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.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Think again! Destroying judgemental mental tapes while performing

© max5128 -
"I can't believe you missed that!"

"What kind of musician do you think you are?"

"You don't deserve to be up here!"

"I can't believe they're paying money to hear you!"

"You should have practiced that part more!"

Sound at all familiar?  I think most musicians have had tapes like these run through their head at some point during a performance.  In my experience they can completely destroy a performance, not only for myself but also for the audience.  These tapes can pull everyone out of the music.  They make the focus on ourselves even though in those moments that's the last thing we want.

So what can we do when we make that inevitable first mistake in a performance and one of those tapes starts playing?  

In an earlier post I wrote about dealing with performance anxiety I mentioned creating an alternative, non judgemental tape to quickly turn on as soon as one of the negative ones pops up.  Mine, for instance is, "SING!"  (Yes, it needs to be capitalized.) I repeat this word over and over again until I start singing the music in my head while I'm playing.  If I'm accompanying someone, I sing their line; if I'm playing solo I sing the melody.  What I have discovered is that when I do this there's no way my mind can come up with anything else - it's too busy with the act of singing.  Whether it takes me a few measures or a few pages - heck, even a whole movement to work,  it never fails to pull me away from focusing on myself and immersed back into the music.  

In my practice session today I discovered a variation of this technique that can be nurtured in the practice room and carried onto the stage when it's time to perform.  When I am learning a new piece of music I work in small chunks, identifying from the get-go what patterns there are in the music.  The patterns can be related to harmonies, melodic movement, repeated motives...I try to make sense out of the notes on the page so that they belong together and are no longer individual notes on the page.  This makes the process of learning the notes much quicker, infuses musicality into my practicing, and gives me something to think about the entire time I'm practicing so that I don't get sucked into the land of the practice doldrums.  It prevents me from doing that mindless, rote practicing that I engaged in for so much of my life and that requires way too many repetitions to make any progress in a realistic timeframe.  It's also in those mindless practice sessions that those judgemental mental tapes can be born and developed to a harmful degree.  Our minds have to have something to do, right?  

Right.  But why not give our brains something more productive to think about.  Starting in the practice room, why not feed our brains information that we can use even when we are performing?  Distractions are inevitable when we're on stage but when I have these mental tapes I created in the practice room playing that narrate what's going on in the music it's less likely.  

If you're curious about this process I go through to learn new music, here is a video of today's practice session.  I tried to narrate my thought process as much as possible - hopefully you can pick up on some of that.

Video streaming by Ustream

Next time you find your mind not treating yourself with respect, think again!  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thankful for my migraine?!

© Sergey Galushko -
That's correct, believe it or not.  This week of Thanksgiving I am truly thankful for the migraine I have right now.  But rest assured, I have a good reason.

I am thankful because this migraine was my choice this time.

In August my dad sent me yet another link to an article about migraines.  This one was about common food and beverage triggers.  Quite honestly I was not so sweet in my response at first.  Ah, yes, here is is...
"Thanks, Dad. Most of those I had heard about.  It's so discouraging to me.  Basically I should only eat vegetables and water since a lot of people I know also cut out anything with gluten.  I just don't know if I'm willing to completely change my diet.  Tough. But it's good to be reminded of all this so thank you."
Hmmm, that actually doesn't sound so bad but I assure you that what was going on in my heart was not quite so tame.  I believe my exact feelings were, "You've got to be kidding!  I'm miserable as it is - I am not going to start thinking about every little thing I put into my mouth.  No way!"

My strong reaction lasted until the next time I was struck with an intense migraine.  It was then that I decided that perhaps it was time to give the migraine trigger diet an honest go.

I am thankful that I decided to take the plunge and that my family was so supportive.

Using lists such as this one, which is actually based around knowing the levels in tyramine in foods, I stripped my diet of everything that could be a trigger.  (If you want to learn more about tyramine in connection with migraines, here is one article.)  It didn't take long for my migraines to disappear almost entirely.  I still had some thanks to hormones, but it was an incredible relief to be virtually migraine free and to realize that food could indeed have been a factor this entire time.  And yes, at this point my eye-rolling at my dad stopped.  Feeling 100% more energetic, excited, and motivated I now use one day out of the weekend to add one potential trigger back into my diet to test it.  If I end up with a migraine within about 24 hours (triggers can take up to 48 hours to cause a migraine), I cross that particular item off my list of safe foods.  Some of my discoveries have been pretty sad - any sort of aged cheese, anything with MSG, wine, bananas (it's those stringy things in between the peel and the fruit - incredibly high in tyramine!), and the most devastating of all - PEANUT BUTTER!  This process of discovery is slow since I am only willing to have a migraine once a week so I can only test one item a week, but wow, it's mind-blowing to me.  It's no wonder that I was constantly battling migraines!

Yes, my diet right now is very limited.  And yes, it's not very exciting.  Eating out at restaurants?  Hah!  Not really possible right now.  But isn't that such a first-world problem that isn't worth crying about?

To think of all the trips to migraine clinics hours away, the repeated dilemma of whether or not I needed an MRI, the many attempts to find a doctor that would listen and medicine that would work, the battles against debilitating side effects of medication, the dollars we shelled out to pay for prescriptions when I had reached our insurance company's approved amount, the days and nights wasted with me buried under the covers, the opportunities to build even more wonderful memories with my family while I was being tormented by my head, the performances I spent trying to break through migraine fog and pain...and not one of my doctors insisted that I try a diet like this to identify triggers!  I understand that it's difficult for them to think of everything especially when they only see me every so often but oh my heavens!  If only someone had demanded I do that if I wanted to continue getting their help.

But better late than never and ultimately it is my own responsibility.  My journey is not done but my life is definitely changing.  I am remembering who I am again and discovering all that I am capable of doing with a clear mind.  When I do get a migraine now it is much easier to get rid of it, sometimes not even requiring drugs.  If just one migraine sufferer reads this post and decides to try this approach I will be so glad.  And if it works for him or her, oh my, that would be the best.

In closing, why am I thankful for today's migraine?  Because I chose to take this one on last night when I was eating at a friend's house.  I sat down to the meal knowing that I had a free day today and that I haven't had to take my medication for a week - there would be no risk of having a rebound migraine because of taking too much medicine in a short period of time.  I wanted to enjoy last night without being careful about everything I put into my mouth.  So I did and it was an enjoyable evening.  As I consequence, yes, I got a migraine this morning but this time I greeted it with a nod of acceptance, a dose of medicine, and a "good-bye."  It completely disappeared in the two hours it took to write this post.

Today I shall eat carefully and thoughtfully because I choose not to get a migraine tomorrow.
Who knows what I'll do on Thanksgiving.  What I do know is that it will be my choice.

Choice.  What a change of pace - a welcome change of pace for which I am thankful.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Calling all potential piano collaborators, a.k.a. young pianists

© Kromosphere -
Young pianists, this post is for you!  
Think piano collaborators are pianists that couldn't quite cut it in the solo world?  Do you picture the demure, quiet, accompanist of long ago that silently shuffled to the piano and played in the shadows of the "real" artists?  

