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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Master & Apprentice: the power of performing side-by-side

I have an idea brewing in the back of my mind and as some of you may already know, that means trouble because I very rarely give up on my ideas.  It has to do with this whole question of how to inspire passion, energy, and vitality in young classical musicians and in audiences, particularly in smaller communities, since that's where I happen to find myself at the moment.  In the next few months I have a feeling you may get glimpses of it through my posts on this blog.  Or who knows, it may all come out in one big outpouring of verbiage.  Consider this post the first glimpse of what is to come.

This past weekend I had the distinct honor of taking my almost five-year-old daughter, Emma, to her very first ballet, "with real living people on stage," as she says.  We went to see Leo Delibes' Coppelia, which just happens to be one of her favorite ballets, performed by a local company, the Southwest Virginia Ballet.  I wasn't sure exactly what to expect since growing up in San Francisco, I had always been "fortunate" enough to have the San Francisco Ballet only a 20-minute drive away.  So yes, I was a bit spoiled, I suppose, and I was wondering how good a little local ballet company really could be.  I was also a little concerned because since Emma was about 3 years old she has been watching a DVD of Coppelia ad nauseum; she had all of the choreography down, and the music memorized ("Mom, no, this is where Franz falls asleep, not when he's climbing up the ladder!")  Would she turn her nose down as soon as the curtain went up?  Would she wonder where her beloved Franz and Swanilda were?  Yes, I know, you're probably chuckling to yourselves.  That's ok.

So the performance was in a small high-school gymnasium and as soon as the lights went down and the curtain went up, Emma was transfixed.  The first dancers on stage were high-school kids and younger, with the role of Swanilda being danced by a very talented high-school senior.  One exception was Dr. Coppelius, who was played by an older man in the community but that is a part that is not actually danced.  Next came the lead male, Franz, and this is where I, and I'm guessing others as well, became transfixed.  Franz was danced by the Artistic Director of the Southwest Virginia Ballet, Pedro Szalay, a professional dancer, through and through.  What I love and respect is that he didn't make it look like he was dancing the role because no one else could or because his ego led him to do this.  He was up there on stage, dancing like he would if he were in any "professional" ballet company.  It was glorious.  And at some point, as Franz was holding Swanilda over his head proudly, I shook my head and found myself grinning from ear to ear thinking, "My goodness, that girl must be having the time of her life!"  I have to imagine that it will be quite a while before these performances fade into just a visual memory for her.  Mr. Szalay's energy and elegance infected the others in the ballet company as well.  It was obvious that they respected his artistry and wanted to do their very best.  As for me, I was riveted during the entire performance...yes, by Mr. Szalay's performance, because he was really very good, but also by the young dancers because they had obviously put in many hours of hard work and because they were all having a great time on stage doing the best job that they could and they knew it.

What a way to truly learn about the beauty of ballet, about performing, about be side-by-side with a professional like that - a professional that doesn't put a wall between student and master, that seizes such a moment and uses the magic of artistry and passion to infect those around him, both on stage and in the audience.  If only there could be more moments like this...

Or perhaps there could...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Putting classical music in its place

In the past few years of my life, I have gone through somewhat of a musical mid-life crisis.  I think I'm just now coming out of it and what I'm finding is that the musician I now am is a type of musician that seems to be raising the eyebrows of some of my professional peers and perhaps of some of the people that have known me for a long time.  In this post, I'm going to talk about a performance that shows, I think, a bit of how I think from the perspective of the newly-minted musician that I now am.  I'll be curious to see what you all think.  Or maybe I'll be sorry that I just wrote that.  Anyway...

At the end of last summer I was asked by a young cellist that I regularly work with if I would be interested in participating at a community arts festival with her that was held just a few weeks ago.  At first I was a little puzzled by the whole event because the women in charge were asking artists and groups interested in performing to audition way back in the beginning of the fall of the previous year.  For something that I was assuming was akin to a community talent show, I couldn't understand why this was really necessary and I admit, my ego (yes, I still do have an ego) bristled at the audition process.  We passed the screening process and in January began meeting with the other women who had been selected to participate in the event.  This was the second annual Muse: A Celebration of Women in the Arts performance and the performers included a writer reading a short story, a hoop dancer (a dancer that dances with a well-designed hula hoop), an actress performing a monologue, belly dancers with drummers, a woodwind trio, a qanun player (a zither-like instrument played in the Middle East), a folk-singer/guitarist, and us, a cello duo.  This was an eclectic group, needless to say, and I have never performed with such a wide variety of people.  At first I suppose I felt a little awkward around them and not quite sure how to fit in.  With musicians I feel like a duck in water - I know more or less where I stand, I know the standard protocol backstage...but with belly dancers, hoop dancers, actresses?  I really felt odd and a bit out of place, I have to admit.  I also felt very stiff, straight-laced, and, well, horribly boring.  

