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.

Friday, August 31, 2012

To practice or not to practice on the day of a not-so-ideal performance?

© OlliFoolish -
Here's the situation I faced when I woke up this morning:
  • I have a performance this evening, a recital of trio music for piano, oboe, and horn
  • I received the music one month ago
  • I have never heard, seen, or played either of these pieces prior to receiving it
Last night we had a dress rehearsal that was disguised as a performance at a local retirement community.  For the most part it went quite well and I enjoyed myself immensely, but as is often the case with music that is really new in my fingers, ears, and heart, there were many times when I found that little annoying voice in my head saying, "Um, have we done this before?" and other times where it simply screamed, "Eeeeeeeeck!"  That little voice doesn't discriminate between difficult passages and what should be easy ones so by the end of the performance I was glowing but also exhausted and a little bewildered as to how to approach the next 24 hours.  Normally on performance day I try to stay away from the music to be performed because I've found that it can more often than not, freak me out.  If I bomb a passage while warming up guess what's going through my head the moment I walk out on stage to perform the same piece.  Right.  An instant replay of the whole incident.  And guess how relaxed I am as I get closer and closer to the passage in question?  Yep.  Not very relaxed.  So with pieces I've performed quite a bit already or that I have worked on for months and months I tend to play completely unrelated music that I love to play to get me connected to my instrument and to the joy of playing music.  Unfortunately these days, as a collaborative pianist who is constantly learning new music and being asked to perform when it is not at the level of comfort I'd like, this tactic of not playing the piece at all doesn't work so well and doesn't tend to lead to having a calm spirit when I walk on stage.  So what to do?

When music feels uncomfortably new to me, my new tactic that I've been trying recently and that I did this morning was that I play through the least comfortable movements and passages at a tempo that allowed my body and mind to remain consistently relaxed.  Here's what I'm looking for when I'm doing this:
  • A connection with what it feels like to be playing this music in a relaxed state
  • Time to audiate and truly hear everything I'm playing as it is happening which also enables me to play slowly while preserving and even exploring musicality
  • Time to predict and audiate what's coming up next which helps even more with musicality
  • Time to breathe regularly, especially during the challenging passages where I tend to hold my breath
  • A freedom in movement, especially in my arms and hands, where I'm tempted to tense up in anticipation of a difficult sequence of notes
  • Time to also hear the other players' parts in my head so that they don't catch me off-guard in performances
  • A chance to fall in love with the music I'm playing
In the past when I've slow practiced with these things in mind, it reminds me of the music in a non-threatening way and it allows me to build a positive connection with the music that I can carry with me when I walk onto the stage.  It's still a relatively new tactic of mine so I suppose we'll see how it works for me this evening.

I would cross my fingers but that might make it a little tricky to play.  Plus too much tension involved.

Update post-performance: The performance went really well and I felt my body reconnect with the ease I felt in my practice session while I was playing slowly.  My ears were also much more engaged after hearing everything at a slower tempo earlier.  Conclusion?  It worked this time!  I'll keep testing the method.  And if anyone else tries it, do let me know how it works for you. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Making practicing public, live, and personal

Here comes another crazy idea of mine and thankfully I don't have just myself to blame for this one.    It started a while ago after I had tweeted quite a bit during a practice session of mine.  One of my friends on twitter tweeted to me, "I wish I could hear you practicing over twitter."  

My initial reaction was, "Ewwwww...I don't think you really want to know what's going on when I'm practicing."  But especially since I've started my own practice coaching business, I have put some more thought into my friend's statement and began thinking that livestreaming my practice sessions just might be the thing to do.  It would be a great way to hold me accountable for practicing what I preach, would give me more motivation to set aside time to practice every day, and if people actually chose to watch it, it could give them some insight into how I work, think, and deal with life as a busy musician.  It would show that even professionals have problems, that we make mistakes, and have bad practice days - in other words, that we too are human.  If nothing else, on good days it could provide folks with some decent background music.  

