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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A heart-to-heart about accompanying and collaborating at the piano

© Becky Swora -

Dear potential piano accompanists and/or collaborative pianists,

First of all, I need to say that I absolutely love what I do.  I am thankful to be doing what I am on a daily basis, to be working with other musicians, performing great music, never running out of music to learn and experience, and getting paid to literally and figuratively "play."  

You may have noticed that I have addressed this little heart-to-heart to both accompanists and to collaborative pianists.  What's the deal with that?  What's the difference?  Is there a difference?  Who do I think I am?  

I consider myself both an accompanist and a collaborator, but usually not interchangeably.  When I am working with students I am an accompanist - I see myself as a combination of pianist, coach, and cheerleader.  In this role I often find myself feeling like I'm a bit of a broken record -

"Your rhythm isn't quite right here."  
"Try this way of hearing the interlude so that you can come in at the right time." 
"This section needs a little bit more work."
"Let's think of how we can pick a good tempo for this piece."
As with any teacher, I have to remind myself that in dealing with different young musicians every day I'm going to be repeating the same things over and over again because there are a litany of issues that just about every musician needs to learn about.  What is important for me to remember, lest I become terribly irritated and annoyed, is that I shouldn't blame the students when they need to be reminded about these things.  I fare much better if I expand my role to incorporate some basic coaching during rehearsals and I consider it an honor to be able to walk beside these students and their teachers in order to help them learn all there is to learn about making music.  Sure I have some bad days where I grumble and groan internally from the keyboard but more often than not that isn't the case, especially when the payoff is watching a young musician mature enough musically to enable me to straddle the fence between being an accompanist and being a collaborator.

So when do I consider myself a collaborative pianist?  When I am making music with someone else in such a way that I feel we are communicating with one another almost solely through our music-making.  Coaching morphs into the sharing of ideas and cheerleading gets dialed down to offering whatever support is helpful for the musician in question - it's usually a much more subtle type of interaction.  In some ways I think collaborating is easier for me than accompanying because there comes with performing with colleagues more of a sense of instant self-gratification and because the repertoire being performed with colleagues tends to be more challenging and inspiring.  But at the same time collaborating also comes with more pressure and more expectations.

As both an accompanist and a collaborative pianist I feel I'm getting the best of both worlds.  Does this mean every pianist choosing which path to take should go down both like I have?  Certainly not.  I think there are many pianists that don't feel drawn to walking young musicians through rough music-making and bringing them into a better place by performance time.  That's ok!  But I think it's good to know when that's not what motivates a pianist.  In such cases the collaborative path might be a better path to go down.  And when we find a pianist that has a heart for working patiently beside young musicians that skill should be nurtured and encouraged.  A gifted accompanist has the power to patiently encourage, inspire, and grow a love for music in others and that's a gift that we can never have too much of.  

With that said, please do enjoy exploring the possibilities!  Hope to see you there.

Your fellow accompanist/collaborative pianist (and proud of it!),


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Practicing as a kid - the carrots that worked for me

© Anyka -
As a professional musician who works with a lot of kids, I am frequently asked by parents, especially those who claim they know nothing about music, about practicing.  How much should their child be practicing every day?  How can they be encouraged (or made) to practice?  Should their child be rewarded for practicing every day?  Should there be consequences for not practicing?  Should the parent sit in on all of their child's practice sessions?  If they should, how much do they help out?  I don't think there are simple answers to any of these questions because each child is unique, each teacher has different expectations and ways of dealing with practicing, and because each relationship between parent and child is different.   Age, independence, personality, and experience of every young musician also makes a difference in what we can expect.  

I may not have a lot of answers to these questions but I can assure you that I do have a lot of personal experience.  Perhaps some glimpses of the not-so-inspired and the more inspired moments in my own journey with practicing will provide some reassurance, warnings, and ideas that will come in handy when the inevitable practice battles begin.  

