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, April 28, 2010

Virginia Tech's New River Valley Symphony - the cost of picking up instruments instead of footballs

Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, is well known for its football team.  As with so many other college towns, football is the driving force behind much of what happens here.  I don't want to spend much time dwelling on my lack of excitement for something that the rest of the town seems to flock to, after all I do seem to be in the minority,  but I do want to make some observations with the hope that perhaps it will get some locals thinking about another great team on campus that rarely, if ever, gets any attention - the New River Valley Symphony.   

The New River Valley Symphony is an orchestra made up of Virginia Tech students and community members.  Their "coach," or conductor, is Professor James Glazebrook, a faculty member from the Department of Music.  Now one thing I want to highlight about this group is that although there is a music department here, many of the orchestra members are not actually music majors so many of the instrumentalists do not have to be a part of the orchestra - they choose to be, in spite of heavy course loads, demanding subjects, and busy social lives.  In my opinion, this is very impressive.  These are smart, smart kids who work very hard in their academics and choose to spend 5 hours a week working hard at yet another skill.  This is a dedicated bunch of young people.   

In the title of this post, I mention the cost of picking up instruments instead of footballs so perhaps I should address that now.  Living in a college football heavy town, I often mourn the lack of attention and funding that is given towards such a positive experience.  Virginia Tech has just finished building its prestigious football team a new locker-room facility that was predicted as costing the school between $13 and $15 million dollars...that's right, $13-$15 million dollars!  In an online publication, the Virginian Pilot, the associate athletic director of the school is quoted as saying that the old locker room is "a little aged, and it really needs to be spruced up," and that it is "woefully inferior to other football locker rooms within the conference."  And this project comes after spending around $20 million dollars on a new basketball practice facility.  I ask you, how much money does the New River Symphony Orchestra demand?  I think it's pretty safe to say, "not much!"  I don't really think it would even cross the players' minds.  They play because they want to play - no bells and whistles attached!   

So why my rant?  Because I want more people in the Blacksburg area to consider attending this Saturday's New River Valley Symphony concert.  These are incredible kids that work hard and deserve to have more of an audience in Burruss Auditorium come Saturday night.  Of course I am a little biased since I'm performing on the concert but I have to say that it goes beyond that.  I have decided to also perform in the cello section for the remainder of the performance because I am so impressed with these young musicians and I think others should take note as well.  No, it won't be like a Roanoke Symphony concert but I can promise you the musicians will be working just as hard, if not harder!  Need some more reasons to entice you to come?  Here are my top 10+ reasons why it should be on your calendar:
  • It only costs $8 or $5 for you attend.  That's quite a deal compared to Hokie football game tickets!
  • You don't have to buy tickets ahead of time or try to buy them off the street from a scalper.  Just buy them at the door - how convenient!
  • Parking is a piece of cake compared to football game days.  There's parking on the Drillfield and also in the large parking lot behind Burruss.  
  • You don't have to pay for parking!
  • You can go out to dinner at a fun restaurant beforehand instead of just eating ham biscuits and drinking beer in the parking lot, although I hear people really like tailgating.
  • There's a great little festival from noon until 6pm at the First and Main shopping center called Fork and Cork...the concert would be a great way to end the day!
  • You don't have to worry about the weather.  If it rains, who cares?
  • You can wear what you want to worrying about if it's "Orange" or "Marroon-Effect" day! (only Blacksburgians will understand this, sorry!)  And you don't have to get dressed up for this concert - come as you are or do get dressed-up if you want to make a night of the whole event.
  • These kids in the orchestra - they are amazing, smart, hard-working kids!
  • James Glazebrook is a fabulous conductor that really has a heart for these musicians.
  • The concert has a variety of music on it: one of Beethoven's greatest piano concertos, a work by Piston called "The Incredible Flutist" that has some very interesting sound effects in it (I'm not giving them away - you've got to come!" and then some dances by Ginastera that will get your blood pumping and will make you want to jump up and dance!
  • Nobody will get injured in the process of playing the concert, at least I hope not.
  • A great big concert-grand Steinway has been rented and is coming all the way from Richmond, VA for this performance. (Virginia Tech does not own a concert grand in good condition - anyone want to donate one?)
  • There's a pianist involved that has a passion for sharing great music with everyone ;-)
All right, I guess that's all I have to say except for one last thing...

