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.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An uninspiring but important tip for singers

As a collaborative pianist I play for a lot of singers and it never ceases to amaze me how often I see them in coachings singing from photocopies that are in their binder in a less-then-ideal way.  On occasion I also see this with instrumentalists.  Although the following tip might seem trivial, I'm going to go out on a limb anyway and to share some thoughts about why I think the following advice is actually pretty important.  Here it is:

When using photocopies* of a score and putting them in a binder, don't just punch holes on one side so that you're having to turn the page at the end of each one - punch them in such a way so that you can have them laid out like they are in a book, with pages facing one another.  This is not only true for the pianist's music but it's also true for the singer's.  

Sounds terribly trivial, doesn't it?  But here's why I'm even bothering to blog about it...

  • Page-turns, whether in photocopies or in standard books, typically trip up our thought-processes.  It's a built-in interruption that can be hard to counteract.  In my own process of learning music I find that I have to work pretty hard to learn the music that hovers around the flip of the page so that I don't consistently mess things up.  If you're having to turn the page at the end of each one, that's giving yourself twice the number of page-turn spots that can be inadequately learned.  
  • As singers, memorization is a must.  Visual memory is one very important tool to aid in the process but if photocopies are arranged in the less-than-preferred way, not facing one another, your visual map is half the size that it could be.  Looking at it another way, there is twice the amount of material that occurs on the same part of the page, making it much more difficult to differentiate one spot from another.  For instance, let's say you're having trouble remembering the words at the beginning of the second verse of a song - if your pages are arranged in standard book form, facing one another, the chances that the second verse starts on the same part of the page as the first and third verse of not very likely.  You can use this cue as a way to remember what the difference is and how that second verse starts when it is on the top of the left-hand page versus the third verse, which starts on the bottom of the right-hand page.
What on earth is this?
  • Do you remember those little games they often have in kid's magazines where they show an up-close fragment of a larger image and ask you to identify what it is part of?  Playing from music that is not ideally arranged is sort of like looking at one of those up-close images.  It's very difficult from this vantage point to get a sense of the whole, to know where you've come from and where you're headed.  Musically speaking, this can translate into a less musical performance.  
  • Turning all those pages can be terribly hard on one's wrist and can also dry out the delicate skin on the tips of one's fingers.  We can't have that! 
So singers, get those hole-punchers out and tape dispensers out and get to work.  In my mind it's worth it. 

I'd be curious to hear from some singers on this topic or from anyone that might have some specific research or science that we can use to back-up this seemingly silly little tip of mine.  And if you think I've just gone bananas with all this, you can let me know your feelings about that too! 

* I don't encourage people to use photocopies unless they own a copy of the score and are using the photocopies for practical purposes.  Making photocopies to avoid purchasing the music is illegal! 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Preserving the definition of the "dress rehearsal"

Dress rehearsals are in danger of becoming extinct, I fear.  True dress rehearsals, that is.

In my book, a dress rehearsal is the opportunity prior to a performance to do a full, uninterrupted run-through of whatever is to be performed.  It is a chance to let go of perfectionism and to practice putting ourselves in a state of mind where our musical message becomes the goal.  Recently, however,  I have experienced many occasions in which the goal seems to be to deliver a note-perfect, memory-slip free, musically perfect performance in order to reassure the performer that all will be well at the real performance. 

But here's the problem with that - 

That type of performance can only be a miracle!

I know.  I'm usually such the optimist.  And in my mind, I still am.  But I am also a realist.  I believe it's important to have realistic expectations going into any performance.  Otherwise, when the inevitable happens that quest for perfection, which is sometimes the sole purpose for some performers, is ruined - game over.  For those musicians that have held this as their goal in practice, rehearsals, and performance, what is left then?  The mind games that inevitably filled their minds up to this point take over and eat away at their confidence, leaving the chance that any musical message will be conveyed solely to the music itself and to the audience.  It also makes for a very grumpy, dissatisfied, and discouraged musician.  

It doesn't need to be like this!  Performances can be moving experiences without being "perfect" so why expect that from ourselves as the end product?  And why expect that of ourselves in dress rehearsals?  I often ask young musicians that stop in the middle of a final rehearsal, "Why are we stopping now?  How often did you nail it in the practice room?"  Usually the answer to that last question is, "Every once in a while."  

