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 30, 2010

Twitter is not just for the birds

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I am addicted to Twitter.  Really, truly, I am.  

A year ago I would have never predicted that I would write a blog post about this most poetic form of social media.  I first stuck my toe into the Twitterverse in an effort to help my husband figure it all out since someone at his work was suggesting that Twitter was the up-and-coming way to network.  Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, I haven't encountered many other folks from my husband's workplace in my twitter encounters.  But I have certainly found myself knee-deep in a most extraordinary virtual world that has captured my attention in many fabulous ways and that is transforming, yes that's what I said, transforming my life in a very multi-dimensional way.

Don't believe me?  Then read on.  Here is my list of reasons for why I think Twitter is not just for the birds.  And to help any non-initiated readers get a taste of what tweets are like, I've written this list a-la-Twitter.

Tweet 1: The Twitterverse can be a very optimistic and encouraging place to be.  
Since I have been relatively selective in who I follow and take the time to "unfollow" anyone that is tweeting anything offensive, negative, or rude, I find that just about any time I drop in, I find myself smiling and humming a happy tune.

Tweet 2: Most tweeps (twitterers) in Twitterland follow the same rules of etiquette that is taught in kindergarten.
The golden rule, saying thank you all of the time, respecting one another's privacy...although it seems like these should be a given, out in the real world we all have experienced a lack of decorum here and there, or maybe even the majority of the time.  Bit in Twitterland I have been shocked, amazed, and touched by the incredible politeness that pervades its users.  This reinstills in me every day the joy that comes from being a good, decent human being.

Tweet 3: There is a lot of humor to be found in Twitterland.
Perhaps it takes a sense of humor to be willing to try Twitter in the first place.  That's partly how I got started.  I was actually determined to prove that Twitter was ridiculous and found it quite amusing to try and succeed in that vein.  Alas, the joke was on me, I guess, and now I'm along for the ride each and every day.

Tweet 4: There is something powerful about the support one can get in Twitterland.
Possibly because most of the people I follow and that follow me are people I have never met in person and that have no real obligation towards me, I am constantly awestruck by the support that I get on Twitter.  If I have a problem, I go to Twitter.  If I am discouraged, I go to Twitter.  If I need get the picture.  And even if I ask a crazy question, I usually get an answer...almost instantly.  I find it mind boggling that people I don't really know care about what I'm doing and who I am, whether it's the cellist-me that's tweeting, the pianist-me, the mommy musician-me, the wife-me...there's support there for every facet of me.  

Tweet 5: My tweeps give me a constant stream of videos to watch, sound files to listen to, people to pay attention to.  
I have always felt like I never have time to listen to music and to be learning about new performers, old performers, composers, etc...But now, as I go through the many tweets that are tweeted by my tweeps (Twitter friends), I pick up clip after clip, new person after new person.  There are tweeps like @pnoman, the director of an International Piano Festival out in Portland, Oregon, that is constantly tweeting about famous pianists both living and dead.  Often, those tweets include links to youtube videos.  I have learned about more pianists in the past year via Harold Gray (@pnoman) than I did in all of my years in school.  Now that's not any comment on my education, it's just an example of how much Twitter can be an education.  I can even relive those famous drop-the-needle tests that I had in school, where a short clip of music is played and we are to figure out what piece of music the clip is from and who wrote it.  Every Wednesday, Grant Charles Chaput (@GCComposer) posts a quiz on his incredible website, Killing Classical Music.  It's really quite fun! Wait, I just got an idea - maybe Twitter should start giving out degrees?  Hmmm...

Tweet 6: Twitter gives me instant access to many interesting musicians of all levels and all ages.
I regularly tweet with many pianists that have performing careers around the world and the discussions that we sometimes have are fascinating.  It is also fun to tweet with them about everyday things, some of which have nothing to do with music.  Twitter makes everyone more normal, more real somehow and I find that so refreshing.  And there are some musicians that are currently in music school that for some reason or another, enjoy tweeting with me.  Even though most of them know I'm not a concert pianist travelling all over the world, performing with the cream of the crop, I think they enjoy interacting with me and sometimes even asking for advice on fingerings or repertoire.  It's a bit surreal but I'll take it!  And recently there was an interesting day that was called "Ask a Conductor" day in which conductors of orchestras both big and small, asked questions of one another and other non-conductor types asked the conductors questions.  It lasted, I think, all day and was quite interesting to observe.

Tweet 7: Twitter gives me an instant, global view of what is happening in the music world.
We live in a small town where not a whole lot happens that rocks the classical music world.  B.T. (Before Twitter) I used to dream up ideas of things I could do to help increase the classical music fan club and I often wondered if someone else was already doing those things elsewhere. At the time, there really wasn't an easy way to find out that out.  A.T. (After Twitter) I can now find out what's going on all over the world.  I follow the New York Times Arts Department, for example, so I read fascinating reviews and articles there.  And during this past summer, I experienced the Proms in London for the first time.  I didn't even know what the Proms were, at least not the UK version of proms.  It lead me into a fascinating discussion between a follower in Canada and another in the UK about how differently different countries and governments view the arts.  It was eye-opening, inspiring, and frustrating all at the same time.  But that was good, very good.  

Tweet 8: Because I follow folks with whom I share many interests and views, I am constantly receiving links to articles that more often than not, strike a chord with me.
Similar to Tweet 4, my education is further fueled by the many interesting links to blog posts, journal articles, and webpages.  It's amazing to me how many tweeps I follow also write incredible blogs.  But perhaps it really isn't that amazing.  After all, I'm finding that Twitter really can be a place for thinkers, doers, and dreamers and it's those types of people that also tend to write a lot.  How wonderful!  Again, it's instant information at my fingertips.  It's like opening the world up with each tweet being read.  OK, I admit, not every tweet is educational.  That's true.  But you would be surprised, I think, about how much of it is.  

