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, 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!!