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.

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.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Part II of my interview with pianist Jade Simmons

Yesterday I posted a video of an interview that I did this past weekend with the talented, exciting, fresh, fashionable pianist, Jade Simmons.  Jade has recently written a book called Emerge Already! The Ultimate Guide for Career Building for Emerging Artists.  If you missed yesterday's post, click here to read it and to view Part I of our interview in which we discussed our epiphanies and evolutions as performing artists and the balancing that it takes to be what I call a "mom-musician."  We've gotten a lot of wonderful feedback from folks who seemed to enjoy it so without further ado, here is Part II, in which we discuss carving your own niche, branding, and knowing when it's time to ask for help and to build up a team that can help you be the artist that you genuinely are.  

If you're interested in learning more about what she has to say, please do check out her book.  If you decide you want to purchase it be sure to click here and to enter in the coupon code NX84V to get the book for only $5 compared to the $7.99 list price.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breathing fresh air and clarity into one musician's life: chatting with pianist Jade Simmons

About a year ago I stumbled across pianist Jade Simmons and her accompanying account for one of her creative babies, Emerge Already! on twitter.  Her profile photos immediately pulled me in because neither were your typical profile photo, especially for a musician.  One photo was of this gorgeous woman with a smile that I truly didn't believe could get any larger - I just wanted to contact her and invite to our house for dinner.  In the other, she was this stunning fashionista, see the photo to the left,  donning this fantastic large hat that I could never wear with even half the style she does.  And it was one of the most curiosity inducing photos I had ever seen.  Almost magically, I found myself on her website and blog, wanting to learn more about who this musician was and the more I read, the more I saw and heard, the more I wanted to just stand up and shout, "Yes!  She's is on to something!!"  After following her for at least a year now, I do believe it is safe to say that I was right with that first reaction.  Jade Simmons is a musician who is living out much of what I've been dreaming about these past few years - she is finding her own niche, she is allowing herself to just be herself, she is communicating with her diverse audiences, and she is doing all this while also being a mom and a wife, just like me.  

So it's not hard to understand why I whole-heartedly said, "Yes!" when Jade contacted me a few weeks ago to ask if I'd be interested in having my blog be a stop on her Emerge Already! The Ultimate Guide blog tour.  I had just read her newly published book and was eager to get a chance to talk to her in person about some of the questions that popped into my head while reading.  I was curious to hear what advice she might have to give to someone like me - a musician that realized long ago that I wasn't competition material, and that I didn't really want to pursue the traditional performing route complete with managers, recording contracts, tours and the like which is what a portion of her book is devoted to.  I also decided early on that it was more important to me to be a musician in addition to being a wife and mother.  So although I'm not a professional interviewer in any way (in fact the whole idea terrified me!), I put on my interviewer hat and spent a lovely hour chatting away with this wonderful woman that is just as vivacious, energetic, and passionate as I thought she would be.

Without further ado from me, here is Part I of our interview.  Come back tomorrow for Part II.  I hope you enjoy and encourage you to leave comments and questions here for Jade.  I'll be sure that she gets them.  

Part I: Epiphanies, Evolutions, Making Art while Making Babies:

If you're interested in learning more about what she has to say, please do check out her book.  If you decide you want to purchase it be sure to click here and to enter in the coupon code NX84V to get the book for only $5 compared to the $7.99 list price.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lend me an ear and I'll play you a song

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I have been given many ears this summer...

and yellow squash,
green beans,
red cabbage, 
sugar snap peas,
and collared greens...

all because I accompanied the daughter of a local organic farmer on her first violin recital a few months ago which was in itself a joy for me.  (You can read about the whole experience in my post, Accompanying on top of the world.)   I do believe this has been one of the best forms of payment I have ever received and I feel impelled to record why right here in the unlikelihood I find myself grousing about my job sometime in the future or in case another fellow pianist is considering whether or not to barter his or her services for something as unique as a summer full of fresh fruit and vegetables.

