Thursday, February 20, 2014

Symphony Surprises

On Monday evening, I returned to my alma mater to hear the University of Memphis Symphony Orchestra present its first concert of the semester. While many of the faces on stage have changed, I was extremely impressed with the quality of music coming from the stage.

When I looked at the program upon taking my seat, I didn't have high hopes. The performance featured winners of the 2013 Soloist Competition. There have been some wonderful winners in the past; my problem was with the instruments listed.  Winners played clarinet, cello, and EUPHONIUM! Really? I was expecting a night that I simply had to get through without falling asleep.

The opening piece, Concert Fantasia on Motives from Rigoletto by Luigi Bassi, was lively and well played. I was mesmerized by the student's technique; I was distracted by my dread of the next piece on the program. (Hey! I'm just being honest!) When John Stevens' Euphonium Concerto (2004) began, I was delighted to realize just how wrong my preconceived ideas had been. The first movement of the concerto was an adventure in sound that delighted. Soloist Geoff Durbin displayed absolute control of the instrument and masterfully colored sounds.

The highlight of the concert, however, was Schelomo by Ernest Bloch. The piece for cello and orchestra is described as a Hebraic Rhapsody, inspired by the writings of Solomon in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Cellist Nathan Cottrell's playing grabbed my ears and refused to let go. His passionate performance conveyed a sense of the questioning and searching of the Hebrew people. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed listening to Bloch's music and again made a mental note to check out more of this composer's repertoire.

One of the things I love most about music is its ability to surprise and invigorate listeners despite their expectations. That's the mark of great music and powerful performances.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bach Documentary

While surfing the Internet looking for material to share with my online music appreciation class, I found an amazing documentary on the life and music of J.S. Bach.  Bach: A Passionate Life was produced by the BBC with narration by the English conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. The documentary is extremely interesting and contains excerpts from many of Bach's sacred works, including the St. John and St. Matthew Passions as well as the Mass in B Minor.  Approximately 90 minutes in duration, it is a worthy investment for every musician and music lover.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Voices of the Oppressed

I am in the process of slowly reading Rebecca Rischin's For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. I find myself deeply moved to think that such tremendous music could have possibly been produced in the midst of the tragedy of the Holocaust. I've never had the opportunity to perform any of the Quartet for the End of Time, but it is definitely on my bucket list.

Last week, the arts and humanities faculty at Mid-South Community College were challenged to brainstorm possible topics for inter-disciplinary courses that we might develop in the future. Since my mind was already dealing with the Holocaust, I immediately began to think of an appropriate way to work the Messiaen into a larger course for non-musician undergraduates. My thought was a course combining history, literature, music, and art that focuses on the oppressed.

At first, I thought the topic would be far too disturbing for most students. Then I began to realize that in many of these situations, the creative arts express a level of hope that exceeds the bounds of the victims' situations and looks to the freedom that is promised in the future. Many of the works are grounded in a common faith that there is a Higher Being at work in our lives. I was encouraged to think of the impact such a study might have on students who are facing personal difficulties in the Delta.

Which oppressed groups would we explore? That's still open for debate. From a musical perspective, I clearly thought of the spirituals of the American slave as well as the importance of music in the 20th century Civil Rights movement. Messiaen's quartet represents the music of the Holocaust as well as the piano solos of Gideon Klein. It would also be interesting to compare the music of South Africa during the days of Apartheid with the American Civil Rights songs, as well.

When you think of music of an oppressed people, what music comes to mind? I'd love to have your feedback and ideas.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Understanding Classical Music: Texture

Many children discover that they prefer food of a specific texture. Toddlers tend to prefer foods that are smooth and easy to chew.  As the child ages, he becomes more willing to explore new textures as long as there is a comfortable and appealing taste at the forefront. With maturity, we learn to appreciate the variety and contrast that vegetables and delicate sauces bring.

