Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Hometown Recital

Last night, I joined Marty Bishop, a trumpet DMA candidate at the University of North Texas, for a recital at the Valley View High School Fine Arts Center in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  The program featured works by Henry Purcell, Joseph Haydn, Georges Enesco, Stanley Friedman, Gabriel Faure, and Jean-Baptiste Arban.  The recital was a celebration of accomplishment and an opportunity to play for supportive friends and family who have not heard us play in several years.  All in all, last night's performance was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable that I have recently played.

It was refreshing to work with a gifted musician who is confident in his abilities and does not need to come across as an ego maniac.  Other performance experiences this year have not been as pleasant because of overly exalted pride on the part of other participants.  It was refreshing to work with Marty, a musician who not only knows his strengths and weaknesses, but also recognizes that the ensemble playing is much better when kindness and laughter dominate the rehearsal and performance process.

Since this was not a recital that was high pressure, the approach to the program was much more relaxed.  Obviously both Marty and I wanted to play our best;  however, we were both realistic in our expectations as well.  Because we were fitting the rehearsal and performance into our busy holiday plans, we rehearsed on Monday afternoon and presented the recital on the following evening.  That meant that there were unresolved ensemble issues and some moments of uncertainty, but we both were confident enough as individuals that we pulled the performance off with aplomb.

As an ensemble, the highlight of the evening was the Haydn Concerto in Eb Major.  I have always enjoyed this piece and look forward to the opportunity to play the work with a gifted musician.  It was fun and effortless -- a high compliment when speaking of this early classical work. 

Personally, the recital also marked a turning point for me personally.  As a collaborative pianist, I rarely perform solo works.  In addition to generally not enjoying solo playing as much as chamber work, I often shy away from programming a solo work on a chamber program as I feel it is difficult to change mindsets mid-stream.  Last night, however, I played Faure's first nocturne in Eb minor as a solo.  Not only was the playing good, it was quite enjoyable.  Since I was already using scores in the collaborative works, I gave myself permission to present a solo composition with the printed music.  I felt comfortable and was able to think about the music itself rather than fretting over when the inevitable memory slip would occur and if I would be able to recover.  That is such a freeing experience!  I won't say that every program will now contain a piano solo, but I won't be diametrically opposed to it now.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Christmas Favorites - Day 5

For my last installment in this series of Christmas favorites, I can think of nothing more fitting than the majestic "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's oratorio, The Messiah!  The world forever changed with the coming of the Savior......and the only acceptable response is the exclamation "Hallelujah!"

Merry Christmas to all of you.  I'll see you again next week.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New Christmas Favorites - Day 4

Today I spent some time surfing and accidentally stumbled across a series of videos known as the Forgotten Carols.  I had a great time listening to these and getting to know some songs I had never heard before.  I struggled to decide which to feature here, but finally settled upon Handel's Dream for my readers who are musicians.  Technically, the piece is more melodrama than song, but stick with it.....I think you'll enjoy the story!

If you have a chance, take a look at some of the other videos in the series.  I especially recommend I Cry When I Take the Tree Down and He's Not My Son

How awesome would it have been to have auditioned for the angelic chorus as this young cherub did!  I love this story....and hope you will too!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Christmas Favorites - Day 3

Okay, I know this piece does not qualify as "new" by any stretch of the imagination.  However, after a long absence, Gabrieli's O Magnum Mysterium has returned to my musical life and I am enjoying the beautiful harmonic progressions and excitement. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Christmas Favorites - Day 2

This year, the music ministry of the church that I serve decided to introduce Paul Baloche's worship song Offering during the Christmas season.  The opening verse contained here was a special addition for the holiday.  This month the song has found its way into all of our services and has become a bit of a personal anthem for me.  Like the shepherds and wise men of long ago, may we each bring what we have to give and place it at the feet of the child in the manger who is now Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Joy and Peace to you all!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

New Christmas Favorites - Day 1

Believe it or not, I'm actually back to some writing.  It feels good to be back among the land of the bloggers.....hopefully you noticed that I had disappeared for a while.

Much of my life recently has been devoted to Christmas music in all of its various guises.  I have discovered some new music and became reacquainted with some forgotten treasures.  This week, I would like to share some of my favorite Christmas songs.  To get things started, here's Amy Grant's I Need a Silent Night.  As you scramble to finish all of your holiday preparations, I pray that you will find some time to quietly reflect on the true reason we celebrate - the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Sitting in the Memphis airport, my ears are currently assaulted by the barrage of public announcements.  Given the fact that it's before sunrise, very few flights are leaving.  In the quietness, I have now heard the same announcement for stand-by passengers (by the way, there's only one!) repeated seven times without interruption.

As I realized how annoying this mind-numbing repetition is to me, I considered the parallels to my own musical performances.  Repetition is commonly used by composers; however, the intention is not to play the phrase exactly the same way each time.  In order to provide interest and variety, the musician should consider making slight variations to dynamics, accents, or shape in recurrences of the line.   Often the composer signals his intentions based upon the harmonic structure.

We expect the advanced pianist to make such decisions with ease.  When do we begin training young musicians to address the issue of repetition in a thoughtful manner?  As soon as possible!  In my own teaching, I spend a considerable portion of each lesson asking the student questions about the piece's structure.  Once repetition is identified, my immediate question relates to how the student will make the repeated phrases different.  If multiple options are presented, we consider which we think will be most satisfying and play it first.  Rarely do I encounter a student who does not naturally hear a plausible solution to the repetition issue;  the difficulty sometimes occurs in the execution of the repeated phrase.

As a side note, I am traveling to southern California today for a week of performances, rehearsals, and fun.  I hope to continue blogging throughout the week -- but just in case -- check back next week for more installments.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Musical Nightmares

With Halloween just a few days away, we are surrounded with images of the terrifying and frightening.  I tend to avoid focusing on the events of October 31 because the images have always frightened me.  To be honest, I am easily scared.  It would not be surprising to hear that there's a yellow streak running down my back.

As I think back over my years as a student, I realize that certain pieces have given me nightmares.  A few served as soundtracks to my own horrific nighttime dreams, but the normal source of my musical nightmares were pieces that were too difficult for me at the time.

The piece that immediately comes to mind is Chopin's F minor Fantasy.  I was first introduced to the piece as a college junior.  The Fantasy was to serve as the closing piece of my senior recital.  For various reasons, the piece continually got ignored during my lessons, but remained a major focus of my personal practice sessions.  This represented my first journey into the world of Chopin's larger works and I was extremely excited.

My excitement turned into panic when my professor discovered that I had practiced key passages of the piece incorrectly.  The resulting tension made it impossible to play the work in its entirety.  Rather than scraping the piece entirely, my teacher and I foolishly concurred that it was imperative to work on the piece since so much time had already been invested.

As the semester progressed, I was finally able to stumble through the entire work.  As I fretted over the technical demands, memorization became a new and seemingly insurmountable problem.  The recital hearing was a disaster and resulted in my first failing score as a piano student.