Well think again!  I'm a little biased of course, but I love doing what I do.  And here's the thing - we need more young pianists that are interested in going down this path.  We need for you to start doing things now that will help you acquire the skills that make for a great collaborator.   Now is the time to start playing for friends that sing and play other instruments.  Now is the time to sightread duets with your teacher or a friend on a regular basis to pump up your sightreading skills. Now is the time to get a taste for the fun and satisfaction that can be had in this great role.  

So what's so great about it?  I was hoping you'd ask.   Here's what I love about being a collaborator:

  • I get to perform all the time.  During the school year that sometimes means several times a week.  
  • There are opportunities to travel all over the world as a choir's or musician's pianist.  Accompanying choirs and singers has taken me to Switzerland, Asia, Russia, and the Czech Republic.  
  • There is great value in having to play pieces that I don't think I'm going to like.  More often than not I end up liking them by the time a performance comes around.  (There's a good life lesson in there - give the piece a chance, take the time to get to know it, and end up loving it.)
  • I get to perform the same pieces over and over again which gives me the opportunity to keep improving.  Of course it's never perfect, so I'm never bored!
  • I can't easily or responsibly back out of a project when I discover a piece is more difficult than I thought it was going to be.  I have no choice but to make it work and usually it ends up being all right.  That leaves me with a very good feeling and raises my opinion of what I think I can handle.  Sometimes this is scary, but it's also exciting and empowering.
  • I get to play and work with others.  That might not be everybody's cup of tea but I love the interaction and the communication that can happen between two musicians, with or without words.
  • Sitting in other peoples' lessons opens up so many more worlds.  I've learned so much about the various instruments and what it takes to play them.  It's a an education that you are paid to receive.  (There's more about this in my post, "The value and fun in being a sponge-like collaborator.")
  • I get to perform without the stress of having to deal with memorization, which doesn't happen to be my strong-suit.  
  • I still play solo piano music when I want to and when I'm asked.  With all the playing I do I am always in good shape technically.  
  • I play music that is just as wonderful and demanding as solo piano music.  Sure there's the easy music too that I can do in my sleep but there's plenty of challenging music as well that would give a solo pianist a run for his or her money.
  • I get to work with young musicians on a regular basis without bearing the responsibility of being a primary teacher.  
  • I don't think I'll ever run out of music to learn.  
  • I can work as a freelance pianist or I can try to get a job as part of an institution or organization.
  • Collaborating allows for some moments to swoop in and be the heroine for the day.  We have to be careful how much we do this because saving the day too often can sometimes lead to being taken advantage of and to some uncomfortable situations.  But most of the time I find it pretty thrilling and satisfying to know that I've saved what could have been a not-so-pleasant performance.
  • I love the opportunity to work with young people.  I figure it's my chance to keep music flowing in this crazy, wired world of ours.  
  • Every once in a blue moon I get to play for a masterclass that's truly for a master.  And in those classes I sometimes get to accompany them as they're demonstrating.  Even if it's only for a handful of measures there's something pretty thrilling about playing with someone that seasoned and talented.  I'm not one for getting autographs but I'll take a musical autograph any day.
I'm sure I'm leaving things out in this list.  If any fellow collaborators want to chime in with some others, please feel free to leave them in the comments section.  

The world needs more good, dedicated piano collaborators so sleep on this list and wake up ready to grab another musician with whom you can play.  If you're like me you'll never look back.  And if you need any more convincing, check out the sidebar on the right-hand side of the blog that says, "Blog posts about accompanying/collaborating."  I have had plenty to say about the topic.

Now get to it! Start thinking outside the box, grab a partner, and play!  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thinking aloud about reading and sightreading music

© Paul Marcus -

It's like a playground for the mind that's always evolving and this past week has taken me to a completely new playground - one that I'm just seeing a tiny glimpse of but that I'm so very eager to explore.  

The class in question is the accompanying class at Radford University.  Not to be confused with accompanying classes at most institutions, this class is one that is a required, year-long course that is taken mostly by vocal music education majors in their junior or senior years.  Most of the students have not taken piano lessons before and have only gone through the required group piano classes.  My job is to help them get to a level where they can accompany singers, either in a choral or solo setting, at a basic level.  This has proven to be a great challenge to me since they really aren't pianists.  In a post I wrote last year, Reflections on the first year of teaching piano sightreading, I discussed some of what I had discovered during my first semester of teaching in detail.  In today's post I'll move on from those observations to draw attention to one interesting experiment I've conducted this week and its surprising (at least to me) results.

First, here is what I've been frustrated with that I'm trying to tackle:
  • The students read note-by-note, note value-by-note value which makes reading piano music especially challenging, tension producing and tiring.
  • Because they feel they have to concentrate so hard on each and very note they rarely, if ever, look ahead in the music.
  • They count out loud in such a way that they aren't really internalizing a constant beat, shifting instead between feeling the larger beats and the subdivisions depending on the rhythms they are reading.    Often times when they try to go back to feeling the bigger beats they can't and end up counting the main beats twice as fast as they should be.  (I wish I could come up with an image or example for what I'm talking about.  I realize it's a bit confusing - sorry!)
  • Because they have a difficult time feeling a constant pulse and because they can't stand making a mistake they stop when they do something wrong.  It is very difficult to get them to keep going no matter what.
Determined to help them get over some of these issues I pulled out an exercise that taps into a technique I use all the time when I'm sightreading.  The purpose of it is to keep the eyes, brain, and hands moving in steady, rhythmic, synchronized way.  Here's what we did while we read piano duets together.  With me playing the more complicated bottom part as written I had them play the 5-finger position top part as follows:
  • First time:  playing at a very fast tempo so that 4/4 measures could be felt and counted in 2 rather than in 4, and 2/4 measures could be felt and counted in 1 rather than in 2, they looked for and played only the first notes of every measure while counting out loud.  Since we were doing this very quickly they really had to keep their eyes moving.  Because they weren't having to worry about rhythms and because I was playing with them, they could maintain the steady pulse and feel what it's like to get in a wonderful groove.
  • Second time:  slowing down the tempo but maintaining the same counting scheme, they continued to read only the notes that fell on downbeats but I asked them to add in whatever their eyes saw around those downbeats.  
It took them a few tries to figure out what I meant but once they did I think we were all shocked by the results.  On day one of this experiment, after only one attempt each, when they went to do the second play-through where they were focusing on the downbeats but allowing themselves to play what they could, they played virtually all the notes correctly at the first attempt without any problems with rhythms they had previously struggled to execute correctly.  And no stopping!  To top it off they all played extraordinarily musically, especially considering the fact they aren't pianists.  I was literally gobsmacked.  

And the cherry on the cake?

I met with one of my students today and led her through our exercise with the same exciting results, only this time when I looked at her it looked like she was going to pop.  After saying, "Brava!" I asked her, "How did that feel?"  She had this enormous grin on her face and she said something along the lines of, "This was the first time I've ever played music and actually heard another part.  I heard your part - I heard mine.  It was beautiful!"  I asked her if she realized that she had done all the rhythms correctly and she said, "Really?  I wasn't thinking about them at all!"  Coming from someone to whom rhythm doesn't come naturally, that made my day.  

