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

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Turning the light on in the darkness

Last November I joined in with many other people on Facebook in a month of gratitude, posting a different status everyday giving thanks for something or someone in my life.  Although it was an exercise I enjoyed and benefitted from immensely, there was one thing for which I'm exceedingly thankful that failed to find its way on my list.  My excuse?  The gift in question touches me in so many ways I didn't feel I could have adequately expressed the depth of my gratitude in a simple, sterile status update.  This gift I've been given deserves much more.  I'm not sure a blog post will even do but at this point I feel I have to put it down into words.

So here it is, with its many facets.  

© peshkova -
It starts with a reminder about where my family found itself about a year ago.  My husband, last spring, received word that the university where he had been employed for 6 years had denied him tenure - one lightbulb turned off with a quick flip of a switch.  Next we had to decide quickly whether or not my husband would keep teaching at the university for a seventh year before officially having to leave his position.  We knew we'd have to move on at some point, the question was  when.  Would we turn off the next lightbulb or would we wait until the university turned it off for us.  We chose to flip it off ourselves, making what darkness we did feel, at least seem self-inflicted.  My husband resigned and within a few months, was done at the university.

We were faced at this point with another dilemma.  It seemed to us that most people in our situation would choose to pick up and leave since we live in such a small community.  We knew that there would be no way to avoid facing our past when going to the grocery store, the farmer's market, or the movie theater and we knew that I would need to continue working freelance at the university with the same faculty members that worked with my husband in order to help pay the bills.  In spite of the awkwardness and some of the humility we knew we'd encounter we decided that we would stay and make a go at making our lives work in this community.  In my opinion that was when our lights started turning back on.  

Our lovely, entryway light fixture
A few months after making our decision to stay in Blacksburg my husband presented me with a gift that seems to have directed this stage of our life.  He purchased an entryway light that I had been eyeing for months and had fallen in love with.  It was decadent to say the least, especially in light of our current situation, but when I asked him why he decided to buy it he said, "I wanted a way to tell you that I am committed to staying here in this house and in this community, that I want to make it work."  He also explained that the light is what people will first see when they enter our home.  He wanted to continue our tradition of entertaining since we had decided that what matters most in our lives isn't our jobs or money but people and with that, our own happiness.

This past year has surprised me every time I have turned around.  We have received so many incredible blessings - friends and strangers that have offered their support, encouragement, and friendship; the fact that both my husband and I can walk down the hallways at the university without shame because we are happier than we have ever been; the closeness our tiny little family has found throughout all of the decision making and adjustments to a new life; the pride and respect I feel for my husband who has bravely faced this past year with incredible peace and grace.  And those make up just a tip of what I believe is a very massive iceberg that is yet to be discovered.

Does this mean everything has been a piece of cake?  Certainly not.  We've faced plenty of challenges and dark moments, but it seems that there has always been some sort of light keeping us on track and accepting where we currently find ourselves.

And for that constant light, no matter how small or large, I am exceedingly grateful.

There.  I finally said it!

Here are the posts that I have written during our entire journey.  My hope is that they might shine some light into other people's lives should they find themselves in a similar place.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The cheerleader in the Green Room

© Willee Cole -
I am a pianist, a collaborator, an accompanist, a coach, and sometimes a teacher but did you know I'm also a cheerleader?  No, I don't have pom-poms or skimpy outfits but when it comes to spirit I don't think I can be beat in the Green Room and onstage, especially when I'm accompanying someone that hasn't done a whole lot of performing in public.  For me this part of my job is critical, not only because having a more calm, focused, performer is in my best interest, but also because I have a strong desire for everyone with whom I perform to experience the incredible synergy that can occur between performer and audience.  In my mind, if I can help musicians enjoy performing I can help them see not only the value of sharing of themselves through performing, but also of practicing, rehearsing, and working hard beforehand.  As Daniel Coyle states in his book, The Talent Code
"If you don't love it, you'll never work hard enough to be great."
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement yet I have walked onto stages with musicians, seasoned and unseasoned, that are absolutely terrified to perform.  My goal is to help turn this around one person at a time because through performing great things can happen regardless of whether or not the musician in question is on his way to becoming a professional.  Successful performances lead to an incredible sense of accomplishment, an understanding of what hard work can lead to, and a connection between performer and audience.  It can also prove that perfection is not what it's all about - that the audience is there with the desire to be moved or entertained in some way, not to rip apart the performer when the inevitable misplaced or out-of-tune note occurs.  

