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.

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!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A pleasant chat about practicing

Last week I had the honor of being asked to do an interview about practicing with a musician, physical therapist, and Alexander technician, Diana Rumrill.  I had a wonderful time talking with her about my favorite subject so please do take a listen!  And afterwards, I encourage you to take a look at her website and to the other podcasts she's done - you'll be introduced to many passionate, inspiring people.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Instrumentalists' checklist for solving practice room problems

Image by Rennett Stowe,
Image from Wikimedia Commons
We can waste so much time in the practice room but I think it's pretty understandable.  Many of us aren't really taught how to problem solve when we're practicing, yet that's what's really needed if we want our playing to be dependable, comfortable, and musical.  If we don't know what the problem is we can't even begin to solve it yet that's so often what we do in the practice room because we don't know where to begin.

So how do we not get overwhelmed with our mistakes?  How do we figure out what's wrong when we run into a problem and how do we fix it?

I have compiled a checklist of questions that reveal the problems that typically throw instrumentalists off.   Vocalists, many of these also apply to you but you since you have some unique issues to deal with, I'll compile another list in the days to come, specific to your instrument.
  1. Could it be a fingering issue?  If you have a fingering written in or you're using one that's printed in the score, try some other fingerings to make sure that you have one that is going to work for you.  When you find something good, mark it in the music.  If you don't have a fingering in the part to start with, then that might be the problem.  Thoughtfully find one and mark it in.  Good fingerings can make a huge difference in your accuracy, musicality, and comfort which means you'll be more likely to play the music consistently well.  You don't have to mark in every fingering - just mark in enough to keep you on track.
  2. Could it be a bowing issue if you're a string player?  This is a similar issue to fingering.  Mark in bowings once you figure out what works best.
  3. Could it be a breath issue if you're a wind or brass player?  Again, this is also similar to the fingering issue.  Mark in wear you want to breathe so that you build in consistent breaths and phrasing.  That will leave your mind free to think of the music.
  4. Once you have a good fingering, are you secure with how to get from one hand position to another?  Do you know how far you really have to go (or not go?)  Slowly go from one position to the next and back until you have found a comfortable, fluid way to do so.  
  5. Is there an interval that's throwing you off?  Stop and make sure you know what interval you're supposed to be playing and then sing it several times in a row, with assurance, before trying to play it again.  Use your ear to guide your hands and fingers.  
  6. Could it be a rhythm issue?  Do you know mathematically how the rhythm is supposed to go? Draw in vertical lines to represent the beats or write in the counts in the proper places so that your eyes have something to latch onto when reading the music.  Write the subdivisions above or below the music, being sure that it all lines up correctly.  Before playing it on your instrument, make sure you can clap out the rhythm or vocalize it while conducting or tapping out the beat.
  7. Could it be a meter issue?  Is it in 3/4?  Make sure you know how the meter is supposed to feel and where the emphasis typically is.  Count out loud and make sure that you're actually feeling the beats where they should be in relation to the music.  Especially if you're trying to put the music together with someone else, displacing beats unintentionally could be an issue.  In regards to 3/4, I have discovered that this is particularly troublesome meter.  You can read more about that in my blog post, "A note of sympathy and apology to a time signature."
  8. Is the passage a fast passage that gets your fingers tied up in knots?  Look for as many patterns and sequences that you can find to simplify it for your eyes, fingers, and mind.  Are there scales?  Triadic motion?  Repeated motives? 
  9. Are you unsure of how an ornament is supposed to be executed?  Make sure you know exactly how the ornament is to be played and where it should begin in relation to the notes around it.  Once you figure it out, write in whatever you need to so that you play the ornament the same way every time and you aren't just trying to cram a whole bunch of notes into a tiny space, which is what many of us end up doing.
  10. Is there another phrase that is similar but just slightly different?  Look and analyze.  Once you know how they are differ, play the phrases back to back slowly, being sure to note the differences while you are playing.
  11. Could it be a transition problem between one phrase or section and another?  Often times we work hard on individual phrases and then piece them together without working on the glue that connects them.  Practice going from one phrase to the next so that you can do so securely and musically.
  12. Is the problem at a page turn or a line change?  If it's at a page turn, either photocopy one of the pages so that you can see the entire passage that crosses the page break without having to turn a page.  For both page turns and line changes, you can also memorize the material around the turn so that you can practice it without any hiccups.
  13. If you are playing with other musicians, are you unsure of where to come in after several measures of rest?  Look at a score to find cues that will help you know what leads up to your entrance and write cues into your own part.  It can also be helpful to sing another instrument's part during the rests so that you aren't just shutting off your mind or obsessing over counting. Counting can often get messed up, especially under pressure, so knowing how your part fits aurally is often more dependable.
  14. Is the music written in a way that is confusing to you?  Especially when you're dealing with lots of sharps or flats it is sometimes easier to re-think the notes or the passage in its enharmonic equivalent.  Many people have a preference when it comes to flat keys or sharp keys and think better in one or the other.  Me?  I prefer flats, hands down.  Sharps are too, well, sharp.  Since this is a bit complicated you can read about an example of this in my own life in my post, "Let's play 'stump the pianist' - AARGH!"
I know I'm probably missing something important so if you come up with any, please do share them by leaving a comment!

