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.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Words of encouragement and a reality check for young musicians

© Gordan Jankulov -
A few days ago I posted the following on my Facebook page.  It seems to have hit quite a chord so I thought I should share it here as well in hopes that it can reach more musicians of any age and at any stage.  Feel free to comment below if you have any words of encouragement yourself and please do pass the post along to anyone you think might benefit from hearing it!  

Dear music students -
A little reality check to hopefully encourage you.

I have been playing piano for over 30 years,
I have put in a gazillion hours of practicing,
I have performed a lot,
I think I'm pretty good at what I do,
and I've performed the piano part of Desenclos' "Prelude, Cadence & Finale" for saxophone and piano at least 8 times now.

YET...and here's the important part...

Today, as I was preparing for yet another rehearsal for yet another performance I still felt like I had to give myself a pep talk in order to face another practice session. I still have a LONG way to go to feel like I'm even close to doing it justice.

YET...and here's another really important part...


So next time you are kicking yourself because you haven't gotten your piece note-perfect, stop and remember you have a lifetime ahead of you to keep working on it. It's never over. Not even when the fat lady sings. 

Keep practicing, keep looking for what else you can do to improve, keep looking for the music behind the notes...and take pride in what you do!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Digging deeper to facilitate learning thorny passages

© PLen -
I feel I need to start with a warning - my husband, upon hearing my excitement about the contents of this post, declared to me, "You know you're a big nerd, right?"  If you're a music nerd like I am, feel free to continue reading.  But if you're not, you may want to reconsider.  I have a feeling my husband won't be adding this post to his reading list.

The piece in question for this little musical investigation is the last movement of Mozart's F major piano sonata, K. 332.  In the development section there is a passage that is thoroughly entertaining - a whirlwind of sixteenths and winding, chromatic eighths that I had a sneaking suspicion might be a bit tricky to memorize because of the tiny differences between each of the repetitions.  

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with passages like this; I can get overwhelmed with all the details but at the same time I take great interest in tackling a challenge such as this one as if it were a puzzle or a game.  I thought it might be interesting for some to see my process.  Keep in mind no two minds are alike so what I see in this passage may not resonate with or make sense to anyone else.  I do believe, however, that it's the process that is most important.  It gets us one step closer to being in the mind of the composer and that can be a very exciting place to be.  

One of the first things I noticed is that in measures 98 and 110 the figuration in the left hand on the first beat is a triad in the first inversion.  If you look at the excerpt above, all figurations that are in the first position are marked with a green line.   All of the other figurations that are similar throughout this passage are in root position and marked with a red line .  It is a discrepancy like this that can often irritate me, making me want to scream at the composer saying something like, "Why must you do that to me?!"  Actually, I do end up asking that question, only a bit more politely, which then leads me to asking other questions that help me make some sense of what the composer was doing.  In this case, I noticed that in the preceding two measures in both cases, the left hand's eighth-note chromatic figuration also starts on the same note - the third of the root position triad.  My next question is, "So what would it have been like if Mozart had chosen to start those initial figurations on the root of each triad, just as he has the right hand in the next beat?"  First of all, if he had done that, the right hand and the left hand at the beginning of measures 98 and 110, would be playing the same note - "D" in measure 98 and "F" in measure 110.  I played it that way a couple of times and to be honest, it's pretty thin and uninteresting, at least to my ear.  Now I get it!  Now I don't feel like throwing the music across the room.  

This prior experimentation led to another observation and question.  In measures 96 and 108 the left hand starts on the 3rd while the right hand starts on the root.  In measures 100 and 104 the left hand starts on the root while the right hands starts on the 3rd.  After experimenting a bit with the alternative, making the left hand consistently starting on the 3rd and the right hand on the root and vice versa, I realized that alternating it creates much more interest for the ear.  The voices take on much more of a conversational nature.  Again, Mozart seems to have known what he was doing.  Fancy that!

With two annoyances transformed into "aha" moments, there was only one irritation left to soothe.  I noticed that the figurations in the right hand in measures 107 and 111 are the same yet the ones in 99 and 103 are both different in the middle.  You have to look carefully to detect the difference but it's there.  Did he really have to do that?  Couldn't he have used the exact same figuration for both?  I believe so.  And it sounds ok.  Time to dig deeper again.  I noticed that both of these figurations, unlike the other two, are in harmonic minor so there's that interesting augmented second to play around with.  By changing the figuration Mozart seems to be playing around with this fact.  In measure 99 he places the augmented second at the end of the figuration which to my ear helps propel the ear forward to the downbeat of measure 100.  In measure 103 the second is right before the second beat which serves to emphasize the middle of the measure, not propelling us forward as much as he did in the previous instance.  Hmmm...interesting!  

At this point I want to re-emphasize that I have no idea why Mozart did what he did.  I don't know if he even knew.  But going through this little dialogue with him, experimenting with what could have been versus what is actually there and coming to the conclusion that what I need to play is really pretty cool makes it a lot easier for me to face the passage over and over again.  

So the next time you find yourself growling at a composer, I encourage you to grab a trowel and try this exercise.  Digging deeper can get you much more than just a handful of worms.   

Happy digging!

PS - Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comment section.  And if you want to just let me know that you too are a music nerd, I'd love to know that I'm not alone!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twitter? In the concert hall??

I almost always play the role of the "good girl" but a few weekends ago I found myself in a position where I was being glared at with obvious distaste and disgust within the confines of a concert hall. At least I wasn't alone.

There we were in the back row of the balcony, with black canvas totes on our laps in which we
Students and faculty members at Virginia Tech's Tweet-seat
event, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech
could conceal our typically illegal mobile devices.  As audience members walked in to find their seats some were visibly distressed to see us up there, obviously up to something that couldn't possibly be good.  They stared.  They whispered.  They pointed.  And when it came time for the announcement for everyone to turn off their mobile devices with the exception of us tweet-seaters? That made me feel like a rebel.

