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, 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 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Finding Don Giovanni in a high-school boy

© Nikki Zalewski -
How do you get high-school vocalists to sing opera with enthusiasm when they don't even like opera...or classical music?  It's the type of challenge I thrive on, even if it is exhausting and frustrating at times.  The moments when it actually clicks, even if just for a few minutes, makes all the brain gymnastics, prodding, and cheerleading worth it. 

Last Friday I had one of those moments...and this time it was also hilarious for everyone involved.

The opera scene in question: the duet, "La ci darem la mano," from Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni
The victims with whom I was working: 4 high-school vocalists
The attitude: Not good

I knew I had an uphill, but tantalizing battle to fight.  They walked into my studio in a cloud of negative comments:
"Awwwww, I really don't like this piece." 
"I don't like singing in Italian."
"This is not my type of music."   
With those words I was ready to take up the challenge.  Picking two of the kids, I had them begin the famous duet in which Don Giovanni attempts to seduce a woman engaged to another man,  Zerlina.  Their performance was, not surprisingly, completely uninspired.  There was no inflection in their voices, no emphasis on important words...I wasn't even sure they had a clue about what was supposed to be going on in the scene.  When we stopped I looked at the other two singers who had been listening and asked them, "Well, were you convinced?"  They shook their heads and gave the thumbs-down sign.  After a few questions that didn't really lead anywhere I finally said, "Don Giovanni is pompous ass!  I know this is going to be a stretch for you but..."

All four kids broke into laughter and shook their heads.  

"What?" I innocently (or not so innocently) asked.

"He IS a pompous ass!"  they chorused.

I looked at the Don-Giovanni-don't-wanna-be-at-the-moment and he had this smirk on his face.  It was really quite stunning.  He then nodded his head in agreement with the others.  

"Well then..." I said.

We tried the beginning of the duet again.  This time our young Don Giovanni had this unbelievable look in his eyes, and with transformed body language he literally made our Zerlina blush and squirm.  He even made me squirm and I was supposed to be busy playing the piano!  Don Giovanni and Zerlina began improvising some basic staging in a very natural way, their words sounded like Italian, and there was life in their words.  When I looked over at the other two singers they were grinning from ear to ear and when we stopped where we had stopped previously we all erupted into cheers and thumb-ups.  Our transformed Don Giovanni looked, well, very much like his character - he knew he had nailed it.  When asked what he thought he responded, "It felt great knowing I could just be me!"

There you have it!  I have to admit  it does make me raise an eyebrow to think that this young man's natural character fits Don Giovanni's all-too-well but it certainly serves him well while playing a character like this one! 

As for me, is it any wonder I love my job so much?  In 15 minutes my studio was transformed from grumbles to their parting statement - "That was really fun - thanks!"  With the prospect that these kids, who don't find themselves regularly selecting opera tracks on their iTouches, might actually start to have fun with opera, I certainly can't complain about my time spent on this musical battlefield.

So who's next?  I'll gladly take on another challenge!

PS - Please understand I don't usually talk to students the way I did in this coaching.  I did so only to shock the kids a bit and to get them listening to what I had to say.