My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A dare for college piano departments

Previously on my blog, I wrote a post encouraging teachers to help young pianists take on a broader view of what being a pianist can actually mean in the real world.  I mentioned several other ways one can use their piano skills - as a choral accompanist, collaborator, ballet pianist, musical theater pianist, vocal coach, symphony pianist...I know I'm leaving someone out...As I see it, however, there's a slight problem.  Actually, it's not a small problem - it's a pretty big problem.  In order to be successful in any of these types of jobs, you have to be able to sightread music fluently and just as with any language, learning to sightread music is not as easily done in later years as it is when the brain is more pliable.  Although some teachers of young pianists do spend time with their students working on this skill, I believe many others do not.  I do understand that time is short and that it must be very difficult to fit in so many different skills into such a short amount of time; however, especially for those students who seem like they might continue on to music school someday, I think it is imperative that sightreading be a regular part of the learning process.

So where does my dare come in?  Here goes...I dare college piano departments to start making piano sightreading a part of the entrance examination process.  I think it would be a fantastic idea for several reasons...

  • listening to a student sightread would instantly tell the piano faculty who was naturally musical and who was not, thereby eliminating a lot of grief later on.  It can be so hard to tell how musical some of these kids are when they come in to audition playing pieces that they've been playing and performing for a year or even longer...playing pieces in which their teachers have shaped and colored each and every note...When you hear a pianist sightread you either get a kid that plays without using the pedal, without any correct rhythm, no phrasing, no dynamics, note-by-note, or you get a pianist that uses the pedal in clever ways (to help cover up some iffy parts), plays most of the correct rhythms, has plenty of dynamics, and basically makes you forget that they are sightreading.  In other words, the latter are usually the naturally musical ones.   
  • if most of the major music schools started to include sightreading, you can bet that piano teachers of younger pianists across the country would start to focus a bit more on sightreading rather than just on performing.  In turn, young pianists might get exposed to more duet playing and ensemble playing which would lead to more fun which would lead to more kids turned on to music and on to different career possibilities in the music field.  Sounds good to me!
 So music departments...I dare you!!  No, I double dare you!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Manners for your mind...a lesson in controlling mind-games

The other day I witnessed a shockingly fabulous example of the mind taking control of one's talent and turning it inside-out and upside-down.  One of the cellists I accompany and coach on a regular basis had been preparing for an out-of-state competition for several months.  For a teenager, this event was pretty big deal; for this young dedicated, hard-working musician in particular, the competition was an extremely important goal for which she wanted to reach a new level of competency in her playing and preparation.  We had been meeting for about a month up until the competition date to run through and rehearse the one piece she would have to play with piano and I can say without reservation that piece was firmly in her grasp both technically and musically well before the competition date.  On the Tuesday before the big event her teacher held a special studio class for the students that would be competing and this student performed very well, although I could tell that her confidence seemed to be slipping.  Then the day before she and her family were to drive to the competition she came one more time to our house, for a final run-through.  

The moment she stepped through the door, I knew that her mind had decided to abandon its manners - her own personal Mind Game Olympics were in full gear.  She said that things had gone alright in the beginning of the week but since then, every time she practiced, mistakes kept happening.  Now she couldn't practice without crying because she didn't think she could play the piece the right way anymore.  Oh how well most of us musicians know this feeling!  It is complete, utter, torture!  We spend hours and hours of concentrated practice, beating ourselves up, picking ourselves apart so that we can perfect our pieces only to have them fall apart on us.  How can this be?  I decided that running through her piece was the last thing we should do that morning and although at first she looked a little shocked, I believe I saw her relax a little bit.  We started by having a conversation first.  Here is approximately how it went:

"Have you practiced this piece a lot?"
"Yes." (with the teenager-tone of voice that goes along with "duh...")
"And we've been working a lot on finding careful ways to practice, right?"
"Have you performed this piece before?"
"Of course."
"And it went well, right?"
"Well, so where did all of that go?"
"Where did it go?"
"I don't know."
"Hmmm...interesting...I don't think it went anywhere...I think it's still there.  You've just been looking too closely and you're expecting way too much."

