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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Creativity Discovered: The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra's choreographed "Holberg Suite"

It's been 4 years since I last posted a "Creativity Discovered" post.  That's not to say that nothing creative has happened during this time - quite the opposite really!  But recently I came across a series of YouTube videos that has made me realize that I should get back to posting about some of the inspiring performances I've been hearing about and seeing.

© laufer -
To kick off this series again, I want to share the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra's partially choreographed performance of Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite, Op. 40.  Written in 1884, the composer based the 5 movements on 18th century dance forms.  I think it can be tempting as musicians to perform these older dances in a somewhat restrained fashion which might befit some dances but when we consider that many of them originated from folk dances it makes me wonder if we could stand to loosen up and to treat the music in a more carefree way.

That's what the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra did with their performance.  Their choice of clothing, their approach to the music and each other, along with the choreography, work together to give me the impression that I'm at a country fair, sitting on a fence to take in or even join in the festivities.  I just love it!  And I have a sneaking suspicion the musicians enjoyed it too.  That is evident from their body language and the expressions on their faces throughout.

But enough of me jabbering on about them, here they are.  My favorite, in case you're interested or if you only have a little time to watch, is the last movement, the Rigaudon.  If nothing else, watch that one!   And if you want a link to my playlist of all of them, click here.


And if anyone knows of any other inspiring, creative performances I should watch, please do let me know by leaving a comment.






Friday, June 13, 2014

Multifaceted practicing - a key to sparkling performances

Tucked away in our bedroom closet I have what's got to be one of the ugliest rocks enclosed in a plastic bag and nestled safely in a box full of cotton.  It's been there for almost 10 years now and it's something that my daughter asks to see every now and then as a special treat.

What's the deal?  It's just a rock, right?

Well, yes...and no.

The rock is actually a raw garnet that my husband and I found ourselves in the depths of the Idaho wilderness when we lived there.  Obtaining it was a quintessentially Idahoian experience - vague directions, gravelly and unmarked back roads, no clear signs indicating where we were to go once
© jonnysek -
we were there, but bustling with activity and people clearly in the know.  Donning high rubber boots we entered a giant mud pit bearing a shovel and screens and joined in the fun of making more of a mess of ourselves than anything else.  To our surprise we did find one decent sized garnet even though it certainly wasn't glamorous.  We could only take the word of the forest ranger that was there that what we had did indeed have some potential because I certainly didn't see it.

I think new pieces that we have yet to learn are similar to those rough garnets;  we know that they have the potential to sparkle yet we're not quite sure how to get them to that point.   I think so often our strategy is just "to practice."  We think that if we practice it will get better and eventually we'll have something polished.  To compare it to our rough garnet that we started out with it would be like asking a gemologist to polish up our stone.  The rough edges would be gone, it would be cleaned up a bit, and there there would be a tantalizing hint of how brilliant it can be.  But it's still not something I would show off on a piece of jewelry.

So how can we take it a step further?  By approaching our practice the way a gemcutter does - by strategically making facets, with each new facet bringing us closer and closer to a brilliant, sparkling, unique, breathtaking jewel.  Here are the facets I consider with any new piece and the order in which I approach them:

  1. Musical investigating - done away from the instrument with score in hand I look very carefully at all different aspects of the piece asking myself various questions - what is the form of the piece? What, if anything, repeats?  If something does repeat is it exactly the same or is it slightly different?  If it is slightly different, how so?  Are there any passages that I can tell are going to be especially difficult?  Has the composer given us any clues as to the mood(s) of the piece?  Has he/she written any indications in the score to help us with interpretation?  What is the meter or meters used in the piece?  What are the highest and lowest notes and when do they occur?  What is the background for the composition of the piece?  The list of questions goes on and on and can be completely different based on the piece and the musician studying the music.  Anything goes!  The most important thing is to get acquainted with many different aspects of the music before launching in.  A gemcutter would never start hacking away at a rough gem without investigating it very carefully first to determine the best way to start making the facets.  If he or she didn't do that they may miss the best way to cut it.  They might even destroy the gem with one small move. 

