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, December 31, 2011

Another "only in the hills" performing experience

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Back in March of 2011, I blogged about an incredible experience accompanying a young violinist and her friends and family virtually on top of the world, on a ridge in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia.  Thanks to this same family, I was back in their neck of the woods right before Christmas, and was given yet another set of musical gifts.  Not quite on top of the world this time but close, this most recent performance was given at the Country Store in nearby Floyd, Virginia.  

Some things you might not know about Floyd and its Country Store...

  • Floyd is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most spectacular drives in the Unites States that I've ever been on.  
  • Floyd is also located on the famed "Crooked Road" that weaves throughout towns where Bluegrass, Old Time, and Traditional Country Music are part of the lifeblood of the people. 
  • The Floyd Country Store is 100 years old and is the place to be and is officially a heritage music venue for the Crooked Road.  On Friday nights it's home to the "Friday Night Jamboree" but there's music and dancing going on other times as well.  In the summer you can drive by and see bands just jamming in the streets, one band right in front of the store, another down the's a crazy and fun place to be, especially for a straight-laced gal like me! 

With all that said, when I found out we were going to be playing a recital in this incredible community venue that oozes American music history, I was thrilled, excited, but also a bit nervous.  Floyd has recently started to open its doors to classical music thanks in part to the National Music Festival that had its start just this past summer, but it is mostly known for the fiddlers, the banjo players, and the cloggers.  I found myself wondering how a Suzuki book recital, plus a few other classical add-ons, would fare in such a non-classical venue.  

As I sat waiting in the store for the young violinist and her family to arrive and as I contemplated what I would perform on since there was no piano in sight, I amused myself by trying to guess how the evening was going to go and how it would be received.  Silly me.  I should have known that was a big waste of time and that music, no matter what genre, would always be well received there.  

The evening was, not surprisingly, different from my standard performance.  There were the external differences - the more informal venue, playing on an electric keyboard (although that's not so rare anymore), and the audience members, many of whom I guess frequent the Friday Night Jamborees.  What stuck with me more, however, were some of the musical interactions that took place that night, specifically those with the local fiddler and mandolin player, Mike Mitchell.  Mike decided to play on his fiddle Bach's famous "Air on a G String" and he did so playing solo, without me accompanying.  It was interesting to hear him play, especially since I had never heard him before and I had no idea what to expect.  He sat down on a beautiful wooden stool to play and introduced me to a completely innocent, simple way of playing Bach.  And then, as his last note started to die away, he evolved that one tone into the start of an upbeat, wonderfully free fiddling improvisation.  As he got going Mike's whole demeanor changed and his body and sound opened up, transporting me as a listener from one musical land into a completely different one.  It was fantastic!

And if that wasn't enough, we followed that with a performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's double violin concerto with Mike on the mandolin and a friend of mine on violin.  This was an on-the-spot performance since the three of us had never rehearsed together, but that made it all the more thrilling and it's exactly the kind of experience that I thrive on.  In the course of 6 minutes I got to play one of my favorite pieces while getting to know another musician through music alone, and I got to experience classical music as seen through the eyes and ears of someone that lives and breathes bluegrass and mountain music.  I think it was a new experience for him as well.  As we finished our acknowledgement of the applause, he said quite audibly to all, "That's the first time I've done anything like that!"  He said that with a beautiful smile on his face so my hope is that he was feeling the same way I was feeling - thrilled and moved by yet another new musical experience. 

The audience was small that night but they were all there with a desire to hear some good music and to watch some talented young (and a few old) people play.  They spoke in between pieces and shared with us what impressed them and what moved them.  One audience member, who struck me as looking like your stereotypical mountain man complete with long white beard and gnarly walking staff, reminded me to never judge a book by its cover, by piping in now and then with facts about the composers whose pieces we were playing or about the instruments themselves.  In the end, I walked out of the Floyd Country Store feeling still a little out-of-place, but blissfully aware that classical music is just music and can be played and enjoyed everywhere.  I also walked out plotting when and how I could perform there again.  

I think that's a good sign.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jury lessons from your friendly neighborhood collaborator

Image from Wikimedia Commons
The last several weeks of my life were spent reaching for a new record I had never intended to reach -  I played for over 40 different juries within the course of one week.  I realize I could spend quite a bit of time just exploring the sanity of such an endeavor but I already know I'm a bit nuts sometimes so I'd rather not go there. 

What I do want to share is what I learned through sitting through so many juries in a concentrated amount of time.  I tweeted these this past week as a way to capture all the thoughts that were floating around in my head so here are my 140 characters-or-less words of observation about something that might not normally seem very tweetable.  Hopefully they will serve some purpose in the years to come as the next round of young musicians make their way through the world of juries. 

And if anyone has any jury lessons they would like to contribute, feel free to do so in the comment section!  

  • One semester is really not a long time to have to prepare for a jury.  Lesson to learn from that fact - plan ahead!
  • The jury itself is not the time to sing from memory for the first time.  Really.
  • If your teacher gives you a new piece a week or two before your jury and says it's for your jury feel free to say, "no thank you."
  • If you're using photocopies for your jury - a) make sure you have all the pages & b) tape them together! *
  • You really, really don't want to start your jury with your least successful piece just because you're avoiding another one you can't really play or sing. 
  • If you're a singer, it's highly recommended that you actually know what the songs you're singing are about.  They know if you don't. 
  • If you have an accompanist/collaborator, it's a good idea to - a) give them the music beforehand and b) rehearse with them.
  • It's a good idea to know the name of the piece you're playing/singing, the composer, and how to pronounce it all.  They may ask!  Plus you should know!!
  • Singers, especially...don't forget the the music a pianist reads goes all the way to the bottom of the page.  No notes = creative improv.
  • When playing scales, sightreading, or other hoop jumping, take your time and think before you begin.  That usually helps.
  • If they ask questions about your repertoire for which you have no answer, don't make something up. They'll know. 
  • These days, there is no reason to ask a collaborator to transpose.  Get the music to your pianist in the right key, please!  
  • If you're playing a piece in 3/4 for your jury, make sure what you deliver is really in 3/4. **
  • Know in advance if you're going to need to fill out any forms and whether or not you need to provide music to your jurors.  That's the last thing you should be thinking about.
  • Remember this is not a time to prove yourself.  If you've done the work during the semester, it will show.  
  • Try to avoid having a jury time that is crammed between exams or immediately after a particularly demanding one.  
  • Make sure you and your collaborator know when and where your jury is.
  • Don't have your jury be the first time you perform something.  Even if that means performing for a bunch of elephants at the zoo (Glenn Gould did that!), perform for someone.  First performances are rarely comfortable and are not often good representations of what you can really do.  
  • It may be a jury and not a typical performance but go out and perform anyway.  Everyone will be thankful.  