Music can also be described as having various textures. Some compositions have a single melody line that soars above an unobtrusive accompaniment. Others are marked by a single musical line that dances about our ears without the aid of any other sound. Still others delight our senses as the multiple melodies intertwine, making a beautifully complex sum of its individual parts.

There are three basic types of musical texture.  First comes monophony. Monophony literally means "one sound." Monophonic music is the simplest in texture, having only one musical line. No contrasting accompanying figures compete or support the line. It is not a matter of how many voices or instruments are involved, but rather that they are all "singing" the same musical line.  A child singing a familiar nursery rhyme alone on a playground is an example of monophony. A classroom full of children singing the same nursery rhyme in unison without an accompaniment also constitutes monophonic music.

In art music, monophony is most obviously found in Gregorian chant of the Medieval era. Monophony can be used in later eras as well when a composer wants to draw special attention to the melody. To hear an example of monophony, listen to this Kyrie.

Homophony implies "same sound." Homophonic music has multiple voices (or musical lines) that are all supporting a single melody.  In other words, a simple melody is set against a chordal accompaniment. The supporting voices never threaten to take the interest away from the melody. Many early art songs and arias are homophonic in texture.  The aria "Tu se morta" from Monteverdi's Orfeo demonstrates the use of homophony in early opera. The texture can also be heard in Chopin's Nocturne in Eb Major. (While the accompaniment of both pieces is rather active, notice that the melody is always the focus; the accompaniment simply serves to propel the piece along.)

Polyphony is quite possibly the most commonly found musical texture. Polyphonic music has multiple voices that are all of equal importance. That's why we call it polyphony, meaning "many sounds." Polyphonic music is the most complex texture and the most interesting to our ears. As an example of polyphony, listen to this fugue by J.S. Bach as well as the energetic "Gloria" from Bernstein's Mass.

It is important to remember that textures can change within a single composition. So a composer can begin with polyphony, briefly shift to monophony and/or homophony, before returning to polyphony. Want to hear an example of mixing textures? I can think of no better example than Handel's glorious Hallelujah Chorus!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Preparing for the Olympics

I am not an athlete. Any activity that involves a ball or blades is simply not for me. Every few years, though, I become an armchair athlete as I root on the Olympians gathered to represent their nations in sporting events of all kinds. One of my favorite parts of the Games is watching the medal ceremonies. I'm moved by the passion of the athletes who have dedicated so much of their life for this moment. I also enjoy hearing the national anthems of the triumphant nations.

I don't think I am in the minority when I admit that I am not very familiar with many national anthems. In addition to the American anthem, I feel confident that I could pick out the Canadian, French, English, and German anthems. Beyond that, I'm at a loss! If you are as interested in the music as I am, I may have found a website that you will also enjoy. contains historical information about the development of the anthems as well as mp3's and sheet music for many of the national pieces. I found myself surfing the site for quite a while, learning about the music's transformations over time.

As the Olympic Games draw near, it might be interesting to have my students compare the sounds of anthems from different parts of the world. By having them describe how the sounds of the Italian anthem differ from that of the Turkish, students begin to explore the similarities and differences between the various musics of the world.

Happy surfing!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Goal Setting

As another year comes  to a close, people everywhere are beginning to set goals for 2014. Music educators are not immune to this process. Many of us are reflecting on the progress our students made in 2013 and considering the next goal to present to them. In all of the planning, it becomes easy to overlook the opportunity to set new goals for the most important musician in our studio:  OURSELVES! Few of us pursuing careers in music hold a single job title, so it may be important to set an obtainable (and valuable) goal for each part of our musical life.

I tend to devote the smallest amount of time to my personal development as a soloist. My piano students are all beginners and intermediates. I rarely have an opportunity to perform major solo works. Over the years, I have moved away from solo performance because I have not developed the ability to play securely from memory. Recognizing this weakness in my skill set has led to my first goal of 2014:  I will memorize two major works for solo piano. That's not an overwhelming project, I know. Because of my time limitations, I decided to keep the number small so I have plenty of time to explore methods of memorizing and try to discover what works best for me.  The two pieces I have chosen are Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 2, No. 1 and Chopin's Scherzo in Bb minor, Op. 31.

My major area of performance is as a collaborator with vocalist. My bread and butter comes from knowing the major song repertoire. I feel secure in my knowledge of the German, Italian, and English rep; French songs are another story. I haven't mapped out a plan yet, but my goal is to become more familiar with the songs of Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Poulenc, and Hahn. At this point, I anticipate intentionally listening to the songs and reading/learning through the complete works. It's a goal; now I simply have to solidify a plan and get to work.

Presenting informative and enjoyable lectures can be a challenge. The situation becomes more difficult when the audience is composed of college students you are desperately trying to engage with the material. Encouraging music students to strive for piano proficiency can be just as daunting. This year, I hope to add new technology to my classroom teaching. Right now, my lectures include slide shows and video clips. Now I'm looking for methods to supplement the content outside of the classroom while providing students opportunities to interact with the material in class without the fear of public failure. I'm a musician, not a technology geek. I have no idea what this is going to look like or how it will work, but I have read that many educators are finding success by incorporating technology in the classroom. It's time for me to get on board and learn some new techniques that will improve my teaching and increase my students' understanding.

There you have my professional goals for 2014. What's on the horizon for you in the new year? I would love to hear about your plans in the comment section below.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Importance of Duets

Last week I joined a dear friend and colleague, Ellen Patrick, to perform at the annual Christmas concert presented by her church. The event was a lot of fun and very relaxed. Ellen and I played Sleigh Ride Duet Fantasy arranged by Zach Heyde and Frank Tedesco. The arrangement was quite nice and rewarding to performers and audience alike. After playing, I began to think back on the role that duets have played in my own life and why I think they are so important.

From the very beginning, my teachers have always had me playing works for piano four-hands as well as works for two pianos. My first public performance was a two piano work -- a concerto that I played on the public school's Christmas recital in 1978. The situation was less than desirable, but the love of playing in ensemble was developed early on and has shaped me ever since.

Why are duets so important?  Here are just a few reasons that I have come up with this week.

  • Duets serve as an introduction to other forms of collaboration. Duets present challenges of ensemble that are unique to themselves while also introducing students to universal issues of balance, communication, and blend. Playing with another piano student is not so intimidating since we are all familiar with the instrument's challenges. As pianists become confident in playing in piano ensembles, they are much more willing to venture into chamber ensembles with other instruments.
  • Duets are a great way to introduce students to the style and literature of unfamiliar composers. My personal introduction to the works of Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, and Schubert began with the study of their works for four-hands. When I fell in love with Poulenc's music, it wasn't a stretch to look to the four-hand works of Milhaud and Tailleferre. Mozart's duet sonatas were an excellent way to learn about the necessary attention to phrase markings.
  • Playing with friends is fun! As a teen, I found myself at a crucial point in my development. I was struggling with some technical issues and my frustration level with the instrument was on the rise. I was ready to walk away from private study for good. Wisely, my teacher recognized my frustration and added duets to my repertoire. Duets traded the grueling work of solitary practice for a social experience. I enjoyed getting to spend time at the piano with a friend while still growing as a musician. Quite simply, I learned to have fun with my instrument again! This fact is still true for me. When I find myself getting tired of working alone in a practice room, I begin to seek chamber opportunities. Sometimes there is nothing better than sight-reading some Schubert duets to fill your soul with laughter and great music!
  • Duets expose strengths and weaknesses. While playing with a colleague, I immediately hear things from my partner's playing that I want to improve in my own. Can I play that phrase as lyrically as he does? What do I need to do physically to match the warmth of her tone? I really have to work on those scale passages to match the crispness of his sound! Because my playing will be directly compared to that of my duet partner, many students find themselves practicing more to make sure they are not seen as the weak player in the ensemble.
I love chamber work and have made a career out of it. Even though I love working with singers and instrumentalists, I still find myself longing for a regular diet of piano duets. I miss the joy of making wonderful sounds with a partner at a single piano.