So here's what I've loved about my fruits and vegetables:
  • As with music-making, farming is an ode to the work that our hands do.  I work the keys - the farmer works the earth.  Being able to exchange the work of my hands with the work of another's has been curiously satisfying and it has made me think a lot about all the hard work that goes into producing fresh, organic produce.  And just as many people have tried their own hands at music and have been frustrated, I have tried my hands at growing vegetables and have not been terribly successful.  It all takes talent, discipline, and hard work whether it's in the fields or in the studio.  
  • We have received more produce than we could ever eat ourselves as a small family of three.  Finding ways to make sure that we don't waste any of it has been an adventure in itself but a welcome one because it has reminded us of the beauty of community.  We have gone to our neighbors asking them what vegetables they could use so we now have more of an idea of their own family's likes and dislikes.  We have looked up new recipes and made large batches that we now regularly share with them at just a moment's notice.  Had I been paid with non-edible green stuff, a.k.a. money, I have a feeling we wouldn't have been as willing to share and that invisible wall that can tend to go up between neighbors has been blasted right down revealing a situation that is somewhat reminiscent of earlier decades.  To bring this all back around to music-making, it makes me think about how wonderful it would be if we, as musicians, either professional, amateur, or student, would take the same approach with our musical talent.  If those with a lot would extend an open hand to musical neighbors, to find out what interests them, and to share in some sort of musical bounty.  I'm not quite sure what that would look or sound like but I imagine it would also hearken back to a previous time, when music-making in the home with neighbors and acquaintances was a regular pastime.  That sounds lovely! 
  • Who knows what I would have bought with the money I could have been paid?  Frapuccinos at Starbucks?  Another pair of earrings?  Another dress for our daughter?  It's so easy to not be responsible when it comes to having money in my pockets.  But with vegetables?  How could I possibly squander vegetables?  It's been remarkably freeing to know that only good could come out of this currency. 
There's only a few more weeks shipments of produce headed out my way this summer.  I'd be happy to lend anyone an ear if you'll play me a song.  We'll be expecting you.  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

An avenue to classical music through everyday opera and song

The Swooning of Esther, painting by Antoine Coypel
image found on Wikimedia  Commons
We may deny it but people like drama.  In those moments of fire, anguish, and passion we may claim that we’re being controlled by some outside force and that we regret such displays of emotion.  But speaking from experience I think we often find ourselves on the performing stage of life simply because it feels good to express ourselves in such a tangible way.  Forget subtlety, forget being demure - just put it all on display.

So here’s what I’m wondering based on those opening thoughts – why, oh why, do so many bemoan the future of opera and the future of singers in the classical music world? 

For those of you who may not know me, I am an eternal optimist in addition to being a passionate advocate for classical music both on and off the stage so this whole topic is near and dear to my heart.  I believe that classical music can be enjoyed by just about anyone, possibly everyone, because I believe music has the power to affect people without them even being aware that it’s happening.  In fact, I’ve observed many times that it’s those folks that aren’t expecting anything that end up being moved the most. 

My first experience with this was a year or so ago when flash mobs first started entering the everyday scene.  A video went up on youtube of young artists from Washington National Opera singing the famous drinking chorus (“Libiamo”) from Verdi’s La Traviata in the produce section of Whole Foods.  That video brought me to tears, not necessarily because of the singing, although that was wonderful, but because their performance in such a random, unexpected location pulled everyone into their drama.  Were the singers singing in English?  No they weren’t, but that didn’t matter because this scene was bringing live music, sung by everyday people, face to face with everyday people.  There were no consumers, no tickets, no costumes, no expected concert attire on the part of the “audience”.  It was the music, the drama, the magic that mattered and it worked. 

The Swiss national TV Network, Schweizer Fernsehen, has recently undertaken its own projects to make opera a more everyday experience.  The New York Times wrote a fantastic overview of its series of televised operas but to sum it up, it has produced four operas, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Puccini’s La Bohème, Verdi’s La Traviata and Aida.  Here’s the catch - they were all performed and filmed out in public, with non-paying spectators right there watching and in some cases interacting – in a train station, shopping mall, apartment complex, on a boat.  Watching the footage, you can see the mobs of people these operas attracted and their reaction to being plopped right in the middle of intense drama and incredible music.  My favorite clip from Bohème is of one of the famous scenes between Rodolfo and Marcello that usually takes place in their garret.  In the Swiss production a public laundry room in an apartment complex serves as the set and in the room with them are two little old ladies who are also doing their laundry.  I have a suspicion that those two unsolicited opera extras are going to remember that day and perhaps even the music for the remainder of their lives and I have to admit, I’m slightly jealous.