And from a twitter friend, @TammyEvansYonce :
  • Dress appropriately, and don't bring your cell phone to your jury.

* I am not supporting the illegal photocopying of music.  I believe photocopies should only be used if the person owns a purchased copy of the music.

** For more about troubles with 3/4, please see my post, A note of sympathy and apology to a time signature .

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A note of apology and sympathy to 3/4 time

Image from a phenakistoscope by Eadweard Muybridge
from Wikimedia Commons
Dear 3/4,

I want to start by telling you that personally, I like you a lot.  You're a great time signature - simple yet elegant.  2/4 and 4/4, they're ok but they're just too square for me sometimes.  Then there are those tricky little meters - you know, the ones with odd numbers on top, or big numbers on the bottom - 7/8, 5/8, 7/16, 15/4, 59/48.   Those can be entertaining, intriguing, and wonderful exercise for a musician's mind, but sometimes they can be, well, a little much.  When I'm in the mood for something else, you're there with such grace at times, or with a flair that makes me dream of twirling on the dance floor in the arms of my dear husband.  So thank you for that.

It has come to my attention, however, that you are sorely neglected and abused and I wanted to take a moment to express my sadness and sympathy to you.  I first discovered the dreadful state of your neglect this past summer as I was working with a group of talented high-school singers that had gathered for a month of intense study.  In the middle of a string of individual rehearsals I realized that I was getting weary of having to correct the singers' rhythm and of constantly adjusting the accompaniment when it dawned on me that the majority of the time the problems occurred when the song was in 3/4.  As I continued rehearsing it then became clear that it wasn't just sometimes that problems occurred, it was every single time - no exaggeration.  That same night we had a student recital that was a mixture of both vocal and instrumental music.  As I was waiting for the program to start I leaned over to one of the voice teachers and told him about my odd findings.  At first he looked slightly dubious but I said in a hushed whisper as the lights were dimming, "Just listen."  

That night, every single piece in 3/4 had major rhythmic instability.  Beats were being added or omitted everywhere, I suppose in an attempt to make your wonderfully unsymmetrical meter more symmetrical. didn't matter.  It sounded a bit like the kids were trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  And ever since that night, things haven't changed.  I'm sorry, 3/4, you just seem to bamboozle a lot of folks, especially the younger ones.  When I got to thinking about why this might be, it's really no wonder.  After all, how much popular music (rock, pop, rap, etc...) is in 3/4?  Especially music that's being written and performed by bands today?  Hmmm...not a whole lot, if any!  6/8, yes.  That pops up from time to time but 6/8 isn't 3/4.  To me, 6/8 is the same as 2/4 - symmetrical but with a little lilt.  

But in spite of all this bad news, I want you to know that I'm on a mission - a mission to preserve who you are.  And I'm getting others on board to help me.  They say that knowing is half the battle and now we know.  We just need to figure out how to help people understand you and to feel you.  Here are some thoughts I've had and some things I'm already trying:
We can help musicians to hear and understand what makes you so wonderful.  I often take a piece that's giving a student problems and purposefully alter it so that it becomes a piece in 2/4 or 4/4.  I then ask the student how doing that affects how the piece sounds and feels.  More often than not their face cringes or they shake their heads in disapproval at the newly arranged version.  It's a good way to get them to find some determination to fix the problem. 
We can teach them how to waltz.  I'm showing my age here, but I admit that I've known how to waltz since I was a little girl because I had to go to dancing school when I was in elementary school.  But I'm pretty sure that most kids today don't even know what a waltz is, much less know how to do it themselves.  So with every student that I encounter that's having trouble feeling the meter, I teach them how to do the steps and we dance the waltz together, eventually singing the music along with our dancing.  I make sure that on each downbeat the leg we are on bends a bit so that we can really feel the weight of your downbeat.   And yes, I often feel silly and awkward doing this and yes, they feel even more silly and awkward, but I do think it's worth it.  
We can show them how to conduct in three.  This can be tricky for students too and takes some practice but it's another great way to help students see and feel what you're all about - that you're not symmetrical and that there's really only one beat that is assisted by gravity.   
With some examples, we can encourage them to play fast enough (as an exercise) to allow them to feel two measures together in 6/8, with the first measure being the first beat and the second measure being the second beat.  I have found that doing this sometimes helps students as an intermediate step since it gives them the symmetry they often desire.  When they can do this without any hesitation and with ease, I gradually slow up the tempo until the music is back in 3.   
We can make sure that they are truly understanding every rhythm within each measure.  This is actually something I stress with students regardless of meter but I think it's worth mentioning here since I think it's really important.  Most students spend a majority of their time guessing how rhythms go even though rhythms have a clear mathematical solution.  Another mission of mine is to prove to young musicians that it is worth the time it takes to figure out a rhythm because with true comprehension and internalization comes the freedom to fully express musicality. 
We can be merciless in our expectation that everyone can learn to love 3/4 and to be able to play this wonderful music with ease and comfort.  Need I say more?
So in summary, 3/4, I just wanted you to know that someone out there is thinking about you and that many of us appreciate all that you do for the classical music world.  You may not be as popular in other genres, but you have a place.

You have a friend in me.   After all, what would this world be like without "Amazing Grace," "The Blue Danube Waltz," and "Bist du bei mir?"

Hang in there, 3/4.  We're working on it.

Respectfully yours,

If anyone else has any other suggestions about helping students with 3/4, please do share them here!  I'm obviously on a mission and could use all the ideas I can get!  And if you know of any "cool" music in 3/4 that is not classical I'd love to know that too and I'll add it to a playlist I'm going to get up on youtube soon.  Thanks!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Musical Investigations - episode 2: Bernstein "A Big Indian and a Little Indian"

I really, really love this second episode of my "Musical Investigations" series not only because the music in question is absolutely hilarious, but also because I had a major lightbulb moment when I found the solution to my own problem.  The excerpt in question is from Leonard Bernstein's, "A Big Indian and a Little Indian" which is the fourth song in his adorable, clever song cycle, I Hate Music.  

There are several things about this song that initially freaked me out.
  • It's "con brio" which always makes me nervous because it usually means "fast."
  • It has multiple meter changes - 7/8, 8/8, 9/8, 3/8, you-name-it/8.
  • There may as well not be any time signatures half the time because Bernstein seems to disregard them anyway in terms of phrasing and groupings of notes.
  • The right hand and left hand don't line up in terms of where the stresses are.  The left hand is stressed at the beginning of every three notes and the right hand is constantly changing making the whole passage a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy.
  • There are accents, especially in the voice part, and in meters like those listed above, accents can have a way of making the pianist feel like he/she is in the wrong place in the music.
On a positive note, the idea behind the song is hilarious.  It's a little kid telling a riddle, complete with several bars of vamping while the singer is waiting for the audience to solve the riddle.  I love it!

