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.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 1

Last night I announced my decision to enter the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concerto competition.  As soon as I wrote that post it dawned on me that perhaps I should practice - what a concept!

So here is a video of my first practice session.  Keep in mind that I'm practicing - it's not exactly the most entertaining thing to watch or to listen to.  But since I've had several people mention to me that they wished they could hear me practice I decided to give them an opportunity.  So here goes.  In the days to come I may figure out a way to annotate the videos so that folks will know why I'm doing what I'm doing.  But for now this is what I've got.

(In case anyone's interested the first 5 minutes or so are devoted to the cadenza leading up to the coda of the 3rd movement Beethoven's piano concerto.  The next 5 minutes are me working on the rhythm of the 2nd movement.  And the final 5 minutes contains some woodshedding of the Clara Schumann cadenza for the first movement.)

For more info on this project, feel free to read the first blog post in this series, "Pulling a concerto out of my hat."

Stay tuned for more.  21 more days until submission.  Gulp!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pulling a concerto out of my hat

Just when I thought I couldn't be more nuts...

A few weeks ago a tweet flitted by on twitter that announced a most unusual concerto competition being put on by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Here's a little video about it:

It took me all of about 3 seconds to decide that I wanted to enter.  At that exact same moment I also got in touch with two very distinct sides of myself.  There was the one that was already running to my piano and there was the other that was seriously wanting to take the other to the doctor to get her head examined.  I mean really!  Do I not already have enough to do?  

After an entire week of arguing with myself I'm stating here on my blog that yes, I am going to do this.  But I'm going to do it as more of an experiment - a practice experiment.  I am only going to allow myself 15 minutes a day to prepare for the submission date on March 22.  And since I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about practicing and finding efficient ways to learn music quickly but accurately and musically, I'm going to post my progress here, hopefully on a daily basis.  I may livestream my practice sessions, I may just put them up on YouTube or Vimeo but I'm going to have this be a public experiment.  

I have my concerto - Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, a piece I've performed recently with orchestra.
I have a Reader's Digest version of the entire concerto that will hopefully fit neatly into a 10 minute package.
I have a goal of having it all ready in 15 days.
Not sure I have my sanity but... goes!

Stay tuned to watch this most exciting (or crazy) endeavor.   It could prove to be highly entertaining!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A simple gift in musical form from violinist Mark O'Connor

Photograph by Jim McGuire, used with
Mark O'Connor's kind permission
Some concerts reap cheers and applause from feats of technical virtuosity and brilliance but this past Friday evening my husband and I attended a recital given by the violinist, Mark O'Connor that managed to get the same reaction, and possibly a more heartfelt one, by presenting a recital that seemed to defy what we typically hear in the classical music world.  Except for a few pieces at the end of the recital, O'Connor presented music that came straight out of his method books for young violinists and that can now be heard on his recently released album, American Classics.  This means that each selection was very short, only a minute or two each in length.  And it was music that could be played by an intermediate violinist.  Nothing fancy.  Nothing complicated.  Nothing that made my jaw drop for technical reasons.  But that doesn't mean that my jaw didn't drop.  It did, but for very different reasons.

My jaw dropped because the music was played exquisitely, energetically, and personally.  The tunes, mostly American ragtime, jazz standards, fiddling tunes, blues, folk, and some of his own compositions, were introduced by O'Connor in a way that instantly infused life, meaning, and value into each one.  It gave me the sense, even before he set bow to string, that he was sharing something of himself with us.  About halfway through the performance I sensed that O'Connor was sharing something even more than just tunes he happened to like.  He was sharing a vision that he has for American music which is one that places it in a more prominent position - one that matches more closely the importance that other countries have given our music since we first began creating it.  It was a vision that I found exciting and a bit of a relief because I have often struggled with feeling a need to use more of our own musical heritage to build a bridge between myself and the audiences for which I regularly play.  We don't live in the big city; we don't play for folks that have been steeped in the classical music world.  We live in a small town in Appalachia where those tunes that Mark O'Connor played the other night carry with them more than just good music.  They carry with them memories of faces, places, and history.  

On Friday night, I saw memories coming alive in the faces and bodies of many of those in attendance. O'Connor would name a piece he was about to perform and there were audible sighs surrounding us.  The first time I heard that, I turned to my husband with a big smile on my face and I believe I actually giggled thinking of how often that had happened in our own recitals - not an everyday occurrence, I'll just say that.  And in so many of the selections where O'Connor laid on his fiddling magic, he had the audience tapping their feet and wanting to break the typically silent audience mode to clap along.  I kind of wish that someone had.

To top the night off and to give us a good dose of the unique magic he can produce on his violin, O'Connor was joined on stage by another violinist, Ashley Liberty, to perform a movement from his double violin concerto.  My jaw dropped yet again with this piece.  It was a tangible, aural example of communication through music, especially towards the end.  It was fascinating to hear O'Connor's musical statements, made in his more folksy style, answered by Ms. Liberty's, which to my ear had a little more of a classical accent.  As in verbal communication, those different accents made absolutely no difference in how well they could be understood.  In the end it was all great music and exhilarating self-expression. 

