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

Monday, July 26, 2010

So what's it like to be accompanied by me?

I decided to do something kind of goofy today.  I really needed a recording of Camille Saint-Saens' "The Swan" to put on a CD for my daughter's class but I didn't have a cellist handy so I thought, "Hey, why don't you try accompanying yourself?" I laughed at this ridiculous question for a brief moment but then found that I was actually considering it.  (Yes, I do spend entirely too much time by myself!) Since I've been dabbling a bit in video-creation, audio recording, etc...I couldn't find an excuse not to give it a go and so here's the result.  I hope you enjoy this brief moment of insanity on my part.  And please excuse any sour notes - remember, I am not a cellist in real life - I only play one on youtube.  

Oh, and what is it like to accompany myself?  Well, there was a spot near the end where I really didn't give the cellist in me time to breath, but I guess that's forgivable under the circumstances.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Play it again, Sam...and again, and again, and again...

I am stuck...very, very stuck.  More specifically, my Bach Well-Tempered Clavier project is stuck and it really doesn't feel good at all.  I'm actually downright discouraged at the moment.  So what has happened?  How did I get to this lovely wall that I'm standing at?

Problem #1: I dislike the act of recording myself playing music.  Recording is really kind of an unnatural act, at least for me, because I work best when I have a physical, present audience to interact with.  I love to see and hear other peoples' responses to the music, whether the feedback is a barely-perceptible sigh of release or a restless turning or dropping of a program.  When I am recording, when I get to the end of a movement or a piece, I get...nothing.  It's just me, the microphones, the computer, and the worst audience member you can ever have at any performance, my brain.  Oh the things my brain comes up with during these sessions - it can get downright psychologically bloody up there with all the dissecting that comes with recording.  "Did you hear that?  The first time through I did OK on the first half of the fugue, but then in the second measure of the second half, I bungled that third note in the left hand.  And my tone was so bad!" or "Was the second performance better than the first or was that the previous movement that the first performance was actually more accurate than the second?  What piece did I just play?"  These conversations start almost immediately too - it's not like I have much of a window of inspiration.  In a live performance I am pretty good at pushing all of those inappropriate comments out the door so that I can enjoy the moment but I just can't get myself to that point with recording.  

Problem #2: The C-sharp minor Prelude perplexes me and the Fugue is a finger-twister.  I went through and learned all of the book II preludes and fugues a year ago.  I considered that time around as prep-work for more serious study.  I remember how I felt about the C-sharp minor Prelude when I first started working on it - I simply didn't get it and I never felt an urge to just play it through during my non-practice times.  That is very unusual when you're dealing with me and Bach - I can almost always play his music with a sense of peace, reflection, or meditation.  Perhaps it's my tendency to play this particular prelude too slowly, or maybe it's the the long length, about 8 minutes long.  There are also the ornaments, appogiaturas, and acciaccaturas (what the heck are those?!).  I can handle pieces with a sprinkling here and there of this fancy stuff, but when the ornamentation is actually part of the whole point of the piece?  It shows just how green I am with what used to be natural to your professional church or court musician.  Recently I enlisted the help of a local harpsichordist who can play this type of music like I envisioned they played it during that period in history.  She gave me many great ideas about how to approach it and it has gotten a little bit easier, but I still feel like a foreigner trying to speak a language I don't intuitively understand.  

And the fugue...ah, the fugue.  If you ever need to see something scary, just turn to this lovely fugue.  The piece is an endless braid of fast notes.  I have tried my own tried-and-true methods to get notes comfortable in my fingers and in my head.  I have also tried a new method that I described in an earlier blog post, "Living life on the edge - a new practice technique discovery."  Although playing it in small chunks up-to tempo and beyond has helped increase my confidence, I am still unable to play through the entire fugue without stumbling.  Something must be missing.  I put a "tweet" out on twitter last week, bemoaning my situation and was thankful that many twitter friends responded with a new recommendation to try practicing the fugue, hands separately, and then here's the kicker, backwards! Now I talk about learning and memorizing pieces backwards all the time but I have never done it note-for-note backwards.  Sounds a little unbelievable to me, but this week I did start trying it and it can, indeed be done.  So, we'll see what happens.  If it ends up working, I think I'm going to owe @JoseSPiano and @craigswanson a drink of their choosing!  If it doesn't work...well, I'm not going to go there.