So how not to freak out?  How could I see this music in a simplified way so that my brain and hands didn't freeze up?

Take a look at this section...

This excerpt demonstrates one of my favorite methods of simplification because one hand, the left hand in this case, simply repeats the same pattern over and over again, leaving the eyes and brain free to concentrate on the other more difficult and complex line.  And at closer examination, that right hand part is only made up of a few different ingredients:
  • step-wise ascending and descending patterns that fall nicely in the hand
  • the opening motive (at the beginning of the second line)
  • a sequence starting at the beginning of the third line) involving an octave and ascending step-wise pattern that starts on D# then moves up to E, F#, G#, and finally to A. 
Not so bad when I looked at it that way.  

To put it all together I first worked on the right hand, using the patterns I had discovered to learn the part in a way that kept my mind engaged.  Then I looked at the left hand part and set up the vamped pattern, playing it over and over again until I felt like I was in a groove and didn't need to put any thought into it.  Once in that groove, I added the right hand in, trying not to see every individual note but instead seeing the patterns with a relaxed mind and relaxed hands.  After a few times under tempo, I got it.  I understood it.  It made complete sense and I realized that I didn't even have to pay attention to any of the meter changes.  

What was the best part of having figured this piece out?  I could actually listen to the riddle and laugh right along with the audience.  

I think Lenny would have approved!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Extreme performing and talking myself up onto the stage

Maria Yakunchikova, "Fear" from
Wikimedia Commons
I'm always up for a challenge.  Usually this is a good thing and one that energizes me since I know that on the other side, especially if it is somewhat successful,  I usually rediscover a new world of confidence and inspiration and am more motivated to take on even greater challenges.  But sometimes, as was the case a few weeks ago, the challenge ends up being more daunting than I had imagined and that, quite simply, is not much fun at all.

So here's the most recent scenario:

  • Sir James Galway coming to teach a masterclass at Virginia Tech
  • 3 flute students performing
  • music not given to me until two weeks before the masterclass
  • 2 out of the three were concertos that I had never even heard before
  • the flutists playing those concertos didn't come into town until the night before and the morning of the masterclass

Perhaps I should have insisted on getting the music sooner but, well, life happens.  I didn't.   As soon as I did get the music and the reality of the situation began to hit me, I realized that I was going to have to try some new things in order to be as ready as I could be for the masterclass.  Here's what I came up with:

Listen to recordings of the concertos a lot, following along with the score and marking in which instruments in the orchestra play which lines. 
Identify which musical lines are actually heard when played by an orchestra.
Eliminate anything in the music that can't be heard in recordings.
Mark in the music what I wanted to leave out and what I felt was crucial to play.
Mark the tricky passages that would require my attention whenever I sat down at the piano.
Schedule time to practice every day that I do practice.
Practice cognitively and carefully.
Spend a portion of time every day playing through the movements in their entirety up to tempo to get a feel for where I am, to practice playing with a focus on musical intent, and to practice accepting imperfection.
Sing the flute part along with the orchestra part from the get-go, focusing primarily on rhythm and articulation at first and then expanding to include pitches. 
Conduct through everything while listening the recording and while hearing it in my head. 
Stay as calm and cool as possible.  

This all seemed to work pretty well until I found myself on the day before the masterclass.  I knew I wasn't doing well when my husband kept looking at me and saying, "Wow, I've never seen you look like this before.  You're really struggling."  Ugh.  He was so right.  I felt unprepared, frustrated that I wouldn't be playing the music with the soloists until right before the masterclass, and nervous to play for someone as famous as Galway.  A big fan of cognitive psychology I tried to talk myself through my fears but I kept sinking back into worry.  That night, after I received a phone call from one of the flutists, saying that he wouldn't be in town until an hour before the class, I decided that I had to do something different to calm my nerves - I was going to crack otherwise.  So what did I do?  

Facebook.  Yup, Facebook.  And I don't even like Facebook so that tells you how desperate I was.   

I looked up the flutist on Facebook in hopes that I could at least see what he looked like.  Strange, huh?  But it worked!  I saw his face, found a link to his personal website and learned quite a bit about him.  As I was listening to some video clips he had of his playing I suddenly realized that I was breathing again, I think because I was reminded that music-making is about people, about sharing music, about communicating.  It's not about all the tiny notes on the page and whether or not we hit them all, it's about the music.  It's not about impressing someone famous who might not even want to be impressed.  And then I remembered why it is I like accompanying, even in difficult situations.  I like to counteract the nerves that another person feels, to figure out ways to usher them through stressful times in a graceful way and to hopefully give them a chance to enjoy the music and performing.  

That night I slept just fine.  Yes, I still worried about the bit orchestral tuttis that have entirely too many notes in them and yes, I worried about whether or not I could keep track of the flutists' parts, but I had finally found my way back to myself.  

And when I'm myself, I'm a pretty decent pianist and a supportive accompanist.  And when I'm myself I have no problem walking onto a stage.  

Nothing wrong with that.

If you have any experiences with extreme performing that you'd like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.  We can all learn from one another when it comes to dealing with nerves!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Witnessing music in action

Music can be so many different things.  It can be entertainment.  It can be worshipful.  It can be impressive.  It can be inspiring.  And for me, at least, music can also be healing - it has been ever since I was a little girl.  But today I witnessed the healing side of music taken to a new level - music was used not only to heal but to also serve as a cautionary tale about what can happen when a young person is routinely ostracized, ridiculed, and bullied.  In the case of Destini, the young girl this song was written about, the tragic result was suicide.

Sarah Poindexter is the composer and performer of the song, "Dear Angel" and she performed her song today at her senior voice recital at Radford University, singing and playing at the piano on a darkly lit stage in front of her classmates, friends, and family.  The song itself is powerful in its rawness and honesty and to see this young woman singing it by herself was like witnessing a private dialogue that she was having within herself, full of doubt, regret, sorrow, but also love.  Such sentiment expressed publicly through music can be uncomfortable to absorb but I also think that songs like this have the power to teach some powerful lessons that can be hard to make stick. 

