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.

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.