So why were we in this somewhat unusual and typically unacceptable classical music world scenario?  Believe it or not, I was invited by Heather Ducote, the Director of Marketing and Communications at the venue to co-host what they call a "tweet-seat" event at a performance given by the Sphinx Organization's "Virtuosi" touring group. Ducote remarked about the concept,
"We were eager to try an educational slant on Tweet Seats at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, so we scheduled this experiment for our second performance in the new Moss Arts Center. We are interested in finding inventive ways for our patrons to make connections and discoveries with the arts, and thought Twitter presented an interesting opportunity for a new spin on a master class." 
Tracy Cowden, a professor in the music department at Virginia Tech, and I were asked to engage students in an educationally based discussion as an experiment.  I have to admit I could understand the audience members that were initially wary of what we were doing since I was a bit skeptical myself beforehand.  I was concerned that we would be distracting to others and that we would distract ourselves resulting in us not being able to pay attention to the performance.  I was also not sure what we could tweet about that would be deemed as "educational."  In the end, I think all of us were surprised at how successful it ended up being, including the staff at the Center for the Arts.  According to Ducote,
"Tweet Seats Master Class was a great success and we look forward to continuing the conversations across disciplines!" 
Tracy and I had split up the program, with each of us taking responsibility for researching half of the pieces beforehand so that we could provide program notes in 140 character or less during the course of the concert.  For example:

During their performance of some of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Tracy tweeted:

My partner in crime and I had also put together a list of questions that many of the orchestra's members graciously responded to before the concert.  We asked about some personal things - what they enjoyed about touring; which pieces on the program were their favorite and why; and how they made the arrangement of the Goldberg Variations among others.  We incorporated many of their answers into the twitter-stream which I feel helped make an instant connection between us and then musicians.

For their part, the students contributed interesting comments and questions of their own, about different string techniques, how a conductor-less ensemble puts pieces together, the process of rehearsing, and reasons behind various ways of positioning the musicians on stage.   Their enthusiasm for the ensemble, the repertoire, and the composers was tangible.  While hearing Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, several of them declared a desire to have a Britten listening party.  During the Goldberg Variations it was decided that the piece worked really well as a string quartet since the voices were so clear and defined.  In D' Rivera's Wapango they were able to pick up the changes in meter and to sense the rhythmic vitality that they brought to the piece.   As an educator, it was exciting to see the students applying what they were learning in school to a live performance and to sense their excitement about what they were seeing and hearing.  And yes, we all did end up having plenty of time to really take in the performance - none of us were tweeting all the time.  

One of my favorite aspects of this experiment was having the chance to meet with the musicians afterwards and sharing the twitter stream with them.  Heather Ducote and the staff at the Center for the Arts had set up a special reception for us where they had a large monitor set up to show our tweets.  The musicians eagerly read them and seemed to enjoy getting instant, and sometimes colorful feedback.  They too could pick up on the excitement and enthusiasm we all had for their performance.  Several of them mentioned how unusual it is for them to have any real contact or discussion afterwards with audience members and we enjoyed having the opportunity to ask them questions that had come up during the performance that only they could answer.  It was a wonderful experience - one that was tweeted about later that evening by some of the orchestra members themselves.  You can view an album of photos that were taken by the Center for the Arts staff by clicking here.

As for the students, I asked several of them at the end of the event how they thought it went.  The reactions were all positive, with one student mentioning that because he was trying to find things to tweet about he ended up listening more intently throughout the entire performance.  He said he remembered more about each piece on the program than he typically does.  I have to say that I felt the same way myself.  Even though I had the extra responsibility of co-leading the tweeting, I feel I was much more attuned to the whole performance, not only in its details but also in the overall effect.  

So to the folks that glared at us when they walked in and saw us there, to my older friends that were apparently "appalled" by our "twitter invasion," according to an e-mail I received after the fact, rest assured what we were doing up there in the back row was really not so bad.  And if you would like to join us next time, we've got a seat ready for you and I'd be happy to give you a crash course in twitter beforehand.  Who knows, you may enjoy the performance even more! 


If you're interested in reading the whole twitter stream from the event, please click here.  

P.S. - In case you're wondering, the Sphinx Organization's "Virtuosi" ensemble is absolutely amazing and inspiring.  I encourage you to catch their show whenever they're on tour next!  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bottling up a small but significant musical moment

It was a scene that only lasted 20 minutes but it was enough to keep me going with a smile on my face the rest of the day.

It started with my computer at work not letting me log into the network which led to me calling the computer helpline. Push 1 for a menu of options, push 4 for all other problems, talk to a help desk worker who then says that someone will stop by "sometime" during the day to try and fix my problem. Ugh.

Not my favorite way to start my day.

Fast forward an hour.

I was waiting for a rehearsal to start when the tech person knocked on my door. At the same time the student for whom I was waiting showed up to rehearse with me. I decided the computer person was going to have to deal with being serenaded while coming to the aid of my sick computer. The student was a young singer who had come to run through her songs in preparation for an upcoming performance. Singing an interesting set, Samuel Barber's "Church Bell at Night" and "Promiscuity," two very short, difficult little numbers, I was curious to see how the tech worker was going to respond. I have to admit she surprised me after the first song by stopping what she was doing and saying, "You have an incredible voice!" The student looked a bit surprised as well but we proceeded with our rehearsal. It didn't take long for my computer to be back up and running yet I noticed that the tech person wasn't budging from the studio. Instead she was doing some of her own work in the corner of the room, listening all the while and chiming in now and then with encouraging remarks about how much she was enjoying listening. When she finally did leave she did so with a word of thanks and more praise for this young woman's singing.

Thanks to a good case of nerves pre-performance, I wasn't sure if the singer had registered what had just happened with that stranger in the room. When we finished rehearsing she remarked, "Well, I guess it will be ok next Tuesday." I couldn't let her leave with just that one thought so in my typical fashion I embraced the moment as a teacheable one. I told her that even though she may not have felt like her performance was what she wanted she had captured the attention of a stranger in the course of one song that lasted only about 30 seconds. And in the next few minutes she had managed to keep her there because of what she had to offer through the music. She had created, for this stranger, an oasis of musical and expressive beauty. She had stopped time for someone that had a job to do. She had tapped into the power of music and had unknowingly shared a bit of herself through this incredible medium.

