianists to dip their toes into the world of accompanying but it is so worth it! And so fun!  And so beneficial!  I also think most kids would enjoy the challenge and the social aspect of it.  As a parent I can tell you that seeing my child excited about something new is worth any extra amount of effort it might take to make it all happen.  

And now for the last part of my soapbox exposition...

I believe the world needs more good accompanists and collaborators, not necessarily to accompany other professionals, but to be out in the community, out in the real world, playing alongside amateurs and music students.  They are needed everywhere - in the city and in the country, in schools and in churches, in lessons, at name it.  Notice that I said the need is for good accompanists.  Experience and guidance to get a pianist to such a level should start when musicians are young and can more easily acquire the skills that are so valuable in the accompanying world.  Why wait?  It rarely gets easier.  And then if they continue on in their piano studies but decide that solo performing is not for them, or if they want to have a varied career as pianist, they already have some training under their belt.  Or should they choose to be a doctor, a stay-at-home parent, or a teacher, their accompanying skills could supplement their lives with social musical activities - playing with the church choir, playing for dance classes, accompanying local studios in town, playing with other amateurs.  What a wonderful way to enrich life for everyone involved!

© maxximmm -
You never know.  Kids that get exposed to the art of accompanying early on might fall in love with it as I did and find constant inspiration and motivation in doing it day after day, year after year.  I don't know if it's the same way in the big cities, but I can tell you that in smaller communities skilled accompanists and collaborators are always needed!  It's definitely not a lonely job and I promise you I am never, ever bored.  

So let's get out a hook and catch us some young accompanists, shall we?  You never know what we'll find.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Discovering what teaching is all about

It's been a quiet year here on my blog.  As teaching is becoming more and more prominent in my life, I'm finding it more challenging to find the time to write here.  But hopefully that will change one of these days.

Since teaching has found its way (finally!) into my heart, I thought I'd share what I've been discovering about myself as a teacher.  Perhaps jotting it down and receiving feedback from others will help me to get back into writing.  So here goes.  My current teaching philosophy, as of today.  If anyone has any comments by all means, chime in!  I'd love to hear what you have to say.

After teaching as a graduate assistant in college I vowed never to teach in a classroom again, not because I felt I had not succeeded – a teaching award and the support of my students and advisors showed me otherwise, but because of the realization of the intense responsibility involved.  Being the perfectionist that I am I found it difficult at the time to teach knowing that I wanted to teach better.  I should have known then that my reticence meant that I was destined to become an educator many years later and to fall in love with it.  My first experiences back in the field confirmed what I had suspected all along – that yes, teaching is incredibly challenging but that it also pays one back ten-fold in the inspiring and self-propelling direction that a student’s life can take with thoughtful teaching. 

As a teacher I believe in approaching each student as an individual, not only exposing the areas that need improvement, but also discovering each one’s strengths so that I can help them find ways to utilize and highlight them.  I have found that students are much more open and willing to work hard if they first feel good about what skills and natural talents they already have.  I feel it is my role to be an honest but sensitive mirror of who they are and what they are capable of. 

In the classroom I direct the students’ attention to the process of learning rather than focusing on end products.  The norm with preparing projects and assignments is for students to delay working until the last second.  The attitude is that as long as it gets done, they will receive a grade – in their mind, this is often sufficient.   Yet how often is it that we, their teachers, see how much better a project could have been or how much more learning could have taken place had the student been working with consistency?  In an effort to curtail this approach I spread projects out over extended periods of time, breaking them into smaller components that require the students to live with the concepts for longer.  This also gives me more opportunities to give constructive feedback, encourage creativity, and assist with problem solving.  By the time they have a finished product they have learned about planning, process, and the mastery that can come from such an approach – all things they can carry with them into every aspect of their lives.  Since I’ve shifted my focus from product to process I have been amazed at how much more initiative the students have to go beyond what I have asked of them.  Excited and encouraged, students respond by taking their education into their own hands, and taking more pride in what they accomplish.

Related to process-oriented learning, one of the teaching tools I regularly use is the asking and answering of open-ended questions.  New students regularly respond to them with looks of bewilderment – they are there to get answers, they seem to think, not to answer them.  Rests in the music are a great opportunity for such a question.  “What is happening in that rest?  Is it a pause after a question?  Is it a moment for a change of mood?”  Or another favorite of mine is asking what’s different about musical material that appears in multiple places in the score and then asking why the composer chose to present the material differently.  “Does he go up the octave this time because he wants to change the timbre and create a different atmosphere?”  “Can you believe what key she has gone to here?  Why would she do that?”  Sometimes I feel they fear giving a “wrong” answer to questions such as these, a side effect perhaps of our test and grade oriented education system.  Having them come up with answers to open-ended questions, where there aren’t necessarily “wrong” answers, gives them the opportunity to start thinking for themselves and helps them to start enjoying the process of learning and exploring.

One of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, penned the following words -“If the Angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her, not by tears but by your humble resolve to always beginning; to be a beginner.”  These are words that I live and teach by.  If I focus on the process of gaining whatever I am trying to achieve I am claiming that status of being a beginner and with this acknowledgment I am free to talk and collaborate with colleagues with a sense of open-mindedness and curiosity, I am inspired to write about topics that are of interest to me and to receive feedback from others, and I am motivated to learn and perform new repertoire.  Growth is just as important for educators as it is for the students that we teach.  I believe that by sharing with students the journey I am perpetually on to keep improving as a musician, teacher, and person, I am inspiring those that I teach to approach life and their studies in a way that helps them to take ownership of their own education and lives. 

Teaching is about more than teaching my field.  It is about helping students approach life in a way that will keep them engaged, curious, and passionate in all that they put their hands to.  Every time I am approached by one of my students that is excited by something new they've discovered by him or herself I count that a success for each of us.  It is a thrill every time and a motivator for me to stay put in the classroom.