My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Personal pianism at its best - pianist Petronel Malan

In two week's time, Virginia's New River Valley will open its doors to a pianist that I've been wanting to meet in person for quite some time.  I met Petronel Malan on twitter during my first forays into this unique form of social media a few years ago.  Known as @PianistTweet, she is one of the most down-to-earth, accessible, charming performers there, tweeting about things both musical and unmusical, always with good humor, sincerity, and warmth for her colleagues both young and old.  It didn't take  many conversations with her before I decided to track down her website and to download one of her recordings, Transfigured Mozart.  Sitting down to listen to it, I was instantly drawn into the clarity of her sound and into the world that she creates through her interpretation of lesser-known repertoire that pays homage to works that are more familiar.  After listening to that entire album, multiple times in a row I should add, I was hooked!

Here is a video of Ms. Malan performing the first movement of Joseph Haydn's Sonata in C major, HOB XVI/50.

In anticipation of her upcoming solo recital at Radford University on Tuesday, April 10th, I asked Ms. Malan if I could ask her some questions to share here on my blog.  Not surprisingly she agreed.  So here is our interview.  My hope is that it will give you a good glimpse into who this lovely pianist is - I think she is more than just an amazing pianist, she is also a lovely, accessible, and caring person.

ES: How old were you when you moved from South Africa to the United States?  If you could bring something from your homeland to this country, whether it be a type of food, a cultural tradition, a specific place, etc., what would it be and why?

PM: I was 17 when I moved to the US and since then, I've always flown South African Rooibos tea with me! It is caffeine free and high in iron & anti-oxidants. To this day, I travel with it and drink it frequently. It is so wonderful we even give it to babies! South Africans, in general, also have a very wonderful sense of humour; so I sometimes miss this. Americans are funny, but in a very different way. 

ES: I love your "Transfigured" recordings - there is so much music included that is not played on a regular basis but that are still familiar, accessible, and engaging and of course they are all played exquisitely.   Can you talk a bit about your recordings and how you came about with the idea to include the repertoire that you included? 

PM: I have always loved transcriptions - since I was a child. I loved the idea that my favourite orchestral piece, can also be played by me. For the first CD, "Transfigured Bach" the producer sent me the repertoire, chose the title and I had no input in the project; For the following 3 recordings, I did all the research, chose the repertoire myself and even wrote program notes for one of the discs. I'm constantly collecting and researching repertoire; I'm a research-nerd at heart! 

ES: You spend a portion of your time judging various competitions - can you share a few thoughts about competitions and how you'd recommend young musicians approach them?

PM:  I wish there was a way for pianists to create opportunities without competitions. It can be done, of course, but it is so much harder and take so much extra effort; a big competition can give you that easy, instant push; Having said that, I don't always think it is healthy to play these competitions: I see so many students just be devastated by results and it saddens me. If you can approach it correctly, knowing that you are only being judged on that specific performance, and not on everything else in your life, and certainly not on your value as a human being! - you should do as many as you can fit into a balanced life. 

I would also like to add - for the girls especially: please test your concert outfit (and shoes!) It is tricky suddenly playing all dressed up; make sure you're prepared. I've seen so many outfit-malfunctions, and this can be avoided.

ES: You work a lot with pianists in master class situations - is there something you find yourself saying over and over again?  What do you feel is most important with working with these young musicians?

PM: I would think voicing is something we don't think about enough - me included! There is never enough top notes! There can possibly be a dozen extra notes "against" that poor top note that has to sing and we don't always realize how much extra work that takes. 

I also find that many students listen to the "wrong" recordings: If you're playing Chopin and you only heard Cortot, as amazing as he is, you are not necessarily on the right track. You need to hear at least a half-dozen recordings of each piece and knowing which pianists to listen to for which repertoire, is crucial.

I also have a lot of sympathy with students having to adjust to a piano on the spot, so that is also one of the hardest things in our lives. In my next life, I'm playing an instrument I can travel with! 

ES: You are very active facebook and twitter.  Do you think access to social media has changed the life of the performing artist in any way?   How has it impacted your life?

PM: Well, I don't know that it has impacted my career as such, but I've certainly met some of the most fantastic people who I now consider fantastic friends. The era of musicians who had "people" to answer their phones & take care of all their arrangements & they just practiced & performed, is certainly over; so a hands-on approach to everything in life is certainly better. We have to wear many hats. 

ES: Before you walk onto stage to perform, what goes on in your mind?    Have you had any amusing pre-performance thoughts that you'd like to share?

PM:  Leonard Bernstein said "there are no heroes back stage" and someone else said: "Stage fright, like the poor, will always be with us." ---- So many things go through my mind back stage; I also know Glenn Gould said "audiences are evil." I try not to think THAT! 

ES: You perform all over the world, in cities and in smaller towns as well.  How different is it to play for audiences in the different areas or is it the same experience for you regardless of where you are?

PM:  I don't think it is different to play for larger or smaller towns; at least, I  don't approach it any differently. We can't "phone in" a concert, so you always have to "be on." I often think, with a small audience, that they all really want to be there, so you have to play extra well & give it your all!  In my experience, audiences in e.g. Germany is completely quiet (and thus slightly more intimidating!) and audiences in South America seem to have a bit more fun out there.  

ES: Do you want to say any words about Czerny? ;-) *

PM:  hhhhhhhhhaaaahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!

* This is a running joke between Ms. Malan and others.  She is not shy at stating that she is not a fan of the composer, Carl Czerny.  Check her twitter profile for proof!

Many thanks to Ms. Malan for sharing her time and thoughts in addition to granting me permission to use her photo and video.  I hope to see some of you at the performance.  