When we're in school, studying to be the best we can be at our instrument, it can be so easy to lose sight of the magic of music and of the power we wield as musicians. We expect to hear criticism and advice, we wait for the grades to come in to tell us whether or not we are good musicians. In some ways there's nothing wrong with that - it pushes us to keep working, it teaches us that we are never done learning and that we are always beginners no matter where we are in our journey. But at the same time I think it's important to be aware of those rare musical moments that remind us of what we can do with our music no matter what level we are at. It's important to acknowledge that performing means more than impressing others or receiving the pat on the back we all long for - it means touching others through the sharing of ourselves through music.

There's a time and a place for work and there's a time and a place for reaping the harvest of that work. When we are fortunate to find ourselves in a magical musical moment, when life is about more than just ourselves, it's important to reach for the nearest empty bottle and to bottle it all up to remind ourselves of the value of what we do in the practice room and on the stage.

Here's hoping the young singer I was working with has started her own collection. Sing on!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What happens when beauty, optimism and music meet

One of the goals that directs my day-to-day living is to lead an optimistic, beautiful, and musical life.  It's a bit "pie-in-the-sky," I realize, but I am stubborn, and I am determined.  Several years ago as I was perusing twitter and the internet,  I happened upon a video that is living proof that this idealistic desire is actually possible to attain.  On his extremely informative blog, The Collaborative Pianist, Chris Foley posted a youtube video called, "Dancing Under the Gallows." It was a fifteen minute preview of a documentary about Alice Herz-Sommer, who at the time, was a 106-year old woman and is the oldest survivor of the Holocaust.  Because she was an accomplished concert pianist in Prague when World War II broke out, Ms. Herz and her son were sent to Theriesenstadt, a German concentration camp that was set aside for artists and musicians and that served as a smoke-screen for what was going on at the other concentration camps.  It was there that she and others were forced to perform.  For some this was a horrific requirement but for others, like Ms. Herz, this provided light in the midst of their nightmare.  I have a difficult time being able to imagine being in such a situation but this documentary has given me a tiny glimpse into such an upside-down world.

I just received word from the producer that they have completed the documentary.  It is now available on DVD or through rental by clicking on this link.   Here is the promotional video to give you a taste of this remarkable woman.

In Ms. Herz, I see nothing but beauty and love for everyone and everything around her.  Her words are saturated with optimism, her voice, the sound of tenderness.  The power and magic of music are undeniable.  Beauty, optimism, and music are interwoven in this one woman's life, making music tangibly relevant and necessary.

What an incredible gift.

"I love people.  I love to speak with them...I am interested in the life of other people."
"I knew that we will play...and I was thinking, "When we can play, it can't be so terrible.  The music, the music!"
"But in every day life is beautiful.  Every can speak about It's beautiful."
"I felt that this is the only thing which helps me have hope.  It's a sort of religion, actually.  Music God."
"Sometimes it happens that I am thankful to have been there.  Because this gave me...I am richer than other people...All the complaints, "This is terrible."  It's not so terrible."
"I never hate and I will never hate.  Hatred breeds only hatred."
"I was born with a very, very good optimist.  And this helps you.  When you are optimistic, when you are not complaining, when you look at the good side of our life, everybody loves you."
"Only when we are so old, only, we are aware of the beauty of life."
-Alice Herz-Sommer 

Whether you choose to watch the short clip above or to purchase or rent the documentary, my hope is that some of Ms. Herz's words will inspire and uplift you.  Music is a gift, even in the darkest of places.  

May music continue to be in our lives, no matter where we may find ourselves.  And many thanks to Ms. Herz for the inspiration, faith, and love that can't be extinguished.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Vocalists' checklist for solving practice room problems

Mistakes are not the enemy.  Mistakes show us what is begging for our attention.  But what happens when we don't know what's causing us to stumble?  More often than not when I ask a student what caused a mistake in a rehearsal my questioning is received with a look of bewilderment or a shrug of the shoulders.  The answer, if any, tends to be a vague one - "I don't know.  I think it's this line that's giving me trouble."

This type of answer isn't going to get anyone anywhere very quickly, except into a state of frustration.

What I've discovered over many years of working with instrumentalists and singers is that when someone stumbles, there are only a handful of possible triggers.  As long as we stop and figure out what the root of the problem is, there is nothing that can get in the way of us solving the passage, fixing any weakness that was previously learned because of the problem, and then moving on in a blaze of glory.

Sounds easy, doesn't it?  It is!

Over a year ago I put together a checklist for instrumentalists of issues that typically lead to mistakes in the practice room.  Not wanting to keep vocalists in suspense any longer, here is the vocalists' edition.  If anyone has anything else to add, please free to do so in the comments section below!  It takes a village to learn how to practice.