So why did this work so well, at least this time?

Perhaps it worked because it showed them that their eyes and brain can take in quite a bit all at once without having to expend energy on each and every dot on the page.  This freed them up enough so that they could include their ears in the process.  They could hear the music that was being made and could respond in expressive ways.  In regards to the rhythms that they previously hadn't been able to do very easily, I now wonder if they do indeed have a grasp of rhythm but don't realize it themselves.  They don't trust that they can see a pattern and automatically be able to reproduce it without counting all the tiny subdivisions that require so much additional brain power.  

We'll see what happens from here.  I realize it's just a start but wow, at least for this week, I'm thrilled and am eager to figure out what to do next.  If anyone has any thoughts or personal stories about this topic, please do share - I always learn a lot from all of you!

If you're interested in more ideas about sightreading music, feel free to check out my page devoted to the topic.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

One musician's search for relevance in the working world

Those NPR stories.  They always get to me!  A few weeks ago as I was driving to work I fell victim to the oft-repeated "pull to the side of the road until the NPR story is finished" scenario only to find myself propelled into a month long soul-searching expedition which has led me to this particular blog post.  That would explain the month-long absence. I'm not quite sure what is to follow but everything that has happened in my mind and heart these past few weeks deserves some sort of mention.  So here goes.

It all started before I heard the story on the radio.  All the news about orchestra strikes, possible funding cuts for the arts and the talk of artists needing to step into the world of the marketplace, the increase of music school students that don't have any exposure to classical music prior to coming to college, my own daughter declaring her dislike of the genre, our current struggle to support ourselves working solely as freelance musicians - I quickly found myself thinking that what I do for a living doesn't serve much of a purpose to the world as a whole anymore and that it might be better for me to rejoin the "real" world in order to do my part, whatever that might be.  The prospect of having a steady, predictable income, of having our benefits taken care of, was turning into a mighty large, juicy, carrot that I was so tempted to grab and run.

Enter the NPR story.

Local poet and professor at Virginia Tech, Nikki Giovanni, along with illustrator Chris Raschka, worked together on a children's book called The Grasshopper's Song back in 2008.  It's a retelling of Aesop's fable about the grasshopper that sat back and played music rather than being industrious like the ants who were busily and responsibly preparing for the winter.  Nikki Giovanni didn't like Aesop's moral to the story and felt that perhaps there was a different side of the story.  In this children's book she set out to tell the grasshopper's point of view and in the process to make an appeal about the value of the arts in society.   As Giovanni explains...
"I’m sick of the way the grasshopper is treated as if he had no purpose, as if he were useless, you know, and the ants are using what he’s given because the grasshoppers [are] making music and I’m sick of people acting like the fact you’re an artist, somehow you don’t work, you haven’t done anything.  So I said if I had my way the grasshopper would sue the ants because, you know, that’s the American way."
That got my attention.

Next I heard Giovanni quote a bit from the story.  In this scene Jimmy Grasshopper has brought a  court case against Nestor and Abigail Ant for not giving him the respect he deserves as a musician.  After being accused of being a clown and a slacker by the defense the grasshopper takes to the stand. Laurie Wren, the prosecuting attorney, questions him about why he feels he deserves anything from the ants.  
"Jimmie sat even taller.  'Am I not worthy of my bread? Does not the work of my heart and soul earn respect?  I’m an artist. Is there no place for beauty, no solace for the ear, no hope for the heart?  Must everything be in the marketplace? Doesn't the marketplace itself need and deserve beautification?... Without art, life would be a big mistake.'"
I was moved and shocked hearing these words, especially considering where I was at that exact moment.  When I got to work I sat down in a bit of a stupor, pulled out the music to Gerald Finzi's "Eclogue," my current almost-as-good-as-chocolate piece of choice, and just played.  As predictable as a soap opera, I ended up with tears streaming down my face.  I was singing my own grasshopper's song.  

In the weeks that followed I went through a lot of processing and re-reading of Giovanni's story.  I've even kept my distance from twitter in an effort to quiet my mind long enough to hear my own voice again.  For those of you who know my twitter tendencies, that's saying something!  After many ups and downs here is what I've concluded for myself about whether or not I should choose the path of the grasshopper or that of the ants:
  • I could quit music in search of a "real" job in order to be more "productive" in the eyes of many and to gain the benefits that such a job comes with but I'm having a hard time thinking of one that would give me a sense of doing something good and beneficial for society as a whole.  Maybe I could get a job at a coffee place but do I really want to be making fatty, sugary, expensive coffee drinks for people?  I could work at a retail store but do I really want to be encouraging folks to spend money?  Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with those jobs - I just don't think I'd find a lot of purpose in them and for someone like me, who seeks meaning in just about everything I do, I think it would be too great a stretch for me. 
  • Classical music might be a bit of a waning genre but it is something that gives me great joy and always has.  I also firmly believe that most people can enjoy or at least tolerate classical music when it's presented in a non-threatening, eclectic, personal way.  Just think of all those flash-mobs that have been so popular on the the internet.  Very rarely do you see someone glowering when they're in the center of a spirited musical performance like that - when music meets everyday life.
  • With my teaching and coaching there is much more that I can teach that goes beyond the music.  Music teaches about problem solving, planning, leadership, collaboration, cooperation,  self expression, determination to follow through and to do one's best, discipline, and the joy and pride that is the culmination of it all.  
  • I may not be able to be successful as a musician when it comes to money but I believe I can be successful in a much more personally fulfilling way - one that can be absorbed by those around me and by my family.  
I've waited for a while to write this post so that I could write it when my thoughts had stabilized and I do believe I'm there now.  I realize I'm bound to have some ups and downs as I proceed down the musical path on which I currently find myself but until something changes I am determined to pick up my fiddle and to keep on playing and singing Jimmy Grasshopper's song.  If I am accused of being clown or an irresponsible member of society, so be it.  

At least I'll be happy.

Quick note:  If you are interested in purchasing the book but are discouraged by the reviews of the book on Amazon, pay them little heed.  It is actually quite interesting to read the comments since they reflect a common attitude we have in this country about the value (or lack of value) of the arts.  And is this book a "childrens'" book?  Well, as with most books in this genre, I imagine it can be enjoyed by children and adults of all ages but especially by adults.  Our daughter, who is now 7, loved it!  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The power of a few words of thanks to a piano collaborator

© Ariwasabi -
I'm not going to say much in this post because I don't want to detract from the words I'm about to share.  

