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, January 23, 2012

Musical Investigations: Episode 3 - Langer's Konzertante Musik Nr. 4: Allegretto amoroso

I keep naively thinking that I'm done having to learn pieces that drive me nuts.  Silly me. 

So here's the latest.  I'm playing for a recital coming up that features the oboe d'amore, soprano, and piano.  Yep, the oboe d'amore.  I don't believe I had ever seen one before our first rehearsal last week and in all honesty all I knew about the instrument was that it had a really cool name.  Needless to say, I don't think there's a whole lot of music written for this particular instrument so I was quite curious to take a look at the music.  Well, so now I have the music.  And I've looked at it.  Played some of it.  Looked at it some more.  Scratched my head a bit.  Walked away to eat some cookies.  Returned to the music.  

Get the picture?  I had a difficult time moving past "Go" at first.

But no point wallowing in self pity - what needs to be learned needs to be learned. 

One of the pieces in question is the Konzertante Musik Nr. 4 for oboe d'amore and cembalo, or piano, by Hans-Klaus Langer.  In the first movement, marked "Allegretto amoroso" there's one page that doesn't seem too bad at first sight but it's still managed to make me kind of grumpy.  Here's the page in question:

The tempo is quite fast, with the quarter note (or crotchet to some) at 104 beats per minute on the metronome.  

In my usual fashion I decided to sit down and find as many patterns as I could find to help me out.  It very quickly became apparent that patterns where everywhere.  In fact, there weren't many notes that I couldn't squeeze into a pattern that repeated somewhere else.  After playing around, here is what I came up with:

(My apologies for the not-so-easy-to-read quality of this color scan...I was having difficulties with managing the larger file size.)

The first thing I discovered was that the first line repeats itself identically up a fourth.  That means all I had to do was memorize it and then use my ear to slowly transpose it.  Now I'm not good at explaining the why of this, but the other really interesting thing about these first two statements is that because of the way it's written, the right hand's orientation to the white and black keys almost remains the same, regardless of which statement I'm playing.  For instance, the first chords of each line are white key chords, the following chords have black keys in the top and bottom voices with white notes in the middle, and so on.  There are a few tiny exceptions to this pattern but for the sake of sanity I'm going to focus on feeling of familiarity in my right hand in conjunction with my ear to get me through the passage gracefully.  If I miss a few accidentals now and then, oh well.  

There are some other great patterns in there.  I particularly like the one I labeled in green.  The top voice in those clips are always made up of a whole step followed by a half step.  When I was practicing this at first I played that first one in measure two then went to the next one in measure 3 and without looking at the music, played it by ear.  Then I moved on to the one in measure 4 and so on throughout the entire page.  There are 10 of them in the right hand within 17 measures.  If worse comes to worse I could just play that pattern willy nilly and probably be just fine.  

Sacrilegious?  Oh, perhaps.  But I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Sometimes the music beyond the notes are just as important, if not more important than the notes that are actually on the page.

Hopefully these patterns will help lead me there.

Click here if you'd like to see some more of my musical investigations.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Working out life while working out

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Ask anyone who knows me and they'll agree without a second's hesitation - I've never been a big fan of exercising.  I have the discipline to practice piano hours every day and to learn piles and piles of music but when it comes to donning exercise clothes and actually doing something physical that doesn't just involve my fingers, well, it's quite a stretch for me in more ways than one.  But this past summer, I'm happy to say, I found an exercise DVD that I can actually do with some sort of consistency.  Now a pretty big expert on the routines, I recently found myself falling into a trap I often caution young musicians against - the quest for perfection.  

And yes, in case you haven't already picked up on this, I have a hard time not bringing music into every facet of my life.

