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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Let me count the ways - a piano collaborator's ode to an artform

I recently had the great joy of giving a masterclass for young pianists who were trying their hands, many for the first time I believe, at collaborating with their peers.  Readers of my blog will not be surprised to hear that I ate up every moment of our time together.  I am a huge advocate for enlisting pianists into the collaborative piano field because I believe there are many advantages of spending at least part of one's time and career in this role, whether one is a student, amateur, or professional.  I also believe our world needs more skilled pianists that are willing to serve musicians of all ages and abilities.  Although I realize I've outlined some of these advantages in at least one other blog post, I'm going to do it again with the hope that something new will pop up this time around and that maybe this post will catch the eye of someone new.

In my mind, here are some of the benefits of learning how to accompany, especially at an early age:

  • It's a social way for pianists to be involved in music-making.  So much of our time is spent alone in the practice room.  It is more difficult, as pianists, to find opportunities to make music with others.  Especially for high schoolers I think this social outlet can help keep someone in the game who might otherwise quit.
  • It gives pianists a sense of purpose and of being needed.  An extension of my first point, solo playing can start to feel a bit selfish after a while.  At least for me it can start to feel like I'm doing it solely because I like doing it or because I like the music.  When I throw another person into the mix, however, I sense a shift in purpose.  It's no longer about "me" but rather about "us."  I like that!  Even when the accompaniment part is one of those "easy" ones that require little practice, I still know that without it the music would not be the same.  Being a collaborator puts me in a role that inspires the nurturing, guiding, supporting side of myself.  It feels great to be needed and for a young person, feeling needed can make a dark, lonely, seemingly pointless world seem a lot brighter.
  • When pianists collaborate they are opening the doors to countless libraries of new and different repertoire.   I realize that as pianists we have so much music at our fingertips that we need not fear running out at any time, but I think most people enjoy having an excuse to check out other composers and styles of music.  Granted, some of it can be downright scary and un-pianistic, (thank you Paris Conservatory for your yearly competitions that seem to have inspired some of the most devilishly tricky piano parts!) But even then, all that different repertoire keeps life interesting and our brains working in full gear.  Maybe collaborators live longer thanks to the intense mental workouts we put ourselves through.  Somehow I doubt there's been a study on that topic.
  • Collaborating gives us many more opportunities to perform.  Having just a few solo performances a year can make every performing experience a daunting one and it makes it challenging to practice performing.  When we collaborate, however, we often find ourselves performing more than we ever thought we would or even could.  It gives us lots of practice in a safe way.  And for me, because I'm in a support role, any nerves I might have tend to be outweighed by my desire to be there for the person with whom I'm playing.  Another advantage is that when collaborating, memory isn't necessary.  For those students for whom memory can be a stressor, being able to use music in performance can be an encouraging experience that leads to more confidence.  In time, successes can infuse courage into music-free solo performances as well.
  • Playing with different instruments and voice types can open up our ears to new sounds and different timbres.  I can often guess when a pianist hasn't worked much with other instrumentalists or singers because their sound tends to be very vanilla.  Having grown up in a fantastic youth orchestra as a cellist surrounded by the most incredible sounds, I have those different timbres, colors, and densities of sound in my mind even when I'm at the piano.  I strive to pull an orchestra out of the piano strings, pedals, and hammers.  Rarely does a young pianist have the opportunity to participate in an orchestra so accompanying with different types of musicians should be a part of their education in my mind.  It gives them a palette of multiple colors, textures, and thicknesses rather than just a few shades of black and white.
  • Working as a team player brings a pianist a different motivation to work hard.  No pressure here, fellow pianists, but in my opinion a pianist can make or break a performance in a collaborative situation.  That's not to say that the pianist has to play the music perfectly - I don't believe in the importance of note-perfect performances because I think that's unrealistic and simply not the point.  But I do think the pianist has a lot of responsibility on his or her shoulders.  Time spent in the practice room is for a very clear cause and that sense of purpose can lead to a pointed concentration that can carry on into a pianist's solo practicing as well.
  • It can help pianists let go of their quest for "perfection."  I think it's safe to say that most professional collaborators learn that delivering a note-perfect performance is rarely, if ever, possible.  I daresay sometimes it's not even desirable especially when we're talking about an orchestral reduction for which the arranger was paid by each note he jumbled the page with.  (I've heard this is why so many of the reductions are as beastly as they are!)  Check out my blog post, "Confessions of a piano collaborator" from several years ago to read about some of my creative escapades on the keyboard.  There are usually lightbulb moments once a pianist realizes that people rarely if ever realize when he or she has judiciously left out notes or artfully re-arranged the music.  And once this revelation has been made, wrong notes in a solo performance don't seem nearly as disastrous either.  The focus instead falls on the music and on expression - always a good thing in my book!
  • There's nothing quite like collaborating to reveal any weaknesses one may have in regards to rhythm and pulse.  To extend my earlier point about working as a team player, it becomes clear quite quickly that a collaborator can't add beats here and there or fudge rhythms as successfully when there is someone else whose part needs to interlock with the pianist's part.  The pianist needs to be the conductor at all times, without fail, all the while also being sensitive and aware of anyone else.  
  • When working with singers especially, collaborating can bring a new dimension into musical interpretation.  Pianists so often have to dig deep in order to come up with a storyline or something to say in their music unless it's clearly programmatic.  Singers have the great advantage of having text to inspire their musical decisions.  Working with vocal literature can inspire more drama and creativity when it comes to the interpretation of solo piano literature. 
  • After some experience, collaborating can improve one's sight-reading skills and can help pianists see the value of developing them further.  I believe that it is very difficult to work on this skill on one's own.  It's much easier when there's another musician playing along, especially someone that's able to play or sight-read at a higher level.  My mother made me play duets with her regularly starting at a very early age.  I whined and groaned about it a lot at the time but I really should send her a bouquet of flowers every week for the rest of her life to thank her for doing that!
  • Rehearsals require a level of verbal communication that will serve anyone well in whichever field they end up in.  In order for rehearsals to be productive, good communication has to happen between musicians that are playing with one another.  It takes time and practice to get good at it but it's so worth the effort.  I once tweeted that if politicians conducted business the way musicians conduct rehearsals the world would be a much better place.  I still believe that to be true and judging from the reaction of others to that tweet, I'm not alone.  
  • If we can get young pianists interested and experienced in collaborating at a young age they will be more likely to use their skills as an adult, regardless of whether or not they are professionals.  I can tell you that especially outside of big cities, there is a desperate need for skilled pianists to accompany in the community.  Whether it's for church choirs, local music studios, in the schools, or in the community, there need to be more pianists that feel comfortable collaborating.  It helps that is also a good way to earn some money doing something social and personally satisfying. 