Tweet 9: Twitter enables me to have conversations with like-minded (or not like-minded) individuals that I don't feel I could have by walking down the street here in small-town USA.  
Funny conversations, enlightening conversations, inspiring conversations, educational name it.  In tweeting with some folks tonight about the difference between Facebook and Twitter, one of my tweeps stated that Twitter is a conversation whereas Facebook is mostly just status-postings.  I feel the same way.  It is quite rare that I get into any sort of serious discussion on Facebook which is quite odd when you consider the 140-character limit that Twitter places on its users.  But twitterers somehow seem to manage just fine.  In fact, I've found that it can be enlightening to have to try and pare down your thoughts into a tweet or two - quite the feat if you're someone like me, who tends to write long blog posts! (Ahem...)

Tweet 10: Twitter inspires interesting projects and collaborations
Through Twitter I have partnered up with a pianist in the UK, (you can follow Yukie (@yukiest) and I  at @MusicalPinC, an abbreviation for Musical Partners in Crime) putting together recordings of piano duets that we've each recorded on our own side of the pond and merged to create one recording.  I have discovered a wonderful young composer (@DanielBarkley) over in Northern Ireland and I'm currently learning one of his solo piano pieces, and hopefully another soon.  A possible recording and collaboration is in the works with clarinetist Marion Harrington (@MazzaClarinet), who currently lives in Spain.  I have connected and worked with Greg Sandow (@GSandow), a critic, composer, journalist, and writer that is currently working on a book about the future of classical music.  Seeing him work and think has been an education and a wonderful experience. There are many other fun things in the works thanks to Twitter that I could never have dreamed up myself!

So there you have tweets about tweets.  I'm sorry I didn't confine myself to 140 characters for this blog post.  I guess you'll just have to meet me on Twitter to see the more succinct-me :-)  Go know you want to.  Just click on this cute little birdie button to get started.  It won't hurt.  Promise.
Follow ericasipes on Twitter

Happy Tweeting!  
And practicing, of course!!

For more posts about Twitter and tweeting, here are some other posts:
What to do with this thing called Twitter
Making heads or tails out of Twitter

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Look before you play - a sleuthful approach to learning music

Photo by Johanson, from Wikimedia 
Ah...the joy of being at the crossroads between endings and beginnings. A lot of music has been learned, rehearsed, and performed these past few months so it's time to begin anew with a completely different batch of musical projects. I do love finding myself in this place, when every new project is full of anticipation and excitement. But it can also be a bit of a scary, intimidating place too. My husband started all this fun a few days ago when he brought home some music I need to learn for his next recital. The first piece I cracked open was Wolf's song, "Der Soldat II (The Solider II)." Here's what I saw (please do click on the image if you really want to get the full effect):

And here are my uncensored thoughts that came to me when I looked at it:
  • Oh man, 5 flats?!
  • Are those double-flats I see all over the place?!
  • Octaves?!
  • Octaves and double-flats at the same time?!
  • I hope this is slow...oh says "eilig" and "heftig" what does that mean? Oh great, it means "urgent" and "driving."
  • Oh no! (accompanied by a racing heart and my throat immediately constricting)

Now what? Well, as with most new music that I get, I decided to stop panicking and to practice what I preach which is to look before I play, to figure it all out before falling into the trap of random, unorganized, slightly or fully desperate music cramming. Here's how I went about learning the music.

Working backwards (I always work backwards), I started with the final 3 measures, asking myself, "What do I see?"

  1. The second-to-last measure is a 3-note pattern, starting on the second eighth note, on D-flat. Each statement is one octave higher and the hands alternate, left-right-left.
  2. Last two chords are made up of the same notes (a B-flat minor chord) but in different inversions & in different hands.  First chord is sforzando and the last one triple piano.
  3. Leading up to the 3-note pattern are repeated Fs that start right after the second beat and that diminuendo.

After making these observations, I slowly played each hand separately, at a tempo that enabled me to consciously think through everything I had figured out about the music.  Then I put the hands together and played slowly, in the same engaged way.  After a few times, it was learned and practically memorized.


It's marked fortissimo and it looks a little thick and nasty but...
  1. The left hand and the top voice in the right hand stay the same for the entire first measure.
  2. The line that moves, the bottom voice in the right hand, moves down the chromatic scale.
  3. At the beginning of the second measure, the right hand is still moving down in half-steps but both voices move this time.
  4. In the left hand, the top and bottom voice stays the same while the middle voice moves down a half step to end on a nice dominant 7 chord - how pretty! (Seriously - that is actually part of my thought process!)
This isn't so bad...yet.  Onward! Or rather, backward ho!

No double flats yet, but octaves. Yuck. (I have small hands.)
  1. For this entire 3 bars, the hands are playing in octaves...piece of cake!
  2. Almost entirely chromatic movement being the sneaky little whole step at the end of the second measure...looks like it's going to be a third of some sort but it's not.  Since enharmonic writing can play tricks on me, I chose to write in the A-natural again.  Even taking the time to think this out and write it down can eliminate any confusion later on.
  3. Whenever there are two repeated octaves at the beginning of a set of three eighths in the right hand, the left hand leaves out the second of the two eighths, adding an additional rhythmic element into the mix. I think this helps to propel the music forward.
  4. Not surprisingly, once the chromatic material starts going up, the music is accompanied by a molto crescendo.
Yay! A short easy one...
  1. These two measure are made up of E-flats, F-flats, F-naturals, and G-flats.
  2. It starts with the F-flat octave in the left hand, played piano.
  3. Right hand loudly interrupts at the tail end of the second beat, playing an accented half-note motive that immediately repeats an octave below, in both hands.
  4. Sudden pianissimo follows while both hands remain on F-flat octaves which are repeated until the last eighth note when it goes up chromatically again, with a small crescendo, surprise, surprise!
  5. Entire pattern of the first measure is repeated, but starting this time on G-flat.