So what do I have in my cheerleader's toolbelt?  Here are some things my team players inevitably hear me say in the Green Room...
  • Have you learned your notes?  Have you practiced?  Have you listened to your teacher?  You've done the work, trust it.  
  • It's not going to be note-perfect so when something happens, just say to yourself, "What do you know?" and move on.  
  • When you're in the audience what is it you most want?  How do you listen to a performance?  Are you listening for wrong notes or words?  Or are you wanting to hear good music and to see the performer enjoying what they are doing?  What makes you feel most relaxed as a member of the audience?

©Erica Ann Sipes
  • What do you like about this music?  What do you want to say with the music?  If that's what you are thinking about when you are performing the audience will walk away with a whole lot more than just a bunch of notes.
  •  If you can create magic while you perform, that spell will enchant the audience so that those inevitable imperfections will be undetectable to the audience and at times, even to yourself.
  • I love this piece - it's such a great piece of music. Let's go out and enjoy it!
  • You're performing in a beautiful space!  Go out there and listen to yourself as if you're out in the audience.  Enjoy the sound!

One of my greatest rewards in my job is finishing a performance with someone, standing up to take a bow, looking over at him or her and seeing sparkling eyes and a giant smile looking back at me.  When that happens I know that a seed has been planted.  Regardless of whether or not they ever do another performance I am content knowing that this experience held something of value and wasn't full of the angst, disappointment, or humiliation that can so often occur, especially with young musicians.  

Recently I've had the joy of having many positive experiences.  Here are two that stand out in my mind...

The first one involved a junior saxophone student.  The young musician is an extremely talented , hard-working young man.  We've talked a bit this past year about practicing so I know he's been working on improving what he does in the practice room.  A few weeks ago he gave a junior recital and as far as I know this was the first time doing an entire program by himself.  It was jam-packed with difficult repertoire - even I was a bit intimidated.  But in the rehearsals leading up to the performance we had talked about letting go and expressing through our playing what we love about the music.  After performing the first piece, Paul Creston's Sonata, we both walked offstage grinning from ear to ear.  He had played with incredible confidence and we managed to get into an unshakeable groove.  After the next piece, Debussy's Rhapsody, we walked off for intermission and he said, still grinning, "I don't know what's going on with me. I just want to go back on stage and keep playing!"  Needless to say I quickly reassured him that nothing was wrong.  Here's what he posted later that night on his Facebook page...
"I learned a valuable lesson over these past few days: the focus shouldn't be on hitting every single note and rhythm, but instead about making music and enjoying it while you do so - all the rest will fall in place."

The second story is about a young singer that performed at her first departmental recital about a week ago.  She was quite nervous to have to stand up in front of her peers but she was incredibly prepared and was connecting in a very moving way with one song she was singing in particular, Barber's "Crucifixion."  I have performed this piece many times previously but with her interpretation I was left breathless each and every time because I had not doubt that she connected with it in a very powerful way.  In spite of that, up until our last rehearsal I sensed that she was frustrated with one particular entrance in the middle that understandably stumps just about every singer I've worked with.  I had stopped correcting her because I didn't want her obsessing over it at the performance.  The last time we ran through it she looked at me and said, "Did I get it right?"  I looked at her and said, "I'm not going to tell you because it doesn't matter.  I don't want you to count, I don't want you to think, I just want you to feel because what you're doing is powerful."  I then gave her my "creating magic" spiel and urged her to focus on expression at the performance.  She may have still been nervous at the departmental recital - who isn't?  But boy did she deliver.  Even I had to catch my breath at the end.  And how did she feel about it all?  Here's what she said in an e-mail to me...
"Even though I messed up I was told that it was a wonderful performance by my peers - that whole expression thing must really work because The Crucifixion almost made me cry!"
For her to make herself almost cry while standing onstage for the first time in front of her peers, is a sign of some powerful magic - magic that she should be proud of!

So pom-poms or no pom-poms, I will continue cheerleading from the Green Room because who doesn't want a little magic in their lives?

