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, August 15, 2016

From the kitchen to the stage

Today I realized that great cooks and musicians have something in a common - they have learned to let go and to trust their senses.  They have learned that interpreting great dishes or musical compositions goes beyond technique and mere re-creation into a realm that incorporates their own experiences, whims, and moods,  blending them seamlessly with where their audiences are, even if their audiences don't even know themselves where they are or where they want to be taken.

These ideas have been floating around in my head for a while now but they seem to have all collided while I was watching a movie from a few years back called "Today's Special."  It's a fun, romantic, heart-warming foodie movie about a young sous-chef that has worked for years in a restaurant in New York City.  When a promotion doesn't come his way and he confronts the executive chef for an explanation, he receives an honest but painful evaluation - he doesn't have the passion, vision, daring, and creativity that it takes to be the soul behind a restaurant.

This news comes as a blow of course, and launches Samir, the main character, into a fairly predictable journey of introspection.  He ends up reluctantly helping out his father in the family's Indian restaurant that has been struggling to survive.  Having abandoned Indian cooking since he was a boy, Samir does everything to keep the restaurant alive except plan and prepare the dishes himself - he hires a taxi driver he had serendipitously met instead.  This taxi driver, Akbar, is a big of a magical character.  During the resurrection of the restaurant, he teaches Samir some very important lessons about cooking which I also want to translate for musicians for the remainder of this blog post.  In one scene Akbar turns the kitchen over to Samir, encouraging him to try his own hand at combining traditional Indian spices in order to create a "perfect" masala.  Samir looked bewildered and disturbed since there were no measuring implements or recipes anywhere in sight.  With Akbar's encouragement and repeated philosophy that one just needs to use one's head, heart, and stomach, Samir gives it a try - a dash of this, a gentle pouring of that, and so on.  In the end, is it "right?"  Akbar doesn't seem to savor the results but he approaches the moment as any good teacher should.  He admits that it doesn't seem quite right while at the same time affirming that what Samir has done was good anyway.  The lesson was not about "right" or "perfect," it was about letting go, listening, smelling, feeling, and creating.

I am convinced that even beginning students should be given plenty of opportunities to let go and to experience music making and learning in a way that involves more of their senses.  I believe that we teach musicians to rely too much on reading every note on the page, note-by-note-by-note.  We don't teach how to read music as a language.  Similarly we teach students to read every indication on the page and to follow them without necessarily knowing why they are there.  As a result, students don't feel that they have the tools they need to make music on their own.  If someone handed them a piece of music without any fingering, pedal marks, bowings, etc...my guess it they would feel just as bewildered and disturbed as Samir was in the movie without recipes or measuring implements.

As I have mentioned on my blog and on my Facebook page, I don't consider myself a teacher even though I spend most of my waking moments thinking about the process or learning.  At the moment I have one adult student who I consider my guinea pig for all of my philosophies and strange notions and oddly enough, at her lesson this morning, long before I watched this movie, we had a series of very similar moments to the movie scene I described above.  In the past few weeks at our lessons I have increased the amount of times I intentionally pull the music away from my student and ask her to narrate to me what's going on the music and what her understanding of the music means to her.  Today we did even more of that.  I had her re-create several passages to the best of her ability based on her narrative, without the music anywhere in sight.  She kept asking to see the music but for the most part I kept saying, "Say what you know and we'll go from there."  I certainly didn't expect "perfection" but what I did want to encourage was thoughtfulness and complete engagement and she accomplished what I was after brilliantly.   This type of work terrified, and probably really annoyed her, but as the music has gotten more and more complicated and she has still managed to work out how to accomplish what I'm asking for, she has gotten more and more confident.  She has also started making more decision of her own regarding musicality, pedaling, and the like because she understands the tools and the techniques.  For me it is thrilling to see how much she can process with just a little help and guidance from me and it leaves me speechless when I see how surprised she is by her own ability to comprehend music as a language after only one year of lessons.  She does not need to keep looking at all those notes and scribbles on the page.  She can see it as a language and use her head, heart, and not necessarily her stomach, but her ears to guide her music-making.  At today's lesson she had several moments where she seemed genuinely shocked by how easy it was to play the music by letting go and thinking of the music as a language.   But this takes trust and I believe we need to practice trusting ourselves at our instruments.

Which leads me to the title of the movie and one of my favorite things about it.  As many restaurants do, the Indian restaurant in the movie has a sign that hangs in the window to list the daily special.  One day when Samir comes to work he sees that Akbar has listed this instead of an actual dish...
Trust me
Exactly.  Trust me - trust you.  It takes courage but trust me, there is incredible growth and creativity that comes from letting go and trusting all your senses - not just your eyeballs.  Speak the language of music, not just notes.  It's worth it.
Trust me.
You will hear more, feel more, love more...and so will your audience.
Trust me.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Lesson learned while trying not to be a piano diva

pia.no di.va
Pianist who demands that attention be paid to his or her needs, 
especially without regard to anyone else's needs or feelings.


