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, 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...

Flip...the...mirror! 

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. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Accepting and Embracing the Musician That is You

I'm always looking to find the silver lining in every situation and these past few months have been no exception. Spending months at home, sharing a room with my piano, has been mostly a joy and a consolation but it's also played a bit of a number on my psyche. Facing an unknown future, especially in regards to my musical pursuits and career, combined with having a lot of time on my hands to pay attention to what other musicians are doing, has been a mind and ego bending experience. At times I've found it inspiring and motivating but at other times it's made me want to throw my hands up in despair and to shout, "What's the point?!" 

I have a feeling I'm not alone, nor do I think it's something musicians are facing just right now. It's a mind game that we all face at different times, sometimes more frequently than we'd like to admit. It's a human tendency to look around us at others and to compare ourselves and our situations. How do we compare? How do we stack up? Why can't we be more like so-and-so? Will we ever be as good? 

It can be an exhausting, draining, and self-defeating game that we play. 

What can we do to get our attention back to the silver lining in all of this? 

For me the answer begins with realizing that what I am typically doing when evaluating myself is akin to trying to compare apples to oranges. Even restricting my options to considering only apples and oranges is too limiting, in my opinion. All of us put together create the fanciest, most exotic fruit salad you could ever imagine because we all have different natural abilities, skills, talents, preferences, and experiences. 

  • perfect pitch
  • photographic memory
  • ability to play by ear
  • ability to sightread/read music notation
  • ability to memorize
  • ease of understanding music theory and harmony
  • size of our hands/other physical qualities that can aid in playing our instrument
  • how old we were when we started taking lessons
  • growing up in a household with other musicians in the family
  • having the resources to have good instruments to play
  • growing up in a city, surrounded by musical opportunities or growing up in a more isolate area
  • having connections with the right people at the right time

Some of the items on this list are things that we simply can't control or change and some are things that we can continue to work on and nurture throughout our lives. But the point is there are so many factors that make us who we are as musicians and it's these differences that make it futile really to judge ourselves against any other musician. If you're an apple, don't look to make yourself into an orange. If you're an orange, don't expect yourself to be an apple. No matter how hard you try, you are what you are. 

Does that mean you can't work on yourself to make you an even better musician? No! I'm all for regularly challenging and pushing oneself - it can be thrilling, rewarding, and will keep those neurons in your brain healthy and strong. But what I'd say is, please do it within your own skin. You are what you are and that is a gift. 

Embrace it. 


Friday, July 24, 2020

Music Sightreading Tips Part II: In the Moment Strategies


Last week I wrote a post that covered my top tips for how to prepare oneself before sightreading a piece of music. Today I want to share with you some of the things I think about and do once all that prep work is done and it's time to give it a go. Hang on - sightreading can be a wild, but fun ride!

Tip 1: Selecting a good tempo
Finding a good tempo requires a combination of observations that I made in my prep work. First I remind myself of the fastest, most regular note value - usually it's sixteenths (semi-quavers) or eighths (quavers.) Next I hear in my head, or physically play a passage of those faster notes at a tempo that seems appropriate and doable while also bearing in mind the title and/or tempo indication. Once I find one that I think will work I figure out what the pulse is and use that for my tempo. Sometimes, if the piece seems like it might be on the more challenging side, I'll knock the tempo down just a little bit to give myself a little extra breathing room. It's always good to strike a balance between what's indicated and what's realistic in terms of setting me up for success. 

Tip 2: Counting out loud as a lead-in
Once I've found a good tempo and I'm ready to go I take a good breath in and out, count a measure or two in the tempo and, without a pause, begin the piece. I say, "without a pause" because I've noticed some people will do a count-in measure but then break the pulse momentarily before starting. That defeats the purpose of the count-in measure. For me, those preparatory pulses are to help me get in the groove so that I'm more likely to start playing at the desired tempo. It also gets me in the mindset that it's the pulse's continuity that is the priority. 

Tip 3:  Prioritizing what's important
People often think that the priority when sightreading should be playing all the correct notes. My answer to that is, "No!!!!!!!" My first priority is keeping the pulse and playing rhythmically; second priority is playing as many of the notes on the page as I can musically. That last word, "musically," is really important here. If I can't play all the notes musically, then I don't try to play all the notes. I keep simplifying the music until I can deliver it with some musicality. It's that simple and there's no shame in that. 

Tip 4: Look ahead and listen
Sightreading is a mix of being in the moment but also looking at and processing what's coming up. How far ahead I look depends on the speed and complexity of the piece. If it's more difficult and/or fast I generally don't look as far ahead. For easier pieces, on the other hand, I try to look as far ahead as I possibly can. For an extra challenge, I also try to listen ahead as well, meaning I try to hear what's coming up so that the aural picture can guide my hands into playing notes that will sound good. This is a skill that usually needs to be practiced and developed over time but it's well worth the challenge. I also try to be actively listening to what's happening in the moment as well so that I can be responding musically to what I'm doing. Amazing isn't it? That we can be looking and hearing ahead while also playing and hearing what's happening in the moment? You can thank an amazing brain for that!