Friday, March 8, 2013

A tale of surrender in Gigland

© Anyka -
I could have performed on the same stage as the incredible Bernadette Peters tonight.  But here I am, sitting at home instead, writing a blog post.  Before you start feeling sorry for me, let me tell you my little tale of surrender in gigland.  I think you'll quickly see that I'm pretty content and relieved about how everything turned out.  

It all started at the end of January.  I received an e-mail from the personnel contractor of our regional orchestra with the subject line, 
Bernadette Peters needs piano!!
At first I literally thought it was spam, I mean really.  But after rereading the e-mail several times and gathering that it was indeed real, I was terribly excited, first of all because this was my first call to sub for this particular orchestra and second of all because we're talking Bernadette Peters!!  The Bernadette Peters!!!

A private conversation with myself ensued:
"No, I'm too busy!"  
"But it's Bernadette Peters!"
"It's the last day of school before spring break...nothing on the could be fun..."

Which led to, "What on earth am I thinking?!?  What kind of music am I going to be expected to play?"

I called up a colleague of mine who is the symphony's regular pianist and consulted with her.  Based on that conversation I decided I could do it.   I accepted the gig.

Pretty soon I received music for the first half of the concert - "Seventy Six Trombones," a medley from A Chorus problem!  But then I came across a lead sheet for the song, "Sing, Sing, Sing."  Oh my.  I was informed at this point that the music for the Peter's portion of the concert wouldn't be arriving until a few days before the rehearsal and performance.  

[Insert tiny niggling of doubt.]

For some reason in spite of my increased blood pressure, I managed to convince myself that I could do this in spite of being a classical nerd with lots of love for jazz but virtually no experience with chord charts in a high pressure situation.  I talked to the jazz teacher across the hall from me at work, I practiced some recommended voicings, I talked with friends on twitter, I listened to recordings of the song, I even bought two books on playing jazz piano.  After a few days of working at it I still sounded like a classical pianist attempting to sound hip.  It wasn't pretty.  I e-mailed the conductor of the orchestra to ask what he wanted from me for that particular number, admitting that I'm not comfortable reading chord charts.  No response.

[Tiny niggling of doubt starts to propogate.]

Fast forward through some nail-biting weeks until Tuesday of this week, the week of the performance.  As I'm leaving work I see that an e-mail has arrived from the symphony with a portion of the Peters' music.  I got a bit nauseated.  They were mostly chord charts with directions I'm not exactly used to like, "A la stripper," "Charleston tempo," and "STRIDE ARP. FEEL."  I'm no stripper, I've never danced the Charleston, and well, who knows what the last one means?  

[Out-of-control doubt now turns into full-blown panic.]

I had absolutely no idea what to do.  It was three days before the performance but I knew that I was not the person for the job.  But how could I pull out so last minute?  I would feel like such a failure and I would be jeopardizing any hope of subbing with the symphony again!  

But then I closed my eyes and pictured the day of the concert.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that this event had the potential to match some of the nightmares that I've had that have involved stages and pianos - and now Bernadette Peters.

I e-mailed the personnel contractor and asked when I might receive the rest of the Peters' music.  Upon being told that I might not get it until an hour before rehearsal (7 hours before showtime) I waved the white flag.  I admitted that I was uncomfortable with the situation and that I wasn't sure I was the right person for the gig.  I truly wanted to die at this point!  This felt a bit like professional suicide.  She e-mailed back saying that she thought it was too late to find another pianist but that she could ask a colleague of mine.  Knowing that this individual is incredible at this kind of playing, I asked her to please give it a try.  A few hours later I got a call.  He had agreed to cover for me.  

[Insert overt tears and expressions of gratitude.]

I realize I am incredibly lucky.  I also realize I should have never accepted the gig in the first place. I am a classically trained pianist and at least for now, that's where I belong.  I've always wanted to learn how to play jazz and to read chord charts and perhaps I'll learn one of these days but for now I need to keep my feet in the land I know best, regardless of how tempting it might be to accept a gig like this one.  I'd rather not turn my nightmares into reality.

So here I am finishing this blog post instead of pretending I'm someone I'm not.  

And you know what?  I feel great!

P.S. - Ms. Peters, stay tuned.  The next time you come through town I may fit the bill.  Or perhaps we could do some lieder or arias...that would be right down my alley!