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, May 7, 2019

The Art of Practice Performing: bringing performing into the practice room

I don't really know where I got the idea to start making practice performing a part of my regular routine but it's now something I rely upon all the time and that I attribute to my comfort on the stage.

Let's start with what practice performing is to me.

Practice performing is a time in my practice sessions when I take off my practice hat and pretend like I am on stage performing in front of an audience - no stopping and no negative verbal commentary, with a focus on delivering a performance full of musicality.  Those are the basic facets.

Practice performing can be done at any point after I've learned the notes of a particular section, movement, or piece and when I can play it at a tempo that is somewhere in the ballpark of where I'd ultimately like to perform it.

What are the benefits of practice performing?
  • Because I set the goal for myself not to stop no matter what and to say not-so-nice things to myself out loud during practice performing stints, it's great practice for when I actually do perform. It takes practice to know what to do instead. If I really do a number on a passage and my brain starts dishing out lines like, "you should have practiced more" or "you're not ready" I purposefully play a more productive, objective mental tape that I've prescribed like, "Keep singing" or "where do I want to go with this phrase?"  Doing this in the practice room on a regular basis makes it much more likely that in performance I'll choose more positive tapes and have a healthier attitude.
  • It's a good assessment tool throughout the later stages of learning a piece. So often it can feel like I'm never going to get it up to speed, or that a difficult passage won't ever be comfortable. When I push myself past my comfort zone by asking myself to practice perform I often surprise myself in a good way. I realize that I can, in fact, make it through with some amount of grace and musicality in spite of missed notes or improvised passages. That's an encouraging thing and worth a lot in terms of getting me back to the practice room, especially when I'm at that frustrating plateau stage.
  • Practice performing gives me a chance to switch from leaning on the analytical, left side of the brain (I like to think of it as the nerdy side), to the more creative right side. In the process of learning music and during most types of practicing the left side is what I strive to be in touch with a majority of the time. That's the side of the brain that helps solve problems and analyze the music. But that's also the side that I'd rather not have come to the party when I walk on stage. It's the right side of the brain that brings music to life, that brings creativity and imagination to a performance. When it comes time to perform and nerves kick in, guess which side likes to present itself more? Yup, the nerdy, analytical side. That's why I invite my creative side into the picture on a regular basis during these practice performing stints. It makes it more likely that I'll be able to find it when I want it at performance time.
  • Often when I do practice performing I record myself so that I can listen back, not to listen for all the tiny mistakes or to allow for those annoying negative tapes to start playing, but rather to listen as if I'm an audience member. Does the music have a natural flow? Does it have a good sense of architecture about it? Are there highs and lows? Does the phrasing sound natural? Sometimes in listening back I hear hidden melodic lines I hadn't noticed before or I'm moved by a harmony that I hadn't yet noticed. It's a way to encourage constructive feedback rather than self-defeating criticism. Self-defeating criticism will cripple a performance and can be felt by the audience. Constructive feedback will allow a performance to go on successfully and in a way that can be enjoyable, even for the performer. 
  • When I know that I'm going to do a practice performance of something later on in a practice session it makes it much easier for me to focus on the disciplined work and problem solving that needs to happen beforehand. 
  • Practice performing helps me to fall in love with the music all over again. It also helps me get back in touch with why I study music and why I perform for others. I remember that it's not about all the individual notes being the right place at the right time, it's about the music behind those notes. 
Is practice performing fun? I think at first most musicians would answer with an emphatic "no!"; we would rather not think about performing since it's often fraught with a lot of anxiety. But just as we have to practice our music on a regular basis, I believe performing also needs to be practiced, with or without an audience. So next time you're in the practice room, take off that practice room hat and step onto the stage for a moment. You never know - you might find that performing can be pretty fun, especially when it's just for yourself and your imaginary audience. 


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Guest Post by Nathan Holder: Social Music Anxiety

A word from Erica first and then we'll get to Nathan's wise words: I met Nathan through an email he sent me about a book he's written, I Wish I Didn't Quit. I rarely respond to these emails but when I looked into his book and his background I was intrigued. I read through his book and found that he has a fresh way of looking at the purpose of private music instruction and how we can use views such as his to increase the chances that young musicians will stick with music lessons for a longer period of time. After passing on my responses to his book to Nathan and having a bit of an email chat, he asked if I'd be interested in having him write a post to be shared on my blog. I liked his topic since I'm a bit of a Twitter junkie and because I really appreciate what he has to say, so without further ado here's his post! Enjoy. And then "go be you" as he says. 


