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.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part II - repertoire and programming


Painting by Ana Inigo Olea,
from Wikimedia Commons
Such an every-day word in so classical circles.  

"What's on your repertoire list?"
"What rep did they play at the concert last night?"
"What kind of rep do they do?"

As a musician that has gone from being a city mouse to being a country mouse, if I use that word  in the community where I now find myself I get a whole lot of blank stares.  It's not because it's a fancy word or because it's derived from the French language; it's not necessarily because the classical music world, where the word most frequently resides, is a very small, quiet one. I think it's because of one important truth that I've learned about most of the people here - 

Music is simply music for many people.  There is no comprehension of "classical" vs. "jazz" vs. "bluegrass."  It's all just music.

It's taken some getting used to on my part but it's a concept that's growing on me.  There is a lot of freedom that comes with throwing away so many of these labels.  If I am no longer just a classical musician but rather "a musician" there's nothing stopping me from playing and exploring other styles.  And if I am no longer a classical musician I can venture out and try new things without fear of being criticized for trying to be someone that I'm not because anything is possible.

Stripped of my "classical musician" label I have started to play around with my own "repertoire" choices.  Oh wait, let's translate that into country mouse language - I have started to play around with the pieces that I share with others.  My decisions are being shaped by the people I'm playing for here, many of whom didn't grow up around classical music. So far I think the result is that both the audience and I have enjoyed the experiences far more than we would have had I stuck to my city mouse mentality.  Here are some morsels that I've picked up from folks that don't necessarily differentiate between musical styles and how those morsels shape my programming decisions and presentations, mostly as a chamber musician and solo performer.