Now go and practice and enjoy problem solving - it may take some time now but will save you even more time and frustration in the long run!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Finding a reason to practice instead of playing a video game

I have a bit of a problem and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it.

I am very addicted to playing the video game, "Diamond Mine" that is part of the Bejeweled suite of games.  

For those of you who have the great fortune to have not encountered this little gem (pun completely intended), here is a little video clip of how the game works.  And caution - watching this may lead to an instant visit to the iTunes store.

It might be kind of difficult to follow but basically the goal is to clear as many lines of gems as possible, thereby digging you deeper into the diamond mine.  The deeper you go, the more treasure you uncover, and the more points you get.  You do this by lining up as many matching gems as possible so that they will explode, disappear, and clear a row.  You have to match at least 3 for anything significant to happen and the more you can line up, the bigger the explosion.  Sometimes a single move will take out a single row or column, sometimes it will take out several and if you're really lucky (more about the luck part later) the entire screen will be cleared.  That's very exciting when it happens!  This particular version of the game only gives you 1 minute and 30 seconds to start with.  Upon completion of a level you are given bonus seconds which is a woefully small amount of time.

Anyway, so what does this have to do with anything?

The other night, after playing for way too long, I started to ask myself why this game was driving me so crazy, making it virtually impossible for me to put it down.  What I discovered was that this game, as with so many others, requires many of the same skills needed while practicing and reading music.  No wonder I was getting obsessed!  

Here's are the similarities - 

Looking for patterns: In Bejeweled, as soon as I realized I needed to look for patterns, my game improved.  The more I played, the more I realized which patterns could lead to creating a row of the same colored jewels.  Especially since this version is timed, speed also comes into play.  When I can recognize the patterns quickly, I'm more likely to succeed.  In music, it's the same thing.  When I actively search for patterns rather than seeing each note individually, it takes less time to learn notes, makes memorization is easier, faster passages easier to play, and musicality practically inevitable.

Looking for strategies: When I first started playing this game I was completely bewildered and as is often the case when starting out, my games were very short.  I would try, fail, get frustrated, and then quit.  Sound familiar?  When I'm not practicing well the same sequence of events often occurs.  In both scenarios the missing key is strategy.  Without it, these activities essentially end up being random sequences of events that most likely will not lead to consistent improvement.  So how does one come up with strategies?  I turn it into a bit of a scientific process - analyze, come up with a hypothesis, test it out, and evaluate.  This works in both the gaming and music world and the beauty of it is that even if my hypothesis doesn't yield improvement, it is running away from randomness and moving me in a more productive direction.  What happens when a hypothesis turns out to be correct?  Well, that's simply the best and it's those successes, large or small, that keep me in the practice room (or unfortunately attached to my iPad.)