Can you tell I love what I do?  Sigh...

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the topic.  If anyone has any to add, by all means, please do by commenting at the end of this post! 

Monday, October 27, 2014

New livestreaming project! "Practice on a Dime of Time"

I've decided to get back into livestreaming my practice sessions.  This time my goal is to record in shorter segments, between 10 and 20 minutes at a time which is why I'm calling this series, as corny as it is, "Practice on a Dime of Time."  My thought is that:

  • people don't have time to listen to me practice all day.
  • I don't have time to practice all day.
  • I have a difficult time finding large blocks of time when our piano is available to play since my husband uses the studio to teach much of the day.
  • it's better for me (and most people) to practice in small little segments.
  • it might be interesting and informative for people to see that improvement can actually happen in a short amount of time.

For those of you who have never seem me do this, it's probably helpful to know that I narrate what's going on in my head while I'm practicing.  You'll see and hear me give myself feedback (hopefully in a civil way), problem solve, test out various strategies, and explore musical choices in the process.  And yes, you will probably catch some not-so-good practice strategies as well - I am human, after all.  I actually think there's value in seeing me flail every now and then.

My goal is to do this on a regular basis but I'll be pretty sporadic in terms of what time of day I'll be livestreaming.  I will tweet and post on my Facebook page when I'm about to go live so keep an eye on my postings if you want to catch one.  I'll also be checking the social media streams in between sessions so if you have a pressing question that arises while watching, let me know and I'll try to answer you promptly.

If you miss the livestream sessions you'll be able to watch them on my ustream channel for up to 30 days or on my YouTube playlist at any time.

Here are my three sessions from today.  I particularly love (hear the sarcasm!) the thumbnail image that accompanies the first video - yikes!  I hope you find something useful in watching them and please do spread the word!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A brave but beautiful new world

Life has been so good to me lately.  A bit baffling, but good.  I've been adding "workshop presenter" to my list of things that I do and even though this had never been part of my picture and I'm still getting used to being on stage in this different sort of way, I'm enjoying the benefits so much that it's far outweighing the newness of it all.

So far I've presented two different workshops:

  • "Behind Closed Doors - a discussion about what really goes on in the practice room" 
  • "Musical Investigations - making music learning more engaging and musical"

It's been interesting to realize that presenting workshops is a bit like performing music.  I feel each one is still a work in progress and I have a sneaking suspicion that how I present them is going to be different each time but I can safely say that I have fallen in love with the topics and am finding myself energized by having the opportunity to share what I've learned over the past few years with others.  I also love the fact that I walk away knowing a lot more myself from listening to the teachers, parents, and students that attend.  There is such a wealth of information out there and I love being in the middle of it all.

This past weekend I was down in Pensacola, Florida, presenting for the folks in the MTNA chapter there.  I was especially looking forward to this one because it meant I was finally going to meet two twitter friends and fellow bloggers in person, Victor Andzulis and Monika Durbin.  (For folks who don't know much about twitter, this is known as a "tweet-up.")  We had a wonderful time at the workshop and I got to hear about some of the struggles and successes the teachers there have been experiencing in regards to getting their students (and the students' parents) thinking more creatively in the practice room.  I was also really excited this visit to be able to present not only a mini-recital with my dear colleague, soprano Youngmi Kim, but to also give a masterclass for young piano collaborators.  This was a first for me in a formal sense even though I've coached plenty of people in one-on-one settings and I just loved it!  It was a fun challenge for me to tie together everything I had discussed in the workshop in the morning with what how I approached the recital repertoire we were performing and then to help the students get a sense of those same concepts themselves.  Being able to share my love of the art of collaboration and the music itself was exhilarating and getting to hear and see young people playing music with one another while having fun put me on cloud 9 for wait, make that days...oh heck, I'm still there!!  

Needless to say, I'm hoping that this masterclass thing will become an option for whenever I conduct a workshop.  

So onward!  At this point I have another workshop scheduled in November over in Chesapeake, Virginia and then possibly a workshop weekend in Tennessee in February.  Meanwhile I have ideas for other topics I want to start discussing so I have lots of work ahead of me!  

I'll try to keep my upcoming events listed in the sidebar of this blog so keep checking there.  If you find out that I'm going to be in your area, please do let me know if you want more information.