In "Dear Angel" the lesson is about the dangers of bullying and of socially ostracizing those around us that may be a little different.  Here are Sarah's own words about the song:
It is not easy to write music for me personally. This song took about four years to actually finish, but if I didn't have that time I wouldn't have been able to tell the story in such a moving way. I believe that there was a higher power working with me to tell this story. Destini's story deserves to be told and hopefully it will prevent future events like this from occurring. She was very misunderstood, which is not necessarily accepted in most high school settings these days. Every day she was made fun of for one thing or another, yet she always asked me how I was doing, greeted me with a smile, and was very complimentary any time she heard me sing. While she was different, she was one of the most caring people I knew. Even after her death, her life still seemed to be a joke to people. Where ever Destini is, I want her to know that there were people that cared about her and didn't want to see her go, inspiring the song, "Dear Angel."
And here are the lyrics to the entire song.  Please do read them.
Dear Angel
It was a cold, winter morning when the phone woke me.
I heard a voice that was familiar; it was so shaky.
She said, "Will you pray for the family?"
I wondered what was wrong.
I didn't know the whole story;
I just knew that she was gone.

Some people cried all day long, their hearts bled,
but there were others all around us
where not a tear was shed.
How could they be so careless?
Do they know why she's dead?
We'll never see her again
because of what we all said.

Dear Angel, can you hear me?
This song is for you.
Dear Angel, I know you thought 
that you meant nothing, but you do.

I know it's hard to believe me when I say that we cared,
but I couldn't hold back the tears
staring at your empty chair.
As years went by we lived our lives,
School was finally done.
Altogether having fun; but we missed one.

Dear Angel, can you hear me?
This song is for you.
Dear Angel, I know you thought 
that you meant nothing, but you do.

I walked across the stage to freedom;
I couldn't bear to frown
'cause when I looked up I saw you
smiling in your white cap and gown.
I was glad you finally made it;
I know you're where you are supposed to be.
'Cause when you waved and turned around
I saw your wings.
It was Destini.

Dear Angel, I know you hear me
'cause I'm singing this song to you.
Remember when you thought that you meant nothing,
but you do.

Dear Angel, I'm so sorry
for all we put you through.
I'm doing all that I can do 
to prove to you we miss you. 

I am moved by Sarah's bravery in getting up on stage and performing a piece of hers that is so intensely powerful.  I am thankful to have been in the audience to hear this song performed in such an intimate way.   I'm also proud of the music faculty at Radford University for seeing the need for one of their students to perform a work that might not normally find its way into a graduation voice recital.  And as a mom of a little girl myself, I want to say how important it is that we, as parents, make sure that bullying is not a part of childrens' lives.  If we see our own children engaged in this tempting behavior, it is our responsibility to teach them that it is a dangerous and cruel game and that it is not acceptable.  If we see our own children being bullied, we need to make sure that we step in and change their world to make it a safer place to be.    

"Dear Angel" is available many places online - click here for a link to her song on cdbaby.  Her song is labelled as being "explicit," most likely because it is about suicide but I've listened to it many times and aside from the topic, there is nothing that I find offensive or inappropriate about the song.  It is a testimony.  It is an apology.  It is a love song, all rolled up in one.  

Thank you, Sarah, for your song and for being willing to share these words with all of us.  
"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." 
-Victor Hugo
Please pass this on!

Resources for recognizing and dealing with bullying:

For parents and educators:
Stop Bullying - a government sponsored website
Stop Bullying Now

For kids:
Kids against bullying

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Accompanist's Anonymous Club (or maybe not so anonymous)

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I've blogged about this before and I'm going to blog about this again because I can't stop thinking about it.  

I am not afraid of the word. 

I am an accompanist.
And proud of it.  
Yes, sometimes I am a collaborator and when I am, I am proud of that role as well.  I love the discussion that can happen between myself and other musicians I'm working with - what does the composer mean here?  How can we make this transition work better?  What tempo feels right for this section?  And performing as a collaborator gives me a sense of even more freedom than usual when I perform.  I feel like I can let go and sing the music, seeking a wordless and magical level of communication with my colleagues in the moment.  

But there is also something so deeply satisfying about slipping into my accompanist role, stepping into a different set of shoes that enables me to sense who I'm playing with at a completely different level.  When I accompany I don't necessarily seek a lot of give-and-take with whomever I'm working with because sometimes the situation doesn't really call for it.  Perhaps I'm working with a 5 year old cellist who is performing for the first time in his or her entire life.  Or an autistic child that has a difficult time communicating in a very personal way but music brings him or her one step closer.  Or it could be someone that's been playing for a while but that is simply not as comfortable in a performance situation.  Then there are times like this morning, when I had 15 minutes to rehearse with a flutist I had never met before, playing a piece I had only received two weeks ago in preparation for playing it for James Galway in a masterclass.  This was a very skilled musician but we were working in a bit of an extreme situation.  In my mind, these simply aren't times to expect or seek much of a collaboration.  These are the times when I enjoy claiming my title as accompanist, as one who walks beside another as a companion. I strive to make such experiences as smooth, musical, and enjoyable as possible, constantly trying to sense whether or not a tempo is working for a performer, giving him or her room when I can tell they are struggling with nerves or with memory, nudging them musically when they seem to be losing steam or inspiration.  It's a very giving experience and one that gives me great pleasure, especially when I sense that my giving allows the person with whom I'm working to feel at ease and more likely to be positive about the performing experience.  It is a giving experience that pays me back in indescribable ways, and I'm not talking about money.  

I think there are some that might wonder why I continue to play for Suzuki book recitals - why I continue to "accompany" when I could be "collaborating" all the time.  It's simple, really.  I love being able to perform in situations in which I'm not nervous about the repertoire I'm having to play - it allows me to reconnect with my instrument and to enjoy making beautiful sounds within the context of doable music.  I love supporting and encouraging young musicians.  I love the look of gratitude and pride on parents' faces after hearing their little ones communicate in a brand new way.  I love it all, from beginning to end.  And every so often, when the accompanying turns into collaborating for a given musician at a given moment, it's the best of all possible worlds.  It's worth a whole lot more than money in my book. 

And it's a great honor.  

So yes, I am an accompanist and proud of it.  

Any questions?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The danger of asking, "What's your tempo?"

Image from Wikimedia Commons
As an accompanist/collaborator type I ask this one question at the start of just about every musical encounter:  

"What's your tempo?"

It seems like a pretty straightforward question, doesn't it?  But it's surprising to me how frequently there is no real answer to the question, being answered instead by the not-so-desirable blank stare.  That's not very comforting or helpful, I have to say.  A step up from the blank stare is the metronome marking response - "I take it right at 47 per quarter note."  That's when I typically respond, "I'm sorry.  I'm not a metronome."  

Now before you say that I'm being unusually critical and negative spirited, let me say that I really do understand how hard it can be to answer my own question.  For years and years I felt like I was constantly pulling tempos out of thin air, hoping and praying that whatever came to me was something that would actually work.  I admit I was always guessing, which was definitely not conducive to feeling in control of my musical environment and even more scary, my performances.  I imagine my collaborators weren't so fond of my rabbit-out-of-the-hat tempos - sorry, dear collaborators - forgive me!  