Aack! Double-flats! OK, breathe...figure it out.  Are they scales?  
  1. The first scale in the right hand is actually a G-flat minor scale with a chromatic note thrown in at the beginning of the third beat.
  2. The scale in the right hand in the second measure is a F-flat major scale with the chromatic thrown in on the last eighth note of the second beat.  Or since I have that aversion to double-flats, I prefer to think of it as an E major scale.  Ah, E major.  
  3. Not quite sure of a neat and tidy way to explain the left hand although it is pretty straightforward harmonically - no big surprises.
  4. Musically the dynamics make sense again (thanks, Wolf!) with crescendos occurring each measure to accompany the upward-rising scales.
Phew! That's done...all downhill from here...

  1. Right hand moves chromatically again until the last eighth note of the measure which moves up by a whole step (darned double-flats again!)  There is a crescendo on these final rising notes.
  2. Left hand has a bit of its own pattern going on for the first two beats but the beginning of each beat is a tenth away from the right hand octaves.  The subito piano on the second eighth note helps to point that pattern out, at least in my mind.

Double-flats again!  Grrrr...
  1. This time the left hand moves upward chromatically, starting on the second eighth note of the measure and ending at the end of the measure.  The gesture is accompanied yet again by a crescendo.
  2. The right hand uses a repeated dotted-rhythm motive throughout the measure, adding a note in the final two notes of the measure to help lead to the downbeat of the next measure.
  3. In the second measure, both hands have the same dotted rhythm.  Same notes are repeated throughout with some accented chords in the right hand as the main exception.

  1. The first measure looks especially familiar...hmmm...It's exactly the same as the first measure of the previous chunk.  Chromatic scale in the left hand, starting on F and starting right on the first eighth note.  Again, this is accompanied by a crescendo and by dotted-rhythm octaves in the right hand.  An additional note is again thrown in to the octaves on the last beat of the first measure.
  2. Subito pianissimo at the beginning of second measure highlights change in texture and rhythm.  Very basic, simple harmonic structure in this measure.
This measure is basically the same as the second measure of the previous chunk, with the right hand in a different inversion, that's all.

And last but not least...

  1. I'm loving the right hand.  The same thing throughout the first four measures.  I notice what the pattern is and then play it with the right hand alone until I no longer have to think about it.  It's auto-pilot time when it comes to repetitive figures.
  2. In the left hand, the first two measures are identical, starting with mezzo-fortes on the second beat.
  3. The third and fourth measure in the left hand are octaves in the third measure and than one compact crunchy chord in the fourth measure, on the second beat.

Ta-da...Wolf's piece is much more understandable to me.  The notes aren't random anymore and now when I practice, I feel like I'm speaking the composer's language because I've taken the time to study it.  I think it's also important to point out that my analysis is not full of profound theory analysis.  There's no Schenker here, no talk of Roman numerals or anything of that nature, largely because I am not very good with that stuff.  I think anyone can become a music detective, making basic observations such as the ones I've made here, to make sense of the black dots on a page.  

So next time you need to learn a piece of music, try picking up a musical magnifying glass to see what you can find in the music to make some sense of it.  Just as all those crime investigation shows on TV can be addictive, so can musical sleuthing.  And now I close this post with a famous Sherlock Holmes quote, "You know my methods, Watson."

Now run with those methods and have fun!

Happy music learning!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The value and fun in being a sponge-like piano collaborator

There is a lot of value in being a piano collaborator. There are the obvious benefits of course...
  • there are a lot of different types of collaborating one can do
  • it's a decent way to make a living
  • it can be be done part-time or full-time
  • one can work either as a part of an institution or independently
  • it gives a pianist the feeling that he/she has some sort of social life
  • limitless repertoire
  • learning how to work with every type of personality
  • being able to perform without having to deal with the stress of memorizing music or being the center of attention
  • being able to help and support other musicians musically and emotionally
  • working with musicians of all ages and abilities, from the beginner to the professional
But there is one benefit not listed above that I love almost more than any other and that is the opportunity it gives a pianist to be a sponge. 

Image by Pascua Theus, from Wikipedia Commons
Yep, that's right, a sponge.  

Most piano collaborators spend a high percentage of their time in the studios of music teachers and professors.  Some lessons might be more interesting than others, but for the most part I think it's safe to say that if a pianist wants to, he or she can soak up a tremendous amount of information every time the situation involves a coach, teacher, or conductor.  I've learned a lot of really interesting things in such situations, from the basic mechanics of playing many different instruments to musical concepts.  Sometimes I even have somewhat of an out-of-body experience where I actually begin to feel like I could play the other instrument or sing if I wanted to.  If you catch me at the right moment after a voice lesson, you may even hear me vocalizing and trust me, I am not a singer!  I don't even sing in the shower for fear of embarrassing myself.  (It probably doesn't help that I'm married to an excellent singer!) But I almost can't help myself.  The experience of hearing all this fascinating information, which sometimes feels top-secret, of seeing and hearing immediate results, is exhilarating and slightly addictive. 

I've recently had one of these out-of-body, spongelike experiences.  These past few weeks have been filled with rehearsals and lessons in preparation for the local college students' juries.  Every year I seem to end up with a different mix of instrumentalists and singers.  This year I ended up playing for what seemed like an endless stream of flutists.  Now I happen to have a soft spot for the flute because I have loved listening to it all of my life; I even purchased a flute back when I was in high school and then again after I was married because I was so enamored with the flute sound.  This is a completely private experience for me...nobody gets to hear me play except for my tiny family and lovebird and trust me, there will probably never be any videos of me on YouTube.  But after sitting in lesson after lesson recently and after doing some very good impersonations of a sponge, I went home one day really feeling like I would be able to pull my flute out and actually be able to sound like something. I doubt there was any grand transformation when I did, but I do believe that I was able to apply much of what I had learned in those lessons to my own experience of playing the flute.  And that was fun.  It also added inestimable value to the job that I already get a lot of value from.  Can't ask for much more than that!