So here I was in my sweatpants, oversized t-shirt, and tennis shoes, huffing and puffing, when I kept noticing something a bit off.  I'd actually noticed something previously because yes, I've done these workouts for some time but since I know the routines practically by heart now I've found myself paying more attention to details rather than just trying to make it through the exercises without ending up flat on the floor.  In this particular workout there is an instructor and two assistants who seem to do the majority of the hard work. In spite of all the jumping up and down, crunches, and military presses, there is constant babbling coming from the coach with some mini verbal interactions with her assistants from time to time. What I had noticed earlier that was confirmed with this most recent viewing, was that so much editing had been done to create the DVD that much of this banter becomes, upon careful listening, quite unintelligible.  One word from one take is followed by an abrupt pause and then an isolated word spoken by an assistant from a completely different take.  At first my reaction was, "Oh come on...why couldn't they get this right?"  (I know, so unlike the nice, supportive, positive-thinking Erica but keep in mind I was exercising at the time.)  Well, I quickly annoyed myself since in my normal clothes I am a big advocate for non-perfectionism so while continuing the workout I tried to steer my thinking and criticism in a different direction, one that ended up leading me into a series of questions that I attempted to answer while sweating profusely.

  • What was the problem with those little editing blips in the DVD?  Why did they bother me so much?  I think they bothered me because the errors made it impossible in spots to follow any dialogue that was supposed to be going on.  Classical music world parallel:  Sometimes too many imperfections can take away from the musical line of a piece.  It can pull the listener out of the magic of the moment and leave him feeling a bit stranded and confused.
  • Why were there so many editing issues?  It dawned on me that perhaps there was a great need to edit because these really in-shape women had a hard time themselves getting through the routines in a graceful manner.  Perhaps, like little old me, they found themselves collapsing on the floor every few minutes, gasping for air, groping for their water bottles, and swearing passionately.  In other words, perhaps they are human.  When I looked at it this way my attitude was instantly transformed.  It made me feel better about myself and where I was in regards to my physical stamina.  Classical music world parallel:  Hearing a live performance or watching a YouTube video of someone not-so-famous that actually makes mistakes always makes me breathe a sigh of relief because it brings me just a little bit closer to them.  It makes me feel like we're all in the same boat together.  So when I make mistakes during a performance, perhaps I can just say to myself, "Self, just think, you're making some other musician out there, amateur, student, professional, feel ok about themselves.  Yay!" 
  •  Had these blips always bothered me?  No, not at all.  It took about 4 or 5 months for me to even notice that something was amiss.  Keeping in mind I was exercising pretty religiously for those months, that means I had watched the DVD at least 64 times before I noticed anything and it wasn't until the 100th time or so that I was actually irked.  Classical music world parallel:  How often do we hear the same performance 64 times?  It would be difficult for me to even think of a recording that I've listened to with such regularity.  And live performances?  They're never the same twice.  So is it really likely that a few imperfections are going to ruin someone's listening experience? 
By the end of this little question and answer session with myself the exercise DVD was done and I realized that not only did I feel fantastic physically, I also felt exhilarated having pondered the whole perfectionism thing.  A bit nerdy, I realize.  But it was reassuring to know that it's not just musicians that deal with the issue and that find themselves having to cut and paste all over the place in a futile attempt to get a "perfect" product.  I found myself wondering what the exercise coach thought to herself while watching her DVD for the first time.  Was she sitting there like we musicians tend to when listening to our own recordings?  Beating herself up over her minute imperfections?  Probably.  She is, after all, human.  Just like us.  

So what would I say to her if I had the chance?

"Thank you for coming up with a routine that I can actually do, that I want to do, that is making me feel better and better every day.  Yeah, I noticed those funky places in the video where the dialogue is, well, interesting, but you know what?  It actually makes me smile now.  The most important thing to me is that!!!!  You did that for me.  Thank you."

Hmmm...I wonder what would the classical music world parallel to that be?

Any ideas?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sweeping away ashes and stones post iPhone-gate

Image by J. Samuel Burner,
from Wikimedia Commons
The story took social media by storm yesterday.  A performance of Mahler's monumental Ninth Symphony in New York City, a ringing iPhone that didn't stop, the concert coming to a grinding halt and the angry mob that arose out of the incident.  (If you have no idea what I'm talking about you can read the first-hand account of one of the audience members here.)  At first I was determined not to add my two cents about it all but after browsing through several blog posts last night and reading the mostly vitriolic comments that ensued and that left an incredible pain in my stomach, bringing me almost to tears, I feel I  do need to say something.  Hopefully it will be something that has not already been said.