So why is it such a hard question?  

I think it's a hard question because many of us are not really taught how to answer it.  Or perhaps there's this unspoken assumption that we, as musicians, are supposed to be walking metronomes, able to bring up a given metronome marking at any moment, in any situation whether it be nerve-ridden or not.  Well, I just don't think that's very realistic.  

Tired of dealing with all this tempo nebulousness, I decided that I needed to have a plan for myself when coming up with tempos, especially since as a collaborator I am often the one that has to start off a performance, hopefully with the "right" tempo for everyone involved.  Here's what I have come up with:

  • I find a passage in the movement or piece I'm playing that is made up of faster notes.  I find that with faster passages my fingers and body tend to fall into a tempo that enables me to play it in a comfortable, non-stressed manner.  If I'm accompanying someone else, I use as reference a passage the other person has to play or sing that can tend to give him or her trouble.  With singers, tricky passages tend to involve lots of words sung in quick succession or words that have a lot of consonants that have to be fit into a small space - think German words like, "Schloss" or "Angstschweiß."
  • I then take that tempo that I slipped into and go back to the beginning, remembering internally what that passage felt like and connecting a very concrete pulse with that tempo.  I then start the piece using that same pulse as my internal guide.  

More often than not, this method works quite well and gets a performance started on the right foot, and a comfortable one at that.  I have also found that taking the 20 to 30 seconds needed to do these steps prevents me from jumpstarting a performance too quickly which can also rattle some nerves.  Even better, it's simple and built on something concrete.  

Now when someone asks me, "What's your tempo?" I'm going to smile and say, "Listen to this.  This is my tempo."  

No more rabbits in my hat.  


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Musical Investigations - episode 1: Desenclos

I have a passion for finding patterns in music.  I don't think I've always been this way but it's become more and more a part of my music-making ever since I returned to performing after having our daughter.  It arose out of sheer necessity since I no longer had hours and hours to practice every day but now I see it as a bit of a game - a game that is actually very productive which makes it all the more fun.  

And since it would be rude to be having all this fun all by myself, I thought I'd take time every now and then to share snippets of the music I'm learning right now on my blog and to show how I make sense of them in order to turn the music from a mass of black notes into an intricately woven web of patterns, chords, and motives.  Please note that I'm not a theory buff in any way so I rarely, if ever, will actually label anything with Roman numerals.  Roman numerals, in fact, give me hives.  I look at music in a very simplistic way, that's just the way it is.

To kick off my musical investigations, here is a clip from A. Desenclos' "Prelude, Cadence, et Finale," a piece written for alto saxophone and piano.  

I have been avoiding this one line now for at least a week.  In fact today, right after I had finally turned to the page where it lurks, I was delighted to have been interrupted by someone wanting a rehearsal.  (Let's see...Poulenc flute sonata or horrendous Desenclos? Hmmm...)  I knew at that moment, with that incredible surge of relief at being interrupted, that as soon as my rehearsal was done it was time.  Flutist rehearsed with and departed, I opened up the music, took a deep breathe and began trying to make some sense of it all.  Here's what I found:

  • The notes circled in red show descending movement by this interval throughout the passage both in the right hand and in the left hand.  
  • Every single triad or triad, broken or played as a chord, is minor.
  • In the right hand, after the initial upward flourish, there is a pattern that repeats every 8 sixteenth notes in terms of the contour of the motives.  The first group of 4 sixteenths goes down, the second group goes up after the initial note of the group.  
  • The right hand, after four minor-third descents repeats the exact same pattern.
What I realized after discovering all these details was that I could keep my hands in the exact same position and just move down by minor thirds.  Piece of cake!  

It's funny.  After doing these types of investigations I often find myself laughing at myself and saying, "What was I so worried about?"  

That's a good question.  

Next?  [As she puts the Desenclos aside.]

Added later:
Here is a video of my performance of this piece with saxophonist Brandon Mock, a student at Radford University.  If you can find the musical excerpt above in the recording, you get a prize - kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack! 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don't shoot the piano

Image by Cristian Bortes, from Wikimedia Commons
When people ask me why I chose piano over cello I often reply, "Because with piano I can always blame the piano for a bad performance." Having made the choice that I did, I have to deal with one of the biggest issues that we pianists have to face - being ready to play on the best and worst of pianos and sometimes even facing a myriad of piano-shaped objects (from here on out, referred to as PSOs).  I can hear the groans now and I know there must be tons of stories out there about what we've all had to deal with.  But before we proceed into the depths of pianistic wallowing, I'd like to throw out some thoughts about how I tend to view this challenge that is somewhat unique to our instrument.  

Personally, I love the challenge.  Give me a piano or a PSO and I will do my best to make some good music with it.  I figure it gives me something to keep me focused during a performance too which often comes in handy.  Forget the lady out in the audience wearing a dress with the most peculiar print or the student that seems more focused on texting than on listening - I need to figure out how to make this piano sing!  A note sticking?  Great, it's kind of entertaining to time everything right so that I have extra time to pull the key back up before having to play it again.  Sustaining pedal not working well?  A perfect time to try the old finger-legato technique and to shoot for extra flexible, pliable fingers.  A note severely out of tune?  Let's see how many times I can effectively displace that particular note to a different octave to avoid the unpleasant twang.  Piano missing some black keys here and there?  That's a supreme challenge and one that I've actually dealt with in a prison.  (Long story...and no, I wasn't in prison, just visiting.)  

I'm not being sarcastic - truly I'm not!  I find it all kind of entertaining, except for the prison episode.  When people apologize to me about the piano I am to perform on, my response is always, "No worries.  As long as it has black and white keys, all in the right places, I'm a happy pianist."  

Because I am.  To be playing music always makes me happy.  

As a pianist, I think it's important keep in mind that pianos to perform on are getting harder and harder to find.  They have all but disappeared in churches, being replaced by Clavinovas or electric keyboards  since they don't have to be tuned or given a climate-controlled environment.  Same thing goes for schools.  It's just too challenging and expensive to keep a piano going in that kind of setting.  And you know what?  I get all that.  I don't blame people for making those decisions.  So in my mind, if the choice is between having an electric PSO or nothing at all, if the choice is between making music or not making music, I say, "Find me an electric outlet.  We're gonna make this keyboard work!"   

Now does this mean I don't like performing on a fine piano? No, of course not!  When I have the opportunity to play on a well-maintained, well-built instrument, it's like playing in a dream.  But for me it's a gift, a blessing, and no longer an expectation.  