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Musical crime report: Magical moment stolen before curtain rises

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday afternoon a disheartening musical crime was witnessed.  The scene of the crime was at a local ballet company's performance in which young dancers and musicians combined with the intent to transport their audience to places only conceivable in one's imagination.  One young victim, age 6, was in attendance with her parents.  They, eager to expose their child to a special cultural event,  arrived early to find their seats and to ensure that a sense of anticipation was heightened as their daughter repeatedly asked how many minutes remained until the curtain would rise.  Their strategy was successful until it was time for the show to begin.  All was well at first.  The ushers uniformly closed off the doorways to the hall, the lights were dimmed, and the audience, even the kids of a young age, drew a hushed silence.  The 6 year old was on the edge of her seat, holding her breath.

And then...

Instead of music rising from the orchestra pit, instead of the lush red velvet curtain rising, a man walked onto the stage with paper in hand.  For the next 10 minutes the gentleman in question proceeded to thank everyone responsible for the afternoon's event.  With each minute that ticked away in this fashion, the light in the 6 year old's eyes visibly faded and she grew more and more disinterested in what was to happen next.  The girl's parents were saddened and shocked by how quickly magic could be zapped from such a moment that could have been filled with unspeakable excitement.  

Upon further thought and investigation, the witnesses of the crime understood the motives of those who were responsible and no charges were pressed but the effect of this oversight was duly noted and it is the hope of the witnesses that others in the arts will remember the importance of those first moments in the concert hall when the lights have dimmed, whether those in the audience are 6 or 60 years old.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bowing to the mighty metronome?

The other night on twitter I tweeted a thought that has been popping up in my life on a pretty regular basis lately:

Metronomes are not a substitute for counting out loud.

As is common on twitter, many of my fabulous musical colleagues there jumped in to add their thoughts about the mighty metronome and to expand upon the theme, branching out to tweeting about dealing with rhythm issues both personally and with students.  It was a really fascinating, fast discussion and one that led to the group of us wanting to record our thoughts for inclusion in a group blog-post.  With that said, here is my little spiel about metronomes.  

To start off, I want to protect myself from a barrage of comments, tweets, and e-mails by saying that I do like metronomes.  My metronome is, in fact, my friend...most of the time.  


I do feel as though the metronome is often used with the hope that it alone will cure all rhythmic and technical difficulties.  So often kids I play for come in with bad rhythm.  When I call them on it the inevitable response is, "But I practiced with my metronome!"  

I see metronomes as really good crutches but not as a permanent fix.  Here's why...

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Crutches don't fix anything.  They are a tool - they support one while healing from a broken bone or a sprained ankle.  But what usually happens before we even get to the crutches?   A doctor is seen, x-rays taken and carefully examined. Sometimes the bones are carefully reset or pinned together and a cast or bandages are strategically wound around the injured appendage.  Now the crutches can effectively come into play for what they are - tools to help us get around while our body is healing.

So what does it take to successfully heal in the area of pulse and rhythm?  What work do I have to do before I can grab my metronome and have it actually help rather than hinder or distract from the real problem?  
  • I take a look to see if I really understand mathematically what's supposed to be happening.  It can be so tempting to guess, to try and magically fit all those black notes into a given beat.  All it takes is about 2 minutes to do the math and considering the fact that such comprehension is permanent and secure, I'm willing to spend the time.  I should also add that I am not shy about marking beats in the score or writing out subdivisions about the problem rhythm in order to see how everything lines up.  
  • Once I know how everything is supposed to be lined up I then take a step back and make sure that I know which notes fall on which beats because no two beats in a measure are alike.  Downbeats feel very differently then second beats, upbeats feel differently then downbeats...they each have their unique purpose and most composers pay attention to this and set their music in a very purposeful way.  If they don't, chances are they're either not a great composer or more often than not, they are trying to make a statement by breaking the norm.  Most metronomes do not help with this issue, although there are some these days that can be set to have different toned beeps, with a higher pitch indicating where the downbeats of each measure are.  Problem with this is that when I'm dealing with music that has constant meter changes it is impossible to set the metronome to account for these changes without having to stop and reset every measure or two.
  • The next step is to conduct while singing the music.  And no, my singing isn't very good.  Often I don't even sing on pitch.  My main focus is just getting the rhythm lined up with my conducting.
  • Once I can conduct and sing I then move onto playing the music while counting out loud.  For these last two steps it is crucial that I choose a tempo that allows me to do the exercises without altering the tempo and without stopping.  Singers and anyone needing to blow into an instrument will not be able to do this last step very easily although singers can adapt it by singing the counts rather than singing the words.  
After doing this type of rhythmic examination and re-setting only then do I feel ready to add the metronome.  In all honesty, since using the above steps religiously for the past few years, I have not felt the need to use one as much.  The way I see it is that I have essentially turned myself into my own metronome.  If I can conduct, if I can count out loud while playing, the rhythm and the pulse are clearly a part of me.  Even issues of rushing and slowing down have significantly decreased.  

Are these exercises easy to do?  No, they aren't.  And it has taken persistence and a bit of swallowing my pride at first.  But now that I feel like a completely new musician, I gladly take on the challenge when I need to.  I also believe that solving my rhythm and pulse issues has made me a much better collaborator and accompanist.  When I play with another musician, they know that they have in me a conductor that will provide a steady, predictable, secure force that they can ride on.  Not worrying about rhythm has also freed me from a lot of insecurity and doubt, enabling me to focus on expressing the music.  It has made music-making even more gratifying and glorifying. 

To return to my tweet that started all this musing, here's another way of looking at it:

Metronomes can be helpful tools, but only after going to the doctor first and getting everything set just right.  Then, and only then, can the musical breaks really be fixed.   

So as long as you're willing to do the work, go ahead, set aside those metronomes, and build the metronome within you.  You won't regret it!

Click here to see a post that compiles the multiple posts that my twitter friends and I wrote about metronomes into one. There are a lot of great and varied ideas there!  And if you have anything to add, please don't hesitate to do that in the comments section!  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day - the final product!