Tip 5: Read by patterns rather than note by note 
Processing the music by seeing it in patterns makes tip 4 even easier because it's less information for the brain to process. Patterns come in all shapes and sizes. Chord, scales, and arpeggios - these are all examples of patterns that pop up all the time. Then there are more complex ones too. I have a whole dictionary full of patterns I've grown to recognize and that help me read more fluently and musically. This also enables me to be able to read farther ahead in the music. 

Tip 6: Take advantage of phrases, cadences, ritards, etc...
Whenever I have an excuse, like at the end of a phrase, at big cadences, in spots marked with tenuto marks, or where there are ritards, I make sure I take time to breathe, blink my eyes, give myself a brief pep talk, regroup, or look ahead at what's coming next. Especially in slower pieces, rubato is my friend. As long as I don't add beats that aren't there and the sense of pulse is still there, even if it's stretched and pulled a bit, I feel that's perfectly acceptable. 

Tip 7: Keep eyes on the music
This is a terrifying concept for a lot of people but it's a really important skill to develop in order to be able to sightread more easily. As much as possible I keep my eyes tracking where I am in the score and a little bit ahead of where I am, as discussed in tip 4. If I break that tracking to look at my hands or the instrument, I more often than not find that I'm lost when I look back up at the score. It takes a moment to reorient myself and feel like I know what I'm doing which jeopardizes my ability to keep the pulse consistent. I've worked with a lot of pianists on sightreading and I can assure you that just about anytime a pianist looks down at the keyboard and then back up at the music, there's a microsecond of two extra that's added into their pulse. That's not fun to listen to and can be an issue if you're sightreading with others.

Tip 8: Sightread with others
There is something magical about sightreading with others, especially when there's at least one person in the group who's good at keeping a steady pulse. I also think it makes the experience more enjoyable because I can play off the other person and respond musically rather than having to come up with musical interpretations on the fly all by myself. I can focus instead on successfully reading more notes. 

Tip 9:  Don't expect perfection and have fun!
I already touched on this in tip 3, but I'm going to say it again in hopes that it will really stick. Dropping my desire for perfection is imperative when sightreading, otherwise I am sure to get tense and discouraged which leads to me not having fun. If I'm not having fun, I get even more tense and discouraged which...you get the point. It creates this circle of unpleasantness. With that said, I want to mention that there are days where I am simply not in the optimal frame of mind to sightread. When I find myself in that situation I either try again another time, when I'm in a better headspace, or I purposefully select more straight-forward music that I can sightread more successfully. Those are definitely not times to pull out something that is extra challenging. 

There you have it! Those are my tips. I imagine I left something out. If you think of something to add, please do add it in the comments.

Happy sightreading everyone!


If you would like a downloadable PDF of this sightreading prep tips sheet, please check out my Patreon site. For only $3 a month you can have access to downloadables such as this one. For $10 or more a month you'll have access to all the downloadables I post, including practice tips. You'll also be helping to support me in my quest to make practicing more accessible, interesting, and effective for everyone! 














Friday, July 17, 2020

Music Sightreading Tips Part I: How to Prep

Sightreading music is one of the most daunting and mysterious tasks for a lot of musicians. It's really no wonder when you think about all that's involved. There's a lot of information to process in order to bring what's on the page into reality, especially in a way that is palatable to receive. There are pitches and rhythm of course but there's all the other information on the page that we need to process in order to make the performance musical, or at least remotely musical. And then there's our constant quest for "perfection," whatever that is, which really has no place when one is sightreading (that's your first important tip!)

Every Sunday during the past few months, I've spent an hour livestreaming myself sightreading in a show I call "Sightreading Maverick." Friends on social media send me requests of music in the public domain that they've found on the fabulous internet resourse, IMSLP, and I read through them one at a time. Since sightreading is an activity I have always enjoyed - I consider it the musical equivalent of extreme sports - risk filled, adrenaline pumping, and energizing - I've loved just about every moment. I've also discovered a lot of new-to-me composers who write fabulous music and I've even had a few composers bravely send their own compositions my way to appear on the show.

During Sightreading Maverick, before I begin to play each piece, I narrate what I'm looking for in the music to make sure I'm somewhat ready and not caught off guard. I thought it would be helpful to share my process and tips with everyone in two blog posts so that others might get curious enough to try their own sightreading game. This first post covers the things I look for and ask myself before I play a note. The second one, coming next week, will cover some tips for when you are in the process of sightreading.