Getting in the zone: Because Diamond Mine has a time limit, it can be very difficult to remain calm.   But of course the more tense I get, the harder it is to play well - my muscles tighten, I no longer can see patterns, and I find myself paying way too much  attention to the countdown going on at the top of the screen.  But when I fool myself into thinking I don't really care, that I'm just doing this for fun, or when I purposefully try to get into a meditative-like zone, my vision clears and something else takes over - it doesn't even feel like my mind is really involved, at least not in a visceral way.  The same thing happens when I'm sight-reading music or performing.  Frequently when I'm reading something for the first time,  even under pressure, I have this weird out-of-body experience.    I don't feel like I'm actively looking at the music, I don't see notes on the page, yet somehow my hands know what to do and where to go.  It is the most bizarre experience but is one that I'd love to tap into more since it is much less stressful and much more successful.

In spite of all these charming little connections between Diamond Mine and my musical life, there is one thing that separates the two worlds that just may be my key to breaking my addiction.  I feel like no matter how many strategies I have figured out or how relaxed I am, I am not getting any better.  At first I thought, "What is going on with me?  Am I missing something?  Am I stupid?"   Well, I know I'm not stupid, but I was definitely missing something.

In this particular video game, getting a high score is largely dependent on sheer luck - I don't get to choose the gems that they throw down onto the screen and I don't get to choose how they are arranged.  I have to do my best with what is given to me .  Thankfully, music is not like that.  Those little tiny notes are where they are on the page - forever.  As long as I seek out the patterns, come up with strategies, and build on success after success, I've got it made, especially if I can throw the zone aspect into it.  

So let's activity that doesn't give me much control over whether or not I succeed or one that does?  Hmmm...

I think I'll go practice now...piano, not Diamond Mine! 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Unbridled joy and unwavering grace - Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G major

I'm making it through the second book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier - slowly, but surely.

I skipped to the G major Prelude and Fugue this week, partly because I find it somewhat easier than some of the others that are remaining, but also because this particular set never fails to make me smile.  Is it because it's in the particularly sunny key of G major?  Or is it something else?

Image by Nancy Heise,
from Wikimedia Commons
The best way I can think of to describe the prelude is that it brings to my mind unbridled joy.  I haven't had a lot of interaction with horses in my life on a personal level but I have always been mesmerized by them, especially when I've seen them running wild out in the pasture or just out in nature.  Their energy is powerful and positive, full of strength but also fun.  That's the feeling I strive for when playing this particular prelude.  The strength comes in the form of the endless fast notes that go back and forth between the right and left hands, sometimes joining one another in a race.  The fun comes in the contrasting eighth notes that play off the faster sixteenths, giving our wild horses a bit of a dance as they frolic and buck, trying to out-do one another's antics.  At the end one horse succeeds with a mad dash to the end.

After their moment of unbridled joy, the horses are brought back into the ring and readied for some graceful work when it comes time for the fugue.  Although it's wonderful to watch them wild in the fields, I find something incredibly meditative and awesome about watching a horse and its rider working together to produce the graceful, calculated but artful steps they can perform.  Each hoof strikes the ground in such a calculated way and it can create an even rhythm that could be put up to the test of any metronome.  For me, the faster notes in this fugue represent those even but gentle hoof strikes that need to keep the rider steady and unwavering in order to win the blue ribbon in the end.  But true to the nature of most horses, the one in this fugue can't help but show a bit of his personality in the end - he sneaks in just a little bit of that unbridled joy at the very end of the fugue, perhaps recalling the playfulness he just experienced out in the fields.  

And P.S. - I've now officially done half of the preludes and fugues!  I think that deserves a cookie, ice cream, or something.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

From the battlefield to the stage

Image from Wikimedia Commons
How can I not love my job playing piano for just about every type of person that's out there?  I feel am one of the luckiest people in the world because I am in constant contact with others I might not meet or get to know otherwise.  And most musicians would tell you, making music with someone is an intimate act of non-verbal communication - it offers those playing a glimpse into much more than just the other's musical background and training, or lack thereof.  It offers an education about personality and culture among other things.

A few months ago I was asked by a graduate level trumpet student to serve as his pianist for his recital.  As is my custom, I agreed even though I knew nothing about this young man.  At our first meeting face-to-face I learned that he had never worked or played with a pianist before and he was not bashful in saying and showing that he was a bit nervous about it all.  He also told me that that he had never performed a recital by himself before.  I smiled because it's situations like this that I love and as is often the case with me, I believe I ended up learning just as much from this young man as he did, hopefully, from me.  I want to share a bit of the experience here because his recital, for me, was such a huge and powerful statement in so many ways - I can't not share.  