Normally I don't like recording but for the most part this past Monday morning was an exception.  For two hours I was alone in a beautiful recital hall, sitting at a wonderful concert-grand Steinway, playing a piece that I truly love.  Not a bad situation.

And here's what I ended up with after 15 days of practicing for (about) 15 minutes a day:

Now I am officially entered into the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concerto competition.  The waiting begins!  

During the next two weeks a panel of judges will listen to the entries and whittle away the list of contestants to 20 semi-finalists.  From April 13 until April 30 the videos of those chosen will be posted online and viewers will be able to vote on who they think should make the final round.  The top four musicians from this round will be flown to Pittsburg at the beginning of June to perform the entire concerto for a panel of judges and the winner will solo with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the end of November/beginning of December this year.  

It feels like a long shot for me, but my main purpose in doing this was to take advantage of a challenge  and an opportunity that is rarely given us older musicians.  I've enjoyed the process from start to finish and am very proud of what I managed to accomplish.  My goals were to:
  • put together a 10 minute version that I felt represented the concerto and my playing well.  I also wanted it to not sound like a bunch of excerpts but rather to sound like a piece of music that could stand on its own, even without the accompaniment.  
  • memorize my selection.  I'm not real great at memorizing and am not asked to do it very often these days so I was a little apprehensive about this.  
  • prepare for the competition in an efficient way that could easily fit into my already busy life.
  • videotape my practice sessions and blog about what my various strategies were and to share what my challenges were.
I think I did pretty well with all of these goals.  So I'm smiling! 

And now we wait.  I'll be sure to report back when I hear anything more.  Many thanks to everyone that has been so supportive during this project!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Releasing Beethoven into the Wind

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I think I've come to the end of this Beethoven project.  The recording won't happen until Monday but as is my tradition it is time for me to release Beethoven into the wind.  What follows is a little different but reveals a bit about how I see this stage in performance preparation.  It's a bit fanciful, a bit odd perhaps, but it's what works for me and it certainly beats getting myself tied up in knots of anxiety.

- 15 days have been spent selecting, preparing, and putting together my bouquet of balloons - now it's time to let them go and to see what happens.

- If I'm too afraid to let go of my balloons, if I persist in woodshedding, my balloons will stay tightly clenched in my hands until performance day.  When I do let go, those balloons will be right where I released them and won't have much of an opportunity to fly. 

- If I choose to let go of the balloons now, I will have the indescribable joy of watching those balloons rise and bloom into the sky.  At performance time what I will have is an awesome vision of what the music really is to me.

- In the next few days I will take the opportunity to perform my piece for anyone who will listen, not listening for perfection but rather to see where my balloons happen to be on their little journey.  I fully anticipate that some may get stuck in trees along the way, some may get shot down by little kids throwing stones, and some may completely disappear out of sight.  But those remaining will be mine and they will make me smile.

So here I stand.  And here I go.  Until next Monday's recording session, happy balloon watching!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Beethoven in the homestretch - Day 14

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Wow.  I'm so close now I can almost taste it.  But with the homestretch comes the question of how to practice.  It's different when I get to this point in the game.  I could keep drilling, analyzing, and woodshedding but as I touched on in my previous post, I often find it more nerve-wracking than beneficial.  And when it comes time to performing, if I've been filling my last days with detailed work and focusing on what I'm struggling with, guess what I'm thinking about when I walk onto the stage?  Yep, all those details and challenging passages.  As a result, here's one of the most important pre-performance mantras I have -
"Ignorance is bliss."
Right.  I didn't make that one up, but I sure do like it.

So, in a spirit of ignorance, you'll see that I start to let go in my next few practice sessions.  Every once in a while I fall into some detailed work because even though I like my ignorance mantra I'm still a perfectionist at heart.  But I truly am trying to focus on the big picture now.  

Before I share this fourteenth practice session, I do want to mention a few comments that a dear friend of mine, Sue Hammond, passed on to me after watching and reading about Day 12.  She had two great ideas that I decided to try out in the practice session below.  The first one has to do with my question of how practice getting the sound and legato that I want in the slow movement.  She says:
 " In slow movements, I like to feel as if I'm pulling the piano into my body rather than 'setting down' chords.  That way, the legato gets richer, enjoining the notes AT THE KEYBED without pressing or weighting.  It's like 'releasing' the sound magically into the air -- using the natural beauty of the piano...The quality of legato is everything, so I sometimes overlap the notes with hand or pedal until my ear demands a rich legato -- then reduce the overlap to just 'enjoyed'. Even in descending phrases, I try to feel the spiritual ascent of the line."
I really love her image of pulling the piano into one's body as opposed to what I discussed in my post, where I talked about sinking into the keys.

And then in regards to how to practice at this point in the project she offered this practice technique:
" Near performance, I play the whole movement (or section) using Ebb and Flow.  I play the 'good parts' at full tempo, then imperceptibly slow down for the 'hard bits' to make sure they're played accurately and with ease, then pick up the speed again.  Within a few days, I FEEL as if I'm playing those hard bits slowly, but actually they've come up to tempo.  They just feel easy because they've been practised without tension.   Even in performance, I emotionally bail to navigate those bits.  This let's me get an overview and stamina without junk-practising the more challenging sections.  There are less and less of these sections each time."
I tried this as well and although I found it a bit tricky to actually know when I wanted to ebb and when I was ok to just flow, I have a feeling that will get easier the more I do it.  I definitely like the concept of building ease into the trickier sections and trusting that they will quickly and naturally arrive at performance tempo instead of doing the "junk-practising" that she mentions.  It can be so easy to fall into that not-so-helpful mode.

So thank you, Sue, for taking the time to share those two ideas with me and with anyone here who reads this post!