I hope to see some of you there and if you do come, I hope you enjoy the show!  

When: Saturday, May 1st, at 8pm
Where: Burruss Auditorium on the Virginia Tech Campus
Who: The New River Valley Symphony with James Glazebrook conducting and Erica Sipes, piano

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Excuse me, Mr. Conductor - you're kind of messing me up!

As a collaborator, there is one phrase, or variations on a phrase, that I frequently hear from those that I play with - "It's always fine when I'm playing by myself!"  It's usually said in such a way that it could really be translated into the words, "You are really messing me up - would you please get this right?"  With young musicians especially, those words are often accompanied by tears.   Anyone who has worked with an accompanist or collaborator will probably be able to identify with this scenario but solo performers, I'm thinking of pianists mostly, rarely encounter this troublesome scenario.  Why is this?  Over the past couple of years I have been working on a solution to this problem but it wasn't until the past couple of weeks that I have put the puzzle pieces together to understand what is going on, or more often, not going on.

The event that turned into a lightbulb moment for me was my first rehearsal with the New River Valley Symphony for our upcoming performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto.  This is the first time I have studied this marvelous piece and I have been working on it pretty steadily these past four months or so.  I approached learning the concerto in a very careful manner, being careful to heed my own advice and the advice of my previous music teachers.  The week before I was to meet with the orchestra I met with two different pianists to run through the entire concerto.  I still remember how frustrating it can be to put together a piece of music with an accompanist for the first time.  I was trying to be responsible.  Well, in spite of my good intentions, those run throughs were just as frustrating.  Especially in difficult fast passages, I kept falling apart and getting completely finger-tied.  I wanted to stop and say, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?  You must be doing something wrong because you're messing me up!"  In fact, I may have said something along those lines...sigh.  Anyway, I tried to be mature about the whole situation and decided that I would simply have to get to the bottom of it before I met with the orchestra.  In other words, I stopped blaming my dear piano friends and decided that it really must be my fault!  I know, I know...shocking!  

So what was the deal?  Why, in spite of my hours and hours of meticulous practicing, was it so difficult for me to stay on track when I was putting the music together with the orchestra part?  While mulling the problem over I realized that perhaps I had a rhythm issue.  For someone like me, who takes pride in being good at rhythm, I was horrified at the thought but still decided to test myself - I turned to one of those difficult passages and I made myself count out loud while I was playing.  Aha!  Bingo!!  I couldn't do it!!!  As a direct result of this discovery, I have spent the past week playing those passages at a moderate tempo while counting out loud.  And to counteract the bad habits I had unknowingly worked into my playing, I have been making sure that while I count out loud, that I feel internally and externally where the main beats of the measures are.  Since doing this, playing with the orchestra has not been a problem at all!  

It's funny.  As a professional musician, it seems almost absurd to me that I still need to count out loud  and I wonder if the pros do this themselves.  But I guess it doesn't really matter - what matters is that I can now perform next Saturday without running the risk of stopping the whole show, staring down the conductor and saying, "Excuse me, Mr. Conductor - you're kind of messing me up!"

For those of you who might be interested, here are some more posts I've written that have to do with next Saturday's concerto performance:

WANTED: Pictures and storylines inspired by Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

What we can learn from Beethoven and his 3rd Piano Concerto

The slow "moment" from Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Another Florence Foster Jenkins scenario? (a.k.a. Erica makes the crazy decision to rent a concert grand piano)

A discovery about Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto and Clara Schumann

Let's play, "Stump the Pianist" - AARGH! (a.k.a. How Erica finally memorized the cadenza)

And if you are wanting to hear and watch a great pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, performing the entire piece, click here and scroll down until you see the YouTube videos!

