Thursday, July 17, 2014

Piano Festival Adjudication

I've been following the posts over at Piano Teacher Central on Facebook (an amazing network and wealth of knowledge if you haven't discovered it yet) and was struck by one post in particular that got me thinking. A teacher had just received comments from a festival her students had participated in recently. As luck would have it, the majority of her highly motivated students had one adjudicator; those who were a little more lax in their preparation had a different judge. When the scores were compared, the better students received scores roughly 5% lower than their less-prepared counterparts because the commentators had different standards for their scores. What's a teacher to do?

My first thought is that this is one of the difficulties (dare I say, failures?) of many piano festivals. When multiple adjudicators are involved, a common standard is needed to ensure fairness across the board. While many of the qualities being judged are subjective and a matter of personal taste, there are some aspects of the music on which we can all agree. I experienced this discrepancy myself as an adjudicator. While listening to students, I was most concerned with their musicality and overall communication. My esteemed colleague was solely addressing the technical aspects of the music. In reality, the two characteristics cannot be separated; it's only when we place greater emphasis on one or the other that scores can become skewed.

When adjudicating, I think it's important to encourage the student in their efforts. Commend them for what's going right. However, we also have a responsibility to offer constructive criticism that will help the student continue to develop. It's a balancing act for sure, and very challenging when we find ourselves making comments in a short amount of time in order to keep the festival on schedule.

Students need to know that judges are offering their opinions . . .and that we may not always agree about subjective aspects of music. In my own studio, I try to prepare students for this aspect of music by offering opportunities to respond to the music they've heard. Sometimes we make comments about performances heard in group classes. We also listen to excerpts in lessons followed by a student critique. I always ask students to comment on their own playing before I begin talking. These exercises allow the student to see that everyone has an opinion about the performance. While we don't always see things the same way, it does give the student a little taste of the hard job of offering feedback while preparing them to think critically about their own playing.

When we teach our students to focus on the experience of performing rather than the scores they receive, we begin to develop artists that are confident in their abilities in spite of less than favorable reviews or harsh criticism. Their focus becomes their personal love of making music and effectively communicating with the audience. And THAT'S the ultimate prize!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The American Sound?

While we celebrated our nation's independence last week, we heard lots of patriotic music. It came in many styles, written throughout our country's existence. While the idioms may have changed, the texts consistently express a willingness to stand for freedom while recognizing the blessings of Heaven on our land.

The sounds, however, have not been as consistent. Take away the words and what's left is a conglomeration of sounds taken from around the world. We hear the influences of the German chorale as well as African rhythms. So it's got me wondering, what is the modern American sound? Can we truly define it apart from the lyrics? I don't have an answer at all at the moment, so I'm hoping to hear your thoughts and insights on this topic in the comments below.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pieces Every Collaborative Pianist Should Be Acquainted With - Trumpet Edition

I've been in conversations recently with a pianist who is just beginning to explore collaborative work. As we talked, he asked for suggestions of important repertoire to learn. Rather than just spouting off an answer, I asked him which instrument he would most enjoy working with right away. His response? Trumpet.

This got me to thinking. Wouldn't it be great to have a recommended list of repertoire sorted by instrument type that gave pianists a starting point for learning important works they would encounter? I know it certainly would have been a great benefit to me in my early years as a collaborative pianist when I had a bit more time to learn notes at a more relaxed pace.

Back to my friend. Since I had spent a lot of time playing in the trumpet studio in graduate school, I was able to come up with suggestions based on my experiences fairly quickly. My recommendations were (in no particular order):

  • Paul Hindemith, Sonata
  • Halsey Stevens, Sonata
  • Kent Kennan, Sonata
  • Joseph Haydn, Concerto in Eb Major
  • Georges Enesco, Legende

What pieces would you have included in this list? I still wish we had a list like this for the major instruments....with comments about some of the challenges and maybe even a little historical background on the piece. (Could this be a project for me to tackle? Hmmm....) Does such a list exist somewhere that you are aware of? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Change of Scenery

Our practice routines are normally quite structured and regulated. I tend to begin my day at the piano with scales followed by either Czerny, Hanon, or the opening section of some Baroque or Classical piece that gets my fingers moving. After this, I'll begin to move to issues in my repertoire that need attention or polish before moving on to learning notes in new pieces. It's not uncommon to hear a few measures repeated multiple times to gain control or commit the passage to memory.