Now on to the music.  Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes, this video was taken in my studio at school.  I figured it would be good to start playing on as many pianos as possible.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Beethoven in a Quandary - Day 13

It's more like I'm in the quandary, but I decided to stay consistent with my titling.

Rodin's "The Thinker," image from
Wikimedia Commons
It all has to do with fingering.  Here I am, one week before I'm going to record the Beethoven, still finding new and sometimes better fingerings for various passages.  I suppose it's inevitable because at this point I'm really nitpicking and being sensitive to the little things that aren't working as well as I'd like them to be working.  And when things don't feel like things are comfortable in my fingers one of the first things I do is examine fingerings.  I think that's fine, especially early on in the learning process but what I'm wondering is when I should stop changing things and just make do with what I've got.  In this post's practice session I spent quite a bit of time at the end of the cadenza figuring out and writing in new fingers but after listening to day 13's session and having another go at the passage in question today I'm having second thoughts about whether or not I should really be changing this late in the game.  I feel like I'm confusing myself now and I'm concerned that when I go to perform I'm going to be trying to remember the fingering instead of playing the music.  Probably not a good thing.   So my conclusion, for now, is that I'm no longer going to be changing fingerings.  If I play this piece again in the future, then perhaps I'll revisit some other options.

Following my fingering fest I grappled with another passage in the cadenza that I want to improve.  I decided to use another one of my practice techniques that I often use.  I call it my "Reductionist" technique.  It is comprised of reducing a passage of music to the bare bones, more importantly what I consider the essential bare bones, leaving out a lot of the filler material that can often distract me from the important line.  When I do this by memory, it makes the technique even more challenging but also productive.  You'll hear several wrong notes while I'm working this all out but I think that's ok - the wrong notes aren't there out of ignorance, they're there because I'm struggling a bit and for me, cognitive struggling produces more solid understanding.  I see several other advantages to doing this exercise.  First of all, the process of distilling what I think is important prompts me to really listen and to make some important decisions - I'm not just playing the notes because that's what's on the page.  Secondly, if I have a specific line that I'm following it can help me stay on track should a few filler notes get played incorrectly.  I can more easily say, "Oh's what's really important anyway" and move on while maintaining the musicality that I want the audience to grasp.  Doing this exercise also forces my mind to slip out of automatic mode, engaging it in an activity that usually re-energizes me, which is always a good thing when it comes to practicing.  

I practiced the opening of the slow movement to review what I had worked on the previous day in regards to opening my sound up a bit and allowing all the notes to sing.  I was so tempted to just keep playing on in the movement but since I only had 15 minutes I moved on to the third.  Sigh.  

Third movement - continued drilling in the coda.  It's a tricky passage and my hands keep getting quite tired so I tried to find places to make sure that I was retracting my hand so that it wasn't staying open for the entire time, thus tiring me out.  I'm hoping that it's partly my piano that's contributing to the problem - I think I need to try it out on another piano to check on that.  More woodshedding in the third movement and then "ding" - time's up!

Time flies by when you're having fun.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Beethoven in 15 Timeless Minutes a Day - Day 12

First off, I have to say that I find the slow movement to this concerto to be one of the most exquisite pieces of music to play.  I wrote about it more in detail in my post, "The slow 'moment' from Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto," but to sum up why I feel this way about this music, Beethoven manages to stop time with music such as this.  In our busy, crazy world I feel that's a unique gift and one that has a lot to offer anyone listening or participating.  

To relate that to today's practice session...

Because I love this movement so much I think I tend to treat it with kid gloves.  The result?  A weak, fragile sound that sometimes prevents all the notes from speaking.  In an effort to combat this problem I decided to practice the opening without regard to time, focusing instead on letting my weight sink into the keys and allowing the keys to go all the way down for each and every note.  Perhaps this sounds crazy, but my goal was to have a physical sensation that feels yummy.  I know, I know - a strange word in relation to playing the piano but that's all I can come up with that adequately describes what I was going for.  I didn't want to feel held back, nervous, or careful.  I just wanted to enjoy every aspect of it.  Otherwise I'm afraid the audience won't get the full effect of the beauty of it all.  

My work in the cadenza was mostly about memory and woodshedding.  Same goes for the last movement.  Today and in the days to come, I will be doing a lot of slow memory work, some of which involves blocking* left hand accompaniment patterns.  It is all too easy to keep playing pieces through up to tempo (or faster) in an effort to memorize but I feel that when I do this a lot of details get brushed over and I'm not truly memorizing, and more importantly internalizing, everything.  If I can play through it slowly by memory, it's testing everything - my brain, fingers, and ears.  It gets everything working together.  In performance this means that I have a stronger, multi-strand cable on which to rely when it comes to memory.  

We'll see how it works in 7 days.  

* Blocking is when I take the all the notes of a beat or several beats and play them all at once, as a chord, as in the example below.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beethoven revisits the metronome but in a new way - Day 11

My in-laws are in town this weekend so my posts are going to be a little shorter, fortunately for anyone reading!  

At this beginning of the day 11 practice session I decided to use one of my favorite metronome tricks.  I set the metronome to mark every half measure but treated the click of the metronome as the offbeats.  This exercise can be a bit of a mind game but I do it often with lyrical sections in order to propel myself over the barlines and to feel the melody in a more fluid way.  With a lot of practice the most beautiful, flowing melodies can often end up very square and mechanical - quite the opposite of what I really want with such a passage.  Such is the case with this one from the cadenza.  I usually start off at a pretty slow tempo doing this and then I bump up the metronome until I find a tempo that feels right and allows for the musicality that I'm looking for.  

The rest of my practice session is pretty self-explanatory.  I will say though that right now I'm consciously working on bringing up the tempos and memorizing.  As of today everything is pretty well memorized so I'm feeling much, much better, especially since memory isn't really my thing.

