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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Performing for kids? All you need are...

Squeaky chairs.  Yep, squeaky chairs.  Or perhaps I should say, "squeki chrs," as one kindergartener spelled it.

Well, perhaps you need a bit more but that was one of the somewhat surprising things we discovered that was a hit with just about every kindergartener that attended a recent kid's concert we presented.  I'm still somewhat new at putting together classical concerts for little people so I still get pretty nervous and frantic in the planning stages but what I'm starting to figure out is that kids don't necessarily need a whole lot to make them happy and to make a concert of this sort successful.  And considering how important I think it is for us musicians to get out there and give young people some sort of musical experience, I think it's worth any extra effort it does take.

Aside from the squeaky chairs, some of the other things that the kindergarteners that left an impression on them were:
  • some fantastic puppets made by the company, Folkmanis.  My husband sang several songs of John Duke's that incorporated a turtle ("Mock Turtle Soup"), a crocodile ("The Crocodile"),  and a lobster and a snail ("The Lobster Quadrille").  The puppets ended up "helping" my husband sing the songs, according to several kids, and that thrilled them to no end, especially since they had met Mr. Turtle the previous day when we stopped by each classroom to talk a bit about the concert and what to expect.  Mr. Turtle, hands down, was the star of the show for those little talks and at the concert I think the puppets helped make the music come alive in a very visual way and helped the kids have an instant emotional attachment to the music.  
  • the variety of instruments.  Everyone one had their favorites, of course, and that varied widely.  For some it was the piano, for others the cello, and last but not least, the flute received many wonderful compliments including, "Floots are good to me.  I love it."  What a wonderful thought - an instrument being good to someone.  Lovely.
  • the animal identification game.  There was one set of three pieces that had to do with animals: "The Swan" from the Carnival of the Animals, and "Ox-Cart" and "Ballet of the Chicks in their Shell" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  Each child received a bag containing 3 popsicle-stick puppets - one for each animal the pieces represented.  While I was playing each song, the kids were asked to hold up in the air whichever animal they thought the music portrayed.  They really seemed to get into this little activity and it gave them something to listen for and something to physically do in the middle of the concert.  They were also really good at it, much better than the previous year when the most hilarious conclusions were made.  You can read about that here if you're interested in reading about that.  
And the thing that the kids loved the most, even more than the squeaky chairs?
  • getting to come up on stage to join us for a rousing performance of "The Grand Old Flag."  I had spoken to their music teacher to ask her what the kids' favorite piece was to sing in music class and this was it.  I was actually most nervous about this part of the recital and was leaning towards scrapping it at the last minute.  I'm so glad I didn't.  After the final number that we big kids did up on stage, I invited all the kindergarteners, about 80 of them, to come right on down to the stage.  They had no idea this was going to happen and as they got up there, many seemed to be a bit nervous.  (Stage fright can start early!) But as soon as the music started, they were off and did a great job singing.  When the song was done, they seemed taken aback by the applause, the lights, the whole situation and that was just so wonderful to see, at least in my mind.  
Looking back on it now, it makes sense that this last part of their program left such an impression on them.  There is something wonderfully and delightfully overwhelming about being on stage, surrounded by music and musicians in such an intimate way.  It can be exciting, exhilarating, and fun - that's why I do it!  Knowing that 80 or so kindergarteners got to experience what I feel up on stage every time I perform makes me unbelievably happy.  It makes me feel like I've given them something special to walk away with and that might just inspire them to try playing an instrument themselves someday and to actually enjoy it.

Who knows.  Maybe someday some of the kids that were in the audience for this concert will be performing a kid's concert of their own.  Let's just hope they have some squeaky chairs too!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Someone wanted to interview me?!?

Last week I was contacted by a twitter acquaintance, Chris McGovern, for what I thought was a surprising reason - he was interested in interviewing me for his blog, "The Glass." But how could I turn him down?  I was very curious to see what questions he would have for me and I was delighted when I got his list.  So anyway, here is the post that resulted from this interview.  They show that he knows me quite well and that he seems to get what I'm all about.  Anyway, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed answering the questions.  

