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, May 8, 2021

Celebrating one year of my sightreading show!

A year ago, in the spring of 2020, as we were all adjusting to being confined to our homes more, I kept trying to figure out how I was going to personally deal with this new scenario, especially since the majority of my income from musical jobs was cut off and I had a lot more free time on my hands. I was also struggling with not getting the regular bursts of adrenalin that come with being a performer and having the interactions with my audience that I so love and feed off of. 

One of the crazy ideas I came up with was to live-stream myself sightreading piano music for one hour. Why do that, one might ask? My answer?  I love sightreading, I'm pretty good at it and I figured I could use this time to explore solo piano repertoire. The only down-side I could think of was that I would be also be setting myself up for falling on my face publicly on a regular basis. But since I have a bit of a reputation for being stubborn and for wanting to be transparent as a musician, I decided the down-side could possibly be turned into an up-side. I wanted other musicians, pianists especially, to discover the joys that can come from being a good sight-reader:
  • moments of struggle can actually be pretty amusing
  • we can sightread musically if we approach it with skill and the right mindset
  • there's a lot we can learn about ourselves as musicians from doing it on a regular basis
  • that there are things we can do as musicians to help ourselves be set up for more success prior to jumping in
  • oftentimes what we think was a disaster in the moment really wasn't so bad

A year after live-streaming the first episode it's safe to say that Sightreading Maverick is now one of the things I look forward to most in my week. I don't have a lot of regular viewers, at least not that I know of, but I have a faithful crew that regularly watches live and chats via messaging during the show. There's also one viewer who routinely watches at night, after the show is done, messaging me his reactions the whole time. That is always hilarious. I also have several who regularly send in requests. I'm very grateful for their suggestions. 

Every now and then I'll get feedback from people who have watched that they've added pieces to their repertoire that they discovered through the show - that brings me such joy to hear that. At times I  sightread works by composers who are friends or acquaintances of mine on Twitter - that's also been wonderfully rewarding. For me that gives me a completely different glimpse into who they are as people, artists, and friends. I should add here that I'm grateful that they've all been willing to let me subject their music to the risks that a part of sight-reading. They too are brave! 

So almost a year later, with 47 episodes in the books, 2 guest appearances (thanks to Tracy Cowden and the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble), almost 300 different piano pieces sightread, I'm going to keep at it until I run out of music. If you've never watched before, please do check it out and pass on the word about the show. The easiest way to be reminded about it is to subscribe to my YouTube channel

You can also watch episodes whenever you wish. Here's the playlist of everything that's on YouTube.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Standing on my soapbox on another blog

A few weeks ago on Twitter I shared a story about an interesting conversation I had with a colleague where I teach. The conversation that ensued after I posted that story was a brief but important one that led to the wonderful composer, piano pedagogue, and writer Melanie Spanswick asking if I'd write up a post based on the topic. How could I say no?
The thoughts I wrote about in this blog post, "Flipping Musical Misperceptions on their Heads," are near and dear to my heart in many ways so please do take a read and contribute your own experiences and thoughts if you wish.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Being productive and creative while severely stressed

Last week I had one of those days where I felt there were tornado sirens and tornadoes going off in my head. 

It was ceaseless.

Even practicing the piano, which usually works to refocus me, did nothing for me. In fact, trying to practice brought my frustration to an even more unbearable level since that's usually my safe haven. 

By the end of the day I was frustrated and exhausted from trying to accomplish something...anything.

The next morning I work up with my head and heart still in a state. I couldn't endure another day like the previous one so I knew I had to do something different. As I was getting breakfast around I was struck with inspiration in the form of a bag of chocolate chips. Yep, chocolate chips. Not fancy ones. Semi-sweet chocolate chips. (Thank goodness I have a family that feels they are a must-have pantry item!)

I pulled the bag of chocolate chips out, found a small, clear, glass bowl and ceremoniously poured about 25 of them into it. 

Then I grabbed a large post-it note and was struck yet again with a bit of inspiration. I am by nature a list person. I have to-do apps on every device, armfuls of notebooks, and an office supply store-worthy stock of sticky notes so I have to-do lists everywhere but this time a different little voice than I'm used to inside my head clearly said
 "Erica, no to-do list today. What you need is a possibility list."