To start off, I want to say that I completely understand how disrupting a situation like this can be.  And in light of the repertoire being performed and the fact that this all occurred in the final moments of such a significant work, I can viscerally imagine what it was like to be there.  What I don't understand is the violent response that an accident, a common mistake, inspired.  Being the usually optimistic person that I am, why can't we find another way to look at this incident?  Why can't we take a moment and look at the realities of the situation rather than throwing stones at a gentleman that accidentally forgot to turn off his phone?  

So in an effort to throw out some constructive thoughts about the whole ordeal, here are some things that have been swimming in my head since last night.

Cellphones and their kin are part of our everyday lives now.  They are mighty convenient but they also have a price.  I'm not just talking about the high monthly fees, I'm talking about their tendency to go off at the most unfortunate times.  I'm not sure what we can really do to take the risk factor out of the equation effectively.  Yes, there are those notices in the program, signs at the entrance to halls, announcements made at the start of a concert, the influence of seeing those around us silencing their phones.  But those preventatives are not infallible.  What if a concertgoer gets to the hall late and misses all of the notices and announcements?  What if he or she was in the bathroom when the announcement was made?  What if he or she just ignored everything not out of spite or ignorance but simply because that happens?  I think it's important to realize that it is not always ignorance that leads to a cell-phone not being turned off properly.  In fact, I rarely think it's ignorance.

So what do we do?  

  • We can stop using cellphones all together.  (Won't happen.)
  • We can leave our cellphones at home when we're going to a performance. (Won't happen.)
  • We can all put our cellphones on vibrate all the time, regardless of the situation, so that we never have to remember to silence them. (Won't happen.)
  • We can find ways to allow people to check in their phones upon arrival somewhere, kind of like a coat-check for technology.  (Interesting idea but probably won't happen.)
  • Concert halls could have a device that automatically turns off phone signals upon entering the building.  (I believe that's illegal.)
  • Concert halls could place devices like security gates at the entrances so that patrons can voluntarily walk through them to be assured that their devices are turned off or silenced.  (Probably too expensive and there will always be some people that refuse to walk through them.  Plus the gates could fail to work properly.)
Hmmm...none of those ideas seem very plausible.  So now what?

At this point in time I don't think there's a whole lot we can do because as long as we have cellphones we're going to encounter incidents like last night to varying degrees.  But here's something that I do know as a performer.  I know that before I walk out onto stage again I can come up with a plan for myself.  And that's what I've done. 
  • I will try to envision different scenarios before walking out onto the stage so that I won't be caught by surprise quite as much and react in a way that I might later regret.
  • If a cellphone goes off, I will try to play on as well as I can.  If I find that I simply can't concentrate or that the audience is clearly disturbed, I will stop and try to politely resolve the problem.  
  • I will try not to blame the person in question but acknowledge that it could happen to anyone.
  • If the situation doesn't remedy itself quickly I will ask for assistance from either the ushers in the hall or someone sitting around the patron with the cellphone.
  • I will then decide on the best way to proceed once the ringing has stopped.  
  • I will not publicly humiliate the patron in question.  Chances are he or she is already feeling humiliated.
When I consider how many people attend a given concert such as the one in New York the other evening (thousands?), and compare that to how many people are the ones that have to deal with a difficult situation (a handful), doesn't it seem like it would make more sense to try to control ourselves and our own reactions as performers rather than depending on a mass of people?  

Ugh.  I'm sorry that this all happened the other night because I was so very discouraged reading the reactions of so many of my colleagues and of other classical music supporters.  I get their frustration, but I sincerely don't get their anger.  And it saddens me that in all the comments and reactions I read there were hardly any voices that eased up on that anger.  Aside from Fran Wilson, pianist and author of the blog, "The Cross-Eyed Pianist," who wrote a post yesterday that echoes many of my same sentiments, I couldn't find many others that felt the same way that I do.  

If this resonates with anyone else, please feel free to comment to this post.  I think it would be good to have some more positive, constructive, sympathetic thinking about the iPhone-gate incident on record.  And if my feelings doesn't resonate, well, please just be respectful should you choose to comment.  

[Added later: After receiving a comment which can be seen below, I feel like I should say that my use of the term "angry mob" is not quite fair since from further reading it seems that in general the response of the audience was quite restrained.  There were some exceptions though.  My apologies for speaking without having been there myself.]

[Also added later: Here is a link to the NY Times article that reveals the story behind what happened.  The patron in question agreed to an interview.] 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Eyes wide open - a child's first experience with opera

It wasn't the Met in New York City.