Bringing this all back home to everyday life, I don’t believe we need flash mobs or big televised productions to keep opera and classical music alive and kicking, although they certainly don’t hurt.  I don’t even think we need a whole lot of money or resources, although they can be handy too.  Right now, what I think we need to do is to get classical music out there and to do so with the passion that we, as performers, feel for what we do.   And we can do all this without fear or apprehension for how it might be received because as I said earlier and as I have witnessed in the past few years, music and drama, when infused among everyday people, is powerful stuff. 

I’ll never forget an outreach performance I recently did with some college voice students.  We spent a weekend traveling around to farmers markets and to restaurants performing scenes and arias from various operas.  Living in a small, rural community that rarely hears this literature, some of the kids weren’t so sure how they were going to be received.  Their concern quickly evolved into elation after singing “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  One of the groups sang in front of a family with a young girl and even though the college kids were singing in Italian, the girl was grinning from ear and swooning with every romantic gesture, with every musical sigh.  She got it.  She loved it.  She lived through opera for those three minutes of Mozart. 

Everyone, even a 6 year old girl, could use a little drama in their life so let’s bring it to them in any way that we can and watch the magic of music work its charm.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thoughts on practicing through another musician's eyes

Composer Daniel Barkley at work
You know you've been using social media too long when someone else starts to write down your thoughts better than you ever could yourself.  

I just experienced this for the first time when I received a tweet from a friend who had just written a blogpost based on something I had tweeted while practicing just the day before.  He took my tweet and expounded on it brilliantly, putting into the right words what I often have swimming in my head about practicing.  

So without any more words from me since my friend can do it better, here is what Daniel Barkley, a wonderful composer based in Northern Ireland, had to say...

Erica Sipes' tweet about practicing
@ericasipes: When practicing, I'm always looking 4 what's incredible, riveting, shocking, moving-that's what I want 2 give the audience.  #practicetweets
In the two years or so that I've been on Twitter, this is definitely one of my favourite tweets.  It reminds us of something that usually gets neglected when we talk and think about practice.  Practice is not just about achieving technical fluency and consistency, but should also involve experimenting to achieve something that is musically exciting and electrifying.  

Click here to read the rest of Daniel's post.

If you'd like to read what he tweets about, here's his twitter page.
And if you're interested in his many wonderful compositions, check out his webpage.

And last but not least, if you're curious about reading what I think about while I'm practicing, feel free to do a search on twitter for #practicetweets or just click here.  It's a place where I, and some other musical folks, like to put the scandalous, wacky, inspiring, and sometimes thought-provoking thoughts that occur to us in the moment.  There's a twitter feed in the sidebar of the blog that shows just these tweets.  Enjoy and please do feel free to join in the fun.  We'd love to see you there! 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Staring down the musical version of Mission: Impossible

I have been quietly undergoing a mini-nervous breakdown for the past few weeks trying to learn some music for an upcoming recital.  This has put the eternal optimist in me to the test and to be completely honest, it was looking pretty grim for a while - so grim, in fact, that an acquaintance of mine actually said to me, "Erica, why don't you just tell him that you simply can't play those pieces?"  Oh wow - that question just about killed me!  It screamed, "FAILURE" and was complete with blinking neon lights that strobed into every nerve ending.  But perhaps hearing that question was exactly what I needed.  It forced me to come up with a defense to that innocently presented question and ultimately ended with me declaring that I would turn my Mission:Impossible situation into Mission:Possible.

The pieces in question are two saxophone sonatas, one by Paul Creston and the other by Jindrich Feld.  They're great pieces, very different from one another, and I tried to be responsible by looking through the music pretty carefully before I agreed to take on the challenge but sometimes being responsible only goes so far.  The problem began when I really started to try and learn the music.  Usually I start the whole learning process with a good read-through of all the music so that I can ascertain which movements are going to be more challenging and which ones I'll basically be able to just set aside and read when it comes time to rehearse and perform.  So picture this: I sit down, open up the music, start to play and, well, I can't!  I can't sightread the first movement of the Creston, which I thought was going to be a pretty straight-forward piece.  I turn the pages until I find the second movement.  Not so bad.  I get through the first page, turn the page and then...eeek!  I get stuck again.  It's not as challenging as the first to read but still.  This goes on for every other movement in both sonatas - 7 movements total.  By the end, I want to cry. 