In the end, at the concert, I had a marvelous time, once I could loosen up a bit and stop worrying about myself.  And what I learned that night was invaluable, I think.  I learned that all of us, whatever our talent, dealt with the same issues when it came time to perform.  We all needed time and space to focus backstage, we all had some sort of jitters, we all felt passionate about what we were doing, we all wanted to communicate in some way to the audience, we all cared about the audience, and we all cared about one another's performances.  We also all possess a lot of talent and, do those belly dancers have guts to go out there and do what they do.  And the actress that performed her monologue...the focus she had, the intensity.  I couldn't breathe while she was doing her scene.  The folk-singer/guitarist?  She sang a song that she had never performed before and she had just finished writing it...she was very intense about it because it was written for her mother that had passed away.  My goodness, it was a rich song, and so intimate.  She had a lot of guts too to go out there and do what she did in front of strangers.  

So what's my point?  I think it's this.  What I learned is that night is that classical music is just one of many, many art forms and talents.  I suppose I knew this in an academic way, but I re-learned it in a very visceral way that night.  And although some of my peers might question why I "bother" with volunteering my time to play in the community, I have to say that it truly isn't a bother it all.  I am learning so much from being in the real world and from just hanging out.  It's also getting me to loosen up a bit...heck, I came home from that concert the other night and told my husband that I was even considering taking belly dancing lessons.  Can you imagine?!  

Now that was some concert! 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Another Florence Foster Jenkins scenario?

So all has been quiet on the blog front for the past week or so which I suppose isn't really that unusual.  But this time it isn't just because I haven't had anything to say.  I definitely have had plenty, I just haven't been sure exactly how to say it.  I've also been waiting for a few things to resolve themselves before writing this post but now that they have, I suppose that it's time.  

On May 1st I am going to be performing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with the New River Valley Symphony, in Blacksburg, VA.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to do this because other than performing a Bach keyboard concerto with a small string ensemble when I was very young, this will be the first time I've performed on piano with an orchestra.  So how does Florence Foster Jenkins fit in?  Well, first let me start out by quickly describing who Florence Foster Jenkins was so that we're all on the same page here.  It's such a fabulous story I figure everyone should hear about her at some point.  

Florence Foster Jenkins was an American that obviously had a passion for music and in particular, singing.  Unfortunately, her natural talent did not match this passion.  She persisted, however, and thanks to the money she received upon the deaths of her mother and father, basically ended up buying herself a performing career, of sorts.  The performances are legendary and fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) they were recorded for us to enjoy today.  Here's a youtube clip for you to sample:

OK, so now you know who she does this relate to me and this upcoming concert?  Well, there has been one detail about this upcoming concert that has been slightly problematic and I was trying very hard not to be troubled by it.  The hall where the concert is being held has two pianos - one is a small grand and one is a concert grand but they both are in very, very bad condition.  Before I even knew I was going to be in this situation, I heard horror stories about these instruments.  Since people have found out I'm doing the Beethoven, I've had pianists who have performed in there come up to me with looks of great concern in their faces, wondering what I'm going to do.  At first, I didn't want to do anything because  I know that money is scarce in this particular organization and because I know that the pianos don't even belong to this particular group.  I also prefer to keep a low profile - I'm definitely not a diva pianist.  But as stories kept pouring in  (one pianist who is a very humble, easy-going person said that after playing on it she truly thought it would be better off being chopped up and used as firewood) and as I grew more and more attached to the Beethoven, I started to get very nervous about the whole situation.  The second movement, for example, is for me, music of the heavens.  I can't think of music that is more transforming, more exquisite.  And when I closed my eyes and thought of having to play those opening phrases all alone, in a large hall, on a tinny "toy piano" as some call it, well, I just don't feel real great about it...I'm worried that it just won't do justice to the music and to the hard work that will have gone into the performance from myself, the conductor, and from the orchestra members.