So I don't really know why I decided to blog about all this.  I suppose it's largely because these problems have been taking quite a large portion of my energy lately and I thought it would be good to share the bad stuff along with the good stuff.  For now, I'm putting the Bach a bit on the backburner since I don't have an official deadline but you can be sure that I will not give up!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Creativity Discovered: Musique à Voir (Music to See)

One of the things I love to do is to poke around on the internet to see what other folks are doing in the classical music world.  It amazes me how many talented, creative musicians and artists there are out there, coming up with new ways to present the music I feel most at home with.  But it just occurred to me that I rarely, if ever, share these discoveries with anyone else which seems a bit on the silly side.  These multi-dimensional, hard working artists deserve a moment in the spotlight, as small as that spotlight may be.  So without further ado, when I make one of these discoveries, I am going to but them up on this blog with the title, "Creativity Discovered."  

To kick off this part of the blog, I want to introduce a group from France called Musique à Voir.  On their webpage, their byline is, roughly translated by me, " reveal the universe and intimacy of an author, a style, a composer...this union of artists weaves arts and emotion in spectacle-concerts."  What a wonderful mission!  And their presentations, at least in my mind, are so successful at carrying such a merging of the visual and the aural senses.  Here is a clip from their show about the French composer, Erik Satie, "Satie et la Belle Excentrique"- 

I love the set with the paintings in the background, the costumes, the whimsical chairs, the acting, even the out-of-tune piano.  It transports enchants me...

Musique à Voir has also presented a show about Clara Schumann...

It doesn't matter to me that I don't understand all of the French...the spirits of the composers and of the characters speak in a language of their own and that's what I love.  I imagine it would be hard not to be drawn into such a presentation.

So kudos to you, Musique à Voir!  Now I have another great reason to hop on a plane bound for France.  Au revoir!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Keeping the practice hat on when it counts the most

We all try on many hats during our lifetime.  Some stay on our heads our entire lives.  Some we wear briefly, tossing them aside when it no longer fits or suits our current needs.  And some we take on and off as the need for them arises.  I often feel like the gentleman in the picture to the right.  And who doesn't?  Most people I know are constantly juggling hats and roles.  Dare I even say that this is one of life's greatest struggles?  

It seems to me that I find myself in the milliner's shop all the time these days...first the mommy hat, then the wife the chef hat and then the housekeeper hat.  When it comes to music, there's the soloist hat, the accompanist hat, the chamber musician hat, the performer hat and the most important hat for this particular post, the practice hat. 

Ah, the practice hat.

When I was younger, that practice hat was a naughty little fellow.  Thankfully I had a mother that was very good at placing that hat back on my head, at least for a short while.  When I went off to college and I was on my own, more or less, I struggled to find the time and desire to practice.  I am a good sightreader so I managed to squeak by for a while, sightreading my way through lessons and coachings until something dire like a jury or a performance was staring me down.  Then the practice hat would go back on and I would hold it there in a death grip until the performance was over.  In the middle of my stay at the Eastman School of Music, I switched piano teachers and found myself in a studio where I was expected to play by memory at all of my lessons - that was a shock and a terror, quite honestly.  But I'm glad to have had the experience because it forced me to add a little structure to my practice hat.  

Looking back at my pre-family years, before husband and daughter, I realize that I wasted a lot of time because I often had several hats on at once when it came to practicing.  Yes, I had added structure to the practice hat thanks to my piano professor, but it was often worn along with the sightreader and performer hats.  My practice was made up of lots of run-throughs of pieces because that's what I like to do - play music.  I practiced so I could perform; I didn't perform so that I could practice.  

