Thursday, February 4, 2016

Peer Evaluation in Group Instruction - My Experience

Teaching piano has traditionally involved a single student with a teacher. For teachers venturing into the realm of group instruction, the class can evolve into a series of private lessons taught in spurts as they move about the room. These situations are missing the dynamic opportunities that come with the group setting.

Recently, I have been thinking about ways to actively engage students in learning in the group setting. I decided to experiment with peer evaluations and have been pleased with the results. I immediately realized that students were more aware of their own errors after evaluating others and began to listen to their own performances much more closely.

Students in Class Piano IV are currently preparing one of the following pieces -- L'Arabesque, Op. 100, No. 2 (Johann Friedrich Burgmuller) or Pleasant Morning (Jean Louis Streabbog) -- for performance in their upcoming proficiency exam. Since everyone is now familiar with the pieces, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity for peer evaluation. What I wasn't certain about was the best method to collect student responses. My goal was to gather helpful information for each student performer while assuring the evaluator felt comfortable speaking honestly about the performance.

My solution was to use an online survey created in Survey Monkey. Students listened to each performance and rated the performer in the areas of preparation, note accuracy, rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing. Space for additional comments was also provided for each area of review. Since each station of the piano lab is equipped with a desktop computer, students were easily able to rank their peers immediately after the performance. The online survey assured that each reviewer could offer commentary anonymously and without fear of offending their friend.

The results were insightful and clearly indicated that the students were listening thoughtfully and offered needed feedback. I repeated the process the following week in a master class setting. Students performed before the group once again (because they can never get too many opportunities to play the piece in front of others). This time, their peers were asked to provide oral feedback about each performance; comments were to include praise as well as suggestions of aspects of the performance that needed further attention. Students pointed out errors in pitch and rhythm, of course. I was very pleased to hear them mention phrase shape and articulation as well. After the master class, I asked students to share with me how they felt about offering oral feedback. They admitted that they would have been very hesitant to offer constructive criticism if they had not participated in the online survey first. Since the survey offered various areas to critique, the students realized how carefully they needed to listen to a performance in order to offer helpful commentary.

Now that I have seen the benefits of peer evaluation, I plan to incorporate it into all levels of group instruction that I teach. Its value is immense and the rewards are evident in the evaluator's own performance quickly.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What Am I Working On? (January 2016 edition)

I received many requests after my Christmas Celebration video project to continue sharing video posts throughout the year. I'm not sure how often this will happen, but I thought it would be fun to share what I'm working on at the moment.

Hymn arrangements seem to be what the majority of my friends and followers are interested in. I've been brushing the dust off of this arrangement of "There is a Fountain" arranged by Cindy Berry. (Published by Lillenas in The Master's Touch)

I spend most of my time working on Classical repertoire. I am slowly preparing for a faculty recital that I hope to present in the Fall, 2016 term here at WBU.  One of the pieces that I am bringing back from my past studies is the Sonata in F# minor (Op. 26, No. 2) by Muzio Clementi. Here is a recording of my January 28, 2016 rehearsal of the first movement of the sonata. (And by rehearsal, I mean that there are still flaws present in this recording that I am still addressing!)

Thanks for listening! I'll try to post some more videos at the end of February!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Approaching Orchestral Reductions

One of the most challenging tasks the collaborative pianist faces is grappling with orchestral reductions. We do not have the same variety of timbres available that a full orchestra can produce. "Piano Reduction" often means the editor simply transposed all voices into a single key and tossed every note on the staff with no thought for what might be most pianistic. Voicing and registration must conform to the physical limit of hand span.

The challenges of orchestral scores are at the forefront of my thoughts at the moment. I am preparing a recital that will feature Mahler's massive Kindertotenlieder. Much of the work's appeal is found in the rich orchestration the composer provided to support the lush vocal lines. While dealing with this enormously challenging score, I'm finding a few things helpful as I prepare for the performance.