What to do, what to do?  Here's what my husband and I decided to do.  Against all common sense, we followed Ms. Florence Foster Jenkins' lead.  We e-mailed the closest piano dealer (in Richmond, Virginia!) and we, meaning my husband and I! are renting a 9 ft. piano for that performance!  I truly think that there are some that have heard about this and that will hear about this who will think I am either insane, foolish, spoiled, or crazy but at this point, I don't really think I care.  I have had to dig down really deep this week to figure out what's most important to me and here's what I came up with:

The music, it's all about this exquisite music.   And it's about making music with a bunch of college students that don't have to be doing what they are doing.  They are in this ensemble because they are engineering students, architecture students, art students, and music students...for them, this music is joy.  For me, this music is joy.  Why not give this performance the best chance it can have?  

It will be worth it...I am pretty sure of that!  I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Accompanying & Collaborating: why just playing the notes is not enough

In case you haven't picked up on this yet, I am a very passionate person, especially when it comes to music.  And when it comes to playing music with other people, that passion gets even stronger because music is how I communicate.  In social settings I tend to be a shy person, not knowing what to say or why anyone would be interested in what I would have to say if I did decide to say anything.  As a little girl, I distinctly remember choosing to express a high percentage of my emotions at the piano, sometimes at the cello, rather than sharing them verbally with a flesh-and-blood individual.  To me, my piano and my cello were my music was my therapy.  Perhaps this will help in explaining why I feel the way I do about my role as an accompanist.  
[side-note here: I am going to use the term "accompanist" for the remainder of this blog post just to make it easier for me and because it is still the more familiar term used.  For anyone out there who prefers the term "collaborator," please know that I like that term too and have nothing against it!]

So how do I see my role as an accompanist?  What am I responsible for?  Of course there are the obvious responsibilities...having the music well-prepared by the first rehearsal, knowing the other person's part so that memory slips, rhythmic errors, and any other slips can easily be accounted for and magically camouflaged, being punctual to rehearsals, lessons, and auditions, playing musically and trying to match or even complement the soloists musicality...But I try to do more, especially when it comes time to perform.  By the time an audition or performance rolls around I try to have gotten in the mind of the performer a bit so that I can so better guess what might be most helpful pre-performance and backstage.  Do they want to warm-up with me? Do they just need someone to talk to about something completely not related to music to calm their nerves? Do they need some encouraging words? I recently had one performance where I was giving a recital with a college student that I had been performing with quite a bit.  He was presenting his final graduation recital after returning from a competition where he had performed very well.  The first half of this recital did not go very well at all - he seemed very distracted and obsessed about his technique.  I could tell that he was in practice-room mode.  I debated whether or not to say anything but I decided that I would regret not speaking up.  When we walked off stage for intermission, I asked him, "Where are are?  What's wrong?  How can I help?"  We spent about 3 minutes talking over what was going through his head and his heart and figured out how to get through the rest of the recital.  Fortunately, the pep talked worked and as soon as he walked back out on the stage, he was back in performance mode.  I may be shy, but when it comes to music, I'm willing to try anything!

I also see it as my job as an accompanist to not to be a problem myself - not look like a nervous wreck (even if I feel like one), not to be demanding, not disappear and leave them wondering where I am.  I figure the last thing they need is to worry about something or someone else and the first thing they need is something stable.  Just as music was the stability I leaned on when I was a little girl, I guess I want music to be something stable for them too.  If I have helped a performer get through a performance with a sense of serenity, purpose, satisfaction, and joy, even in spite of the inevitable foibles, then I feel that I have done my job and I go home convinced yet again that I have the best job I could have ever hoped for.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Let's play, "Stump the Pianist" - AARGH!

Sometimes it's nice to see the pros struggle and have a hard time with something, isn't it? It's ok to admit it - I've been there myself.  Well, in today's post I'm going to let you in on the secret to why you all haven't heard from me in the past week or so and it all has to do with the fact that I have been banging my head up against the wall this whole time, attempting to memorize one passage of a cadenza that I'm supposed to be performing in a month or so.  Yep, you read that correctly...I have been brought to my knees by about 23 measures worth of music.  So what's the deal?  By the middle of this past week I truly believed that I had tried everything I knew to try.  I had good fingerings in my part, I had marked the way I wanted to distribute the notes between my hands so I wouldn't be fumbling around in the inner voices, I had marked in all the accidentals, I had practiced slowly, a little more slowly, insanely slow, absurdly get the picture.  I was actually starting to think that there was something wrong in my brain, that perhaps I had had a traumatic moment in a past life with this cadenza and it was coming back to haunt me.  It was the most bizarre thing and although it may sound kind of funny to you now, it really was terribly upsetting to me at the time because I had simply run out of ideas on how to fix it and you know how it is...the clock was ticking!