As you have probably assumed, the recital was completely restructured the following year.  Thankfully, the Chopin Fantasy was no longer part of the plan.  Since that horrible experience, I have attempted to revisit the piece on numerous occasions.  Sadly, the work is now firmly connected with feelings of apprehension and has yet to be successfully performed publicly.  I have come to accept the fact that this masterpiece may never have a place in my repertoire.

So that's the story of my musical nightmare and it continues to haunt me.  I don't think I'm the only one who has had one of these disasters, though.  I would love to hear your horrifying stories as well.  (What can I say?  Misery loves company!)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Understanding Classical Music: Program Music

In the Romantic era, a strong connection appeared between music and literature.  These instrumental pieces that told a story because of their strong literary connection are commonly referred to as program music.  Common forms of program music include incidental music, tone poem, and program symphony.

Incidental music was originally intended to be played between the acts of a play.  Although its primary purpose was to cover scene changes occurring on stage, incidental music reminded the audience of the action that had already happened on stage while preparing them emotionally for action that will occur in the upcoming scene.  One of the most famous examples of incidental music is A Midsummer Night's Dream by Felix Mendelssohn.

Tone poems and program symphonies were both introduced by Franz Liszt.  A tone poem was a single-movement composition with a strong basis in literature.  Works such as Liszt's Don Quixote are obvious examples, although modern audiences may be better acquainted with The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas since it was the basis of Walt Disney's famous animated vignette of the same name.

Similar to the tone poem, a program symphony was a multi-movement composition with a clear literary connection.  Although developed at the hands of Liszt, the program symphony found perfection in the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz.  This exciting musical journey through the horrifying drug-induced dreams of the composer found its literary basis in the program notes Berlioz composed to be distributed at the Symphony's performance.  Using the idee fixe, the symphony's movements were unified into a complex and complimentary whole that continues to excite audiences today.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Returning to Familiar Places

Last week, I returned to southern California to visit friends and the school that I loved.  Now I have decided it is also time to return to something else familiar:  my blog.

In keeping with the idea of returning, I made the conscious decision to revisit some familiar solo repertoire in preparation for an upcoming recital.  As I have begun to reacquaint myself with the C major and Bb minor Preludes and Fugues from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, my perspective on the composer's work has also changed.

During my formative years, I hated to be assigned anything by Bach - or any other Baroque composer for that matter.  I found the counterpoint to be tedious, lacking melodic interest.  What I once considered an exercise is now revealing itself to be profoundly deep and fulfilling music.  I am now understanding why my teachers told me that I would find myself appreciating Bach's music more and more as I aged.  I'm not so sure I like what that says about my fleeting youthfulness, but at least I am enjoying some wonderful music that lessens the blow.  Okay, back to practicing again!

Friday, October 8, 2010

A New Challenge

I start rehearsals for the Christmas cantata this weekend.  While this will not be my first time on the podium, it does represent a new challenge for me as a conductor.  This will be my first attempt at conducting from the piano.

In my previous stints conducting the church choir, I have always used tracks.  It is not that I prefer pre-recorded music to live instruments;  I have simply never had a good experience directing another pianist.  Using a recorded soundtrack is not a possibility this year;  the cantata chosen is thirty years old and no track is available.

I have never had the good fortune to hire a first-rate pianist.  I think that would be an amazing experience that I hope to one day enjoy.  I know how I want passages phrased and executed by the pianist and expect them to conform to the vision of the conductor.  Those pianists I have conducted in the past refused to do so either in an effort to promote their own agenda or to camoflauge their lacking abilities.

In my current situation, most of the amateur pianists in the congregation are personal friends that I treasure.  Rather than placing unnecessary strain on a relationship, I am opting to avoid the situation.  Some question whether I will be able to effectively lead the choir.  I admit that there will be challenges, but I also must admit that it is one of the few aspects about this year's cantata about which I am excited.  I also think that executing my own vision for the accompaniment from the piano in each rehearsal may provide some additional security for the singers.  If nothing else, the experience will give me some thought-provoking material for future blogs!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rhythm, Rhythm, Rhythm

On Sunday, my elementary bell team played "I Am a Friend of God" in the morning service.  Things were not perfect, but the students enjoyed themselves and we received several compliments from members of the congregation.  After the kids had this successful performance experience, I knew they were ready to work hard to continue to improve.  I decided to begin introducing them to notation.

As a starting point, we began by learning about quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes.  Students clapped, snapped, and tapped out rhythmic patterns written on the board.  We actually had a lot of success and fun.  I especially enjoyed watching adults learning alongside the kids!

To apply the rhythms to playing the bells, I had arranged a simple song using only these three note values.  To overcome the students' issues with note recognition, I attached a card to each bell with its corresponding note.  A problem arose that I didn't expect.

On the card, I notated the pitch with a quarter note.  Students were unable to make the connection that the location of the note on the staff indicated pitch while the shape of the note (i.e. quarter or half) only referred to its duration.

This Sunday, I begin rehearsals for our Christmas musical which will become another arm of the church's music education program.  Here's a synopsis of what I plan to do in the coming classes.  After re-enforcing rhythmic values on Sunday, we will clap several rhythmic drills.  To add to the fun and test students' understanding, different activities will correspond with each rhythmic value.  Students will snap on quarter notes, clap half notes, and pat their knees for whole notes.

On Wednesday, we will introduce melodic notation, beginning with the spaces of the treble clef.  The piece we are learning is in F major; the space notes comprise the majority of notes we will use.  I am brainstorming activities now to drill the skills in class.  The more fun I can make the learning, the more engaged the students will be.  The more engaged they are, the greater their retention and THAT is the ultimate goal.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Improving Your Sight Reading

Every collaborative artist recognizes the importance of sight reading in our profession.  Throughout my piano study, most teachers claimed you either could sight read or you couldn't;  they held there was little you could do to improve your skills in this area.  Since that time, I have discovered through my personal experience and those of other piano students that sight reading CAN improve.

For the working collaborative pianist, my suggestion is to read new solo literature on a regular basis.  The repertoire for solo piano is abundant and of varying technical demands.  Personally, I begin with the sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  There is no pressure to play the works at tempo; accuracy is the goal, so play at a tempo that you can handle.  As a student, I was instructed to sight read daily for thirty minutes;  now I simply strive to do some amount of reading each day.  Of course, reading repertoire from the vocal and instrumental literature might be an option for some pianists.  I avoid this music so I won't be tempted to feel the necessity of learning the works and because solo literature is more readily available to me.

When do I introduce sight reading to my own students?  As early as possible!  By having them reading new repertoire regularly and often, students are not aware that they are developing a desirable skill.  Once a student begins sight reading well enough to be independent in the activity, I encourage them to explore all types of music:  hymns, solo pieces, movie soundtracks, and pop songs.  I basically make a game of it.  I want to see how many songs they can play through before our next lesson (remembering that the goal is not learning it or having it ready for public performance).  The student keeps a list of the songs they have read and brings some of their favorites the following week for us to look at together.  This allows me to praise them for their hard work and applaud their willingness to challenge themselves with difficult music while providing insight into their interests.  The results have been tremendous;  surprisingly, many of the students ask to repeat the exercise again and I gladly oblige!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Musicianship and Theory Classes

Currently, I am teaching at a junior college that offers very little musical training.  Other than the music appreciation course I teach, our students have the opportunity to participate in the jazz ensemble and choir.  Since private lessons and group piano class is a major step, I am in the process of discussing the possibility of adding two new courses to our curriculum:  musicianship and music theory.

