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, February 16, 2013

Performing Schubert's "Wintereisse" in bluegrass country

Image taken by Floyd resident, Jim Best, who attended our
 performance and kindly shared this photo with me after the performance
I was both nervous and excited about this - a performance of Schubert's song cycle, Winterreise, in the little rural town of Floyd, Virginia, where bluegrass is the music and language of choice.  Go to the main street in town on Friday nights and you'll hear your fill of bands playing both in the Floyd Country Store and out on the streets.  Eat at a local eatery and you'll find bluegrass being played there too.  That's not to say the locals don't appreciate anything else.  They are an incredible bunch of people that seem to embrace new experiences and people.  They love music, they love people, they love their town and the beautiful land where they've chosen to's as simple as that.  But still, "Winterreise?"  Does a song cycle that lasts over an hour, sung entirely in German and without an intermission stand a chance in a town like Floyd?  

The singer with whom I worked, Ed Cohn, is a local himself, a man that moved there not so long ago after studying and living a musical life in the San Francisco bay area. Since he had moved to this tiny town in southwestern Virginia, he had never shown his "classical" side to any of his friends.  He had instead woven himself into the fabric of the community as the owner of a bed and breakfast, as an avid organic gardener, and as a wonderful down-to-earth citizen who seems to have fit right in.  

Claiming his friends didn't know much about classical music and that he was pretty sure this would be a new experience for a lot of the local community that might attend, he made it clear to me that he wanted to present this performance in a way that would make it as comfortable as possible for those in attendance.  Being a big fan and advocate for talking to the audience I volunteered to say a few words before launching into the performance.  I had a feeling that whatever I chose to say could very much influence how the audience received this epic piece of music that can be a challenge for even the most seasoned classical music buff to sit through.  

The day of the performance occurred just a few days after a pretty big snowfall in our area.  As my husband and I took the 45 minute drive out to Floyd that day I found myself absorbed in the wintery scene in which we found ourselves.  Driving through some of the most beautiful countryside, past icy streams and snow covered fields, I was struck with a parallel between the landscape in Schubert's song cycle and the one that I was witnessing through the car window.  I had an indelible sense that this performance was going to be just fine - that the audience was going to walk away with something very special, not because of our performance, but because of the timeless, borderless message that "Winterreise" has to offer.  

We were greeted that afternoon, in a small, unsophisticated, but intimate performing space, with about 50 people in the audience.  We were both a little curious what was going to happen with two young girls that came in separately with their mothers.  One girl looked to be about 7 years old, the other was perhaps a little bit older, with Downs Syndrome.  When the time came, I spoke for about 10 minutes (you can read the gist of what I said here) and then our journey together began.  Just as my performance was several years ago, this too was an unbelievable experience and I was genuinely inspired by the sense I was getting not only by Ed but also by the hushed audience.  I was amazed at how attentive folks were from beginning to end and further surprised after taking our bows, by an older man that stood up and raised his hand to speak.  After everyone had turned their attention to him he said,
"If someone had told me 17 years ago that I'd be sitting here in this spot today listening to 'Winterreise' I would have said, 'That's great!' but I wouldn't have believed them."
What a comment!  And his wasn't the only one.  Just about everyone stayed afterwards and passed on comments that completely erased my doubts as to why we were there performing that particular work that afternoon.  There was the lady in her 80's who, with tears in her eyes and a heavy southern accent told me how difficult those poems were, especially at her time in life, but that she was so glad to have been challenged in that way.  There was the mom of the seven year old who rattled off a list of all the things she heard in the music with excited, sparkling eyes, her daughter nodding her head all the while, albeit with sleepy eyes.  There was the man in his 80's that shared with me all the musical groups he plays with in the area just for fun.  He's the type of fellow I imagine will die with his instrument in his hands and a smile on his face.There was the man who blew me away with the most poetic description of how the performance affected him.  Sharing much the same thing in an e-mail he sent the next day, he wrote,
"...the piano had the last word creating without fault a musical picture frame for each piece which intensified the message with silence of pure gold.  That frame was a window, a door through which my heart and breath were invited to become one with the story, no longer observer, but participant, no longer of performers but companions.   When I got home I could not separate from the story: without taking off my coat I stoked the fire and went back to the snow to try my arm on for size, the hills, the same breathing, the heartbeat of an awakened person accompanying me from the 1800's."  
He concluded by sharing how he found himself connecting some of his own personal struggles with those of the character in the song cycle.  By the end of his e-mail I was in tears.  Everyone I spoke to that day seemed to be glad that they had been part of the experience with us and it meant the world to me to hear their words and reactions.  It gave the performance purpose that extended way past mere entertainment or cultural experience.  And although it was intended as a musical offering for them, they ended up bringing me an even more valuable offering...