I’ve just finished practising some chromatic patterns that are really challenging me, but I’m glad that I’m finally getting to grips with them. That last hour of practice has just flown by and it’s getting late so I decide to stop for the evening. Almost as subconsciously, I reach for my phone and immediately open Instagram. I hardly have to look at my phone to access any social media apps these days; if only my fingers could navigate scales and arpeggios in the same way!
I scroll down and I see that one of my friends has posted a video of them playing their piano. I unmute the video and smile. The smile quickly turns into a look of bewilderment.

3,049 views. 

He only posted this video a couple of hours ago. I click on his username and let out a slightly audible gasp.

7209 followers! When did that happen?

I keep scrolling and see a great professional shot of another musician friend taken at one of her recent concerts.

492 likes. 16 comments.

A few profiles later and another friend of mine has posted a picture of himself in LA, about to perform at an international festival.

883 likes. 27 comments.

I check the last picture I posted of myself. 

85 likes. 2 comments. 1 is spam.

I turn my phone over in disgust. When will I get more followers? When will my videos get more comments and views? When will I get that endorsement deal? Am I not good enough? Not good looking enough? Not friends with the right people? Wrong instrument? Maybe I should just give up.

It’s so easy to look at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms and instantly compare ourselves to other people. Those who appear to be consistently on tour, consistently gigging, consistently uploading pictures in great venues with great artists. They get their random musings retweeted, funny videos shared and seem to be supported by many organisations.
If those things aren’t happening for you, it’s easy to feel that these posts are taunting you, reminding you of all the things you don’t have. The awards you didn't win. The artists you could have performed with. If only you had paid more attention in music classes. If only you were a different gender. If only the clothes you wore were more revealing…

I think it’s important that we talk about how social media affects us as musicians. Seeing what other musicians post can stop us from sharing moments from our own musical journeys, only because we feel that our pictures or videos don’t look or sound as good as other people’s. It’s important to remember that there will always be people interested in what you do and who you are, on or off social media. Just imagine if Miles Davis had seen a post from Dizzy Gillespie and decided to never record an album? Or if Adele decided that Aretha Franklin’s music and legacy meant that no-one would care about what she had to say through her music? 

The fact is, we often have no idea about what goes on behind the scenes in other people’s lives. We have to be careful not to see other people's posts and use that to start telling ourselves how talentless, unattractive or boring we think we are. You are as unique and special in your own right just like they are. Like Jill Scott once said of Erykah Badu, ‘We all have our own thing, that’s the magic. Everybody comes with their own sense of strength and their own Queendom. Mine could never compare to her’s, and her’s could never compare to mine’. Even though someone else may have a larger following, more gigs or an endorsement, it doesn’t mean that you never will. It doesn't mean that the person is deliriously happy with their lives or even that their sense of self-worth is dependent on the likes they receive either. Their journey is their journey. Yours is yours. Express yourself knowing, as the jazz standard says, There Will Never Be Another You.

It’s also important to remember that you are not just a musician! You may be a brother, sister, aunty, parent, bookworm, gamer, writer or a foodie! Being a musician is only a percentage of the things you do, and is in no way an indication of who you are as a person. People will rarely share every aspect of themselves online and if you try to compare your whole self to the small percentage that others share about themselves, no wonder you can end up feeling as though you aren’t enough. As much as you can, try to separate what you do from who you are, even if it means spending less time looking at what others care about, and spending more time on what you care about.

If you feel any of the emotions I’ve written about in this post, don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to the people around you and I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how many people have had similar thoughts to you. If you need to take a break from Instagram or Twitter then do it - it’ll be waiting for you when you get back. As much as I think (and know) that social media can be a powerful tool to help you learn and grow, it’s increasingly important to understand how you feel in relation to it. No matter what, don’t let other people’s pictures or videos stop you from sharing your practising, your gigs or your music.

You never know who you might inspire.

And I guarantee there is someone looking at your profile who wishes they could be like you!

So be you.

Be sure to visit Nathan's webpage where he regularly publishes informative posts and podcasts. You can also follow him on Facebook, and Twitter.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Practicing and performing when faced with a migraine

Practicing and performing music has many challenges. With migraines, they are magnified. As with any job, when coming face to face with yet another one, I am also faced with the question, "How am I going to get done what I need to get done?"

I know I am not alone. Every day I find musicians on Twitter that are asking this same question so I thought I would spend a few minutes sharing my experience in the hope that it will help others in the same boat feel a little less alone and a little more understood.