Since we still had a lot of time left for this "rehearsal" we decided to just "play."  She had started a new piece that I happen to love, Glazunov's "Song of the Minstrel," so we read through that, taking time to stop and work on some sections.  I was surprised how quickly she became engrossed in the task in hand, how quickly she could let go of her competition worries, but I was relieved - it felt like the best medicine.

And now for the happy ending, the conclusion to our Mind Game the end of our session, the now-relaxed cellist wanted to run through a fast little technical piece that she will be performing at an upcoming concert.  She said she hadn't touched it in months so she thought she should do it with piano to remind her of the piano part.  She pulled out her part, smiled at me and nodded, and I started with the introduction.   I should add here that by this point, we were both having a great time so the intro was played with a lot of gusto!  When she came in with her fast sixteenth-note pattern, she just took off and she flew.  Boy, did she fly!  And she just kept flying all the way until the end.  Every so often I looked up at her and when I did, she was looking at me, smiling right back.  That, my friends, is a rarity in young musicians.  But she was winning the Mind Game Olympics and she knew it!   When we were finished she said, "But I haven't practiced it in weeks!  I don't get it!!"  I said, "You've practiced, you've done the time, it will be there, it will be there for a long time, because you practiced it correctly, you practiced it's not just in your fingers, it is in your mind.  It is the same with the Allegro Appassionato.  You don't need to keep practicing that piece up until the competition.  It is there.  Even if you don't touch it again until your audition, you can still nail it.  In fact, it might be better if you don't!  Don't let your mind play games with you!  You take control of your mind and in the end, it will go much better and will be even more fun, just like that piece we just played was!"

I think she got it!

I hope she got it!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A call for a movement among classical musicians

Yesterday, Greg Sandow, a man whose opinion I respect greatly,  wrote a post on his blog that, although a bit on the melancholy side, made some points that helped  bring together in my mind and heart some of the thoughts and feelings I have been grappling with for a while now.  Here is the link to the post.  And here is the response that I submitted directly to his blog, in its entirety...
"Yes, this is a bit on the depressing side, Greg, but I think it is important to talk about this because I think it is all interwoven with the other issues you have been talking about on this blog and in your upcoming book. I think that in the classical music culture we have forgotten why it is that we play music in the first place. These days there is this absolutely unreasonable focus on perfection which overshadows practically everything. For soloists in particular, performing has become an Olympic sport - I think of figure skating in particular. And how did we get to this place? My guess is that it is mostly thanks to technology and the recording industry. I think that most of the younger generations these days can't really even conceptualize how much that industry messes with our perceptions of what is humanly possible and realistic when it comes to playing an instrument. Just recently I was working with a young cellist who was very upset after missing one note in an otherwise fantastic performance...she was in tears...I told her that no professional musician gives any performance without any mistakes, that it is virtually impossible. She did not believe me at all - it was like she couldn't even begin to comprehend what I was saying. And I know that she is not the only one that feels this way. I don't think this is a good sign. I don't think that this is how we(collectively) should be raising our young musicians today.
In regards to the state of classical music today, if musicians have been growing up with this mentality for the past couple of decades - that they need to deliver note-perfect performances - if that is now what music making is all about, then it makes sense that the classical music world is in trouble. Because in order to produce that type of performance, musicians cannot truly let go and freely express themselves, communicate or honestly make music up on stage. And in my mind, then you might as well ask, "What's the point?" and you have at least one explanation for why someone might decide to stay home instead of going to a concert. I wish we could infuse the right kind of passion back into performing and music-making again. It's the kind of passion that is infectious that needs to overtake the recital hall again and draw back into its arms both audience members and performers. Here's hoping that change will come in time :-)"

Greg tends to have lively followers that produce interesting discussions as a result of his posts and this one inspired yet another spirited debate.  Some readers feel that this obsession with technical prowess is not a new phenomenon, that there has always been a dichotomy between the those that play with feeling and those that don't.  Some readers wrote in, emphatically stating that yes, there is a problem with classical musicians not being able to leave perfectionism behind but that there basically is no hope because that's just the way music institutions function and that's how young musicians are trained...the comments are all really quite interesting and informative so if you have the time, I recommend reading them.  In any case, here are my further thoughts on the subject...