So here we are.  Thanks to the joys of the internet and technology, I am now able to jump off the cliff and let you all into my little strange, obsessive little practice world.  Right now I happen to have a lot of time to practice so I'm practicing several hours a day.  In a few weeks, once school gets going and rehearsals start up I'm not sure how it's going to work.  My plan, however, is to post a schedule for the day each morning on my Beyond the Notes Facebook page.  You can also come here to my blog and look at the sidebar on the right-hand side of the screen.  I have my ustream channel embedded there and it should automatically show when I'm livestreaming.  

If you miss my practice sessions, which is very likely since everyone is so productive and busy, you can always watch the archived videos that are also stored on my channel.  I'll keep a week's worth there at any given time.  

This is all very new so I welcome feedback on how I can make this work better so that it will be more interesting and informative.  And if you have specific questions about what or how I'm practicing shoot me an e-mail at This is now my third day of streaming and I was encouraged yesterday when another friend on twitter, a pianist, responded to my livestreaming yesterday by saying, "Could only tune in for a few minutes.  Long enough to send me to the piano."

I'm not sure if she was already headed to the piano, but if it was watching me practice that drove her to practice, this crazy experiment is well worth it!

So go pop some popcorn, pull up a seat, and join me...Beyond the!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Inspired by an inspiring award!

A few weeks ago I received the most surprising and humbling comment on my blog by a wonderful pianist, teacher, and social media friend, LaDona.  In it she informed me that she had nominated me for a "Very Inspiring Blogger Award" which, according to the badge that accompanies the nomination, has been created to keep "the blogosphere a beautiful place."  I think it's pretty obvious by now that I have fallen in love with blogs, not only writing them, but also reading them.  I am constantly inspired by a stream of incredible ideas and creativity that I see in these online journals that no longer just pepper the internet, but seem to fuel it.  To hear from a reader and colleague that this blog inspires her is such an encouragement to me.  So many, many thanks, LaDona.  It is an honor to be listed among those that you also nominated.  (To see a list of the excellent blogs she mentions, click here.)  So now to "accept" my award I'm asked to do several things:

  • Thank and link back to the person who nominated me
  • Post the award image to your page
  • Tell seven random facts about myself
  • Nominate 10 other blogs
  • Let them know they are nominated

Let's start with the random facts...hmmm...
  1. I love knitting and cross-stitching even though I rarely have time to do it anymore.
  2. I took sewing class in school.  And no, I'm not that old.  I just went to a bit of an old-fashioned girls' school.  I was the last person to take that class and I'm proud of it.
  3. I had to go to dancing school in middle school donning white gloves and patent leather shoes. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.
  4. The cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, picked me up off the stage of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and asked me to sit next to him in the audience during an open masterclass.  I will never forget that moment though I have showered since then.  I wasn't so sure I was going to.
  5. We have a pet lovebird named Pistachio.
  6. I can play a flamenco piece on the guitar...sort of.  
  7. I love poems, both reading and writing them.  My favorite poets?  Rainer Maria Rilke and Eavan Boland.

And now to nominate some fabulous bloggers that inspire me on a regular basis:

  1. Alexis Del Palazzo's "The Sensible Flutist" - Alexis shares many of my same philosophies about music-making, holistic playing, and the importance of building community wherever you are
  2. Astrid Baumgardner - Ms. Baumgardner is always a wonderful source of inspiration about life for creative souls
  3. Jazz pianist Ron Davis - Ron is on a bit of a blogging hiatus right now but when he writes, he writes beautifully with lots of wonderful things to say about music and literature.  He also happens to like Rainer Maria Rilke's writing. 
  4. Music educator and psychologist Robert Woody's, "Being musical. Being human." - Dr. Woody writes all the time about inspiration he receives through his teaching and research and is a good place to go to read about recent studies in the music psychology world.
  5. Cellist Emily Wright's "The Stark Raving Cello" blog - Emily doesn't actually seem to be raving very much of the time but instead provides honest, thoughtful posts about life both musical and otherwise.  She is also incredible at coming up with amusing stick-figure drawings that say just as much as a blog post can.
  6. Pianist and educator Michael Monroe's "MMmusing" blog - where wit and music come together into posts that usually leave me giggling.  He is amazing at putting together word puzzles, images with funny captions, classical music mash-ups, and videos.  Truly a place to be entertained while learning something.
  7. Clarinetist Marion Harrington - Marion is someone that has inspired me from day one of knowing her.  Living in Spain, she gave up a successful career in business to return to music and is sharing her journey one step at a time, the highs and the lows but always with a sense of humor and determination to live above it all.
  8. Guitarist Patrick Smith's "A Journeyman's Way Home" - Patrick blogs just about every day and to me they are like little meditations that shine a light into my own life.  He is truly a poetic soul.
  9. Music psychologist and coach Noa Kageyama's "The Bulletproof Musician" - Dr. Kageyama writes inspiring, practical posts to help any musician in the practice room and on the stage.  
  10. Pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski's "Go Play Project" - Cathy started a fascinating project at the beginning of the year to learn, record, and post on this blog a new piece every week during the 2012 year.  It's a source of inspiration to me every week and has put a bug in my mind that I want to do this too...someday. 
The thing I don't like about making any sort of list is knowing that I will probably leave something or someone out.  If you know I regularly read your blog but have not listed you here, please don't think anything of it and forgive me instead!  