Not only are our processes marked by routine. I tend to enjoy practicing late in the morning and then again before dinner. There is a dent in the floor below my piano keyboard where I have regularly placed my feet while playing. The routine of our practice can sometimes become a hindrance as well. At times, our practice sessions can benefit from a change of scenery.

Last week, a black key (specifically the D# above middle C) detached from my piano while I was practicing Jeux d'eau by Ravel. Who would think that a single key would have such an impact on the rehearsal process? With auditions and performances on the horizon, I couldn't spare the time off because my piano was out of commission. I needed to find an alternate space to practice.

What I found was the sanctuary of the church I'm currently attending. That single session was invaluable! Because of the size of the room, I began to hear things I hadn't noticed in my home studio. For pianists, a new space also involves a different instrument. The sanctuary grand, a Baldwin, had a very sluggish action that didn't respond as I had hoped. (Am I the only pianist that CRINGES when I see a Baldwin that I'm expected to play? Inevitably, I tend to find them everywhere I go.) Even though I wasn't immediately getting the warm tones I desired, I was getting an opportunity to work on my adaptability to new situations.

This summer, take a chance, break out of your comfortable routine, and schedule a rehearsal in a different location. In addition to churches, you might investigate theater spaces, libraries, or even a private home with higher ceilings. If your instrument is easily moved, think about practicing in a secluded park among a cluster of trees. Wherever you choose to practice, the unusual setting will reveal aspects of your playing you weren't hearing before. Who knows? You might even find yourself inspired with a new interpretation or approach to the music. That's the ultimate goal of all of our practicing, after all.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Recruiting Students

In a recent conversation with a colleague, the topic of student recruitment was raised. As we talked about the necessity and challenges of recruiting quality students to our college programs, I began to realize that the challenge is much the same for a private teacher as it is for the college music department. As I've continued to reflect on this topic, these are a few key factors that came to my mind.

  • Visibility is essential. In order to draw students, they must know where we are and what we have to offer. A teacher or music department that does not have an active performing and/or lecturing schedule is certain to fall away into obscurity. What does this look like? In addition to recital appearances, the teacher should also actively participate in adjudication and master classes as a clinician whenever possible. Visibility is further enhanced through a powerful presence on social media outlets. Hosting various workshops, festivals, and group instruction opportunities can also put a music department on the radar of potential students.
  • Know your limitations! No teacher is strong in every area of musical instruction. Know where your strengths lie and focus on recruiting those students. A small music department with strengths in musical theater, accompanying, and classical performance should not focus their recruitment efforts on jazz players. The students will be disappointed, the faculty will not shine, and a negative reputation for the institution will result. Focus on what you know best and do that with excellence!
  • Don't ignore the community's impact. Some of the best marketing around comes by word of mouth. Look for opportunities to involve the local community in your music making and reap the benefit of positive feelings about your program. Music departments might host a community choir or theater group. To reach families with young children, a school could offer quality musical instruction at a reasonable price through a community music school. The private teacher can be an active participant in their local chapter of MTNA and participate in local amateur activities while establishing themselves as a gifted professional. Additionally, the private teacher might provide short seminars through a local arts council. Interactions of this type can often lead to greater involvement in the future.
  • Foster a sense of stability. If a private teacher wants to recruit a number of new students, families must sense that you are investing in the long-term development of the students. You have to put down some roots in the community. Music departments must make strides to eliminate constant faculty turn over. What serious student in their right mind would plan to attend a school where there is a high probability that they will have two or three different master teachers over the course of their collegiate career? That's the Catch-22 in higher education. Many small schools want to develop greater draw and retention among music majors, but they are unwilling to invest the finances to permit qualified, passionate faculty to make a long-term investment in the department necessary to build the program.
What other actions that lead to successful student recruitment and retention come to your mind? What has been most effective in your personal studio or college music department? What challenges have you faced? I'd love to hear about it all in the comments below.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Online Marketing for the Musician

Much of modern business is done digitally. We go to the Internet to find services we need while making comparisons and seeking the best value. Music is not exempt. Music professionals must have an online presence to establish their credibility and reach a wider audience.