For me there is a difference between how I deal with practicing and performing when I'm dealing with a migraine. With performing I feel there aren't really many options since it's very difficult to cancel a performance, especially when it involves other musicians. But there some things I keep in mind.

  • I lower my expectations. My goal is simply to get through the performance as gracefully as possible. More often than not I lose the ability to sing along with the music and to immerse myself in musical intention so I've come to accept in situations like this that I may have to perform in a way that isn't as musically satisfying to me. Very often it feels like it's truly an act of survival and I have to trust that my years and years of being musical and my musical training show through in spite of what's going on (or not going on) in my head.
  • I count on adrenaline helping me out. While I'm playing music, my migraine usually fades into the background slightly so I try to stay positive and look forward to a little relief while I'm playing.
  • If I'm performing by myself I very intentionally take the edge off all the tempos that I can. When I'm experiencing a migraine my brain has a very difficult time working as quickly as it usually does. There is also less coordination between my brain and my body so having a little extra time to let my brain reset or catch up with itself can be beneficial. 
  • I actively remind myself to breathe whenever I can - before I start playing, in between phrases, during rests, and right before difficult sections. It can be so tempting when I'm in pain to hold my breath, as if that will get me through the situation faster. Unfortunately that's not very helpful and tends to make matters worse. 
  • I'm intentional about keeping my eyes relaxed and I try not to focus on reading the notes on the page quite as much. Staring and not blinking can make my migraine worse. 
  • Along with the previous point, I rely more on my memory of how it physically feels to play the music. This keeps my brain from getting too busy and stressed which definitely doesn't help the pounding in my head.
When it comes to practicing, there's a lot more flexibility. A lot of my friends on Twitter mentioned that they rarely practice when impaired. That's understandable and perfectly acceptable since most of us end up having to spend much of our time hiding under a blanket in a dark room without any sound, doing nothing except waiting for the migraine to decide to take a hike. If I'm fortunate enough to have a low to mid-grade episode, however, I do try to practice a little bit, especially if I'm getting ready for a performance. I use the same tips listed and very intentionally choose modes of practicing where speed and perfection are not the focus. I also do a lot of practicing with my eyes closed since that helps with the sensitivity to light, and I keep the volume either at piano or pianissimo. Doing both of these things are good for practice sessions when I'm feeling good but I find them especially helpful during these times. And more often than not these exercises end up deepening my interpretation of the music and improving my ease of movement. I guess that's a positive aspect of having migraines. I may as well make lemonade from lemons, right?

To all my fellow sufferers out there, I'm so sorry you're dealing with them too! Go easy on yourself. And if you manage to get through a performance or to eke out a somewhat decent practice session, no matter how short, know that you are a superhero in my books. Pat yourself on the back gently and then hide back under your covers and rest knowing that you are amazing.

Feel free to leave your own thoughts and suggestions based on your experiences in the comments. And if someone has a foolproof cure for migraines, do let us know. 

If you want to read more about my personal experiences with migraines and searching out solutions for myself, here are two more that I've written:





Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Well-Tempered Pianist: exploring a pianist's life through music

A few years ago, at the age of 40,  I found myself struggling to "make it" as a professional musician. I seem to have always found distractions in my life to keep me from whole-heartedly pursuing what it is I truly love the most so this wasn't a complete change or anything, but that didn't make my mid-life crisis any easier to deal with.

After school, I got married. 
After getting married I was a music-minister's wife and my role was by my husband's side (at least that was my excuse.)
After he left church work and was pursuing his doctorate I had to bring home a salary to support us.
After he got his first teaching job at a university, I got pregnant.

You get the picture.

When our daughter got to be old enough, I dropped the mom excuse and earnestly attempted to piece together a musical career, through collaborative work, teaching at a local university, and then as a practice coach. Nothing really worked out for various reasons. Door after door closed. I took at it as personal rejection when in reality, I think it had more to do with me always finding excuses to not keep at it.

Then I hit 40. I felt utterly disappointed in myself. Music is my passion. Music is my religion. Music is quite simply me and I had let it slip out of my hands.

A few years before I had told myself that someday I wanted to have learned all 24 preludes and fugues from Bach's second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I dreamed of being able to sit down and play through all 24. That would be my all I would need to die happy and feeling like I had done something. 

It took a while, a couple of years I believe, but I did just that. I got them all learned. But then that wasn't enough. I decided I wanted to perform them all.  But who wants to sit and listen to all 24 at one sitting?  Or two sittings? That's when my Well-Tempered Pianist series popped into my mind.  