So piano collaborators, next time you're sitting in a lesson feeling a little bored, a little invisible, make like a sponge and start soaking up as much information as you possibly can.  You never know where it might take you!

Wait, can sponges even move?! Well, whatever.  I think you get my point!

Happy spongifying.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sinuous, slithering sound - Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D sharp minor

Perhaps it's because I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series and because I recently saw the latest installment in the movie theater - I simply can't get the vision of sinuous, slithering snakes out of my mind when it comes to Bach's 8th Prelude and Fugue, in D sharp minor. It probably doesn't help that having to play in this key (6 sharps!) forces the pianist to maneuver in and out of the black keys with a feeling much similar to that of this most-beloved creature. It also doesn't help that the challenge of playing in this key tends to cause my mind to twist and turn and to pull tighter and tighter in upon itself as some snakes do in order to catch their next meal. Sounds a little dramatic, you say? Perhaps, but all I can say is that I can usually only take these pieces in small doses, especially the Prelude. And in case you haven't figured it out, I'm not a big fan of snakes.

But no worries. I may not like snakes and I may not have warm fuzzy feelings for this prelude and fugue set but Bach being Bach, I still find great beauty in this music. The Prelude is a wonderful example of the composer's ease at speaking in counterpoint, with its invention-like feel, 2 voices imitating one another and intertwining in a mathematical but intimate way. It's sort of like the photo of these two snakes. Yes they are snakes, but together, intertwined, they create a moment of great beauty. It speaks to me of the simple joys found in companionship.

Photo by SB_Johnson, from Wikipedia Commons

And the Fugue...this time not just two snakes but rather four, creating an even more intricate fusion of life. And to top it all off, Bach places two voices, the soprano and the tenor, in a mirror image of one another as the final statement of this wonderful fugue.

I can't help but think of the image that is used to represent the medical profession - two snakes wrapping themselves around a staff. What a wonderful, tidy way to put our snakes to rest.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Finding time for playfulness: Bach's E-flat major Prelude and Fugue

Painting by E.G. Haussmann
When I think about Bach's music, I rarely think to describe it as playful. Perhaps it's from looking at those serious portraits of the composer like the one here. Or maybe it's because his music can be unbelievably challenging, especially his finger-twisting fugues - the last thing I think of doing while playing a particularly nasty one is smiling. But I do believe Bach was fully capable of being playful, and spirited, and ebullient. He was, after all, a father to 20 children. I imagine there was quite a lot of laughter to be found in his home, and I also am guessing, thanks to this E-flat major Prelude, that there was also plenty of teasing, taunting, and childish terrorizing that went on.

Every time I hear or play this particular prelude, I can't help but think of a little teasing game my own family plays from time to time. In our household, we are very, very good at being serious, perhaps too serious. We are also good at being dramatic, usually choosing to air on the side of being melodramatic, of course. Well, when one of us notices what's happening, that we're all being swept down the river of pessimism and grumbles, he or she will say, "OK, that's it. Today is a very, very serious day. Nobody laugh. Nobody smile. Wait...what's that I see? Do I see the corners of your mouth starting to turn up?" We continue in this vain until we all burst out laughing or smiling. It never fails.

I think Bach and his family could have shared the same strategy. The prelude starts off happy enough but after a few lines, it seems to make a turn toward the more serious. This is where the play begins. He starts by alternating short, descending, laughing motives in the right hand - "Now don't laugh." This is followed up with a more serious, ascending, whining motive - "You must be serious." . After a couple of these exchanges, Bach starts into a hilarious sequence of material that repeats numerous times with what sounds like hiccuping, or laughing, or teasing in the left hand. At first the intervals he uses are sevenths but then in the last four measures of the sequence, the left hand plays 9ths - a very wide and odd interval, especially to be repeated over and over again, and especially in a piece by Bach. If he had simply bumped the second notes of the two-note hiccups up an octave, these motives would have sounded perfectly normal. If Bach could join in my family's little jibing session, I think he would have used this to break us down, sending us into fits of giggles.

It works for me. What follows is one last struggle to keep drama in the picture which quickly fails and leaves me in a much lighter mood for the rest of the piece.

The E-flat major fugue, for me, is the contentedness that follows after such a silly family moment. With a renewed, more optimistic perspective on life again, the fugue is almost entirely free of drama or angst. And with surprisingly few subject entries, there is a lot of room for musical strolling, with no concern for the expectations or protocol expected with a fugue. But Bach doesn't forget playfulness all-together in this fugue. There are a handful of subjects in which the rhythm at the beginning is altered just slightly, changing the first note from a whole note to a half-note and transforming that one note into an upbeat.

Perhaps that's a subtle, slight tease that Bach throws in there, just to make sure we're listening...

...and smiling.

Other posts in this series:

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Musical Thanksgiving Day Revelation (or two)

I have spent the past week mostly separated from music as my family has been on vacation; hours and hours sitting in the car, listening to and watching Barbie movies over and over again (this time it has been her Fashion Fairytale), bouncing from hotel to hotel, constantly looking for whichever item my daughter has temporarily misplaced in the black holes that are our suitcases, visiting with family.  It's always good to have a break from every day life but it is also challenging for me to maintain any semblance of sanity so far away from my piano.  Sounds crazy, I know, and perhaps a bit on the pathetic side, but I often find myself longing for the touch of my warm piano keys that have history trapped in the swirly lines of their ivory fingerprints.  I miss the complex sounds that I can summon from the instrument, the puzzling over musical phrases, the hypnotic and meditative state of mind that comes from living in Bach's music on a daily basis.

I was musing on such thoughts a bit yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, perhaps because music is something I am most thankful for but I was caught off guard when that silent, private musing became quite public. And it was in the moment I am about to describe that I encountered my Thanksgiving Day Revelation (or two).