Thank you again, LaDona, for giving me a chance to sit down and to think of all the wonderful people I have in my life via the internet.  It has been an honor.

Long live the inspiring blogosphere!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The thing about classical music...from the mouth of my babe

© Andy Dean -
You remember that show way back when that was hosted by Bill Cosby called, "Kids Say the Darndest Things?"  Well, in the past few months my seven-year old daughter and I have been living in our very own episode in which the central theme is classical music.  

It started a few months ago in the car when I asked my daughter if she wanted me to turn on some music.  She replied in the affirmative so I slipped in a CD of Rachmaninoff piano concertos - a little light listening.  The minute it came on I saw the oh-so-familiar eye-roll and heard its faithful side-kick, the sigh.  Looking back at her I said, "What?  Did you want to hear something else?"  Not wanting to ruffle feathers she didn't say much but by this point I was determined to figure out what was up with this disdain so I persisted in my questioning.  "What don't you like about this?  It's so incredible!  Just listen."  I proceeded to describe to her what I heard in the music, coming up with some sort of fantastical tale that involved fairies and mermaids (a necessity in a 7-year old girl's stories) and looked back to see her reaction.  Nothing.  No sign of interest, only another one of those sighs.  

A few weekends ago we found ourselves in a similar scenario.  On the way to church on a Sunday morning I again decided to listen to some music in the car - classical, of course and this time a recording of one of my own recitals.  The minute the music started (Rachmaninoff again), she said, "Mommy, why do you like this classical stuff so much?"  I gave her my answer and ended by asking her again, "What don't you like about it?"  Her response turned on a humongous lightbulb that's been burned out for my entire life.  She said, "Mommy, the thing about classical music is that, well, it just makes me feel stuff I don't want to feel all the time.  It's just too much, especially this early in the morning."  

I've heard this before.  Many times before.  Her words instantly transported me back to when I worked in a resort in Switzerland for several months.  I played piano in a restaurant and accompanied four singers that had also traveled there from San Francisco.  On my first night at work, the maitre d' of the restaurant, an intimidating, serious fellow, came up to me and said, "We've received a complaint from a customer - they want no more of this sad music.  They want happy music."  Prior to this experience I had very little experience playing anything other than classical music and in my mind, classical music was happy.  But I realized after a bit of reflecting that it was happy to me because I grew up with it, I liked it, and I connected with it.   Listening to the music from an outsider's perspective, it occurred to me that it could be perceived as something quite the opposite of heart-warming and perhaps overly emotional instead.  They craved Strauss waltzes, Scott Joplin rags, Sousa marches, jazz standards, anything peppy and upbeat that got their foot tapping.  They wanted music that took them out of their emotions and away from the drama of their lives into a simpler, happier place.  

For me, that happier place involves drama and an intense connection with the range of emotions that I can feel but for others, like my daughter, it can simply be too much.  As I find myself performing more and more for people that didn't grow up steeped in classical music, I'm realizing that making sure there's plenty of lighter emotional fare on my musical menu tends to produce more comfortable, satisfied audiences.  Does that mean I leave out some of the meat and potatoes of the classical repertoire when I perform?  Nope, I don't do that because that would mean keeping a large part of myself hidden.  But I also make sure that I include some pieces that are easier on the emotions and less likely to elicit one of my daughter's sighs.  