Yes, a possibility list. That different little voice went on to explain. 
"Maybe the problem with being a busy body and having tons of ideas is that your to-do list will never, ever end. And if you judge the success of your day by whether or not you got through your to-do list you'll only feel like you failed. So write a possibilities list instead and see each one you accomplish as something to celebrate."

My to-do list habit may be fine a lot of the time but perhaps it's not always the ideal motivator. Which is why I decided to listen to that different little voice to try something a bit different and to get myself back on track. There was one more thing the voice kept telling me.
"Put blinders on."

Usually I'm pretty good about focusing on the task at hand. I also tend to be a multi-tasker even though I realize that's not the ideal way to be. But in my previous day's state, the danger of having too many things on my to-do list and of relying on multi-tasking became painfully obvious. So I decided that during this experiment I was going to go through my day one "possibility" at a time. I would pick one and then put blinders on and focus on that one thing until it was done or until I had done a good amount of work on it and felt comfortable setting it aside. When I had successfully worked on a possibility I celebrated with a chocolate chip. One...chocolate...chip. I was quite amazed at how well this worked! By the end of the day I felt that I was back on track and that maybe I could even go back to my to-doist self. Or maybe I should just stick with the possibilities method/chocolate chip/blinders method?

It is rather tasty.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Art of Using a Mirror as a Musician

I'm sure I'm not alone in this scenario...

You're doing your morning routine, sitting in front of a mirror, and all you can manage to see is every pore, every new wrinkle, and those dark spots under your eyes. No matter what product you apply or thing you tweak, all you see is what you don't want to see. At that point, hopefully it dawns on you to do one simple thing...


I think so often, especially when I'm engaged in practicing or performing I forget that many mirrors have two sides. There's one side that does the job of reflecting what is there and there's the other, whose job is to magnify everything, to a slightly absurd degree.

There are good uses for both sides, both in everyday life, which I'll leave for someone else to cogitate on, and also in the daily life of the musician. It's usually in the practice room and in lessons where that magnifying side can be useful. It's looking into that side that we can see things we may have not noticed before - the small discrepancies in tempo, the slight unevenness in our fast passages, our tendency to be sharp on a certain note. That side of the mirror provides us with endless things to fix and problems to solve. 

But staring only into that side can start to play with our minds. It can frustrate us. It can make us question why we even try. It can prevent us from seeing the larger picture. It can sour us from what it is we love. That's why it's imperative that we learn two simple things...

When to flip the mirror and when to take the mirror away completely.

I'm still in the process of learning about these two options myself. Recently I've had a bit of a change of heart about how to deal with my practice room mirror. I used to follow up my high magnification practice sessions with an immediate flip, allowing myself to run through sections I had just micro-practiced to see where things stood. What I'm realizing now is that for me, more often than not, these reflections disappoint me. I want to see immediate results and to know that the hard work is going to pay off. But the fact is, things take time to settle. The brain needs time to let things sort themselves out. Or maybe the issue is that the brain isn't as easily flipped as that mirror is. Now, after a good practice on a section, I'm trying instead to turn off my childish need for instant gratification (that usually isn't gratified), and switching to something else. So far I'm feeling much better about my practice sessions. There's a lot more intrigue when you take away the mirror after a magnified session since you're not quite sure what you're going to find the next time, but is certainly less angst-filled. 

When do I use the simple reflection side of a mirror? I'm actually struggling to know how to answer that at the moment so perhaps that will need to be in another blog post. What I will say, however, is that I think music-making in general places a mirror in our hands, whether it's in the practice room or on the stage. It's unavoidable. As long as we don't stare too long and hard, and as long as we stick to that side, I think we're more likely to keep smiling as we pursue this art that is a reflection of so much more than just ourselves. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

My journey down a wonderful rabbit hole - discovering music composed by women

It all started several years ago, in the summer of 2017. I had been asked by a flute player, Sarah Wardle Jones, if I would play piano for a recital she had put together of music composed by women, a particular interest of hers. I of course said yes, not because of the program itself, but simply because I rarely turn down an opportunity to perform. I very quickly realized after saying yes, much to my puzzlement and embarrassment, that I had never, in my entire schooling and career covering 39 years (!) performed anything written by a woman. I couldn't even name on one hand the names of female composers. Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, and Cécile Chaminade. That was it. 