Musicianship is a class designed for students who have no formal training.  The course will focus on melodic and rhythmic notation with some attention given to keyboard geography and sight singing.  As music educators, it is important to provide solid musical training to young people who are interested in music, but don't necessarily want to enroll in lessons.  Who would a musicianship class benefit?  Not only would it be a service to our students, but also members of our community who sing in church choirs or participate in community theater productions and find themselves limited because they cannot read music.  Additionally, the course could be a wonderful addition to the kids' college summer program, providing valuable training to students beginning their music studies at the junior high level.

As a junior college, many of our students plan to transfer to pursue a bachelor's degree.  High school juniors and seniors enroll in courses that will prepare them for college coursework.  These factors combined with the outstanding music programs available in the county point out a section of the student population that we can better serve:  the rising music major.  These students play their instruments well, but have no background in music theory.  Regardless of where the student attends school, they will be required to complete the course;  for many, this fast-faced, demanding class leads them to end their musical study.  By providing an introductory theory class, we equip students with the basic tools they need to succeed as a music major.

Music theory begins where musicianship ends.  The course examines key and scale construction before moving into the area of harmony and chord progression.  By analyzing compositions and writing their own original works, the rising musician becomes more knowledgeable of the complex math and science at work in the music.

For both of these classes, little special equipment is required.  As long as a dry erase board is available, we are good to go.  In a best case scenario, an upright piano or synthesizer (full-sized) would be highly beneficial.  It is my hope that the administration will see the benefits and possibilities provided by adding these two important classes to our course offerings.  I'll keep you, my loyal readers, posted on how things progress.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Trying Out Wagner!

The wait is finally over!  On Saturday, I will have my first experience with a Wagnerian opera when I attend the Met HD broadcast of Robert Lepage's new production of Das Rheingold.  This is no small feat for me as I am just beginning my personal journey into the world of opera;  I decided if I was going to play these wonderful arias, I should probably know the stories they come from and begin experiencing the works as a whole.

If you are like me, you know that Rheingold is part of Wagner's Ring Cycle and that it makes use of the leitmotif.  Beyond that, I am a little lost.  Listening to excerpts of the opera is difficult.  Getting the plot straight is a herculean effort.  I'm really hoping that the costuming will help me separate the gods from the giants and Nibelung dwarfs! 

As part of my preparation for Saturday's production, I am committing to doing some reading daily on Wagner and the opera.  So far, the most valuable resources I have found are the program note and plot synopsis at the Metropolitan Opera's website.  Do you have any suggestions for things I should take a look at before heading to the "opera" on Saturday?  Please no negative comments.....I'm still gathering my courage to dive into the somewhat intimidating world of Wagner.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Music in Children's Ministry

While sitting in the sanctuary of the church this afternoon, I realize that I've not written about training the children in our churches to participate in the musical arts.  We have so little time with the kids each week and we have so many urgent things to teach them that are of eternal significance.  Often, I feel guilty trying to fit in some musical education.

Recently, I came to understand that by training children to read simple rhythms and musical notation, I am actually equipping them to participate in the worship service for years to come.  Traditionally this has been done in the form of a children's choir.  Sadly, that tradition is quickly fading from congregations around the nation.  How are we to teach children the basic elements of music in relation to the church service?

One method that I am currently using is hand bells.  I'm not talking about a huge system that costs a ton of money....even though I do hope to get to that point eventually.  I am using bells produced by Kidsplay at a fairly economical cost.  (As I recall, each 8 note set cost less than $40. Extensions and chromatic add-on kits are available as well to get you out of the key of C major.)  Here's how I'm using the bells.

I have taken a fairly simple song with which the children are familiar and written it out in notation.  Students are given a picture of the note they are looking for and matching the picture on their bell with the notes on the music.  Although I have not yet introduced rhythmic notation, the kids are learning to read from top to bottom, left to right.

Because I need to get this song ready for performance very quickly, I am modifying my approach tonight.  The children have lyric sheets that have dots over the words where they are to play.  It will not teach them more about music, but I am giving them the fun of making music together and allowing them to experience their first performance as an ensemble.  I'll let you know how it goes!

What are you doing in your local congregation to teach your children about music?  I'm always looking for fresh ideas, so please share in the comment section below.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Most Important Critic

As performers, we are constantly subjected to the harsh criticism of others. Some are well-meaning, offering advice meant to improve some aspect of our career. Some criticism is sparked by jealousy and insecurity on the part of the critic. Others are simply mean-spirited comments designed to tear us apart. I have had my fair share of all three categories of criticism recently. It is easy to fall into a state of depression as a result of the comments. After all, the performance that is being reviewed is not some laboratory experiment; it is an extension of me as a person – and intricately linked to my emotions and thoughts.

Finally, I have reached the point where I can say, “Enough is enough!” If you’re not happy with my interpretation of a piece, don’t listen. Don’t like my approach or my level of commitment? Find someone else to work with. You don’t like my teaching philosophy? Find another teacher. The single critic that can have a profound impact on my music is me….all the rest is just noise.

Do I think I have all the answers? Certainly not. As a musician, however, I have to make a decision that I am committed to and then run with it. I continue to listen to the advice of others – those I trust and respect, who have shown themselves to be genuine and courteous, wanting to see me succeed. When the curtain comes down, the one who must be able to defend the choices made is only me.

So, let the criticism come. These are the questions that I’m asking myself. Am I happy? Do I like the message my music is portraying? Am I being true to myself, my goals, and my dreams? As long as I can honestly say “yes” to all of these questions, my inner critic is pleased and I’ll happily follow the road ahead wherever it leads.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Finding Practice Time

I'm still adjusting to the demands of a career in music.  Now that my student days have passed, I find myself juggling responsibilities.  Sometimes it is difficult to fit everything in.  I'm finding it most difficult to schedule practice time.

Practicing is essential to the success of any musician.  Since it only requires one person -- me -- and my instrument, I try to fit it in between other activities such as meetings, classes, and coachings.  Here are a few of the things that I have found to be helpful in my own practicing.

1.  Realize the value of working away from the instrument.  Lots of musical decisions can be made without playing a note, including phrasing, articulation, and dynamics.  Analyze the form of the piece and its harmonic structure.  Study difficult rhythmic patterns.  The more of this advance work that I do away from the piano, the easier the playing itself goes.

2.  Listening is practicing, too.  I have recently realized how valuable reviewing recordings can be.  I am listening to not only professional recordings, but also to studio tracks of my own playing.  These rehearsal recordings are invaluable in revealing rushed passages as well as sections that are not coming across as I imagine in my mind.

3.  Small practice segments are perfectly acceptable!  It's much easier to find 20 minutes throughout the day to practice than to set aside 2 hours for uninterrupted practice.  The shorter sessions are also healthier!  My body has a chance to recover, my mind analyzes my playing, and my energy is renewed.  I find that several short sessions scattered throughout the day are much more productive than one long rehearsal that drains all my energy.