And my last thought is this - I've performed on a lot of "bad" pianos and on a lot of electric PSOs but in none of those situations have I had anyone come up to me afterwards to complain about the performance, even my audience in the jail way back when.  Those in the know will sometimes commiserate with me but those folks in the audience who may not have much experience with classical music and grand pianos (and I play for a lot of those folks) never say a negative word because they don't necessarily know the difference.  I don't mean that in a disrespectful way.  They are there to take in the whole experience and to listen to music - they don't have the expectation of hearing a concert grand, perfectly maintained and in-tune.

Music is music.  Good music is good music.  But good music doesn't need the ideal instrument, at least not in my mind.  I choose to make magic with whatever musical wand I've been given.   

Pianists - if you have any stories you'd like to share about experiences you've had dealing with unusual or particularly challenging pianos or PSOs, please feel free to share them here and to talk about how you dealt with it.  We can all learn from one another! 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's not just about us - a tale from a tour

Image from Wikimedia Commons
My husband, Tadd, and I are are just finishing up a busy month performing several concerts in Germany and Switzerland and here in the US.  We've never performed so much in such a short amount of time and it's also a first for us to have performed one program so many times - needless to say, we've learned a  lot about ourselves, audiences, and performing in the process and we are thankful that our most recent recital in particular felt like an exclamation point at the end of a very satisfying paragraph.

How we got to that exclamation point was somewhat of an evolution over the past year as we've performed our Love.Songs program repeatedly.  We slowly figured out how we wanted to interact with our audiences and how we wanted to break down some of the traditional walls that typically separate audiences and performers; we grew more comfortable with the music we performed; we also grew less concerned with how the more traditional classical musicians and fans in the audience were responding to what we had to offer.  But the thing that really inspired the exclamation point was a situation that sprang up out of the blue and that put us in a place where we were given the opportunity to make a recital partially about the audience and not about us. 

The university where we were performing had just been given a concert grand Steinway as a way to memorialize someone in their community who had recently passed away.   We heard about this piano from several people as soon as we arrived and with each mention it was accompanied with an amazing sense of excitement and pride.  We were also told several times, with many apologies, that the piano wouldn't be unveiled until a special ceremony and performance being held the weekend following our own.  In all honesty I wasn't bothered terribly by the news since I'm far from being a top tier pianist and because I enjoy playing on just about anything that resembles a piano and I am always up for the challenge of figuring out a new-to-me piano.  We preceded with our dress rehearsal using the "old" Steinway concert grand and I was thankful for the opportunity to have plenty of time to get to know the instrument.  When it came time for the concert, Tadd and I did our typical hang-out on stage beforehand, talking to the incoming audience members and getting to know them a bit which was, as usual, great fun and helpfully relaxing.  About two minutes before the recital's start time a gentleman who turned out to be the piano professor at the university approached us with our host and whispered to us, with a great sense of urgency and conspiracy, that we could use "the" piano if we wanted to.  At first we politely declined, saying that we had already rehearsed with the other piano, the recital was supposed to start, we didn't want to cause a fuss, but it became clear to us quite quickly that perhaps we ought to reconsider.  There were several students nearby that were overhearing our discussion and as soon as they figured out what was being offered there was a new buzz that was added to the atmosphere that made it virtually impossible for us to make the wrong decision.  Tadd and I asked, "Where's the piano?"  

Five minutes later, five minutes "late," we began our performance with me on a piano I had never played before, but one that meant the world to the majority of our audience.  

So what was the piano like?  Was it the best piano I have ever played on?  Was it "worth it?"  I did enjoy getting to know the piano in this blind-date situation and it did have a lovely sound in spite of some sticking keys.  In the end, even those sticking keys didn't matter much because I knew that this switch was indeed worth it.  Through that one simple act of accepting their gift we had made the performance a two-way street.  We had told our hosts that this performance wasn't just about us or the music we were performing, it was also about them.  

I think that is worth one exclamation point!  Or maybe two!!


Monday, October 10, 2011

Hilarious short animation showing how not to practice

Really no need to say very much about this short animation by Richard's simply hilarious and must be watched since I think most musicians can probably relate to the protagonist, perhaps more often than they'd like to admit!

Enjoy and be prepared to laugh and cry.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lessons on musicking* while flying high in the sky (or about to)

United Airlines, Flight 5696
Chicago to Roanoke

Image by Ralf Roletschek on Wikipedia Commons
Who would have thunk?  Sitting first in an airport terminal for hours, waiting for our plane to arrive after countless delays, waiting somewhat impatiently in the gate for the sign that it was time to board, and then finally sitting on the plane waiting for it to depart, that I would stumble upon one of the best examples of musicking, or perhaps I should say airplaning, that I have ever encountered.

It was a typical situation that was relieved by an atypical flight crew.

It started while my husband and I were waiting in the terminal for our flight back to Roanoke.  Every time we looked at the departure board our estimated time of departure was different.  We wasted time in the best ways possible...lunch at a sit-down place, computer games on the ipad, a splurge at Starbucks (their salted caramel mocha is to die for!), more ipad games, some frozen yogurt...About half-way through our wait we looked across from where we were seated and saw three young men, two pilots and a male flight attendant, sitting among all the rest of us tired, weary souls.  They looked, aside from their uniforms and luggage, just like the rest of us.  But what struck me was that they were even there.  I turned to my husband after a while and quietly asked him, "Hey, can't those guys go to their own private lounge or something?"  We weren't sure of the answer to that but we decided that we would keep our eyes on them, just for something interesting and novel to do.  After a while I began to suspect that these individuals were actually our flight crew.  That made life even more intriguing.  

So we sat there together for hours.  Then here is where it gets even more interesting...

After we had finally boarded the plane, a fairly small one, it was confirmed that those gentlemen were indeed our flight crew.  I have to say it was quite different to walk on and see them after having spent several hours "with" them in the waiting area.  It felt like we were one of them or they were one of us.  Then a few minutes, once everyone was on board, I looked up and the captain himself was standing in the aisle facing us and speaking.  Here is roughly what he had to say...

"Well, here we are...finally, thank goodness.  It's been a long day for us all but we're going to get on our way soon..."

A sigh of relief from us all...

He proceeded with typical info...flying time and so forth but then here's what he said to close his address to us that kind of floored me...

"I want to thank you all for being here because, well, if you weren't here, I wouldn't be here.  Because you're here I don't have to work, I can just fly and that's what I love to  So thank you."

Wow.  Wow.  Wow.  This is the pilot, mind you.  He wasn't speaking all this sitting in his comfy big window weat up in the cockpit, he was standing right up there talking to us personally.  Kind of incredible in my mind.

And if that wasn't enough, a few minutes later, while I was busily reading the SkyMall catalog, I looked up and there, standing right next to us in the aisle, was the pilot again, just checking in on us before we pulled away from the gate.  He actually asked, "Everything ok?" while looking us in the eye.