This afternoon I finished practicing, opened my computer and found an e-mail in my inbox from a young saxophonist I accompany with the subject line, "The Glazunov."  I opened up my calendar first, thinking this would be a rehearsal request, returned to my e-mail to start reading and my heart skipped a beat...or two.  Here is what I read:
"I just wanted to let you know that I have been listening to the orchestral version of the Glazunouv [saxophone concerto] quite a bit over the last week or so, and I have a renewed appreciation of everything that you do as an accompanist. The sheer number of different parts that you have to cover and the orchestration in them which you emulate is absolutely crazy and a true testament to your musicianship.   I am excited to give it another shot the next time that we play together."
 I am grateful for the people that I accompany and collaborate with and I am regularly blessed with not only shared music with others but also with words of thanks and appreciation.  This e-mail serves as yet another example of why I do what I do and it also gives me an opportunity to let folks in on an important truth - genuine appreciation for what we accompanists and collaborators do means the world to us.  Our job is largely about other people so to know that we truly are seen as part of the equation can be a gift that keeps giving from one performance to another.

So go ahead...fill up your collaborator's inbox with some appreciation.  It will be a welcome change of pace to all those rehearsal requests that we get.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Finding the perfect audience - it's easier than you think

© sevaljevic -
The perfect audience.

I'm not talking marketing.  I'm not talking programming.  And I'm not talking about anything that has to do with money or "making it."  

I'm talking about the perfect audience in a very personal sense.  It's a key, I think, to opening many doors for musicians of all ages and stages.  Whether it's the nine-year old who's about to walk onstage to play for a handful of judges, the symphony member who is about to join 100 other colleagues in the concert hall, or the recording artist that is about to spend hours in the recording studio hoping for the perfect take - each of these musicians desires to do his or her best.  But for whose sake?  For whom are we playing?  Are we trying to speak to and please each individual in the audience?  If we are, isn't that asking a lot of ourselves?  

A few months ago a friend posted a YouTube video on my Facebook page that answered this question  for me in a powerful way.  In the video a tuba player that played with the Dukes of Dixieland band, Richard Matteson, talks about a recording session he was involved in with Louis Armstrong.  In the course of the session the band witnessed Louis performing for two very different but important audiences all within the confines of the recording studio's walls.  And those very well-defined audience members, his wife and God, made the performances what they were - personal musical gifts that were were given with unconditional love coming from both directions.  Here is the video so you can hear the story for yourself:

"I always play for somebody I love.  That's all.  You play for somebody you love, all the time.  They wanna listen, that's cool.  If they don't want to listen, it's still cool cuz I was gonna play for Him and her anyway."  
Does this type of approach to performing exclude anyone else that might be sitting in the audience? Personally I don't think so.  In my experience it's performances like this that hand the music and the musician's own self over to the audience in one powerful package that has the ability to move, embrace, and thrill whoever is open to receiving.  

Perhaps this reveals something not-so-positive about me, but my personal audience is myself, all the time - not the perfectionist self or the practice room self, but the me that fell in love with music when I was a little girl.  Performing is a gift for myself that I like to share with anyone else who cares to listen.  If they like the gift too, that's cool.  If they don't, that's still cool.  

You'll still find me smiling and walking onto the stage again...and again...and again.

Friday, August 31, 2012

To practice or not to practice on the day of a not-so-ideal performance?

© OlliFoolish -
Here's the situation I faced when I woke up this morning:
  • I have a performance this evening, a recital of trio music for piano, oboe, and horn
  • I received the music one month ago
  • I have never heard, seen, or played either of these pieces prior to receiving it
Last night we had a dress rehearsal that was disguised as a performance at a local retirement community.  For the most part it went quite well and I enjoyed myself immensely, but as is often the case with music that is really new in my fingers, ears, and heart, there were many times when I found that little annoying voice in my head saying, "Um, have we done this before?" and other times where it simply screamed, "Eeeeeeeeck!"  That little voice doesn't discriminate between difficult passages and what should be easy ones so by the end of the performance I was glowing but also exhausted and a little bewildered as to how to approach the next 24 hours.  Normally on performance day I try to stay away from the music to be performed because I've found that it can more often than not, freak me out.  If I bomb a passage while warming up guess what's going through my head the moment I walk out on stage to perform the same piece.  Right.  An instant replay of the whole incident.  And guess how relaxed I am as I get closer and closer to the passage in question?  Yep.  Not very relaxed.  So with pieces I've performed quite a bit already or that I have worked on for months and months I tend to play completely unrelated music that I love to play to get me connected to my instrument and to the joy of playing music.  Unfortunately these days, as a collaborative pianist who is constantly learning new music and being asked to perform when it is not at the level of comfort I'd like, this tactic of not playing the piece at all doesn't work so well and doesn't tend to lead to having a calm spirit when I walk on stage.  So what to do?

When music feels uncomfortably new to me, my new tactic that I've been trying recently and that I did this morning was that I play through the least comfortable movements and passages at a tempo that allowed my body and mind to remain consistently relaxed.  Here's what I'm looking for when I'm doing this:
  • A connection with what it feels like to be playing this music in a relaxed state
  • Time to audiate and truly hear everything I'm playing as it is happening which also enables me to play slowly while preserving and even exploring musicality
  • Time to predict and audiate what's coming up next which helps even more with musicality
  • Time to breathe regularly, especially during the challenging passages where I tend to hold my breath
  • A freedom in movement, especially in my arms and hands, where I'm tempted to tense up in anticipation of a difficult sequence of notes
  • Time to also hear the other players' parts in my head so that they don't catch me off-guard in performances
  • A chance to fall in love with the music I'm playing
In the past when I've slow practiced with these things in mind, it reminds me of the music in a non-threatening way and it allows me to build a positive connection with the music that I can carry with me when I walk onto the stage.  It's still a relatively new tactic of mine so I suppose we'll see how it works for me this evening.

I would cross my fingers but that might make it a little tricky to play.  Plus too much tension involved.

Update post-performance: The performance went really well and I felt my body reconnect with the ease I felt in my practice session while I was playing slowly.  My ears were also much more engaged after hearing everything at a slower tempo earlier.  Conclusion?  It worked this time!  I'll keep testing the method.  And if anyone else tries it, do let me know how it works for you. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Making practicing public, live, and personal

Here comes another crazy idea of mine and thankfully I don't have just myself to blame for this one.    It started a while ago after I had tweeted quite a bit during a practice session of mine.  One of my friends on twitter tweeted to me, "I wish I could hear you practicing over twitter."  

My initial reaction was, "Ewwwww...I don't think you really want to know what's going on when I'm practicing."  But especially since I've started my own practice coaching business, I have put some more thought into my friend's statement and began thinking that livestreaming my practice sessions just might be the thing to do.  It would be a great way to hold me accountable for practicing what I preach, would give me more motivation to set aside time to practice every day, and if people actually chose to watch it, it could give them some insight into how I work, think, and deal with life as a busy musician.  It would show that even professionals have problems, that we make mistakes, and have bad practice days - in other words, that we too are human.  If nothing else, on good days it could provide folks with some decent background music.  

