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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Making sense of song by Richard Strauss through botany

Yes, you read that correctly.  In the course of this one blog post I am going to attempt to use a brief study in botany to unravel an issue I am having in the accompaniment to a song by Richard Strauss.


My problem started with a rehearsal I had with a student vocalist.  I was sightreading Strauss' song, Gefunden.  Everything was going along swimmingly and I was thoroughly enjoying the tranquillity of the piece when we reached the last four measures of the song.  All of a sudden I felt incredibly disoriented.  I stopped the singer, looked at her part to make sure she was singing her line correctly, looked at my part to make sure I was playing the right notes, and then said, "Something isn't right.  I think there must be a mistake in the music."  The singer told me she had sung it over the summer and didn't remember anyone mentioning any misprints in the score so we decided to proceed as if all was well, with me declaring at the end of rehearsal that I would look into the misprint possibility.

 Last night I decided to face the music and see what I could make of the situation.  Pulling out the score and opening my laptop to YouTube I found a reputable recording and took a listen.  According to Hans Hotter and Geoffrey Parsons, musicians I figured I could trust, my score was, alas, correct.  Ugh.  Why? Why? Why?

Never wanting to grow enemies with something, especially in music, I decided to do what I do when I find myself starting to glower at the piano or the music.  I became determined to figure out what on earth Strauss was thinking when he wrote the part I didn't like.  (Notice the past tense there...this post is going to have a happy ending!)

The first thing I did was I looked up the translation of the song, reading first through the entire poem, and then focusing on the text in my thorn-in-my-side spot.  Here is a link in case you're curious.  It's a lovely poem by Goethe...the protagonist walks in the woods, encounters a flower which he bends down to pick, has a little conversation with same flower who asks him not to pick her, he digs it up instead and replants it near a house where it grows and blooms.  Lovely, right?  So what are the words when the crunchy, dissonant part occurs?  Here they are:
Now it keeps growing
and goes on blooming. 
OK.  Well, that didn't explain anything to me.  I still didn't get what Strauss is doing because I can't see any hint of negativity or angst in those words so I decided to try something else - looking at some theory.

Now before anyone stops reading this post out of fear and distaste for theory, let me assure you, this is not going to get terribly messy.  I am not a music theory nerd and I didn't do that well at it in school but I've always tried to apply it to my understanding of the pieces I'm working on.  My journey with theory, I'm sure, will never end and I'm always trying to learn more through direct application.  With that said, let's look at the score.

I'm great at looking at keys so let's do that and see if it gets us anywhere.  The song is in F major and for the most part it's straight-forward harmonically, although he does move into A-flat major several times.  But then we get to the first measure on the bottom line, which is pictured above.  Here, the piano, with no warning at all, goes into D-flat major while this time, the voice stays in F major.  F and D-flat major are not the closest of keys and if you look at that first measure you'll see that while the singer is singing a D the piano is playing A-flats, G-flats, E-flats, and C's.  Oh my - lots of dissonance!  Even at the end of that measure, the singer moves down to a C but there's also a D-flat just a half-step up from that in the piano part.  The second measure is not quite as crunchy but I feel pretty confused about where Strauss is going harmonically until the second half of the measure when the piano part abruptly shifts yet again, but this time back to F major to join what the voice has been doing all along.

At this point in my investigation I was intrigued.  I felt like I was definitely onto something.  I looked back at the text again, read the entire poem several times, and tried to picture what was going on.  It was then that the proverbial lightbulb went off over my head.

In this story, a flower, roots and all, gets dug up, carried away, and transplanted to a different location.  I'm not a great gardener but I have tried my hands at it enough to know that moving plants from one place to another has its risks.  Transplant shock is a real possibility which can cause a plant to die.  Perhaps that is what is happening in these two measures at the end of Gefunden.  The piano part is like the plant being suddenly plopped in a completely different place, dealing with new soil, light, and exposure to the elements.  There is a sense of conflict and discomfort.  By the middle of the second measure, however, it has thankfully adjusted and finds itself growing and thriving once again.

Perhaps I'm being far-fetched but in my mind, who cares?  What matters is that now I have an explanation, at least for myself, of why the accompaniment is the way it is.  And now I am eager to try it out with the singer and to see what I can do to make it all work together in the artistic way Strauss probably intended.

Success!  I told you this would have a happy ending, as virtually all my musical investigations do.

I'll leave you in the hands of Hotter and Parsons...enjoy!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Giveaway of my book, Inspired Practice and SPECIAL SALE!!!!