So what did I do?  I thought of practically the strangest thing I could.  I decided to rewrite the entire passage into its enharmonic equivalent.  Clara Schumann or an editor had written this troublesome part of the cadenza with the key signature of three flats, so either E-flat major or C minor but the music is really in A-flat minor, ending in C-flat major.  In order to be in that key then, Clara or editor had to add tons of flats.  They are all over the place - invasion of the flats!  Even though I was a bit embarrassed to think that something so trivial might be messing me up, I decided to ignore the fact that I was rolling my eyes at myself, and I sat down and rewrote it with the key signature of five sharps, for G-sharp minor.  After about 30 minutes I was done, went downstairs to the piano and read this new version through slowly, savoring the newness of it all.  When I reached the other side, I almost wept, partly out of joy, but also out of disbelief that something so trivial could actually work. 

I never cease to be amazed at how the brain works.  Most of the time I think it is a brilliant organ but at other times I think it is the most fickle, bizarre beast such as in this instance.  Oh well.  I'm glad that I've got it figured out now and that the cadenza is now the "proper" key, at least according to my brain, that is.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Removing "Great Expectations" from listening experiences

I just came across a fabulous piece of writing today via twitter.  (Yes, folks...twitter does it again!)  The pianist, Greg Anderson, along with his piano duo partner Elizabeth Joy Roe put together what they call their "Music Listening Manifesto" and they've posted it on Greg's website.  They were apparently inspired by a book titled Life Style, written by the graphic designer Bruce Mau.  Anyway, this list should be read by everyone, printed out, and truly is fantastic.  Why do I say that?  Well, because it puts aside several misconceptions that are out there and that I believe may hurt classical music's reputation.  For instance, sometimes I get the feeling that some people think that they need to understand the music they are listening to in order to enjoy it.  This can be problematic for many reasons - there's not enough time to get to know pieces before going to a concert; where does one learn about them beforehand; many people go to concerts for entertainment purposes, not to be educated.  In reading Anderson and Roe's list, I get the feeling that such an expectation, that the audience should be adequately prepared in order to enjoy the performance, does not fit into their world - how simple, how lovely.  Now don't get me wrong - I am not saying that I don't appreciate program notes or having the performers talk to the audience about the pieces on the program.  Those who know me or who have seen me perform know that I am passionate about talking about the music that I perform...I just think it's important not to get too hung up on that give the impression that classical music is so above the other types of music that it needs to be explained to the general populace in order to be understood.

Another expectation I see being challenged a bit in this list, but in a very sensitive, altruistic way, is the expectation that I often see of the audience going to a performance wanting to be entertained but not wanting necessarily to bring anything to the table in return.  I think this is something is true in our culture as a whole.  When people pay money, they want the most for their money and they don't necessarily believe that they should have to do anything themselves.  Unfortunately I've seen this a lot in college students.  Their parents have paid a lot of money for them to go to college so they think that the tuition that has been paid has bought them "A's"...they get anything other than that and they complain, even if they know they haven't half of the required work.  It's the consumer society in us.  This list remedies this type of situation within the confines of the recital hall or even just the living room or wherever one chooses to listen to music.  It gives the listener some challenges of ways to listen, ways to engage, ways to be involved with the listening process.  

And last but not least, my favorite thing about this list, is that it simply allows the listener to be bored.  Imagine that!  That's another thing about today's society that seems a little taboo to me.  As a parent of a preschooler, I can tell you that I feel guilty sometimes if my daughter seems bored because the society around me pressures me into feeling like she needs to constantly be stimulated and entertained - buzzing around.  But this list breathes some reality back into music, into life...boredom is OK in both places and I believe that is an expectation that needs to be reintroduced into our society!  And maybe we could be a little more honest about whether or not a piece is boring at a classical music concert with our non-classical music friends.  Maybe then they'd be a little less intimidated about going to a concert with us.  Who knows?  

So there are my Sunday afternoon ramblings...let's start expecting some new expectations from our listening experiences and see what happens...

Thanks, Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe for an inspiring list!