  1. Could it be a breath issue?  Do you know where you want your breaths to be or where they should be?  Are you doing them consistently in the same places every time?  It is important to figure out where your breaths are going to be and to stick to them from the very beginning.  If you find a breath you've already chosen isn't working, then find another place to take one. Inconsistent or impractical breathing can significantly take away from your voice's ability to shine.  
  2. Do you really know what the text is, how it's supposed to be pronounced, and what it means if it contains a word you don't know or is in a different language?  Even when singing songs in your native tongue there can be words that are unfamiliar - look up their meaning, make them make sense and you'll find it's much more difficult to get thrown off by them.  
  3. Can you separate out and perform the different layers of your song?  Many singers insist on learning the words, pitches, and rhythm all in one fell swoop but in my experience the performers that can isolate the layers and perform them individually and in various combinations are the ones that can deliver performances with the most security.  Be able to speak the text without rhythm as if you are an actor or actress delivering a monologue on the stage.  Conduct and vocalize the rhythm of your line on one syllable.  Conduct and vocalize the rhythm of your line using the text.  Sing the pitches without the rhythm and words.  There are lots of different combinations that can keep you mindfully and productively busy.  
  4. Are you sure of how your text's syllables line up with the notes, especially when there are multiple syllables that have to occur on one note?  Separate out the layers first.  Be able to speak the words or syllables in question slowly in rhythm first, without the pitches.  Then add the pitches.  
  5. Are you sure of each and every note's pitch?  Make sure you are carrying any accidentals that appear throughout the rest of each measure and mark them in if you miss anything more than once.
  6. Do you hear the intervals you are singing in your inner ear before trying to sing them?  This exercise will require that you slow down but it's important that you're able to do this.  If you want to have good intonation, hearing it in your inner ear is an important part of the puzzle.  Developing a good inner ear is an investment that will pay off exponentially over time.
  7. Do you know what the interval is between the last note of the preceding phrase and the first note of the next?  Is it the same note?  Is it a fifth away? 
  8. Could there be a rhythm issue?  Do you know the math behind the rhythm?  Guessing is not advisable!  If you can count to 4 or 6 you can figure out virtually any rhythm that's out there - it's well worth a few extra minutes to do the math and to truly learn how to execute a tricky rhythm.  In vocal music that contains a lot of sixteenth notes where each note gets one syllable, publishers often use individual flags rather than connecting groups of them with beams in beat units.  This can be very disorienting to the eyes since the beats can be obscured. Organize the music by drawing in vertical lines to represent the beats or connect the notes with beams so that your eyes have something to latch onto when reading the music.  Otherwise you may just be swimming in a sea of scary rhythms.
  9. Could it be a meter issue?  Is the piece in 3/4?  (3/4 for is a notoriously difficult meter for many of us to sing or play in.  I've written about it extensively in my post, "A note of apology and sympathy to a time signature.")  Make sure you know how the meter is supposed to feel and where the emphasis should be.  More often than not you will see that the composer has brilliantly set the text in such a way that the most important words and syllables will fall on the major beats.  
  10. Is the passage a fast passage that gets you all tied up?  If so, look for as many patterns and sequences as you can find to simplify it for your eyes, voice, and mind.  Are there scales?  Triadic motion?  Repeated motives?  Doing this type of investigative work will also help you memorize the passage more quickly and securely since you won't be trying to remember it note by note.  
  11. Are you unsure of how an ornament is supposed to be carried out?  Make sure you know exactly how an ornament is to be sung and where it should begin rhythmically.  Once you figure that out, write in whatever you need to so that you always know what you should be doing both rhythmically and in regards to pitch.  Don't guess!
  12. Is there another phrase that is similar but slightly different elsewhere?  Often those differences will cause problems if we're not aware that they're there.  Look and compare.  Ask yourself why the phrases are different.  Did the composer want to highlight a word that is different?  Did he or she want to lead us somewhere different harmonically?  Once you truly know the differences practice the phrases back to back slowly.  Have a mental tape running that will guide you through the differences so that you are longer relying on luck to get the correct version.  
  13. Could it be a transition problem between one phrase or section and another?  Often times we work hard on individual phrases and then we piece them together.  Make sure you regularly practice stringing phrases together so make sure you can go from one to another securely and musically.
  14. Is the problem occurring on a page turn?  If so, either photocopy one of the pages so that it makes the transition from one page to another more easy or memorize the material around the page turn so that you can practice it without having any problems.  I also want to note that I've noticed that many singers, when working off of photocopies, put the music in their binder so that they have to turn the page at the end of each page.  I suggest putting the music in a binder as they would be in a book, with pages side by side.  This reduces the number of page turns in half.  (I wrote about this in my post, "An uninspiring but important tip for singers.")  
  15. Are you unsure of where to come in after an interlude?  Look at the piano score to find some cues that will help you know how your part relates to the accompaniment and write clues into your score if that would be helpful.  Don't just rely on counting out loud - there are too many distractions that can throw our counting off and if that happens we're generally stuck if we don't have something aural to grab onto.  Counting out loud also doesn't work if the composer has intentionally written music that is deceptive aurally - I'm thinking of dear Johannes Brahms, Barber, and Argento just to name a few.  
  16. If you are having problems coming in after rests, are you sure you are holding the last note of the preceding phrase the correct length?  If you cut your final note off a beat early or a beat late that can dramatically alter how you're counting and may lead to you coming in a beat early or late.  
Happy problem solving!

Your friendly neighborhood pianist,

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Popular practicing questions and some answers

A few weeks ago I had another opportunity to speak about my favorite topic, practicing, to a group of college freshmen music majors.  We decided to solicit questions from them at the beginning to get a sense of where these students were coming from and to find out what their most pressing questions were.  They came up with some thoughtful questions that I want to share here, along with my answers to them.  If any of my colleagues have any thoughts to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section!

How do I keep myself from getting bored?  
Make sure your mind is constantly engaged.  Be what I call a musical investigator, always searching for new patterns in the music to make it easier to take in, process, and reproduce; never make a mistake without figuring out the root of the problem and finding a way to deal with it; come up with different rhythms to use when practicing note-filled passages; while doing repetitions come up with something different to do musically with each repetition; never spend too much time on one thing – if your mind starts to tune out, take a little break, choose a new goal in a different section or piece, and then move on; practice away from your instrument – conduct, sing, look up info about the piece, the composer, the period of music, art that was being created around the same time, figure out rhythms, listen to a good recording.

How do I practice a lot and not end up hating my instrument? 
See the previous answer for some ideas on how to keep practicing interesting. One of my mantras is, “If you aren’t walking away from your practice session feeling good about yourself, your practicing is probably not as efficient and effective as it could be.”  This is not to say that we don’t all have frustrating sessions, we do.  But if that’s happening the majority of the time, it’s time to do some re-vamping.