Generally speaking, country mice...
  • don't go to a performance for the sole purpose of hearing "classical music" or any other genre for that matter.  They go to hear music, to be moved, to be entertained, to get their toe tapping - they go for a variety of reasons that are hard to really predict or direct.  As a result I'm getting more and more brave about trying different types of pieces myself and even different instruments.  Not only does it keep it interesting for myself and my audience, it also helps me to let go a bit of my perfectionism.  And since people always show their appreciation regardless of how I feel myself about how successful my attempts are, I'm starting to connect with the fact that people want to hear music, not "perfection," whatever that is.  A good side benefit if you ask me.
  • like to hear music that they've heard before, especially when the music is tied to some significant, meaningful event.  I always try to play something that is likely to be familiar to someone in the audience.  Beethoven's "Für Elise," Scott Joplin rags, Bach's C Major Prelude from the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier (many people know it thanks to Guonod's arrangement of "Ave Maria") for starters.  Of course it's impossible to find a piece that's going to relate to every member of the audience but what I've found is that even if one piece on a program touches one audience member, their visceral reaction, often found in a sigh, a smile, and enthusiastic applause, is enough to pull in many others in the crowd.  It's difficult to deny music it's power to move.
  • are open-minded, especially if there is some sort of explanation as to why I am playing the piece I am playing.  I remember being quite nervous about playing a pretty dark, heavy Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue for a retirees' coffee hour at our church but I really wanted to share it with them for reasons I won't bore you with.  Before I played, I spent a few minutes explaining why the piece meant so much to me - that it brought to mind a visit I made to St. Petersburg right after communism had fallen.  I told them of the bombed-out estate on the Gulf of Finland that I stayed in with the boys choir I was with and of the shock that I saw on the boys' faces as they took in this completely different, world - one that was literally a ghost of the past.  After the performance I don't think that everyone left humming the piece, but they did listen and seemed to do so with some level of positive expectation.
  • have a difficult time understanding multi-movement works.  This has been one of the most surprising things to me for some reason.  I just assumed, being the city mouse that I was, that everyone understood that some pieces had multiple movements and that they knew how to keep track of them mid-stream.  But that's just not the case.  The majority of folks where I live do not understand that there is a reason for a large work to have multiple movements - that those movements belong together in some way and that together they make up one story.  And since many have not previously learned classical music etiquette rules they inevitably clap at the end of each movement.  I would even go so far as to say that seeing multiple movement works on a program can make an audience nervous.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen audience members repeatedly elbow their neighbor during a Bach suite and point at the program with a panicked expression, all because they don't know where they are in the piece.  Part of my solution to this issue is, perhaps, somewhat scandalous, at least in the classical music world.  I, , I actually leave movements out or perform just one movement of a particular work at a time.  Sometimes I have been known to play one movement, skip to another piece, and then return to another movement of the first piece later on.  Shocking, I know.  But not once has anyone come up to me and harassed me about it.  
  • have a difficult time paying attention when a piece is long, regardless of how wonderful a piece it is.  That's a simple problem to solve - I don't play really long pieces, at least not for a typical audience and not without fair warning.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to perform all of Schubert's epic song-cycle, "Winterreise."  It is a piece that takes an hour to perform and we did it without any intermission.  Even though I was thrilled to death to be doing it I was very careful to tell people in advance not only about why I was so thrilled to be doing it but also about the length and challenge of the work so that they could decide whether or not they wanted to make such a commitment.  
  • really like music that makes them smile and even laugh.  I'll never forget the first time I performed a piece that elicited laughter from the darkness in the hall.  It was Erik Satie's "Sports et divertissements," 20 short pieces that weave together droll text provided by Satie himself, fabulous paintings by Charles Martin, and of course Satie's own musical representation of it all in miniature form.  Although the score states that the pieces shouldn't be performed with the words narrated, I had my husband narrate and had the paintings projected onto a screen behind the piano.  I'm so glad we chose to do it this way.  We heard laughter throughout and that instantly created a connection and an atmosphere with the audience that I now regularly seek.  This is not to say that I'm headed in the direction of presenting comedy routines on stage but I can't deny that I like to hear people enjoying themselves.  It helps to make that dark hall a little bit brighter and through the sound of their laughter it gives me a glimpse of my partners-in-crime. One thing I have learned when presenting pieces like this is that it seems to help the audience if I let them know beforehand that they should feel free to chuckle, smile, and laugh during the performance.  Otherwise it can make for a bit of a stifled, awkward scene for everyone involved.
I think it's really important to keep in mind with all of these observations that I don't think any less of my audience here.  I don't feel that I'm more sophisticated and I don't think there's any reason they should know what I know about how classical music works.  We come from different backgrounds - that's it.  My aim when I perform in this wonderful community of ours is not to dumb down classical music or to bring classical music to the masses, to show them what they're missing, to educate them.  My goal is now to share music and myself with them whether it's classical music, jazz, bluegrass, whatever.  And so far the experiment has kept this country mouse a proud, content country mouse that's wandering into many more directions than I ever thought possible.  

Other posts in this series:
City mouse, country mouse in classical music: Part I

Monday, June 18, 2012

City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part I

First a true story:

A local cello studio in town, mostly made up of school-age children, is approached by a young engaged couple that is wanting to have classical music played at their upcoming wedding.  The teacher replies, saying that yes, the studio has a cello quartet that is available for the event.  The couple then asks if they might be able to come by and hear the kids play sometime before agreeing to hire them.  The teacher gives them a time and a place.

Here's where I think it gets interesting...

The fiancé then asks what they should wear to this arranged time.  The cello teacher responds by saying that they can just come as they are.

Fast forward a bit to the actual meeting.  

The couple shows up at the pre-arranged place and time dressed up, as if they are going to a formal recital, with both individuals looking quite nervous and uncomfortable.  

When I heard this story a few weeks ago I went through an evolution of emotions, from shocked, to embarrassed and saddened for this understandable but unnecessary reaction to classical music culture, to determined not give up on making my way in a rural community as a classical musician.  