I can't do that anymore.  I don't have the time.  I don't have the energy.  And I simply have too many hats to wear.  Sound familiar?

Now, when it comes time to practice, I am very conscious of my practice hat.  At the beginning of my scheduled practice time (yes, I really do schedule it ahead of time, for the most part) I go to the closet, reach over the performer, sightreader, and music-lover hats and grab the one I need the most.  Then here's the important part - I close the closet door!  Doing this practically ensures a successful practice session.  I use every minute that I have in a more calculated way simply because I have no other choice. Are there days where this doesn't work?  Sure there are - there are days when I can't concentrate, I'm distracted, I'm bored, or things just aren't working out right.  Are there times when I allow myself just to play music for the fun of it?  Yes, of course.  And isn't there value in practicing performing, in running through music to get an overall sense of it all?  Yes, of course.  But these days, those are the exceptions to the rule and in these special cases, I feel that it's fine to wear whichever hat I wish to wear.  Sometimes I wear several at once since that's what I'm doing most of the time anyway.

So if you find yourself in a practice rut, take a look at what's on your head.  If you've got a stack of hats a mile high, try tossing them all into the closet and picking out that trustworthy hat of yours - the practice hat.  Don't have one of those?  Find someone that can help you dust one off or build you a brand new one.  I'd be happy to help if I can.  Or read some books or articles on the internet.  Talk to some musician friends or your teacher.

It's worth it.  

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A lesson in listener profiling

One thing I find difficult about performing is choosing repertoire.  Fortunately I do a lot of accompanying so all I have to do is play what is handed to me.  But when it comes time to play at church or at another event, or when I put together my own program, the responsibility to pick appropriate, or inappropriate music becomes all mine.  

This past Saturday I performed several pieces at my grandfather's memorial service.  Thankfully much of my job was done for me since my father requested one Bach prelude and fugue and an uncle asked for a Spanish dance by Granados.  Because I have been concentrating on my Well-Tempered Clavier project, I decided that the closing piece should be another prelude and fugue.  I suppose you could say that my choice was a bit of a cop-out because the truth is, I simply didn't feel like I had the time or energy to think about the decision for very long.  Well, as with most shortcuts I take, I began regretting my decision once the program was printed up.  What was I thinking?  Two complete preludes and fugues, one of which was quite somber and heart-wrenching?  I don't think I would have been too bothered had it been just the preludes but for some reason it struck me as particularly inappropriate to play fugues at a memorial service.  But why is that?  Was I worried that the audience would get bored and start falling asleep in their chairs?  Did I think the music would go over their heads?  Was I feeling particularly vulnerable because in the service I wouldn't have a chance to prepare the audience beforehand with a little crash-course in fugal writing?  I'm very good at over-analyzing every decision I make and as you can see, I became me own worst enemy in this situation.  I'd like to be able to say that I was able to let go of these worries when it counted, but the truth is, I was still having ridiculous conversations in my head, especially when I went up on stage to play the closing pieces.  

So were the selections I played appropriate?  Was the audience able to enjoy them?  After the service ended, I was quickly brought back to reality thanks to one of the residents at my grandfather's retirement community.  Coming up to me to shake my hand as I was walking off the stage, she told me that she appreciated the music I had played.  She added that it was music that  she could understand and that it felt so good to hear to hear it.  Hmmm...well, I guess I had an answer for at least one person in the audience.  And that answer was such an informative one.  It made me realize that I had, in a sense, been profiling the listeners before I had even walked up onto the stage.  Perhaps I was following the mistaken assumption that complex music, such as Bach's fugues, are too mathematical, too formulaic to be enjoyed by just anyone.  How ridiculous is that?  Especially for me!  How I could I have lost sight of the truth that this music can transcend our assumptions about what constitutes art?  We can look at a snowflake under a microscope to appreciate its intricate, delicate structure that belongs to that one snowflake alone, but we can also step back and see the magic that appears when that one snowflake floats to the earth, surrounded by others. 