How much time "should" I practice?
In my opinion this question shouldn't be the question you ask.  It is not duration that is important it is consistency and quality that is most important.  Without consistency it is difficult and slow to move anything new you have learned from short term memory into long term memory.  Without consistency, nothing is truly dependable.   And how do we determine what quality practice is?  For me, quality practice means practice in which my mind and creative side has been constantly engaged.  Mindful practice makes the music more meaningful to us and makes it stick in a way that mindless rote practice can't.  

·      If I only have one hour to practice today, how do I make sure to get the most out of it? Especially if I’m tired and would really love to take a nap instead. 
Goals, goals, do-able goals!  And a plan!  Figure out what needs the most work and spend time only on those passages.  Don’t practice what you’re already good at when you don’t have much time.  If you choose your goals wisely and check them off your list during your hour, you probably won’t feel like you need that nap after all and you may even decide that you can squeeze in a little more practice time later in the day since you were so successful.  But sometimes we could all use a nap.  You need to decide that for yourself.  If you think you’re just avoiding your instrument, I would try practicing.  If you really are exhausted it might be better for you to take that nap. 

·      Attention span, seeking help, frustration, self-motivation, self-criticism.
Attention span – very few people have a long attention span. There’s nothing wrong with that.  Create practice sessions that keep you moving from one goal being conquered to another.  Have shorter practice sessions. 
Seeking help – SEEK HELP from your teachers, your colleagues, your neighborhood practice coach (you can facebook, tweet, e-mail, skype me when you’re having trouble or just need a pep talk.) You are not alone if you don’t know what to do, how to get over a wall, etc…
Self-motivation – Once you see your practicing transform your playing you won’t need as much self-motivation.  But even for the best of us, we sometimes need to drag ourselves to the practice room to get started.  That’s normal!  Practicing is hard work!
Self-criticism – Don’t do it!  Treat yourself in the practice room the way you would treat a friend of yours.  You wouldn’t say to someone, “You are a horrible musician!” so don’t say that to yourself either.  If you do you’ll find yourself saying it to yourself onstage too.

Which is more effective – practicing for a large chunk of time or for smaller portions spread out throughout the day?
It depends on you and on the moment.  It also depends on what is realistic for your schedule on any given day.  If you only have 10 minutes at a time here and there throughout the day that’s a lot better than waiting for that hour that never ends up happening.  Always be sensitive to how your brain and body is functioning.  If you’re making lots of mistakes, spacing out, checking your phone every time you stop, whatever you’re doing at the moment is not effective so either try some mini-goal setting to get you back on track or walk away for a while.  You don’t want to keep making mistakes, whatever you do!

·      Time slots – 30 min., 60 min., etc.  Warm up once a day or every session? Best way to warm up?
Again, this varies from person to person, day to day.  For warm-ups, I think it’s important to get in a good warm-up at the start of your day when you can.  If you have other sessions later in the day, be very careful to not just launch into something technically demanding or take a difficult passage so slow that your body and mind can warm back up without any stress or tension.  Your private teacher will have good warm-ups on your instrument – I would check with him or her to get ideas of specific routines. 
      The practice rooms are so hot that I can’t stand to spend more than 30 minutes at a time practicing.  How can I try to find more short amounts of time during the day when I have classes nonstop from 8am – 4pm?
Dress in layers, and more importantly, drink lots of water, especially while practicing!  Water is really important for proper brain functioning.  If it’s hot, be sure to take more breaks and leave the room for a few minutes to cool down.  On busier days, try to find ways to practice that don’t involve your instrument so that you can do them as you’re walking to class, as you’re on the bus, while you’re getting ready for bed (a good time to study, by the way!  Your brain processes the last thing your mind processed while you sleep!).  Practice rhythms, write the words of your songs on index cards and carry them around with you, have your music on your portable devices so you can listen to it while you’re on the go.  If you practice at home, leave your instrument out in a safe place so that when you walk by it and have a spare moment you might actually pick it up and do a mini-goal. 
      How long should I practice?
You should practice for as long as you can practice effectively and productively.  Generally 2-3 hours a day is good.  Any more than that and it’s debatable how good that practicing is going to be.  You also need to be careful of your body if you practice in the 4-6 hour range on a regular basis.  It’s not time, it’s quality – that’s really, really important!  Make it a game with yourself to see how much you can accomplish in shorter amounts of time. 

·      What did you do to help find the patterns (the overall picture) in the music, instead of looking at each individual note?
You can look for patterns at lots of different levels, starting off with really basic observations such as, “These first four notes go up in a step-wise motion” or “this measure is exactly the same as measure 4.”  As you get more accustomed to this and as you learn more theory you can add to your musical vocabulary, transforming the statements I just wrote into something like, “These first four notes are part of an f minor melodic scale.”  Other things you can look for are arpeggios, patterns that are almost identical but have a minor difference in which case you can ask yourself why there is that difference, broken chords, repeated notes, repeated passages, contrapuntal material, canons…The point is to get you being able to narrate verbally what’s happening in the music because then you’re making it meaningful to you.  And that use of your brain is going to make learning a lot easier and faster.  At first this may take a bit of time but as you get accustomed to it you’ll find the process gets to be second-nature.  Seeing music this way will also help with sight-reading!  On my blog, if you look at the table of contents tab, you’ll see a category of posts labeled “Musical Investigations.”  Those are all posts in which I show the patterns I’ve discovered in the pieces I’ve worked on.  That might give you some more ideas.

·      If we split our practice time up throughout the day, how would you advise we use these smaller sessions?
I’ve already touched on this but I want to add that I have different types of practicing I regularly engage in.  I am either a) learning notes from the end of the piece to the beginning, and this includes coming up with good fingerings, bowings,  etc…in addition to carefully learning the notes; b) reviewing what I worked on the previous day; c) drilling and working up spots that I’ve marked as being more challenging technically; d) musical work where I just experiment with musical issues; e) practice performing where I play through a part of a piece or the entire piece at tempo, as if I’m performing, letting go of any worries of wrong notes.  It’s an assessment time for me that helps me figure out where I am with the music.  I take note (in a non-critical way) of what I want to work on next time;  f) memorizing/playing by ear is another good way of practicing to make sure I’m really internalizing and understanding the music.  I do this with small passages even though in my job I’m not required to memorize anything.  It’s also a great ear-training exercise!