Now, since it's almost time to go out to dinner with my in-laws, I'll leave you with the video.  I hope you enjoy.  And in case you're keeping track, only 8 days until recording! 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Beethoven in 15 not-so-good minutes a day - Day 10

I was due for another slightly discouraging day.  But crazy as I am and as painful as these times are, I actually embrace the not-so-successful practice sessions because they more often then not inspire me to a new level in subsequent days.  At first I was very tempted to leave this particular video out, partially because I look absolutely terrible after a long day of practicing and rehearsing, but I've decided to include it for the sake of honesty and integrity.  Who knows.  Perhaps it will provide some needed entertainment or encouragement for someone else out there.  

So without further 10.

This session was made up mostly of what I call spot-checking.  I did a lot of jumping around to various passages that have been giving me trouble.  With all that jumping came very little focus, unfortunately.  When I was watching the video a little later it occurred to me that even though I had recorded my second assessment just the other day I hadn't taken the time to carefully listen to it and to note what I needed to be working on.  Perhaps that was part of my problem - I didn't really know what I should be doing.  Perhaps I'll have a little more focus the next time around.  

Here's hoping!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beethoven meets my metronome! - Day 9 and Assessment 2

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Warning - this day's practice session involves my lovely, charming metronome for part of it so consider yourself warned.  And I promise I won't be insulted if you turn down the volume on your computer a little bit!

So why pull out the metronome now after I mentioned just the other day that I tend not to use it, especially when I'm in a time crunch?  Several reasons...first of all, someone reading my blog, Jamey, suggested after one of my previous sessions that I use the metronome, not necessarily because of my rhythm but as something to focus on and detract from my obsessing over insecurities.  Here's what he said:
"I don't write this to imply that you need help with rhythm, but instead to suggest you use it as a tool to help quieten any inner voice of self-doubt while you practice. Concentrating on something external may have a paradoxical effect of helping you focus on the music rather than yourself. Just a thought."
I saw a lot of wisdom in that suggestion so I thought I'd give it a go.

Secondly, I was still sensing that I'm not absolutely convinced of the rhythm in this slow movement.  It's in this incredibly slow 3/8 and I'm not accustomed to calculating such small subdivisions.  I've been trying to just do it in my head but I felt like I needed the metronome to double-check what I was doing.  Lo and behold, in doing so I discovered one passage that I had marked incorrectly in my music and that I was doing wrong, or maybe a more positive way to say it is that I was doing it not quite right.  The metronome showed me that I needed to take a good look at the rhythm away from the piano and to correct what I had marked in the music.  So that's what I did after recording this session.  Here's hoping it's right the next time.  

After working on the slow movement, I moved on to the third movement for some more woodshedding.  In this session I decided to also use a technique I learned from the wonderful pianist, Petronel Malan, a friend on twitter.  For passages that have fast notes in both hands she suggested playing the left hand an octave or two higher than written which forces me to cross my hands.  What this does, at least for me, is enable me to hear the left hand better.  My left hand is usually not as clean as my right hand so putting it on top reveals what needs to be strengthened.  It can also reveal which notes I'm not exactly sure of.  Last but not least, this technique is also just plain fun since it's something different.  And in my book, variety is often the name of the game since it keeps me from slipping into automatic, mundane practice.  

I ended the session with the cadenza to the first movement again, tweaking here and there and doing some more woodshedding.  I'm also continuing my work on making sure that the more awkward passages feel good in my hand and in my mind...that everything is working together smoothly.

After my practice session I decided to do another assessment.  It's such a good way for me to know where I am and what I need to do next.  Plus it only takes 10 minutes!  Why not?

Here is my second assessment.  It's getting there!

That's a good thing considering I'm down to 11 days!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beethoven in the woodshed - Day 8

Image from Wikimedia Commons
If nothing else, I actually came closer to hitting the 15 minute mark in this practice session.  That may seem pretty inconsequential to some but not to me.  I like to rejoice over the simplest things.  I actually feel that it is very important for successful practicing to have a feeling of accomplishment as often as possible.  If I get used to feeling good playing a given piece of music that same feeling usually follows me onto the stage when it comes time to perform.  

Enough philosophizing...

Yesterday's practice session was all about woodshedding.  With only 15 minutes this can be a bit of a challenge because woodshedding inevitably involves repetition and repetition takes time - there's simply no way around that.  I've been working a lot lately, however, on making repetitions really work for me.  What that means is that before I repeat something I make sure I have a reason for why I'm repeating it.  Or I give myself a goal for a given repetition whether it be to make a line smoother, more comfortable in my hands, to find something musical to do with the passage, to memorize the music, to internalize the harmonies that are involved...the more senses that are involved, the better.  I call this type of practice...

Repetition with cognition

Now to clarify, especially to any music teachers out there, I'm not saying that sheer, mindless repetition doesn't work in the long run, it's just the "long run" part I can't afford to spare right now.  

And I should add here that I'm not perfect.  I find myself drifting into mindless repetition every so often and if I'm not thinking about it I find myself there practically all the time.  It takes a lot of effort to steer clear of this tendency but in my experience it's worth it to consciously avoid it as much as possible.  

With all that said, here's me, woodshedding away...I hope it doesn't drive you too crazy and if it does, just remember, there are only 12 more days until I stop blabbing on about all of this.  

And one final note...if anyone has any comments, feedback, or suggestions, by all means, feel free to leave them here on the blog.  I'm not promising that I'll take everyone's advice but at this point, I'm doing this all without a teacher or a coach so I'll listen to what anyone has to say.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Spring break from a piano collaborator's point of view

Something just for fun, in honor of all of us piano collaborator's that find ourselves not on the beach during spring break but in the practice room...

Happy spring break, everyone!

P.S. - I'm not complaining, by the way.  I'm not really into beaches, sun, or fun. 

Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day - Assessment and Day 7

In yesterday's post I started by talking about some non-musical things that I did in order to gain some more footing on my Beethoven concerto project.  I continued in that vein after recording my day 6 practice session by performing what I will be performing in a couple of weeks and videotaping it.  Here's why I did that...

As a collaborator, I have been doing this more and more often as a way to keep me on track and to keep me focused on what I need to do in my very brief practice sessions.  The idea is that I let go of my practice room mentality and perform, not worrying about mistakes since those are bound to happen, but focusing on musicality, rhythm, energy, and intent.  This might ruffle a few feathers, but I actually use the opportunity to see what I have to do in order to get through the piece musically, even if that means leaving some notes out or rearranging it.  (I talk more about this in my post, "Confessions of a piano collaborator.") This is not to say that I disregard the composer's intentions - quite the opposite, really.  Because I do a lot of analyzing in my practice sessions, I work hard at understanding the core of what's important about any given piece of music or about individual composers.  Then when it comes time to perform or to do one of these assessments I have something to focus on - the composer's language, rather than nailing all the hard passages and remembering every little detail I'm supposed to remember.  I let go and just play, which sometimes involves some minor, undetectable adjustments all in the name of a musical, engaging performance.  With my assessments I pay close attention to sections where I couldn't let go very well or where I couldn't get through the music - these are the places that I need to delve into more deeply to get to the root of the music.  The assessments also expose passages that need more technical or memory work.  

With that said, here is my first musical assessment of the Beethoven as I will be playing it for the videorecording...

Doing this also gave me further peace of mind since it gave me an opportunity to determine whether or not I feel good about the arrangement I have made.

With that done, it was time to move on to my practice session.

My assessment convinced me again that I need to get through the entire cadenza before I do anything else.  The cadenza will be first step out of the starting gate and it's an important piece of music, in my opinion.  I think Clara Schumann did an amazing job of summing up the entire concerto, not just the first movement, in the way that she wrote it so I want to do it right.

For the first part of the session I concentrated on this left hand pattern that I find physically awkward.  I was determined to find a way to move my hand so that it would fit all three notes, connected with the next set, in a comfortable, smooth way.  I then moved to my right hand to make sure I knew the melody without having to really think about it.  This enabled me to focus at first on the left hand while leaving my right hand mostly up to my ears.  At the tail end of working on this passage I made sure that I could connect it with the one that follows.  I find that it's very easy to work on sections one at a time but to forget to connect them so that it makes musical sense and so that it feels good in my hands.

I continued moving backwards in the cadenza, looking for patterns and practicing using rhythms.  This is all sounding pretty old hat now, isn't it?  It should because it's really not very complicated.

We'll see in 13 days whether or not it will all pay off! 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day - Day 6

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Thank goodness last night's practice session went a bit better.  I woke up after day 5's session with a determination to figure out some things I could do to make myself feel more organized and secure.  My hope was that doing so would also organize my pianistic mind and body as well.  One of the first things I did was to scan the bits of my score that I will actually be playing, print them out, and then put it all in a binder.  In previous days I have been working from the score, trying to remember what I had decided to play and leave out, putting in paperclips to facilitate with page turns, and wondering whether or not my plan would really work out in the end.  This approach, or perhaps I should call it a dis-approach  wasn't working for me and was actually making me quite nervous.  Last night, armed with my new abridged score, I played and timed out what I had, saw that I was about 1 minute over the 10 minute time limit, and then figured out an additional cut in the slow movement to make up for that.  These simple steps probably took about 45 minutes but it was without a doubt, worth it.  As the author and advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Napoleon Hill said,
"Success in its highest and noblest form calls for peace of mind and enjoyment and happiness..."
I had enjoyment and happiness...I just needed the peace of mind part.  Now that I had found it, it was time to move on to my Day 6 practice session.

I started out with the very end of the first movement on a run that I want to be sure is clean, powerful, and full of fire.  I drilled it using rhythms, surprise, surprise.  Next it was on to the cadenza again, still moving backwards.  I spent quite a bit of energy just soaking in the harmonies since this part tends to just wind its way around the different keys and I want to make sure that I am really hearing the twists and turns to that the audience can sense them as well and feel the sense of relief I feel when I finally land in the next section.  At times I throw in some of my rhythms, just for good measure and to keep me on my toes.  I feel that practicing gets pointless once the mind shuts down and goes on automatic.  I end the cadenza portion of the session by reviewing the rest of the cadenza and starting to push certain passages to performance tempo.  I've learned that it can be deadly to only practice slowly, especially when a deadline is looming, since music can feel entirely different in various tempos.  It's better for me to know now what it's going to all feel like in my hands.  

In the third movement I wanted to really concentrate on a handful of fast runs that have some odd groupings of notes that I have a hard time keeping track of - groups of 4, 3, 5, and 6.  It gets kind of confusing so I was trying to see if I could find a way to simplify it for myself.  There's also a really fast run at the end that I find particularly tricky so I used a technique I call "add-a-note" to work on that.  I find that technique works really well, especially to nail the various hand-position changes that are necessary.  It forces me to land securely on those notes in the process of the exercise rather than just skimming over them and praying that everything is in the right place.  

Which brings me to something I want to say about perfectionism in music...

I spoke with my mother the other day - she is following my Beethoven project and is actually listening to my videos - what a brave woman!  She mentioned that she was surprised by how thorough I am and detailed I get when I'm practicing.  I told her that when I practice my goal is to practice in such a way that I rarely play a wrong note and never play the same wrong note twice.  She was surprised by such a statement coming from someone that touts their anti-perfectionism, especially when it comes to music.  I could see why she was a bit confused.  But here's my answer to why I do what I do...