Themselves, in all their bluegrass-loving glory.  

Thank you, Floyd!  I hope to make some music with y'all soon.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Glissandi aren't for wimps...until now!!

For some reason I've managed to avoid glissandi for most of my life but in the past few months I have had to face them with terrifying frequency, so much so that I was developing quite the phobia of them because of the incredible pain and messiness I was experiencing.  

Too many glissandi = painful fingers = one very unhappy pianist

It started with being enlisted to play the harp parts on an electric keyboard for a local production of the Nutcracker in December.  I had such romantic notions of being able to imitate a harp player, ripping my fingers across the keyboard with the grace that a harp player has when ripping off the glissandi that are sprinkled throughout the score.  Unfortunately it didn't take many exuberant attempts on my part before I found myself wincing in pain and getting a pang of nausea every time I saw another one coming.  It wasn't long after then that blood was drawn which created a bit of  a precarious situation.  At intermission I found myself a mess in more ways than one.  I managed to scrounge up some bandaids from some of the little mice's mothers backstage.  I thought the bandaids would work but they were no match and were completely shredded by the end of the performance.  

Over the next few days I tried every type of bandaid I could find.  I tried Super Glue.  I tried New Skin.  Nothing helped.  I somehow made it through all four Nutcracker performances but my fingers were not pretty by the end.  

With all this said, imagine my delight when I returned to work recently only to discover that many of the saxophonists I'm accompanying are playing pieces with glissandi in them for their recitals.  Ahhh, lovely.  

I thought the break would have helped my fingers but nope.  The minute I went for my first you-know-what, I saw blood start pool at the base of my nail.  What to do?  What to do?  Should I leave the glissandi out?  No, I can't do that!  They are so perfect for the pieces and I can't let these students down.  

It was as I was driving to a performance recently and passed a CVS that an idea popped into my head.  Are you ready for this?

Corn relief pads. Yep, that's right!  

I quickly pulled into the CVS parking lot, ran inside and perused the corn-relief aisle - I first for me.  It was fascinating.  There must be lots of corn sufferers out there!  Anyway, my eyes eventually settled on this...

My new love! 
They weren't cheap but we're talking about my fingers!  These little strips are truly amazing.  It's like a clear bandaid but the pad that covers the corn (or brutally damaged finger) is filled with gel.  Really cool, comfy gel.  Ahhhhh...

So I tried one of these that same afternoon.  Felt great for the first glissando but then my fingers started sticking to the keys.  It wasn't long before I started seeing and feeling little globules of shredded bandaid all over.  OK, that didn't work!

Guiltily cleaning off the keys post-performance that day, I thought back to a conversation I had with a colleague of mine about my glissandi travails.  She had mentioned the possibility of using electrical tape instead of a bandaid.  Bring on a lightbulb moment!  

Combine the Dr. Scholl's corn pain relief strips with...

Electrical tape even comes in pretty colors!
...and you've got yourself some heavy duty glissando busters!  

The pianist's version of a manicure! 

I just got back from a dress rehearsal where I put this little combination to a test and I have to say, I had the most fun I've ever had while playing those glissandos.  Not one once of pain, no nausea. 

I am a wimpy pianist no more!!  

So bring on those glissandi - I beg you!!! 