·      Mindlessly playing things without realizing you are not actively thinking about it. Playing well in the practice room, and performance does not reflect any of that. What to do?
We can get to a point, with deliberate, good practice, where the “right” neurons are so efficient that it might feel like we don’t have to think about what we’re doing.  This is not such a bad thing!  But if that’s not the reason why you’re being mindless, that’s not so good for reasons discussed above.  If you’re playing well in the practice room but your performance does not reflect that, there are many different reasons why this might be.  Perhaps you haven’t always played it well in the practice room, even if you have recently.  If at the beginning of learning the piece you made a lot of mistakes repeatedly those can easily creep in when you’re on stage.  Or you might be disengaging when you’re on stage and not staying with the music, in which case you can create a cue for yourself to keep you on track.  When I’m losing concentration I tell myself, “Sing…keep singing!” and I make myself sing the music in my head while I’m playing.  If I’m singing in my head, I can’t be easily distracted and it brings me back into the music.  Also make sure that you perform for other people a lot, even if it’s just in the practice room.  Offer to play for people at church, at home, wherever…just keep performing because even performing can use practice!

·      Is it okay if I like to practice where there may be a lot of people listening? Yesterday at Convocation, they said practice should be a sacred time for yourself, but I like practicing outside.
As long as you’re not tempted to perform while you’re practicing I think it’s fine to practice with people around and/or to practice outside.  It can actually be a great way to force you to focus and to block the outside world out – a good skill to have! 

·      How can I inspire myself to use my full voice in the practice room? (Usually use half-voice) What can I do to retain what I practice better? What makes you the happiest to practice?
When we practice we want to physically feel good as much as we can.  Singing in half-voice might feel good in a psychological way but it often doesn’t feel very good physically.  My guess is that it’s not so healthy either.  You could ask your voice teacher about that.  When you’re in the practice room you can try pretending you’re a singer you admire or someone that has more self-confidence than you do.   Don’t try to imitate their actual voice – that can lead to some unhealthy singing too.  Imitate their character.   Also remember that everyone around you in the practice rooms is there for the same reason – to get better.  Very rarely, if ever, are they there to listen critically to you.  And if they are?  Well, forget about them.  They’re wasting their time when they should be practicing.  In regards to your question about retaining what you practice, engaging in thoughtful repetitions (at least 3-5 repetitions of something correctly executed or more if you’ve already had some goes that have had mistakes), and being sure to review at a comfortable tempo what you did the previously day are good ways to help with retention.  And what makes me happiest when I’m practicing?  Checking things off my list!  It makes me feel fantastic and want to practice more.   

·      What is an appropriate scale/etude to rep ratio for practice? For people practicing rep with long whole notes or uneven sections of play, what is a good way to practice timing? I often find that playing with a recording seems to waste playing time.
I’m not sure how to answer the first two parts of the question, unfortunately.  I would say, however, that good ratios and routines can be recommended by your teacher.  In terms of playing with a recording, I don’t advise doing that because it’s often hard to really hear all that you need to hear while you are playing.  Mistakes can be made, especially rhythmically or with the pulse, without you being aware of it.  Instead I’d recommend listening to the recording away from your instrument.  Have the score in hand, conduct, sing your part, count out loud, make sure you understand your entrances and count the right number of rests in between playing…that’s a good way to figure out how your part fits into the larger scheme of things.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A recital that was worth a thousand words

© calamardebien -
Sometimes recitals are memorable because of the music that is performed.  Sometimes it's a musician's incredible musicality or technical prowess.  And sometimes, when we're really fortunate, a recital is also memorable because of the glimpse we are given into who the performer is as a human being. 

Last night afforded me one of those special moments.  

The British pianist, Martin Jones,  performed at Radford University, which is located in southwest Virginia - an area that doesn't regularly get visited by performers who are used to traveling the globe.  There are a lot of wonderful things I could say about his jaw-dropping technique, the broad spectrum of colors he got out of the piano,  and about the really interesting mix of repertoire he chose, but what I really want to point out was how gracious and unpretentious he was and how enchanting that felt as an audience member.  Although I could sense who he is as a person from the very beginning of the recital it was especially at the end that it was most apparent.  After playing two encores he walked back onstage, bowed, and then walked over to the piano again, standing right in front of the Steinway logo, and pretended to turn a crank as if he was getting the piano ready to play again.  It got the audience laughing and I dare say it got him smiling even more.  And as if that wasn't enough, when he walked onto the stage after that third encore he stepped just a few feet onto the stage and bowed, took a few more sideways steps toward the piano and bowed again, a few more steps and bowed until he finally was standing next to the piano once more.  So what was left to do but to sit down to play yet another encore?!  Again he had prepped us for another encore by being so playful about it.  As he left the stage after this fourth encore the lights on the stage immediately went dark which led the audience into another round of soft chuckles as we took the not-so-subtle cue and stopped our applause, feeling like we had just witnessed not only a stunning performance but also met a wonderful man.  

Perhaps it might seem odd to some that I have chosen to write a review without saying hardly a word about the music but I suppose that says something about me.  I rarely go to performances craving to hear perfectly executed music - I go hoping instead that the opportunity will give me a chance to soak in something personal about the musician that is performing.  

Last night definitely gave me that chance thanks to Mr. Jones.  What a gift.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Learning music, riding bikes, and eating Oreos

I love layers.

I love them in cakes, cookies, and lasagna;
in literature, when there are multiple layers of meaning;
in geology, where you can find history buried in each layer;
in mysteries, when each layer helps bring the crime-solvers one step closer to the truth;
and last but not least, I love layers when it comes to learning.

