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, December 31, 2020

The Art of Using a Mirror as a Musician

I'm sure I'm not alone in this scenario...

You're doing your morning routine, sitting in front of a mirror, and all you can manage to see is every pore, every new wrinkle, and those dark spots under your eyes. No matter what product you apply or thing you tweak, all you see is what you don't want to see. At that point, hopefully it dawns on you to do one simple thing...


I think so often, especially when I'm engaged in practicing or performing I forget that many mirrors have two sides. There's one side that does the job of reflecting what is there and there's the other, whose job is to magnify everything, to a slightly absurd degree.

There are good uses for both sides, both in everyday life, which I'll leave for someone else to cogitate on, and also in the daily life of the musician. It's usually in the practice room and in lessons where that magnifying side can be useful. It's looking into that side that we can see things we may have not noticed before - the small discrepancies in tempo, the slight unevenness in our fast passages, our tendency to be sharp on a certain note. That side of the mirror provides us with endless things to fix and problems to solve. 

But staring only into that side can start to play with our minds. It can frustrate us. It can make us question why we even try. It can prevent us from seeing the larger picture. It can sour us from what it is we love. That's why it's imperative that we learn two simple things...

When to flip the mirror and when to take the mirror away completely.

I'm still in the process of learning about these two options myself. Recently I've had a bit of a change of heart about how to deal with my practice room mirror. I used to follow up my high magnification practice sessions with an immediate flip, allowing myself to run through sections I had just micro-practiced to see where things stood. What I'm realizing now is that for me, more often than not, these reflections disappoint me. I want to see immediate results and to know that the hard work is going to pay off. But the fact is, things take time to settle. The brain needs time to let things sort themselves out. Or maybe the issue is that the brain isn't as easily flipped as that mirror is. Now, after a good practice on a section, I'm trying instead to turn off my childish need for instant gratification (that usually isn't gratified), and switching to something else. So far I'm feeling much better about my practice sessions. There's a lot more intrigue when you take away the mirror after a magnified session since you're not quite sure what you're going to find the next time, but is certainly less angst-filled. 

When do I use the simple reflection side of a mirror? I'm actually struggling to know how to answer that at the moment so perhaps that will need to be in another blog post. What I will say, however, is that I think music-making in general places a mirror in our hands, whether it's in the practice room or on the stage. It's unavoidable. As long as we don't stare too long and hard, and as long as we stick to that side, I think we're more likely to keep smiling as we pursue this art that is a reflection of so much more than just ourselves. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

My journey down a wonderful rabbit hole - discovering music composed by women

It all started several years ago, in the summer of 2017. I had been asked by a flute player, Sarah Wardle Jones, if I would play piano for a recital she had put together of music composed by women, a particular interest of hers. I of course said yes, not because of the program itself, but simply because I rarely turn down an opportunity to perform. I very quickly realized after saying yes, much to my puzzlement and embarrassment, that I had never, in my entire schooling and career covering 39 years (!) performed anything written by a woman. I couldn't even name on one hand the names of female composers. Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, and Cécile Chaminade. That was it. 

The recital was a joy. It was refreshing to peer into a world I hadn't previously known and Sarah's enthusiasm for the composers (Anna Bon, Cécile Chaminade, Lili Boulanger, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Jennifer Higdon), was inspiring. I found myself feeling like Alice by the end of the experience, standing at the very top of a very deep but thrilling hole that contains a new musical cornucopia of creativity and expression I had yet to discover. 

I jumped in. 
I'm still on my long journey down. 
I'm constantly discovering new wonders along the way. 

At the end of 2018, Sarah and a friend of hers, clarinetist Michelle Smith Johnson, and I put together a fun Halloween concert. I don't believe in that particular performance we performed anything written by a woman, but that project brought the three of us together. Over wine and appetizers one evening we found ourselves chatting about the possibility of forming an ensemble and we all decided that what we wanted was to focus on shining a light on works written by women and commissioning new works. It was shortly thereafter that our trio, at the beginning of 2019, The Alma Ensemble, was born, named in honor of Alma Mahler.

Farther down the rabbit hole, at the beginning of 2020, I was thrilled to be able to finally meet in person Sandra Mogensen, a pianist who had long been a friend of mine on Twitter. She was in the United States to present some recitals and presentations to celebrate and announce the release of her first recordings in a series she's doing called "En pleine lumière" which features all works composed by women. In talking with her during her visit I think we both realized that we shared many of the same frustrations, especially in terms of finding scores for these composers whose voices really need to be heard. When they can be found they are often significantly more expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Another point we also found ourselves frustrated by is that many anthologies and method books for pianists just beginning their journey don't feature female composers. At that point in our discussion we started trying to figure out what we could do and it dawned on us that both of us had regularly been looking to the online resource, IMSLP to find scores. We decided that perhaps we could both comb through the listings and create a shareable spreadsheet that would list all of the piano pieces composed by women on the site. With IMSLP being a free resource, this would ensure that anyone who had access to a computer could also have access to the music that's there. Sandra agreed to start at "A," I started at "Z" working backwards, and we eventually met in the middle. By the summer we had our spreadsheet roughly put together.  Part I was complete.

Part II of our project started at the end of the summer. We created a YouTube channel, Piano Music, She Wrote, and started posting our own recording of works we've discovered in our IMSLP quest. So far we've faithfully posted 2 every week. We now stand at over 40 videos and have many, many more to go! 

We now find ourselves in Part III. We set ourselves the goal of releasing our spreadsheet publicly once our YouTube channel reached 300 subscribers. Last weekend our goal was achieved! So now, if people want an easy, quick way to discover the piano pieces written by women that have scores on IMSLP available to download for free, folks can head to our Ko-Fi store. We are asking for a minimum donation of $10.00 US to get the url for our spreadsheet. That is to cover the hundreds of hours we've already put into this project and will continue to put into it. This spreadsheet is a living, breathing one. We'll regularly be updating it as new works are added to the score database. We are also donating 10% of every donation back to IMSLP since without them, none of this would have been possible.  

We've had several people mention that purchasing access to the spreadsheet on behalf of others, like piano students or teachers, would make a great virtual stocking stuffer, holiday gift, or graduation gift and we couldn't agree more. To make that possible, when purchasing access, any quantity can be selected. If people have 10 pianists they'd like to send the url to, they can simply select "10" as the quantity and then voilá, they'll be all set. 

Here's our video announcement about our spreadsheet in case you want to learn more: 

And here's a shorter, 2 minute version of the same video if you're short on time:

Sandra and I have many more stages forthcoming so stay tuned! We'd also like to start planning a world tour once this pandemic is all said and done so if anyone wants us to come share what we've learned, both through recitals and presentations, let us know! 

Back to the rabbit hole analogy. I feel like I'm still only a fraction of the way down this hole and I couldn't be more thrilled about that. There is clearly much more to discover. Often I find myself researching one composition and am led to another fantastic one...and then another...and another. It never seems to end. So much music I've never heard, so many composers I've never heard of but should have!  Thankfully there are many others out there who are also on this same journey. I encourage anyone else who's interested to join in the fun and to share what you find. Let's get more of this fantastic music accessible and available to all. I think Für Elise and The Happy Farmer would be happy to step aside for a while.