The recital was a joy. It was refreshing to peer into a world I hadn't previously known and Sarah's enthusiasm for the composers (Anna Bon, Cécile Chaminade, Lili Boulanger, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Jennifer Higdon), was inspiring. I found myself feeling like Alice by the end of the experience, standing at the very top of a very deep but thrilling hole that contains a new musical cornucopia of creativity and expression I had yet to discover. 

I jumped in. 
I'm still on my long journey down. 
I'm constantly discovering new wonders along the way. 

At the end of 2018, Sarah and a friend of hers, clarinetist Michelle Smith Johnson, and I put together a fun Halloween concert. I don't believe in that particular performance we performed anything written by a woman, but that project brought the three of us together. Over wine and appetizers one evening we found ourselves chatting about the possibility of forming an ensemble and we all decided that what we wanted was to focus on shining a light on works written by women and commissioning new works. It was shortly thereafter that our trio, at the beginning of 2019, The Alma Ensemble, was born, named in honor of Alma Mahler.

Farther down the rabbit hole, at the beginning of 2020, I was thrilled to be able to finally meet in person Sandra Mogensen, a pianist who had long been a friend of mine on Twitter. She was in the United States to present some recitals and presentations to celebrate and announce the release of her first recordings in a series she's doing called "En pleine lumière" which features all works composed by women. In talking with her during her visit I think we both realized that we shared many of the same frustrations, especially in terms of finding scores for these composers whose voices really need to be heard. When they can be found they are often significantly more expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Another point we also found ourselves frustrated by is that many anthologies and method books for pianists just beginning their journey don't feature female composers. At that point in our discussion we started trying to figure out what we could do and it dawned on us that both of us had regularly been looking to the online resource, IMSLP to find scores. We decided that perhaps we could both comb through the listings and create a shareable spreadsheet that would list all of the piano pieces composed by women on the site. With IMSLP being a free resource, this would ensure that anyone who had access to a computer could also have access to the music that's there. Sandra agreed to start at "A," I started at "Z" working backwards, and we eventually met in the middle. By the summer we had our spreadsheet roughly put together.  Part I was complete.

Part II of our project started at the end of the summer. We created a YouTube channel, Piano Music, She Wrote, and started posting our own recording of works we've discovered in our IMSLP quest. So far we've faithfully posted 2 every week. We now stand at over 40 videos and have many, many more to go! 

We now find ourselves in Part III. We set ourselves the goal of releasing our spreadsheet publicly once our YouTube channel reached 300 subscribers. Last weekend our goal was achieved! So now, if people want an easy, quick way to discover the piano pieces written by women that have scores on IMSLP available to download for free, folks can head to our Ko-Fi store. We are asking for a minimum donation of $10.00 US to get the url for our spreadsheet. That is to cover the hundreds of hours we've already put into this project and will continue to put into it. This spreadsheet is a living, breathing one. We'll regularly be updating it as new works are added to the score database. We are also donating 10% of every donation back to IMSLP since without them, none of this would have been possible.  

We've had several people mention that purchasing access to the spreadsheet on behalf of others, like piano students or teachers, would make a great virtual stocking stuffer, holiday gift, or graduation gift and we couldn't agree more. To make that possible, when purchasing access, any quantity can be selected. If people have 10 pianists they'd like to send the url to, they can simply select "10" as the quantity and then voilá, they'll be all set. 

Here's our video announcement about our spreadsheet in case you want to learn more: 

And here's a shorter, 2 minute version of the same video if you're short on time:

Sandra and I have many more stages forthcoming so stay tuned! We'd also like to start planning a world tour once this pandemic is all said and done so if anyone wants us to come share what we've learned, both through recitals and presentations, let us know! 

Back to the rabbit hole analogy. I feel like I'm still only a fraction of the way down this hole and I couldn't be more thrilled about that. There is clearly much more to discover. Often I find myself researching one composition and am led to another fantastic one...and then another...and another. It never seems to end. So much music I've never heard, so many composers I've never heard of but should have!  Thankfully there are many others out there who are also on this same journey. I encourage anyone else who's interested to join in the fun and to share what you find. Let's get more of this fantastic music accessible and available to all. I think Für Elise and The Happy Farmer would be happy to step aside for a while.