  2. Note learning - this is when I go to the instrument and put what I've already learned through my musical investigation to work.  I set aside about one week to learn a given movement or piece, divide it up into equal parts, and start from the end, working backwards through the piece.  At this point I don't worry about tempo.  My main concern is learning what the notes are and making decisions regarding the details - fingerings, bowings, shifts, breaths, etc... I also make sure that I understand mathematically and can reproduce every rhythm that is on the page.  I do all of this work with my ears open to musical possibilities but I don't let myself dwell too long on musical decisions. 

  3. Working out bugs, refining, and bringing up to tempo - once I am confident that I have everything in the right place I begin the work of polishing things up and making any adjustments to decisions I had already made.  If something isn't working I change a fingering, a bowing...whatever needs to be changed to allow me to play without mistakes. Thoughtful repetition is a big part of this step which offers me many opportunities to explore musicality, try out different ways of phrasing, and find different colors I might want to use.  This is a really fun step!  It is when I really feel I turn that rough gem into something that can actually be used.  

  4. Memory work - this one isn't always necessary depending on the situation but if I do need to memorize and if I've done the previous steps in a thoughtful, creative way, memory work doesn't feel like starting from scratch.  Using the observations and decisions I've already made I work to play the music by heart and usually I do this in the same organized fashion in which I did in the note learning stage, working both backwards through the music and also from the beginning.

  5. Practice performing - this is what I call my "letting go" step [cue song from "Frozen"].  I perform the piece, sometimes recording it, sometimes not, from beginning to end with no stopping and with as much musical intention and engagement as possible.  I practice recovering from mistakes, turning away from negative mental tapes, and dealing with distractions while having fun trying to take myself over the edge emotionally with the music - this is the "letting go" part.  I figure the practice room is the place to see how far we can go before going overboard.  Afterwards I take note of what I think worked, what didn't, which spots need further fine tuning, and the thoughts that kept distracting me so that I can address them in the next practice session.  I try to keep these observations as objective as possible, practicing saying things in an encouraging but productive way since that's how I'd like to be during and after a performance as well.  This step is the equivalent of a gemcutter picking up the stone and holding it up in different lights to see how the light moves through the different facets so that he can make any further refinements to make it as brilliant as it can possibly be.   
© mindelio -
In following these steps, or a variation of them, I avoid generic practicing.  Instead of just returning to the music time and time again with a polishing cloth, which wouldn't get me a gem I could set,  I am looking at each piece with the eyes and hands of a gemcutter.  What I strive to end up with is something closer to a brilliant finished product.  My hope is that when it's time to set it in a piece of jewelry, when it's time to perform, the gem will work its magic.  

As for our rough garnet?  One of these days it will undergo a transformation, hopefully in the hands of a gemcutter that wants to discover this rock's hidden beauty just as much as we do! 

Happy cutting and polishing!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mind and body blown, the Alexander technique way

"Mind blown."

© Elnur -
I've heard that phrase a lot recently but I've been pretty reluctant to use it until now. In one of my recent posts I brought up an issue I've been dealing with that I was slightly hesitant to discuss – having physical issues and pain at the piano. I was so amazed and grateful for the responses I received after writing that post. The words of encouragement, the personal stories, and the suggestions were all so appreciated and I've learned a lot in the past week and a half thanks to those comments. One of the first things I did was respond to a comment that a Twitter friend had made to me that her piano teacher is also a certified Alexander Technique instructor and has helped many musicians with solving issues similar to mine. She made it very tempting and easy to look into the possibility of working with him. Although this is completely unlike me, I immediately stopped what I was doing, consulted with my husband, and sent an email to Robert Bedford.   Within a handful of hours I had received a reply and an invitation to travel up to West Chester, Pennsylvania to engage in a week-long series of intensive Alexander Technique work.   In a little over 24 hours I was in the car and on my way.