Right.  I'm not great at statistics but something tells me the chances of nailing it in a dress rehearsal and performance aren't very likely with such an answer.  So why stop?  

Again, this is not me being a pessimist - just a realist.  

Let's turn dress rehearsals into a precious time in which we can meet the music face-to-face, free of all the practice-room mind games and tactics.  Let's see them as opportunities to see what we can do with the slip-ups that are going to be there, because they are going to be there, and to revel when we realize that we can still make music in spite of some creative improvising.    Speaking from a collaborator's point of view, let's also see it as an opportunity for the collaborator to figure out how to support the soloist when something does happen.  And let's enjoy the fact that the hall or performance space is ours and ours alone for a brief time.  Some of my most spine-tingling musical moments have been when I've been alone in an empty, beautiful hall.  There's nothing like the pure sound that comes back at you when you're in this most precious of moments but when I'm wrapped up in perfectionist mode, I'm not in a state of being to register the wonder of it all.  

See how wonderful dress rehearsals can be?  We simply cannot let them go extinct.  So stopping?  In a dress rehearsal?  I wouldn't advise it, especially if your collaborator happens to be me!  

And yes, I do have access to a tow truck and I'm not afraid to use it.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Revisiting stage fright

Still image of Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Stage Fright,
from Wikimedia Commons
In general I love performing but every so often I have a reoccurring nightmare that may or may not sound familiar in which I find myself being nudged onstage, holding an instrument I've never played, to play a piece I know I can't play.  

Well, silly me -  this past week I voluntarily chose to make this nightmare of mine a reality with quite an amusing but educational result.  

Let me set the stage for you...

I play piano for a local cello studio that I absolutely love.  With lots of wonderfully enthusiastic students, both young and old(er), it's a place where encouragement and support are always freely given.  At the end of every school year a big recital is put together that is centered around some sort of theme with this year's being French music.  Of course I accompany all those that are playing solos but I also use this occasion to pull my own cello out of the closet, not only to join in on the ensemble numbers, but also to play a solo myself.  I always leave learning my piece to the last week which tends to make me a bit nervous, but it's a slight discomfort that I'm willing, even eager to bear in an effort to give back to this studio that gives me so much throughout the year.

This year I took everything a little too far.  My husband, a wonderful singer, declared that he really wanted to take part in this year's event so we decided he would sing Reynaldo Hahn's exquisite song, "A Chloris" in addition to me playing the cello solo I had already picked out for myself.   Well, for some reason I didn't think it would be right for me to just accompany him from the piano (it was a cello recital, after all) so brilliant me decided that I'd arrange it for three cellos.  I quickly realized, however, that having a cello on the top line of the piano part would get in my husband's way so brilliant me declared, "I can play it on the flute!" 


Oh my heavens.  I have no idea what I was thinking and I often wonder if I'm a bit off-kilter to come up with such a wacky idea.  You see, I don't really play the flute.  I own a flute, yes.  I have taught myself (sort of) to play, yes.  But have I ever played for anyone other than myself, my daughter, or my husband?  NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!  Have I ever performed on the flute?  On stage?  In front of people?  I think you know that answer to that.  

But as soon as my brilliant idea came out of my mouth my husband readily agreed and even seemed a bit excited.  Oh dear.

I made the arrangement, I practiced (a little bit,) and the next day we all rehearsed - it actually went pretty well.  I got some good tips about vibrato and breathing from some of my twitter and Facebook friends over the next few days and I was feeling like this might actually turn out all right.  In fact, I was thinking that it might even be kind of fun.

Then the performance day arrived.  It was an absolutely crazy day and we didn't have a chance to run through the Hahn until 15 minutes prior to concert time.  That's when my gum-drop sweet visions of becoming an official flute player quickly soured into a nightmare.  Halfway through the run-through I couldn't get any notes out of the flute.  Nothing.  Nada.  It was like the bad case flutingytis, if there is such a thing.  Being a pianist and a cellist, I had never experienced anything like this.  You can always get a note out of either of those instruments - it might not sound very good, but still.  And this was one of those cases when my knowledge about performance anxiety didn't help at all.  All I could think about was the terror I knew I was feeling.

