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.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Not leaving page-turns up to chance

Seems like a silly topic, perhaps, but I have seen so many good auditions and performances interrupted by musicians having page-turn mishaps.  I'm sure you've all had one at some point: you think you have enough time but you don't at this one crucial performance and you find yourself late for the next entrance, you turn one too many pages and you're suddenly in the wrong movement, you turn a little too vigorously because you don't have very much time so your music falls off the music stand, and so on.  What is sad about these incidents is that they are usually preventable with a bit of foresight and perhaps, gasp, some spare change.  Why do so many musicians, many of them students, resist copying pages to reduce page-turning mishaps?  Is it an image issue?  Does it make one look like less of a musician with photocopies displayed on the music stand, as if anybody in the audience even cares?  I find myself chuckling somewhat sardonically at performers who are living on the edge, having perfected the art of turning their pages while continuing to play their instrument at the same time.  It can be quite a marvel to witness such acrobatics but mostly I find it unsettling and a bit distracting.  I imagine that most of the time, when performers don't come with prepared page-turns, it's simply because they didn't take the time to get it done.  As a busy person myself, I can sort of understand that.  But at the same time, why not take the extra few minutes, the extra quarter it may take, to make your performance a little less risky.  It may even make your performance a little less angst-filled.  You'd be surprised how much time you spend thinking about those difficult page turns while you really should be thinking about the music you're playing. 

There are some more varations I could write on this theme, but I think I'll save them for another day.  Stay tuned...if you dare, that is.

Inspiring and clever video of Handel Passacaglia

Enjoy this video of the Handel Passacaglia in which both parts are apparently performed by the same performer, American cellist Wells Cunningham.  What a clever thing to do, in my opinion.  It's a bit on the "pull a rabbit out of a hat" side of things, but sometimes that isn't such a bad thing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Link to a sweet article about the slow movement of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto

The slow "moment" from Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto

Learning and practicing the slow movement of Beethoven's third piano concerto has become therapeutic to me and yesterday I had a bit of an epiphany about it all.  Well, at least it felt like an epiphany to me.  What I realized is that music such as this slow movement is so earth-shatteringly exquisite because it brings us all to a place that we rarely find ourselves these days - a place where time is not rushed, where there is no agenda staring us in the face, where motion is not surrounding us.  This movement, at least to me, brings us to another world where we are finally permitted to stop the clock for a few minutes.  Perhaps we should not even call it the second "movement" but just a "moment".  And what also struck me is that in our time, in our culture especially, understanding such a concept of stillness, of quietness, can be very difficult; we are not used to slamming on the brakes and shutting out all time constraints.  So how am I supposed to achieve this monumental task?  How am I supposed to achieve this zen-like state?  I'm not quite sure that I'm up to this task, at least not in this lifetime.  I've always secretly wished that I lived in the time of Jane Eyre, sitting around in parlors doing needlework and playing clavichords, taking walks in the countryside without a schedule pressing in on would come in handy at times like this...when I need to perform the second movement of Beethoven's otherworldly third piano concerto.

I'm currently reading a novel, A Fine Balance, written by Rohinton Mistry,, that takes place in India in which two of the main characters, young untouchables from a village travel into the city to take up apprenticeships at a tailor's shop, which is unheard of.  They have never been in a city before and they spend two days sitting on the stairs in front of the tailor's shop in absolute shock.  They have no way to comprehend the life that is whirling on around them.  While I was practicing yesterday, I remembered this passage and it occurred to me that if Beethoven were to step into our world today, he too might react in a way similar to how the two apprentices reacted.  But he isn't here, and the world he lived in was very different from how our lives are now.  I feel that in order to do justice to this incredible musical moment, I am going to have to be the one to do the time travelling.  I am going to need to step back in time and forget about hurrying and worrying for a few minutes.  I am going to need to just slow down and share a few moments of heaven with my friends...

I think I can do that...with practice, of course.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The quest for technical perfectionism in young musicians - can it go too far?

Recently I have noticed an increasing number of young musicians, and when I say young, I mean between the ages of 10 and 16, who are consistently dissatisfied with their "imperfect" abilities at their instruments.  Usually these imperfections are technical ones...they miss a shift here, have an intonation problem there, miss that scale going up...and sometimes, but not usually, they are frustrated by musical imperfections.  It is this quest for technical perfection that concerns me most because I do think that this quest for the perfect performance can go too far and I also think it is unrealistic, at least for most of us mere mortals.  Don't get me wrong.  I am all for working hard, working slowly, learning things carefully from the moment you start a new piece, paying careful attention to the score, and building up fast pieces slowly, but I also believe that once you've built your foundation and then built a strong, stable structure, you should feel free to let go a bit, and enjoy what you have created.

So why all this desire for note-perfectness?  Why does everything have to be exactly like it was in the practice room?  Perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that many recordings that kids listen to today come from recording studios where things appear to be note perfect, sound perfect, intonation perfect, you-name-it-perfect.  Personally, I don't care for those recordings and I don't tend to listen them very often.  When I do listen to recordings, they are usually of live performances because I need to hear the breathing, the little (or not so little) mistakes here and there, the thrill of the cheers and the me that's all part of the music making.  Perhaps if our young musical friends today only listened to live performances of the repertoire they were playing, they would be more forgiving of themselves and begin to focus on something more important than nailing every note.