Since hearing this story I have read many posts and articles, ranging from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's blog to the Wall Street Journal that have all had to do with the issue of classical music culture.  In them I hear the common arguments that seem to go back and forth between those that think that the classical music world needs to change in order to stay alive and those that think it is fine just the way it is.  In this last round of dialogue I've chosen to remain quiet, partially because I am not in the mood to get caught in the firestorm and also because I feel that each camp is firmly dedicated to their own position thereby making discussion pretty futile.  But I also didn't join in because quite frankly, I wasn't quite sure what to say.  After much thinking, and a doozy of a migraine, (those things can inspire some pretty interesting revelations,) I now feel like I have something to say although it may take a few posts to do so.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham,
from Wikimedia Commons
After growing up as a city girl, surrounded by classical music and now living as a country girl where bluegrass and folk music are the staple, it seems to me that there doesn't have to be just one type of classical music culture that works.  Where I live now, the more formal performances that one finds in the larger cities rarely seems to fit the rhythm of the community.  People don't know what to expect, they don't know the music, they don't get all the "rules" and why should they?  Most of the people here grew up here and were not exposed to classical music, to symphonies, to ballets.  We have to drive over five hours to get to Washington, D.C. to catch a big city symphony performance; we have to drive an hour away to get to a see a Met broadcast of one of their operas; we have to drive to another state or even fly to a big city to get our instruments repaired!  Rarely do the top-level performers venture to our small area and I don't blame them.  I get it.  There isn't much of an audience here.  But that means we need to understand this when it comes time to draw in an audience.  I believe this is the reality for many musicians living in rural America and for the communities that we're trying to reach with classical music.  

So what can those of us living as country mice do to keep our music alive?  Personally I don't think we should abandon any type of musical presentation.    If performances in the concert hall cease, a lot of passionate listeners will be left out in the dust and they will be denied an important source of musical and cultural inspiration.  If we give up on performances in more informal venues - in bars, libraries, outside on the lawn - we're going to risk having lots of people, especially young ones, slip through the cracks out of sheer lack of exposure. It seems to me that right now organizations and musicians are either trying to merge the two approaches or they are trying to push for one above the other.  I don't think either way is going to solve any problem or pull in new audiences.  

So here's my most recent hair-brained idea and I think this could apply to both city mice and country mice - perhaps we could come up with some sort of rating system like they do for movies, not to embarrass anyone or to say that one person is better than another, but simply so the expectation is made clear as to how a given concert will be presented and what those in the audience and on stage can expect:

E = Experienced audiences: for audiences that have been steeped in classical music culture and that are comfortable with a more reverential performance.
G = General audiences: for audiences that may or may not have experience in classical music culture but are looking for an opportunity to take it in without fear of breaking any etiquette rules.  These performances may also include non-classical music.
I = Informal audiences: for audiences that don't have experience in classical music culture but would like to experience it in an informal setting, free of any etiquette rules.  These performances may also include non-classical music.

Using a rating system like this might address a few issues:
  • It would encourage presenters and performing organizations to decide what it is they really want for a given performance.
  • For people that are nervous about attending a classical music performance this would take some of the mystery out of what would be expected from them.  
  • For people that have been steeped in classical music, this would enable them to go to a performance with the expectation that those around them will be seeking the same sort of atmosphere.  
  • It would encourage families with children to take their children to concerts.  They could start out with I and G-rated concerts, ending with E concerts if that's something that attracts the child.
I realize that there are probably countless numbers of arguments against setting something like this up, but what has become very clear to me, especially through scenarios like the one with which I opened this post, is that the classical music culture can be highly intimidating for many, many people.  I didn't realize that when I was a city girl.  As a country girl now I'm trying to figure out a way to share what I love in a way that will make sense to the people in this community.  It seems to me that taking the mystery out of our world, especially when it comes to performances, might be one step.  We should at least foster an environment where people feel like they can truly come as they are when we tell them they can come as they are.

Stay tuned for some more thoughts in the days to come.  And as always, I welcome your own thoughts and experiences.

Other posts in this series:
City mouse, country mouse in classical music culture: Part II - repertoire and programming

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Make room for the music practice coach!