It's no wonder the audience presented O'Connor with a standing ovation.  He had given us a simple gift in musical form and so often it's the simplest gifts that mean the most.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An overworked piano collaborator's want-ad

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Desperately wanted: OWPC* seeking someone clever and smart to come up with an algorithm to assist struggling piano collaborators with figuring out how much is too much and when to start saying "no."  Must keep in mind several important factors:

  1. Repertoire being requested (Twinkle, Twinkle vs...Franck's violin sonata)
  2. Whether or not the repertoire is new to collaborator or is being recycled
  3. Whether or not the collaborator wants to learn the repertoire in question
  4. How much music the piano collaborator is already having to juggle
  5. Person doing the requesting - last-minuter? rehearsal-hog on a regular basis? laid-back player? someone prone to illness and canceling? 
  6. What type of gig the request is for - recording session? debut recital at Carnegie Hall? playing at church? audition? lessons?  jury? competition which will make or break client's career?
  7. Whether or not the collaborator has any other roles beside that of collaborator - parent? teacher? spouse? caretaker of aging parent? marathon runner? running for congress?
  8. How much time the collaborator has to practice
  9. How insane the collaborator is
  10. How quickly the collaborator can learn music
  11. How good the collaborator is at faking and/or sightreading
  12. How much the collaborator enjoys working with the instrumentalist/singer in question
  13. How much of a softie the collaborator is
  14. How desperate the collaborator is for money
If smart enough and interested, please contact me...soon...before I say "yes" one more time!  

* OWPC = Overworked piano collaborator

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Turning one's back on the tenure dragon

This past week we received some news - my husband was denied tenure where he teaches.  

Although we were aware that this was a possibility there is nothing one can do, I believe, to fully prepare for such a blow.  In an effort to give ourselves space and to give our six-year old daughter a break from overly emotional parents, at the end of the week we picked up and went down to the Great Wolf Lodge for a spontaneous getaway.  In case you've never heard of it, Great Wolf Lodge is a franchise of hotels that are designed for families with one of the main attractions being a gigantic indoor waterpark that frankly defies description.  We expected that we'd all have a weekend full of the type of play that only kids are usually privy to.  What we didn't expect is that through play we'd receive some much-needed clarity into what we have experienced for the past 6 years.  

It wasn't the waterslides that did it. 
It wasn't the simulated wave pool, although that was pretty amazing.
And it wasn't the massive play-structure that sprayed, dumped, and sprinkled water from every crevice.

It was the dragon.  Yep.  A big scary dragon, brought to us by MagiQuest®. 

MagiQuest® is a live action-adventure game that takes place throughout the hotel.  Kids get magic wands, get them loaded up with whatever technology makes them work, and are then off on endless quests and adventures that earn them magic runes, amulets, gold, you name it...and this all happens with the wave of their magic wands, their ingenuity (and their parents'), and a lot of exercise.  

It is MagiQuest® that captured our little girl's imagination this weekend and she literally ran with it, with us alongside her panting.  This morning, after many hours of play, we had finally acquired all of the runes possible which meant we could now go on the adventures which would ultimately elevate our daughter from apprentice magi to master magi.  

We reclaimed the Pixies' green crystal and brought it back to Serena the pixie to save all of pixiedom.
We tracked down Ursa Minor's broken amulet and its missing jewels, allowing him to return to his proper place in the night sky as a constellation.  
And then we got to the...the...


We had passed by the enormous red dragon numerous times on our quests.  And although he was only an image on a gigantic screen he completely freaked our daughter out.  She was visibly shaking and nauseous when we got to this point in the game.  We assured her that we would be by her side the entire time, that she had earned her way to this point and that she had the knowledge to succeed.  But when it came time to enter the dragon's lair she was done.  She handed me the wand in defeat.

But here's where it gets interesting and instructional, at least for me.  

At first I refused to let go of this adventure.  I felt like I couldn't let her give up that easily.  She was, after all, on the brink of triumph.  But then my daughter said three things that turned everything on its head and that helped me to see what had happened as a teaching moment for us all in relation to the  adventure known as tenure that we've been on these past six years and more painfully this past week.  Here's what she said:
"I just don't like fire-breathing dragons."
"I would have been ok if I had been able to watch someone go through the whole thing right before me.  I would have known what to do and than I would have been ok."
"What I really wanted was to be a master magi.  I thought I would have to defeat the dragon to do that.  But I don't - I am a master magi."  
Wow.  Lightbulb moment.  I suddenly saw my two magi, who were turning their backs on their own dragons, in a different light and realized that...
- sometimes we don't realize how we really feel about something until we are face-to-face with them and many times it's only when we are staring them down that we realize how terrifying it can be or how little we want that final victory. 
- it would be nice if on adventures we could walk in someone's freshly made footsteps but that is not always possible.  Blind adventures are the most difficult and are always clearer and more obvious only in hindsight.
- in the end one can still be a magi even if not all adventures are completed.  What is important is the process and the steps that get us to where we end up.  We do not need that prescribed final victory to make us who we truly are anyway.  Finding out who we are in the course of the adventure is a victory in and of itself.  
- there is nothing wrong with dragons.  Some people thrive on taming them.  But there is also nothing wrong with knowing when we are not one of those people.  
So here we are.  We are master magis, all of us, with magic wand in hand.  We will now walk away from these dragons and find a place where our magic shines.

On to the next adventure, with or without the dragons!

Many thanks to my dear, brave husband who was willing to let me share such a personal struggle here on my blog.  Here's hoping it will provide some encouragement to others in similar situations.  If you have your own story, please feel free to share it here.  It's always good to know that we're not alone.