I decided that I would put together 6 recitals. Each one would feature 4 preludes and fugues and I would intersperse among them pieces that meant something to me from throughout my musical life, The series would be my musical autobiography.  

I'm now near the end of my second presentation of the entire series and I am so very thankful that I've been able to do this and that people have received it with such interest, acceptance, and excitement.  In between pieces I've been taking a few moments to walk the audience through my life and to connect the music I'm performing with the most significant points in my timeline. That too has been enlightening to me although I have to admit sometimes it's been a bit distracting to talk about an aspect of my life that meant a lot to me and then have to perform. I often find my mind and heart dwelling on what I just talked about and see the colors and sounds I normally associate with a given piece of music change into something I've never quite considered. In spite of some surprises in that way, it's been incredibly rewarding, especially since the audience has been receiving it so well too. Each recital finds me talking with audience members for quite some time afterwards, answering questions, hearing their own stories...it's been a tangibly reciprocal series of events.  

As for my mid-life crisis, I'm still in the middle of it. The recital series didn't fix that little problem. But it did remind me that even though I may not be able to support myself as a professional musician, I am a pianist with a very musical soul and people want to hear me and hear the music I have to offer them. That is enough for me...for now.

I highly recommend musicians do something like this if they think it might be of interest to them. So often I think we don't think the audiences want to know about who we are; that we are there to serve the music and that is all. What I'm finding, however, is that at least in this part of the country, in this atmosphere and culture, the personal aspect is appealing as well and encourages more of a conversation between performer and audience. 

For those of you who might find it interesting, here is a listing of what has been on each program. Please excuse any discrepancies in formatting.

Recital I: At the very beginning

Prelude and Fugue in C major
Beethoven's Für Elise
Clementi Sonatina in D major
Prelude and Fugue in C minor
Bartók Sonatina
Prelude and Fugue in C# major
Mozart Sonata in C major, KV 545
Prelude and Fugue in C# minor
Selections from Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood"

Recital II: A musical life in San Francisco

Prelude and Fugue in D major
Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66
Opening to the slow movement of Ravel's G major piano concerto
Prelude and Fugue in D minor
Dvorák's Slavonic Dances, numbers 1 & 2 from Op. 48 (sightread at performance on purpose)
Prelude and Fugue in E flat major
The Swan from Saint-Saën's "Carnival of the Animals" (I used to play cello too)
Prelude and Fugue in D# minor
Selections from Debussy's "Children's Corner"

Recital III: College living

Prelude and Fugue in E major
Debussy's L'isle joyeuse
Prelude and Fugue in E minor
Hwaen Ch'uqi's Souvenir 
Prelude and Fugue in F major
Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, no. 10
Prelude and Fugue in F minor
Selections from Satie's "Sports et divertissements"

Recital IV: From the Golden Gate to the Alps (about my months working as a restaurant pianist)

Debussy's 1st Arabesque
Prelude and Fugue in F# major
Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby
Prelude and Fugue in F# minor
Beryl Rubinstein's concert transcription of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess
Prelude and Fugue in G major
September Song from Knickerbocker Holiday (performed with my husband, baritone Tadd Sipes)
I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' from Porgy and Bess
Johanna from Sweeney Todd 
Prelude and Fugue in G minor

Recital V: Marriage, becoming a mom, and more

Prelude and Fugue in A flat major
Ravel's Jeux d'eau
Prelude and Fugue in G# minor
Finzi's Eclogue (performed with organ instead of string orchestra)
Prelude and Fugue in A major
Gounod's "O divine redeemer" (performed with a student I collaborated with and taught)
Sorenson's "In this hour"
Prelude and Fugue in A minor
Radnich's arrangement of "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter

Recital VI: Looking ahead

Prelude and Fugue in B flat major
Selections from Schubert's "Wintereisse" (performed with my husband, baritone Tadd Sipes)
Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor
Tiersen's "A song from another summer" from the movie Amelie
Prelude and Fugue in B major
Pärt's Für Alina
Prelude and Fugue in B minorHough's transcription of "My Favorite Things" from the Sound of Music






Monday, August 15, 2016

From the kitchen to the stage

Today I realized that great cooks and musicians have something in a common - they have learned to let go and to trust their senses.  They have learned that interpreting great dishes or musical compositions goes beyond technique and mere re-creation into a realm that incorporates their own experiences, whims, and moods,  blending them seamlessly with where their audiences are, even if their audiences don't even know themselves where they are or where they want to be taken.