We were at my sister-in-law's house, surrounded by lots of family. We were in our post-meal recovery period and my daughter and I had just finished watching, again, Barbie's Fashion Fairytale. We went and joined the women of the family at the dining room table who were busy coloring in coloring books. (Yes, adult women all coloring...really quite a fantastic way to pass the time in a lovely way.) While we were coloring, my mother-in-law inquired about a CD that our daughter listens to at bedtime every night. It is a CD that my husband and I made of a concert we put together for my daughter's classroom. She mentioned that although my daughter only listened to Mozart's piano variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" (aka "Twinkle Twinkle") at night, they had listened to the entire CD while they were taking care of her for a few days and really enjoyed it. She asked if she could have a copy for themselves. This request wasn't so surprising since my husband's mother is a wonderfully supportive, inquisitive, and sentimental woman. What surprised me was that this request turned into more than a request, it turned into a moment of musical sharing.

After finding the CD, we brought it over to the dining room table and put it in the computer to play. We started, of course, with the Mozart variations. When that came to an end, however, another guest asked, "Is that all?" Being the shy person I am, I felt like saying "yes" but I replied with the truth, that there were several more songs. We ended up listening through the entire CD (which isn't that long) and it is here that the revelation comes into play. Growing up as a musician that plays classical music has been interesting because for the most part, I was always in the minority when it comes to what music I feel most connected to. As a result, I tend to be a bit on the shy side when it comes to presenting the music I play, especially when it's a recording that isn't recording-studio perfect. But in this situation I didn't say anything at all before playing the recording - I didn't apologize, didn't make excuses, didn't explain anything about the pieces. And what happened? We had a bunch of women listening to music that they didn't all know, smiling, and humming along. They weren't classical music buffs, they were young and old, they were enjoying listening to the music I love so much. And did they hear the foibles, the passages that weren't as expressive, the blemishes? I don't believe they did. They were listening for music, not for imperfection.

They were listening for music, not for imperfection.

I was also reminded that sometimes the best musical moments aren't in the concert hall.  That they can occur anywhere, anytime.  What an incredible truth and one that I find incredibly exciting.  It makes me think of the many flash-mob performances and random acts of culture that have been going on around the country and the world lately, where folks break out into music in the middle of every day life, in every day places.  And what I'm finding out is that it's hard, in such situations, to find a person who isn't smiling, who isn't enjoying the music.

So there you have it.  That is my Thanksgiving Day Revelation (or two) and for the experience of encountering them, I am grateful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

With echoes of the cimbalom dancing in my head

Photo by libito at fr. wikipedia
Many, many years ago, when I played the cello in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, we performed Kodaly's colorful and raucous Háry János Suite.  I remember being awestruck watching the percussion section go to town with their parts, of being hit with an unbelievable wave of sound coming from the brass section.  Most of all, however, I remember the cimbalom player that took center stage for two of the six movements.  The cimbalom's sound enchanted me and the merging of a more folksy sound with the traditional orchestral sound opened up a new world for me aurally.  I never fail to grin from ear to ear the moment I hear the suite's opening chord and subsequent glissandi up and down the orchestra and the piano.  It is just so much fun and unabashedly so.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then, that when I was recently asked if I could cover the piano part in our community's orchestra concert, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down with joy and anticipation - OF COURSE!!  Yippee!!!  

But there was one slight problem.  After saying yes to the conductor, he handed me not one part but two parts.  The second part was the cimbalom part.  He wondered if I'd be willing to cover that too on the piano.  Well, what was I supposed to say?  I couldn't exactly imagine that fantastic part played on the piano but at the same time I imagined that it probably isn't easy to find a cimbalom player and there's that other inconvenient issue of money.  So I walked away with the two parts in my hand, mostly still ecstatic, but also feeling the stubborn side of myself starting to rise to the surface.

Well, the stubborn side won out - I decided that I had to at least try and find a way to give people in the orchestra and in the audience just a taste of what the cimbalom is all about. In the end, after some scrounging around in our garage, I settled on using long strips of welded-wire fencing that I placed on top of the strings. With the sustaining pedal depressed just a bit, this wire buzzing again the strings produced enough of a percussive, twangy sound to be acceptable. I have to say it was a lot of fun to watch the reaction from the orchestra members when I first started playing the prepared piano during rehearsal. It brought an element of surprise and of play to the experience which is what I wanted. It also made the cimbalom part stand out from the rest of the time, when the piano really was a piano.

Here's a little informal recording that I made of what welded-wire fencing in a piano sounds like.  If I get my hands on the recording the school made of the concert, I'll try and post clips of it here too so that you can hear it in contrast to the orchestra.

So there you have very inexpensive solution to playing the cimbalom when you don't have a cimbalom or a cimbalom player. Oh, and before I get any nasty comments from horrified piano technicians out there, I must tell you that I did run this idea by a certified piano technician prior to the welded-wire fencing debut. He said that as long as you don't put them on the wound bass strings and as long as there is no danger of the wire slipping through the strings it is perfectly safe.

And if this whole prepared piano thing interests you, here is a story that showed up on National Public Radio just this past weekend. But I warn you, if you watch this, you may get caught by the experimental piano bug!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The art of collaborating and accompanying by ear

I fear this post might be a little controversial and that some people are going to flat-out disagree with me. Lately I've been giving it a lot of thought though, and I have been secretly conducting some of my own experiments to test my hypothesis. The results are now in.

So what is my hypothesis?

When collaborating with another musician or with a group of musicians, sometimes it's better to play by ear rather than by sight.