Link to my interview with Chris McGovern

Thank you, Chris, for this opportunity!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Variations on a theme - Nick van Bloss' "Busy Body" and my poem, "The Music Masters"

Chair with Pipe, painting by Vincent Van Gogh
These past few weeks I've been reading an autobiography of a fascinating, wonderful pianist, Nick van Bloss.  There are many reason why I find his story compelling - his struggle with Tourette's syndrome, which wasn't diagnosed for many, many years, his school years of dealing with terrible bullying by students and teachers alike, his everyday challenge to live with this condition, and his incredible, unstoppable passion for music and the piano, just to name a few.  I was also moved to discover that at the time he finished writing his book, Busy Body, Mr. van Bloss had put aside his piano playing and wasn't sure whether or not he'd ever return to it again.  I was overjoyed and inspired knowing that he has since returned to his rightful place on a piano bench.  Prior to purchasing his book I had bought his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, a recording I now turn to frequently to restore my sanity.  I am grateful that he made that decision.

One chapter in his book that has stuck in my mind was one in which he told the story of performing in a masterclass at the Royal College of Music in London, for the great Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva.  His performance for her was an incredible success, leaving her without comments, only praise.  But instead of receiving congratulations from the majority of the school's students and faculty, Mr. van Bloss seems to have been even more ostracized.  In "Pandemonium," he tells of his struggle to understand the cold reception he received.  I was surprised to discover, in reading his words, that I was so very thirsty for his take on it all, perhaps because like most musicians, I have faced some odd reactions myself, although not at such a high level.  It brought to my mind a poem I wrote after my auditions for music school that sums up some of the frustration, confusion, and disappointment that I felt afterwards.  In spite of my wariness to include it in this post, (this is not an example of great poetry) I am going to anyway since it's another variation on a theme that most musicians face sometime in their career.  

So here it is.  And remember, I'm a musician, not a poet.
The Music Masters 
It's my turn to sit on the wooden chair,
the chair that they know so well.
Insecure fingers searching for fame. 
Have they learned anything? 
Hands scratch a nose,
play with a pencil.
Papers pass from one hand to another,
nods of approval or disapproval.
Hands reach up again,
fail to stop a cough.
Eyes burn a hole in my confidence,
the music freezes in my blood.
Fingers struggle to perform,
muscles tighten.
I do not feel like a musician. 
Yes, they have learned something -
music is as strong in young fingers
as in experienced ones.
The wood trembles with a
passion that scares their weathered hearts.
Why are they squirming?
Wooden chairs aren't that uncomfortable.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How often do I really "play" the piano?

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Every once in a while I am hit in the head with the enormity of the gift that music-making is to me.  Yes, I love to listen to music but it's the actual physical music-making that really gets to the core of me, that has the power to transform my mood instantly, to turn a feeling of hopelessness into hopefulness, to turn a grumpy, on-the-edge mom into a patient, loving one.  Fortunately for me, music-making includes practicing, rehearsing, attending someone's lesson, performing - anything involving me at an instrument.  I am experiencing this gift almost daily. 

But what strikes me every so often is how infrequently I actually find myself just "playing" at the piano.  The majority of time I'm at an instrument I am working; I am a mom, I am a wife - time is precious.  I am also a perfectionist that loves practicing (truly!), loves coming up with goals for myself - it is very hard to turn my brain off.  But when I really think about it, one thing seems so obvious to me.  I, as a musician, should take the time to just "play" in the childhood sense of the word; to play for amusement, to play in a completely selfish way, to get lost in play.  It is in these rare moments that I often sense the joy of music again, that I discover a composer's language, that I get swept up in music's broad strokes instead of getting lost in detailed scratches in the canvas.  It is also when I am reminded of gift that music-making is to me. 

This past weekend was my daughter's 6th birthday party.  Such events stress me out to no end and this most recent one was no exception.  It didn't help that the complaints started just as our alarm was going off in the morning.  The dress she wanted to wear had a spot on it, the bows she wanted to wear in her hair didn't match any other dress in her closet, she was sure the cake was going to have the wrong colors on it...Needless to say, my husband and I were quickly becoming very disagreeable ourselves.  All at once, however, just when I thought I was going to break, the cloud in my mind cleared and it dawned on me that I could afford to walk downstairs, sit at the piano, and just play.  No wait, let's change that to, "I couldn't not afford to play."  After quickly working out that I had about 20 minutes before I had to start preparing food, that is what I did.  I opened my Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, turned to the first prelude and fugue from book II and began.  Before I knew it I was well into the second set, and then the third.  It was wonderful.  It was transforming.  It was a personal re-gifting of my very own gift.  I finished playing as I heard my husband and daughter return from the bakery.  Even though their errand had a predictable ending (the cake was the "wrong" color - grrrr!), my husband said, "Thank you for playing.  I really enjoyed hearing it." 

That was the clincher for me.  His words were a reminder that my gift, re-gifted to myself, was  also a gift for him.  