Backstage, the cellists asked for me to play an "A" so they could tune to me but I could barely get anything out which just made matters even worse.  At one point I looked at my husband and said, "I really, really can't do this."

But guess what?  I didn't have a choice.

So we walked out on stage and did it.  Let me rephrase that - they did it and I came along for the ride, adding some notes here and there to the best of my ability.  As a seasoned performer and one that writes about dealing with performance anxiety all the time on this blog and elsewhere, this was all quite humbling.  When I walked off stage, I was devastated, frustrated, embarrassed, and a bit mad.  My poor husband got quite the icy reproach that he didn't deserve since it was my idea in the first place.  But after a few minutes of cooling down, I managed to turn myself around and to see the lemonade in my handful of lemons.   Being the generous person I am, I'll share some of my lemonade with all of you, in the hope that something sweet will come out of this experience that might otherwise be humiliating.  Here's what I learned:
  • I was made viscerally aware of what it feels like to be glued to the floor in terror prior to walking on-stage and how helpless one can feel when something goes terribly wrong right beforehand.  Hopefully this will come in handy when I'm accompanying someone in the same boat. 
  • I learned how dangerous it can be to practice a lot the night before, especially considering how out of shape/inexperienced I am.  That night I tweeted and posted on Facebook that my lips were tingling - I think that was a sign that I had, perhaps, overdone it.  
  • I realized what a blessing it is that I feel so comfortable at the piano and it confirmed for me that piano truly is my instrument!  I was talking to an adult cello student after the concert about this and she told me her story - that she started off as a pianist but never felt quite right at that instrument.  As soon as she switched to cello she felt right at home and has never looked back to making that switch.  So perhaps we all have instruments that are simply "meant to be" for us and there's nothing wrong with that.
  • I learned how important it is for a musician that uses breath to be well hydrated before walking out onto the stage.  In the craziness and busyness of the afternoon I didn't allow myself the time to drink any water nor did I realize I should be thinking about that.  As a pianist I can play with the flu, with a migraine, dehydrated, and starving...I don't think anyone can do that with the flute.  
  • I was reminded of how much harder on myself I am than anyone else, especially the people in this audience and in this cello studio is.  I was absolutely convinced that I had made an utter fool of myself and I think there are some that realized that was a shaky performance.  But for the most part my performance received many compliments that completely blew me away.   I even had several people say that they had always pictured me as a flutist.  Ha!  That made me chuckle.  
Will I ever pull out my flute again?  Probably.  I like playing it too much.

Will I ever perform in public again?  Not any time too soon.  But I am kind of crazy so you never know.

Do I regret having performed yesterday?  I did at first.  But now?  Nah.  I happen to really like lemonade.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ditch the small beats!

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I can't tell you how many times I tell this to the young musicians I work with -  
"Ditch the small beats!"
When we start learning a piece it is important for us to figure out the rhythm.  As many of you who read my blog know, I am a big advocate for careful, thoughtful analysis of music that we're learning and that includes understanding the math behind all of the rhythms in any given piece.  (In my post, "Baking cakes - conquering rhythm" I compared it to getting all the right measurements when baking a cake.)  But after doing this detailed work, I believe we run the risk of becoming hyper-aware of the subdivisions that run throughout - "One-e-and-a Two-e-and-a Three-e-and-a-Four-e-and-a..." might be embedded in our head when we're performing or even worse, but something I see on a regular basis, "da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da."  For me this is akin to the adage, "Can't see the forest through the trees." Thinking in so much detail might be fine at first, and by "at first" I mean until our brain understands the rhythm, but after that I believe it's crucial for technical and musical reasons to trust the detailed work and move past those subdivisions into feeling the main beats (quarter notes in 4/4), half measures (half notes in 4/4), or whole measures (whole notes in 4/4.)  In other words, for a piece that's in 4/4, I feel the music not in 16 but rather in 4, 2, or even better in some cases, in 1. When I don't do this, here is what I typically experience and why feeling the bigger beats helps the situation:

  • Lack of phrasing and musicality:  I have a difficult time feeling the natural phrasing and flow of the music because I am so focused on e-a-c-h--a-n-d--e-v-e-r-y--n-o-t-e.  I like to call this the "seeing the trees for the forest" syndrome versus "seeing the forest for the trees."  Feeling the bigger beats helps me to feel and hear how groups of notes belong to one another.  It's like stepping back from one of Seurat's examples of a pointillism and seeing the whole picture rather than just the dots that make up the whole.
  • Troubles with ensemble: If I'm playing with someone else it is more difficult to get our parts to line up since we're working at such a microscopic level.  Perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but for some reason if all the players agree on a larger beat to feel as a group, it becomes much easier for all the notes in between to fall into place.
  • No sense of rhythmic flexibility:  When I think the smaller subdivisions, the rhythms are just rhythms - they don't have any musical or expressive motivation behind them.  Now I may get some criticism for this, but I believe that many of us take rhythms too literally.  As I said earlier I do think it's important to mathematically understand what a rhythmic notation represents.  However, I also believe that in most pieces of music, we can and possibly should leave some room for flexibility for the sake of musicality.  For instance, I might choose to linger just a fraction of a hair longer on an eighth note before diving into sixteenths.  Or I might play with a triplet figure just slightly, especially if it's among a lot of duple rhythms, to emphasize the different character that triplet figures tend to have.  When we think in the smaller subdivisions, having this flexibility is impossible.  
  • No sense of where I am in the measure:  If I'm counting "One-e-and-a Two-e-and-a Three-e-and-a-Four-e-and-a..." at least I am somewhat aware of which beats are where in the measure and how the music lines up with the stronger beats but when I'm counting "da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da" I generally don't have any sense of gravity - of where to touch the ground in the music to give that natural cyclical feeling that meter can give.  When I think the bigger beats I tend to feel more like a conductor with their choreographed conducting patterns.  I have a better idea of where I am at any given point and that feels infinitely better than feeling lost in a forest of equally important (or unimportant) beats.   
  • No ease of playing:  When I'm playing a fast, technically challenging piece, thinking the smaller beats feels somewhat akin to wearing weights on my legs when going out for a run - you can only run so fast with those things on!  Switching gears and feeling the bigger beats enables me to play much faster, more easily which can really be a lot of fun and endorphin inducing - I definitely can't complain about that.  I think the reason why this works has to do with all of my previous points put together - it takes me out of the microscopic world that I often find myself in when I'm in the practice room analyzing everything to death, and plops me in the middle of lovely forest of musical phrases.  
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Not all the students I work with get this concept but when they do it's pretty amazing!  Recently I was rehearsing with a hard-working, conscientious saxophone major that was getting ready for an important jury.  On his program was a very challenging work, Ibert's Concertino da Camera.  The rhythm throughout is incredible, even a bit jazzy at times.  But much of it is fast, especially when he's playing.  In rehearsals we were having a terrible time getting our parts to fit comfortably - he kept rushing and cutting off ties all over the place which put both of us on edge.  At one point I looked at his foot and saw that he was energetically tapping out quarter notes so I immediately stopped and suggested that we start again but feeling only one beat per measure rather than two.  He gave it a go and I will never forget his reaction.  We got through a really difficult passage with no problem and he was so shocked he had to stop.  He looked at me, a bit perplexed but excited nevertheless, and said, "Wait - I can play it!"  This guy had been practicing the piece endlessly, slaving away at all the tiny details, practicing with the metronome (set to the subdivisions) but to no avail - he couldn't find a way to just fly with it.  All it took in the end was one simply adjustment and he was good to go!  

So next time you find yourself struggling with any of the challenges I listed above, remember - 

Ditch the small beats! 

And trust me, even though it might feel different at first and take some getting used to, the view of the forest from more of a distance is really much more satisfying.

Last but not least, here's a video describing my process and hopefully demonstrating what a different it can make to try this:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Seeing myself in a work of fiction: Providence, VA, by Michael Abraham

I usually read to escape from my world.  Sometimes I read to escape from myself.  But I recently had the odd experience of stepping into a novel that left me standing in front of a mirror, facing a reflection of myself in the guise of a character whose name is Sammy.  