I've said it before and I'll say it again -
I am addicted to practicing!
I love to do it myself, love to write about it, read about it, talk about it.  I also love helping others refine their own practicing.  After spending a lot of time eavesdropping in practice room hallways, listening to some good practicing and to some, well, not-so-efficient practicing I've decided I'm going to open thse doors and start something new - I now offer practice coaching and planning services to musicians of all ages, either in person or over skype.  Here are the different services I offer:

Practice boot-camp (in person): 
Four (4) closely scheduled hour-long sessions.  One fee will be charged that will cover the entire practice boot-camp.  Group sessions are available. 

As-needed basis (in person or via skype):
I will meet with you either in person or on skype when you've hit a wall and need help getting to the other side.  Sessions are charged by the 1/2 hour.

Practice planning for recitals, auditions, juries, etc... (in person):
Successful performances need proper planning.  We will meet with calendar and music in hand to map out a realistic schedule for learning your repertoire.  Sessions are charged by the 1/2 hour.

To find out more, please go to the PRACTICE COACHING tab at the top of my blog and if you decide you're willing to let me eavesdrop on your own practicing, just let me know!

Happy Practicing! 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer goal setting for a busy, multi-tasking musician

Image taken by Kevin Bunt,
 from Wikimedia Commons 
Ahhhh, summertime.  Time for....

Relaxing without a care in the world.
Reading books just for fun.
Sleeping in every morning.
Learning all the music that I've been wanting to learn all year.

Ha ha, right...let me try this again, with a little more realism...

Catching up on everything that should have gotten done during the school year.
Planning ahead and get a head start on preparations for the upcoming school year.
Learning the music that I have slated to perform during the next year.
Taking care of our little girl that is home for the summer.

And for my family this summer, let's also throw in there for good measure, "figure out how we're going to patch together a living with two freelance musician's salaries next year."  

I think it would be safe to say that we are far from being bored!

I recently read a blog post titled, "How to Set Yourself Up for a Growth Spurt this Summer" from one of my favorite music-related blogs, Noa Kageyama's, The Bulletproof Musician.  It left me feeling very inspired and motivated for about 5 minutes but then I found myself in the the middle of a minor panic attack.  Although Kageyama's suggestions, as always, are wise, I quickly came to the conclusion that for someone like me, a mother that has a daughter to take care of at home during the summer, expecting a growth spurt during the next few months is a little akin to expecting a fish to pole vault onto dry land - it just isn't going to happen so easily or so quickly.  This feeling was further confirmed when a friend that follows this blog, a mother of three little ones, brought up a similar concern - how does a parent maintain goals and practicing over the summer while also taking care of little ones?

After some thought I've come up with a few ideas for how I'm going to try and get through the next few months without sacrificing any one side of myself - the musical side, the mother side, the wife side, the "me" side.  Most important, musical goal setting will have to be done on the fly as moments of opportunity present themselves.  Would I like to practice every day?  You bet.  Should I put my foot down and insist on practicing a certain amount every day?  Perhaps, but at least in my little world at this exact time, that's really difficult to do.  And as I hear so often from older, wiser people, these years with our children go by so quickly so I'm going to release myself from the typical pressure I put on myself to be the productive person that I try to be the rest of the year.  

If I do make any goals, they're going to be little ones that can be accomplished in a very small window of time.  When I find myself with any amount of practice time, I'm going to fill that hour with mini goals.  "I'm going to pick a good fingering for this passage that's giving me trouble," or "I'm going to memorize these last 4 measures of the Fugue."  They are going to be almost too easy to accomplish in the allotted time so that success is practically inevitable and so that I can find a reason to pat myself on the back.  Lots of back-patting motivates me to do even more, to succeed more.  Who knows how much I'll actually be able to accomplish, albeit in tiny, tiny steps.  If I can pull it off I will also be a happier mom when I walk away from the piano and a happier mom makes a happier family which makes for a happier summer.  

Having a happier that's a goal I think we could all live with.  

Bring on the summer!  Now I'm ready.