So here we are.  Thanks to the joys of the internet and technology, I am now able to jump off the cliff and let you all into my little strange, obsessive little practice world.  Right now I happen to have a lot of time to practice so I'm practicing several hours a day.  In a few weeks, once school gets going and rehearsals start up I'm not sure how it's going to work.  My plan, however, is to post a schedule for the day each morning on my Beyond the Notes Facebook page.  You can also come here to my blog and look at the sidebar on the right-hand side of the screen.  I have my ustream channel embedded there and it should automatically show when I'm livestreaming.  

If you miss my practice sessions, which is very likely since everyone is so productive and busy, you can always watch the archived videos that are also stored on my channel.  I'll keep a week's worth there at any given time.  

This is all very new so I welcome feedback on how I can make this work better so that it will be more interesting and informative.  And if you have specific questions about what or how I'm practicing shoot me an e-mail at This is now my third day of streaming and I was encouraged yesterday when another friend on twitter, a pianist, responded to my livestreaming yesterday by saying, "Could only tune in for a few minutes.  Long enough to send me to the piano."

I'm not sure if she was already headed to the piano, but if it was watching me practice that drove her to practice, this crazy experiment is well worth it!

So go pop some popcorn, pull up a seat, and join me...Beyond the!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Inspired by an inspiring award!

A few weeks ago I received the most surprising and humbling comment on my blog by a wonderful pianist, teacher, and social media friend, LaDona.  In it she informed me that she had nominated me for a "Very Inspiring Blogger Award" which, according to the badge that accompanies the nomination, has been created to keep "the blogosphere a beautiful place."  I think it's pretty obvious by now that I have fallen in love with blogs, not only writing them, but also reading them.  I am constantly inspired by a stream of incredible ideas and creativity that I see in these online journals that no longer just pepper the internet, but seem to fuel it.  To hear from a reader and colleague that this blog inspires her is such an encouragement to me.  So many, many thanks, LaDona.  It is an honor to be listed among those that you also nominated.  (To see a list of the excellent blogs she mentions, click here.)  So now to "accept" my award I'm asked to do several things:

  • Thank and link back to the person who nominated me
  • Post the award image to your page
  • Tell seven random facts about myself
  • Nominate 10 other blogs
  • Let them know they are nominated

Let's start with the random facts...hmmm...
  1. I love knitting and cross-stitching even though I rarely have time to do it anymore.
  2. I took sewing class in school.  And no, I'm not that old.  I just went to a bit of an old-fashioned girls' school.  I was the last person to take that class and I'm proud of it.
  3. I had to go to dancing school in middle school donning white gloves and patent leather shoes. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.
  4. The cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, picked me up off the stage of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and asked me to sit next to him in the audience during an open masterclass.  I will never forget that moment though I have showered since then.  I wasn't so sure I was going to.
  5. We have a pet lovebird named Pistachio.
  6. I can play a flamenco piece on the guitar...sort of.  
  7. I love poems, both reading and writing them.  My favorite poets?  Rainer Maria Rilke and Eavan Boland.

And now to nominate some fabulous bloggers that inspire me on a regular basis:

  1. Alexis Del Palazzo's "The Sensible Flutist" - Alexis shares many of my same philosophies about music-making, holistic playing, and the importance of building community wherever you are
  2. Astrid Baumgardner - Ms. Baumgardner is always a wonderful source of inspiration about life for creative souls
  3. Jazz pianist Ron Davis - Ron is on a bit of a blogging hiatus right now but when he writes, he writes beautifully with lots of wonderful things to say about music and literature.  He also happens to like Rainer Maria Rilke's writing. 
  4. Music educator and psychologist Robert Woody's, "Being musical. Being human." - Dr. Woody writes all the time about inspiration he receives through his teaching and research and is a good place to go to read about recent studies in the music psychology world.
  5. Cellist Emily Wright's "The Stark Raving Cello" blog - Emily doesn't actually seem to be raving very much of the time but instead provides honest, thoughtful posts about life both musical and otherwise.  She is also incredible at coming up with amusing stick-figure drawings that say just as much as a blog post can.
  6. Pianist and educator Michael Monroe's "MMmusing" blog - where wit and music come together into posts that usually leave me giggling.  He is amazing at putting together word puzzles, images with funny captions, classical music mash-ups, and videos.  Truly a place to be entertained while learning something.
  7. Clarinetist Marion Harrington - Marion is someone that has inspired me from day one of knowing her.  Living in Spain, she gave up a successful career in business to return to music and is sharing her journey one step at a time, the highs and the lows but always with a sense of humor and determination to live above it all.
  8. Guitarist Patrick Smith's "A Journeyman's Way Home" - Patrick blogs just about every day and to me they are like little meditations that shine a light into my own life.  He is truly a poetic soul.
  9. Music psychologist and coach Noa Kageyama's "The Bulletproof Musician" - Dr. Kageyama writes inspiring, practical posts to help any musician in the practice room and on the stage.  
  10. Pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski's "Go Play Project" - Cathy started a fascinating project at the beginning of the year to learn, record, and post on this blog a new piece every week during the 2012 year.  It's a source of inspiration to me every week and has put a bug in my mind that I want to do this too...someday. 
The thing I don't like about making any sort of list is knowing that I will probably leave something or someone out.  If you know I regularly read your blog but have not listed you here, please don't think anything of it and forgive me instead!  

Thank you again, LaDona, for giving me a chance to sit down and to think of all the wonderful people I have in my life via the internet.  It has been an honor.

Long live the inspiring blogosphere!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The thing about classical music...from the mouth of my babe

© Andy Dean -
You remember that show way back when that was hosted by Bill Cosby called, "Kids Say the Darndest Things?"  Well, in the past few months my seven-year old daughter and I have been living in our very own episode in which the central theme is classical music.  

It started a few months ago in the car when I asked my daughter if she wanted me to turn on some music.  She replied in the affirmative so I slipped in a CD of Rachmaninoff piano concertos - a little light listening.  The minute it came on I saw the oh-so-familiar eye-roll and heard its faithful side-kick, the sigh.  Looking back at her I said, "What?  Did you want to hear something else?"  Not wanting to ruffle feathers she didn't say much but by this point I was determined to figure out what was up with this disdain so I persisted in my questioning.  "What don't you like about this?  It's so incredible!  Just listen."  I proceeded to describe to her what I heard in the music, coming up with some sort of fantastical tale that involved fairies and mermaids (a necessity in a 7-year old girl's stories) and looked back to see her reaction.  Nothing.  No sign of interest, only another one of those sighs.  

A few weekends ago we found ourselves in a similar scenario.  On the way to church on a Sunday morning I again decided to listen to some music in the car - classical, of course and this time a recording of one of my own recitals.  The minute the music started (Rachmaninoff again), she said, "Mommy, why do you like this classical stuff so much?"  I gave her my answer and ended by asking her again, "What don't you like about it?"  Her response turned on a humongous lightbulb that's been burned out for my entire life.  She said, "Mommy, the thing about classical music is that, well, it just makes me feel stuff I don't want to feel all the time.  It's just too much, especially this early in the morning."  

