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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Making sense of Strauss through botany

Yes, you read that correctly.  In the course of this one blog post I am going to attempt to use a brief study in botany to unravel an issue I am having in the accompaniment to a song by Richard Strauss.


My problem started with a rehearsal I had with a student vocalist.  I was sightreading Strauss' song, Gefunden.  Everything was going along swimmingly and I was thoroughly enjoying the tranquillity of the piece when we reached the last four measures of the song.  All of a sudden I felt incredibly disoriented.  I stopped the singer, looked at her part to make sure she was singing her line correctly, looked at my part to make sure I was playing the right notes, and then said, "Something isn't right.  I think there must be a mistake in the music."  The singer told me she had sung it over the summer and didn't remember anyone mentioning any misprints in the score so we decided to proceed as if all was well, with me declaring at the end of rehearsal that I would look into the misprint possibility.

 Last night I decided to face the music and see what I could make of the situation.  Pulling out the score and opening my laptop to YouTube I found a reputable recording and took a listen.  According to Hans Hotter and Geoffrey Parsons, musicians I figured I could trust, my score was, alas, correct.  Ugh.  Why? Why? Why?

Never wanting to grow enemies with something, especially in music, I decided to do what I do when I find myself starting to glower at the piano or the music.  I became determined to figure out what on earth Strauss was thinking when he wrote the part I didn't like.  (Notice the past tense there...this post is going to have a happy ending!)

The first thing I did was I looked up the translation of the song, reading first through the entire poem, and then focusing on the text in my thorn-in-my-side spot.  Here is a link in case you're curious.  It's a lovely poem by Goethe...the protagonist walks in the woods, encounters a flower which he bends down to pick, has a little conversation with same flower who asks him not to pick her, he digs it up instead and replants it near a house where it grows and blooms.  Lovely, right?  So what are the words when the crunchy, dissonant part occurs?  Here they are:
Now it keeps growing
and goes on blooming. 
OK.  Well, that didn't explain anything to me.  I still didn't get what Strauss is doing because I can't see any hint of negativity or angst in those words so I decided to try something else - looking at some theory.

Now before anyone stops reading this post out of fear and distaste for theory, let me assure you, this is not going to get terribly messy.  I am not a music theory nerd and I didn't do that well at it in school but I've always tried to apply it to my understanding of the pieces I'm working on.  My journey with theory, I'm sure, will never end and I'm always trying to learn more through direct application.  With that said, let's look at the score.

I'm great at looking at keys so let's do that and see if it gets us anywhere.  The song is in F major and for the most part it's straight-forward harmonically, although he does move into A-flat major several times.  But then we get to the first measure on the bottom line, which is pictured above.  Here, the piano, with no warning at all, goes into D-flat major while this time, the voice stays in F major.  F and D-flat major are not the closest of keys and if you look at that first measure you'll see that while the singer is singing a D the piano is playing A-flats, G-flats, E-flats, and C's.  Oh my - lots of dissonance!  Even at the end of that measure, the singer moves down to a C but there's also a D-flat just a half-step up from that in the piano part.  The second measure is not quite as crunchy but I feel pretty confused about where Strauss is going harmonically until the second half of the measure when the piano part abruptly shifts yet again, but this time back to F major to join what the voice has been doing all along.

At this point in my investigation I was intrigued.  I felt like I was definitely onto something.  I looked back at the text again, read the entire poem several times, and tried to picture what was going on.  It was then that the proverbial lightbulb went off over my head.

In this story, a flower, roots and all, gets dug up, carried away, and transplanted to a different location.  I'm not a great gardener but I have tried my hands at it enough to know that moving plants from one place to another has its risks.  Transplant shock is a real possibility which can cause a plant to die.  Perhaps that is what is happening in these two measures at the end of Gefunden.  The piano part is like the plant being suddenly plopped in a completely different place, dealing with new soil, light, and exposure to the elements.  There is a sense of conflict and discomfort.  By the middle of the second measure, however, it has thankfully adjusted and finds itself growing and thriving once again.

Perhaps I'm being far-fetched but in my mind, who cares?  What matters is that now I have an explanation, at least for myself, of why the accompaniment is the way it is.  And now I am eager to try it out with the singer and to see what I can do to make it all work together in the artistic way Strauss probably intended.

Success!  I told you this would have a happy ending, as virtually all my musical investigations do.

I'll leave you in the hands of Hotter and Parsons...enjoy!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Giveaway of my book, Inspired Practice and SPECIAL SALE!!!!

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the inspiring and wonderful Wendy Stevens - pianist, composer, blogger, and entrepreneur extraordinaire.  If you haven't run across her before, you need to get to know her, especially if you are a pianist and even more so if you are studio teacher.  She has so many brilliant ideas, great resources on her website, has written some amazing, fun rhythm books, writes wonderful compositions, and is so willing to share what she has learned from her years of teaching. I've admired her for years and have purchased a lot of her products so when she asked if I'd be willing to donate a copy of my book, Inspired Practice,  for her to give away on her own website,  of course I was delighted and honored to say YES!

The giveaway is going on for another 6 days,  ending on November 14th at 11:45pm.  All you have to do is go to her blog, read her little interview with me and then enter!  Actually, you don't really have to read through the interview, but why not?  There's a link within the post that will take you to the giveaway.  And be sure to check out the myriad of ways you can increase your chances of winning.  The more you share the private link you're given when you enter with others, the more entries you get!  What fun!

But wait, there's more!! 

I was going to wait until I had written my 300th blog post (only 2 more to go!), but I felt like now was the right time to put on sale both the softcover of my book and the PDF version.  It's the least I can do to thank everyone for reading my blog and my Facebook page on a regular basis.  So for right now, for a mysterious length of time, the prices are:

Softcover - $20.00 plus applicable taxes/shipping & handling (normally $28.95)
PDF - $5.99 (normally $9.99)

So what are you waiting for?  Help me celebrate my almost-300th post by buying one for yourself, your teacher, your students, or a friend.

Click here to see more info about the book and to place an order.

Many thanks to everyone who reads and comments on my blog.  I appreciate knowing that people are reading the crazy things I have to say! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

A fresh new view of "technique"

I have been told ever since I was a little girl that I have great, natural technique.  But here's the odd thing - I have consistently avoided practicing technique all of my life.  As a matter of fact, and this is the first time I've publicly admitted this, when I was getting my undergrad degree in piano performance at the Eastman School of Music and studying with Nelita True, I stealthily defied her rules and got through my three or four years with her without ever passing her technique exam.  

Before you judge me, let me tell you, if you just knew what it was like, you'd completely understand!  Even the thought of this technique exam gave people nightmares!  Everything was on it - every scale in every direction, contrary motion, thirds, sixths, and octaves.  I think Mr. Hanon was involved...Moszkowski too.  And of course the metronome marking at which this all had to be delivered was practically off the metronome it was so fast.  The routine went on and on in one continuous, devilish whirlwind of pianistic madness.  I got knots in my stomach every time one of my studio mates performed it in studio class.  That's right.  Her students were expected to perform it in front of the entire studio.


Now don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily see anything bad about this requirement.  I just didn't have the nerve to do it myself and it didn't help that I had always been told that I had good technique naturally. "Why bother?" I asked myself.

Of course this stealthy move of mine so many years ago regularly comes back to haunt me.  It also makes me ponder how it is that I can have good technique even though I've never focused on it.  I'm not exactly sure of the answer but I do have some thoughts that were reignited after watching a short clip of Leon Fleisher that Graham Fitch had posted on his Facebook page the other day.  It is just over a minute long and really needs to be watched!

Here is my transcription of what he said...please forgive any inaccuracies.  I think it's so good it needs to be in writing too.
“I think technique is the ability to produce what you want.  The presupposition is that you want something.  So before going to the piano and practicing, training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it’s in the brain, it’s in the inner ear.  You have to hear, Schnabel used to say it all the time, you have to hear before you play.  If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident and then everything is built then on an accident.   So want something, hear it…go for and experiment, do outrageous things.  You know, when you’re in the privacy of your studio, what a luxury.  No metronome police, nothing.  You can try whatever you want. So experiment."
So many great thoughts in a very short amount of time.  Right now I want to focus on one little phrase - "training your muscles which is a waste of time because it's not in the muscles - it's in the brain, it's in the inner ear."  I'm not just trying to make pathetic excuses for my lack of bravery or my laziness by pointing this out - I truly believe what Fleisher is getting at here.  At least in my own experience, if I have the music clearly in my head, if I've determined exactly what I want from a particular passage, even a technically demanding one, there is very little I have to do at the piano to make it work right.  Yes, I need to make sure I have good fingerings, which can largely be figured out away from the piano but paired with a complete understanding of each and every note and rhythm, accompanied by an internalization of what the music means to me, that's all I need along with a handful of repetitions.  A handful!  Not 100 like I've heard some people use as a benchmark for thorough practice.  If that was my expectation, I would have quit music ages ago!  

Some people might respond to my last paragraph saying, "Yeah, but that's you!  You said it yourself, you've always had good technique!"

Right.  But maybe I've always had good technique because I have always had a very good inner ear that guides my hands - I don't let my body get in the way.  I have worked with so many students that don't appear to have a natural technique yet when I guide them through a process of audiating difficult passages in isolation and then encourage them to stop trying to physically control what they are doing at their instrument, they are amazed at how quickly all their problems are cleared up.  They feel like it should be harder to fix.  A few minutes of intense brain and ear work, which is usually a completely new experience for them, can make hours of repetitive practice and frustration obsolete.  My conclusion after witnessing this work countless times, is that our bodies are smarter than we often give them credit for.  Having a crisp, clear aural picture of what needs to happen is enough - the body can more often than not translate brilliantly what's in our heads and ears with far greater ease and accuracy.

With all this said, it makes me wonder if I should fess up to Nelita True and ask her if I can finally take her technique exam so that I can live the rest of my life without guilt.  If I do, maybe I'll test my hypothesis about mental learning and try preparing for it away from the piano. You never know, it may feel like a piece of cake that way!

Or maybe not.  Any votes on what I should do?  And Dr. True, feel free to chime in yourself!


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Let me count the ways - a piano collaborator's ode to an artform

I recently had the great joy of giving a masterclass for young pianists who were trying their hands, many for the first time I believe, at collaborating with their peers.  Readers of my blog will not be surprised to hear that I ate up every moment of our time together.  I am a huge advocate for enlisting pianists into the collaborative piano field because I believe there are many advantages of spending at least part of one's time and career in this role, whether one is a student, amateur, or professional.  I also believe our world needs more skilled pianists that are willing to serve musicians of all ages and abilities.  Although I realize I've outlined some of these advantages in at least one other blog post, I'm going to do it again with the hope that something new will pop up this time around and that maybe this post will catch the eye of someone new.

In my mind, here are some of the benefits of learning how to accompany, especially at an early age:

  • It's a social way for pianists to be involved in music-making.  So much of our time is spent alone in the practice room.  It is more difficult, as pianists, to find opportunities to make music with others.  Especially for high schoolers I think this social outlet can help keep someone in the game who might otherwise quit.
  • It gives pianists a sense of purpose and of being needed.  An extension of my first point, solo playing can start to feel a bit selfish after a while.  At least for me it can start to feel like I'm doing it solely because I like doing it or because I like the music.  When I throw another person into the mix, however, I sense a shift in purpose.  It's no longer about "me" but rather about "us."  I like that!  Even when the accompaniment part is one of those "easy" ones that require little practice, I still know that without it the music would not be the same.  Being a collaborator puts me in a role that inspires the nurturing, guiding, supporting side of myself.  It feels great to be needed and for a young person, feeling needed can make a dark, lonely, seemingly pointless world seem a lot brighter.
  • When pianists collaborate they are opening the doors to countless libraries of new and different repertoire.   I realize that as pianists we have so much music at our fingertips that we need not fear running out at any time, but I think most people enjoy having an excuse to check out other composers and styles of music.  Granted, some of it can be downright scary and un-pianistic, (thank you Paris Conservatory for your yearly competitions that seem to have inspired some of the most devilishly tricky piano parts!) But even then, all that different repertoire keeps life interesting and our brains working in full gear.  Maybe collaborators live longer thanks to the intense mental workouts we put ourselves through.  Somehow I doubt there's been a study on that topic.
  • Collaborating gives us many more opportunities to perform.  Having just a few solo performances a year can make every performing experience a daunting one and it makes it challenging to practice performing.  When we collaborate, however, we often find ourselves performing more than we ever thought we would or even could.  It gives us lots of practice in a safe way.  And for me, because I'm in a support role, any nerves I might have tend to be outweighed by my desire to be there for the person with whom I'm playing.  Another advantage is that when collaborating, memory isn't necessary.  For those students for whom memory can be a stressor, being able to use music in performance can be an encouraging experience that leads to more confidence.  In time, successes can infuse courage into music-free solo performances as well.
  • Playing with different instruments and voice types can open up our ears to new sounds and different timbres.  I can often guess when a pianist hasn't worked much with other instrumentalists or singers because their sound tends to be very vanilla.  Having grown up in a fantastic youth orchestra as a cellist surrounded by the most incredible sounds, I have those different timbres, colors, and densities of sound in my mind even when I'm at the piano.  I strive to pull an orchestra out of the piano strings, pedals, and hammers.  Rarely does a young pianist have the opportunity to participate in an orchestra so accompanying with different types of musicians should be a part of their education in my mind.  It gives them a palette of multiple colors, textures, and thicknesses rather than just a few shades of black and white.
  • Working as a team player brings a pianist a different motivation to work hard.  No pressure here, fellow pianists, but in my opinion a pianist can make or break a performance in a collaborative situation.  That's not to say that the pianist has to play the music perfectly - I don't believe in the importance of note-perfect performances because I think that's unrealistic and simply not the point.  But I do think the pianist has a lot of responsibility on his or her shoulders.  Time spent in the practice room is for a very clear cause and that sense of purpose can lead to a pointed concentration that can carry on into a pianist's solo practicing as well.
  • It can help pianists let go of their quest for "perfection."  I think it's safe to say that most professional collaborators learn that delivering a note-perfect performance is rarely, if ever, possible.  I daresay sometimes it's not even desirable especially when we're talking about an orchestral reduction for which the arranger was paid by each note he jumbled the page with.  (I've heard this is why so many of the reductions are as beastly as they are!)  Check out my blog post, "Confessions of a piano collaborator" from several years ago to read about some of my creative escapades on the keyboard.  There are usually lightbulb moments once a pianist realizes that people rarely if ever realize when he or she has judiciously left out notes or artfully re-arranged the music.  And once this revelation has been made, wrong notes in a solo performance don't seem nearly as disastrous either.  The focus instead falls on the music and on expression - always a good thing in my book!
  • There's nothing quite like collaborating to reveal any weaknesses one may have in regards to rhythm and pulse.  To extend my earlier point about working as a team player, it becomes clear quite quickly that a collaborator can't add beats here and there or fudge rhythms as successfully when there is someone else whose part needs to interlock with the pianist's part.  The pianist needs to be the conductor at all times, without fail, all the while also being sensitive and aware of anyone else.  
  • When working with singers especially, collaborating can bring a new dimension into musical interpretation.  Pianists so often have to dig deep in order to come up with a storyline or something to say in their music unless it's clearly programmatic.  Singers have the great advantage of having text to inspire their musical decisions.  Working with vocal literature can inspire more drama and creativity when it comes to the interpretation of solo piano literature. 
  • After some experience, collaborating can improve one's sight-reading skills and can help pianists see the value of developing them further.  I believe that it is very difficult to work on this skill on one's own.  It's much easier when there's another musician playing along, especially someone that's able to play or sight-read at a higher level.  My mother made me play duets with her regularly starting at a very early age.  I whined and groaned about it a lot at the time but I really should send her a bouquet of flowers every week for the rest of her life to thank her for doing that!
  • Rehearsals require a level of verbal communication that will serve anyone well in whichever field they end up in.  In order for rehearsals to be productive, good communication has to happen between musicians that are playing with one another.  It takes time and practice to get good at it but it's so worth the effort.  I once tweeted that if politicians conducted business the way musicians conduct rehearsals the world would be a much better place.  I still believe that to be true and judging from the reaction of others to that tweet, I'm not alone.  
  • If we can get young pianists interested and experienced in collaborating at a young age they will be more likely to use their skills as an adult, regardless of whether or not they are professionals.  I can tell you that especially outside of big cities, there is a desperate need for skilled pianists to accompany in the community.  Whether it's for church choirs, local music studios, in the schools, or in the community, there need to be more pianists that feel comfortable collaborating.  It helps that is also a good way to earn some money doing something social and personally satisfying. 

Can you tell I love what I do?  Sigh...

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the topic.  If anyone has any to add, by all means, please do by commenting at the end of this post! 

Monday, October 27, 2014

New livestreaming project! "Practice on a Dime of Time"

I've decided to get back into livestreaming my practice sessions.  This time my goal is to record in shorter segments, between 10 and 20 minutes at a time which is why I'm calling this series, as corny as it is, "Practice on a Dime of Time."  My thought is that:

  • people don't have time to listen to me practice all day.
  • I don't have time to practice all day.
  • I have a difficult time finding large blocks of time when our piano is available to play since my husband uses the studio to teach much of the day.
  • it's better for me (and most people) to practice in small little segments.
  • it might be interesting and informative for people to see that improvement can actually happen in a short amount of time.

For those of you who have never seem me do this, it's probably helpful to know that I narrate what's going on in my head while I'm practicing.  You'll see and hear me give myself feedback (hopefully in a civil way), problem solve, test out various strategies, and explore musical choices in the process.  And yes, you will probably catch some not-so-good practice strategies as well - I am human, after all.  I actually think there's value in seeing me flail every now and then.

My goal is to do this on a regular basis but I'll be pretty sporadic in terms of what time of day I'll be livestreaming.  I will tweet and post on my Facebook page when I'm about to go live so keep an eye on my postings if you want to catch one.  I'll also be checking the social media streams in between sessions so if you have a pressing question that arises while watching, let me know and I'll try to answer you promptly.

If you miss the livestream sessions you'll be able to watch them on my ustream channel for up to 30 days or on my YouTube playlist at any time.

Here are my three sessions from today.  I particularly love (hear the sarcasm!) the thumbnail image that accompanies the first video - yikes!  I hope you find something useful in watching them and please do spread the word!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A brave but beautiful new world

Life has been so good to me lately.  A bit baffling, but good.  I've been adding "workshop presenter" to my list of things that I do and even though this had never been part of my picture and I'm still getting used to being on stage in this different sort of way, I'm enjoying the benefits so much that it's far outweighing the newness of it all.

So far I've presented two different workshops:

  • "Behind Closed Doors - a discussion about what really goes on in the practice room" 
  • "Musical Investigations - making music learning more engaging and musical"

It's been interesting to realize that presenting workshops is a bit like performing music.  I feel each one is still a work in progress and I have a sneaking suspicion that how I present them is going to be different each time but I can safely say that I have fallen in love with the topics and am finding myself energized by having the opportunity to share what I've learned over the past few years with others.  I also love the fact that I walk away knowing a lot more myself from listening to the teachers, parents, and students that attend.  There is such a wealth of information out there and I love being in the middle of it all.

This past weekend I was down in Pensacola, Florida, presenting for the folks in the MTNA chapter there.  I was especially looking forward to this one because it meant I was finally going to meet two twitter friends and fellow bloggers in person, Victor Andzulis and Monika Durbin.  (For folks who don't know much about twitter, this is known as a "tweet-up.")  We had a wonderful time at the workshop and I got to hear about some of the struggles and successes the teachers there have been experiencing in regards to getting their students (and the students' parents) thinking more creatively in the practice room.  I was also really excited this visit to be able to present not only a mini-recital with my dear colleague, soprano Youngmi Kim, but to also give a masterclass for young piano collaborators.  This was a first for me in a formal sense even though I've coached plenty of people in one-on-one settings and I just loved it!  It was a fun challenge for me to tie together everything I had discussed in the workshop in the morning with what how I approached the recital repertoire we were performing and then to help the students get a sense of those same concepts themselves.  Being able to share my love of the art of collaboration and the music itself was exhilarating and getting to hear and see young people playing music with one another while having fun put me on cloud 9 for wait, make that days...oh heck, I'm still there!!  

Needless to say, I'm hoping that this masterclass thing will become an option for whenever I conduct a workshop.  

So onward!  At this point I have another workshop scheduled in November over in Chesapeake, Virginia and then possibly a workshop weekend in Tennessee in February.  Meanwhile I have ideas for other topics I want to start discussing so I have lots of work ahead of me!  

I'll try to keep my upcoming events listed in the sidebar of this blog so keep checking there.  If you find out that I'm going to be in your area, please do let me know if you want more information.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Learning to productively say, "Forget you!" in the practice room

You may already find yourself saying this a lot in the practice room...

"FORGET YOU!$&%&$*&*&%*&#!!!!!!!!!!!!"

In most cases I suspect that phrase isn't being used in the most productive way.  I'm here to turn that around.

Picture's practice time and you've decided to tackle that nasty passage you have yet to defeat. You give it another go...and then another... but you're still getting tripped up every time. Most people I know will diligently persist in this vein until they are ready to tear their hair out. Trust me, I know because I've been there myself. What I've learned to do instead is to ask myself a question such as, "Is there a better fingering?"  This question is a great way to lure me down a different path,  away from the one that ends at a brick wall with my head banging against it.   Often times it only takes a few tries to discover a fingering that enables me to play the passage correctly, comfortably, and musically after only one or two attempts. I love those moments!  Who doesn't?  It makes me feel like I rule the world, that I am the master of my own domain, and that I can do anything.  Corny?  Perhaps...but I'm sorry, it's true.  Must be that adrenaline rush that comes from success and from saying (or shouting enthusiastically), "FORGET YOU!!" to or at your old fingering.

It's not always a less-than-ideal fingering that is the issue, by the way.  It depends on the instrument and the moment.  Here's a general list of the options to play around with based on the instrument:

Pianists:  fingerings, hand distribution (which hand is playing which notes)
String players:  fingerings (including which string to play on), bowings
Wind/brass players:  fingerings (that's why there are alternative fingerings!), breath placement
Singers: breath placement, placement (falsetto? chest voice? head voice? a mix?)

While you're practicing, if you are stuck, check to see if you can move past the issue by changing one of these factors.

Exploring more options and daring to move away from the composer's, a teacher's, or editor's own choices, especially after some experience and successes, can be a fun and effective way to practice because it is a sure-fire way to ensure that my mind is engaged.  Problem solving like this can also be incredibly empowering as it reminds me that I have actually learned something through the many years of working at my instrument.   It also saves endless time and frustration in the practice room which is a really important asset of this technique because as I always tell folks, it's what we do in the practice room physically and mentally, that we'll carry onto the stage when we perform.  If we have practiced a passage ad-nauseam without success and with a feeling like the passage owns us, we are going to walk onto the stage feeling apprehensive and wondering what's going to happen.  This technique allows us to take the reins earlier on in the process so that we can feel like we are in control of the piece, even the tricky bits.

I want to end this post with a little story that demonstrates the power of this technique.  Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to play piano at two masterclasses that have been taught by the cellist, Zuill Bailey.  Time and time again he has asked students about shifts that are obviously giving them trouble.  He likes to ask why they are doing it the way they are.  Have they considered another fingering or bowing?  Usually the student can't really respond with a good answer besides, "Because it's in the music" or "My teacher told me to" after which he then asks them how it's working for them.  How often do they get it right in the practice room?  Usually they respond in the negative which leads everyone in the audience and on the stage into a bit of a chuckle-fest.  Why?  Because it's so obvious when it's addressed in this way.  Why should we keep trying something when it's clearly not working?  Why should we expect something to magically work when we're on stage performing in front of a world class artist?  Mr. Bailey then follows up by offering a possible alternative and having the student try it.  Once they hit on one that produces success he then has a little contest between the old fingering or bowing and the new one.  Whichever one enables the student to play the passage three times in a row consistently is the one that wins.  More often than not, it's the new version that wins, surprise, surprise!  In this demonstration, the power of having a choice and of being able to say, "FORGET YOU!" to something that's not working is so clear.

Now we just need to bring it into the practice room and to see how fun it can be to tell ourselves a nice way, of course!

Quick note to folks that try doing this but are still frustrated.  Half the battle is knowing where the problem spots are so pat yourself on the back for at least knowing that!  Then take it to a teacher, a friend, or a friendly practice coach (like me!) and ask for some suggestions.  I'm sure whoever you ask would be delighted to help out if they can.  And if they don't want to help you, you know what to say.  "FORGET YOU!!"  (Just joking...kind of.)


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Want to know what I think about practicing?

A few weeks ago Sam Rao, the CEO and developer of a soon to be released practice app called Practicia, asked me to do an interview with him.  As usual I had a bit of a difficult time keeping my answers short and sweet - I always have so much to say about practicing!  I wanted to share the interview here since we covered a lot of ground.  And if you want to read my blog post about Practicia, just click here.  Enjoy!

PRACTICIA: What started you on the path to thinking about practicing and becoming a practice coach?
EAS: My role as a practice coach evolved very naturally alongside my role as a piano collaborator and accompanist. I spend a lot of time in practice rooms with students for rehearsals and I have a very hard time just playing. Maybe I should say it this way – I have a difficult time keeping my mouth shut, especially when I can tell that a musician is frustrated with a certain passage in the music or when I hear the same mistakes being made. As soon as I started speaking up and offering to help musicians work through problems I realized what a relief it can be for people to have some guidance in the practice room. Of course teachers are crucial in helping students learn the art of practicing but more often than not the time spent with one another is only an hour a week during lessons. Students are then left on their own for 7 times that amount if they practice an hour a day. If they practice 3 hours a day, 6 times a week, that’s 17 hours. That’s a lot of time to be frustrated - too much time, in my book.

The teachers of the students with whom I have worked, have also grown to value my work because I act as a fresh, new voice. It’s like a common issue that parents deal with - as a parent I can tell my child 10 times to do something but have no effect on her. But if a teacher or someone she respects asks her to do the exact same thing she immediately follows through. I enjoy helping teachers by reinforcing and elaborating on what they are trying to teach their students and being there in the practice room to help bring the process of refinement from the studio into the practice room – to help the students become independent “practicers”.

Last but not least, I was encouraged to take my role as a practice coach more seriously when I began tweeting about practicing several years ago. It quickly became clear that there is a lot of mystery that surrounds the topic and I felt it was time to change that. Being open about my frustrations and joys in the practice room and on the stage has inspired a lot of valuable conversation between professionals, amateurs, and students alike and that’s a good thing, I think.

I truly believe people want to talk about practicing and to learn how to improve what they do on their own – my goal is to be there to guide and to cheer folks on in that pursuit because regardless of whether or not they become musicians professionally, the skills learned by practicing well are the skills that are most needed in our society – problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and persistence.
PRACTICIA: What is the value of a practice "boot camp"?
EAS: The practice boot camp gives me the opportunity to look at the whole of what a musician is doing in the practice room rather than just focusing on specific issues that they might have. When people sign up for this service I ask them to videotape themselves while practicing for either one large chunk of time, preferably around 45 minutes, or in smaller chunks. It’s amazing how reluctant most people are to doing this! That, in itself, is very revealing. I then watch the recordings on my own and am able to pick up just about everything I need to know to begin the work of revamping a client’s approach to practicing. Through the video recordings I am able to catch visual and audio cues, many of which are psychological and have nothing to do with technique, that give me a glimpse into what’s going on in the client’s mind. After putting together a detailed list of recommendations, I go over them with the clients, either in person or via the Internet, and answer any questions that they may have. Together the client and I come up with a plan of action for the next week or so after which they make another recording for me to review after they’ve had a chance to tweak their practicing. After another follow-up the client is usually well on his or her way to adopting a new attitude that allows them to healthfully and effectively work independently.
PRACTICIA: How did you come up with the title "Beyond the Notes" for your website?
EAS: I came up with that name back in 2009 when I started writing my blog by the same name. One of the things I’ve noticed with young musicians especially is that there is a strong focus on the individual notes on the page. All those black dots tend to overwhelm rather than inspire. My goal is to help musicians see beyond those black dots in order to see the fascinating language they create and to learn to speak in that language so that their own emotions and experiences can be spoken through music.
PRACTICIA: In your opinion, why do most students struggle with practicing?
EAS: I believe many students struggle because done the traditional way, full of mindless repetition while counting down minutes on the clock, it is usually mind-numbingly boring and devoid of creativity and thought. It isn’t fun to practice that way. And when practicing is mindless, effective practicing tends not to happen which means mistakes are more likely to occur and endless repetitions take forever to be fruitful. We are human. We like to see results. We like to feel successful. The traditional way of practicing, in my opinion, doesn’t get us to that point which is why heading to the practice room can often feel like torture. I truly believe that if we can make practicing a creative process, a mystery that requires us to ask lots of interesting questions, or a game that encourages us to quickly and accurately learn music, practicing can become something that musicians look forward to and not dread
PRACTICIA: What are the most common practice flaws that you have observed?
-Playing too quickly or too slowly.
-Not stopping when mistakes occur to figure out what caused the mistake and problem solving.
-Starting from the beginning too much of the time.
-Starting with the easiest material and leaving the hardest parts for later, when you’re brain and body are already tired.
-Talking to oneself negatively rather than giving oneself neutral feedback.
-Not having an understanding of rhythm, meter, and pulse.
-Trying to do too much at once (learning left and right hand at the same time; a singer trying to learn pitches, rhythms, and text at the same time)
-Not isolating problem spots and then once learned, working it back into the fabric of the piece.
-Depending too much on the metronome to provide a steady pulse.
-Not writing fingerings, bowings, breathes or accidentals in the score.
PRACTICIA: How can teachers help improve the quality of student practice?
EAS: I think teachers can help the student develop a healthy vocabulary to use in the practice room. Rather than saying, “That was horrible!” for instance, the teacher can help the student re-think how to address what they didn’t like and to rephrase it in a more neutral tone… “I think I want a more warm sound here. Let’s try that again.” I also think teachers can help students to see what good problem solving can look like. Lessons go by so quickly that I think it can be tempting for us as teachers to jump right in when we hear something we like to direct what should be done rather than walking the student through a process. Time may not always allow for this but a little bit would go a long way. Or perhaps teachers could intentionally set aside a portion of a lesson now and then to do some guided practice with their students

I would also encourage teachers to livestream or videotape their own practice sessions for their students to watch. As teachers, we are like superheroes to our students. I don’t think they realize that we too are human…that we have good and bad days in the practice room, that we get stumped, and that we make mistakes, even. I livestreamed my practice sessions for a while a couple of years ago and was amazed at the positive feedback from teachers, professional musicians, students…everyone. Practicing is an art, but it shouldn’t be a mystery.

With the soon-to-be-unveiled app, PRACTICIA, teachers will also be able to check in on their students’ practicing and to offer suggestions during the time in between lessons. I’m very eager to see how we can use this to encourage more thoughtful, encouraging, and effective practicing.
PRACTICIA: How can parents (especially those without a musical background) help their children work better?
EAS: Instead of focusing on how much time is spent in the practice room, a pretty common thing for parents and teachers to focus on, parents can help their kids choose small, do-able, mini goals. When something gets in the way of achieving those goals, parents can help the student problem solve. “Why are you stuck? Do you know what bowing you’re supposed to be doing? Do you know what fingering you should be using?” Parents can also ask questions to inspire creativity. “What does this part of the piece sound like to you? Does it sound like someone who’s happy? Do you think there might be a conversation going on here or maybe even an argument?” I think parents can also help students to identify when they need to walk away from the instrument when they are getting frustrated and problem solving isn’t getting anywhere. Sometimes breaks are necessary but this can be challenging to accept when the focus is on getting in that half-hour the teacher requires every day. Keep this in mind, though - bad practicing can undermine good practicing in a very short amount of time and the state of mind a musician tends to have when practicing is the state of mind they will have on the stage in performance. Cultivating a positive attitude in the practice room will pay off when it comes time to perform.

In summary, even if a parent doesn’t have a musical background I believe he or she can help the student move away from practicing that is boring, mindless, and frustrating.
PRACTICIA: What do you think about extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation in practicing?
EAS: I am not a huge extrinsic motivation fan myself but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing. Ever since I started music, when I was 5, I have been intrinsically motivated and for that I’m grateful. It probably saved my parents and my teacher a lot of stickers and M&Ms too! But I realize I may have been a bit of an odd child. With that said, I think that especially with younger children, rewards can be very motivating as long as they aren’t bribes. (They are different!) I do think, however, that a good goal for parents and teachers is to help make music learning and practicing creative and positive enough that children will quickly become inspired on their own to engage mindfully in practice. They will see that how they choose to practice and deal with difficulties directly affects the outcome and then those outcomes keep improving and they see and hear what they are capable of, magical things can start to happen in a self-directed way.
PRACTICIA: What is the value of practicing away from the instrument? Can it be overdone?
EAS: I am a huge advocate for practicing away from the instrument for many reasons. It inspires creativity and kinesthetic learning; it enables a student to process notes on the page without involving technical issues that arise the minute he or she is at the instrument; it can also be done anywhere, anytime. With younger students I think practicing away from the instrument can be overdone. Students need a certain amount of time with their instrument, developing technique and making musical patterns part of their language. As students get older, however, I think the ratio between at-the-instrument and away-from-the-instrument practice can shift. There are many stories of professionals that learn pieces on the plane on the way to the concert – that’s definitely one end of the spectrum and would be an interesting goal for any musician to shoot for eventually.
PRACTICIA: How important do you think is musical knowledge (theory, solfege etc) in practicing?
EAS: I think it is very important – it is one way to get “beyond the notes” and leads to interpretation rather than just regurgitation. But theory can be intimidating for many students, myself included, which is why I think it’s helpful to teach those things in a way that directly applies to the music students are learning. They are more open to learning the concepts if they can see that knowing the theory can help them make decisions with regard to how they want to play the music. With solfege, understanding what the value of solfege is can make the process of learning it more palatable. I’m not a big fan of the “Just learn it, it’s like taking your medicine!” approach to teaching these concepts.
PRACTICIA: How did you come about writing your book "Inspired Practice" and what is it about?
EAS: My book was a bit of an experiment. For several years readers of my blog had told me that I should write a book but I found the idea very intimidating. To me, my blog is like my personal journal. It doesn’t feel as set in stone as a book. My fear was that I’d publish my thoughts and then the next week I’d change my mind about everything I had written. My compromise was to put together what I call a coffee-table book for the practice room and music studio with nuggets of information that I find myself telling people and myself all the time. Because I’m a very visual person, I wanted to also include good images that would illustrate those same concepts. I also decided to throw in some quotes that I find particularly inspiring, some by other musicians that write about practicing, others by non-musicians. My hope was that people could turn to a different page in the book every day to give them a burst of inspiration for their practice sessions.
I am just starting work on another book that I’m very excited about. I’m avoiding the traditional format again, choosing instead a workbook format for both students and teachers to help encourage creative score investigation that will be flexible enough to be used by students of every age and level. I’m very excited about it!
PRACTICIA: What are your top three bits of advice to students about practicing?
- It’s about mini goals accomplished, not about time.
- It’s about process, not the end product and perfection.
- If you approach practicing using your whole body in harmony with your whole mind, with creativity, curiosity, and problem solving skills, your practicing will bring you to a place of security and originality that will allow you to deliver performances you’ll be proud of and that audiences will receive as a very unique gift.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Insisting on seeing possibility after the storm

It's been a while since I last posted. A lot has happened over this past year, some of which has been challenging physically and emotionally but in all honesty I really don't regret any of it. I find myself now in a completely different place and time and even though part of me tells me I should be wallowing in self pity, I won't. I am happy. A little lost perhaps, but definitely happy.

I have been quite vague about my situation much of the time because I don't like to get wrapped up in drama and because I don't like to speak when I'm in the midst of a storm. I prefer to wait until the dust has settled so that I don't say something I might regret. But I woke up this morning with a very clear voice telling me it was time. So here we are.

Some folks may remember that a few years ago my husband was denied tenure at the institution where he had been working. We decided at that point that we didn't want to pick up everything and move in the search of a new career in academia. We live in an absolutely gorgeous part of the country and our school system is a very good one. We decided to stay and my husband started teaching voice privately. I had already started working as an adjunct professor and accompanist at another local college and I also had a lot of work freelancing around the area so I focused on my work and found myself at the piano most of the time I was awake, seven days a week. In many ways it was a dream come true. I had all the work I needed and I had students at my disposal to hone in on my beliefs about teaching and music.  It was during this time that I also bit the bullet and started my own practice coaching business. All of this kept me busy until May of this past year. In January I had started to experience some overuse issues and by the end of the semester, after playing for about 25 different recitals,  my body clearly shouted, "STOP!"   At the same time my position at the University became quite complicated so I decided it was time for me to see the closed doors for what they were - an open door to something new.

So here is where I stood by the middle of the summer...

I had no official job and almost no playing commitments so that my body could heal; I was looking forward to a handful of speaking engagements about practicing and music education around Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida; and I was eager to have more time to concentrate on research, writing, and my business.  I realized pretty quickly that this year had the potential to be an extraordinary one, even with all the mystery, insecurity, and lack of finances.  I applied for a full-time job at the university library where I had just resigned in an attempt to be a "responsible" adult but apparently that wasn't meant to be.  Then one day I was at the local toy store with my daughter when the thought crossed my mind, "I wonder if they ever have any job openings here."  I looked around for the owner thinking that if I saw her there I would ask her then and there - a thought that is completely out of character for me.  She wasn't there so I shelved that idea.  A week later I was up in Pennsylvania having some Alexander Technique lessons when I received an e-mail from the toystore saying that they had part-time positions open.  Needless to say, I felt like my stars were starting to realign, granted in a completely different constellation.  But in my book any type of alignment was a step in the right direction.

Now I work in a fantastic toystore part-time that's within walking distance of our house and have time to do what I need to do to try to kick my practice coaching business in the rear to make something finally happen. In this past month I have thirstily gobbled up books about practicing and education that are turning my brain into a whirlwind of ideas, I have busily been putting together my presentations for my upcoming workshops, I have been carefully rebuilding myself as a pianist, I've begun work on a new workbook I'm cooking up for musicians and teachers, and I've enjoyed spending more time at home with my family.  I truly couldn't be happier!  Yes, I could be making a lot more money (I'm currently earning minimum wage which has really opened my eyes to what it's like for a huge part of our population in this country), I could have a job that gives my family "benefits" (but what does one have to sacrifice to get them?), and I could have a job in academia (but again, at what cost?) but in all honesty I'm finding it terribly amusing to watch my life play out right now.  I truly sense that something is in the works...I just don't know exactly what it is.

There you have it!  That's what's been happening in my life.  I suppose I could be grumpy about what's transpired but I'm not.  I realize that I have been handed a gift.  At times I felt like I was in the middle of a storm this past year but now I feel like I'm climbing up the rainbow that has served as an encore to what came before.

So here's to the journey!  And many, many thanks to everyone in my life that has given me so much incredible support.  I am so very grateful.

P.S. - If anyone has any thoughts about what I could be doing next, by all means, please do share!  And if you want some practice coaching, check out how I can help.     

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Taking time for timers in the practice room

All right.  I just set me nifty new timer for 30 minutes.  Let's see if I can get this post written in that time!

The other day I was checking out The Practice Shoppe's website to see what nifty little tools and toys they sell to help in the practice room and I came across a series of cube timers that intrigued me.  I thought it was interesting that each timer had 4 set durations you could use, with each cube having a different combination of times.  I ended up purchasing one that has increments of 5, 10, 20, and 30 minutes to see how it works and to get myself thinking in timer mode.  You see, I have rarely, if ever, relied on timers when I practice, perhaps because I am stubborn but also because I'm pretty self motivated - I don't usually need extra encouragement to practice a passage for an effective period of time.  In fact I often have to pull the plug on myself because I'm having so much fun...truly!

That last point, that I sometimes have a difficult time stopping myself, got me thinking...maybe timers can be used for that purpose too.  Maybe there's more to them than just being a tool for musicians (or their parents) to use as some sort of torture device...

"Bwahahaha...I am going to set the timer now for 10 minutes.  You must practice these two measures until the timer has gone off or else!!!  BEGIN!"

I've seen some people using timers in this manner.  I suppose it serves a purpose but I've also seen it create somewhat of a Pavlovian response where the minute the timer is started the musician finds him/herself slouching and going through the motions of repeating the passage in question while staring painfully in the direction of the timer the entire time.  "Please, please, please go off now."  I don't know how much deliberate learning is going on in moments like this.  It makes me wonder if there's another way which leads me back to a point I made a bit earlier.

Maybe we can use timers as a way to make sure we don't get too carried away with our exploration of a tricky passage.  Imagine that!  If we can set the timer as a cue to start a thrilling, intriguing round of musical exploration our time would be so much better spent.  It would encourage us to find a way to be in the moment, to play with our instrument, to experiment, to problem solve.  We would no longer be staring at the timer with a look of ceaseless pleading. If we've gone into that mindful place the timer going off doesn't feel like being released from a prison cell, it's more of a reminder that it is time to move on and spread our curiosity elsewhere.

I am intrigued about this possibility of using the timer in this way because I think it could help us move away from the type of practicing that can be frustrating and to move towards practicing that is instead a continual exploration and journey of improvement.  When we use the timers the torturous way, if we haven't accomplished what we were supposed to accomplish by the time the alarm goes off, we can often feel like we've failed.  In using this other approach it would be harder to go into judgement land at the end of the time.  We know that we've put in some good work and maybe have had fun in the process - that's bound to be more satisfying.

As I say in my book, Inspired Practice, "Discouragement is the enemy of effective practicing." Let's see if we can use timers to head us in a more encouraging direction.

Do you have any clever uses for timers in the practice room?  How do you feel about using them?  I'm curious to hear your thoughts so feel free to leave a comment below.

Oh timer just went off!  Guess it's time to sign off.

Happy practicing!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Solving a frustrating memory mystery - eyes and brain required

"Mommy, I can't find my book!"

"Mommy, my shoes are gone!"

I hear phrases like this practically every day and  more often than not, whatever it is my daughter is looking for ends up being right in front of her eyes.  If only she would use her beautiful eyes.  If only she would learn to truly look, observe, and to process information instead of just panicking and going through the motions.

But I know she's not alone in this phenomenon - of looking without seeing.  It happens to all of us and to just about every young musician with whom I work.  Consequently, one of the skills I teach most is the skill of observation and connecting what we see with information that can help us learn and perform our music more easily and securely.  I touched on this concept in one of my most recent posts, "Berry picking in the practice room" and today I wanted to apply it to music using a scenario that came up recently at a music camp where I was teaching.

A few weeks into the camp I was working with a young tenor who was trying to memorize Edward Rubbra's setting of Shakespeare's, "It was a Lover and his Lass."   First, here's the text:

It was a Lover and his Lass 
It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring. 
Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring. 
This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring. 
And, therefore, take the present time
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino.
For love is crown'd with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.
The singer had learned all the notes and rhythms so he was well on his way to being ready to perform it but he said that he just couldn't memorize the words for some reason.  He was extraordinarily frustrated, that was very clear to me.  It's situations like this that are like invitations outlined in flashing neon lights - "Help me! Help me?" so I instantly began asking him questions.  This is just an approximation of the conversation but I think it will give you an idea of the strategy the unfolded.

Me:  What's the song about?

Him: I don't know.  A guy?

Me:  Um, yes...there is a guy involved.  Who else?

Him:  There's a girl too.

Me:  Right.  That's always nice.  What about them?

Him: I don't know.  I'm kind of confused by the song and don't really know that it's about anything.

Me: Hmmm...interesting comment.  I think I know why you feel that way - it's not your fault.  I think Shakespeare isn't helping you out much.  Let's take a different approach for a second and trust me, we'll get to the memory issue eventually.  Do you have a separate copy of just the words, without any music?

Him: Yep.  Here it is.

Me:  OK.  First I want you to tell me if there are any lines of text that are repeated in the song?

Him:  Yes, there are.  The "hey nonino" lines.  They are in every verse.

Me:  Right, good.  Any others?

Him:  Also the last three lines of every stanza.

Me:  Yes!  So right now I want you to read all the lines that are unique, all the other ones that aren't repeated anywhere else.

Him:  OK.
It was a lover and his lass,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass. 
Between the acres of the rye
These pretty country folks would lie. 
This carol they began that hour,
How that life was but a flower. 
And, therefore, take the present time
For love is crown'd with the prime.
Me:  Ah.  You said earlier that you didn't think the song was really about anything.  Read those 8 unique lines again and tell me if you are getting any more of a sense of a story or a message.

Him: Well, I guess it kind of makes more sense now.

Me:  Tell me about it.

Him: In the first stanza it introduces this lover and his girlfriend.

Me:  Right.  And where are they?

Him:  Walking through a green corn-field.

Me:  Right.  That's it for the first stanza.  Now close your eyes and picture that in your head.  (After 30 seconds or so...) Second stanza, now what happens?

Him:  Well, they both lie down together in fields of rye.

Me:  That's all?

Him:  Yeah, that's all.

Me:  Great.  Now picture the lover and his lass, walking over the green cornfields, coming to a field of rye and lying down together.  Third stanza?

Him: They sing a song or something...about life being like a flower.

Me: Interesting.  What's that all about?

Him: I don't know, but maybe that's what the fourth stanza is doing...answering that question.  Maybe that last stanza is saying that since life is like a flower and is going to only last so long we should really live for the moment, especially when we're talking about love.

Me: Cool!  So now let me ask you, is there a point to this song or is it just a story about a guy and a girl?

Him:  No, there's a point!  It's like there's a moral in the end.

After this little conversation I had him sing through the song, only singing the lines that truly tell the story, not the lines that are repeated every verse.  We did this acapella, giving him plenty of time to think ahead.  I also asked him to keep trying to picture the scene in his head while he was singing so that he was also building a visual cue to which he could refer.  As soon as he felt comfortable doing this I asked him to tell me the lines that are repeated every stanza.  It turns out he already knew these by heart.  Next we put the song back together with him focusing on following the storyline and visual storyboard he had created in his head so that when he came to the repeated lines he could go on automatic while thinking ahead to what came next.  He nailed the memory on the first try.  It took us about 20 minutes total to go from frustration to comfort and security!  And at his performance?  Because he had decided there was a moral at the end of the song, he craftily performed the song to lead up to the punchline and he did so with the biggest look of knowing on his face...perfect for delivering such an important message, don't you think?

See why I love my job?

So what was so tricky about this song?  I had figured out that all the repeated lines kept getting in the way of him getting a clear idea of what he was singing about - it's definitely not helpful in memory work to feel like you're just memorizing random words.  And all those repeated words made him feel as though this song was terribly long when in reality the song was made up of only 85 different words, not 184 words; 12 different lines of text, not 24.  It was like my daughter "looking" for her shoes without really looking - getting more wrapped up in being overwhelmed by the process of looking instead of using her eyes and her brain at the same time.

So next time you find yourself banging your head against a wall, take a deep breath, put on some glasses, grab a microscope or a telescope, open your eyes and your mind, and really, truly look!  Look at what's troubling you from every angle possible, look until you make sense of what you see and hear.  You'll be surprised what you can find and where it will lead you!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Berry picking in the practice room

It seems I am incapable of doing any activity without relating it to practicing, even in the summer, when my mind could and maybe should be thinking about beaches, lemonade, reading a good novel, or just resting.

A few weeks ago I woke up greeted by a spectacularly beautiful morning.  I could feel the gentle breeze through the window, and although I suspected the sun would make an appearance sometime in the day, clouds were still keeping her in bed. I could have done my usual, readied myself for the day and headed off to work but I was struck instead with an undeniable desire for fresh berries. I quickly got ready, ate some breakfast, and headed off to our local u-pick berry farm.  I am so thankful I listened to that little voice inside that was tantalizing me with the thought of fresh, sweet berries, because I walked away from that outing with a lot more than a bucket of berries - I walked away with the realization that I had also learned a lot about the process of learning and practicing.

I chose to start with picking blackberries even though the owner had informed me that the bushes have been picked virtually clean the previous day. (Yes, I am stubborn...ask my parents or my husband!)  I found one of the rows he had recommended, stepped up to the bush and started looking. I couldn't see much of anything, only a tiny wimpy berry here and there - not particularly what I had in mind.   At that point I could have given up and walked away, trying my luck with blueberries instead but like I said, I'm stubborn.  I squatted on the ground and gingerly lifted a thorny branch - nothing.  I tried looking under another one -  still nothing but a few under-ripe ones.   For some reason I then had the notion to simply look up into the bush.  Jackpot!  (This is when I could use sound effects on the blog!) I was greeted by the sight of berries that looked like they were trying to keep themselves secret indefinitely.  Clink, clink, clink...into my bucket they went and armed with my new tactic, which I expanded to include standing on my toes to find berries at the tops of the bushes, I was set for the rest of morning.