Ah, those sighs...I could use less of them since I know we'll get plenty in the years to come.  Perhaps I'll avoid Rachmaninoff the next time we're in the car together.  His music can be a little "too much," especially early in the morning.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mired in Migraines

© mast3r -
This is the first time I've bothered to mention this on my blog but since I've had a day that was made null and void by a severe migraine, I decided I want to end it with something productive.  So here's my attempt, written with all the lights turned off, drugs taken, brightness turned down on my computer screen, fan blowing on me gently, and the room quiet and waiting for something.

Migraines are mysterious. 
Migraines are merciless.

But often times they are seen as just as "big headaches." Take some aspirin, get some rest, you'll be fine.  

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way.

Migraines don't usually go away overnight.  I have gone through two weeks at a time with a constant migraine, of varying intensity, but there nonetheless.  And I know of folks that have had migraines last for even longer than that.  So just taking some aspirin and getting some rest doesn't really work - at least not for some of us.   Because they aren't "just headaches."

Migraines can be debilitating.  Sometimes I can continue to function with one but on a bad day, like today, I am forced to do nothing.  And I mean nothing.  Reading hurts, looking at the computer screen hurts, listening to music hurts, practicing piano definitely hurts...yup, see how bad it gets?  If something keeps me from my piano that says something.  I can perform if need be, albeit in a bit of a drugged-up state, thanks to all the endorphins that come with walking on stage but afterwards?  Oh boy.  You don't want to see me after a performance under the influence.  Not pretty.  

Migraines make me want to cry...or worse.  But because they are so painful and debilitating any thoughts of doing either are quickly realized as impossibilities.  Imagine that.  

Migraines make me feel pathetic.  Here I am, a wife and a mother, and I am made worthless to my family.  I remember several times when my daughter was much younger and not yet in school when she had to nurse me through the day.  It might have been somewhat fun for her - a chance to truly play nurse, but it wasn't so fun for me nor did I feel it was really right.  I am thankful that I have a family that is so understanding and helpful but I wish it didn't have to be this way so much of the time.

Migraines are difficult to figure out.  I've tried so many different medications, many of which have had way too many side-effects to be bearable; I've driven long distances to go to special clinics;  I've kept charts trying to make some sense of all the possible factors; I've had many different doctors that have completely different philosophies; I've tried to figure out the triggers; I've tried different things in regard to my diet; I've checked the barometric pressure on a regular's been a lot of work but yielded very few consistent theories.  Out of it all I have learned just a few things which I'll share now, for what it's worth.
  • It's challenging to find a good doctor who can really help with migraines.  I finally ended up with a neurologist that has migraines herself and this has meant the world to me.  With her I feel comfortable because I know she gets it.  She listens to me, has figured out that my body is not very good with medicine, and has taken more of a "let's just get you through this approach."  We tried some of the preventative options but they were not well-received by my extremely sensitive system.  Instead, she has put me on a daily regimen of supplements and has found for me several different options that I can use once a migraine sets in.  There are good doctors out there and they take some work to find but it's worth it.  
  • It seems like MRIs are not necessary unless a neurologist does a basic set of tests (that doesn't require machines, radiation, or big bills) and he or she sees a need to proceed with the big guns.  I had two neurologists, after seeing me once, order MRIs after only speaking to me for about 10 minutes each.  It was such a knee-jerk solution for them.  Migraine = MRI but seriously?  Do you know how much those tests are?  Plus talk about migraine inducing!
  • Rebound migraines can be more debilitating than your average migraines but they can happen so incredibly easily.  I had no idea that the medicine that works best for me, Maxalt, is only supposed to be taken every couple of days.   For whatever reason, none of my doctors or pharmacists ever told me this little detail.  So for little old me, that was having migraines for days on end, for weeks on end, taking Maxalt every day was causing massive rebound migraines!  Of course I was also running out medicine on a regular basis, being forced a few times to pay $75 per pill when I was desperate and had run out of what our insurance would pay for.   Somehow I stumbled upon information about rebound migraines online so I asked my neurologist about it and she confirmed what I had figured out.  I immediately started keeping track of when I took Maxalt, allowing for 2 to 3 days in between doses, and instantly reduced my attacks and their severity.  For a long time I also didn't know that I could take advil at the same time I take Maxalt.  And on top of that I can also take an anti-nausea medication I take.  It pays to ask the pharmacist or your doctor!  Perhaps I'm the only person that didn't know these things but I want to go on the record for passing on these important bits of info.  
  • I have discovered a website,, that has a wealth of information daily.  They also have a twitter account at @migrainedotcom.  
I wish I had more helpful information to offer but like I said at the beginning of this post - migraines are mysterious.  I certainly hope that more research will be done in the years to come so that this those of us who deal with them on a regular basis will find more relief.   Until then, if you're someone suffering from migraines, go easy on yourself - it's not easy to live with these things.  And for those of you that know someone with migraines, thank you for supporting them and believing them.  It means the world to us and makes living with them so much more tolerable. 