4.  Schedule it!  Whether I write it down or just plan it out in my head, I have a tentative schedule daily.  While including other tasks, make sure to fit in time for practice.  if I know where it's coming in the day, I find myself looking forward to it and fight to protect its appointment from being stolen by other activities.

I am certain that there are other tricks you have found to insure practicing fits into your busy life.  I'd like to hear from you -- so share your experience in the comment section below.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Keeping Students Motivated

Teachers spend many hours preparing lesson plans and assessing student learning and understanding.  Sadly, all of this planning is worthless if we are unable to motivate our students.  Whether we are considering private lessons or a traditional classroom setting, the dilemma is the same.  Here are a few things I have found to be helpful in motivating students in their musical studies.

First, establish how the study of music is beneficial in other areas.  A piano student may rebel against learning music theory until they realize that it will also pay dividends in their math classes.  Recently, a student had a complete attitude change when she saw the effect her music appreciation class was having on her understanding of world history.   All students can see the value of having a leg up on their colleagues in other classes, so play up these advantages.

Diversity is the spice of life, so look for opportunities to mix things up.  My piano students enjoy stepping away from the instrument to watch a video occasionally.  In history classes, I look for as many scandalous anecdotes about composers as I can find!  The naughtier, the better -- students relax and the person leaps off the page and into their memory.

Keep it fun!  Disguising learning into some form of entertainment is invaluable.  Make your students laugh; never let them predict exactly what's coming next.  Even when they are working hard, the possibility of silliness and fun keeps them coming back for more.

Praise success -- and demand even more!  I am quick to celebrate the accomplishments of my students, but I am never satisfied.  There will always be more to learn, more to explore, and more to achieve.  Learning is a lifelong pursuit, not something we achieve at the end of the semester.

Often my students ask me to lower my standards.  It's not going to happen.  My job as an educator is to help them see all they can achieve and give them the necessary tools to do what they are capable of.  That's why my piano students are constantly learning new music and why my exams are notoriously difficult.

Am I able to motivate all students?  No, there are those who are not interested in learning.  They are merely pursuing a diploma -- a piece of paper that has little significance when separated from true intellectual achievement.  Those students who are pursuing an authentic learning experience find my classes challenging and demanding -- but ultimately a truly rewarding experience.  Those are the students who motivate me to continue motivating new students year after year!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Music and Worship - Part III

I am still thrilling from the beautiful worship time that I participated in on Sunday morning in my local fellowship.  It is so thrilling to know that our praise has reached Heaven and that God has taken pleasure in our worship and honors us with His presence in such a special way.

In the final installment in this series on music and worship, I want to focus on the idea that music can often precede great victory.  Clearly music is often our response to victories won as songs of celebration and rejoicing fill our mouths.  What I have found in my own life is that as I worship in the midst of my struggles is when I prepare myself to receive the overcoming deliverance God desires to give.

This revelation first came to me many years ago as I studied the story of Jehoshaphat found in II Chronicles 20.  The Moabites and Ammonites were coming against the people of God.  Jehoshaphat and his army did not know what they were going to do.  After receiving direction from the Lord, the King appointed singers to march in advance of Israel's army.  They were to "sing to the Lord and to praise Him for the splendor of His holiness as they went out at the head of the army."  (II Chronicles 20:21)  As the worshippers began to sing, God began to fight on their behalf!  Notice the description the writer provides of the victory:  "When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped."  (II Chronicles 20:24)  That's what I call TOTAL victory!

I think the implications are clear.  When we worship and place God in His rightful position in our lives, we allow Him to move in our circumstances and act on our behalf!  Israel could have gone forward to face the battle on their own, but victory would have been doubtful.  Rather, they offered their praise and God came on the scene.  Isn't it comforting to realize that things and people are transformed in the presence of a Holy God? 

Need some things to change?  Invite God to come on the scene by praising Him for who He is!  After all, "He inhabits the praise" of His people (Psalm 22:3).

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Beginning of a New Era

On Saturday evening, I attended the opening concert of the 2010-2011 season of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  This evening was made additionally more exciting given that it also marked the beginning of Maestro Mei-Ann Chen's tenure as music director.  Given my personal feelings about the city of Memphis in general, I was pleasantly surprised to leave the concert with an optimistic view of the future of classical music in Memphis.

The program featured staples of the Russian repertoire:  Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Op. 96; the well-known First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky; and the Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35, by Rimsky-Korsakov.  The music programmed was a fitting opening for what appears to be an exciting and well-rounded season of literature for the Symphony.  Dr. Chen appears to be confident in the ability of our players, made evident by the demanding repertoire scheduled.  In her introductory remarks, Chen stated that it was her goal to see MSO become the finest orchestra in the region during her tenure;  based upon the musical sensitivity and excellent sounds she elicited from her players on Saturday, I believe she is just the woman for the job.

The entire program was glorious, but the Rimsky-Korsakov simply took my breath away.  I especially enjoyed the exquisite solo passages played by Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore as well as those from Jennifer Rhodes, principal bassoon, and Scott Moore, principal trumpet.  The commitment to musical excellence demonstrated by these three players in these incredibly demanding passages renewed my hope and faith in our Memphis Symphony.

Rarely will one attend a performance where they enjoy everything.  Saturday evening's concert was no exception.  While I applaud MSO's commitment to developing young musicians, I hope that my ears are never again assaulted by the overpowering sounds of a high school marching band playing in the aisles of the Cannon Center.  Don't misunderstand -- the sound was quite good and I would have appreciated it in a setting designed for such loud decibels.  In the current setting, however, the playing was physically painful.  Based upon the body language of others in the hall, I am not alone in this opinion.  Many audience members -- both in the balconies and on the main floor -- and members of the orchestra could be seen with their hands covering their ears in a vain attempt to muffle the sound.  There must be a compromise;  as a patron, I want to be supportive of the arts in our area schools, but not at the detriment of my hearing.

As far as the Orchestra itself, my only complaint was with the woodwind section.  Throughout the evening, I felt as though some members of the section were struggling to play at the new level that Ms. Chen is introducing.  I realize that we all have performances when we are simply not at our best.  In keeping with that maxim, I will reserve my judgment until I listen further to their performances in the future.  I am certain of this one thing -- Mei-Ann Chen is a gifted woman with a clear goal in mind for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  She will bring the best out of all of her musicians, but I have a feeling she will not hesitate to make personnel changes as she deems necessary.

I am looking forward to hearing about the next concert on October 16-17, 2010.  I am thrilled that my dear friend and fellow Pepperdine alumnus, Jessica Rivera, will be the featured soloist on the Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  On the other hand, I am upset that I will miss the performance due to another engagement that weekend on the left coast.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Continued Adventures in Teaching Note Reading

Tuesday was another fun-filled afternoon of piano lessons in my studio.  Recently, I have noticed two students that have struggled with note reading, so I decided to use some note-reading worksheets to see if I can determine the root cause.