So as I'm staring summer break in the eyes, with my daughter home with us during the day for the first time since she was a toddler, I am writing this post to remind myself that yes, I do need to take the time to play this summer.  I am sure it will be just the gift I need to get me, and perhaps us, through the next few months of extreme togetherness.  

May this gift last a bit longer than the new groovy girl princess that has already been forgotten.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Confessions of a piano collaborator

Image by N P Holmes, from Wikimedia Commons

Warning:  this post, due to its confessional nature, may be a bit shocking, especially to anyone who believes that a note-perfect performance is the only successful performance. 
First of all, I want to express that I really do try my hardest as a musician to learn music as accurately as possible.  I take care to learn the notes slowly and accurately, I figure out the rhythms, I am always conscious of what the composer indicates in the score in regards to expression...I do my homework because I believe that is my responsibility as a musician.  But sometimes, in spite of my best intentions, I find myself in what seems like an impossible situation.

I am scheduled to perform the final movement of Borodin's cello sonata with a young cellist soon.  Thankfully, or maybe not so thankfully, I've had the music now for months so I've had a good amount of time to work out the kinks in a handful of passages.  In other words, I "should" be able to play it just fine.  But here's the thing - these two passages that I'm having trouble with are, in my book, impossible to play as written.  It's one of these parts where there's this gorgeous, romantic, soaring melody in octaves in the right hand (no problem!) accompanied by an exceedingly busy, nasty, awkward, finger-twisting, half-a-keyboard spanning accompaniment in the left hand.  And of course it's fast, especially when performed with an energetic, extraordinarily enthusiastic young musician who just wants to have fun.

I've asked the cellist, no make that "begged" the cellist to not rush. 
I've tried to explain why a slower tempo is better ("I might actually hit some of the right notes!") 
I've talked to her teacher.
I've talked to her mother.
I fell down the stairs and sprained my wrist in order to avoid the concert all together.  (Didn't work - they just posponed it!)

But after all this, no deal.  

The other day, sitting at the piano after a month of not facing the Borodin thanks to my sprained wrist, I felt nauseous.  I felt defeated.  I felt mad.  "Why, oh why can't I play this thing?"  I had a pretty dramatic moment with myself.  Quite impressive, really.  And after a few days of attempting to play all the notes I finally decided that this situation called for desperate measures.  It was time to be creative.  It was time to decompose what was on the page and come up with something do-able.  So very sorry, purists,  perfectionists and dear Borodin!

I know, shocking.  Well, I'm laying it on the table right now.  I'm confessing that I have completely re-written part of the Borodin cello sonata.  I went to youtube, listened to a recording and when those horrible passages came up I closed my eyes and listened.  I didn't listen for every note in the piano part, I just kept my ears open for what stuck out and what stayed with me after the passage was over.  And guess what?  Were all those tiny notes in the left hand even audible or discernible?  Nope.  All I heard was the bass note at the start of every measure or even every two measures in some parts.  Encouraged by this, I sat back down at the piano and found a way to play the passage without making a mess of everything yet keeping those wonderful bass notes and the rhythm of the sixteenths going.   I could fly now!  And the soaring melody in the right hand?  I could actually enjoy it and sing!  

Do I feel bad about all this?  Well, yes and no.  The perfectionist, ambitious side of me wants to be able to pull it off the way it's written but the realistic side reminds me that I've put in a noble fight on that front.  And in the end, what's more important?  My ability to do some feat of pianistic magic or my ability to support this young cellist free of terror and with passionate musical intent?  

We played the Borodin this past Tuesday for a final run-through at a performance class and it was my first go at my edited version.  They only thing different anyone seemed to notice was that the pianist was actually smiling this time around!  That certainly works for me.  And next time I get the chance to perform the piece, I'll give the "correct" notes another go, I promise.  

Can you forgive me now? 

P.S. - If any other musicians out there feel like confessing about their own blasphemous re-writes, please feel free to do so in the comments.  I think it's important for young musicians, especially, to know that it is done sometimes.  Many thanks!

Added later: Geraldine, author of the wonderful blog, "Geraldine in a bottle," mentioned in her comment below that she recently wrote a post about this very topic: "Should you try to play all the right notes?" It's wonderful, just like all her blog posts. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

My slightly unconventional path to a career as a pianist

Image from Wikimedia Commons
It's amazing how early on we get ideas in our head about how something is supposed to go.  In the classical music world, it seems to start with the familiar old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"  Answer: "Practice, practice, practice."  And yes, practicing is definitely important but is the Carnegie Hall part?  As a kid, I believed that the infamous hall in New York City was indeed a necessary benchmark for any aspiring musician but pretty quickly the reality (or rather unreality) of that goal made itself pretty clear.  