When it comes time to perform a Bach fugue again, I hope that I can remember to take that step back from the microscope.  No one can deny the intricacy of these pieces, but no one can deny their mesmerizing power either.

If you are interested in reading another blog post that I wrote about playing for my grandfather's memorial service, please click on the following link:

And below are some videos I made of the Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor, from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, book I.  

The Prelude:

And the Fugue:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Strangers on a plane - punk rock meets classical

I told myself I wasn't going to blog while I was in San Francisco this weekend but yesterday presented me with such a fabulous experience, I didn't want to let the moment slip out of my mind.  It all started with your typical airline experience...

I've boarded my flight, Philly to San Francisco.  I have the aisle seat, the two seats next to me are empty.
I'm watching people dribble on the plane, wondering which one will be sitting next to me - some silent pleas are murmured. I go back to reading my book and a few minutes later (a watched pot never boils) I sense someone standing next to my in the aisle.  OK, so here's one of them.  I get up to let my new travelling partner in and take my first look at who it's going to be.  It's a guy with long brown hair, some dreads, a beard, and tattoos.  Before I can fully recover, another guy is standing next to us - dyed short blond hair and more tattoos.  Now before I go on, I should say that I don't have anything against tattoos; I try not to pigeonhole folks that choose to get them.  But when you're on a plane, getting ready for a 6 hour flight, some of your prejudices can make themselves more obvious - sad but often true.  But I smile, because really, after a second glance they don't seem so "bad," whatever that means, and I move out of the way to let them in the row.  The guy with the beard sticks out his hand to shake mine, gives me his name, which I promptly forget because I'm a bit nervous, and I resume my reading with a new intensity.

Fortunately this is not the end of the story.

As I am reading my book for the first hour, I catch sound clips of the conversation the two guys next to me are having and although I try not to I begin the inevitable process of trying to figure out who these tattooed men are.  I pick up that the long-haired one works in a restaurant in the Philly area - he's a manager or perhaps even an owner?  They both swear quite a bit which in my stereotyping mind, goes hand-in-hand with the tattoos and slightly grungy look.  I can't discern much about the blond-haired guy - he's pretty quiet.  After a while, though, I find myself having a harder and harder time not eavesdropping because certain words keep popping out: practicing, music, gigs, wishing they had learned more instruments, wishing they hadn't stopped taking piano lessons when they were that last one, they have completely caught my attention and I almost open my mouth to say something...

But I'm shy.  I put away my book and pulled out my score for Winterreise so that I could work on it a bit.  Sigh...

We proceed to ignore each other for a while until finally, about 4 hours into the flight, the long-haired guy, Jeff, points to my music and breaks the ice.  What follows is a mind-opening conversation that turns them from tattooed, grungy guys into passionate, energetic, musical colleagues.  Turns out these two guys, Pat (the long brown-haired one) and Jason are in a punk rock band called "Violent Society."  They're traveling out to California to go on a brief tour after being on a hiatus for several years.  They explain that about 10 years ago they were touring a lot, both in the US and over in Europe but after being disappointed by a less-than ideal relationship with the European record label that had picked them up, they broke up with each member slipping from a musical life full of music, touring, and parties, into the mundane 9 to 5 world of real life. 

As they talk on, and as I share bits of my musical journey, I find myself completely drawn into their story.  There are so many parallels between the punk rock world and the classical world: we have all had to put aside music for a while in order to meet the demands of the real world and to build relationships with those whom we love; in that sometimes painful process we have come to realize that music simply must be a part of our lives in some way; after injecting music back into our lives we now look at our art in a completely new way, respecting it more than before.  We all struggle to find time to practice; wish we could learn more instruments;feel the power and intensity that comes from sharing our music with our "band members" and with the audience that hears us; feel that music is vital in our community and that we can do our part in being vocal about the society in which we live through our music.  We spend a lot of time discussing how the internet and social networks are changing how we as artists present ourselves and increase our audience.  Suddenly we are interrupted by the pilot's voice...the flight is almost over.  I find myself smiling from ear-to-ear.  We exchange business cards, urls,  more genuine handshakes, and best wishes and then go our separate ways once we arrive at our gate. 