© Jason Stitt -
A few weeks ago an opportunity presented itself that put my layering tactics to the test on a completely different stage - on the street outside our house.  A typical "mean mommy" move of mine, I had taken the training wheels off our daughter's bike and was insisting that we figure this whole bike-riding thing out together.  It was one of those experiences when I realized yet again just how hard it can be to learn something.  When she was younger it was crawling...then walking...then learning how to use the bathroom...and now riding a bike.  I was literally speechless as she sat on her newly transformed bike, shaking nervously as I struggled to hold everything steady.  I froze.  I had no idea how to proceed.  

At first we tried what I remembered seeing in movies - the "run-down-the-street-holding-onto-the-bike-and-then-letting-go-and-watching-her-fly" method.  That method proved to me that what works on a movie set doesn't necessarily work in real life.  My arm practically fell off trying to keep her upright and because I'm very out of shape I thought I was going to pass out.  Huffing and puffing after my feeble and terrifying attempts, I passed our daughter off to my husband who had a bit more success at not putting his own life at risk.  After a few runs our daughter was still leaning to one side the entire time she was riding.  

Aaargh!  What next?

That's when I thought of layering.  With the musicians I coach I am frequently reminding them of how challenging it is to learn a new piece of music.  We've got pitches, rhythm, vibrato, fingering,  and dynamics.  Add to that breathing and words if we're's a lot to keep organized and in place, especially at first.  Trying to combine them all at the same time inevitably leads to frustration, mistakes, and faulty rhythm and pulse.  It's kind of like trying to ride a bike for the first time by just doing it.  So what do I do when it comes to music?  I take apart the layers and address them one by one.  It's like taking apart an Oreo and eating the filling first and then eating the cookies one by one.  (I know I'm not the only one that does that!)  It makes the eating of the cookie a more enjoyable process because I can savor the differences in texture and flavor.  Same goes with learning music.  If I can separate the layers and take one at a time it is so much easier for me to process each facet of the music.  Putting it all back together once every piece is defined is a piece of cake after that (pun completely intended).

Back to our bike-riding dilemma.

As with learning music, riding a bike has a lot of different components to it.  There's balance to
learn, pedaling, turning, stopping,'s no wonder my daughter, for whom physical challenges like this don't come easy, was having a difficult time.  She was completely overwhelmed and paralyzed by all that she had to do.

Time to pull apart the layers!

First she learned balance by starting on a little incline and having her learn to coast downhill with her feet in the air.
Second, she learned how to put her feet on the pedals after getting her balance.
Third, she learned how to pedal after she got going.

It was interesting to see how much easier the learning process seemed to be once we started using this technique.  It was still a lot of work for her but because we were breaking the process down she did not seem to be as overwhelmed with fear - her brain had more time to process what she was doing, she was able to give herself feedback on how attempts went, and several times she ended up finding her own solutions.  Her success has been more satisfying than eating one of those Oreos!  

So the next time I find myself struggling with learning something new I'm going to think about this lesson in layering.  Maybe I'll need to grab a bag of Oreos to serve as a reminder...

Got milk, anyone?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chain of thoughts about the state of some music students

Syllabi are being written, texts are being chosen, offices are being's almost time to start
© alswart -
teaching again.  I always find myself being reflective this time of year as I try to figure out what did and didn't work the past year.  In an effort to find some direction before the semester begins I thought it might be helpful to jot down some of the thoughts that have stuck in my head ever since the close of the previous one.  

In general, the students I work with...

  • have learned to read note-by-note, pitch-by-pitch, word-by-word (for singers), and individual rhythmic duration-to-individual rhythmic duration.  Notes do not belong to one another in any sort of way.  

Which means...

  • students have a difficult time seeing patterns and motives within the music.

Which means...

  • each time a student works on a piece of music he is having to process innumerable pieces of information at each moment and is not drawing on a reservoir of previously learned material.  He is starting from scratch each time and spending a lot of extra effort in order to learn his music.  

Approaching music in a note-by-note fashion, not seeing patterns and motives also means...

  • students have a more difficult time feeling or understanding phrases so musicality tends to be overlaid atop of what's learned after all the notes have been learned rather than being embedded in the music while they are learning it.  
  • sight-reading is very challenging, overwhelming, and tends to be unmusical.
  • memorizing is also very difficult and daunting.
  • the ability to audiate and internalize the music is hindered since the eyes are being utilized more than the ears.  The more one sense is being relied upon the less the other senses can actively participate and assist in learning.  

In the end what all seems to lead to is...
  • the students feeling unprepared and uncomfortable when it comes time to perform.  Rather than creating an interpretation through performing and enjoying the artistic process, they have the daunting impression they need to put together a piece of music through recalling the zillions of tiny details.  No wonder many students fear performing.  It makes me queasy just thinking about it.

And how can this affect the audience?
  • Audiences can sense sense discomfort in a performer.  They can also sense when someone is reproducing music rather than creating it.  

And how can this affect the performer?
  • Performers can sense lack of interest from the audience.  I equate it to a stand-up comedian doing his show and having the audience not laugh at any of his or her jokes.  Ouch! Not a good feeling.  

So what can I do to help students?

I am determined to focus on breaking that first link - to help students see music in a way that helps them to see how notes belong to one another; to help them start to build a vocabulary of musical motives and patterns; and to encourage them to use their minds and ears as much as they use their eyes.  Hopefully with this approach, music will help them to turn those countless number of tiny black marks on the page into a language they can truly understand and share with their audience with confidence and excitement.  This will build a brand new chain that will make performing something in which everyone wants to participate whether they are on the stage or in the audience.

Now where's my hacksaw?  I'm ready to do some damage!  