I agree that there probably always has been and will always be somewhat of a struggle within most musicians to balance perfectionism with musicality - it's the nature of the beast.  In order to be a good musician, one has to demand excellence from oneself in the practice room.  Unless you're a prodigy, there's really no way around that.  So do I think that there's a crisis right now in the classical music world?  Well, yes, I do.  Maybe "crisis" is too dire a word, I don't know.  What I do know, however, is that I do a lot of accompanying, I play with a lot of young people and I know what I don't see and that is joy - joy in performing, joy in music, joy in playing music and that is what I am concerned about.  And it's not just in them that it's missing.  It's with many professionals as well.  If the standard goal these days in performing is to go up on stage and deliver as close to a perfect performance as possible, both musically and technically, is that something to look forward to?  If you were a young musician would you think, "Oh boy, I get to go and perform today - yippee!"  I don't think so.  So yes, I think we have a problem here. Collectively, we have turned what should be experiences into events.  It seems like the problem mirrors the way our culture tends to be in general.  As a society, we have turned into consumers...we pay our money and expect that's all we have to do.  Participate in any other way? Engage our emotions?  Put our emotions on the line?  It's almost like we don't even know how to do that any more - often times it's as if we've cut the wires and we're disconnected.  

Now I don't want to leave this post on a dour note so I'm not going to.  Here's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to share with you this vision I have that has been racing around in my head the past couple of weeks.  It's been driving me crazy and I'm hoping that writing it down will give me some needed rest so here goes:

I picture a time when musicians, young and old, students, amateurs, and professionals, all find joy in sharing music with others.  I picture a time when musicians know that there is a time and a place for hard work, discipline, and perfectionism but that place is not located anywhere near the recital hall.  I picture a time when people walk on stage to perform, knowing that they've done the work, that they're ready, thrilled to perform and completely in the moment once they start.  I picture a performance experience unlike any they've had before, without those critical tapes that play in one's experience so thrilling that they almost can't describe it afterwards and neither can the audience.  And because of this new energy, this communication through music, performance art no longer has to be just a passive act from the standpoint of the audience - it can now be a participatory act as well because such joy in music, such a connection to music, can be infectious.  

So am I crazy?  Am I just a dreamer?  Perhaps, but I don't really think so.  I have been working with several young people lately to help them get into a different state of mind when they perform - to leave behind their concerns and to truly just experience the music and to "play" with the music during their performance.  The result has been very surprising and moving.  A few months ago I played for a young girl's cello recital - she's about 12 years old I think.  She's very talented and a very hard worker but has a very hard time letting go during performances which is, of course, typical of so many of us.  But I really encouraged her to forget everything else at the recital and to just play with me, to trust all of her hard work, to make music.  Well, she did and she was in a was amazing.  She blew me away with the level of music-making and interacting she was doing with me throughout the entire recital - and she's only 12!  At the end of the recital, I was speechless, utterly speechless because I had seen a side of her that I had never seen before and I had seen it through her music.  It was an unbelievable experience.  And I think she sensed it too because for one of the first times, I saw her beaming from ear to ear.  It translated into pure joy!  

It is because of moments like that that I am a dreamer and that I have this vision that I have just shared with you.  Please do pass it on, if you see fit.  And let me know what you think.  Thanks for listening!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Personal checklist for keeping performance anxiety free - Final Tips!

So we've finally arrived at the final two tips!  I am hoping that at least some of these ideas that I've shared with you over this past week have been helpful.  It has been fun to really think this through and to figure out how I really deal with performance anxiety.  I've had two big performances the past two weekends and I made sure that I practiced what I was going to preach both times.  Fortunately they both went really well.  I suppose if they hadn't, I wouldn't be writing this post and I would be back to square one, trying to figure out where I went astray.  Anyway, without further ado, here are the final tips...