Sammy, a 17-year old violinist, is the protagonist of Michael Abraham's new novel, Providence, VA.

Quoted from the back cover of the book:
Sammy Reisinger is a 17-year old violin prodigy from a wealthy New Jersey family.  She has inherited a priceless Cremonese violin from her grandfather and is schooled in the classics.  Becoming enamored with traditional Appalachian music, she decides to visit the venerable Old Fiddlers Convention in Southwest Virginia.  While there performing, tragedy strikes, leaving her seemingly trapped and orphaned.  Providence, VA is the story of how she and her tiny host community deal with an epic disaster. 
I can relate to much of that.  I grew up in San Francisco being surrounded by some of the best musical training, steeped in classical music.  I didn't have an old, valuable instrument but I was given what I needed - good instruments, pedigreed teachers, prestigious music camps every summer, and wonderful opportunities to perform locally and around the world.  Yet when my husband, daughter, and I moved here, to Blacksburg, Virginia, I instantly felt drawn to this part of the world - to the natural beauty, to the people, and to its music - bluegrass music.  

Every year my husband and I take a day or two off to venture out into the surrounding area for a bit of a retreat from parenthood and from life "in the big city."  A few years ago our excursion took us to Pearisburg, Virginia, a small town on the way to West Virginia.  Driving through on the same day they were having their town festival, we decided to stop since there's no better way to get to know a community than to check these types of gatherings out.  While we were eating some lunch we sat and watched an older lady who was fiddling along with a younger man playing the banjo.  I was enthralled and a bit jealous.  They were just playing together - no music, no words to discuss how they were going to do each piece, no stress.  They just played on and on, seemingly reading each other's minds all along.  It was refreshing and exciting to me because of the amount of communication it seemed to offer in both a musical and non-musical way.  

Some time after that experience I had the chance to accompany a young girl who was getting ready to perform a violin concerto by Haydn.  I didn't know anything about her prior to the first rehearsal but I immediately knew, once we had started, that there was something different in her approach to the music.  This very classical music was played with a flexibility and ease that I hadn't considered applying to Haydn's music but it felt right, especially in her hands.  It turned out this young lady grew up learning to fiddle and had spent some time competing in that field - fiddling was her first musical language.  I will never forget our performance together.  The way her face and demeanor were so relaxed yet connected to the music was so reminiscent of the couple we had seen at the Pearisburg fair and it's been something I've been trying to connect with myself ever since.  It's also part of why I have decided these past few years to focus on making music-making a joy, not just a work of great concentration and hard work.   

So I can relate with Sammy on the musical side of things.

I can also relate to her as she finds herself displaced to a new community - one that is quite foreign to her but that, in general, welcomes her with a love and openness that is not always found in this success-driven world of ours.  As an outsider, finding oneself in such a different type of world can be a bit disorienting.  When we moved to southwest Virginia and I became involved with a cello studio in town that is made up of some of the most giving, supportive, and generous people I've ever known, I didn't know quite what to do with myself.  As a mom of a young child, I didn't know what to do with the offers of help - would accepting be a sign of weakness and ridiculed?  Would something be expected of me in return?  Why were they doing this?  Sammy deals with many of these same questions in Michael Abraham's story.  In the end, after figuring out our roles in virtually the same community, one in fiction, one in non-fiction, the answer to that last question - "why are they doing this?"  

The community in this part of the country plays and lives the way bluegrass is played.  Life and music are not separate - they merge into a lifestyle that values people, community, joy, and music above personal gain and success.  Some people might say that such a view is a naive one and one that is sure to lead to failure and disappointment but I guess I'm willing to take that risk at this point.  Does this mean I'm going to forget playing classical music and start learning how to play bluegrass?  Nope, definitely not - classical is inside of me and I'll never let that go.  But I am going to keep trying to bring a little bit of that culture into our classical world.  

I'm grateful that life has brought me here, for Michael Abraham's wonderful characters in Providence, VA, especially Sammy, and for the community that we now find ourselves a part of.  It's a beautiful place in so many ways.  

Now we just need to jam!  Anyone care to join me?