Videos of Mitsuko Uchida performing Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Stay tuned in the next week for more posts about this concerto!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What we can learn from Beethoven and his 3rd Piano Concerto

Only nine more days until performance day!  In preparation for the New River Valley Symphony concert on May 1st, I have written program notes for Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto.  Although you can read these same notes at the concert, I thought it would be good to post them here as well so that if you are still deciding whether or not to attend, you might be more tempted to come if you knew some background on this fabulous piece of music.  I have to admit that learning some of this info has made me even more excited about the performance!  What I find so inspiring is that Beethoven, in spite of being completely dismayed by his serious medical issues, was determined to keep writing the music he found inside of himself.  He didn't just pout, moan, and groan, which I'm tempted to do.  So without further blabbing, here are the program notes:

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is an impressive, inspiring work especially considering the circumstances in which it was written.  Composed at various times over the course of several years, between 1799 and 1802, Beethoven was starting to come to the realization that the hearing problems he had been having were more than just a temporary problem.  He had already started his retreat from society in order to hide his encroaching deafness and was struggling to understand why fate had dealt him such a terrible blow.  In a letter to a friend he admits, “Beethoven lives most unhappily, in discord with nature and with the Creator.  More than once I have cursed the latter for exposing his creatures to the slightest accident, so that often the loveliest blossoms are destroyed and broken by it.”  Although he was only about 30 years old at this time, his hearing was bad enough that he had difficulty having conversations with people and hearing certain instruments play.  In his Heilegenstadt Testament, written in 1802, he even admits that he wanted to end his life but didn’t, feeling that he was called by “Art” to produce all that he was capable of producing.  It is thanks to this calling of his that we have this piano concerto and many other monumental works in our repertoire.
Contrary to the feelings of dismay that Beethoven was having at the time, the Third Piano Concerto is full of triumph, beauty, and light-hearted humor.   The first movement shows the more serious of the composer, opening in C minor with an unusually long orchestral prologue in which all of the movement’s themes are presented.  This is followed by the piano’s dramatic solo entrance, marked by ascending scales.  The movement’s ending is preceded by a piano cadenza or improvisatory passage which in tonight’s performance is one written by the pianist and wife of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann.  The pianist then ends the entire movement in the same way it began, with the same ascending C minor scales.
 The pianist starts off the second movement in the key of E major – a key that is not ordinarily used in conjunction with C minor.  The effect of using such a distant key is transforming, making one feel as if time has stopped and as if we have been transported into a completely different world. 
 The third movement brings us back into C minor but not for long.  This rondo is full of twists and turns, taking the audience on a whirlwind voyage to many different keys until Beethoven finally settles on the key of C major.  A brief piano cadenza towards the end of the movement further highlights the change in mood as it jokingly taunts the orchestra and the audience before diving into a triumphant coda. 
Voila!  Pretty cool stuff, I think.  And here are some links to some other posts I have written about this piano concerto in case you're interested:

WANTED: Pictures and storylines inspired by Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

The slow "moment" from Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Another Florence Foster Jenkins scenario? (a.k.a. Erica makes the crazy decision to rent a concert grand piano)

A discovery about Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto and Clara Schumann

Let's play, "Stump the Pianist" - AARGH! (a.k.a. How Erica finally memorized the cadenza)

And if you are wanting to hear and watch a great pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, performing the entire piece, click here and scroll down until you see the YouTube videos!

Videos of Mitsuko Uchida performing Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Stay tuned in the next week for more posts about this concerto!

Monday, April 19, 2010

WANTED: Pictures and storylines inspired by Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto!

On Saturday, May 1st, at 8pm, I have the honor of performing Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto with the New River Valley Symphony Orchestra at Burruss Auditorium on the Virginia Tech campus.  I would love to share this event with as many folks as possible and I'm delighted to announce that the concerto will be the first piece on the program so families with children are free to come to the first half and make it home in time for a decent bedtime!  To make the whole experience even more fun, I am announcing a competition that will be held over the next week or so leading up to the concert.  Thanks for the generosity of the Virginia Tech Music Department, all entrants will receive a complimentary ticket to the May 1st performance!