The pilot cares if I'm ok?  How, um, different.  Refreshingly different.

So why am I making such a big deal out of this?  What does this encounter have to do with musicking?

This pilot and his crew, in my mind, did what I am inspired to do with my own musicking.  They didn't stay secluded in their own world, separating themselves from their customers, their audience.  And the pilot chose to just be himself when addressing us at the start of the flight and when he ventured down the aisle to check on us in the very last row of the plane.  There was no cockpit door in between us, no fussy aviation terminology.  It reminded me that he is just like us really and that we do make it possible for him to do what he loves to do.  Does this make him any less of an expert in his area or does it make me any more of a pilot?  No, but it sure made me feel like more of a person and it took my mind off what could have been an even more frustrating and exhausting experience.  It made airplaning even kind of entertaining. 

So thank you, O Captain, my Captain.  You made my day and have given me inspiration to be an atypical musician in typical situations. May I, and other performers, remember to thank our audiences on a regular basis for giving us yet another reason to do what we love to do. 

* In case you're wondering what this "musicking" is all about, check out Christopher Small's book, Musicking.  Tadd and I are currently reading through his book and many of the ideas in there are finding their way into our hearts and minds.  I have a feeling I will be referring to the book more in future posts. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

True words, true music

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Travelling recently with my family throughout Germany and Switzerland brought to light for me a truth, at least in my book, about the importance of one's words, one's language, one's music. In an ideal world every word and every note that comes out of our being should be true to ourselves. They should communicate who we really are, what we believe in, and what we feel, all blended with our own previous experiences and encounters. When we take the risk to expose ourselves our hope is that we will be heard and understood by those around us. When we aren't, when people around us fail to really listen, when they argue right back or are unwilling to let go of preconceived notions or ideals, the consequence can be disturbing. It can cause us to question ourselves and reluctantly wander down a different path in search of another identity that is deemed more acceptable or noteworthy.

That is a path I have been on but am determined to wipe off my map.

Being in another country with our 6-year old daughter was an incredible experience but it also tested me as a mother in a way that I've often found myself tested as a musician. We were in a new situation for all of us and much of the time we were surrounded by a language that none of us spoke. Our daughter, a lover of words and language, found herself in the unique situation of not being able to understand what was going on around her. She depended on us to translate the culture around her, to explain how we were going to get from point A to point B without a car, to help her figure out what she was going to eat. As a parent, I was ready for that challenge armed with what I thought was going to be plenty of patience. I also assumed that she would be eager for our help and guidance. Little did I know she had not left her individual stubborn self at home - no matter what I said, even if I was just describing the weather outside, she either disagreed or simply didn't listen, even when I was trying to answer a question she had just asked me. After a relentless string of me being wrong, I felt completely helpless and found myself shutting down, reluctant to contribute anything. I no longer felt like being me. If my words, which I tried to speak in truth, were not being listened to or denied, what was I supposed to do?

Musically speaking I've had times like this too, when I've gotten together to play music but no matter what I tried to communicate my musical self, it was futile. Some might say this isn't surprising considering my main profession - accompanying or collaborating. This field, after all, spent many years in the shadows and our role started off as a pretty silent one. But that's not how I like to make music and it certainly goes against what I believe the purpose of music and music-making is. For me, music-making is about the sharing of musical and personal selves between performers, music-makers, teachers, audience members...everyone. It is a wordless way of connecting in a very personal way. It's not meant to cause arguments or to prove anything. It is not meant to be a way of putting people in their place - so and so is the real professional, or so and so doesn't really get classical music. Music is about pure expression. If the musicians I'm working with struggle to listen to what I have to say or would prefer that I simply reproduce note for note what they want me to say, I no longer feel like I'm expressing who I am, I'm reproducing what I'm not. I no longer feel like I'm making true music.

I know it can be hard to work with other musicians. It makes sense, especially considering the personal nature or it all. Perhaps that's why some can fall into the trap of just dictating what another musician should be doing in a collaborative situation. It's much easier to argue and command than to listen and meld one's own ideas with anothers. But is music born from such a situation really true music-making? I think I'd much rather take another road that involves cooperation, patience, and respect - a road that allows oneself to be true to oneself in all ways.

I hope to see some of you there on that path. I promise I'll listen!


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shooting a hole right through Mission: (Im)possible

Just about a month ago I confessed my fear and trepidation about a saxophone recital I was preparing for in my post, "Staring down the musical version of Mission: Impossible."  Now that I am officially on the other side of it all, I feel that I can safely and sanely report back on the whole experience and share some of what I learned.  

I still do believe that this was the hardest music I've ever had to learn.  Both sonatas by Creston and Feld, were written in such a way that I simply couldn't read the music at any point in the process.  Creston's harmonic language was somewhat straight-forward and slightly predictable but it was dense and very chromatic.  Add to that the fact that he decided to not write using any key signatures, which means I was constantly trying to read tons of accidentals, and that led to one grumpy, nervous pianist.  As for the Feld, it is a fascinating piece and now I really love it but it is very, very different.  Full of 12-tone writing, dense chord clusters, challenging rhythm, lots of fast chromatic writing, and although I found it cool, reading music where one hand plays the retrograde of the other hand requires a different part of the brain than I'm used to using.  

Playing music that caused new parts of my brain to light up definitely required some new strategies and when I wrote the earlier post I was just at the beginning of coming up with a plan.  Fortunately for everyone involved, the plan panned out and I feel pretty comfortable saying that the recital went off pretty well.  Does that mean it was perfect?  Well, most people probably know me well enough to know the answer to that and to know that perfection is not what I was expecting.  But what I'm most proud of is that I accomplished what my primary goal always is when it comes to performing - when the saxophonist and I walked off stage, particularly after the Feld, we felt like we were flying high.  In spite of the music's challenges and our limited rehearsal time, we clicked, we made music, and we were given the ever-so-wonderful encouragement from the audience of hearing audible gasps at the ends of every movement.  There's nothing quite like those uncontrollable verbal and emotional responses!  They were breathless, and we were literally breathless when we walked off that stage.  Oh, I love those moments.  