  • Use the orchestral setting as a roadmap for your piano reduction. It seems obvious, but as pianists, we can sometimes get so wrapped up in the notes on the page that we forget about the sounds that the composer intended. Regularly returning to the orchestral score and recordings helps us make informed decisions about phrasing, color, and layering.
  • Accept the piano's limitations. My instrument cannot warm a single tone by adding vibrato. The core of the sound of a sustained pitch quickly decays compared to one sustained by a wind instrument. Rather than fighting against the piano's limitations, focus on its unique qualities and look for opportunities to exploit them.
  • Carefully decide what is most important and what can be simplified (or completely left out)! Orchestral reductions are notoriously difficult to play. Through carefully examining the score and critically listening to recordings, it is the pianist's responsibility to determine what is essential and what can be left out. Resist the pressure to play every note. In this situation, communicating the intent of the orchestral accompaniment is far more important than sacrifing musical line in the name of virtuosity.
  • Decode the text! The composer carefully chose the text that he set as well as the performance directives included in the score. It is essential that the pianist translate each word included in the score. A marking of agitato combined with lyrics referencing a storm clearly suggests a violent mood. Return to the text throughout your preparation, constantly looking for new insights that will influence your interpretation.

What do you find to be essential steps in your preparation of orchestral reductions? Is there a certain edition or composer whose reductions cause you significant levels of stress? We'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What Makes a Great Collaborator?

As we begin a new year, I though this might be a great time to consider some of the characteristics that often appear in many of the best collaborators. Obviously there needs to be solid technique and outstanding musicianship in order to make beautiful music. But what is it about those pianists who excel almost exclusively as a chamber musician-- whether in vocal or instrumental ensemble? Here are a few of the characteristics I have observed in the collaborative pianists I most admire and after whom I model my own efforts.

  • Passion for chamber ensemble work. Although many pianists can "get through the notes" of the great lieder or piano trios, it is impossible to ignore the emotion and electricity that is generated when a pianist is playing the repertoire he truly loves. It's not enough to just enjoy the literature; passion for chamber music means that you are committed to the collaborative process that leads to a satisfying performance.
  • Constant awareness of breath. Breathing is not only associated with vocalists. The successful collaborator is aware of where breaths are needed at all times. The breath may be motivated by the physical necessity of taking in air or it may be demanded by the musical phrase. In both situations, the pianist is aware of the need and shapes his arching musical line to allow the breath to occur without interrupting the moment.
  • Flexibility and generosity. Part of being a good musician is developing a unique voice that is reflected in your musical interpretation. At times, the collaborative artist will find that his interpretation is in opposition with another member of the ensemble. After discussing the views, the pianist sometimes finds it necessary to compromise. These compromises can directly effect the way the piece is played, requiring remendous flexibility of mind as well as musicianship. Additionally, the pianist needs to be generous with his time; while personal rehearsal has been done to prepare the part prior to putting things together, additional rehearsal is needed for the sake of the ensemble. It is rarely possible for a chamber piece to fully mature without plenty of rehearsal as an ensemble.
  • Humble. Sharing the stage with other performers is not for every pianist. This is not meant to suggest that all soloists are egotistical jerks either. What I am suggesting is that it takes a certain personality to commit themselves to spending much of their time out of the limelight and being absolutely confident that their performance significantly contributes to a successful recital. In many ways, the collaborative pianist can be considered a servant-leader.
  • Able to get along with a variety of personalities. Musicians are a very diverse group of people. With this diversity comes lots of personalities and attitudes. Sometimes the pianist feels as though he is a ringmaster as he attempts to calm the diva while taming an uncooperative lion....All while he executes his own trapeze act of somersaulting arpeggios and death-defying scales! Like the trapeze artist, we are also performing without a net.

What other characteristics have you observed in your favorite collaborative pianist? I'd love to hear about them! Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Celebration 2015 - A Review

If you are one of my Facebook friends (and in some cases, just a friend of a friend), you have seen at least some of the videos of piano arrangements of favorite Christmas carols that I recorded this year and referred to as my Christmas Celebration. Now that the project is over, I thought I should share some of details about the process as well as some lessons I learned.

How it all began....

While with my family over Thanksgiving break, several comments were made around the dinner table about how family members were going to miss hearing me play Christmas music during the holidays. I decided it would be fun to record a carol arrangement for each day leading up to Christmas to share with them on Facebook. When I returned home on November 30, I began the recording process.

