My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, October 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!