Now I'm not talking about the act of reading music versus improvising and playing by ear - those are good topics for some other post. I'm talking about the tasks that are so important in collaborating and accompanying - playing the piano part so that it lines up accurately with another player; giving space within the music to allow for breaths and difficult shifts; anticipating when a note is going to sound on an instrument such as the bassoon or french horn. When I first started trying to improve my accompanying skills, I was frequently told in coaching and lessons, "Look up, watch what the other person is doing." That makes perfect sense and it is definitely preferable to burying my head in the score and in my own playing. But at least for me, what I've discovered is that I actually coordinate better with another musician when I don't look at them. When I look at them, I am more often than not a hair late, which delays and slows down the music ever so slightly. In time, this can actually slow the tempo and hinder the forward-flowing movement that phrases usually take. When I don't look at the other musician or musicians at all, it is almost as if I am in the mind and breath of the other person. There is no question of when I should play or not play.

How can this be?

I have a feeling it has to do with the way our senses compensate for one another when one sense is taken away. Doing a quick search on google on this theory reveals that there's a lot of debate about whether or not someone that is blind has a more heightened sense of hearing. So I'm definitely not going to claim any of my observations prove anything scientific and biological. But speaking from experience, when I choose to shut off my visual perception of a player, I can hear so much more. I can hear the intakes of breath, the sound of their lips meeting to form the beginning of a word, the sound of a bow slowly letting up on a string. It forces me to live in the other musician and create a more natural and accurate response.

Now there's one problem I see with my discovery. One of the things I love about watching musicians play with one another is the eye contact and communication that can occur. When I watch a quartet whose players never communicate visually, I feel let-down and bored because there's a lack of intensity and musicality whereas when there's a group that frequently shows some sort of connection physically, I am drawn into the performance and it's almost as if I too am a performer in the group. So following my hypothesis, how can I combine the positive aspects of visual communication with the fact that I tend to play better when I rely more on my ear than my eyes?

What I've been doing lately is looking up at whoever I'm playing with but doing so not in order to play more accurately with them. It's almost as if I'm looking up for an emotional connection while at the same time shutting off any visual information that is going to my brain. At the same time I try to heighten my sense of hearing so that I'm hearing sounds that virtually inaudible. I find that in doing this, I am much more alert, much more sensitive, and much more attuned to whoever I'm playing with. When I can do this successfully, when I can sense that I am playing music almost from within the other person, I can't stop myself from looking up now and then to give a communicative glance. And for me, it's those glances that can tell those around me that I am there with them and that I'm loving every moment.

So the next time you're playing music with someone else, give your ears a chance to shine.  You may find that you're not just following anymore, you're singing and playing with the other person instead.  And in my experience, that makes for some incredible music-making experiences.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dealing with stage-fright by taking a cue from your audience

Photo by Andrew Brown, from Wikipedia Commons


We all know about stage-fright. It's that tight knot in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the frigid hands and fingers, the constant sense that you need to go to the bathroom, the incessant yawns, the trembling hands, that makes it clear that the anxiety monster is comfortably perched on your shoulder. Stage-fright can be overwhelmingly omnipresent, filling up your mind and soul so much that there is no room for what the audience has come to experience. Stage-fright can make all of your hours of hard work seem like a waste of time.

So what can we do? How can we flick that ugly little guy off our shoulder?

Before I walk out onto the stage I ask myself the following two questions:

What is the worst thing that could possibly happen?
Why are the audience members here? What do they want from this experience?

To answer these questions, I routinely have a conversation with myself. Essentially the same from one performance to another, it's something that I've worked out in the past few years as I've gotten back into performing more. This internal dialogue is between the eternal optimist side of myself and the worrywart side. If you're reading this post, my guess is that you are familiar with these two personalities.  Here's how it goes...

Eternal optimist: So, what are you so nervous about this time?
Worrywart: I'm worried that I'm going to make a mistake...a big mistake.
Eternal optimist: Ah, that's original. Well of course you're going to make a mistake. It's virtually, and possibly even impossible to deliver a perfect performance. So yes, you are going to make a mistake. You may even make several. So what?
Worrywart: Well, so I'm worried that then people are going to think less of me. And I've worked so hard for this recital. I want them to see that. If I do make a mistake, I want them to know that I know I've made a mistake and am mad at myself about that. 
Eternal optimist: Hmmm...that's interesting.  You have worked really hard which means you're also very ready to deliver this performance.  But when the inevitable mistake occurs and you choose to show them that by your contorted facial expressions, do you really think they're going to disrupt their listening to think back to the mistake you made seconds ago?  Do you really think they are going to care? And more importantly, do you think they even noticed that mistake in the first place? 
Worrywart: Hmmmm...well, if they know the music well they would probably know that I made a mistake. 
Eternal optimist: OK, that's possibly true for literally a couple people in the audience but that means they are musicians too and know that mistakes here and there are inevitable.  So what's the problem?  Here's another question - why are these people in the audience?
Worrywart: Well, my teacher is here because he has to be. Same with my friends and family. But the others are here because they enjoy listening and watching music being played. Maybe some of them want to escape from life for a while. And some folks might just be kind of bored and want something to do. 
Eternal optimist: So in other words, they haven't come to see if you can deliver a note-perfect performance?
Worrywart: I guess not. I guess they are just here to enjoy some good music and to be supportive of me.
Eternal optimist: And why are you here? Why are you a musician?
Worrywart: I'm here because I have to be here. But also because I love this music. I love to share it with other people and to allow others to get to know me through my music-making.
Eternal optimist: That's great! So you want to share great music and give the audience a glimpse of who you are; the audience wants to hear great music and learn more about you through your music-making. Where do mistakes fit into this grand scheme of things?
Worrywart: I guess nowhere, really. Unless I make it an issue.
Eternal optimist: Exactly. Don't make it an issue. You are going to make a mistake or two but treat those mistakes as the majority of the audience will - with no thought at all. Move on...keep listening to the wonderful music...keep enjoying the music...keep playing the music. Don't look back because that's not what the audience is doing.
Worrywart: Hmmm...OK, I think I can do that. Thanks!