Making the videos....

This project was originally intended for my family, so production value was not a primary concern. The videos were recorded in my piano studio at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas using the Camera app in my iPad. I literally balanced the iPad on a music stand, punched the record button and sat down to play. After getting an acceptable performance -- a daunting task at times -- I used the video editing capabilities found in the Pictures app in order to clean up the beginnings and endings of videos.

The plan was to daily upload videos to both Facebook and my YouTube channel. All 25 videos currently reside on YouTube for easy retrieval in the future.

What happened next was surprising.....

On December 1, I uploaded the first video to my Facebook account and explained what my plan was for the month in this initial post. I expected this video (an arrangement of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) would have 75 total views or so. As the day progressed, I watched the view count climb. By that evening, the video had been viewed over 1,600 times. Facebook friends were thrilled for me and expressed their excitement for this project. (When I compiled the final tally of total views on December 26, this initial video had over 2,600 views.....the highest viewed posting of the project!)

With so many views, I quickly realized that this project had the potential for reaching a large audience and I wanted to give the best performances I could. In order to use the best instrument available -- the Steinway grand in my office -- all recordings needed to be completed before leaving Plainview for the holidays on December 14.

The final results.....

On December 26, I revisited each video on Facebook and YouTube to determine the total number of views. During the 25 days of my Christmas Celebration, I had 14,956 views! (Incidentally, 1,347 of those views happened on December 24 and 25.)

Because I enjoy looking at statistics, I could not resist determining which videos were most popular. The top 5 videos of this year's project based on number of views were

  1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (posted 12/1) - 2,626 views
  2. Grown Up Christmas List (posted 12/4 in memory of victims of San Bernadino terrorist attack) - 1,066 views
  3. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (posted 12/3) - 1,021 views
  4. Away in a Manger (posted 12/5) - 724 views
  5. O Holy Night (posted 12/24) - 677 views
What I learned from the project....
  • Recording and editing takes a lot of time! Even though I was just using apps on my iPad, the recording process ate up a lot of my spare time. I will definitely allow more time when planning future projects.
  • Consistency is vital. While driving home to Arkansas, I experienced some technological difficulties that prohibited me from posting at my normal time. My Facebook account was flooded with questions about when the next post would appear. People had gotten used to a routine and noticed when things did not happen as scheduled. I quickly stopped at a rest area, cleaned up my profile of the questions, and posted a statement that the day's video would be delayed until I arrived at home.
  • Sharing videos greatly expands the reach of social media. My profile is public, so anyone can see what I post there. However, as family and friends began to share the videos on their own timelines, my audience grew immensely. I began to receive friend requests from people who had seen the videos on a mutual friend's page and wanted to make sure they didn't miss any of the fun. I had not asked anyone to share the videos...but I'm certainly glad they did! The more people viewing the videos, the more fun the experience became.
  • Comments and likes are very encouraging. As I reached the middle of the project, I began to get tired and wondered if people were beginning to get annoyed with the volume of posts I was making. It was great to hear encouraging comments from friends I haven't spoken with in years, letting me know how much they were enjoying the daily videos. I tried to reply to as many of these comments and messages as I could, but I quickly realized it would demand all of my time to do so.

Where do we go from here?

This has been the question I have been asked repeatedly in the days since the Christmas Celebration ended. Are you going to do this again next year? Will you post something throughout the year? Some of these are easier to answer than others. Let's see if I can provide some answers now.

  • Will I do another Christmas Celebration? Plans are already underway for the Christmas Celebration 2016. I had a lot of fun recording the music and sharing the holiday spirit with friends near and far. The videos were repeatedly referred to as a Christmas gift and I want to give the gift again next year. My intention at this time is to offer 25 new arrangements (although you may hear some of the same carols) to keep things fresh.
  • Will I continue to record throughout the year? This is still up in the air. Offering Christmas videos is possible because it comes during a slower time in my academic life. I'm not ready to hang up my video hat entirely though. I am considering posting videos -- featuring hymn arrangements as well as Classical repertoire -- each month. Bear with me as I figure out how (and if) this is a realistic goal.
  • Do I take requests? Sure! I'll gladly take suggestions of carols or hymns you would like to hear recorded. I just don't promise that I'll necessarily do them. It depends if I can find a nice arrangement that speaks to me musically.
Beyond that, I don't know a lot more. I'm considering posting the videos on my blog site instead of to my personal Facebook account. I'm checking into obtaining microphones and cameras to improve the quality of the videos. An audio recording (that often-requested CD) is not entirely off the radar. At this point, I'm just enjoying the process of sharing my music with friends and family near and far. Thanks for being a part of the 2015 edition of the Christmas Celebration. If you have ideas that you think might be helpful for future projects, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Establishing a Daily Warm-Up Routine

Most people have a specific morning routine they use daily to get the day started. One of the first things in my daily routine is a trip to the refrigerator for the first Coca-Cola of the day. Afterwards, I'm ready to continue getting ready for the day ahead. Just as we establish a routine before venturing out the door, it is essential that we establish a daily routine to prepare our hands, ears, and mind for the day ahead at the piano. I firmly believe that the time we spend at the piano at the beginning of the day is among the most important -- and most commonly neglected -- part of our preparation as pianists.

Why is the warm-up session necessary?

  • It activates muscles that have been at rest during the night. An athlete would never consider beginning intense training without first stretching the muscles that were going to be involved. For far too long, pianists have ignored the fact that our daily regime of practice and performance places a similar amount of strain on the hands, arms, fingers, shoulders, and back as the exercises of world-class athletes.
  • Warm-ups provide an opportunity to have a heightened awareness about issues related to technique. In my present playing situation, much of my day is devoted to addressing issues of collaboration and musical shaping of the line. It is very easy in those times to shove thoughts of technique and facility to the back of my mind. The morning warm-up allows me to bring this important element of my playing to the forefront of my mind and make it my primary concern. This leads to my next point.....
  • The warm-up is an opportunity to notice unusual sensations. Pianists sometimes find themselves keeping insane rehearsal and performance schedules. For many years, I viewed these busy seasons as times that I was consistently ready to play with very little stretching needed. While I am able to get things moving with very little effort on most mornings, I am learning more and more just how important the morning session is, especially in these busy times. The warm-up is a time to confirm that everything is moving efficiently and smoothly in my hands and arms. It is also a chance to take note of any soreness or pain that may be present. In the safety of the warm-up session, I can begin to assess the source of the discomfort and initiate the appropriate response -- whether it's cancelling rehearsals to rest, playing only certain repertoire, or making a visit to my doctor.
  • The warm-up session also awakens the ears to quality sound production. Because much of the morning routine is played at a slow tempo (more on that later), it provides our ears a chance to intensely listen to the progressions we are creating as well as the quality of the tone we are producing. The best pianists realize that clean technical playing alone is not the goal of our labor; technique is a means to the end of producing the best sound possible.

How long should the warm-up be?

  • The answer to this question varies greatly among pianists. It depends upon how much time is available, the demands of the day, and how much playing you have been doing recently. On a typical day, I like to allow at least 30 minutes of relaxed warm-up before beginning any substantial work. I refuse to play at all without a minimum of 15 minutes alone at the piano.
  • Here are a few contributing factors that I have discovered in my personal playing that determine the length of my warm-up.
    • The longer I can spend gradually warming up my hands, the better the day will go because my hands just seem to work better.
    • However, I also find that less time is required to adequately warm-up if I have been playing daily in a healthy way. In other words, if I have rehearsed for no more than 3-5 hours the previous day (with adequate breaks), I find that my hands quickly return to a performance level. The same is not true the day after a performance!
    • Different types of playing require different types of warm-ups. I approach my morning routine differently when I am performing a recital than I do when the day is devoted to practice and ensemble rehearsals. I'm simply aware of the physical demands of the various situations and adjust the degree of warm-up accordingly.

What does a typical warm-up session look like?