Monday, July 29, 2013

Looking through a Russian musical window - Shostakovich's E minor Prelude & Fugue

The other day I happened upon this video of Shostakovich performing his own Prelude and Fugue in E Minor:  

It's a piece I have been wanting to pull out of the closet again because it's one that, through the years, has given me an incredible glimpse of another culture through the window of music. When I hear or play it I am instantly transported back about 20 years, when I was fortunate enough to accompany a boy's choir to St. Petersburg, Russia, not long after the fall of communism in their country.  It was quite a trip - one that opened my eyes, not only through what I myself saw and experienced, but also from watching a group of young American boys take in and process this completely different culture.  When we were there we were housed in what seemed to be an abandoned, run-down estate on the gulf of Finland; boys were having a difficult time finding anything they were willing to eat and lived for the moments when we discovered a Coca-Cola vendor on the street; fruit was scarce and purchased from the black market for us by security agents assigned to our choir who realized the boys weren't eating; meals for the entire choir in good restaurants could be paid for using what amounted to only a few American dollars.

Yet in spite of what seemed like hard times to us, the people, landscape, architecture, churches - all had hope and beauty in addition to a sense of history that I don't think we Americans understand in the same way.  It was tangible everywhere we went.  There was a pride in culture and in who they were as a people.  From the security agents, to the babushka docents in the museums who were unabashedly protecting their country's treasures from a flock of young boys, to the singers in the Russian Orthodox churches, they all made it clear to us that they wanted us there, wanted to hear our music, and wanted to share whatever they had to offer with us, including their love of music.

Their incredible love of music.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Most of the festival was held in the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, pictured here.  It is a hall whose walls have absorbed the magic of Liszt, Berlioz, Mahler, Wagner, Rubinstein, and Shostakovich just to name a few.  It is a stunning a hall that was completely filled every performance.  And afterward we would leave in a post-concert daze to be greeted at the stage entrance by a mob of enthusiastic fans wanting autographs and handshakes from us all.  There was one woman in particular that made a point of always finding us and greeting us.  She was a choir director herself in St. Petersburg and was always wanting to know more about the pieces we had sung, and in particular, Mozart's "Ave Verum."  She told us through our translator  one evening that it was very difficult to obtain sheet music so she had little exposure to pieces like that and regretted that she couldn't share them with her choir.  The next day she appeared at the stage door yet again, full of tears, handshakes and compliments.  Our choir director quickly gathered up the boys, retrieved their folders from them, and pulled out each copy of "Ave Verum," handing them all over to her.  The look on her face is permanently embedded in my memory.  It was a look of shock, disbelief, and gratitude.  The scenario threw me, and a I think the boys in our choir, for a bit of a loop.  It was difficult for me to fully comprehend the situation in Russia at that time which made it virtually, if not completely impossible for the people to obtain scores for some of the most loved pieces - scores that in the United States could be found in practically every choral library and that could be purchased fairly easily.  Needless to say it made me appreciate our local music store.  (And yes, those used to exist.)

© Popova Olga -
So what does this story have to do with Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue?  What I hear in this music is something that might have been incomprehensible in the same way had I not had those experiences in Russia.  At first listening this set might seem dark, desolate, and hopeless but what I sense is the light, warmth, and hope I sensed inlaid in everyday life, creating a complex beauty that I see in the beautiful inlaid woodwork that we saw everywhere in St. Petersburg.  I sensed this throughout the tour and since then, through reading Russian literature and taking in their history and culture.  And in this most incredible fugue, a double fugue, in which two themes and their countersubjects intertwine to create a complex, musical design, the Russian sentiment is poured on top of me in an undeniable way.  It never fails to make me want to weep and cheer, all at the same time.

And one final note about this particular performance.  I simply love listening to composers playing their own compositions and this example is no exception.  Is it note perfect?  Far from it.  Is it still effective?  In my mind, definitely, if not more so!  

Something for me to keep in mind.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My book on practicing is born!

After years of writing this blog, helping musicians of all ages, stages, and instruments with learning music, and even more years of my own practicing, I have finally put together and published my first book!!! (I don't think I could include too many exclamation marks for this event!)  Inspired Practice - motivational tips and quotes to encourage thoughtful musicians grew pretty quickly this summer out of my strong desire to share with more people what I share with young musicians on a daily basis.  When deciding what kind of book I wanted to create I looked at what's already out there.  There's a lot of really great stuff!  Lots of smart musicians have wonderful advice for those that are seeking it.  Wanting to contribute something a little different, and being the visual person I am, I decided to put together a coffee-table book for the practice room and the music studio.  I wanted something visually appealing that could be picked up and opened to any page for a quick injection of inspiration.  There's no storyline, no beginning, no end; just as with practicing and music-making there are no rules.  Full-page, color photos provide visual support for my practice tips and inspirational quotes from others are sprinkled throughout.

I've learned a lot through the process of putting this little book together.  Biggest lesson?  That visually appealing books cost a lot of money to produce.  By the time I was done choosing and purchasing all the images and had put together the book I learned this little lesson.  It was heartbreaking to be honest, because this book is what I had in my heart - I didn't think I could trash it all and start again with black and white images, or without images at all.  I also didn't want to write a how-to book.  As I wrote earlier, there are already plenty of great ones out there and I'm a busy mom in addition to being a performer and teacher.   In the end I decided to follow through with the book as it is here.  In an effort to bring down the cost I have purchased 250 copies myself so that's what I am offering to all of you.  The cost is now $28.95 for each softcover copy.  PDF versions and ebook versions made specifically for iPads are also available for $9.99 each.  And if you want to start with an electronic version first but decide later on to purchase a softcover for your practice space or music studio, do let me know that you have already purchased an electronic copy - I'm happy to give you a discount!

Music teachers, stores, and schools, I'm also happy to talk about discounts for the purchase of multiple copies.  Just let me know.

All formats are available through blurb's website (a fantastic company, by the way!) but softcovers are cheaper if you buy them through me on my own website using paypal, at the following url:

This is all new to me and I'll be figuring out the whole process of taking in and processing orders as I go so please be patient.  I'm no

Finally, my many thanks to everyone who has been so encouraging throughout this process.  I feel like I've just given birth again and as with my daughter, I couldn't be more proud or excited.  
Happy practicing, everyone!  And maybe now I'll be able to start writing blog posts again.

Your friendly, neighborhood practice coach, 

Some reviews of my book:

A Lovely Bookshelf blog

Greg Sandow's blog