I make a tradition of going through conversations such as this one before any performance of mine, usually in the moments right before I go out on the stage. And sometimes, if mistakes are a-plenty in a given performance, I revisit the conversation while I'm actually performing. It's well-worth the time and can turn performing into an enjoyable, fulfilling experience rather than a frightful, discouraging one.

Happy Conversing with yourself!  And more importantly, Happy Performing!!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The art of not playing by memory

Image taken by Marga Serrano, from Wikimedia.
OK, I'm going to admit right here and now that one reason I am a collaborator, as opposed to being a piano soloist, is because playing by memory freaks me out. In this role, I don't have to worry about being questioned about why I am using music. As the pianist, it is my job to keep things held together when someone I'm performing with, who is often playing by memory, has a momentary, or not-so-momentary brain blip. Having the musical road map in front of me is, therefore, a given.

But here's a problem with not playing by memory...

What happens when I have the music right in front of me yet I persist in making numerous mistakes, sometimes even losing my place? What can I possibly say to explain why I can't not play by memory? Honestly, it's kind of embarrassing.

I've recently found myself in this very odd place as a collaborator. I have found reading music, especially during a performance, unusually challenging these past few months. And for someone who has always excelled at sightreading music, it has felt like someone has pulled the rug out from under me. It had even gotten to the point that I was starting to feel nervous about performing. I had to figure something out before my fear starting spiraling out of control.

So what was going on? How could I get over this hump? Or was it even a hump to get over? Maybe this problem was simply a symptom of getting older (gasp!)

Fortunately, I don't believe my aging mind and eyes were the culprit, at least not at a significant level. Here is what I discovered and how I'm working to reverse my downward slide.

State-of-mind: I have been dealing with the odd state-of-mind that I find myself in when I have basically memorized the music but still have it in front of me.  I find it exhilarating to know a piece so well that it is completely internalized.  Combined with the adrenalin that comes with performing, the experience can be even more exhilarating, almost to the point that I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience.  But the fact is, especially when I'm playing with others, I rarely have everything completely memorized.  I never set out intentionally to memorize the music and as I mentioned earlier, I don't have a whole lot of confidence in my memory.  So if I'm experiencing one of these sensational memory euphorias (or so I think), and I am shocked into reality by some distraction or wrong note, I look up at the music and find myself completely lost.  I don't know where to look, I momentarily forget what key I'm in, etc...
  • Solution? I remember a mentor of mine in college, Jean  Barr,  repeatedly reminding me, "Keep reading, Erica, keep reading!"  It seems like such a redundant thing to say, but obviously I need to hear it on a regular basis.  It is easy to take my eyes off the music when I'm really into a performance but doing so can be risky.  So I need to keep Dr. Barr's tape playing in my head..."Keep reading, Erica, keep reading!" 

State-of-the-eyes: At performances, in an effort to keep my eyes on the music, I often forget to blink my eyes.  Pretty quickly my eyes start clouding over, making it virtually impossible to focus and to see the notes on the page.
  • Solution? This problem has two easy solutions.  First, I went to the drugstore and got some good eyedrops that actually re-coat my eyes with moisture every time I blink.  And the second solution - I constantly remind myself to blink my eyes.  When I get to a rest in the music or an easier section, I tell myself, "Blink!" 
Looking down at the keys: This is slightly embarrassing, but in spite of what I preach to others, that you should try not to look down at your hands, I had fallen into the bad habit of doing just that.  To expect my brain to be able to process all those factors - the geography of the keyboard, the notes and indications on the page, the music in my head, the music that the other musician is producing - it's too much.  It's no wonder that my brain kept blowing a fuse!
  • Solution? Stop looking down at the keyboard!  Pretty simple.  
So that's what I discovered.  After purposefully practicing these three things and incorporating them into my practice and rehearsals, I think I'm back on track.  It seems a bit silly to practice blinking and to practice keeping my eyes on the music, but if in the end it helps, who am I to criticize?  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tweetable Winterreise

In case you hadn't already figured this out, I am just a wee bit addicted to twitter. I'm not going to try too hard to convince folks that it really is a whole new world and one worth exploring because twitter is one of those things you have to experience and live with for a while to really get what it's all about.

So what does twitter have to do with Schubert's "Winterreise?" Twitter gave me an idea. What if I came up with a twitter-length summary (140 characters or less) of each of the songs in the song-cycle? I could have them printed up and available, along with or instead of the typical packet of translations that are handed out at a voice recital. Would this help some people to experience the song-cycle in a different way?

I guess I'm about to find out.

Over the past few days I have been working through the cycle, coming up with tweetable summaries of each song. It's been pretty fun, actually, and it was a good exercise for me to be able to distill the essence of each song into a short sentence or two. It also helped me to get an overview of the whole cycle since I decided to create a bit of a narrative to go along with the music. Now I realize that there may be people out there that oppose my approach. They may say that the songs are out of order from how the poems were first presented (true), that Schubert and Müller never intended there to be a storyline (possibly true)...I'm sure there are other problems with my interpretation. But my aim is not to be historically accurate. My aim is to simply make this incredible song-cycle more accessible and easier to follow for people that have never experienced this piece before.

I would also like to say that the last summary, the one for "The Organ-Grinder," was actually submitted by a twitter friend, @proxli. Another friend, @gaspsiagore, suggested that I open up the floor to other tweeps (people who tweet) for the final song. We had several entries but @proxli's came closest to my style. (See what fun we twitterers have?)