I was reminded of the importance of my own Internet presence last spring. I received a phone call from a music professor in central Mississippi asking if I would adjudicate a piano festival. I was excited to participate and wanted to thank whoever had recommended me. As our conversation continued, I learned that my blog, Facebook page, and video performances led him to his final decision.

When I first began my career, I had no idea how to begin marketing myself. I still do not claim to be a master in this area and have much to learn. Here are a few things that I have learned about over the years that I offer as ideas to get you started in online marketing.

  • Create a website. This is the first point of contact for most people on the Internet. It sort of functions as your home base. Many sites offer inexpensive hosting and make basic designs accessible for the beginner. I highly recommend purchasing a domain name that is easy to remember and allows your clients to find you.  (My website is currently used exclusively to schedule rehearsals with me.)
  • Blog regularly. I've struggled with this point myself. Nothing draws attention better than regularly written posts that are honest, informative, and thought provoking. Collaborations began as a blog focused on chamber music; its focus quickly broadened to include teaching, rehearsal techniques, pedagogy, and anything else that came about as I began to pursue a career as a pianist. It's fine to have a mix of humorous and scholarly posts. The most important thing about blogging at the start is consistency.
  • Make video and audio recordings available of your work. Most of us immediately think of uploading videos to If you are like me, I also have audio files that would get lost on the video-based site. I have found to be an easy alternative for housing these audio files. Ideally, you will include links to your sample performances on your website. Just remember that these sites also benefit from fresh material; update your recordings as often as you can.
  • Offer scheduling of rehearsals and lessons online. This has been a life saver for me! Rather than rehashing the details here, check out this post from November, 2013 for information about my positive experiences with the website  
  • Facebook pages are relatively easy to set up and can reach a wide audience. Posts can include links to blogs, audio and video files, announcements about upcoming appearances, as well as sharing information about your daily musical life. Your goal is to get people talking. The problem can sometimes come in finding the balance between too many and too few posts. It's a balancing act that depends upon your audience.
That's just the tip of the iceberg of online marketing for musicians. The summer is the perfect time to begin exploring one or two of these. If you begin a blog or Facebook page, add a link in the comments section below. I'd love to follow you and find out what's going on in your corner of the musical world as well.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Example of Failure in Public School Music

A few weeks ago, I attended my niece's middle school choir concert. I have never been more appalled by a student concert! The program featured 3 choirs -- a girls' advanced ensemble, a beginner girls' chorus, and a traditional mixed group -- and 8 soloists selected from the groups through an audition process. If I didn't feel the need to support my niece, I would have walked out as soon as her choir had finished singing.

Let's examine the concert. Truthfully, the choirs did not sound that bad -- they were just very young. The tone quality was certainly not on par with other middle school choirs in the area. The repertoire was exclusively arrangements of pop songs. I realize this is the music the students enjoy, but the one-sided approach does little to develop their skills and prepare them for success as they enter the high school program.  Of the 8 soloists, only 3 or 4 showed the ability to confidently maintain pitch. To go further, only 2 of these students displayed appropriate polish to be included in a public performance. The evening's pianist did not provide the driving rhythmic vitality the young voices desperately needed.

In my opinion, the failure of this concert rests firmly on the shoulders of the director. Her comments throughout the concert gave some insight. She did not speak with authority or conviction; rather, her comments came across as bumbling because of lack of preparation. She constantly referred to the fact that these songs represented artists she enjoyed. I wonder how much thought was given to their educational value for the young singers? Most damning, however, was her statement that this was the first departing class that had been entirely under her direction. In other words, the choral program no longer reaped the benefits of the teachers who came before her.

Perhaps this concert was an abnormal performance for this choral program. Every musician knows that you are only as good as your last performance. Sadly, I can now understand why funding is being pulled from arts education in the public schools if this is the result. It's time to make it a viable option financially for excellent musicians to teach our children rather than having to settle for anything less than excellent musical training.