Now my head is really hurting so it's time to sign off.  Here's to a new and better day tomorrow.  Stay healthy, everyone! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Musical Investigations: Episode 4 - Muczynski's "Time Pieces"

In this musical investigation I look at just two measures from Muczynski's first movement of his "Time Pieces," for clarinet and piano.  I knew right off the bat that I would be spending quite a bit of time with these 31 notes and it's proving to be true.  But I'm getting there.  

Here's the passage in question:

I've learned a few things about Mr. Muczynski.  I've learned that his name is fun to say, that his music is always very rhythmically exciting, and the thing that begins our current investigation, that he must have loved octatonic scales which are scales that alternate between whole steps and half steps.

I love octatonic scales - truly.   But not this particular use of them.  Why?  Because Mr. Muczynski decided to not have the hands playing the same intervals at the same time - when the right hand is playing a half step the left hand is playing a whole step.  And when the right hand is playing a whole step, the left hand is playing a half step.  Oh ugh.  That is not nice!  But it does provide a wonderful mental challenge which I gladly accept.

So how to proceed?
  1. Find a good fingering and mark it in.  I knew that I wanted to reduce the number times I needed to shift my hands in order to keep things more simple and to avoid finger-tangling episodes.  I also found a way to finger them so that I would be using my thumbs in both hands at the same time as much as possible.  This gives me a sense of security and helps my brain to regroup whenever I land on those thumbs.  I made sure to mark in all the fingerings so that in the beginning stages I would be repeating the exact same fingering.  Not all people like doing this and would rather keep the music more clean but I prefer this method.  I figure I can always erase some of the more obvious ones as soon as the passage is well-learned and memorized.
  2. Mark in the material that immediately follows the scales.  Of course this passage falls right on a page-turn which is an invitation for a weak moment so I took a second to write in the notes that fall on the downbeat of the next measure so that I could work that in from the beginning of learning this passage.  
  3. Learn each hand separately so that I can play it in my sleep.  This didn't take terribly long because like I said before, I love octatonic scales and am pretty familiar with them.  But I always like to give myself a moment of success before I tackle something challenging, in this case putting the hands together.  
  4. Slowly put the hands together.  I have to admit this was slow going and I do believe my brain started to physically hurt.  Realizing that this might not work very well on its own I moved on to...
  5. Come up with a strategy to help my brain have something to grab onto.   After struggling to come up with something I finally realized that if I locked onto the right hand and onto which interval I was playing at a given moment I could pretty easily tell my left hand to simply do the other interval.  Seems crazy, perhaps, and keep in mind I had to do this super slow, but pretty quickly my brain and my hands started to latch onto the technique.  It allowed me to focus my eyes on only one line of notes which left some room in my brain to process the I should be doing in the other hand.  Quieting my eyes almost always quiets my brain.
After these steps I was well on my way but I still had to build up speed, comfort, and accuracy.  That leads to today's practice section which I videotaped.  Using many of the practice techniques that I use in fast passages, here is what I did in about 6 minutes of practicing:
  • rhythms (I don't like to do dotted rhythms, personally - I chose these because there are always two notes in the pattern on which I can really sit on and affirm that I know what I'm doing.)
  • add-a-note, starting first with the individual measures and then linking them all together
  • backwards - this is a relatively new technique for me.  I like the challenge in it and I do think it helps, for whatever reason.
  • hands crossed - in this exercise I play the left hand up an octave so that it's higher than the right hand.  It's a great way to really hear that left hand that so easily can hide behind the right in terms of security, clarity, and sound.  