Age Limit
  • None!

How to Enter
  • Listen to one or more of the YouTube videos featured below
  • Draw a picture or pictures that you think represent a part of the concerto or the concerto as a whole or write a storyline to accompany a part of the concerto or the concerto as a whole
  • On each entry, write artist's/writer's name, part of the concerto the drawing/story is inspired by, phone number and e-mail address where entrant can be contacted
  • Send entry or entries to: 
Virginia Tech Department of Music
Attn: Tadd Sipes
241 Squires Student Center (0240)
Blacksburg, VA 24061
  • Entries can also be dropped off at Greenstar Farm's booth at the Farmer's Market in downtown Blacksburg on Wednesday, April 21 or April 28, from 2pm-7pm or on Saturday morning, April 24th.  Their booth is on the end, closest to Roanoke Street.  
  • Entries can also be e-mailed to me at
  • Entries must be received no later than Friday, April 30th at midnight
  • All people entering the contest will receive a complimentary ticket to the May 1st performance!!

Announcement of Winners
  • The winners of both categories will be announced at intermission during the New River Valley Symphony Orchestra's performance on May 1st.  

  • Drawing category: two prizes will be awarded and they will be a CD or a DVD of Beethoven Lives Upstairs
  • If enough drawings are submitted, they will be displayed in the lobby of Burruss Auditorium
  • Storyline category: two prizes will be awarded.  One will be a DVD biography of Beethoven, Great Composers - Beethoven and the other will be a CD of two of Beethoven's piano concertos, including the one being performed at the New River Valley Symphony Concert.  

Videos of Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto

1st movement, part 1: Allegro con brio

1st movement, pt. 2

2nd movement: Largo

3rd movement: Rondo-Allegro

Good luck, everyone!  And more importantly, have fun enjoying this great piece of music!!  If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at 

Here are some links to some other posts I have written about this piano concerto in case you're interested:

Stay tuned in the next week for more posts about this concerto!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On the lighter side...Emanuel Ax joins the hilarity of the musical comedians, Igudesman and Joo

OK, time for a little is a hilarious new video posted on youtube by the musical comedian team, Igudesman and Joo.

In my opinion, these guys are really quite brilliant in addition to being talented musicians.  They have found a way to make classical music utterly hilarious and I find that so refreshing.  The first time I watched some of their videos with my husband, Tadd, we spent quite a while afterwards trying to figure out if and how we could add some tasteful comedic elements into our performances.  We are both pretty convinced that there is nothing wrong, in fact there is a lot right, with hearing your audience laugh, as long as it's for the right reasons, of course.  It's a great way to break down that ever-present wall that tends to exist between the performer and the audience.  Doing something different can also shed a more personable light on a performer - it can show the audience more of who a musician really is as a person, not just as "that pianist" or "that violinist."

So bravo to Igudesman and Joo but even more so to Emanuel Ax, who definitely shows a different side of himself in this unique performance.  Not only is he a pianist to be admired, he's also pretty good at being just plain goofy!  Bravo, Mr. Ax, Bravo!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reality-check for young musicians and their parents

© Andy Dean -
I am going to go out on a limb here and say something that might just baffle a lot of folks.  Are you ready? Drumroll please...

Becoming a musician and being a musician requires more concentration, precision, and skill over a longer period of time than doing just about anything else.