So without further ado, here is my tweetable Winterreise. Enjoy!
  1. Goodnight - A traveling horn player bids farewell to the village where he has been living and to his beloved, who has since dumped him for another.
  2. The Weathervane - Looking back, he scolds himself for not seeing the symbolism of the weathervane on his beloved's house - both love and wind can change direction.
  3. Frozen Tears - As he walks he is confused by the tears falling down his cheeks.  How can tears burning so hot from his heart turn into frozen tears?
  4. Numbness - Realizing that his love affair is over, he desperately searches for a memento but finds only her image etched in the ice and in his heart.
  5. The Linden Tree - He remembers a significant tree where once he carved their names but that now haunts his journey, calling him back to find peace once again.
  6. Flood - Tired of watching his tears fall into the snow, he asks the snow to take his tears and flow past his beloved's house when it melts in the spring.  
  7. On the River - At a frozen river he sees a reflection of his own life in the ice - what once flowed freely is now forced to live in an icy prison. 
  8. Backwards Glance - Boiling over in anger and despair, he compares his arrival at his beloved's village to his wretched departure yet he still wishes to return.
  9. Will-O'-the-Wisp - Lured down a rocky chasm by a real or imagined illusion, he fights the urge to panic, calmly choosing another way, one that will end his sorrow.
  10. Rest - After finding a place to stay for the night, he struggles to fall asleep as his utter exhaustion battles with his tempestuous heart.
  11. Dream of Spring - Finally asleep he dreams of spring and his beloved only to be rudely awakened by roosters and ravens.  Is nature mocking him?
  12. Loneliness - Despair and loneliness are now second nature to this wanderer.  What once was lovely is now wretched.
  13. The Post - With the sound of a mailman's posthorn his heart takes a sudden leap, hoping to find a letter from his beloved.  No luck. 
  14. The Grey Head - Seeing his frost-covered hair he rejoices. When the frost melts, he laments.  How can he still be so young after such a journey?
  15. The Crow - After being followed by a crow throughout his journey, he addresses it, asking if he will be the faithful one to accompany him to the grave.
  16. Last Hope - Resting beneath a tree he spots a single leaf still attached.  When it trembles, he trembles.  If it falls, his hope falls with it.
  17. In the Village - Fighting off sleep, he laughs at man and his petty dreams.  Although he asks the dogs to keep him from dreams that end in tears, sleep wins.
  18. Stormy Morning - Surrounded by a fierce morning storm, the wanderer revels in the violence and drama of the skies that reflect his own emotions.
  19. Illusion - Faced with a taunting illusion, he gives in and follows its lead, knowing that only in this illusion will he experience what he truly longs for.
  20. The Signpost - After taking unmarked paths throughout his lonely journey, he faces one last signpost that points toward death.  He follows.
  21. The Inn - Arriving at a graveyard, he earnestly hopes he has found a place to rest but he is turned away before he can collapse - no vacancy here.
  22. Courage - Forced back on the road again, he embraces a final surge of defiance - if there is no god on earth, then man is god instead!
  23. The Three Suns - This journey began with three suns in the sky: one faded with his beloved, one faded in defiance of God.  If only the last would set...
  24. The Hurdy-Gurdy Man - He meets a strange hurdy-gurdy player that no one else wants to see or hear.  Will he lay his songs to rest with him?

Monday, October 11, 2010

A few more words about Winterreise

As I have been working on this Winterreise project I have come across so many wonderful videos, recordings, and webpages. Since I didn't find a place for all of them in my previous blog posts I thought now would be a good time to share some of them with you.

Here are some interesting webpages with a brief description of each:

I also spent a lot of time on youtube and on my channel I have put together several playlists that I thought might be helpful or interesting.

Here are some videos that I find interesting or funny as well. First are clips from two dance interpretations:

And in spite of youtube's title being incorrect, here is an interesting interpretation of the final song, "Der Leiermann (The Organ-grinder):

The following one is especially in honor of my father, who played the guitar while I was growing up:

Last but not least, here are two hilarious videos created by a group called "The Three Pianos."

With all this said, I want to re-invite everyone to our performance of this incredible song-cycle this coming Friday evening.

Friday, October 15, at 8pm
Recital Salon in the Squire's Student Center
Campus of Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA

We'd love to see you there!

Friday, October 1, 2010

What remains: "Der Leiermann (The Organ-grinder)"

Eugène Atget, via Wikipedia
I realize after writing my previous post, that many folks might disagree with me about my interpretation of "Die Nebensonnen," that I see that song as being our protagonist's final breath.  That's OK with me.  I set off on this blogging project because I wanted to give myself a reason to really immerse myself in this song-cycle.  I wanted to take the time needed to be able to have my own movie running in my head while performing the cycle.  And along the way, if even just one person reading these posts decided to sit down and listen through the entire cycle sometime, I will feel like it was all worth it.  So I am content with being stubborn.  

So with all that said, and bearing in mind that I believe our dear friend is no longer with us, what is the last song of Winterreise, "Der Leiermann (The Organ-grinder), all about? What is its purpose?

In my interpretation, this song is all about the continuity of life. Many folks see the organ-grinder as representing death. Well, stubborn me, I see him representing life instead. In spite of all that is around him, the snow and the ice, the fact nobody acknowledges his existence, he plays his music and never ceases. And what if our friend has died? Is this song a lament for his death? I don't personally get that sense. It seems that he was completely alone when he died, except for us, that is.  To me this song is a reminder that life goes on and it's our choice to pick up our things and move on, as our friend did himself, or to walk down some other path that so many others seem to choose.

So what's it going to be?

I want to close this post and this series with a most touching version of "Der Leiermann." I discovered it last week as I was looking around on youtube. It is a perfect example of how this song has touched other people's lives.

And here is Sting, performing his own interpretation in a live performance.  The song is right at the beginning of the clip and then goes onto something else:

Finally, here is Ian Bostridge and Julius to close out the cycle. Again, stunning.

That it is all I have to say.
Thank you for sharing this journey with me.
It has been an honor.

And if any of you have any thoughts, stories, recordings, or videos to share, I would love to hear about them.


Added later: National Public Radio had a series that explored peoples' favorite winter songs and Der Leiermann was on the list.  Listen to this interview with dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones to hear this moving, chilling story.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:
One final breath: "Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns)"