So there you have it!  Musical mystery solved.  Hopefully a few days of practicing these two measures 6 minutes will work.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Learning from musical kids being kids - Creativity and Honesty

© Xuejun li -
I love accompanying little kids - they are so honest about everything, sometimes painfully honest. What I love most are the times then their honesty is something quite different - when their ability to say what they are feeling without fear of criticism leads to them sharing more of themselves in their music making.

At the beginning of the summer I got to play for another Suzuki book recital.  The studio I regularly play for is a wonderfully creative and inspiring place.  The teacher, Lisa Liske-Doorandish, provides an environment where a young person's emerging voice is encouraged and applauded and these book recitals, occasions to celebrate the accomplishments of individual students, are no exception.  Each recital has a different flavor, a different spirit about it depending on the cellist that is performing.  I've accompanied some in which the child comes up with an intricate plan in regards to the order of pieces, some that are accompanied by an illustrated program, and some that include improvised transitions between the pieces.  This last recital, however, presented a new but very welcome twist to the concept of a program.  Not only was every piece listed written in a different font but the young cellist, probably around 8 or 9 years old, wrote a sentence or two describing what he felt about each one.   I'm going to include it all here because I think it's pretty precious.  (Forgive me for not changing fonts for each one.)

  1. Berceuse (Schubert) -This music is so calm and makes me want to take a nap.  I played it a lot for my baby hamsters.  I love how beautiful it is.
  2. Gavotte (Lully) - I like this piece, especially the scale section.  It feels kind of bouncy to me and the low A at the end of the scale part is my favorite note.
  3. Minuet (Boccherini) - :-(  I am kind of tired of this piece because it's long, especially after our group played it all week at Suzuki camp, but I do like the trio part because it has a strong sound when the rest of the piece is light.
  4. Scherzo (Webster) - :-) This is a fun piece to play!! I like how it goes between bouncy and calm.  The calm section reminds me of ripples on a lake.
  5. Minuet in G (Beethoven) - I like how peaceful the first part is, kind of like a sea turtle swimming.  The trio kind of reminds me of a Mexican jumping bean.
  6. Gavotte in G Minor (Bach) - This is my favorite piece in the whole book!  I love how sad it is - someone trapped in a cave while a mountain lion is circling around it.
  7. Minuet (Bach) - I like the minor part better than the major part because sad music is more fun to play because you can put more emotion in it.
  8. Humoresque (Dvorak) - This piece is about alligators gulping up butterflies.  The butterfly happily flies over the swamp and then an alligator tries to eat it but the butterfly escapes and continues flying.  The alligator tries again and the butterfly is swallowed up.
  9. La Cinquantaine (Gabriel-Marie) - I enjoy the minor part of this piece and play it with a light bow.
  10. Allegro Moderato (Bach) - This was the hardest piece in the book, not only the fingerings but putting it together with the piano.  The piano plays a completely different part and it is kind of confusing.
I think it's pretty to safe to say that those in attendance had no problem following along and staying engaged with this particular book recital.  And even though I've heard all of these pieces in the exact same order many times the music sounded different to me this time because it wasn't just about the music, it was clearly also about him.  He was sharing what the music meant to him, even when how we felt wasn't so glowing.  When he got to the Boccherini Minuet, the one that earned a sad face, I found myself rooting for him in hopes that my silent cheering would somehow give him extra inspiration.  When he got to the smiley face selection I was ready to hear him play his heart out, which he did!  And the ones with stories of butterflies, alligators, being trapped in caves, and mountain lions?  Oh my goodness, his images made it all come alive for me and gave me such a precious glimpse into this young musician's imagination and world. 