Repeat that a couple of times to yourself and really think about it because this is important to understand if we want folks to keep on studying music.  I've been developing this thought over the course of many months through my work with some of the young musicians I accompany.  There is one in particular, who has spent much of the year on a bit of a plateau which has raised some concern among those who support her.  The frustration grew so intense that her parents asked me the dreaded question, "Do you really think she should keep on playing music?  Should we continue supporting and encouraging her down this path?"  Now it's important for you to understand that this musician's parents are wonderfully supportive people so this wasn't just an unsympathetic reaction.  I understood their frustration on many different levels and was a bit frustrated myself because as her accompanist and coach,  I was feeling the plateau as well.  In the sometimes-painful months that followed I had many discussions...with the musician herself, her mother, my husband (a great sounding-board!), a dear friend of mind that taught chemistry at Virginia Tech for many, many years...after it all, I was convinced of two things:
  1. we couldn't give up - this young girl loves music too much and works too hard to take it away from her. 
  2. it was no wonder she was struggling - some of the skills/qualities needed in order to improve on an instrument are ones that are rarely taught or seen these days, especially in younger people...
...sure there are some that are naturally gifted at being perfectionists, myself included.  We make terrific musicians because we are bound and determined to do what it takes to get every note the way we want it.  But not everyone is made that way and I don't believe that the musical world should turn these folks away, especially if they do have the ability to learn and if they are willing to work hard, like the young musician I mentioned above.   I also think it's important to note that in this highly technological age, when we are accustomed to machines and electronics doing most of our detailed work, calculations, and thinking for us, the process of music-making on acoustic instruments or using our voices is not very different than it was a hundred or two-hundred years ago.  Yes, there are apps being developed to help people with practicing and to aid in learning music, and some of them are fantastic, but a lot of the work that is needed to progress as musicians is the same work that has been done for many, many years, without the aid of gadgets.  This disparity is only going to widen as the years go on and as people continue to find ways for technology to provide nifty shortcuts for everything.  It is the job of teachers and parents to walk alongside young musicians and to help them gain the skills they need in order to play their instrument.  We need to teach them how to practice step-by-step; we need to teach them how to make decisions about music; we need to teach them how to listen all the time; we need to teach them how to concentrate; we need to teach them how to perform; and most importantly, we need to teach them when to let go and to simply enjoy making music.

So back to my original statement at the beginning of my I really mean what I said?  Am I implying that playing music is harder than, say, performing intricate surgery on a human brain? or being the President of the United States of America?  Well, in a way, yes...because for most people, the study of music starts at such a young age and consumes an incredibly high percentage of one's time and also because with music, there is only so much that technology can help with.  

Hmmm...makes me pretty amazed at what we do and makes me all the more impressed at how persistent this young girl is about wanting to play music.  Does our not giving up in this particular case mean that we should never let a young musician throw in the towel?  That's a topic for another post but for now I will say that I think there are times when it's all right to set music aside.  And when that happens it should be done with the knowledge that it's not a sign of failure on anyone's part.  Music is not an easy pursuit to follow, especially these days with iPads, video games, and other attractive technology that require button pushing, but in a much less taxing way.

Oh, and in case case you were wondering, the musician in question is doing just great - finally bought a train ticket off that darned plateau and is headed for new adventures in music!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Porky Pig no more! Putting an end to musical stuttering

If you are 20-something and are reading this post, you may have no idea who Porky Pig even is but if you are of a "wiser (no laughing!)," longer-lived generation like me, you will probably recall this beloved Looney Toons character whose trademark was his stutter.  Porky Pig is not alone with this speech impediment.  According to the Stuttering Foundation , 1% of Americans deal with this problem and 20% of children deal with it at some point in their childhood.  So you may be asking what this has to do with music and why I'm bringing this up on my blog.  Well, here's why.  

Across the board, one of the most common issues I deal with on a regular basis when I coach musicians young and old, is the problem of musical stuttering which is when I am referring to when people make a mistake, stop the pulse briefly, fumble until they get the right note, then move on.  Even though it may sound like small beans compared to issues like how fast someone's fingers can move, how accurate one's intonation is, or how well someone has memorized a piece, I actually think it is an element that needs to be fixed before everything else because without a fluid, consistent flow of pulse, a musician isn't truly processing the information in a correct, predictable way.  And if that isn't happening, then the brain isn't getting a chance to build strong pathways, strong neural connections that will be that foundation upon which the performer will rely when it comes to performance time.  Another reason why I believe it's so important to break this habit is because it is imperative that the pulse never be broken when playing a piece of music - ever.  For me, part of the magic of performing is that the musician can connect with the audience or with other musicians through the pulse of the music that he or she is playing.  We all experience that on a regular basis, especially in non-classical genres such as jazz, get a drum set going, for instance, and it's virtually impossible not to tap your foot along with the beat.  If that pulse is disturbed, that connection is immediately broken and the magic that we work so hard to make - gone!  