No cavernous lobby to catch our breathe the moment we walked through the doors.
No plush red velvet seats.
No fancy scenery.
No large orchestra sitting in an illuminated pit below the stage.

But it simply didn't matter.  

We had driven 45 minutes to take our 6 year old daughter to her very first opera production, Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was being performed for free at an episcopal church by Opera Roanoke.  Growing up around classical music and being subjected quite frequently to opera excerpts thanks to an opera scenes class that my husband teaches every year, our little girl was excited to be able to finally see an opera for herself, live.  And we were just as excited until we got to the church and discovered that the church was already completely full.  It was one of those moments that you dread as a parent.   

After several sighs from each of us my husband turned to walk back outside to the car.  I turned to look at my daughter and that's all it took to stop me from following my husband.  I bent down to her level, looked her in the eyes and said, "You're disappointed, aren't you?"  No words were needed from her,  I could see the answer in her eyes.  "OK, we'll stay.  We'll see what we can do," I responded.  She sat down on a bench and waited in silence.  That's not typical for her.

When it came time for the opera to start, my daughter looked up at me and I motioned her over to the main door of the sanctuary.  I told her that if she wanted to see what was going on she would have to go over to the doorway and sit quietly on the hard, cold tile floor.  Looking at me with that look that told me she didn't want to do it alone, I shook my head.  "We can't sweetie.  It wouldn't be polite to the others.  You're small.  You'll be fine and we'll be right here listening."  After only a second's hesitation she crept over to the designated spot and she settled in all by herself.  That's also not typical.  

From the moment she sat down she was entranced.  

Not long after the performance started I saw some men walking through the lobby toward where our daughter was sitting.  With crowns on their heads and treasure in their hands it was pretty obvious to me that they were the three kings, about to make their grand entrance into the sanctuary.  "This is going to be interesting," I thought, wondering how my daughter would react to having three king-like individuals standing right next to her.  Well they upped the ante - not only did they stand next to her as they awaited their entrance, they started singing right there with her at their feet.  They surrounded her with a sound that I can only imagine from the look that she had on her face.  And as if that wasn't enough, the last man to enter, the kings' page, patted her on the head as he walked by.  I literally thought she was going to burst.  That's somewhat typical for her but normally in the presence of cupcakes, not in the context of a classical music performance.  

She remained sitting there on that spot for the entire opera.  When she had to get up briefly to make room for some other singers to make their entrance she stood transfixed without even thinking of running back to our sides, content to stand with an usher that she didn't know at all until she was allowed to sit back down again in her little spot.  Again, not typical.

To watch her watching an opera for the very first time was something I will never forget.  To realize that she didn't need a fancy hall or exquisite costumes and sets to be wooed into the world of opera  was a revelation and a thrill that I can hardly describe.  

Here's hoping that going to the opera with her will soon be added to our list as being very typical.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Learning about complementary compliments from a child

Complement (n.) - something that fills up, completes, or makes perfect; one or two mutually completing parts
Compliment (n.) - an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration; formal and respectful recognition
There is so much we can learn from children.  A few days ago our daughter, age 6, managed to give me a personal learning experience that drove home a point that had been made just days earlier on Chris Foley's wonderfully informative blog, "The Collaborative Piano Blog."  Chris has been gracing us all lately with some very clever memes** that may not make a whole lot of sense to non-musicians but to those of us who are steeped in it, they tend to hit the nail on the head of issues that we face every day.  The meme in question for my blog post today has to do with musicians' unfortunately common tendency to repay an admirer's compliments with degrading, self-deprecating remarks or with awkward hemming and hawing.  

Meme created by Chris Foley and posted on
"The Collaborative Piano Blog" on January 2, 2012
I struggle with this myself all the time but in all honesty, I don't really know why.  In the midst of puzzling over this all over again my daughter unknowingly showed me the way it should be done.  

If you've never had a child, let me tell you a truth about kids -

Kids produce a lot of "art."

A lot. 