So now we're back to where I started the post - with the suggestion that I should just tell the saxophonist that I couldn't play the music.  Well, I simply couldn't give up because I don't back out of commitments lightly - I just don't think it's responsible.  The only option, in my mind, was to realize that I was going to have to be extraordinarily disciplined, come up with a plan, find some new ways to learn ferociously challenging music, and to just do it.  And that's what I'm doing.  After a week and a half of my own Mission: Possible, I'm finally getting somewhere.  

Now that I feel like I'm making my way out of the woods, what thoughts and questions am I taking from this whole experience?  
  • Is there ever a situation or a time when a professional musician might decide that he/she simply can't and/or shouldn't learn a particular piece of music because of it's difficulty?  Or is it good to push ourselves, even when it's terrifying?
  • Being in the field of music provides me with never-ending challenges that might drive me crazy at times but that ultimately keep me thinking and challenging myself.  
  • Trying to read this difficult music has helped me to empathize with musicians that regularly have trouble sightreading.  Not being able to make music because my brain was so tied up in knots was painful, discouraging and really not fun at all.  

And most importantly, I believe...
  • Nothing is impossible!  Yes, I've heard that tons of times before but I'm saying it now with a lot of visceral understanding.  After a decent practice session last night I came up with this phrase - "Some things are impossible only as long as they are feared" and that's what I'm carrying with me through these last few weeks of preparation, with the hope that the eternal optimist in me has returned for good.  And here are two other quotes I discovered last night about impossibility that I've added to my arsenal:
"Impossibilities are merely things which we have not yet learned."  - Charles Chestnutt
"Progress is what happens when impossibility yields to necessity." - Arnold H. Glasgow
So here's hoping this story is going to have a wonderfully successful ending.  I encourage anyone that has any stories of similar situations or any suggestions of how to deal with them to share them in the comments section.  I think it's important for young musicians especially to realize that the pros have their moments of doubt, fear, and terror too!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Singer envy

Cartoon by Charles Hawtrey, from Wikimedia Commons
I admit it.  I am dealing with a major case of singer envy right now.  I don't envy having to learn lots and lots of languages, or being extra sensitive to every sniffle, every drip of mucous down the throat or in the nose, or having to face the audience to perform.  What I envy is quite simple, really - I envy each and every word they get to sing.

This past week I took a car trip all by myself which meant that I could listen to whatever I wanted for 5 straight hours.  Bliss!  Being a pianist and cellist, one might think that I would have spent that time listening to instrumental this and instrumental that or even classical this and classical that, but I didn't.  Every single CD was of a singer of some sort - there was Fernando Ortega, Josh Groban, and so I didn't forget that I was mainly a classical gal, I threw in a set of the complete Fauré songs.  You see, when I'm on my own like I was, in a car, I have this thing for singing along with songs that I love.  I will listen to a song over and over again, frequently backing up the CD so that I can clarify a word that I'm missing and I will do this until I can really, really sing and understand it.  I must be quite amusing to observe, really.  As is usual during one of these belting fests, I got hooked onto one song in particular - Fernando Ortega's "All That Time."  I had always loved this song by this incredibly talented artist, but I had never really understood what the song was about so I was determined this time to finally "get it."  I listened, I sang, I backed up and started again when I lost the meaning...and then wham!  I figured it out and when I finally got what the song was about I bawled.  Yes, in the car, while I was driving.  In the end, when I felt that I had truly learned the song, I felt like I had just experienced some life-changing, soul-cleansing event.  I know, I know, crazy, corny, but whatever - it's the truth and isn't that so like some music? 

Especially music with words.

Music with words is such an incredible gift for everyone involved, but only as long as those words are acknowledged, loved, and shared.  I have worked with too many young singers who haven't a clue, or seemingly a care about what the words they are singing actually mean.  I have a difficult time accepting that type of attitude and I never let it go in a rehearsal situation.  In my mind, singing without meaning is practically criminal since words are like gold to me.  Rob a song of its meaning and you've stolen something from the composer who wrote his composition using those specific words for a reason.  Sing a song without knowing note for note, word for word, what you're saying and your audience is being cheated out of what really matters.  Singers should not only sing to sing, they should also sing to say something.  When they do, they have the power the take an audience, and perhaps even themselves, to a place that is rarely visited by instrumental music alone.  

So if you're a singer and you need another reason to pay attention to those words, keep this in mind - if you don't, I might take you for a drive with me singing at the top of my lungs the whole way...but I promise you, I'll be singing with meaning and loudly, but not very well!

And if you are a singer that loves words as much as I do, thank you for that.  Consider yourself envied.