The younger student is constantly second-guessing her playing and making mistakes.  Her understanding of rhythm, however, is developing nicely.  When given the treble clef worksheet, she would pause occasionally to check notes -- especially as they moved into the upper range of the staff where we have not yet done much playing.  I didn't find this alarming.  As I checked her work, I found that she was consistently correct in her responses.  Now I'm completely puzzled.

The thought occured to me that I need to ask her to play the individual measures from the worksheet.  The student played the correct letter names, but almost always in the wrong register of the instrument.  There's the problem:  there is a missed connection between the geography of the written score and that of the keyboard.  I loved the sparkle in her eyes as we together figured out what the problem was and I assured her that it can be fixed.

Student #2 presented a slightly more difficult situation.  This student is the same teen that I wrote about last week.  We worked on a bass clef worksheet.  I sat and watched as she tried to figure out the notes by using rudimentary memory aids for each of the lines and spaces.  Although ultimately accurate for the most part, I must admit that it was a painful process to observe in a student who has studied music for over two years.  When we went to the keyboard, we began to dialogue about how she approaches reading a piece.  Her  answer was that she is looking at the distance and direction the notes are moving and making an educated guess at the correct note.  Her instincts are quite good, but her lack of reading skills and regular practice do not allow her musical ear to be the helpful tool that it can be.

With my beginning student, I think I have a clear plan of attack now that I have some insight into the underlying problem.  My teen student is a different story.  I'm trying to brainstorm how to teach this concept that was never a difficulty for me personally and not something I have encountered in another student before.  Since she performs excellently in math and science, I am considering approaching the problem by intensifying the theory study during our weekly lessons, but I'm not sure that approach won't compound the problem rather than resolve it.  I certainly have a lot to ponder this week.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Music and Worship - Part II

Last week, I began writing a series of posts focusing on the role music plays in the spiritual life of the believer.  We began by looking at music's ability to calm the human spirit.  Let's continue this week by looking at what causes the calming influence:  music connects man with the Divine.

Throughout history, music has played an integral role in the worship practices of all cultures and religions.  In Daniel 3, we read that the Babylonians used musical instruments to signal the beginning of worship to Nebuchadnezzar's statue.  Ancient hieroglyphics suggest that music played a vital role in Egyptian religious rites honoring their many gods.  In Greece, a roofed concert hall, the Odeion, was built on the slope of the sacred acropolis site.

While these cultures all agreed upon the importance of music in connecting man to the Divine, we will now focus exclusively on music connecting the Christian to God.  The process I am describing is one that many believers study throughout their lives.  What a worthy pursuit -- studying how to worship God effectively through music.  I pray that I will be a lifelong student of His worship!  Instruments can be used in the worship of God in a very special way, but for the present discussion I want to focus on singing since it is a form of music making that is available to all people.

Take a look through the book of Psalms and you will repeatedly encounter the phrase "Sing to the Lord!"  While there are instructions to "play skillfully" (see Psalm 33:3), we are also told to "Make a joyful noise unto God" (Psalm 66:1).  That leaves us without excuse and essentially tells us that regardless of our skill level -- or the quality of our voice -- we are to SING!  Take a look with me at a few of the things singing does for our spirit.

Psalm 66:2 instructs us to "Sing the glory of His name; make His praise glorious!"  Let me be abundantly clear here;  singing is NOT the only act of worship in which we can participate.  However, I DO think it is held in high esteem by the Heavenly Father.  Think about it...angels sang their celebratory praise song at the announcement of Christ's birth and they continue to sing praises around Heaven's throne!  We as believers join our voices to the Heavenly chorus as we sing praises to the One who alone is worthy of our highest praise!

The New Testament provides some additional insight into the role of singing.  While Ephesians 5:19 shares the evangelistic power of music, I have been drawn to I Corinthians 14:15 recently.  In this verse, the Apostle Paul writes, ". . .I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind."  In the context of the chapter, Paul is speaking about the orderly use of the gift of tongues in the church.   I think we can examine this single phrase out of context and discover a priceless gem of truth.  Singing is identified as both a spiritual act and a mental act.  It is possible to go through the physical motions of singing without engaging the spirit man;  the opposite, however, is not true.  Singing becomes an act of worship when our mind and spirit come in agreement and recognition of His absolute Lordship.  When we finally reach this point, we are fully submitted to His will, enabling Him to transform us as He wills.  It is then that we begin to experience the final role of music in the life of the believer -- that it often precedes major victories!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stanley Drucker with the Eroica Ensemble

On Saturday evening, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing clarinetist Stanley Drucker perform with the Eroica Ensemble under the baton of Michael Gilbert.  Drucker's reputation as an exquisite musician with wonderful technique was obviously well-founded.  While the music presented was a bit banal in my opinion, the performance as a whole was excellent.  To improve future performances, some attention should be given to the running of the front of house.

The program opened with Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492.  This delightful piece served as a fitting precursor to the centerpiece of the evening, Drucker's performance of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, also by Mozart.  Drucker's athletic arpeggios and scales were dazzling, but most enjoyable was his attention to the long lyrical lines of the piece.  This was especially evident in the slow middle movement.

Following intermission, Drucker returned to the stage with Weber's Concertino in E-flat Major, Op. 26.  This through-composed work again displayed many of the same characteristics appreciated in the Mozart, only this time on a smaller scale.  To close the evening's concert, the Eroica Ensemble played Haydn's "London" Symphony, No. 104 in D Major.

A few questions remain in my mind.  One is a question of technique;  the other addresses the issue of programming.  Throughout the performances of both the Weber and Mozart Concerto, Mr. Drucker would flail his left hand into the air at the end of extended passages.  When I first noticed it, I assumed it was a communicative device.  As I continued to listen and observe, it became evident that the orchestra continued at each occurrence of the flailing hand without ritardando or accelerando, so it did not appear to be necessary.  As I pondered the technical demands of the clarinet -- given my admittedly limited knowledge of the topic -- I could find no plausible technical reason for the movement.  In fact, I tend to believe that the extraneous movement may have generated issues that would have been eliminated by maintaining a more stable posture.  The only possible explanation I can arrive at is that the flourishes were included to provide visual stimulation for the audience.  I found the dramatic inclusions to detract from the music rather than heightening its intensity.

The question of programming is more philosophical.  Understand that I genuinely like each piece on the program individually.  On Saturday, however, I found myself quite bored by the time the Haydn came around, given the evening's total devotion to music of the Classical era.  I admit that this was my first experience with the Eroica, so I may be missing something about their programming practices and philosophies.  Personally, I found it incredibly difficult to focus on the concert as a whole -- and Mr. Drucker's playing in particular -- given that everything on program was similar in form and harmonic structure.  I don't discount that there are valid reasons for arranging a program in this manner, it is just not my personal preference.

Now to the issue of the house staff.  I realize that the evening's ushers were probably volunteers given Eroica's status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.  With this in mind, I commend the staff for their warmth and overall welcoming demeanor.  Because of the excellent music coming from the orchestra, I do think there can be some improvements made that will result in a more pleasing experience for everyone.  What I noticed is that two ladies in clicking high heels proceeded to cross behind patrons six times by my count during the middle movement of the Mozart Concerto.  At no time were they approached by a member of the house staff.  I understand that it is not the responsibility of the ushers to instruct obviously oblivious audience members in the finer points of concert etiquette, but I would think it acceptable to request late-comers wait until an acceptable time to locate a seat, especially given the extremely live acoustics of First Congregational Church.

I truly hope that this posting does not convey that I did not enjoy the Eroica concert.  On the contrary, I thought the evening was magnificent and commend Eroica for their contribution to the Memphis music scene.  As a performer, I take notice of many things when attending a concert.  Raising questions does not imply that other wonderful aspects of the evening went unnoticed.  The comments strictly are a representation of the issues on my mind as I left the recital hall on Saturday evening. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

American Art Song Recital

Last evening, I had the good pleasure of attending a recital presented by Diane Reich, soprano, and Scott Holden, piano, at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. The evening of American Art songs featured works by Amy Beach, Samuel Barber, Henry Mollicone, John Pickett, and Lori Laitman. It was nice to revisit some old friends while being introduced to some wonderful pieces with which I was not familiar.
Art song has always held a special place in my heart because it was where I first began my work as a collaborative artist and remained my specialty throughout my studies. In the past few years, my focus has shifted to instrumental chamber works and I am growing to enjoy that work more and more. Last night's recital was a refreshing bath of sound as Reich's luxurious sounds and impeccable diction washed over my ears and soul. It became evident to me while sitting in last night's audience that it has been far too long since I have collaborated with a singer in recital. That is something that must be rectified soon. I am planning a program with a dear friend for Spring, 2011 in New Mexico, but I truly hope I can find an interested singer in the Memphis area to perform with prior to that engagement.
For this musician, the highlight of the recital was the set of sacred songs composed by Samuel Barber. In addition to his familiar works "Crucifixion" and "A Slumber Song for the Madonna," I was introduced to two other Barber songs that I plan to add to my repertoire soon. "The Praises of God" was quite charming despite its unusual style. "The Monk and His Cat" stole my heart! The American jazz idiom heard in the piano is superbly scored while allowing the cat's wanderings up and down the keyboard to provide interjections of humor without disrupting the music's flow. I suppose it's just another example of Barber's mastery of the vocal form.
The last half of the program featured compositions by living American composers. While all three sets had notable qualities, the works of Henry Mollicone were most interesting to me. I am currently unfamiliar with the composer's work, but anticipate investigating his oeuvre in more detail in the near future. The excellence of the performance of these works can probably be attributed to the fact that Dr. Reich has completed extensive research on the composer's vocal music, making her a leading authority in the field. The first works of Henry Mollicone that I encountered were "The Frost Pane"; "If You Were Coming in Fall"; "I Never Saw a Moor"; and "May's Love." Not only were the vocal lines creative and interesting, but the piano was given exquisite melodies that were an outstanding compliment to the works as a whole.
Now I find myself realizing just how much I miss working with singers on a regular basis in their weekly lessons. The passion for the work went far beyond the people with whom I collaborated or the income earned; the aspect that brought me the most joy was regular interaction with the wonderful literature written for voice and piano. Regardless of what else I may play, my heart will always long to return to my first love of the collaborative piano literature.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Understanding Classical Music – The Mass

In most survey courses of Western music, the earliest music studied is Gregorian Chant. These single-voiced compositions were the official music of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages and were grouped according to the season of the year that they would be sung. Chants were the basic elements of the musical portion of the mass – the church service.
When discussing the elements of the mass, the chants fall into one of two categories: the Mass Ordinary and the Mass Proper. The Mass Ordinary were those chants that consistently appeared daily as part of the mass, regardless of the church holiday that was being celebrated. Five chants made up the Mass Ordinary: Kyrie ("God have mercy"); Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world"); Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy"); Gloria ("Glory to God in the highest"); and Credo ("Apostle's Creed"). Other chants that appeared in the mass varied daily and were determined by the Church calendar. These daily changing portions of the mass comprised the Mass Proper.
It was Guillaume de Machaut who first raised the standard of the Mass as a musical form. Machaut's Notre Dame Mass was the first polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary. In other words, Machaut composed music for all five sections of the Mass Ordinary to be sung by multiple voices of equal importance (polyphony). This first significant Mass setting, like most of the others composed during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, were written for a cappella voices.
What began with Machaut became a long standing tradition in Classical music. Many of the greatest composers of Western Music such as Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms would add their compositions to the opus of Mass settings. Over the centuries, the Mass became more complex, growing from its relatively simple a cappella beginnings to include the full power and grandeur of the symphony orchestra accompanying massive choirs.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Music and Worship – Part I

Music communicates. This fact is rarely questioned. Music speaks to the heart, emotion, and intellect of mankind in a way that words alone cannot parallel. I think the power of music is most greatly seen in the realm of the spiritual. I feel obliged to pause briefly and clearly state for all my readers that this post will be the first in a series that will explore music from the perspective of a music minister and a Christian. If you are looking for theory or analysis of Classical music, come back tomorrow when I return to that topic. I ask you to bear with me for the next few Tuesdays as I devote some attention to the power of music and its role in our spiritual lives.
Let me share with you briefly what gave birth to this line of thought. Earlier today, I shared a CD recording of some hymn arrangements that I made a few years ago (Great is Thy Faithfulness: Hymns for the Heart of Worship c. 2005). I played well on the album – if I do say so – but more importantly, I felt as though that recording captured a very special time of worship in my personal life. After hearing the recording, the friend commented that he was greatly moved. He stated that the music reminded him of something that he had lost [my interpretation of his words] – something he had experienced years earlier in a small group gathering of Christian believers. As I reflected on his comments, I began to think about my personal experiences with music as they related to my walk of faith. I came to immediately recognize three facts about music's role in spiritual matters. There may be more that I may explore later, but for the next three weeks, I want to examine one of them each Tuesday. Consider these statements:
  • Music calms the spirit of man.
  • Music connects man with the Divine.
  • Music often precedes and/or accompanies great victories.
As I think of music's calming effects, my mind immediately races to the story of David playing his harp for a troubled King Saul. The Old Testament book of I Samuel tells that Saul was plagued by an evil spirit (I Samuel 16:14), but that the spirit would leave Saul when David would play skillfully upon his instrument.
Many find that music has a calming, soothing influence upon their minds. They identify music as a means that leads to relaxation. I think that there was more going on than just the plucking of harp strings calming the King's nerves. Rather, I hold that the young David not only played skillfully in the King's presence, but also with the anointing of God's Spirit. In my personal experience, not every skilled musician can speak to the deepest part of my soul with their music. I appreciate their talent and applaud their effort, but there is something lacking. However, when I hear a performance that is offered as a sacrifice of worship – regardless of the style of music being played – I often find myself summoned into the presence of the Most High God. That is where I begin to experience restoration, forgiveness, healing, and peace that I cannot find anywhere else. Do I think the music itself possesses the power? No, but I do believe it is an invaluable tool to take us to the Source of all power. That role of music will be examined next week.
Do I think my friend entered the presence of God while listening to my music today? I don't know for sure, but I suspect that he might have – even if he didn't totally recognize it as such. What I do know is that music can quiet our mind and spirit in such a way that we are finally able to clearly hear the voice of God speaking into our lives.
Tonight, my prayer for you is that in the midst of your personal chaos, music will transport you into the presence of a Holy God and that you will hear Him singing over you His perfect song of love.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Preparing to Attend Your First Concert

As a follow up to yesterday's post, let me offer three practical pieces of advice that I find most helpful when preparing to attend a concert.