It's a good thing.  I'm not complaining.  But it really does make a parent do a lot of creative thinking about what one does with all of this "art."  It's not as easy as just throwing everything away.  There are feelings involved and in the eyes of a parent, there's definitely talent involved too.  My solution to the overflowing boxes of art these past years has been to store them for a period of time and then periodically to go through them, picking out the creations that I sense are most representative of what she's been doing, and putting them in a scrapbook.  The rest goes in the, gulp, big black garbage bag.  

Artwork created by my own daughter created
using simple shapes.  Can you tell what it is?
Dancers on a stage performing for an audience
complete with spotlights at the top.
This week it was time for scrapbook number 4.  After I was all done my daughter sat on the couch with me and looked through each and every page.  With every picture she seemed flooded with emotion and memory for the motivation or the story behind each one and she provided a non-stop narrative of all of this for me as we witnessed together her artistic evolution through the past year.  What surprised me most was that with virtually every creation she said something along the lines of, "Oh Mom.  This is my favorite!  I really, really love what I did here.  Look at..." She would then point out a specific detail that she took great pride in.  At one point she said to me, "Mom, I know, I know - someday I'm going to open my own museum and this one is definitely going to be in it!"  What excitement.  What pride.  

And as if that wasn't enough, as we closed the scrapbook at the end, she turned to me and said, "Mom, thank you for doing this for me.  Thank you for choosing the pictures that you did.  You picked all the best ones!"  This was topped off with a hug that only a 6-year old can give.

Lightbulb moment! 

How often do I take pride like that in what I do musically? 

How often do I repay a compliment with a compliment?  

And when I look at my scenario with my daughter, how would I have felt if she had turned to me after looking at her scrapbook and said, "Mom, why did you choose that picture?  What were you thinking?  It's terrible!"  

Repay a compliment with a compliment.  Somehow.  Even if it's not the first thought that crosses our mind.  The fact is, when someone takes the time to give me personal feedback about a performance, they are giving me the gift of their time, their words, their attention.  Even if I'm feeling negative about something I've done, I need to remind myself that it's not all about me, it's about my audience too,   and they deserve my compliments in return.  Something even as simple as, "Thank you for taking the time to tell me that" or "I'm so glad that you liked it" would probably work just fine and wouldn't require me to say something about my own performance that I don't really believe like, "Oh I know.  The way I play that piece is amazing, isn't it?"  

Repaying a compliment with a compliment is, in my mind, something complementary in the sense of the definition I quoted at the very beginning of the post.  It makes the act of performing complete; it makes the relationship between performer and listener complete.  And isn't that partly what art is all about?  It takes more than just one person, one composer, one piece of art - it takes people to listen, to perform, to process, and to admire.  

So let's compliment away and see if that doesn't complement our performing experiences!  

* Definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster's online dictionary
** Don't know what a meme is?  No worries.  I didn't know what they were either until Chris introduced them to me.  Today's version of a meme tends to be an image of a very simple graphic nature that is accompanied by some sort of amusing statement or sarcastic message.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A study in color and frivolity - Bach's B minor Prelude and Fugue

It seems that it's taking me longer and longer to get these preludes and fugues posted but I will persevere!  This time it is music that has gotten in my way - lots of it.  But another thing that has come into play is that I've managed to hit yet another wall in this project.  I got stuck at the exact same point in the book when I was going through and learning them all several years back - I breezed through the first 10 or so and then wham!  Standstill.  After months of attempting to push forward, what did I do?  I flipped to the end of the book and worked backwards through the rest of the book.  I like practicing backwards so why not?

It worked then so skipping a handful of preludes and fugues, I'm now at the Prelude and Fugue in B minor.  Yes, there's a lot in between that we've missed but I promise, we'll get there...eventually.  And regarding the video quality and angle in these videos, they're not stellar, I realize.  It was one of those moments when I was playing around with my new video camera and the prelude and fugue seemed to actually click with me so I decided to just go with it.  Perhaps I'll get a better take eventually and will swap them out.  

The B minor Prelude mesmerizes me.  I play it as a sort of meditation because of its incredibly profound simplicity.  It is made up of very few motives and ideas that keep me grounded in one thought.  But as with many meditations, Bach takes me on a journey with this one thought by holding it under different colored filters to show how one idea, one concept, can come across in an entirely new way if explored in a different context.  Within two pages of music we hear the main subject of the prelude in B minor (brooding,) D major (sweet,) E minor (lonely,) F-sharp minor (dour,) and then finally back to B minor which now, thanks to our journey, feels more resigned than brooding, at least to me.  In the classical music world there is debate as to whether or not keys have unique colors.  After working on this prelude I am on the side of those that believe that yes, different keys are very distinct from one another.