All of these questions and tips do take time to process but with practice it does become easier. My hope is that you'll also find that the prep work will make sightreading much more satisfying and successful. And please feel free to leave your own suggestions as a comment below the post.

Question 1: How long is the piece?
This may seem silly, but I find it's helpful to know how long the piece is so that I can pace myself. If it's a really short piece, I know that even if I get flustered somewhere in the middle, it won't be very long before it's over and I can breathe again. If it's longer, I know that in this preparatory stage I'm going to want to find places to breathe, blink my eyes, and regroup.

Question 2: What is the title of the piece? 
This might also seem trivial but titles can often give you a lot of information that you can use to your advantage. Pieces with titles like "Elegy," "Nocturne," or "Reverie" are my favorite because I know that I'll be able to take a slower tempo and use more rubato. Pieces with titles like "Tarentella," "Etude," "Toccata," or "Theme and Variations" immediately put me in the frame of mind that I'm going to need to carefully and thoughtfully choose a tempo to avoid trainwrecks and tears.  I should also note that in general, if I have a choice, playing one of these more challenging ones is reserved for days when I'm feeling brave and on top of my game. 

Question 3: What is the piece's tempo indication and does it change?
Most people check out the initial tempo indication which is a good thing. It's important to get an idea of what the composer wants and what was intended. Often the tempo will change though so it's important to keep flipping and scanning the pages visually to find those instances. If there's a faster section in the middle, I usually take a moment to tell myself that when I get there I might want to pick a conservative tempo. If there's a section that's slower, I rejoice and take note that when I get there that will be a really good place to breathe, blink, listen, and enjoy a bit more.

Question 4:  What is the key signature? Major or minor? Does it change sometime during the piece? 
Always good to know the key, and especially whether or it's major or minor. It'll help you set up your ear to have the right expectation. Especially for younger pianists, playing a scale in the key of the piece can also be helpful to get it in one's ear and to get the feel of the key in one's hands. It's also good to know if and when the key changes and what it changes to. If it's a particularly challenging key, I like to see if the tempo also changes at the same time. If it happens to change to a slower tempo, hooray! That means I have more time to settle comfortably into the new key. If it changes to a faster tempo I remind myself that I better try and stay calm when I get there and to choose a conservative tempo.
 Question 5: What are the different note values involved and in particular, what is the fastest? 
Answering this question is instrumental in me choosing a good tempo. It also can help set up a rhythmic framework for what to expect. I typically start with finding the fastest note value used consistently. Usually this will be the sixteenth note (semi-quaver) or eighth note (quaver). I will then count a measure out loud and clap through the different main note values that are used, starting with the main note value (usually a quarter note/crochet) that equals the beat and then subdividing for a measure at a time until I get to the fastest note value. While doing this, I'm very conscious of how the subdivisions sound and feel, especially in relation to the beat so that I can call on the sound and sensation of them while sightreading. 

Question 6: Are there difficult rhythms or passages that leap off the page?
If I see a rhythm that looks particularly complicated I take a moment to see if I can make sense of it quickly. If I don't have time to properly analyze it I try to make sure I can see where the beats are so that I can come up with a strategy for how I'm going to try and pull it off.
If there's a passage with a lot of accidentals I try and ascertain if they're there because it's a chromatic passage or if it's because there really is a key change but the composer chose not to change the actual key signature. Often times that's the case and noting it is enough to allow me to breathe more easily and not freak out quite as much. If it is a really chromatic passage I tell myself that some interesting things might happen and that my goal will be to keep the pulse and make it through. 
If there's a a passage with a lot of notes that intimidate me, or a cadenza-like passage with lots and lots of tiny notes that don't seem to stop, I look for patterns. Almost always they are there to be found; arpeggios, scalar motives, or other types of motives. Finding these can help structure the section so that I have some sort of guide to improvise around since in those types of passages, being note perfect is not the goal. It's more important instead to get the gist across without a lot of fuss and stress. Easier said than done, I realize. 
And last but not least...

Question 7: Are there any repeats?
There are two reasons why I like to look out for these. Repeats can be handy because they can give me an opportunity to give a section another go. Of course I can also choose to ignore them when things aren't going as well. There are first and second repeats, da capos or dal segnos where you return either to the beginning of the piece or to a specific sign, and there are also codas. If I'm not aware of these before I start they really can cause a lot of stress, especially if I'm sightreading with someone else. It's always good to know the general roadmap. 
So there are my tips for you! Happy sightreading and come back next week to get some tips on how to approach sightreading once you've started playing!

To read part II in this series, click here!

If you would like a downloadable PDF of this sightreading prep tips sheet, please check out my Patreon site. For only $3 a month you can have access to downloadables such as this one. For $10 or more a month you'll have access to all the downloadables I post, including practice tips. You'll also be helping to support me in my quest to make practicing more accessible, interesting, and effective for everyone!