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, September 10, 2018

Practicing and performing when faced with a migraine

Practicing and performing music has many challenges. With migraines, they are magnified. As with any job, when coming face to face with yet another one, I am also faced with the question, "How am I going to get done what I need to get done?"

I know I am not alone. Every day I find musicians on Twitter that are asking this same question so I thought I would spend a few minutes sharing my experience in the hope that it will help others in the same boat feel a little less alone and a little more understood.

For me there is a difference between how I deal with practicing and performing when I'm dealing with a migraine. With performing I feel there aren't really many options since it's very difficult to cancel a performance, especially when it involves other musicians. But there some things I keep in mind.

  • I lower my expectations. My goal is simply to get through the performance as gracefully as possible. More often than not I lose the ability to sing along with the music and to immerse myself in musical intention so I've come to accept in situations like this that I may have to perform in a way that isn't as musically satisfying to me. Very often it feels like it's truly an act of survival and I have to trust that my years and years of being musical and my musical training show through in spite of what's going on (or not going on) in my head.
  • I count on adrenaline helping me out. While I'm playing music, my migraine usually fades into the background slightly so I try to stay positive and look forward to a little relief while I'm playing.
  • If I'm performing by myself I very intentionally take the edge off all the tempos that I can. When I'm experiencing a migraine my brain has a very difficult time working as quickly as it usually does. There is also less coordination between my brain and my body so having a little extra time to let my brain reset or catch up with itself can be beneficial. 
  • I actively remind myself to breathe whenever I can - before I start playing, in between phrases, during rests, and right before difficult sections. It can be so tempting when I'm in pain to hold my breath, as if that will get me through the situation faster. Unfortunately that's not very helpful and tends to make matters worse. 
  • I'm intentional about keeping my eyes relaxed and I try not to focus on reading the notes on the page quite as much. Staring and not blinking can make my migraine worse. 
  • Along with the previous point, I rely more on my memory of how it physically feels to play the music. This keeps my brain from getting too busy and stressed which definitely doesn't help the pounding in my head.
When it comes to practicing, there's a lot more flexibility. A lot of my friends on Twitter mentioned that they rarely practice when impaired. That's understandable and perfectly acceptable since most of us end up having to spend much of our time hiding under a blanket in a dark room without any sound, doing nothing except waiting for the migraine to decide to take a hike. If I'm fortunate enough to have a low to mid-grade episode, however, I do try to practice a little bit, especially if I'm getting ready for a performance. I use the same tips listed and very intentionally choose modes of practicing where speed and perfection are not the focus. I also do a lot of practicing with my eyes closed since that helps with the sensitivity to light, and I keep the volume either at piano or pianissimo. Doing both of these things are good for practice sessions when I'm feeling good but I find them especially helpful during these times. And more often than not these exercises end up deepening my interpretation of the music and improving my ease of movement. I guess that's a positive aspect of having migraines. I may as well make lemonade from lemons, right?

To all my fellow sufferers out there, I'm so sorry you're dealing with them too! Go easy on yourself. And if you manage to get through a performance or to eke out a somewhat decent practice session, no matter how short, know that you are a superhero in my books. Pat yourself on the back gently and then hide back under your covers and rest knowing that you are amazing.

Feel free to leave your own thoughts and suggestions based on your experiences in the comments. And if someone has a foolproof cure for migraines, do let us know. 

If you want to read more about my personal experiences with migraines and searching out solutions for myself, here are two more that I've written:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Well-Tempered Pianist: exploring a pianist's life through music

A few years ago, at the age of 40,  I found myself struggling to "make it" as a professional musician. I seem to have always found distractions in my life to keep me from whole-heartedly pursuing what it is I truly love the most so this wasn't a complete change or anything, but that didn't make my mid-life crisis any easier to deal with.

After school, I got married. 
After getting married I was a music-minister's wife and my role was by my husband's side (at least that was my excuse.)
After he left church work and was pursuing his doctorate I had to bring home a salary to support us.
After he got his first teaching job at a university, I got pregnant.

You get the picture.

When our daughter got to be old enough, I dropped the mom excuse and earnestly attempted to piece together a musical career, through collaborative work, teaching at a local university, and then as a practice coach. Nothing really worked out for various reasons. Door after door closed. I took at it as personal rejection when in reality, I think it had more to do with me always finding excuses to not keep at it.

Then I hit 40. I felt utterly disappointed in myself. Music is my passion. Music is my religion. Music is quite simply me and I had let it slip out of my hands.

A few years before I had told myself that someday I wanted to have learned all 24 preludes and fugues from Bach's second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I dreamed of being able to sit down and play through all 24. That would be my all I would need to die happy and feeling like I had done something. 

It took a while, a couple of years I believe, but I did just that. I got them all learned. But then that wasn't enough. I decided I wanted to perform them all.  But who wants to sit and listen to all 24 at one sitting?  Or two sittings? That's when my Well-Tempered Pianist series popped into my mind.  

I decided that I would put together 6 recitals. Each one would feature 4 preludes and fugues and I would intersperse among them pieces that meant something to me from throughout my musical life, The series would be my musical autobiography.  

I'm now near the end of my second presentation of the entire series and I am so very thankful that I've been able to do this and that people have received it with such interest, acceptance, and excitement.  In between pieces I've been taking a few moments to walk the audience through my life and to connect the music I'm performing with the most significant points in my timeline. That too has been enlightening to me although I have to admit sometimes it's been a bit distracting to talk about an aspect of my life that meant a lot to me and then have to perform. I often find my mind and heart dwelling on what I just talked about and see the colors and sounds I normally associate with a given piece of music change into something I've never quite considered. In spite of some surprises in that way, it's been incredibly rewarding, especially since the audience has been receiving it so well too. Each recital finds me talking with audience members for quite some time afterwards, answering questions, hearing their own's been a tangibly reciprocal series of events.  