Here are a few other posts I've written that have been inspired by music-making in this area:

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

P.S. - This book is also available for reading on the computer and other devices at Smashwords.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Replacing "success" with joy in the life of two musicians

Photo taken by Lance Trumbull - 
In May of 2011, at the Juilliard School in New York City, composer John Adams addressed the graduating class with these words - 
All the paradigms of success that we routinely encounter in our everyday lives - on television, in movies, in the online world, in the constant din of advertising, even from our friends and families - all these "models" for success and happiness American-style are about what is ultimately a disposable life, about a life centered around material gain and about finding the best possible comfort zone for yourself.
He continues on to say - 
But by choosing a life in the arts you've set yourselves apart from all that. 
Have we in the world of the arts really done that though?  Have we really set ourselves apart from the rest of the world?  As a whole, I'm not so sure.  I think that many of us fall into the same trap of craving success and recognition even though the root of our career choice is all about the passion we have for music, not about something as tangible as money.  Whether we're in an orchestra, a teaching position in a university, or a choir, we seem to always be striving to get to the next level.  I know my husband and I have recently caught ourselves on this very same ladder.  But is it any wonder?  I don't think so.  Because in order to survive comfortably in this country we are forced to march up the very same ladder as our friends in the non-musical world in order to provide ourselves and our loved ones with "security."

I am no politician.  I don't tweet or put Facebook statuses up about politics because quite frankly I don't know a whole lot about it and am not as well-read as I sometimes wish I were - I'm too busy playing the piano and trying to make my own living.  But this past week I was forced to examine this whole topic in a very personal way thanks to my husband essentially losing his job at the university he's been working at for the past 6 years.  (You can read all about that in my blogpost, "Turning one's back on the tenure dragon.")  As is part of the denied-tenure process he was given a contract by the institution which would enable him to teach for one final year at the same salary, but with something of a demotion.  We were given one week to decide whether or not to sign that contract.  Saying that week was a soul-searching, mind-blowing one would be an understatement.

We started with the practical benefits of signing the contract.  I would label this the, "Staying on the Ladder" approach.  With another year of teaching we would get a good salary and our health benefits would continue.  There was also the thought that staying another year might look better on my husband's resume than if he were to not teach another year.  

But that's where the benefits seemed to stop.  

My husband was dejected, lost, and exhausted. He was also struggling to see himself as the musician that he has been since he was a little boy.  Speaking as a music lover myself, questioning one's abilities, one's self, is like the kiss of death.  And being the stubborn self that I am I refused to accept the type of year we would face if he continued down this same path.  I strongly urged him, in spite of all the "benefits" and "security" that we'd be giving up, to back down the ladder.  After all, there aren't great views just from the top of a ladder.  If we keep our eyes open and minds open there are great views from just about anywhere.  Besides, I questioned, are tall ladders really that secure anyway?  I seem to remember learning that whenever one is on a tall ladder it's good to have someone at the bottom, holding tight to the base.  Considering how isolated and unsupported many on these tall ladders feel, depending on someone to be at the bottom seems a unrealistic.  

In the end, after much deliberation and discussion with many friends and family, my husband decided to not sign the contract to teach another year.  There were many reasons behind that decision but at the root of it all was the desire to start anew now rather than delaying the inevitable and to head down a different path that will hopefully take us back to where we left our breadcrumbs - back to a place where the joy of music-making and the thrill of sharing it with others can be found.  Perhaps it would have served us well to have been in that graduating class last year, and to have heard these words from John Adams:
A life in the arts means loving complexity and ambiguity, of enjoying the fact that there are no single, absolute solutions.  And it means that you value communicating about matters of the spirit over the baser forms of human interaction, because you know that life is not just a transaction, not simply a game about winning someone's confidence purely for purposes of material gain.
Those words make sense to us.  A lot of sense.  They excite, they inspire, they have value.  A different, less practical value, perhaps, and value that doesn't put as much food on the table but value nonetheless.  

This next year will be interesting, there's no doubt about that.  And our lives may not be as "secure" or comfortable as they have been ever since we've been married but our hope is that our journey back down the ladder will provide us with the time, space, and reignited passion to see the things around us that have a value that will bring more joy into our lives.

Many thanks to my friend, Jeff Prillaman, @vatenor, for pointing me to John Adams' commencement speech.