  • The session as a whole progresses gradually from slow to fast movements. This ensures that muscles are appropriately stretched before demanding too much strain on them and greatly reduces the risk of injury.
  • Rather than having a full routine that I complete each day, I have an arsenal of tools that I use. This keeps me from getting bored and I find that I actually look forward to this initial bit of playing each day.
  • Regardless of what else is planned, every warm-up session begins with a series of scales. I normally play through most of the major scales -- 3 octaves ascending and descending -- just to get the fingers moving. When I feel that my fingers have begun to function, I move into some of the following areas.
  • Exercises/etudes. Throughout my training, the works of Czerny and Hanon have been an integral part of my technical development. I find that I return to these works on a regular basis because of their familiarity and my awareness of how my hands should feel while playing them.
  • Arpeggios. These exercises most commonly appear early in the week. Since I generally do limited playing on the weekend, I find that the long, sweeping gestures of arpeggios are a good way to get my shoulders and forearms moving as they should.
  • Sight Reading. I find that sight reading can be a positive part of the warm-up process. I intentionally play repertoire under tempo and pay close attention to the gestures demanded and my approach to them. I especially enjoy playing intermediate pedagogical material as well as the early sonatas of Haydn, Clementi, and Mozart.
  • Bach. Rarely do I program the works of J.S. Bach for public performance, but I tend to play at least one of his compositions each day. I find that his works are a wonderful way to start the day and awaken the hands, eyes, and ears. Right now, I am slowly working my way through the Preludes of the WTC. Other favorites are the Inventions and Notebooks as well as the Suites.
That's my daily routine. I would love to hear your thoughts about the importance of the warm-up session as well as what you typically play each day. I want to learn from your experiences as well, so share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Home Recitals

A few years ago, I ran across an article detailing one pianist's experience of presenting a small tour of intimate recitals in the homes of various friends and family members throughout the country. The idea intrigued me, but I wasn't certain it would be something I would be interested in. It seemed like so much work without much return or benefit. The concept returned to my mind last week when I was able to watch a preview recital of pianist Richard Fountain via Facebook that he played in a home while visiting family out of town. The success of this experience has led me to once again consider the pros and cons of home recitals.

The home recital is more relaxed and intimate by its very nature. It is a perfect situation for the performer to try out new repertoire before appearing on the main stage. Additionally, it allows the audience the opportunity to interact with the artist in a casual setting and encounter music with which they may not be familiar. A reluctant concert goer will be more comfortable experiencing something unfamiliar in a friend's home than in a stuffy concert hall.

One of the things that most attracts me to home recitals is the opportunity to share my passion for music with an audience in a non-threatening, relaxed manner. There is no pressure to be "informed" about the music; the audience simply gets to enjoy the sounds while sipping a beverage in a comfortable chair. Questions about the music and the learning process are welcome, but the discussion will likely be less academic than that which might be commonly encountered in a traditional concert setting.

A few challenges immediately come to mind when considering a home concert. Obviously a quality instrument needs to be available to the performer. In most metropolitan areas, a piano can be rented for a nominal fee if one is not already available in the home. While I would prefer to play on a nice grand piano, it is possible to elicit beautiful sounds from consoles and uprights that have been properly maintained as well. If we are willing to play on instruments that might be "less than ideal," the experience might be less intimidating for the audience as well as the prospective host.

Another concern for many performers is audience size. The purpose of the home recital is not to reach the masses with our music. Rather, the focus of these concerts is found in the intimacy between the audience and performer while allowing the artist to test our repertoire in a small venue. An audience of twelve to twenty guests would result in a packed house (literally!) in many home recital venues. With the use of technology that is readily available to many today, it is possible to expand the concert's audience beyond the geographical boundaries of the host home with minimal equipment.

The artist is probably not going to earn much money from a home performance. I would honestly be surprised to receive much more than a meal and possibly lodging. So why play a home recital? In addition to the benefit of trying out new repertoire alluded to earlier, it is also a way to reconnect with friends and colleagues while making new acquaintances (that might lead to future gigs). Most importantly, it is another opportunity to share the music we love with an audience we may never encounter from the concert stage. As a professional artist, some of the expenses associated with the home recital may be tax deductible; you will just want to speak with your tax professional before embarking on your adventure.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear about your experiences with home performances as well as your thoughts about their benefits and potential pitfalls.