As professionals and amateurs, should we too come up with such soul-bearing, imagination-revealing programs?  I'm not so against that idea because in my experience many audiences come to performances not only to hear music, but to also get a glimpse of humanity - to feel like they are making a connection with the people on stage.  I've even had audience members not steeped in  classical music culture, tell me that they have so much respect for musicians but are somewhat intimidated by them.  When I speak to them from the heart and give them an idea of who I am they are sometimes shocked that they are being included.  I like that kind of shock and think they do too. 

So why learn from musical kids being kids?  Let's go ahead and be a little more creative and honest when it comes to programs and program notes. 

But maybe we could leave out the emoticons!  ;-)

Update:  In September of this year (2012) a twitter friend, Michael Monroe, put together an extraordinarily creative program booklet for a recital that he did where he works.  It is brilliant and is a great example of a grown-up version of the program described in my blog post.  Please take a look!

MMrecital - the Program Booklet

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Balancing the tortoise with the hare while practicing

I often talk about practicing slowly because I believe it's an important part of efficient and deliberate practice and because I think it's something many of us have a difficult time doing.  Much of the time, when I ask someone to play something slowly for me in order to fix a problem the music is played at either the same tempo it was taken before or it is played one or two notches slower on the metronome.  Rarely, if ever, is the tempo one that I consider effective, that allows for the mind to feed the right information to the rest of the body.  It frequently takes several attempts to get the music as slow as I want it in order for any fixes to take hold and usually getting there takes a lot of not-so-gentle prodding.

In addition to using slow practice to help fix problem spots I also use it in the early stages of learning a new piece of music since my goal is to rarely, if ever, play wrong notes.  While I am learning the correct notes, choosing good fingerings, looking for patterns in the music, and doing basic analysis to enable me to start making musical decisions, I keep the tempo at a tortoise's pace, being very sensitive to where my brain is in the whole process.  The minute my brain begins to disengage, leaving my hands to rely on muscle memory alone, I stop and pull the tempo back again until my mind can constantly be in sync with the rest of my body.  Having approached learning like this consistently for years, music learning goes much more quickly for me now with the added benefit of the end result being more secure.  The time I have to spend at tortoise speed is reduced, allowing me to make like the hare and play up to tempo sooner than I had in the past when I mainly relied on mindless repetition.

There are some things I keep in mind when engaging in slow practice that I think are important:

  • Before doing a passage slowly I play it first close to my desired final tempo to get a sense of the gestures and muscles that will be involved.   When I do this I minimize the chances that I'll have to relearn the passage as I increase the tempo.
  • I try not to linger in slow land for too long.  The time it takes for the tempo to naturally and comfortably get faster just by slowly repeating something over and over again is simply too long.  As a busy woman, I can't afford to wait for that to happen.
  • I rarely build up speed using the metronome for the same reason.  Instead, I take an interval training approach in which I play a small clip slowly several times in a row first.  After playing it correctly repeatedly I then bump up the tempo significantly to see where I am.  If I make a mistake I check to see if there's a problem that needs to be solved.  If there is I try to address it and repeat the interval training sequence.  If there isn't a problem, I simply repeat the slow-fast exercise.  
  • I make sure that I don't shut off musical thinking.  Slow practice is an ideal time to really listen to the music and to try out lots of different musical options.

I guess you could say that in my practicing, I am a bit of a tortoise and a hare.  In my world those two actually get along marvelously. 

To help demonstrate some of what I'm talking about, I recorded myself working on a small snippet of the last movement of Gerald Finzi's "Five Bagatelles" for clarinet and piano, a really great piece in case you don't know it.  I went through the movement a few days ago to learn notes, mark in fingerings, and to indicate which passages I thought would need extra practice - this is one of them.  This is my first go at really working on it and I approached it in my tortoise-hare manner, going back and forth in small snippets until I was able to link everything up comfortably, almost up to tempo.  

So in my race who wins?  The tortoise or the hare?

You guessed it.


PS - Yes, I do realize that's technically a bunny, not a hare in the photo above.  I had a difficult time finding an image of a hare that was in a good position to sit atop that particular scale.