When I practice, I am a perfectionist, most of the time.  I am always striving to teach my mind, ears, and body what it needs to know in order to really know and understand the music.  I am constantly problem solving, analyzing, absorbing every aspect of what's on the page and beyond the notes. (Aha!  The title of my blog!!)  I try to practice in such a way that I regularly experience success, but always in a musical way.  I have found that when I practice in this way I know nothing else when I get up on stage to perform.  Does this mean I never make mistakes when I perform?  Ha!  Of course not.  I frequently make mistakes but because I have internalized the piece from the very beginning of the process and because I haven't repeatedly flailed on the harder passages or done what I call "random practice," I can let go of my practice-room self when I walk onto the stage and focus on the music and on communicating with the audience.  Adopting this attitude has completely transformed my life.  I now love to perform, even if the performance isn't "perfect" according to my practice-room side of myself.  

So there you have it.  A bit of musical philosophizing and a little insight into why I named this blog, "Beyond the Notes."  

Here's last night's practice session...

14 more days!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Beethoven in...not enough minutes a day! - (Day 5)

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Sigh.  Perhaps you can tell from the title of this blog post but I'm a wee bit discouraged.  Last night's practice session was anything but encouraging.  Admittedly I went into it with not such a good attitude - I believe I even wrote in yesterday's post that,"I find it [Clara Schumann's cadenza] a bit intimidating."  Not a great way to start my practice time.  

Oh well.

I did end up spending my entire session just on the cadenza because I wanted to get through more of it, thinking that would make me feel a bit better about my progress.  But as you can tell I ended up stumbling quite a bit and even had a crash-and-burn ending - not something I usually encourage.  In the video you can see me put my hand up to my face in dismay.  Dramatic, aren't I?

But you know what?  I think this is all good for others to see and for me to go through.  It is, after all, the way it usually goes when learning and refining any piece of music.   As long as I keep pushing ahead, I will make it to the other side.  I always do.  And in the end, that process of finding myself up against a wall will serve me well and will give me something to really feel proud of when I'm standing on the other side.

I've got some new tactics in mind for the next couple of days - I hope they will be enough to get me to the other side of this wall.  After all, there are only 15 days left!  

Attitude, attitude!  Attitude is half the battle.  And maybe some chocolate.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day - Day 4

Phew.  I'm playing single mommy right now while my husband is out of town so I'm going to keep this post short but I wanted to make sure that I posted last night's practice session.  I don't have too much to say about it although I want to confess that even though I absolutely love Clara Schumann's cadenza, I find it a bit intimidating.  I have a feeling that shows in my practicing these past few days - I'm moving through it as slowly as a snail.  I think it's the dense texture in the middle section that's getting to me.  Oh well.  I'll keep taking it a little bit at a time and perhaps it will just click one of these days.  I'm also thinking I may just devote tonight's practice session to the cadenza.  

In the third movement I had a bit of an odd struggle at the very end of the main passage I was practicing.  I kept tripping over my fingers in the left hand.  Thankfully I figured out pretty quickly that it was a simple fingering issue.  Hopefully that will clear things up from now on.  You'll hear me practicing using lots of rhythms.  I do these rhythms pretty religiously as a way to test the strength of all of my fingers - the different rhythms tend to reveal weaknesses.  They can also expose where any doubts about notes are.  

And a final note, this time about practicing with metronome or perhaps I should say not practicing with the metronome.  I know it's simply terrible that I rarely use this incredibly useful tool but in all honesty, these days I don't have the time it takes to fiddle around with one.  When I literally have 5 minutes or 10 minutes at a time to practice the repetitions that go hand-in-hand with metronome practicing are impractical.  I know, I know...horrible.  But that's the reality in my life right now.  I guess we'll see how I fare at the end of all this.  Perhaps I'll end up running back to the metronome and apologizing for my gross negligence.  Or maybe not.

So here it 4.  And now only 16 days until recording. 

Pulling a concerto out of my hat
Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 1
Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 2

Friday, March 2, 2012

A story of gaining and regaining perspective post-competition

This past weekend I crashed a really big cello party - I simply couldn't help it.  You get a building full of cellists, be they young or old, and I start to feel a need to be there.  Typically I ignore any inclinations I have to join in the fun but this time I succumbed because of a handful of kids.  I wanted to be there to support some young cellists that I regularly play for while they competed in a competition that was part of the workshop experience.  

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I am so very glad that I did.  Not only did I eagerly savor the chance to play great cello music with talented young kids and with some of the faculty as well, but I was also given an opportunity to guide one particular cellist through a bit of a thorny, emotional state, post-competition.  

Here's her story.

The cellist in question, a teenager, is a very talented young girl.  She's quite the perfectionist which has turned her into a very hard worker.  Lately we have been encouraging her to connect more and more with the musical side of herself, especially in performance, so that her musicality can match her facility at the cello.  This has not been an easy task and as this past weekend was drawing near she seemed quite frustrated and discouraged, yet also determined to up her game.  At the first round of competition, which was unaccompanied, she stepped up to the plate, showing us what she's all about and how she feels about the music in spite of some memory slips in one of her selections.  I was amazed at her recovery and proud of her for not giving up on a musical performance in spite of the initial stumbles.  

After that first round we had quite a little talk about the whole memory thing.  Ugh.  Memory.  I struggle with this issue because I have a difficult time feeling comfortable playing without music myself.  I tried to encourage her by pointing out how musically she played and that that in itself was an incredible victory for her.  After some cajoling she seemed to be ok.  After discovering that she had made the finals, she was even better.

Then came the finals.

Starting with solo Bach she experienced several memory issues again but delivered an absolutely stunning interpretation.  Bach is in her blood and that is very clear from the moment she draws the bow across the string.  Her connection to the music continued with her concerto selection and she showed a side of herself I had rarely seen.  It was one of those moments I won't forget easily.

Then came the waiting.
Then came the results.