Perhaps it's silly of me, but I actually work pretty hard to not be a piano diva.  I have many reasons for this but in all honesty, my biggest motivation behind my efforts is that I actually kind of enjoy the odd challenges and obstacles that arise when I'm not very piano diva-ee.  I've played on tons of out of tune pianos, of course; electric keyboards have been a frequent instrument at my disposal; poorly regulated pianos are really quite amusing and are a good test of one's short-term memory (which key was it that sticks out?)   But sometimes my attitude has ended me in situations that haven't been quite as fun - Puccini arias on a small electric keyboard that didn't have a sustain pedal; playing the organ part of the Faure Requiem with a professional orchestra on a very good electric keyboard/organ, but one without a sustain pedal available and not with the full range of keys; a severely out of tune piano that also had several missing black keys...that last one was at a jail which made the experience even more noteworthy (pun completely intended.)

A few weeks ago I was asked last minute, by a friend with whom I haven't played with in a while, if there was any chance I could fly out to Lake Tahoe to play a cello recital with her full of repertoire that I absolutely adore.  Of course I had to say yes!  I love, love, love pinch-hitting...almost as much as I love trying not to be a piano diva.  

As I was preparing to fly out there, the cellist asked if it would be all right with me if we just rehearsed at her house the night I arrived - that she'd have a good keyboard available to use.  I think you can guess my answer.

When I got there, we rehearsed using the keyboard.  Not that I'm being a piano diva here, but this was an older keyboard that was touch sensitive, but not in the way that keyboards today are touch sensitive.  But it didn't really bug me.  Remember, I enjoy little challenges like this.  I was pretty quick to discover that it all had to do with the speed at which I pressed down the keys.  The faster I pressed down, the louder it was.  The trick was to play a fast passage quietly.  Try that sometime!  It really is quite fun!

At the end of the evening my friend asked what I wanted to do the next day (the day before the performance).  Did I want to drive all the way to Tahoe, about an hour away, to rehearse in the church on the piano or should we just continue to rehearse at her place.  

Can you guess my response?

The day of the performance she asked when I thought we should get to the church.  In my non-piano diva fashion I said, "If we get there an hour-and-a-half or so before that should be fine.  After all, I didn't want to get in the way of any church activities that might be going on.

We get to the church and as I'm warming up I notice a couple of keys sticking.  Not just sort of sticking.  Seriously sticking.  Non-piano diva Erica thought, "No problem, I can deal with this...maybe."  We rehearsed just a tiny bit and pretty quickly realized that my attitude was not a good thing in this situation.  I immediately switched gears and did the first thing I could think of...call my piano technician...from Virginia...who was at that moment driving to New York City.  After trying a couple of tactics he gave me, I thought we had fixed the situation so I ended our conversation and went backstage to get ready.

Recital started with Prokofiev's Cello Sonata...for the first page or so, no sticking notes...brilliant!  Then it started...again...and the number of rebellious notes seemed to grow quite rapidly and with most notes sticking for about 10 seconds each time...if not longer.  I did a lot of lifting-back-up-the keys when I could, edited some of the music when I could...I also kept pushing back on the keys in between movements to try and get the keys farther away from the board that is in front of the keyboard.  It was all pretty "interesting".

Second piece was Arvo Pärt's "Spiegal am Spiegal" - 10 minutes of exquisite minimalist beauty.  While the cellist was talking to the audience about the piece (fortunately that took a few minutes), while I made a few more attempts at pushing back on the action, I glanced up at the music and at that moment it dawned on me how many notes in the music where ones that were notes that were sticking.  At that moment, I have to admit I started to sweat.  But I was determined to make it work and to make it work in such a way that the audience wouldn't be distracted by what was, or wasn't happening at the keyboard.

Thankfully, the Pärt is slow.
Thankfully, it is meditative.
Thankfully, there aren't a lot of notes to play and the left hand has LOTS of time to serve as the key picker-upper.

Believe it or not, we made it.  How well did it come across?  I have absolutely no idea.  What I do know is that the minute they stopped clapping I was back on the phone with my technician, asking him for reassurance that if I took the piano apart and removed that wood strip in front of the keys, that the action wouldn't drop out of the bottom of the piano.  He said it would be fine, gave me some pointers so that I didn't accidentally rip off key tops, and within minutes, we were all set.  No more sticking keys.

Phew!  That is a long story!  But here's what I learned and want to pass on to other pianists...

It's ok to not want to be a piano diva but it's wise not to take that too far.  

Needless to say, I just had a solo piano performance this past week and you better believe I made a point of going several days early to try out the piano!

And no...sticking...keys!

One more thing...Andy Lyford, our amazing piano technician, I owe you a lot of cookies!  Or whatever you want!!  I owe you!!!