This trumpet student is not only a college student, he is also a Marine, through and through.  He recently served in Iraq and decided to finish up his graduate degree upon his return.  This year in school has been a difficult one for him.  He suffered two major concussions, one of which landed him in the hospital for a period of time which has made headaches a recurring occurrence and hindrance.  
First lesson: It's much easier to play the piano when you have a major headache than it is to play a brass instrument.
Because of the health issues, our first month of rehearsals that we had planned couldn't happen.  After a few cancellations I have to admit that I started to write this guy off.  I had a lot of music to learn aside from his so I moved on.  When it came close to his hearing time, an audition where the student is asked to play through the recital program before a handful of faculty members a month before the scheduled recital date as a way to make sure that the student will be ready, I started to hear from him again - he wanted to begin rehearsals.  A bit surprised that we were actually going to try to throw it all together, I met with him.  He was still struggling physically and I imagine emotionally, but he was determined.  Our rehearsals were far from magical, far from easy.  Having never worked with a pianist before I could tell that he wasn't sure quite how to act in rehearsal with me.  Sensing his uncertainty, I clammed up and tried to just get through my job.  After a few weeks his teacher, along with some of the other faculty members, myself, and the trumpet player decided that we would not be serving the institution or the student in question well by pushing him into a recital that most likely wouldn't be very representative of what we thought this Marine was capable of.  We didn't want to ask him to sacrifice the goal that he and his fellow Marines uphold - "Semper fidelis" - "always faithful."  We were determined to help him be faithful to his mission of giving a graduate level performance.  
Second lesson: It's just important to be faithful to ourselves and to our own goals as it is to be faithful to the music.
Fast forward to the summer.  

Not long after school got out for the summer I heard from our trumpet player again.  It was time to schedule his recital - not an easy task when it means communicating with a handful of professors and school administrators that are all on summer vacation mode.  But a date was found and it was time to start meeting again.  At our first rehearsal I was struck by an insatiable desire in this young man to learn what he could about practicing and about music so that he could deliver a recital that he and everyone else could be proud of.  At seeing his undistracted intensity, my protective wall crumbled and I slowly began giving him more of myself to see what he'd do with it.  At his hearing, not long after we started up rehearsing again, he struggled a bit and was visibly disappointed but it was after that point that he seemed to begin grabbing what he could from lessons and rehearsals and running with it, clutching it all proudly to his chest.  With every rehearsal he showed up having obviously done what had been previously discussed.  I let go and gave - he listened, took, and gave right back.
Third lesson: In any partnership, it's important to remember that it's just that - a partnership.  Both people need to give and both people need to take in order for both to give as one.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
The recital was this past Friday evening and as we were sitting backstage waiting for the recital to begin I couldn't help but feel really wonderful about what was about to happen.  The trumpet player appeared in his full dress uniform looking as good as could be expected - I think that perhaps I even saw a glimmer of excitement.  We weren't expecting a large audience since the summer has left the campus pretty quiet but slowly he saw some of his friends and family trickle in.  After everyone was seated and we were left to gather our thoughts, he looked at me and the professor working backstage and said, "Well, I'm a little nervous.  But hey...I've been through a war.  I can handle this."  He then proceeded to describe to us what he had to carry and wear in the middle of the Iraqi desert on a daily basis and suddenly it became crystal clear to me that walking onto the stage with nothing but your instrument, clothes, and nerves pales in comparison.  That's not to say it's easy, but it definitely gave me some perspective.  It was also a reminder to me of how fortunate I am to be doing what I do.  
Fourth lesson: Although I take it very seriously, music-making is not and should not feel like a matter of life-and-death.  
The recital began and I was literally bursting with pride by the end.  Was it perfect?  No, of course not.  How many recitals are?  But did it feel like a battle?  No, it felt just right.  It was clearly the culmination of a lot of hard work, determination, desire, and heart.  The trumpet player knew where he was and what he was supposed to be doing and he met his mission in a way that I'm sure would make his fellow Marines very proud.
Fifth lesson: Semper fidelis.  Semper fidelis.  To ourselves; to each other; to our passions; to our calling.