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.

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)"

One final breath: "Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns)"

"Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns)" may be the penultimate song in Winterreise, but after living with and sometimes in this cycle, I've come to see this particular song as our protagonist's final breath of life. I find such incredible peace here, that I'm not sure whether or not I want to weep. Our friend is clearly ready for this passing, wishing for the third sun to set, knowing that he will "feel happier in the dark."

The text of this poem has received quite a lot of attention, especially because of the title and subject, the three "mock suns." Analysis has run the gamut, from the suns being two of the character's beloved's eyes plus God, to the more scientific analysis, that our character was witnessing a phenomenon known as "sun dogs." Of course they all have their merit but they don't resonate with the scenario I hold in my heart while I'm experiencing this cycle. First, let me give you my rough translation of the poem:

Three suns saw I in the sky,
Long and intently did I gaze at them.
And they stood there so stollid,
as if unwilling to leave from me.
Alas, you are not my suns,
gaze into the others' faces!
Ah, not long ago I had three:
now have they set, the best two.
If only the third would follow,
I would feel happier in the dark.

So what are these three suns our friend is referring to? Is he being literal or are they more symbolic? Personally, I don't feel that he is looking at a scientific phenomenon; stepping into the shoes of someone who is departing from this life, I don't know that such a sight would distract me from my final thoughts. For me, these suns are the three things he sought in life: love of another, love of God, and love of self. In the first part of Winterreise, we watched our friend bid farewell to that first sun, the love of his beloved. In the second part we have watched him struggle with larger issues, getting to the point where he finally decided that perhaps there isn't even a God, at least not here on earth. So now one sun is left, his own. This is the sun that is the last to set. Now I would like to clarify that although I mentioned this third sun as representing the love of self, I don't get a sense at the end that our protagonist has lost a love for himself or that he dies disheartened by his own life. Quite the opposite, in fact. I feel that through this winter's journey, he has gained almost a spiritual view of his own life. Schubert's peaceful, undisturbed setting of the text gives me the sense that in his death, his life quietly melts back into the world around him.

No more pain, no more questioning, no more angst, no more searching, no more wandering.

Finally, he is at rest.

As am I.

Before I move on to the final song, I want to share an observation I made the other night while the words and music of Winterreise were haunting me at bedtime. I realized that part of the reason this cycle is so moving to me is because Schubert and Müller have created an experience, not just a piece of poetry or a piece of music. The cycle takes over an hour to sing which is not only difficult for the performers, but it can also be a challenge for the audience.  It makes the experience of this song cycle a very tangible one,  and introduces us to death in a very personal, raw way.

Truly a moving and life-changing experience for me.

Here is Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake performing "Die Nebensonnen."  A stunning performance. 

Other posts in this Winterreise series: