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, 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.