Not-so-inspired moments:
  • Reading books while practicing - Nope, I'm not talking about books with music notes in them, I'm talking picture books, homework, whatever I could get my hands on.  Our piano happened to have a wall of books right behind the piano bench so all I had to do when I got bored was turn around, grab a book, plunk it over my music on the music rack, and voilá, instant relief for the doldrums.  I could repeat the same passages over and over again with the metronome ticking which satisfied my mother who was usually listening from upstairs, while I satisfied my need to do something more entertaining.  Productive?  Nope, definitely not in terms of learning to play the piano.  Repetition is a helpful and necessary practice tool, but mindless repetition takes entirely too long to be effective and runs the risk of allowing bad habits and mistakes to creep in while you're not looking.  
  • The day I quit playing piano - For a while when I was growing up I took both piano and cello lessons.  I guess I was having a difficult time keeping up with my practicing because one day my mother, exasperated by the situation, lost her temper and told me that if I couldn't handle both instruments I should quit one or the other.  Realizing that this was a wonderful moment for me to assert my teenage independence, I surprised us both by shouting,  "OK, I will!  I'm going to quit piano right now."  My mother, not quite believing I was serious, told me to call my piano teacher.  I willingly obliged, beginning a several year stint without the piano in my life at all.  Although I consider this a moment of pride in some respects, I also regret that we couldn't find better way to solve my time management problem.  
And now for some more inspired moments:
  • Stickers on my music - My first piano teacher would put a sticker on my music when she felt I had accomplished what needed to be accomplished.  To this day I remember how proud I felt when it was sticker time.  I even remember one that she used - a tiny, rectangular one that had the image of a kitten walking on a keyboard.  What I wouldn't give to have a book of those right now - it might inspire me to get through learning my music a little faster!  
  • The "Mr. Metronome" game - Another piano teacher used to play this little game with me when I was having a difficult time playing as slowly as I needed to in order to play accurately.  He would take the metronome out and set it at a slow tempo.  If I could play a certain passage sticking with Mr. Metronome I would get a point.  If I strayed and played faster than him, he got a point.  For some reason anthropomorphism did wonders for me when it came time to practice.  
  • Teachers that I respected and wanted to please - I loved and respected all of my music teachers growing up.  The only reward I needed from them was knowing that they were pleased with the work I was doing.  The only consequence that was effective was feeling like I had let them down.  
  • Parents that rarely criticized or critiqued - Perhaps I'm blocking something out, but I remember my parents mostly refraining from making comments about my practicing, especially during my practice time.  My mother would ask me if I had practiced if she knew I hadn't touched my instrument, but she didn't get much more involved than that, with the exception of the moment I described earlier.  What I remember from my father is that he would often remark about how much he enjoyed hearing me practice.  That meant the world to me and I imagine it inspired me to practice whenever he was home.
  • Music camps - I started going to music camps in the summer at a pretty young age.  At first they were short ones that I attended with my mother as a chaperone but it wasn't long before I was flying across the country with some of my cello teacher's other students, to go to camps where practicing was built into the schedule.  One such camp, the Meadowmount School of Music, required that we practice 5 hours a day, from 8:30 until 12:30pm and from 5-6pm on weekdays.  I remember not liking the routine but when I got back home after weeks of that schedule, I moved up from the last stand in our youth orchestra to the second stand.  It was at that point that I realized how much regular, concentrated practice can make a difference.  Music camps are often expensive and require parents to let go of their children for a week or weeks at a time, but the experience can provide young musicians with an invaluable opportunity to learn how to practice and to concentrate on music surrounded by others that are pursuing the exact same thing.  This is often not the case during the school year.  
  • Celebrations after performances - I don't remember my parents ever bribing or rewarding me in order to get me to practice.  What I do remember are the trips to the ice cream parlor or the meals out after concerts, auditions, and other important performance milestones.  We didn't do it all the time and they weren't large affairs, rarely involving more than just our family, but for me they were like the kitten on the keys stickers - they gave me a way to celebrate the many hours of practice and preparation with my family, friends, and teachers, who were always so supportive of me.