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the inspiring and wonderful Wendy Stevens - pianist, composer, blogger, and entrepreneur extraordinaire.  If you haven't run across her before, you need to get to know her, especially if you are a pianist and even more so if you are studio teacher.  She has so many brilliant ideas, great resources on her website, has written some amazing, fun rhythm books, writes wonderful compositions, and is so willing to share what she has learned from her years of teaching. I've admired her for years and have purchased a lot of her products so when she asked if I'd be willing to donate a copy of my book, Inspired Practice,  for her to give away on her own website,  of course I was delighted and honored to say YES!

The giveaway is going on for another 6 days,  ending on November 14th at 11:45pm.  All you have to do is go to her blog, read her little interview with me and then enter!  Actually, you don't really have to read through the interview, but why not?  There's a link within the post that will take you to the giveaway.  And be sure to check out the myriad of ways you can increase your chances of winning.  The more you share the private link you're given when you enter with others, the more entries you get!  What fun!

But wait, there's more!! 

I was going to wait until I had written my 300th blog post (only 2 more to go!), but I felt like now was the right time to put on sale both the softcover of my book and the PDF version.  It's the least I can do to thank everyone for reading my blog and my Facebook page on a regular basis.  So for right now, for a mysterious length of time, the prices are:

Softcover - $20.00 plus applicable taxes/shipping & handling (normally $28.95)
PDF - $5.99 (normally $9.99)

So what are you waiting for?  Help me celebrate my almost-300th post by buying one for yourself, your teacher, your students, or a friend.

Click here to see more info about the book and to place an order.

Many thanks to everyone who reads and comments on my blog.  I appreciate knowing that people are reading the crazy things I have to say! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

A fresh new view of "technique"

I have been told ever since I was a little girl that I have great, natural technique.  But here's the odd thing - I have consistently avoided practicing technique all of my life.  As a matter of fact, and this is the first time I've publicly admitted this, when I was getting my undergrad degree in piano performance at the Eastman School of Music and studying with Nelita True, I stealthily defied her rules and got through my three or four years with her without ever passing her technique exam.  

Before you judge me, let me tell you, if you just knew what it was like, you'd completely understand!  Even the thought of this technique exam gave people nightmares!  Everything was on it - every scale in every direction, contrary motion, thirds, sixths, and octaves.  I think Mr. Hanon was involved...Moszkowski too.  And of course the metronome marking at which this all had to be delivered was practically off the metronome it was so fast.  The routine went on and on in one continuous, devilish whirlwind of pianistic madness.  I got knots in my stomach every time one of my studio mates performed it in studio class.  That's right.  Her students were expected to perform it in front of the entire studio.


Now don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily see anything bad about this requirement.  I just didn't have the nerve to do it myself and it didn't help that I had always been told that I had good technique naturally. "Why bother?" I asked myself.

Of course this stealthy move of mine so many years ago regularly comes back to haunt me.  It also makes me ponder how it is that I can have good technique even though I've never focused on it.  I'm not exactly sure of the answer but I do have some thoughts that were reignited after watching a short clip of Leon Fleisher that Graham Fitch had posted on his Facebook page the other day.  It is just over a minute long and really needs to be watched!

Here is my transcription of what he said...please forgive any inaccuracies.  I think it's so good it needs to be in writing too.
“I think technique is the ability to produce what you want.  The presupposition is that you want something.  So before going to the piano and practicing, training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it’s in the brain, it’s in the inner ear.  You have to hear, Schnabel used to say it all the time, you have to hear before you play.  If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident and then everything is built then on an accident.   So want something, hear it…go for and experiment, do outrageous things.  You know, when you’re in the privacy of your studio, what a luxury.  No metronome police, nothing.  You can try whatever you want. So experiment."
So many great thoughts in a very short amount of time.  Right now I want to focus on one little phrase - "training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it's in the brain, it's in the inner ear."  I'm not just trying to make pathetic excuses for my lack of bravery or my laziness by pointing this out - I truly believe what Fleisher is getting at here.  At least in my own experience, if I have the music clearly in my head, if I've determined exactly what I want from a particular passage, even a technically demanding one, there is very little I have to do at the piano to make it work right.  Yes, I need to make sure I have good fingerings, which can largely be figured out away from the piano but paired with a complete understanding of each and every note and rhythm, accompanied by an internalization of what the music means to me, that's all I need along with a handful of repetitions.  A handful!  Not 100 like I've heard some people use as a benchmark for thorough practice.  If that was my expectation, I would have quit music ages ago!  

Some people might respond to my last paragraph saying, "Yeah, but that's you!  You said it yourself, you've always had good technique!"