And the fugue.  Surprise, surprise, I found this fugue a little bit tricky because of some particularly nasty little trills that Bach decided to incorporate into the countersubject at the beginning.  Thankfully the countersubject dies a rather quick death and is gone after only a few lines.  I'd like to think that the composer himself had difficulty executing the ornaments and chose to move onto something more playable.  

One thing I find fascinating about this final fugue in the book is that Bach seems to actually throw away his own fugal conventions, choosing instead to focus on playfulness and frivolity in the many long episodes and sequences that take up the latter half of the piece.  Practically forgetting the subject altogether (its last full appearance is in the middle of the fugue) he plays around instead with a crazy sixteenth-note accompaniment that shows up in both hands and that defy the ear because of its wide range.  To the ear it sounds like the sixteenths are dancing around the other voices, making it virtually impossible to separate the individual parts.  For the pianist, this can be extraordinarily challenging.  For the listener, it can be dizzying but also incredibly thrilling.    Hmmm...maybe I should just listen to  someone else playing this fugue from now on!

To read and view more preludes and fugues from this project of mine, please see the list of links to them on the right-hand side of the webpage.  And keep in mind there are plenty more to come.  Just stay tuned!

Avoiding sightreading derailments at the piano

For the next few weeks, as I prepare for a second semester of teaching folks how to improve their sightreading at the piano, I will be sharing on my blog some of the tips I've already shared with them. 

First off, my list of things to think about when sightreading: 

SCAN through the music first. Always scan through the music visually before your fingers even touch the keys paying attention to things like:

  • title of the piece and tempo indications, if any - these are helpful to know and can also get you focused more on musicality rather than your fear of sightreading.  For instance, if a title says "Funeral March," you'll know that a) it's not going to be fast (unless it's a happy funeral) and b) it's going to full of emotion, or it should be.
  • key - look at the beginning and ending notes and/or chords to help determine the key and whether or not it's major or minor.
  • time signature - it's crucial to know this.  And if you see that it's in 3/4, beware!!  3/4 is famous for messing people up because these days, it's not a meter you hear in everyday life.  (There's more info about troubles with 3/4 in my post, "A note of apology and sympathy to a time signature").
  • difficult rhythms - after a while of purposefully looking for tricky rhythms that tend to mess you up these will instantly jump out at you.
  • anything else that leaps off the page like fast-note passages, key changes, tempo changes, meter changes, etc...

FIGURE out those tricky rhythms you just spotted.  If you're not great at rhythm, now is a good time to start proving to yourself that you can, in fact, figure rhythm out.  It's simple math and is well worth the extra moments of computing how the notes are supposed to line up.  If you don't figure it out now, you're bound to crash and burn when you reach them in the music.  If you do figure them out, you may still crash and burn but at least you gave it an honest go! 

PICK a wise tempo.  Be thoughtful about the tempo you choose.  Pick one based on the tempo indication but also on the difficulty of the piece.  Keep the fastest notes you're going to have to play in mind.  You can be somewhat flexible with the tempo once you start but you want the tempo to be such that you never actually have to break the pulse of the piece.

TAKE a deep breath, let it out, and play.   

STAY in tune with your mind and body. Be conscious and respectful of your mind and nerves when you can afford to.  If you're by yourself or in a low-pressure situation use that time to allow yourself to work on being calm and loose.  Be sensitive to where your brain, muscles, and nerves are throughout the process.  If at any time you start to sense tightening or stress, slow down the tempo until you are comfortable again.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
LOOK straight ahead at the music, not down at the keyboard.  Don't look down!  When you look down, you're almost assured of missing even more notes and then getting lost when you look back up at the music.  Start to develop really good muscle memory instead so that you can keep your eyes on track in the music.  Remember, you've probably never seen this music before so you don't know what's coming.  Keep your eyes on the track or you will derail.  If there is a big jump in one or both of the hands and you need to look, make sure you don't tuck in your chin and move your whole head to do so.  Just move your eyes, keeping your head steady.  This will help you maintain your place in the music and your orientation to the keyboard.