Tip #7 - Throw my ears into the audience
Strange, I know...this goes along with the previous suggestion, to start singing the music in my head.  If I'm having a difficult time getting into a performance of I feel like I'm having a hard time including the audience into our performance space, I pretend like I am sending my ears out into the audience so that I can hear our sound as they are hearing it.  It's kind of a bizarre sensation, really, but when I imagine doing that, the sound coming from the piano really does start to sound different.  And if I'm performing with someone else, I can hear our sounds melding together in much more of an organic way.  Doing this also helps to take me out of what I call my ego zone, thereby decreasing the likelihood of being self-conscious, paranoid, and nervous.

and now a drumroll, please...

Tip #8 - Remember why I am performing -
I took several years off from really living fully in the music scene in order to stay home with our daughter after she was born.  That time away from music gave me the gift of realizing what music and performing meant to me.  It made me realize that I love music not only for its beauty but also because of the connections it builds between all sorts of people.  For me, music is communication and since I'm a bit of a shy person, it's my way of communicating in a much more open, intimate way, in a way that I wish I could do face-to-face, perhaps.  So now, when I go out on stage, I don't care as much about the mistakes because my goal is different.  My goal now is to communicate who I am and what I love; I am a musician and I absolutely love to perform music for you!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Personal checklist for keeping performance anxiety free - Part 4

Today's first tip is my favorite one because it reveals the intensely stubborn side of myself.  And yes, for this tip to really work, you must be a persistently stubborn soul, at least with yourself, so if you're not, you might want to consider getting some help to get yourself there.

Tip #5 - Counteract the negative mental tape with a more positive one
Once a mistake occurs and I've applied Tip #4, a negative mental tape usually starts rolling.  You probably know what I'm talking about.  I hear something in my head like, "You should have practiced that measure more...I can't stand this piece...I should have played the harp...what am I going to cook for dinner?"  Once this starts, I quickly say to myself, "Damn it, stop!  You are going to enjoy this recital and have a good time regardless of how many mistakes you make!!  You are going to knock their socks off!!!"  I apologize for the mild profanity, but I do feel I need to be that strong with my self and I like I mentioned before, stubborn.

Tip #6 - Sing the music in my head
Every once in a while, if I'm having a really off-performance and I can't focus, I start singing the music in my head.  Especially if I'm accompanying someone else, this is a fantastic way for me to release my intense focus on my own problems and reconnect with the other musician, especially if I start singing their line in my head.  Usually this works wonders instantly.  It also reminds me of why I am performing in the first place - because I want to share great music with the audience.  Note that I didn't say, "I want to share great note-perfect music."

Stop by tomorrow for the final installment of this mini-series...thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Personal checklist for keeping performance anxiety free - Part 3

In today's post I start getting into techniques I use the day of a performance and during the performance itself. And because tip #4 is so short I'm going to give you two tips for the price of one - good deal!  In spite of the first one's brevity, however, please don't overlook it.  As the old saying goes, "big things come in small packages."

Tip #3:  I'm always prepared for mistakes to occur
Sorry, but this is just the way life works.  It doesn't matter how much I practice, how prepared I am, how "in the zone" I am, there are bound to be mistakes and that is OK because a note-perfect performance is not what an audience is there for, at least I hope not.  Besides, what is a "perfect" performance anyway?  (For another post of mine that talks about perfectionism in performing, check out my post, "The quest for technical perfectionism in young musicians - can it go too far?"

Tip #4:  When mistakes occur I try to counteract the contraction of time by making time expand instead
Panic usually sets in as soon as the first mistake or moment of doubt occurs and when this happens I often feel as if time starts to collapse on itself - my heart beats faster, I feel like I don't have time to think, and then the panic only gets worse.  To counteract this problem, as soon as I make a mistake, I intentionally think of expanding time instead of letting time contract and fall in upon itself.  This gives me a chance to breath, a chance for my brain to catch up and do the problem solving it needs in order to get back on track and get in performance mode once again.  The first time I did this I feared that it might seem I was being indulgent with time, or that I was simply having this humongous brain blip, but as most performances, what seemed like a minute to me, really was only a split second to the audience.  My musical SOS came across to the audience as being a musical moment.  What a great deal!