And dear Dr. Scholl's, please, please, don't stop making these gems.  The piano world needs you!  If you need a spokesperson, I'd be happy to oblige.

If any pianists have any other suggestions or solutions for glissandi issues, please do share!  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"You expect me to say something?!?"

© Ogerepus -
When I ask someone I'm performing with if they're going to say a few words to the audience before launching into the music the response tends to be one of bewilderment, panic, or both.

"Talk?  In front of the audience?  It's bad enough I have to perform!  I can't talk too!!" 

I get it, I really do.  I've had my share of stage fright through the years.  But here's the thing - I actually believe that talking to our audiences can be a key to quieting our nerves.  It is also, in my opinion, a key to making more people in the audience more comfortable and ready to receive whatever it is we're about to give to them.

At the university where I teach and accompany the students perform frequently in departmental recitals.  I struggle a bit internally, especially when a singer gets up to perform, even more so when what he or she is singing is in a foreign language.  Perhaps because of time and budgetary constraints the translations to the songs being sung are often not included in the program.  The titles aren't even translated into English so for the most part the people in the audience don't have any clue as to what a given song is about.  In my mind this is a great way to shoot ourselves in the foot!  We're not at a music conservatory where every piece performed is something that everyone in the audience grew up listening to - most of the students have come from small, rural communities.  This is an opportunity for the students to hear some great music for the first time but how can they even begin to enjoy it when they haven't a clue what the words being sung mean?  And how does this effect the performer? Here we have a young singer braving the stage, staring out at an audience full of their colleagues looking back with blank faces.  How rewarding an experience can that be for the singer?  How rewarding can it be for the audience?  Even I don't care to listen to singing when I don't know what I'm listening to and I've been listening to classical music all of my life!

Oh my.  Sorry.  Deep breaths.  Obviously it really gets to me.

So what can we do?  Every time I play for a singer in a situation where no translation is being provided I suggest that the singer come up with a one sentence explanation for what their song is about that can be presented before beginning the song.  When done well it can not only help the singer focus, it also helps the audience to have something to grasp onto.  It can be like a piece of scenery to help place everyone in the same place at the same time and it breaks down a bit of the wall that can so often occur between singer and audience, especially when a foreign language is involved.  Although it's rare that a student will get up the nerve to take my suggestion, when they do I find it always makes a difference in a positive way.  The faces in the audience soften and take on a more receptive look, they respond more to subtleties in the singer's expression...sometimes it can be downright magical and all because of a handful of words.  

These days I almost always say something before I perform.  The more I do it, the more addicted I become to addressing the audience because so many incredible experiences have come from me  reaching out to the audience in some way.   One of the most interesting and unexpected results that has happened is that there have been several times when I've had audience members stand up to ask questions or to share something personal about how the music has affected them at the end of a performance before everyone has dispersed.  This has happened to me here in the states but it also happened to my husband and I in Germany. It has meant that the audience, at the end of a performance, has felt like they can stay and chat rather than to flee the minute the last note is played.  It has meant that I get immediate feedback and connection rather than having to face the lonely, quiet Green Room by myself.  It has meant that music-making has become a social activity, which is in my mind, the way music is supposed to be.  And the beauty of it all is that with each wonderful experience like this I have grown to love performing more and more - nerves no longer have a hold of me because my eagerness to communicate musically and personally is greater.  Like I said earlier in the post, it's gotten downright addictive.

In case you were wondering, no, I am not fearless when it comes to public speaking.  I get butterflies every time I go out to talk to my audience so it's something I am working on developing. But I figure I'd have butterflies anyway.  I may as well let the butterflies escape while I'm talking so that by the time I sit down to perform they've had a chance to fly off somewhere else.  And the rewards are just so great - I can't not do it anymore.  

So the next time you perform, I challenge you to give talking a try.  Keep it short, keep it simple, keep it sincere and watch what can happen with that little act of bravery.  

I'd love to hear other people's stories about talking to the audience!  I know there must be good ones out there and it would be a great way of encouraging others to give it a try.