Looking back on the whole scene now, I need to alter the previous sentence.  At the end of the flight, we physically parted but I truly believe that this brief encounter on the plane has made it so that we are not really going such separate ways spiritually.  Whether it's punk rock music or classical, we are all trying to find a path that unites a musical world with the real world.  And after talking with Jeff and Jason, I am now one step closer to seeing that that path just might be the same.

Thanks, guys!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Revisiting Bach - a tribute to my grandfather

So I'm going to play at a memorial service...again. I think this is the third time I've had the chance to do this for a family member and although it's never easy, it gives me something to do besides just feeling sad. For some reason, though, preparing for my grandfather's memorial service has been different and I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps this post will help me weave back and forth between possible explanations until I come across an answer that satisfies my heart and mind.  

My grandfather passed away about a month ago in San Francisco. He was in his late eighties and had been pretty gracefully holding off Parkinson's for years while he continued to try and serve as one of the retirement community's most beloved residents. Throughout the time my grandmother was still alive, my grandfather struck me as a very quiet man, for the most part. As I was growing up a block away from them, I didn't really have many conversations with him - they were usually mostly with my grandmother, with my grandfather serving as her back-up choir. I didn't know a whole lot about him through words, but rather through the times I spent with him in his workshop or in his garden. It is in those places that I learned about perfection, persistence, and artistry outside of music. To me, he was an artist in his own right; spending hours trying to build the perfect picture frame for their most recent art purchase, putting up Playbill cover after Playbill cover in the walls of their guest bathroom to serve as a scrapbook for my grandparents' love of drama, trimming the trees and grasses in their Japanese-style backyard until stepping into their garden felt like setting foot in Japan itself.  One thing that always puzzled me, however, about the time when my grandmother was still alive, was that they didn't seem to understand my love for music.  They were often critical of my parents, thinking that they must be pushing me - why else would I be spending all of my energy on it, in it, and around it?  Yet my grandfather, in my eyes, was an artist himself.  Couldn't he see that same quality in me?  

After my grandmother passed away about 10 years ago or so, my grandfather seemed to become a new man.  I won't delve into the psychology of all that, but I will say that at this time, he became a bit more vocal about his support for me as an individual and as a musician.  My husband and I performed twice at his retirement community and each time we did, my grandfather put his heart and soul into it - he became our personal cheerleader and public relations manager, all rolled up into one.  He would call me and ask me about how he should word the announcement about the concert in their newsletter; he wanted to put together a perfect poster that he could proudly have put on display; he wanted to make sure that we had everything we needed when we got there.  After the recital, he would bring it up over and over again, asking when we might be able to do it again and telling us all about the folks at the community and their comments about the performance.  If he hadn't known how to support me when my grandmother was alive, he certainly had taken a few lessons after her passing - there was no question in my mind about whether or not he understood what I'm all about - music.

A few months ago, while I was preparing for my Beethoven concerto performance, my grandfather's health quickly began to decline.  He was tired, and that became quite obvious, especially to my father.  It took me quite by surprise when I came home one evening to find the message light blinking on our answering machine and to discover that the message was from my grandfather who said that he would call back some other time.  I panicked since I knew my parents, who were primarily responsible for him, were on their way out to visit us.  What if something was really wrong?  What should I do?  I ended up calling the health center in the retirement community and asking if there was something wrong.  They quickly assured me that he was fine and handed the phone over to him.  When he picked up, he said that he had heard about my upcoming performance and wanted to know all the details.  He also wanted to wish me the best of luck.  At the end of the short conversation, he added, "I may just have to call again after the concert, to see how it went."  He followed through with this second phone call and although it was a very short conversation, as many of ours were, it meant more to me than if he had actually been able to come to the concert himself.  