Prepare to fight the enemies! For most new concert goers, there are two common enemies that will attempt to make our adventure a bit uncomfortable: drowsiness and a nagging cough. With a bit of advance preparation, we can combat these villains of the concert hall. The lovely music you will hear can often be a sleep-inducer, especially after a long day at the office or in the classroom. Here are a few suggestions to help counter the inclination to sleep. Carry a small pad and pen to the concert with you and make a few notes throughout the performance. The note-taking process will help keep your mind alert and focused. It is also helpful to allow enough time to enjoy a caffeinated drink prior to the concert. Obviously this is not the optimal time to enjoy a Big Gulp, but a moderate-sized beverage can be helpful.

Coughing plagues audiences around the world, so come prepared to moisten your throat if necessary. If it's cold and flu season, having a few medicated cough drops in an easily accessible pocket is a great option. Otherwise, carry along a few peppermint disks. While it may be briefly irritating to those around you as you open the wrapper, it is much more desirable to the alternative of unending coughs during the performance. In the event that you find that the cough drop will not alleviate the problem, excuse yourself quickly to the lobby for some water. Although you will not be allowed to return to the auditorium until the end of the piece, most concert halls broadcast the performance to the lobby.

Purchase the best ticket available that is within your budget. Tickets to live performances can be quite costly. Most venues offer inexpensive seats beginning at $15 or $20 in price. The sound quality in these seats is perfectly fine; they will serve as an acceptable introduction to the world of concerts. However, if your budget allows, purchase tickets that are closer to the stage. By moving forward, you become a part of the energy of the concert, experiencing the event to its fullest. While searching for the best seat, keep your personal budget in mind. Nothing will insure a bad experience more than worrying about the amount of money you spent on the evening's ticket.

Know the program in advance. Most symphony orchestra websites are easy to find on the internet. With a little effort, you can discover exactly what is to be played on the evening's program that you will attend. Make note of the composers and titles of works. If possible, find recordings of the pieces that will be performed; search both the internet as well as your local library. Listen to some of the music that you will hear, but do not feel as though you must learn it. The goal is to acquaint your ear with some of the sounds. When we hear passages that we recognize, our minds are put at ease and we are able to simply enjoy the music and the experience. Familiarity breeds comfort and that is what we are hoping to obtain!

Now you have some tools in your arsenal to insure that your first visit to the concert hall is a great one! Above all, keep the primary purpose you are attending the program at the fore of your mind and simply enjoy the music!

Friday, September 3, 2010

First Concert Primer

Have you ever thought you would like to attend a classical music concert but felt you lacked some secret knowledge necessary to fully appreciate the experience? For most people, what they are actually feeling is fear – fear of the unknown and fear of behaving inappropriately in an unfamiliar setting. I want to give you some basic information that will equip you to confidently attend a classical concert and make the experience more enjoyable.

Plan to be seated 15 minutes prior to the start of the performance. Attending a concert is not like going to the movies; previews for upcoming presentations won't appear before the start of the evening's show. If you arrive late, you will not be permitted to find your seat until there is a break in the concert. In many scenarios, this will mean that you will miss the first piece in its entirety.

Arriving early affords you many benefits. First, you are able to take notice of all the visual stimulation in the concert hall before the performance begins. Since musical performances require the audience to depend heavily upon their sense of hearing, previously unnoticed visual images can become a distraction during the performance. The second benefit of arriving early is that you will be able to read the program notes included in the recital's program. These notes are intended to provide you with biographical information about the artists as well as the composers whose works you will hear. Occasionally you will find historical background about the pieces performed as well. Don't feel pressured to remember everything the notes contain and don't feel inept if you don't understand everything you read. Understanding music is a life-long pursuit. The good news is that you don't have to necessarily UNDERSTAND it to ENJOY it.

Turn off your electronics. Nothing is more embarrassing or more frustrating than trying to find a ringing cell phone that is competing with the musical strains coming from the stage. That noisy phone will insure that you get nasty glares from the other audience members sitting near you. The best practice is to turn it off since the transmitted waves can interfere with the auditorium's sound system; if you MUST have it on, make sure that it is on silent.

Dress comfortably. Many times we see images of women wearing extravagant gowns and men in tuxedos going to the opera. While there are formal occasions in the musical world when such attire is appropriate, they are not the norm. Simply dress comfortably for the event – considering both fashion and physical comfort. In nearly every social situation, it is just as uncomfortable to be over-dressed as it is to be under-dressed. In American society, most audience members find that business casual attire is appropriate for their concert experience.

Physical comfort is also an important consideration. Temperature can often be difficult to predict. Performance halls may be considerably cooler than other public areas or you may find that the close proximity with other audience members results in a greater level of warmth than you expected. Dressing in layers – such as jackets or sweaters – is a great way to insure you are prepared for whatever temperature you encounter.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When a Student Hits a Proverbial Wall

Piano lessons are up and running again and I am having so much fun!  Students are excited about learning and about the new additions to our studio.  Perhaps I should qualify that statement....everyone is excited about piano except one of my students.  Let me paint the picture for you and share my dilemma with you.

This young lady is in 7th grade and has studied piano with several teachers already.  She first transferred into my studio last fall.  At her first lesson, I learned that she has been stuck in level 1 of her method book for several years.  The problem?  She simply cannot read bass clef!  I have played games with her, assigned pieces that are exclusively in the bass clef, and even tried becoming the harsh teacher that I despised as a child to find what would motivate her.  So far, nothing has worked.

As she returned to lessons this fall, I was told that she has now also enrolled in voice lessons with an overpriced, under-talented theater director (strictly my opinion of the teacher) and is now taking up French horn in the school band.  Her opinion of her own talent is supported by her parents' numerous accolades.  Sadly, her talent does not support such high praise.

Now I'm stuck trying to figure out how to proceed?  At this point in her piano development, learning how to read bass clef is essential.  When I pull her away from the instrument, she has the tools to figure out the note names, but it is definitely a struggle.  When she searches for the notes at the keyboard, a short 8-measure piece takes nearly the entire 30-minute lesson to plow through.

Clearly, she is not practicing.  I know that's the best solution to learning to read....just do it!  In the light that I have already spoken with her parent about the situation and they do not seem to object to essentially wasting their money on lessons that are at a stand still, what is my next step?  I don't mind taking the money (obviously), but even the most patient teacher in the world can only deal with the same issue for so long before going absolutely insane! 

