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.

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.