I've heard this before.  Many times before.  Her words instantly transported me back to when I worked in a resort in Switzerland for several months.  I played piano in a restaurant and accompanied four singers that had also traveled there from San Francisco.  On my first night at work, the maitre d' of the restaurant, an intimidating, serious fellow, came up to me and said, "We've received a complaint from a customer - they want no more of this sad music.  They want happy music."  Prior to this experience I had very little experience playing anything other than classical music and in my mind, classical music was happy.  But I realized after a bit of reflecting that it was happy to me because I grew up with it, I liked it, and I connected with it.   Listening to the music from an outsider's perspective, it occurred to me that it could be perceived as something quite the opposite of heart-warming and perhaps overly emotional instead.  They craved Strauss waltzes, Scott Joplin rags, Sousa marches, jazz standards, anything peppy and upbeat that got their foot tapping.  They wanted music that took them out of their emotions and away from the drama of their lives into a simpler, happier place.  

For me, that happier place involves drama and an intense connection with the range of emotions that I can feel but for others, like my daughter, it can simply be too much.  As I find myself performing more and more for people that didn't grow up steeped in classical music, I'm realizing that making sure there's plenty of lighter emotional fare on my musical menu tends to produce more comfortable, satisfied audiences.  Does that mean I leave out some of the meat and potatoes of the classical repertoire when I perform?  Nope, I don't do that because that would mean keeping a large part of myself hidden.  But I also make sure that I include some pieces that are easier on the emotions and less likely to elicit one of my daughter's sighs.  

Ah, those sighs...I could use less of them since I know we'll get plenty in the years to come.  Perhaps I'll avoid Rachmaninoff the next time we're in the car together.  His music can be a little "too much," especially early in the morning.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mired in Migraines

© mast3r -
This is the first time I've bothered to mention this on my blog but since I've had a day that was made null and void by a severe migraine, I decided I want to end it with something productive.  So here's my attempt, written with all the lights turned off, drugs taken, brightness turned down on my computer screen, fan blowing on me gently, and the room quiet and waiting for something.

Migraines are mysterious. 
Migraines are merciless.

But often times they are seen as just as "big headaches." Take some aspirin, get some rest, you'll be fine.  

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way.

Migraines don't usually go away overnight.  I have gone through two weeks at a time with a constant migraine, of varying intensity, but there nonetheless.  And I know of folks that have had migraines last for even longer than that.  So just taking some aspirin and getting some rest doesn't really work - at least not for some of us.   Because they aren't "just headaches."

Migraines can be debilitating.  Sometimes I can continue to function with one but on a bad day, like today, I am forced to do nothing.  And I mean nothing.  Reading hurts, looking at the computer screen hurts, listening to music hurts, practicing piano definitely hurts...yup, see how bad it gets?  If something keeps me from my piano that says something.  I can perform if need be, albeit in a bit of a drugged-up state, thanks to all the endorphins that come with walking on stage but afterwards?  Oh boy.  You don't want to see me after a performance under the influence.  Not pretty.  

Migraines make me want to cry...or worse.  But because they are so painful and debilitating any thoughts of doing either are quickly realized as impossibilities.  Imagine that.  

Migraines make me feel pathetic.  Here I am, a wife and a mother, and I am made worthless to my family.  I remember several times when my daughter was much younger and not yet in school when she had to nurse me through the day.  It might have been somewhat fun for her - a chance to truly play nurse, but it wasn't so fun for me nor did I feel it was really right.  I am thankful that I have a family that is so understanding and helpful but I wish it didn't have to be this way so much of the time.

Migraines are difficult to figure out.  I've tried so many different medications, many of which have had way too many side-effects to be bearable; I've driven long distances to go to special clinics;  I've kept charts trying to make some sense of all the possible factors; I've had many different doctors that have completely different philosophies; I've tried to figure out the triggers; I've tried different things in regard to my diet; I've checked the barometric pressure on a regular's been a lot of work but yielded very few consistent theories.  Out of it all I have learned just a few things which I'll share now, for what it's worth.
  • It's challenging to find a good doctor who can really help with migraines.  I finally ended up with a neurologist that has migraines herself and this has meant the world to me.  With her I feel comfortable because I know she gets it.  She listens to me, has figured out that my body is not very good with medicine, and has taken more of a "let's just get you through this approach."  We tried some of the preventative options but they were not well-received by my extremely sensitive system.  Instead, she has put me on a daily regimen of supplements and has found for me several different options that I can use once a migraine sets in.  There are good doctors out there and they take some work to find but it's worth it.  
  • It seems like MRIs are not necessary unless a neurologist does a basic set of tests (that doesn't require machines, radiation, or big bills) and he or she sees a need to proceed with the big guns.  I had two neurologists, after seeing me once, order MRIs after only speaking to me for about 10 minutes each.  It was such a knee-jerk solution for them.  Migraine = MRI but seriously?  Do you know how much those tests are?  Plus talk about migraine inducing!
  • Rebound migraines can be more debilitating than your average migraines but they can happen so incredibly easily.  I had no idea that the medicine that works best for me, Maxalt, is only supposed to be taken every couple of days.   For whatever reason, none of my doctors or pharmacists ever told me this little detail.  So for little old me, that was having migraines for days on end, for weeks on end, taking Maxalt every day was causing massive rebound migraines!  Of course I was also running out medicine on a regular basis, being forced a few times to pay $75 per pill when I was desperate and had run out of what our insurance would pay for.   Somehow I stumbled upon information about rebound migraines online so I asked my neurologist about it and she confirmed what I had figured out.  I immediately started keeping track of when I took Maxalt, allowing for 2 to 3 days in between doses, and instantly reduced my attacks and their severity.  For a long time I also didn't know that I could take advil at the same time I take Maxalt.  And on top of that I can also take an anti-nausea medication I take.  It pays to ask the pharmacist or your doctor!  Perhaps I'm the only person that didn't know these things but I want to go on the record for passing on these important bits of info.  
  • I have discovered a website,, that has a wealth of information daily.  They also have a twitter account at @migrainedotcom.  
I wish I had more helpful information to offer but like I said at the beginning of this post - migraines are mysterious.  I certainly hope that more research will be done in the years to come so that this those of us who deal with them on a regular basis will find more relief.   Until then, if you're someone suffering from migraines, go easy on yourself - it's not easy to live with these things.  And for those of you that know someone with migraines, thank you for supporting them and believing them.  It means the world to us and makes living with them so much more tolerable. 

Now my head is really hurting so it's time to sign off.  Here's to a new and better day tomorrow.  Stay healthy, everyone! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Musical Investigations: Episode 4 - Muczynski's "Time Pieces"

In this musical investigation I look at just two measures from Muczynski's first movement of his "Time Pieces," for clarinet and piano.  I knew right off the bat that I would be spending quite a bit of time with these 31 notes and it's proving to be true.  But I'm getting there.  

Here's the passage in question:

I've learned a few things about Mr. Muczynski.  I've learned that his name is fun to say, that his music is always very rhythmically exciting, and the thing that begins our current investigation, that he must have loved octatonic scales which are scales that alternate between whole steps and half steps.