In writing this list I am realizing how fortunate I was growing up and it makes me incredibly thankful for my parents, teachers, and coaches.  Finding ways to encourage a young musician to practice regularly can be a daunting task but I do believe it can and should be done whenever possible in order give music a chance to take hold of a musical child's mind.  

So let's go find some healthy carrots!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Finding courage in the movie theater, the practice room, and on the stage

Combat de la rue de Rohan le 29 juillet 1830,
painted by Hippolyte Lecomte
Image from Wikimedia Commons
It's amazing to me how truths that I need to be reminded of step right into my path just when I need them.  This past weekend is a case in point.  The truth I had no chance of escaping this time?  
Courage in the past, courage in the present, and courage in the future - no matter when it takes place, it is something that directs us, changes us, inspires us.  
It all started innocently enough.  My husband and I had decided that we wanted to see the movie, Les Misérables before we found ourselves suddenly swimming in the craziness of the spring semester - we were seeking some calm before the storm, I suppose.  Having seen the musical several times years ago I was going along just fine with the storyline, not needing any kleenex until we got to the scene where all the characters sing the group number, "One Day More."  It's a powerful scene - so much determination, the gathering and uniting of the peoples' will from so many different walks of life, the incredible's enough to sweep anyone into the emotion of it all.  I was there too with memories I hadn't thought of for quite some time - memories of an episode in my life that has since reminded me of all that I have accomplished and of all that I'm capable of doing.  

In 1994, when I was an undergraduate pursuing a piano performance degree, I was offered a several month stint to be a pianist in two restaurants, one in San Francisco and one in Interlaken, Switzerland, whose waiters were also wonderful Broadway, jazz, and operatic singers.  First courageous moment in this act of my life was when I decided, at the age of 21 to take a hiatus from my undergraduate studies to do this - I think many of my classmates and professors thought I was more than a little foolish.  My time in San Francisco was no problem, it was when I got to Switzerland that I found myself thinking I had made a big mistake.  The singers, who had come from the San Francisco restaurant beforehand and had already been working in Interlaken for over a month before I came, were older than me, the managers of the restaurant claimed that they didn't realize my boss, who had been the pianist before my arrival, was leaving only to be replaced by "a woman - a young woman."  (I'm guessing you can imagine the tone of voice that was used.)  Ugh.  It was not a good start and I didn't really know that I was going to be able to pull myself up what seemed like a really steep hill.   During a rehearsal one afternoon it became pretty apparent that the singers really wished that they had the music for the song, "One Day More" from Les Misérables.  After failing to find the sheet music (remember, this was back in the 90's) I decided that this was my chance.  After living in my apartment as a hermit for the first part of my time there, too afraid and shy to venture out on my own, I suddenly had the courage to find a store that sold manuscript paper, bought a tape player and a recording of the musical, and spent days transcribing the music.  This was no easy task for me - I had never been wiz at music theory or at dictation, but I did it.  And the day I presented it to the singers during a rehearsal?  Oh my.  From then on "One Day More" became one of our signature numbers with it always ending with one of the singers standing on a table waving a tablecloth in place of a French flag.  And after I had stretched myself in multiple ways to get the job done I had no problems hopping on a train to have an adventure on my own, I didn't hesitate to walk into a store and try out my minimal knowledge of German, and I finally found my voice when dealing with the managers at the restaurant. 

But isn't life odd?  I had all but forgotten all of this until we were sitting in that dark movie theater and the song started.  

Why do we forget these important moments?  Why don't we take them with us wherever we go?  

The same night we had seen the movie, I found an e-mail in my inbox with Dr. Noa Kageyama's latest post - "How Can We Develop a More Courageous Mindset?" *  I couldn't help but chuckle.  "Here we go!" I thought.  I walked away from the post thinking back on all of the other courageous things I have done in my life and like Dr. Kageyama, I too found it pretty "mind-blowing."  What we are capable of is astounding and inspiring.  And yes, what we are all capable of doing is amazing too but I think I so often miss being amazed by what I've done, am doing, and can do by myself.  Why not regularly review where we've come from, how much we've learned, and where we might go next?