As for my mid-life crisis, I'm still in the middle of it. The recital series didn't fix that little problem. But it did remind me that even though I may not be able to support myself as a professional musician, I am a pianist with a very musical soul and people want to hear me and hear the music I have to offer them. That is enough for me...for now.

I highly recommend musicians do something like this if they think it might be of interest to them. So often I think we don't think the audiences want to know about who we are; that we are there to serve the music and that is all. What I'm finding, however, is that at least in this part of the country, in this atmosphere and culture, the personal aspect is appealing as well and encourages more of a conversation between performer and audience. 

For those of you who might find it interesting, here is a listing of what has been on each program. Please excuse any discrepancies in formatting.

Recital I: At the very beginning

Prelude and Fugue in C major
Beethoven's Für Elise
Clementi Sonatina in D major
Prelude and Fugue in C minor
Bartók Sonatina
Prelude and Fugue in C# major
Mozart Sonata in C major, KV 545
Prelude and Fugue in C# minor
Selections from Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood"

Recital II: A musical life in San Francisco

Prelude and Fugue in D major
Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66
Opening to the slow movement of Ravel's G major piano concerto
Prelude and Fugue in D minor
Dvorák's Slavonic Dances, numbers 1 & 2 from Op. 48 (sightread at performance on purpose)
Prelude and Fugue in E flat major
The Swan from Saint-Saën's "Carnival of the Animals" (I used to play cello too)
Prelude and Fugue in D# minor
Selections from Debussy's "Children's Corner"

Recital III: College living

Prelude and Fugue in E major
Debussy's L'isle joyeuse
Prelude and Fugue in E minor
Hwaen Ch'uqi's Souvenir 
Prelude and Fugue in F major
Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, no. 10
Prelude and Fugue in F minor
Selections from Satie's "Sports et divertissements"

Recital IV: From the Golden Gate to the Alps (about my months working as a restaurant pianist)

Debussy's 1st Arabesque
Prelude and Fugue in F# major
Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby
Prelude and Fugue in F# minor
Beryl Rubinstein's concert transcription of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess
Prelude and Fugue in G major
September Song from Knickerbocker Holiday (performed with my husband, baritone Tadd Sipes)
I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' from Porgy and Bess
Johanna from Sweeney Todd 
Prelude and Fugue in G minor

Recital V: Marriage, becoming a mom, and more

Prelude and Fugue in A flat major
Ravel's Jeux d'eau
Prelude and Fugue in G# minor
Finzi's Eclogue (performed with organ instead of string orchestra)
Prelude and Fugue in A major
Gounod's "O divine redeemer" (performed with a student I collaborated with and taught)
Sorenson's "In this hour"
Prelude and Fugue in A minor
Radnich's arrangement of "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter

Recital VI: Looking ahead

Prelude and Fugue in B flat major
Selections from Schubert's "Wintereisse" (performed with my husband, baritone Tadd Sipes)
Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor
Tiersen's "A song from another summer" from the movie Amelie
Prelude and Fugue in B major
Pärt's Für Alina
Prelude and Fugue in B minorHough's transcription of "My Favorite Things" from the Sound of 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, 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
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 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!!!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Finding my roots in new soil

The last few years have been interesting.  I have gone from both my husband and I teaching in universities and performing to both of us moving out of academia, relocating to a new town, and taking up a job in a completely different field.  For the past two years I have been working in retail in toy stores, most recently as a manager of a new one.  I decided to put aside my music for an indeterminate time to give my ailing elbows a much needed break and to give myself the space I needed to revisit how I approach the piano, hopefully opting for a more healthy one.  I had also put aside this blog and my practice coaching business because I wasn't convinced that I was being effective in what I was trying to do: I didn't necessarily know if people wanted to hear what I had to say; my website for my business wasn't getting enough traffic in spite of trying to do what I thought was necessary - SEO optimization, use of ideal tags, and other factors I really don't understand; I wasn't getting any new practice coaching clients; I wasn't getting very much feedback after delivering my talks on practicing and learning music.  In short, I felt like I had reached the end of a road.

I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason so in spite of the challenges and insecurities I've faced these past few years, I have always had a sense that music and my research on and passion for the process of reading and learning music was simply in hibernation mode.  In spite of my silence, I can assure you that my mind still manages to stay in high gear most of the time.  One of Rainer Maria Rilke's lines from his Letters to a Young Poet come to my mind at this point...
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart.  Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.  Do not now look for the answers... At present you need to live the question.  Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
That's where I am right now, friends.  I am living the question.  I am living in the moment.  I am living.  And in this new place where I find myself, a place without any clear future, I am realizing that I don't necessarily care whether or not I am a "professional" musician.  I am a musician and I am me.  That is, at least for right now, enough for me.

I am back to practicing and learning new music.
I am back to performing again and have set up 6 recitals over the 2016-2017 year that will enable me to perform all 24 preludes and fugues in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a project I started many, many years ago.
I am back to playing music with others and with such great joy and excitement!
I am still working in a toy store but also hoping to write again and to teach anyone who would be interested in finding out the way I perceive of music.

I am, in other words, being me once again, only in a different type of soil, with new roots, a new environment, and lots of fresh air.

Not a bad place in which to find myself.