This was one of the first changes in my path to becoming a musician.  I crossed Carnegie Hall off my list and frankly, sighed a sigh of relief. 

Next question I was told I needed to answer was what do I want to be?  A cellist or a pianist?  I struggled with this one for years and received plenty of bruises along the way from going back and forth, trying to make up my mind.  Before going to college I spent several years doing both but then quit piano in a very dramatic fashion, led mostly by the extremely stubborn side of myself - more about that in another post, perhaps.  I went to college as a cellist and it wasn't until the end of the first year that my cello teacher heard me play piano.  He inquired why I had quit and upon hearing my thoroughly asinine answer, signed me up for a piano audition to become a double major the next month.  With that audition, however, I hit upon a convention that at the time wasn't supposed to be broken.  The general consensus in the piano faculty was that they wouldn't teach me unless I quit the cello first.  Apparently it wasn't appropriate for anyone to double major in two performance areas.  Thanks to my stubborn side, however, I stated my argument for the president of the school who decided to compromise with me.  He said I could try it for one year.  After that, a decision had to be made.  After only a semester and a half of trying to practice two instruments at a music-school level, it became pretty obvious to me that I couldn't keep up both.  So making the decision early, I dropped cello and switched to piano. 

So there was the second change in direction.  

Once I was fully committed to being a pianist again, I found myself with the question of where did I went to end up as a pianist.  I didn't have to think very hard about this one.  I had always been addicted to chamber music and to accompanying others from the piano and because of my shyness, I knew that I didn't want to have a solo piano career.  So piano collaborating it was.  My new career choice.

For the rest of my undergraduate years as a piano performance major, I studied my solo repertoire half-heartedly but dove right into accompanying and collaborating.  I took Italian, I took French, I ate up the piano accompanying course, I took extra coachings from a fabulous collaborator, I went to summer festivals as an accompanist, worked in San Francisco and Switzerland as a vocal pianist at a restaurant, accompanied a church choir...I was so ready to be done with performance and move right into my graduate degrees in accompanying.

But wait! Not so fast.  Detour ahead.

In my senior year I contacted both of the accompanying mentors to initiate the obvious next step to me becoming a professional collaborator.  They both, individually, told me that they would not accept me into their program.  Jaw-dropping.  Crushing. I'm even feeling choked up thinking about it.  And this was coming from two completely separate people that I admired and worshipped with my whole being.  What was going on?  What did I do wrong?  They both expressed their belief that I should continue on as a piano performance major which further confused, upset, and intimidated me because in all honesty, solo piano freaked me out.  It took everything I had in me to get through my first performance degree and what did get me through was the carrot at the end of the stick - a chance to move on to an accompanying program.

Although I didn't understand any of it at the time, what choice did I have?  I couldn't even think straight enough to make another move so I opted to do what they suggested - I stayed in the piano performance program for the next two years.  I don't know how I made it through.  It was terrifying for me in so many ways because I was in a fairly competitive studio that was filled with solo pianists that knew that's what they wanted to do - I truly felt like an ugly duckling the entire time.  They ate up memorizing music, I got sick at the thought of it.  Their fingers flew up and down the keys in endless technical gymnastics, I struggled to get through the basics.  They entered competitions, I just wanted to go play chamber music.  In spite of this, my teacher stuck by my side, often making some exceptions for me to alleviate some of the pressure, and I did my best to buck up and to play the part of the solo pianist.  I barely made it, but I did.  And by then I had met my future husband, had gotten engaged, and decided that was the perfect excuse not to be rejected by accompanying programs yet again.

Looking back on it all, I still feel slightly sad about the whole thing.  And I can't say I understand what happened.  But I can honestly say that I am incredibly grateful now that I was pushed in that horribly uncomfortable direction.  Since becoming a wife and a mom and rediscovering my musical self, I am now able, thanks to my performance background and training to embrace the fourth change in perception that has come to me as a musician - I realize I don't have to be "an accompanist," "a collaborator," "a teacher," "a chamber musician," "a soloist."  I can be all those things and more with pride and skill and enjoy them all.  And I do.  I even enjoy the solo piano stuff now, with the exception of memorizing.

So back to that old joke..."How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

My answer?  "Practice, practice, practice, then catch a cab and be ready for what might be a completely unexpected path to something or someplace even better!  And forget Carnegie Hall!!"