LOOK for patterns.  Always be looking for patterns of all sorts so that your eyes and brain can process a whole bunch of notes as one entity rather than lots of individual notes.  Think about how you read a book.  You don't read l-e-t-t-e-r-- b-y-- l-e-t-t-e-r, you read chunks of letters as individual words.   (More about this in the post, "Reading words, reading music...observations from a musical mom.")  Types of patterns are scales of all sorts, chords, material that repeats, etc...

KEEP your eyes moving.  You're eyes should never stop moving.  If you've landed on a whole note or a rest, don't let your eyes rest too.  That's a perfect time to look ahead and keeps you on track.  If you stop, you're going to have to jumpstart your eyes and that usually causes a break in the pulse.  

USE your ears.  Turn your ears on even before you start to play and trust them!  Too many people rely solely on their sight but our previous experience with music can really help us out if we let our ears guide our hands along the way.  This takes some getting used to but is well worth the discomfort at first.  

DON'T stop.  Don't ever stop to correct something.  Just smile and keep going.  Sightreading isn't about being perfect, it's about being able to experience music that you've never played before.  And when you're reading with others, it's also about experiencing music in a social, spontaneous way.  In other words, it can be fun and downright entertaining.

COUNT out loud while you play.  What?!?  Isn't that asking a little much?  Well, perhaps but here's the thing.  If you can get to the point that you can count out loud while you're playing, you are going to sense a new level of rhythmic security and musicality.  Maintaining a steady pulse is also essential for good sightreading because it keeps you on track, keeps the eyes and brain moving, and makes it easier to read with others.  So keep working on it and just think of the sense of pride you'll feel when you can actually do it successfully!  

BE KIND to yourself.  Be very forgiving of yourself and just enjoy reading music.  Playing music is a good thing after all!

KEEP doing it.  Sightreading, like so many other things, takes practice in order to see progress and to gain confidence.  Keep doing it, especially with others, if you can.  Read with a sense of adventure, curiosity and pride and you'll soon be looking forward to reading music just for the sheer enjoyment of it.  

Any other thoughts or ideas?  I'd love to hear them! 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reflections on the first semester of teaching piano sightreading

As a new semester approaches and the reality hits me that we are indeed at the start of a new year, I thought it was about time to reflect back on my first semester of teaching piano sightreading to mostly non-piano majors.  In case you missed it, I was approached by a local university in August to teach a class that they offer called "Accompanying."  As I described in my post, "A mind abuzz about sightreading," the official name is a bit of a misnomer.  Here's what I wrote about the class a few months ago:
It is a required course at the 400 level for music education majors but is also open to graduate students, with most of them being 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 yes, there is accompanying involved and it is our final goal to make it a part of the course, but what I suspected, and what was proven with flying colors, is that we had to address many other important issues before we could even begin to expect any accompanying or genuine useful abilities from the piano.  It was a fascinating semester and one that involved me changing my picture at every turn but it was very instructional to see first-hand the struggles, the fear the students had, what exercises clicked with them, what didn't when it comes to reading music at the piano.  Here's what I observed and learned...
Music-Slashin' Pianist, with a
pen in her right hand and some
serious scissors in her left hand.