I love octatonic scales - truly.   But not this particular use of them.  Why?  Because Mr. Muczynski decided to not have the hands playing the same intervals at the same time - when the right hand is playing a half step the left hand is playing a whole step.  And when the right hand is playing a whole step, the left hand is playing a half step.  Oh ugh.  That is not nice!  But it does provide a wonderful mental challenge which I gladly accept.

So how to proceed?
  1. Find a good fingering and mark it in.  I knew that I wanted to reduce the number times I needed to shift my hands in order to keep things more simple and to avoid finger-tangling episodes.  I also found a way to finger them so that I would be using my thumbs in both hands at the same time as much as possible.  This gives me a sense of security and helps my brain to regroup whenever I land on those thumbs.  I made sure to mark in all the fingerings so that in the beginning stages I would be repeating the exact same fingering.  Not all people like doing this and would rather keep the music more clean but I prefer this method.  I figure I can always erase some of the more obvious ones as soon as the passage is well-learned and memorized.
  2. Mark in the material that immediately follows the scales.  Of course this passage falls right on a page-turn which is an invitation for a weak moment so I took a second to write in the notes that fall on the downbeat of the next measure so that I could work that in from the beginning of learning this passage.  
  3. Learn each hand separately so that I can play it in my sleep.  This didn't take terribly long because like I said before, I love octatonic scales and am pretty familiar with them.  But I always like to give myself a moment of success before I tackle something challenging, in this case putting the hands together.  
  4. Slowly put the hands together.  I have to admit this was slow going and I do believe my brain started to physically hurt.  Realizing that this might not work very well on its own I moved on to...
  5. Come up with a strategy to help my brain have something to grab onto.   After struggling to come up with something I finally realized that if I locked onto the right hand and onto which interval I was playing at a given moment I could pretty easily tell my left hand to simply do the other interval.  Seems crazy, perhaps, and keep in mind I had to do this super slow, but pretty quickly my brain and my hands started to latch onto the technique.  It allowed me to focus my eyes on only one line of notes which left some room in my brain to process the I should be doing in the other hand.  Quieting my eyes almost always quiets my brain.
After these steps I was well on my way but I still had to build up speed, comfort, and accuracy.  That leads to today's practice section which I videotaped.  Using many of the practice techniques that I use in fast passages, here is what I did in about 6 minutes of practicing:
  • rhythms (I don't like to do dotted rhythms, personally - I chose these because there are always two notes in the pattern on which I can really sit on and affirm that I know what I'm doing.)
  • add-a-note, starting first with the individual measures and then linking them all together
  • backwards - this is a relatively new technique for me.  I like the challenge in it and I do think it helps, for whatever reason.
  • hands crossed - in this exercise I play the left hand up an octave so that it's higher than the right hand.  It's a great way to really hear that left hand that so easily can hide behind the right in terms of security, clarity, and sound.  

So there you have it!  Musical mystery solved.  Hopefully a few days of practicing these two measures 6 minutes will work.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Learning from musical kids being kids - Creativity and Honesty

© Xuejun li -
I love accompanying little kids - they are so honest about everything, sometimes painfully honest. What I love most are the times then their honesty is something quite different - when their ability to say what they are feeling without fear of criticism leads to them sharing more of themselves in their music making.

At the beginning of the summer I got to play for another Suzuki book recital.  The studio I regularly play for is a wonderfully creative and inspiring place.  The teacher, Lisa Liske-Doorandish, provides an environment where a young person's emerging voice is encouraged and applauded and these book recitals, occasions to celebrate the accomplishments of individual students, are no exception.  Each recital has a different flavor, a different spirit about it depending on the cellist that is performing.  I've accompanied some in which the child comes up with an intricate plan in regards to the order of pieces, some that are accompanied by an illustrated program, and some that include improvised transitions between the pieces.  This last recital, however, presented a new but very welcome twist to the concept of a program.  Not only was every piece listed written in a different font but the young cellist, probably around 8 or 9 years old, wrote a sentence or two describing what he felt about each one.   I'm going to include it all here because I think it's pretty precious.  (Forgive me for not changing fonts for each one.)

  1. Berceuse (Schubert) -This music is so calm and makes me want to take a nap.  I played it a lot for my baby hamsters.  I love how beautiful it is.
  2. Gavotte (Lully) - I like this piece, especially the scale section.  It feels kind of bouncy to me and the low A at the end of the scale part is my favorite note.
  3. Minuet (Boccherini) - :-(  I am kind of tired of this piece because it's long, especially after our group played it all week at Suzuki camp, but I do like the trio part because it has a strong sound when the rest of the piece is light.
  4. Scherzo (Webster) - :-) This is a fun piece to play!! I like how it goes between bouncy and calm.  The calm section reminds me of ripples on a lake.
  5. Minuet in G (Beethoven) - I like how peaceful the first part is, kind of like a sea turtle swimming.  The trio kind of reminds me of a Mexican jumping bean.
  6. Gavotte in G Minor (Bach) - This is my favorite piece in the whole book!  I love how sad it is - someone trapped in a cave while a mountain lion is circling around it.
  7. Minuet (Bach) - I like the minor part better than the major part because sad music is more fun to play because you can put more emotion in it.
  8. Humoresque (Dvorak) - This piece is about alligators gulping up butterflies.  The butterfly happily flies over the swamp and then an alligator tries to eat it but the butterfly escapes and continues flying.  The alligator tries again and the butterfly is swallowed up.
  9. La Cinquantaine (Gabriel-Marie) - I enjoy the minor part of this piece and play it with a light bow.
  10. Allegro Moderato (Bach) - This was the hardest piece in the book, not only the fingerings but putting it together with the piano.  The piano plays a completely different part and it is kind of confusing.
I think it's pretty to safe to say that those in attendance had no problem following along and staying engaged with this particular book recital.  And even though I've heard all of these pieces in the exact same order many times the music sounded different to me this time because it wasn't just about the music, it was clearly also about him.  He was sharing what the music meant to him, even when how we felt wasn't so glowing.  When he got to the Boccherini Minuet, the one that earned a sad face, I found myself rooting for him in hopes that my silent cheering would somehow give him extra inspiration.  When he got to the smiley face selection I was ready to hear him play his heart out, which he did!  And the ones with stories of butterflies, alligators, being trapped in caves, and mountain lions?  Oh my goodness, his images made it all come alive for me and gave me such a precious glimpse into this young musician's imagination and world. 

As professionals and amateurs, should we too come up with such soul-bearing, imagination-revealing programs?  I'm not so against that idea because in my experience many audiences come to performances not only to hear music, but to also get a glimpse of humanity - to feel like they are making a connection with the people on stage.  I've even had audience members not steeped in  classical music culture, tell me that they have so much respect for musicians but are somewhat intimidated by them.  When I speak to them from the heart and give them an idea of who I am they are sometimes shocked that they are being included.  I like that kind of shock and think they do too. 

So why learn from musical kids being kids?  Let's go ahead and be a little more creative and honest when it comes to programs and program notes. 