With these memories fresh in my mind, my father asked me if I would play at my grandfather's memorial service.  Of course I agreed.  But he threw a bit of a curveball into the mix by asking if I'd play Bach's B-flat minor Prelude and Fugue from book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  If you don't already know this set, here's a video of the pianist, Edwin Fisher, performing.

To me, this music signifies anguish, not of a public type, but rather at an intensely private way.  I had learned this prelude and fugue a long time ago, when I was still living at home and it quickly became the prelude and fugue I performed whenever I had an occasion to perform it.  It also became a favorite of my parents.  I know these pieces intimately and can play them in my sleep yet I felt convicted that in order to play them at the service, I had to do more than just review them - I had to re-learn them and in doing so, revisit both Bach and my grandfather's life.  After two weeks of this double reflection, I have come to see yet again, how powerful music can be, especially at the end of one's life journey.  In the end, my grandfather made it clear to me that he did know and understand who I was as an artist even though it seemed like such an understanding was virtually impossible earlier in my life.  He was also not afraid to express that understanding.  For a man that mostly seemed like a quiet man during most of my earlier years, the fact that he could communicate this to me reveals to me that he was a man not completely set in his ways.  He was a man that wanted to get things right, a man that wanted to understand what he could and at the heart of it all, he was an artist too, in his own right.

So I am relearning Bach in honor of my grandfather.  And in the process I am discovering, yet again, that music does indeed have the ability to transform.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Living life on the edge: a practice technique discovery

I am a very safe person.  I am a very thorough person.  And I pride myself on accuracy and discipline.  These qualities are painfully obvious when I'm practicing and they usually serve me well.  

But I recently hit a wall, a humongous wall - the C# minor Fugue from book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.  It may only be a 3-voice fugue but it's fast...really fast.  And there are lots and lots of notes.  It's one of those pieces that when you look at the pages, all you see is black.  Some people might think that's just an exaggeration when a musician complains of black pages, but I'm here to say it's true, it really is.

I didn't do anything different to begin learning this fugue; I started from the end, working in small chunks until I reached the beginning; I took time to choose and write in fingerings; I worked out which hands were going to take which notes.  Once the notes were learned, I did what I always do with technically difficult pieces, I started working it up with the metronome, being sure to bump up the metronome marking only when I could nail it at the tempo I was currently at.  Brava, Erica, responsible, right?

Well, not really.  Perhaps it was responsible but it simply wasn't working.   

Thankfully, while twittering the other day, I read that an accomplished pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, was going to live stream her practice sessions every day this week.  She practices 12-13 hours a day (I'm not so sure that's a great thing, by the way) so there's a lot of time to catch her at it. (Click here to watch some of it.)  I decided to watch a bit and I was amazed by the fact that most of her practicing, even of technically difficult passages, were practiced quite quickly and I sensed that a lot of the time she was trying to just memorize gestures - there wasn't as much of a concern about each and every individual note.  It dawned on me that perhaps I should just live life on the edge, throw off my security blanket, and simply go for it.  

So that's what I did.  I was careful to try this method without jeopardizing my commitment to not repeating the same mistake twice and to keeping a relaxed mind and body- two of the maxims I live by. I also wanted to maintain musicality throughout the process in spite of the fact that my body and mind really wanted to panic.   Here's a video showing how it all went...

This is a new way of practicing for me and it really is a bit scary but I think it was starting to work by the end of just a half-hour of practicing.  What a relief!  And thank you twitter friends and Valentina Lisitsa.  Just goes to show you that there's always something new to try and new to learn!

So here's hoping that I'll finally be able to record this Prelude and Fugue so that I can move on with my Bach project.  Now please excuse me...I have some more cliffs to jump off of!