At this point I think it's important for me to be honest about my previous experience with Alexander Technique. When I was a student at Eastman there was a period of time when the school brought in teachers to work with groups of students.  At that time Alexander Technique was completely new to me – I had never even heard of it before. To try and keep this post short, let's just say that my exploration of it didn't last long.  I was young, I thought I was invincible, and quite frankly I felt silly and uncomfortable doing what I was being asked to do, especially in front of my peers, so I stopped going.  Fast forward many years – my husband, a singer, signed up to take lessons from an Alexander Technique teacher while we were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.   He thrived on everything he learned and being the conscientious person he is, he incorporated it into his life beautifully. Unfortunately I had yet to let go of the vain side of myself so I continued to pooh-pooh it until (I hate to admit this) last week. It is amazing to me how powerful being brought to one's knees can be.

With all this said, I went into my week long session with desperation, a bit of doubt and apprehension, but also with a bit of hope and curiosity. I also went into it knowing full well that it was time for me to grow up and to not care how I looked in front of another human being.

As the title of this blog post suggests, the week was amazing and surprised me in so many ways. I think it was a combination of me being ready to receive what I needed to hear and experience, and working with an inspiring, patient teacher who seems to enjoy thinking and asking difficult questions as much as I do that helped contribute to the success of these intensive sessions. It would be hard to describe everything that transpired but I'd like to share here some of the biggest revelations that truly did blow my mind and that are now transforming the way I use my body and my mind.

  • Having played piano for over 35 years, having my hands rest in a pronated, perhaps even an over-pronated position as if they were on a keyboard, feels more natural to me than anything else.  In fact, that is typically how you'll find my hands when they are resting, whether or not I'm at a piano.  Up until now, when my hands were engaged in a"more natural position,"  it caused quite a bit of discomfort.  Realizing that really blew me away.  I started understanding that my default resting position has the two bones in my forearm constantly crossing one another. That doesn't seem very restful to me now that I know that.   A parallel situation that helped me to internalize the ramifications of my default way of resting my hands was when Dr. Bedford told me about a ballerina that he has worked with. When lying on her back, with her knees bent and upright, she had pain when he brought her knees together – a position that takes no effort and has no painful side effects for most of us.   Letting her legs open and fall in opposite directions, however, was her norm.  For both her and me, we have unknowingly asked our bodies to accept a position of rest that is not anatomically the best for us and might be the cause of some of our discomfort.  With that in mind, I am now being more conscious of releasing my hands from an over-pronated position and having that be my new norm.
  • Through the years I have completely lost touch with my ankles, thighs, hips, collarbone, and elbows, just to name a few body parts.  I seem to have relied exclusively on my forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers. I have asked the smaller muscles to do everything I need to do whether it's at or away from the piano rather than using the larger muscles to support and lead the smaller ones. When I was working with Dr. Bedford and he made me aware of these neglected pieces of the puzzle, I was speechless and I could feel the gears in my brain starting to turn as I realized how much I've been misusing by body and how unfair I've been to my arms and hands. It's no wonder my body is rebelling.   One example of this issue in my piano playing is how I sit on the piano bench.  Up until now I have gone for the "bird perched on the edge" approach, to use Dr. Bedford's words.   My thighs have had very little, if any contact with the bench which meant that I wasn't using those muscles to help support and direct upward the top part of my body from the hips up and to help stay grounded through my feet.  Not only did this mean I wasn't utilizing important muscles, it also meant that I was constantly using other smaller ones in order to maintain my balance.   With this in mind, before I engage in any movement now, I take the time to figure out how I can involve those bigger muscles at all times and to purposefully check my awareness of them.
  • Being a good sight-reader and a pianist for whom technique has come quite naturally is both a blessing and a curse.  It has gotten me this far for this long without a lot of struggle.  But a drawback is that I am not accustomed to thinking about how to physically translate what I see on the page into functional movement.  My connection between eyes and hands are instantaneous and unfortunately without regard to what really is wise.  This has been fine up until now but my body is telling me that something has to change.  I'm going to have to start using my head.  Fortunately I like thinking so although this will be an adjustment, I think I will get into it when I'm at the piano.  As my Alexander Technique teacher has encouraged me to do I am starting to say "Stop!" when I would typically launch right into doing something.  Especially when I'm at the piano, where ingrained habits meet my passion to communicate through music, this is going to be essential.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg really but it is a start. Since returning home I have been practicing and thinking about these new concepts and I'm enjoying noticing a difference in how I feel in whatever I'm doing. I am currently reading, Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique, by Michael J. Gelb and also a book that my teacher recommended to bring what I've been learning to the piano, The Pianist's Talent, by Harold Taylor.  And even though it just about killed me emotionally to do this, I have found a replacement to play for me at a summer camp I work at so that I can spend the next month resting, assimilating Alexander Technique concepts, and rethinking my technique at the piano.  In a month I will hopefully be traveling back up to Pennsylvania for another round of lessons because now that I've had both my mind and body blown, I am ready and eager for more!

Here's to a future of healthy playing.  I'll keep posting about this journey in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Impressions from the stage: University of Maryland's choreographed production of "Appalachian Spring"

About a month ago I saw a post on a young friend's Facebook page about participating in an event at the University of Maryland that immediately grabbed my attention.  A violinist and a dancer attending the school, Lillian Cannon, performed in a memorized, conductor-less, and here's the clincher, choreographed version of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.  After reading the brief but ecstatic post on Cannon's page as well as Anne Midgette's wonderful article for the Washington Post  I was eager to see it for myself.  Only a few weeks after the performance the YouTube video was up and I watched, moved the entire time by the intimacy of the rendition but also by the incredible bravery of the students who challenged themselves in so many ways in order to present something unique and powerful.

If you haven't yet watched it, here it is.  I would recommend watching it before reading the rest of this post.

I was so excited to know someone who had participated I decided that I wanted to find out more from her about what the experience was like for the students.  Lillian graciously accepted my request to answer some questions so that we could all soak in the experience and perhaps gain courage and ideas from this project.  Many thanks to her for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully.

ES:  Were you at the University’s first performance like this where they performed a choreographed version of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun?” or had you watched it prior to working on “Appalachian Spring?”   If you did, what were your thoughts, reservations, reactions? 

LC: UMSO performed the choreographed Debussy the year before I was there so I never saw the live performance but I watched the video on YouTube before beginning Appalachian Spring. I thought it was beautifully done and they sounded very good but (maybe because I’m biased) but I thought Appalachian Spring was at a whole other level than the Debussy. I think we took many more risks because the Debussy was such a success and both James Ross and Liz Lerman thought our orchestra was capable of doing so. Appalachian Spring was also almost twice as long as Debussy which was a project all on its own.

ES: What was the process for getting involved with this particular production?  Was it required participation or did you audition, sign up, etc.?  If you had a choice about whether or not to be involved, why did you choose to be a part of it? 
LC:  If you watch the video of Appalachian Spring, you will probably notice that it is not a full orchestra performing it. Our orchestra was split up for this past semester, with half of us working on Appalachian Spring and the other half working with opera students to perform “Die Fledermaus “. We came back together as a whole to perform the second half of the spring concert. Back in August at the beginning of the school year, we got our orchestra audition music, and with that, we got a survey sheet that asked if we would be willing to participate in a Copland music/movement collaboration and we could either put our interest in for the project or decline. I chose to put my interest in for it because it was something I have never done before and it was extremely out of my playing comfort zone.

ES:  How many months were spent preparing for this event?   What was the process like for putting it together?   How much of the choreography was given to you?  Did the orchestra members have a say in what you did? 

LC: We started rehearsals almost right after we got back from winter break, so probably the first week of February. The first rehearsals were definitely the hardest because we were looking at the music for the first time and it was just all very overwhelming for everyone I think. I think what helped a lot was having a chamber group of 13 people (4 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 1 double bass, a flute, clarinet, bassoon, and pianist) who were basically the leaders of this project. They met for extra rehearsals every week and began learning and memorizing the music before the rest of us did (in the video, they are the first and last players to play). This group helped guide the rest of us and kind of grounded the whole process I think. I know one of the biggest problems we had as a group (that the chamber group definitely helped with), was the amount of times we had to switch time signatures in that piece. Switching meters conductor-less was not easy to say the least. It forced us all to listen and feel the music much more than simply memorizing it. Most of the choreography was a collaboration of the idea Liz Lerman and our conductor, James Ross had envisioned, with the some of the ideas from the orchestra members thrown in. I think a lot of our ideas though, were more geared towards restrictions that we had with some of the movements and also having to play our instruments. A lot of the original ideas for this piece were modified so that we could also still play while doing them. 

ES: I am so impressed that this was done all by memory.  Were you given guidance as to how to go about memorizing such a large work?  Did you feel that having the choreography helped or hindered with the process of memorizing?

LC: At the first rehearsal we all had together, Professor Ross gave us all a little guide on tips for memorizing such a big work. It included things such as turning in a circle while you had your music in front of you, closing your eyes at more familiar sections, etc. At every rehearsal, we also had a huge projector up with the score so that we could get out of our own parts more and look at the score for guidance (I personally don’t think the projected score helped much though). We basically memorized the entire piece in sections, starting with the easier ones such as “Simple Gifts”. We would kind of start by memorizing one section, learning the section before or after it, then trying to put the two together until we had the whole thing memorized. I think at first, the choreography hindered the process of memorizing the piece, because we were so focused on learning that particular choreography, that we couldn’t remember the notes. Once we started getting real chunks of things choreographed and pieced together is when it began aiding the memorization process.

ES: Since you also had the choreography to deal with in this performance did you find performing a different experience than a typical orchestra or solo performance?   If so, how was it different?

LC: This performance was so beyond any other orchestra or solo playing experience. We were trying to tell a story with this piece and it not only had to come through in our music, but also our movement. It became so much more breathtaking to me when we all got out of our heads and committed to getting our story across to an audience. Ms. Lerman and Professor Ross wanted a lot of our emotion to come from the inside, so I think what made this piece so amazing is the fact that the audience wasn’t seeing the same emotions and the same story from every person performing. We were all performing from an emotion that was personal to us.

ES: Since you have had a lot of experience dancing yourself, do you think that helped you in this situation? 

LC:  Definitely. Memorizing choreography is something I’ve been doing my whole life so that part came so easily to me. It gave me more time to work on memorizing the music (which was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be). I think a lot of people struggled because memorizing a large chunk of choreography in a short amount of time is something they’ve never had to do before, let alone play music at the same time.

ES:  What was the dynamic of the orchestra as a whole as a result of being a part of such a unique performance?  Do you think you were more eager to promote others to come to the event?  Why or why not?

LC:  I think at first we were all really apprehensive about the whole thing, and I know none of us thought this was actually all going to come together (we were still having these doubts in April). At the same time, I think we were able to connect much more as an orchestra because we were forced to interact with every person on stage, whether they played the same instrument as you or not. You couldn’t rely on the rest of your section for guidance or to help you out on a section that maybe you weren’t as comfortable with because chances are, you were not standing around any of them for the majority of the performance. It took me a long time to really feel like this was going to be a worthwhile performance for people to see, but when it finally came together, I was so excited to be able to share it with an audience because I knew it was going to be beautiful.

ES:  What did you enjoy most about the experience?

LC:  My favorite part of the whole thing was seeing the audience at the very end when we were all laying our instruments down at the front of the stage as our “final offering”. I had always thought that was such a neat idea but I had no idea it was going to make such an impact on people. Seeing people moved to tears is really a powerful moment.

ES:  What did you not like as much or what did you struggle with, if anything?

LC:  Like I said before, I really did not enjoy the first month or so of rehearsals. We didn’t have it memorized enough to start learning solid choreography so there wasn’t much we could really do in terms of bringing this piece to life. I think it was pretty disorganized for a while because we were all trying to figure out how we were going to pull the entire thing off.

ES:  Would you do an event like this again?  Why or why not?

LC:  I would do it again in a heartbeat. It turned out to be such a neat experience and being able to pull off a performance like that is unforgettable. I think we were all able to connect with the music on a much deeper level and play together as a group better than we ever have.