  • I couldn't approach the class is if it was a sightreading class.  The students, most of them not primarily pianists, didn't have enough basic piano skills to be able to sightread, especially at the piano where they are required to read two lines of music at once.
  • All of the students, each one, couldn't believe that music could be played and even performed in an altered way.  Some even seemed to get downright angry and upset with this concept.  It took me the entire semester to help them to understand that it is better sometimes to alter the music if that enables one to give a more musical, smooth performance.  In the end I think I won some of them over as they saw the freedom that comes with "music slashin'" as I like to call it.  It might have helped that I even came up with my own super-heroine called the "Music Slashin' Pianist."  (See photo to the right.)
  • Everyone was absolutely terrified of my class.  I don't think this was a reflection on me but rather a sign that music reading is rarely done these days.  This is not good!  If people don't feel like they can sit down and just read music to experience it it's going to all feel like too much work for them, without any place for leisure in their music making.  It was good for me to come to grips with all of this. Their terror also helped me to not take for granted how fortunate I am to be able to read music pretty easily and without much fear.  My hope is to take away some of their fear by giving them enough joy and confidence at the piano that they slowly take on more and more at the piano.
  • The students had a very difficult time with the concept of looking for and finding patterns in the music.  As with so many people, they were used to reading one note at a time which might be fine for instrumentalists and vocalists that only have to read a single line of music, but for pianists this makes reading very difficult.  
  • In an effort to see if their eyes can grab patterns quickly when isolated, I made a series of large flashcards which I would show them for a few second and then take away.  They would then have to play whatever it was they saw on the flashcard.  Sometimes I would have the notes of a particular chord written out, not as a chord, but as a melodic line and I would then ask them to play those notes blocked, or as a chord, with all the notes played at the same time.  Other flashcards would have melodies written out but not on a staff.  Their job was simply to recreate the shape of the melody, without worrying about specific notes.  They would line up at the piano and take turns doing this quickly with each person doing one and then quickly moving to the back of the line.  It was a great way to warm-up in the morning and they shocked me by asking to do this exercise frequently.  I was also surprised to see how well they did after they got the hand of it.  
  • One of the biggest issues I addressed with them was their tendency to constantly look at their fingers on the keyboard to orient themselves.  I thought this would be fairly easy to solve, ("Just don't look!") but quickly found out that other things needed to be addressed first, like fingering.
  • I came to the conclusion that if the students don't know some basics about fingering and about seeing common patterns in music that can guide fingering and hand position choices, it was unfair to expect them to feel comfortable not looking at the keys.  
  • After we talked about fingering and I had encouraged them to choose and write them into their music, it became apparent that actually following one's fingerings is another matter altogether.  I realized what a conscious effort it is for them to do the same fingering two times in a row, with thought and purpose.   But when they did follow their fingerings, as long as they were decent, they didn't have to look at the keyboard and they didn't make mistakes as often.
  • I learned a simple truth - if one switches back and forth between looking at the keyboard and looking at the music one is bound to hit a wrong note virtually every single time.  
  • I found myself reminding them again and again to stay close to the keys, to stay in the keys to play more legato, and to hang out more in the middle of the keys to reduce the need to move around as much and to keep them anchored to a sense of connection with the keyboard's topography.  Since most of them are not pianists, they tend to play as if the keys are burning hot.
  • I gave them a relatively easy Scott Joplin rag (they would argue about the "easy" part) and I was stunned at how adamant they were that it was impossible for them to learn the left hand line.  Unfortunately I didn't set aside enough time to really get them to a point where they believed me that it was possible for them so next time I will make sure that more time is spent on this project.  I think they like the idea of learning a rag, or at least part of one, and of being able to play stride and it's definitely a nice change of pace for everyone involved.  
  • I struggled to help the kids understand the concept of blocking, which involves taking music that is made up of broken chords, for instance, in an accompaniment, and playing them as solid chords as a way to ensure that all of the notes of the chord are seen at once rather than note by note.  (See example below.)  I regularly block out music myself to facilitate reading and to help me gain a consciousness of hand positions but the students had a difficult time doing this.  When it worked, however, it really worked so I'm planning on sticking with this method and encouraging them to do this more and more.
  • The students don't have much of a strategy when if comes to learning music.  They tend to go to the keyboard lab and to play it over and over and over, regardless of errors, until they could sort of play the music, if they were lucky.  This wasn't terribly surprising given the fact that most musicians have a difficult time practicing efficiently and productively but it makes me all the more determined to help them find another way.
  • Another important skill I need to work on with the students is building more of an internal metronome within them.  So many of them practiced diligently with the metronome while they practiced but rarely, if ever, played without that constant pulse automatically given to them.  When they played for me, they would often stop and start, failing to keep a constant pulse, and this led to more and more mistakes.  I discovered that if I jumped in and acted as their metronome, they often got right back on track and finished out their exercise with quite a lot of success.  Now we just need to get them to be their own metronome.

Phew.  That's a lot of thoughts all in one place.  I guess my mind is still a bit of abuzz about this whole sightreading thing.

Anyone else have any thoughts about it all?  I'm about to start semester number two so I'm sure the students and I would appreciate any ideas!

Happy sightreading and whatever you do, DON'T LOOK DOWN!