These ideas have been floating around in my head for a while now but they seem to have all collided while I was watching a movie from a few years back called "Today's Special."  It's a fun, romantic, heart-warming foodie movie about a young sous-chef that has worked for years in a restaurant in New York City.  When a promotion doesn't come his way and he confronts the executive chef for an explanation, he receives an honest but painful evaluation - he doesn't have the passion, vision, daring, and creativity that it takes to be the soul behind a restaurant.

This news comes as a blow of course, and launches Samir, the main character, into a fairly predictable journey of introspection.  He ends up reluctantly helping out his father in the family's Indian restaurant that has been struggling to survive.  Having abandoned Indian cooking since he was a boy, Samir does everything to keep the restaurant alive except plan and prepare the dishes himself - he hires a taxi driver he had serendipitously met instead.  This taxi driver, Akbar, is a big of a magical character.  During the resurrection of the restaurant, he teaches Samir some very important lessons about cooking which I also want to translate for musicians for the remainder of this blog post.  In one scene Akbar turns the kitchen over to Samir, encouraging him to try his own hand at combining traditional Indian spices in order to create a "perfect" masala.  Samir looked bewildered and disturbed since there were no measuring implements or recipes anywhere in sight.  With Akbar's encouragement and repeated philosophy that one just needs to use one's head, heart, and stomach, Samir gives it a try - a dash of this, a gentle pouring of that, and so on.  In the end, is it "right?"  Akbar doesn't seem to savor the results but he approaches the moment as any good teacher should.  He admits that it doesn't seem quite right while at the same time affirming that what Samir has done was good anyway.  The lesson was not about "right" or "perfect," it was about letting go, listening, smelling, feeling, and creating.

I am convinced that even beginning students should be given plenty of opportunities to let go and to experience music making and learning in a way that involves more of their senses.  I believe that we teach musicians to rely too much on reading every note on the page, note-by-note-by-note.  We don't teach how to read music as a language.  Similarly we teach students to read every indication on the page and to follow them without necessarily knowing why they are there.  As a result, students don't feel that they have the tools they need to make music on their own.  If someone handed them a piece of music without any fingering, pedal marks, bowings, etc...my guess it they would feel just as bewildered and disturbed as Samir was in the movie without recipes or measuring implements.

As I have mentioned on my blog and on my Facebook page, I don't consider myself a teacher even though I spend most of my waking moments thinking about the process or learning.  At the moment I have one adult student who I consider my guinea pig for all of my philosophies and strange notions and oddly enough, at her lesson this morning, long before I watched this movie, we had a series of very similar moments to the movie scene I described above.  In the past few weeks at our lessons I have increased the amount of times I intentionally pull the music away from my student and ask her to narrate to me what's going on the music and what her understanding of the music means to her.  Today we did even more of that.  I had her re-create several passages to the best of her ability based on her narrative, without the music anywhere in sight.  She kept asking to see the music but for the most part I kept saying, "Say what you know and we'll go from there."  I certainly didn't expect "perfection" but what I did want to encourage was thoughtfulness and complete engagement and she accomplished what I was after brilliantly.   This type of work terrified, and probably really annoyed her, but as the music has gotten more and more complicated and she has still managed to work out how to accomplish what I'm asking for, she has gotten more and more confident.  She has also started making more decision of her own regarding musicality, pedaling, and the like because she understands the tools and the techniques.  For me it is thrilling to see how much she can process with just a little help and guidance from me and it leaves me speechless when I see how surprised she is by her own ability to comprehend music as a language after only one year of lessons.  She does not need to keep looking at all those notes and scribbles on the page.  She can see it as a language and use her head, heart, and not necessarily her stomach, but her ears to guide her music-making.  At today's lesson she had several moments where she seemed genuinely shocked by how easy it was to play the music by letting go and thinking of the music as a language.   But this takes trust and I believe we need to practice trusting ourselves at our instruments.

Which leads me to the title of the movie and one of my favorite things about it.  As many restaurants do, the Indian restaurant in the movie has a sign that hangs in the window to list the daily special.  One day when Samir comes to work he sees that Akbar has listed this instead of an actual dish...
Trust me
Exactly.  Trust me - trust you.  It takes courage but trust me, there is incredible growth and creativity that comes from letting go and trusting all your senses - not just your eyeballs.  Speak the language of music, not just notes.  It's worth it.
Trust me.
You will hear more, feel more, love more...and so will your audience.
Trust me.