So how does one work on this and break the habit of musical stuttering?  Here's what I recommend to the folks I work with:

  • At the start of your practice session, make sure you tell yourself that you are not going to allow yourself to stutter.  This is important - especially if it's turned into a bad habit. 
  • Start practicing like normal.
  • When you catch yourself stuttering, immediately stop what you're doing.  This is important - STOP!

  • First, without touching your instrument, figure out what went wrong and figure out how you're going to fix the problem.  For example, is the problem a fingering issue?  A note that you're unsure of?  A tricky rhythm you don't really know and that you're winging?  
  • After analyzing the spot, fix it using your instrument, SLOWLY.  
  • When you feel like it is "fixed," play that exact spot, 3 times in a row, perfectly.  (If you mess up on the second try, go back and start again - it must be played perfectly 3 times in a row, perfectly - no excuses!)
  • After you're done this, back up in the music, pick a SLOWER tempo than you had originally tried, and begin again, making sure to keep the pulse steady.
That's it!  That's all it takes.  In the words of dear old Porky Pig himself...

"That's all, folks!"

Monday, April 5, 2010

It takes more than just individuality to keep the arts alive

It's amazing to me how life works.  When you allow it to, one wonderful piece of the puzzle can lead to another and even though you may not know what the picture is supposed to be, you can choose to have a lot of fun putting it all together and guessing where you think you're headed.  I find myself in that place right now in my life.  There are many, many exciting pieces that I have laying on the table in front of me, some which are connected to another piece already and that are giving me glimpses of something tangible, and there are those that are still hanging out by themselves, waiting...for something...I'm not quite sure what yet.

One piece that I find myself holding in my hand a lot these days has to do with the idea I brought up in my previous post, in which I described an outing to my daughter's first live ballet performance in which a professional dancer, the director of the company, danced alongside high-schoolers and young children.  It made for an incredibly inspiring, moving performance. Then another puzzle piece popped up, on my favorite new source of all things fascinating, twitter.  One of my twitter friends had posted a link to an article called, "A Cure for Depression" that was written today by Michael Kaiser, the President for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  I find it amusing that this article is a perfect extension of my previous puzzle piece since the arts group Kaiser writes about is a dance organization but more importantly, I feel that what this article has to say is very, very important and that we do need to listen and acknowledge what we are not currently doing in the arts world, in general, which is this:  I believe that in the name of personal success and survival, we, as artists, have moved away from a society that wants to work together as a whole to preserve its kind.  I think we have lost sight of the importance of inspiring one another, of sharing with one another, of helping one another and mentoring one another so that what we have now is a lot of disconnected artists that are trying to invent the wheel each in their separate corners of the world.  The good news is that in this time of the internet, twitter, blackberry, i-phones, there is no better time to get connected and share ideas.  This is a piece of the puzzle I am currently trying to work on.

I realize that this all sounds very idealistic and probably too dreamy for many.  That's OK.  Those that know me understand that I don't dislike individuality - of course not!  For me, music is a way to express one's individuality, that's one of the things I love about being a musician.  But I also think that it's very important that we, as artists, start sharing our arts across different boundaries...across different ages, skills, and styles...otherwise I fear we may not be sharing it with anyone other than ourselves for very long.

So there we have it - two pieces to a puzzle...a professional dancer that dances side by side with a high-school ballerina...and a call for folks in the arts to become mentors, to teach, and to share...

I wonder what the picture is going to be in the end. 
Let's make it a beautiful one.