Right.  But maybe I've always had good technique because I have always had a very good inner ear that guides my hands - I don't let my body get in the way.  I have worked with so many students that don't appear to have a natural technique yet when I guide them through a process of audiating difficult passages in isolation and then encourage them to stop trying to physically control what they are doing at their instrument, they are amazed at how quickly all their problems are cleared up.  They feel like it should be harder to fix.  A few minutes of intense brain and ear work, which is usually a completely new experience for them, can make hours of repetitive practice and frustration obsolete.  My conclusion after witnessing this work countless times, is that our bodies are smarter than we often give them credit for.  Having a crisp, clear aural picture of what needs to happen is enough - the body can more often than not translate brilliantly what's in our heads and ears with far greater ease and accuracy.

With all this said, it makes me wonder if I should fess up to Nelita True and ask her if I can finally take her technique exam so that I can live the rest of my life without guilt.  If I do, maybe I'll test my hypothesis about mental learning and try preparing for it away from the piano. You never know, it may feel like a piece of cake that way!

Or maybe not.  Any votes on what I should do?  And Dr. True, feel free to chime in yourself!


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Let me count the ways - a piano collaborator's ode to an artform

I recently had the great joy of giving a masterclass for young pianists who were trying their hands, many for the first time I believe, at collaborating with their peers.  Readers of my blog will not be surprised to hear that I ate up every moment of our time together.  I am a huge advocate for enlisting pianists into the collaborative piano field because I believe there are many advantages of spending at least part of one's time and career in this role, whether one is a student, amateur, or professional.  I also believe our world needs more skilled pianists that are willing to serve musicians of all ages and abilities.  Although I realize I've outlined some of these advantages in at least one other blog post, I'm going to do it again with the hope that something new will pop up this time around and that maybe this post will catch the eye of someone new.

In my mind, here are some of the benefits of learning how to accompany, especially at an early age:

  • It's a social way for pianists to be involved in music-making.  So much of our time is spent alone in the practice room.  It is more difficult, as pianists, to find opportunities to make music with others.  Especially for high schoolers I think this social outlet can help keep someone in the game who might otherwise quit.
  • It gives pianists a sense of purpose and of being needed.  An extension of my first point, solo playing can start to feel a bit selfish after a while.  At least for me it can start to feel like I'm doing it solely because I like doing it or because I like the music.  When I throw another person into the mix, however, I sense a shift in purpose.  It's no longer about "me" but rather about "us."  I like that!  Even when the accompaniment part is one of those "easy" ones that require little practice, I still know that without it the music would not be the same.  Being a collaborator puts me in a role that inspires the nurturing, guiding, supporting side of myself.  It feels great to be needed and for a young person, feeling needed can make a dark, lonely, seemingly pointless world seem a lot brighter.
  • When pianists collaborate they are opening the doors to countless libraries of new and different repertoire.   I realize that as pianists we have so much music at our fingertips that we need not fear running out at any time, but I think most people enjoy having an excuse to check out other composers and styles of music.  Granted, some of it can be downright scary and un-pianistic, (thank you Paris Conservatory for your yearly competitions that seem to have inspired some of the most devilishly tricky piano parts!) But even then, all that different repertoire keeps life interesting and our brains working in full gear.  Maybe collaborators live longer thanks to the intense mental workouts we put ourselves through.  Somehow I doubt there's been a study on that topic.
  • Collaborating gives us many more opportunities to perform.  Having just a few solo performances a year can make every performing experience a daunting one and it makes it challenging to practice performing.  When we collaborate, however, we often find ourselves performing more than we ever thought we would or even could.  It gives us lots of practice in a safe way.  And for me, because I'm in a support role, any nerves I might have tend to be outweighed by my desire to be there for the person with whom I'm playing.  Another advantage is that when collaborating, memory isn't necessary.  For those students for whom memory can be a stressor, being able to use music in performance can be an encouraging experience that leads to more confidence.  In time, successes can infuse courage into music-free solo performances as well.
  • Playing with different instruments and voice types can open up our ears to new sounds and different timbres.  I can often guess when a pianist hasn't worked much with other instrumentalists or singers because their sound tends to be very vanilla.  Having grown up in a fantastic youth orchestra as a cellist surrounded by the most incredible sounds, I have those different timbres, colors, and densities of sound in my mind even when I'm at the piano.  I strive to pull an orchestra out of the piano strings, pedals, and hammers.  Rarely does a young pianist have the opportunity to participate in an orchestra so accompanying with different types of musicians should be a part of their education in my mind.  It gives them a palette of multiple colors, textures, and thicknesses rather than just a few shades of black and white.
  • Working as a team player brings a pianist a different motivation to work hard.  No pressure here, fellow pianists, but in my opinion a pianist can make or break a performance in a collaborative situation.  That's not to say that the pianist has to play the music perfectly - I don't believe in the importance of note-perfect performances because I think that's unrealistic and simply not the point.  But I do think the pianist has a lot of responsibility on his or her shoulders.  Time spent in the practice room is for a very clear cause and that sense of purpose can lead to a pointed concentration that can carry on into a pianist's solo practicing as well.
  • It can help pianists let go of their quest for "perfection."  I think it's safe to say that most professional collaborators learn that delivering a note-perfect performance is rarely, if ever, possible.  I daresay sometimes it's not even desirable especially when we're talking about an orchestral reduction for which the arranger was paid by each note he jumbled the page with.  (I've heard this is why so many of the reductions are as beastly as they are!)  Check out my blog post, "Confessions of a piano collaborator" from several years ago to read about some of my creative escapades on the keyboard.  There are usually lightbulb moments once a pianist realizes that people rarely if ever realize when he or she has judiciously left out notes or artfully re-arranged the music.  And once this revelation has been made, wrong notes in a solo performance don't seem nearly as disastrous either.  The focus instead falls on the music and on expression - always a good thing in my book!
  • There's nothing quite like collaborating to reveal any weaknesses one may have in regards to rhythm and pulse.  To extend my earlier point about working as a team player, it becomes clear quite quickly that a collaborator can't add beats here and there or fudge rhythms as successfully when there is someone else whose part needs to interlock with the pianist's part.  The pianist needs to be the conductor at all times, without fail, all the while also being sensitive and aware of anyone else.  
  • When working with singers especially, collaborating can bring a new dimension into musical interpretation.  Pianists so often have to dig deep in order to come up with a storyline or something to say in their music unless it's clearly programmatic.  Singers have the great advantage of having text to inspire their musical decisions.  Working with vocal literature can inspire more drama and creativity when it comes to the interpretation of solo piano literature. 
  • After some experience, collaborating can improve one's sight-reading skills and can help pianists see the value of developing them further.  I believe that it is very difficult to work on this skill on one's own.  It's much easier when there's another musician playing along, especially someone that's able to play or sight-read at a higher level.  My mother made me play duets with her regularly starting at a very early age.  I whined and groaned about it a lot at the time but I really should send her a bouquet of flowers every week for the rest of her life to thank her for doing that!
  • Rehearsals require a level of verbal communication that will serve anyone well in whichever field they end up in.  In order for rehearsals to be productive, good communication has to happen between musicians that are playing with one another.  It takes time and practice to get good at it but it's so worth the effort.  I once tweeted that if politicians conducted business the way musicians conduct rehearsals the world would be a much better place.  I still believe that to be true and judging from the reaction of others to that tweet, I'm not alone.  
  • If we can get young pianists interested and experienced in collaborating at a young age they will be more likely to use their skills as an adult, regardless of whether or not they are professionals.  I can tell you that especially outside of big cities, there is a desperate need for skilled pianists to accompany in the community.  Whether it's for church choirs, local music studios, in the schools, or in the community, there need to be more pianists that feel comfortable collaborating.  It helps that is also a good way to earn some money doing something social and personally satisfying. 