But maybe we could leave out the emoticons!  ;-)

Update:  In September of this year (2012) a twitter friend, Michael Monroe, put together an extraordinarily creative program booklet for a recital that he did where he works.  It is brilliant and is a great example of a grown-up version of the program described in my blog post.  Please take a look!

MMrecital - the Program Booklet

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Balancing the tortoise with the hare while practicing

I often talk about practicing slowly because I believe it's an important part of efficient and deliberate practice and because I think it's something many of us have a difficult time doing.  Much of the time, when I ask someone to play something slowly for me in order to fix a problem the music is played at either the same tempo it was taken before or it is played one or two notches slower on the metronome.  Rarely, if ever, is the tempo one that I consider effective, that allows for the mind to feed the right information to the rest of the body.  It frequently takes several attempts to get the music as slow as I want it in order for any fixes to take hold and usually getting there takes a lot of not-so-gentle prodding.

In addition to using slow practice to help fix problem spots I also use it in the early stages of learning a new piece of music since my goal is to rarely, if ever, play wrong notes.  While I am learning the correct notes, choosing good fingerings, looking for patterns in the music, and doing basic analysis to enable me to start making musical decisions, I keep the tempo at a tortoise's pace, being very sensitive to where my brain is in the whole process.  The minute my brain begins to disengage, leaving my hands to rely on muscle memory alone, I stop and pull the tempo back again until my mind can constantly be in sync with the rest of my body.  Having approached learning like this consistently for years, music learning goes much more quickly for me now with the added benefit of the end result being more secure.  The time I have to spend at tortoise speed is reduced, allowing me to make like the hare and play up to tempo sooner than I had in the past when I mainly relied on mindless repetition.

There are some things I keep in mind when engaging in slow practice that I think are important:

  • Before doing a passage slowly I play it first close to my desired final tempo to get a sense of the gestures and muscles that will be involved.   When I do this I minimize the chances that I'll have to relearn the passage as I increase the tempo.
  • I try not to linger in slow land for too long.  The time it takes for the tempo to naturally and comfortably get faster just by slowly repeating something over and over again is simply too long.  As a busy woman, I can't afford to wait for that to happen.
  • I rarely build up speed using the metronome for the same reason.  Instead, I take an interval training approach in which I play a small clip slowly several times in a row first.  After playing it correctly repeatedly I then bump up the tempo significantly to see where I am.  If I make a mistake I check to see if there's a problem that needs to be solved.  If there is I try to address it and repeat the interval training sequence.  If there isn't a problem, I simply repeat the slow-fast exercise.  
  • I make sure that I don't shut off musical thinking.  Slow practice is an ideal time to really listen to the music and to try out lots of different musical options.

I guess you could say that in my practicing, I am a bit of a tortoise and a hare.  In my world those two actually get along marvelously. 

To help demonstrate some of what I'm talking about, I recorded myself working on a small snippet of the last movement of Gerald Finzi's "Five Bagatelles" for clarinet and piano, a really great piece in case you don't know it.  I went through the movement a few days ago to learn notes, mark in fingerings, and to indicate which passages I thought would need extra practice - this is one of them.  This is my first go at really working on it and I approached it in my tortoise-hare manner, going back and forth in small snippets until I was able to link everything up comfortably, almost up to tempo.  

So in my race who wins?  The tortoise or the hare?

You guessed it.


PS - Yes, I do realize that's technically a bunny, not a hare in the photo above.  I had a difficult time finding an image of a hare that was in a good position to sit atop that particular scale.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Going beyond the typical dress rehearsal

© Stuart Miles -
I have written before about dress rehearsals and how I feel they can often end up being just your average run-of-the mill rehearsal (see "Preserving the definition of the 'dress rehearsal'") but even my own philosophizing didn't prepare me for one that I had this past Friday.  It was truly outrageous and perhaps a bit scandalous but I have to say it was one of the most entertaining, relaxing, and quite frankly, the most productive dress rehearsals I've ever been a part of.  

Let me set the stage...

The last day of music camp.
20 hyper but exhausted singers.
Tons of music to get through in preparation for the final showcase for the parents.
One not very hyper but thoroughly exhausted pianist.  (That would be me.)

We had been working together for four weeks with me as their practice coach and pianist.  It was a very talented group of kids, many of whom had never taken a private voice lesson before arriving at camp.  There were also many that had never practiced or learned music by themselves before and and a handful that had never performed solo before.  A lot of firsts for a lot of talented kids which makes for a very exhilarating four weeks.

Rather then meet with the singers individually to run through their pieces for the final dress rehearsal I decided to have them all perform for one another.  I figured it would streamline the process and would also give them another chance to get nervous singing in front of their peers.  Once we started it became evident fairly quickly that these kids were done with being serious - they were ready for some fun.  To my horror some of the kids listening started doing goofy things while the first "victim" was up front singing: they danced, they imitated, they made crazy faces.  After a few minutes of this, nobody could keep a straight face making it very difficult to make it to the end of the first song.  At first I didn't know quite what to do.  I was concerned for the singer up front, not wanting this moment to negatively effect his next time up on stage.  But at the same time I got this sense that for some reason this was all quite therapeutic for them.  I decided to go along with all of it and to see where it all led but I also asked them to be merciful to anyone that might want to have a serious dress rehearsal.  What followed was performance after performance that might not have been perfect but was full of personality, energy, drama, humor, and engagement.  There wasn't a sense of "I'm performing classical music therefore I must be proper."  These kids, many of whom haven't been raised in the classical world, were having a ball singing standard literature and after a few minutes of unstoppable laughter at the beginning of it all, they were able to get through their pieces in spite of all of the distractions.  
  • A tenor passionately singing Tamino's aria, "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" to another tenor in the room.
  • Another tenor exquisitely singing a Handel aria first an octave higher but then two octaves higher and dancing in a bit of a hip-hop style to tell off the queen to whom he was singing.   I don't know if he knew he had it in him to be a countertenor but I think David Daniels should watch out!  This guy was incredible!
  • A once-reserved soprano singing "O mio babbino caro" to her colleague who was pretending to be her sucker of a dad.  Her voice doubled in size the minute she batted those eyelashes and draped herself over him.  
It was all utterly hilarious.  

And what I think is even more wonderful is that these young singers sounded incredible and were able to do things they hadn't been able to do previously under more normal circumstances.  Many of them seemed to find a connection with the music that hadn't been there before, enabling them to tap into a larger-than-life size musicality that has the ability to reach farther out into an audience.   Others felt what it was like to make up a line or two or lyrics with great spirit without anyone knowing that anything was amiss.  It was one of those magical moments that seemed to give them a chance to try something new, to be themselves within classical musical, and to simply have fun.  

It was a lesson for them.  It was a lesson for me.

Sometimes letting go and allowing ourselves to simply have fun can make music-making all the more powerful and sometimes it can show us a level of musicality and expression we never knew we had in us. 

So next time you find yourself facing a dress rehearsal, you never know what might be just beyond what you typically expect.  It might prove to be a pretty wonderful place.  

I hope to see you there sometime!