Maybe this all sounds a bit egotistical and self-centered.  But it seems to me that as musicians, as artists, most of us spend an awful lot of time staring at ourselves under a magnifying glass in an effort to detect the imperfections, to improve whatever we can improve.  It's hard to see courage through such microscopic investigation so I'm thinking that it can't hurt to get a different view now and then.  You never know where it might lead.

As for this last weekend, I've learned my lesson for now.  I am facing an insane few months with 20 recitals scheduled, each with different programs.  Truthfully I've been fretting about whether or not I've bitten off more than I'm capable of.  But after watching young, passionate men and women face overwhelming odds at the barricades in France, and after reflecting on all the projects I never thought I'd conquer but did, I will walk into the fray with the anticipation of being able to look back on it all sometime in the future with a nod of acknowledgement that I met my courage yet again and had a heck of a good time doing it!

I'll see you on the other side.   

* If you haven't read Dr. Kageyama's blog, "The Bulletproof Musician" yet, you really should - it's fabulous! 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Visions of sugarplums and synethizers dancing in my head?

© baiyi126 -
A while back our little family witnessed a musical crime that ended in us leaving the scene before the performance was done.  Unfortunately we were privy to another a few weeks ago, this time in New York City.  

The scene of the crime?  The New York City Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."  

I'm not talking about the murder of the hideous mouse king...on stage...with a shoe and a sword. And no, I'm not talking about the abduction of Marie from her cozy home to the world of the Sugarplum Fairy.  The crime I'm talking about wasn't a fictional crime, it was a work of non-fiction.  Get out your notebook and take notes.  Here's what happened:

The first act was magical - the beautiful hall, the excited children all dressed in their fancy holiday dresses taking it all in with wide eyes, the costumes, the sets, the magical growing Christmas tree, and the wonderful orchestra.  I was on cloud nine as I alternated between watching what was happening onstage and watching my daughter's radiant face.  We got through the battle scene, breathless but triumphant, and found ourselves on the verge of being swept off to the snow-laced forest along with the Nutcracker and Marie when all of a sudden my head couldn't help but stare in confusion at the orchestra pit.  At one of the most magical moments of the entire ballet, at least in my opinion, where a childrens' choir typically sings a simple but glorious line repeatedly, the New York City Ballet had for some reason swapped out the live singers and replaced them with a synthesizer player!  Normally it's hard to upset me when it comes to performances and I don't like to be critical of anyone making music but this particular infraction completely pulled me out of my happily transfixed state.  

Now I admit that a few weeks earlier I had played the celesta and harp part on a synthesizer at a local production in southwest Virginia and there was no choir used then either.  I wasn't really content about that either but I realized the challenges that come with pulling that off in such a small community.  But in New York City?  Really?  In the famous Balanchine production that is done year after year to sold out audiences and that is available on DVD and that we've watched time and time again with our daughter?  

I understand that the economy isn't in great shape right now and that everyone is struggling.  Perhaps a children's choir seems frivolous in light of where we are as a country right now.  Maybe there's an issue with the unions or perhaps something fell through at the last minute.  What I do know is that everyone in my family was shocked when we got to that spot and didn't hear that unreproducible sound of children's voices.  I imagine that there were others in attendance that also noticed the difference.  And although I wouldn't say it ruined the whole performance because it is, after all, an incredibly stunning production, it certainly hasn't left my mind.

So what are some possible solutions?
  • Donors could be asked to sponsor a children's choir?
  • The audience could be taught before the show how to sing the part.  (It's not that hard!)
  • The orchestra could sing while playing? 
  • A recording of a children's choir could be used?
  • Music students, amateurs, or professional musicians that are looking for things to do could volunteer their time?
I have to imagine that there is a better solution than having someone dress in a tux and come to each and every performance to play that one part on the synthesizer.  As a synthesizer colleague I venture to guess that playing that part was just as painful for the player as it was for us in the audience.  So why do that to everyone?  Why not splurge in the name of the holidays, New York City, and great ballet?   Then I we wouldn't all have sugarplums and synthesizers dancing in our heads.