So what did I learn through it all?  What did I have to do differently?  
  • I had to accept that this recital was a different ball-game altogether and that I might be out of my comfort zone throughout the whole process.  Even more so than usual, I had to tell myself that this first performance of both of these pieces was going to be full of mistakes and that I would be ok with that.  I decided early on that I will simply have to play these pieces again sometime so that I could experience them both from a more relaxed state of being. 
  • Partially from conversations I had following my "Confessions of a piano collaborator" post, I decided that I would tackle the whole issue of faking right from the get-go.  In the past I have typically learned a piece from the beginning as accurately as possible, waiting until right before the performance to determine where I might have to rewrite the music a bit.  With most repertoire that only has a handful of fear-inducing passages, this works pretty well.  But anticipating the high number of these spots in these sax pieces and deciding that I didn't want to have a heart-attack right before the performance because of nerves, I decided to try something new.  As I was learning the music I concentrated on finding and altering slightly the spots I sensed would be challenging under pressure.  I crossed out some notes, put some in parenthesis, and that's what I learned - a somewhat simplified version.  Shocking, I know!  But here's the interesting thing that happened.  When it got close to the time that I had to perform I felt so comfortable with the notes I was playing that I started to actually see and understand the notes that I had originally chosen to leave out and to my surprise, many of those notes crept into my fingers without me even trying.  Hard to describe really, but I can tell you that it was a pretty incredible feeling!  
  • I am a lover of finding patterns in music to help me with learning and reading and in the Feld this was taken to a new level.  There was a particular passage in the slow movement that brought me to a standstill repeatedly, especially when the saxophonist was standing right there in the room with me and we actually had to try and play it together.  The passage, pictured below, is in 10/16...lovely time signature... and the saxophone and piano alternate playing and tapping the rhythm on their own instruments.  At our first rehearsal I had absolutely no idea what to do to get it together.  I literally sat there for about 3 minutes just trying to come up with something.  Taking my own advice in regard to pattern-seeking I decided that there simply must be a pattern somewhere that we could latch onto and as we looked, we did discover several.  We found that the passage alternates between groupings of 3+2/2+3 and then groupings of 2+3/3+2, with very few breaks in the pattern.  These rhythm patterns have quite a unique feel about them which I hoped would help.  I quickly marked where the pattern changed in the music and then we isolated each one, working on one at a time.  Since he started off the first one with key tapping, I had him play the pattern over and over again like a vamp until I could really feel it without thinking individual sixteenth notes.  Only when I was ready and it made sense internally did I bring in my own part.  Pretty quickly we had each group figured out and after a few times of stringing them together, we had it down in such a way that we knew we would make it to the end, preserving the accents in the music and preserving the shifts in rhythm that Feld wanted to pass along to the audience.    In the performance it wasn't perfect - I got off at the very end, but all in all, I was pretty amazed!  So patterns.  Patterns are there all around us, even when we feel like we're being asked to play the most insane things.
  • Even though I try to use my ear as much as possible while I'm practicing I found it even more important to do so in preparing for this performance.  I think it was because these composers' languages were so different than what I was used to, I was desperate to make some sense of them and to find a way to internalize their idioms more.  Using my ear helps me to do that.  So lots of slow practice for me, trying to hear in my ear what was coming next and letting that guide my fingers.  I guess it's a way of adding another layer to the learning process which helps me in the end feel more secure.  A side advantage to all this is that it made for some really good ear-training!
  • And last but not least, I had to change how I spent my final week leading up to a performance for this program.  Typically I make sure that I am completely prepared one week prior to a concert.  The week of, I don't touch the music unless there's a rehearsal or a dress rehearsal scheduled.  (I wrote about that in my post about keeping anxiety free.)  I tried that for the first half of the week but when it came time to rehearse I felt absolutely horrible!  The music was challenging enough that I couldn't necessarily depend on my ear and muscle memory to carry me through.  Thrown off guard, I decided that in the last couple days and on the day of the performance I would play through the music slowly, being careful to keep it slow to avoid any panic or tension and to keep my ears really engaged the whole time.  When we got to the performance I felt much better having done that.  I didn't find myself asking, "Wait, have I ever played this before?"  

So there you have it!  That's what I learned.  Next time I face another round of "impossible" music I'll have to pull this out to remind myself that impossible is really only impossible when you choose to do absolutely nothing.  

And thank you, everyone, for all your encouragement as I've been tackling this project.  Your suggestions, well wishes, and thoughts have been very appreciated!  


Thursday, August 25, 2011

A mind abuzz about sightreading

Image from Wikimedia Commons
After spending the past thirteen years declaring quite strongly that I could never teach a class in college, I have recently found myself in quite the interesting little spot.  A local university approached me in the middle of the summer and asked me if I would be willing to join their music department as an adjunct faculty member with the hopes that I could work with their students on a topic I feel so passionately about - practicing and learning music more effectively.  I've sort of shocked myself by being so excited about this new avenue but I do think that's a good thing.

This first semester I have been asked to teach one course that is called "Piano Accompanying" but I should say right off the bat that this isn't the type of piano accompanying class I'm used to.  It is a required course at the 400 level for music education majors but is also open to graduate students, most of them vocal majors who have taken 4 semesters of the required piano proficiency courses.  In other words, these kids probably won't be accompanying any instrumentalists on the Franck violin sonata.  The main purpose of the course is to get the kids ready for when they are teaching in schools, more often than not conducting choirs.  Being able to play from the piano and to read choral scores or to simply accompany kids auditioning for all-state choir is almost mandatory these days with budgets rarely allowing for a person whose sole job is to accompany ensembles and choirs.  So my job will be to help these students get the skills they need.  

Wow.  This will be interesting.  I think it will also provide me with a wonderful place to test out some of my thoughts about teaching piano sightreading and some of the other skills that go hand-in-hand with being a well-equipped musician that's able to work anywhere anytime and with anyone.  

In preparation for teaching (which starts next Tuesday!) I pulled out a paper I wrote back in my Eastman School of Music days when I was assigned to teach the piano sightreading class that the freshmen piano majors were required to take.  I had gone through the class myself and unfortunately by the end I felt that my mind had been played with so much that I could no longer sightread as comfortably as I did when I went into the class.  I tried teaching the class the traditional way for a semester or a year, I can't remember, but was very frustrated with how it was turning out so I signed myself up for some cognitive science classes and some human development and education classes hoping that those would inspire me and give me some knowledge to base some change on.  One of the results of all that work was this paper that I wrote, Redesigning the Piano Sight-reading Class at Eastman.  If you're interested in reading some or all of it, please do click on the title - it will take you to my paper as I wrote it way back then.  Re-typing the paper into my blog was a good way for me to get back into thinking about the whole topic and to remind me of the some of the conclusions that I had gotten to after teaching the class for a while.  

So here's hoping.

I'm also reading Leonhard Deutsch's book, Piano Guided Sight-Reading, which is proving to be an interesting but perhaps controversial read.  It was written back in the 50's but I don't believe I had ever heard about it before.  I'll be going through another reading of the book soon so I anticipate at least one blog post on the subject before long.

If anyone out there has any comments, suggestions, stories, or recommendations of books to read, by all means, please do pass them on here.  I'd appreciate any input.