Another thing I've learned through berry picking is how important it can be to let go and try things out in an effort to learn what it is I like.  Being the city girl that I am was, I thought that blackberries were blackberries, blueberries were blueberries.  But that's not exactly the way it is!  There are tons of different types, each with their own texture, color, size, and most importantly, taste.  For the past few years I have picked blueberries at this farm from the same bushes that reside in one specific area and have ignored everywhere else. (In addition to being stubborn I am also a creature of habit.)   In a recent visit, however, one of the owners was encouraging me to try a different spot, on a different hill (gasp!).  This was a scary prospect for me.  How would I know which bushes to pick from?  How would I know if they were ripe?  My friend set me free with these words - "Just taste some from different bushes and see which ones you like the best!"  

Ohhhhhhhh...(Do you hear the click of the lightbulb going on?) 

I suddenly realized I didn't have to blindly pick berries hoping that they would be something that I'd like or that would be ripe enough.  I could experiment, I could sample, and in the process learn a lot about not only berries but also myself.  In fact, that's what I should have been doing all along!  And that's what we can and should do in the practice room as well.  We shouldn't expect ourselves to magically know what musical choices will suit us or our audiences best without playing around.  We can use our practice room as our berry farm where we can experiment, taste, savor, or even spit out musical ideas.  The magic is in the adventure!

So go on!  Get yourself to your local berry farm and get picking!  Then go practice.  You're bound to find something sweet in both places.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Cayambis Music Press: a passport to music from Latin America & an EXCLUSIVE OFFER!

The past year or so two friends of mine, John Walker and his wife, Catalina Andrango-Walker, have been cooking up a plan to make music from Latin America more accessible to musicians around the globe.  The result is Cayambis Music Press.  After taking a look at some of their publications, I am pleased to introduce this new company to readers of my blog.  To learn more about John and Catalina's endeavor I asked John some questions.  I hope they give you some insight into this couple's passion.   You can also check out their Facebook page for up-to-date information about new additions to their roster, composers they are featuring, and upcoming performances of music they publish.  

Click here to receive a special discount if you purchase their 2 volumes of collected solo piano works.  Spice up your students' and your own repertoire! 

ES: What is your connection with Latin America?
JW:  My connection with Latin America dates back to the early 1980s, when I accepted an orchestral position with an orchestra in Mexico. I really enjoyed being there, and quickly learned Spanish, and later ended up writing a dissertation about Latin American chamber music. Another job offer came along, this time from Ecuador, which basically cemented my interest in that region and its music.
ES: Why did you decide to start Cayambis Music Press?
JW: While researching Latin American chamber music I discovered that although it represented an unusually rich repertoire, that there hadn’t been very much of it published. At the same time, part of my duties as a member of the Air Force band (this is now early 1990s) involved using computers and laser printers to create scores and parts out of the many pieces in manuscript form in the band’s library. I began to think about how I could combine this with my interest in Latin American music, but finally decided to act on this late last year.
ES: What is the significance of the name of your press?
JW: The Cayambis people lived in the area around and just north of present day Quito prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. I chose this name not only because of its distinctiveness, but principally to honor my wife’s heritage (she's from Quito).
ES: How do you choose composers/compositions to represent/publish?
JW: The selection process has undergone some evolution. At the beginning it was mainly based on personal and professional relationships. For example, one of my best friends in Ecuador happens to be a very accomplished composer. So, he, along with a number of other composers that we knew, were approached with the proposition of contributing his unpublished works for small ensembles. So our initial group ended up consisting of about ten composers. At the same time, we were putting together an editorial board whose primary responsibility, from early January, is the evaluation of composer submissions. They evaluated the music we received from a call for compositions that we sent out this past spring that resulted in five or six new composers. We’ve also received some unsolicited submissions, which are also sent to the board. In any event, once we have determined if any of the highly rated pieces can fit into our catalog we negotiate a contract with the individual composer.
ES: What are your goals when publishing a piece of music?
JW: I would say that there are technical, aesthetic and historic goals in mind. On a technical level, we want our printed editions to be as perfect and as complete as possible. During the preparation of each and every piece we work very closely with the composer to ensure that the performer can clearly and unambiguously understand his music. This may mean discussing the addition or elimination or markings, the choice of language for text-expressed indications, or any other issue related to the printed representation of a musical work. We send the composer a proof or galley version, which oftentimes engenders further revisions. Beyond the music itself, with every edition we publish a brief biography in English and Spanish. Also, there’s additional information that we publish on our website about any interesting or important details that a performer might need or want to know about a particular work. From an aesthetic standpoint, we want our printed editions to be visually attractive and inviting. We put a lot of thinking into the layout of each piece, we use “concert sized” (9x12) paper because it’s more “roomier” and we print on acid-free papers and cover stocks especially cut for us. However, our fundamental objective is historic: we want to create the new generation of Latin American composers. Many may have heard of Villa-Lobos or Ch├ívez, but who are the great Latin American composers of today? We are hopeful that in the not too distant future that our group of composers will begin to be recognized as significant and important representatives of classical composition in Latin America.
ES: Do you feel that music by Latin American composers is often ignored? If so, why might this be?
JW: It may not be so much a question of being ignored—there’s a lot of interest in Latin American music—but clearly cultural and linguistic differences can create a barrier. Most North Americans may be completely unaware of how different the classical music tradition is in Latin America. I taught in Ecuador’s national conservatory and experienced these differences first hand. It’s a strange situation between strong support for music in certain areas, and almost non-existent support in others. For instance, although there’s really no training in music education to speak of, we did graduate a number of very fine players. However, if their professional performing career doesn’t pan out, their degree (which is roughly equivalent to a U.S. high school diploma) leaves them completely unprepared for any other type of job. Young aspiring composers have it a lot worse, though: after having to go abroad for professional training in composition, upon returning to their homelands it’s difficult for them to get people to play their music and places to play it in.
ES: If you could give music teachers three reasons why they should encourage their students to play music by Latin American composers, what would they be?
JW: The typical response is to say that Latin American music offers technical and rhythmical challenges that might prove interesting and beneficial to the student. However, the better answer is that music of Latin America represents unparalleled diversity. Although it may look like any other musical score—there will be staves and key signatures and all of the other elements typical of European musical notation—depending on its country of origin this music may incorporate a multiplicity of influences generally not found in European music. In Peru, for example, young composers learn harmony and counterpoint just like we do. However, it’s very common for their compositions to reveal a strong blending of European as well as indigenous and African elements. The various localized religious traditions and how these mixed with Catholic and other European religions are also quite important to how music developed and how it is still developing in Latin America. And fundamentally, throughout that entire region there is always the impact of the Spanish conquest and its repercussions that continue to influence Latin American musical thinking. So by studying and performing Latin American works, American students may be exposed not only to unique rhythms, melodies and textures, but also there’s great opportunity to appreciate and become more aware of the broader cultural contexts that produced these works.