The judges decided to make it a tie for first place with this young girl being one of them.  Although we were all incredibly proud of her, she did not seem happy.  The memory issue had cropped up yet again and she wondered if it was the memory that had kept her from taking first place all to herself.  It was a sentiment I completely understood and it was one that brought back plenty of memories of my own similar struggles and questions.  I didn't know what to say to her.

Later, as we were driving home, I tried to say a few encouraging things but to no avail.  She was understandably upset.  After a while she decided that what she really wanted to do was to listen to one of her favorite stories, "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery." *  As with all the Classical Kids' stories, this one is fantastic and never fails to make me teary in the end.  In this particular situation, I was also moved by how this young cellist and I were sharing something magical through listening to this story that means so much to both of us individually.  It was a way to reconnect again after a somewhat trying occasion.  

As soon as the story was done the girl's mother pulled over at a gas station to fill their car up.  It was then that something dawned on me.  While we were alone in the car I looked back at the girl and said something like this - 

"That story moves you, doesn't it?  And the music moves you too, right?"

(She nodded.)

"Let me ask you this...does that story involve memorizing music in any way whatsoever?  Is that why you like listening to the CD?  Or do you like it because it's just downright awesome, moving, and thrilling?"  

(She smiled.)

I then proceeded to retell a part of the story as if music memory was important, with Vivaldi reprimanding the main character, Katarina, for having a memory slip, or not accepting her into their orchestra because she can't memorize music.  

(She laughed.)

"I love this CD because it moves me.  It doesn't impress me.  It moves me.  In the end, what would you rather be remembered by - your ability to impress people with your memory skills or your ability to move people through your playing?"

That was the end of the conversation but not the end of a sweet smile that stayed on her face the remainder of the way home.

* In case you haven't heard any of Classical Kids' stories, I highly recommend them.  They are staples in our household.  

Beethoven in 15 Minutes (or maybe a few more) a Day: Day 3

My goodness.  I'm having quite a difficult time keeping my practicing of the Beethoven down to only 15 minutes!  I think that says something about Beethoven's music - it's difficult but also incredibly wonderful to play.

Before I talk about day three's practice session I thought I'd share something I'm excited about in regards to this project.  I contacted the powers-that-be at Radford University, where I am an adjunct faculty member, and asked if there would be any way that I could make my video recording for this project in the beautiful hall there, on their fantastic concert grand Steinway.  They said YES!  This makes me even more excited and eager to keep going on this project.  And now I have a very clear deadline - Monday, March 19th, from 9:30 until 12:30 in the morning.  

So now I've got the goal, the music, the piano, the hall...I'm so excited. 

Now on to my practice session last night...

I was really pretty exhausted by the time I got to the Beethoven last night and it was after a full day of work and a full piano trio recital in the evening.  As soon as I started practicing, especially the last movement, I could tell that my fingers were in a bit of a rebellious state so I didn't push it.  Here's what did instead.

Last night I started with the second movement.   (I start each day with a different movement, rotating them in a pretty systematic way so that I ensure that every movement gets fresh attention every couple of days.)  Continuing on in the work I did on day 2, I made sure that I started by finding a pulse that works well throughout several different passages.  Once that was internalized I worked on in the movement paying particular attention to the rhythm of this one particular turn that always throws me for a loop and then worked on figuring out some more patterns and fingerings.  I stuck to this movement for a while as a bit of an indulgence (I love it!) and as a rest from the evening recital's many, many fast notes!

Next I worked on the coda of the third movement.  I tried working on the octaves at the end but my hands weren't going to hear of it so I moved to woodshedding and coming up with better fingerings to match the patterns in some of the previous passages that I worked on the day before.  Hopefully these new fingerings will make it all make more sense to me.

Last but not least, the cadenza of the first movement.  I backed up just a tiny bit and then reviewed what I've already worked on to hopefully start building up some speed since this needs to be ready to go in...

17 days! 

No problem.  (Can you tell I'm feeling a little more confident today? We musicians are such a roller-coaster of emotions, aren't we?)

Until tomorrow, happy practicing. 

Pulling a concerto out of my hat
Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 1
Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 2

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 2

Only on day 2 and I'm already doubting myself...

"Erica, what were you thinking?  15 minutes a day?  That is not going to be enough time to whip this together! You're crazy.  Just forget about it.  Go eat some ice cream instead."

Ah, the power of my mind and emotions to completely mess me up.  

"Self, be quiet.  An experiment is an experiment.  Let me be!"

So with that little psychological exchange out of the way, here is my practice session from last night, officially day 2 of my "Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day" challenge.  My strategy for this session was to start with the first movement cadenza this time since I started with the third movement on day one.  I'm working backwards in the cadenza and only had time to deal with a handful of measures since the texture is quite thick in this particular spot and I remember having trouble with it when I first performed it a few years ago.  You may hear me playing a "wrong" note repeatedly when I'm practicing the right hand at the beginning of the clip.  I'm doing that on purpose.  When there's a note that keeps surprising me I will play what I expect several times in a row, really listening to what that sounds like and then I'll play it correctly, listening carefully to what makes that better than what I had expected.  Often times that is enough to get me playing and expecting what's really on the page.  After reviewing what I worked on in the cadenza the night before I then spent the next few minutes in the next section of the second movement, focusing on patterns that I could find and listening to sound.    You might notice that I picked a really bad tempo to start with but thankfully I saw the error or my ways and figured out a better one that would allow me to fit in more of the notes.  Last but not least I began work on the coda of the last movement.  For some reason I find the patterns at the beginning of this section very tricky and kind of hard to lock into so I spent much of my time just dealing with that.  I'm not sure if I made much headway but it's a start I suppose.

So with all that said, here is day two's practice session:

20 days remaining.  I have a feeling I'm going to have a few battles with doubt along the way.  We musicians just love that, don't we?

Pulling a concerto out of my hat
Beethoven in 15 Minutes a Day: Day 1