As an accompanist/collaborator, I feel this technique is also an important aspect of  my support role.  When the person with whom I am performing is having a difficult time with memory, for example, I make sure that I give them a feeling of space in order to collect their thoughts.  The act of giving them this little bit of time is enough to get them back on track, calm their nerves a bit, and get their heart-rate back to a more livable level.

Tomorrow we'll have Tip #5: Counteracting the negative mental tape with a more positive one

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Personal checklist for keeping performance anxiety free - Part 2

Continuing yesterday's post, here's another tip that mostly applies to the days in the week leading up to the performance...

Tip #2:  Keep my brain calm
Along the same lines of Tip #1, the week of the performance, I rarely practice difficult passages up to tempo.  Again, I'm using the same philosophy, if it isn't learned now, it's too late.  Two things tend to go wrong for me if I rehearse difficult passages up to tempo.  First thing that happens is that I tend to make mistakes and I don't believe that's great for developing great connections in my brain.  I would rather use my time wisely and only be making good connections up there.  The second thing that happens is that I freak myself out which then makes me terribly tense and fatalistic when it comes time to perform.  I'd much rather be completely clueless when it comes time to walk on stage, thinking, "Well, I have no idea what's going to happen, so let's just do it!"  I see it more of an adventure this way rather than a dreaded walk to the guillotine.  Now of course this doesn't mean that I refuse to rehearse with the people I perform with - that wouldn't go over very well.  I do rehearse, and I do so up to tempo if that is what they wish to do.  But I treat those rehearsals as I do a performance and I try not to be too hard on myself in regards to wrong notes in technically challenging passages.  Instead, I see these dress rehearsals as strategizing sessions..." can I gracefully get through this passage since it's too late now to really expect perfection from myself?"  I find that taking this approach takes a lot of the pressure off and gives me the space I need mentally and emotionally that I need to remember why I am performing in the first place - because I love it!

Ready for more tips...come back tomorrow for Tip #3!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Personal checklist for keeping performances anxiety-free

Ah, the joys of performing.

So how many of you musicians out there think I'm being sarcastic when I say that?  Raise your hands high, don't be shy!  Dealing with performance anxiety for many is a lifelong pursuit and for good reason.  Getting up on stage in front of a lot of people, performing by memory, singing in a different language, performing athletic maneuvers with our hands or voices that have taken hundreds of hours to master, takes no small amount of bravery and determination.  In the past year or so, thanks in part to where I am in life, I have reached a new philosophy, a new state of being in regards to this whole topic.  The good news about this?  I now find performing ecstatically thrilling pretty much regardless of what, where, how, for whom, and with whom I'm performing.  And because I love performing even more than I ever have, any nervousness that I might feel beforehand, I now tend to just translate into feelings of anticipation.  Sounds too good to be true?  Perhaps, and maybe you think I need to tone down the enthusiasm, but that's part of my new way of dealing with nerves...maybe it would be best if I just get down to the nitty gritty with some practical tips.  Over the next week I will share with you a list of crucial tips that I keep in mind every time I approach a performance.  I would say I pull this list up in my mind about a week prior to a performance and then during the performance itself to make the performance the most nerve-free and excitement-full possible...

Tip #1:  What's learned, is learned
Except for unusual circumstances, if I don't have music learned, technical passages down, memory cemented, fingerings figured out, a week prior to a performance, I figure it's really too late to do so, so it's really better to figure something else out.  I decide to cut the piece out of the program if possible, perform with the music (since that usually won't lead to the end of the world or my career!), stick to my old fingering even if it isn't perfect...I have discovered that if I keep trying to cram in perfection until a performance, I will be distracted by my expectation to get those things right during the performance.  As a result, many undesirable things happen - I usually mess those very things up, the performance is unmusical because I am distracted, and the performance is boring.  Not so good.

Stop by tomorrow for Tip #2!