Can you tell I love what I do?  Sigh...

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the topic.  If anyone has any to add, by all means, please do by commenting at the end of this post! 

Monday, October 27, 2014

New livestreaming project! "Practice on a Dime of Time"

I've decided to get back into livestreaming my practice sessions.  This time my goal is to record in shorter segments, between 10 and 20 minutes at a time which is why I'm calling this series, as corny as it is, "Practice on a Dime of Time."  My thought is that:

  • people don't have time to listen to me practice all day.
  • I don't have time to practice all day.
  • I have a difficult time finding large blocks of time when our piano is available to play since my husband uses the studio to teach much of the day.
  • it's better for me (and most people) to practice in small little segments.
  • it might be interesting and informative for people to see that improvement can actually happen in a short amount of time.

For those of you who have never seem me do this, it's probably helpful to know that I narrate what's going on in my head while I'm practicing.  You'll see and hear me give myself feedback (hopefully in a civil way), problem solve, test out various strategies, and explore musical choices in the process.  And yes, you will probably catch some not-so-good practice strategies as well - I am human, after all.  I actually think there's value in seeing me flail every now and then.

My goal is to do this on a regular basis but I'll be pretty sporadic in terms of what time of day I'll be livestreaming.  I will tweet and post on my Facebook page when I'm about to go live so keep an eye on my postings if you want to catch one.  I'll also be checking the social media streams in between sessions so if you have a pressing question that arises while watching, let me know and I'll try to answer you promptly.

If you miss the livestream sessions you'll be able to watch them on my ustream channel for up to 30 days or on my YouTube playlist at any time.

Here are my three sessions from today.  I particularly love (hear the sarcasm!) the thumbnail image that accompanies the first video - yikes!  I hope you find something useful in watching them and please do spread the word!