You might ask, is this really that important?  And I answer with a resounding, "YES!"  If we want audiences to be excited by classical music, if young people want their peers to be intrigued by what they are doing, their passion for music and for performing needs to be infectious when they perform.  I could be wrong, and please correct me if you disagree, but I don't think audiences really go to performances to hear a perfect performance - they go for an experience of hearing great music, of being if they go and instead see a young person simply disappointed in themselves, that can be a terrible downer.  Not a great concert experience, that's for sure.

So young musicians out there, it's fine to be a perfectionist in the practice room.  Go ahead...shake your head, stomp your feet, sigh, grimace, scream, pull out your hair, do what it takes to get it right...

but then be an actor and an artist the minute you step on, create, listen, and love what you do!

Enough of my lecture :-)  Now go and practice, just take it easy on those studio recordings.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A discovery about Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto and Clara Schumann

Thanks to a dear friend of mine, Linda Plaut, (thanks, Linda!), I discovered that Clara Schumann first performed Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto when she was 49 years old.  It was for this performance that she also wrote her own cadenza for the first movement.  In her diary, on November 3, 1868, Clara wrote, "I played Beethoven's C minor Concerto for the first time (almost unbelievable) with real delight.  I composed a cadenza for it and I believe it is not bad".  On May 1st, I will have the honor of performing this same concerto with the New River Valley Symphony and a few months ago, before discovering this diary entry, I had decided to use Clara's cadenza because personally, I find it far more intriguing, compelling, and interesting than Beethoven's own cadenza.  Now that I know that I have learned of Clara's mature age when she first performed this work, it makes me feel like this is all meant to be.  For me, this performance marks a turning point in my life.  Since graduating from Eastman, I haven't felt like I've really been putting my training to good use - I've just been dabbling in life, which is understandable and all fine and good.  I got married, worked in non-musical jobs, did some freelance music work here and there, had a baby which really put life on hold...Now I feel like my musical life is truly starting and for me it is an extraordinarily thrilling moment.  I am playing music all of the time and practicing all the time.  I'm exhausted, but it's all ok by me.  Bring it on!  So like Clara, I imagine that my experience on May 1st, will be an "unbelievable" one and one filled with "real delight".  And I will have Clara to thank for that, partly, but also all of my friends, family, and colleagues that have encouraged me through the years!  Thank you!!!!   Oh, and if you happen to be in the Blacksburg area on May 1st, come hear the concert :-)  I'd love to see you there.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What I was fortunate to have growing up (as a musician)...

Of course I could go on and on about how fortunate I have been in every which way, at every point in my life but what I have been thinking about most this past week and that I want to talk about here is what I feel helped contribute to who I am as a musician today; things that go beyond the standard good teachers, good instruments, supportive parents, opportunities to go to music camps, competitions, festivals, concerts...I was incredibly fortunate to have all of those things too.  But I was also blessed to have even more, believe it or not.  And it was the "more" that pushed me over the edge, that I believe made it virtually impossible for me to not be passionate about music making, to not go crazy without it, to not feel like it was in my blood. 

The neighborhood I grew up in, in San Francisco, was, I believe, an unusual neighborhood.  There were many families with kids that were involved in classical music and one mother that was a pianist and piano teacher herself.  For many years we regularly got together to play and perform chamber music, often times having the opportunity to play with the mother that was a professional musician.  We were steeped in chamber music and we were used to playing with a professional. 

When I was about 10 years old, I was invited to play piano with a professional chamber music group, the Chamber Soloists of San Francisco, at their opening concert.  I played piano in a Haydn Piano Trio and when I think back on it it seems slightly surreal.  I can't believe that they gave me that opportunity.  It was a fantastic experience for me to actually rehearse with "real" musicians and have to make "real" musical decisions at that age.  I don't really recall if I made any of the decisions - probably not.  But I do remember the thrill I felt during that performance, that first "professional" gig.

I also got to perform with professionals when I played cello in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.  Once a year, the orchestra performed, side by side, with members of the San Francisco Symphony.  I'm not exactly sure if the experience was as thrilling for the adults, but for me, it was absolutely unbelievable - nerve wracking, yes, but such an adrenaline rush.  To play next to musicians that played with such ease, with such musicality, but that also, gasp, made mistakes!  And it was also good to see the realistic side of orchestras.  There were the "grumpy old men (and women)" of the orchestra there too alongside of us and although it was a little deflating to be exposed to that, it was something for me to think about. 

Later on, after I went to college and after I started focusing more on accompanying, I had the great joy of working with several cello professors at various institutions that I've studied and worked at.  That, too, has been a great inspiration to me.  I guess what I'm trying to say in all of this is this...

If you are a professional musician and you find yourself working with a young child, a young man or a woman who you feel possesses some talent, please don't shy away from giving him or her the opportunity to play music alongside of you.  And I don't just mean in a lesson situation.  That is fine and can be good.  But what I mean is give them the chance to perform with you, even if it's just in a small situation.  Your musical passion, your musical ability can be infectious and there's no better way for them to "get it" than to get swept away in a powerful performance situation, nerves and all.  I think if more professionals took young musicians under their wings like this, then classical music might get a nice shot of needed adrenaline.  It certainly worked for me.

Just a thought.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Enroll Yourself in the Genius Factory

This is a really interesting clip about a book that is just out that examines whether or not talent is really the key to someone excelling in music, sports, confirms a lot of my ideas about practicing.  There are also some good tips for coaches and teachers.  It's well worth 7 minutes of your time to watch it whether you're a parent, teacher, coach, student, or just someone curious.

Enroll Yourself in the Genius Factory

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