As an act of desperation, I finally moved her through the rest of book 1 and now we are working on the review material found in the next level of the method.  At this point, I don't know who is beating their head against a brick wall -- her or me!  I'm looking forward to your hearing your comments, experiences, and suggestions.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Following the Questions

During my morning of lectures, I had one of those experiences for which every teacher hopes. At the back of the room, a student raised his hand and asked a question. This question was not one asking for a repetition of previously shared information or if this information was really important in relation to the exam. No, this question could only follow a precursory statement. The student began, "I know we don't have to know this for the test, but I've always wondered…." What a wonderfully challenging opportunity. In that moment, I was faced with the choice to take advantage of a teachable moment and veer away from my planned curriculum or squash the student's inquisitiveness. I answered his question thoroughly and hope that I made it clear to the other students present that my classroom is a place where inquiry is welcome – even when those questions take us slightly away from the planned discussion. In my personal experience, it has been those explorative discussions that have led to some of my greatest learning experiences, exposing me to new areas of learning that I did not realize were available to me.
I have spent much of the day thinking about that simple encounter. What would happen if I followed the questions in every class, regardless of the subject? Think about the implications. When is it better to explain the concept of the slur to the young piano student: when the published curriculum dictates or when the eight-year-old girl points to the musical marking and asks "What is THAT?" By following the questions, we are matching our teaching with the desired learning goals of the student. Aren't the best educational pursuits learner-centered? If students are not the center of our teaching goals, we are missing the point of WHY we teach as well as the importance of knowing WHO we are teaching.
I realize that a curriculum is necessary to guide our teaching. I do not recommend totally abandoning lesson plans. As music professionals, we have a clear understanding of the material we are teaching and must plan the best route to take our students from the "known" to the "unknown." However, in order to insure that our instruction does not become stale and ineffective, take a chance and look for opportunities to follow students down paths of learning that are initiated by their personal inquiries. I believe that both you and your students will find it a rewarding experience and one that has positive and lasting outcomes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Piano Maintenance and Care

As the new semester of piano lessons are beginning, several of my students have come to their first lessons with lots of excitement over getting their first piano. The questions quickly follow about piano care and maintenance. Rather than merely giving parents information from my personal knowledge, I point them to this very helpful page of information hosted by the Piano Technicians' Guild. PTG answers the basic questions of how often to schedule a tuning as well as how to take care of your instrument. My students find the cut away sketches of the piano mechanisms interesting while parents appreciate the wealth of information about their newest investment. Since we are living in the metro Memphis area and are forced to deal with the area's humidity changes, I advise them to pay special attention to the page on humidity's effects on the piano. That way they know exactly what to expect during the summer and winter months while having some information on how to avoid the most serious problems.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why Concerts Matter – Take 2

Yesterday, I began teaching a new semester of Music Appreciation at Mid-South Community College in West Memphis. The first day in each section of the class was filled with the thrilling excitement of reviewing the course syllabus so everyone would know what will be required of them this semester. As usual, I heard groans, grumblings, and sundry other sounds of disapproval when I explained to the students that they would be required to attend two classical concerts to fulfill the course's requirements. "But why?" was the repeated cry. Since the defense of concerts as part of the Music Appreciation curriculum has become a major point of discussion each semester, I thought it would be a good blog topic for this evening.

In order to understand more about music, a student must be exposed to it. Why this concept is so foreign to some students is beyond me! While students do not like the idea of spending time in labs for biology, math, or foreign language courses, they accept this additional time of observation as a necessary component of the course. In essence, attending concerts is a working music lab. In order to fully understand concepts presented in lectures, students must get away from the classroom and hear the theories presented in their natural habitat on stage.

Many students argue that they should be able to go to any concert they like since they are paying for the ticket. My response is simple; many of the concerts that you are invited to attend in fulfillment of the requirement have no admission charge. So the assertion that you are spending your hard-earned money on entertainment you don't enjoy is void. Furthermore, any student who claims to enjoy all their homework assignments in other classes is either a liar or delusional. I won't make that judgment, but I'll let you decide for yourself into which category I think most of them fall. This raises an additional issue in the mind of the student. Why am I required to take a course in music since I am not majoring in music? The arts were not created in a vacuum and were significantly impacted by the politics, literature, philosophy, scientific development, and religious views of the day. By examining the arts that were influenced by these fields, the student develops a deeper understanding of the historical progression of the Western World; such understanding and knowledge is an early essential step on the journey from student to scholar.

Lastly, students often ask why they are not merely permitted to listen to recordings or watch videotaped performances. While both of these Medias are valuable tools in the study of music, a few drawbacks must be considered. Firstly, recordings are often heavily edited in order to arrive at a "perfect" performance. While the pursuit of excellence is admirable, these edited performances can result in an unrealistic recording that lacks a certain amount of integrity of performance. Secondly – and in my opinion, most importantly – recorded performances can not accurately convey the vivacity and energy that an audience experiences in a live performance. While we are studying the music itself in this course, the listener's emotional response to the performance must be included in the discussion of the composition's greatness. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would not be considered a masterpiece of the repertoire if its performance did not elicit a significant emotional response from those who have heard it over the centuries.

That's why I firmly believe in the value of concert attendance as part of the Music Appreciation curriculum. The goal is neither for a student to be able to eloquently discuss a piece's harmonic structure nor is it to convince them to become supporters of the local classical music radio station. Rather, my goal is to give the student enough tools to intelligently attend a previously unfamiliar artistic performance that allows them to experience the heightened emotional response that the greatest music of Western history can elicit.

Now it's time for me to find my next concert to attend. Hope to see you there!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Importance of Concerts

A sad day has finally arrived. Today is the last day of my summer break. The weekend is very full and a new semester of music classes begins on Monday. While I am enjoying this final day of vacation, I am also putting the finishing touches on courses and making plans for the new year in my piano studio. One of the most surprising decisions I have made is that I plan to have a studio recital this year. This is especially surprising considering the fact that I always DETESTED these forced performances during my early years of musical training.
As I was thinking about repertoire choices for my students, I began to realize how important it is to have them perform. Public performances allow the musician to experience the joy of sharing their art with an appreciative audience and take the pursuit of the instrument out of the practice room alone. The benefits of playing in a recital extend beyond the musical development of the child as well. Performing increases the student's confidence, self-image, and creativity while diminishing their fear of appearing before a large crowd and feelings of inferiority.
Given all of these benefits, why would I hesitate to prepare my students for a studio recital? Aside from the logistical difficulties of securing a convenient location and quality instrument, I also do not look forward to dealing with the pressure often applied to students by over-bearing parents. (I'm experiencing one case of this now – before the child's first piano lesson – and it will probably be the topic of a future post.) While well-intentioned, parents can do great damage to the blooming young musician by placing undue pressure and unrealistic performance expectations on the child rather than encouraging them to enjoy the experience of making music for their friends and family. My studio is still relatively small at this point, so the possibility of comparison between pianists is great. "Why didn't you work as hard as Jenna? Did you HEAR how beautifully she played?" Such comments detract from the individual accomplishments of the student and place the focus on their inferiority in comparison to other players. It is important to remember that no two musicians develop along the same tract and at the same rate. Rather than focusing on the negative, I encourage parents to find the points of growth in their child's playing and focus on the positive.
I'm in the process of selecting repertoire for my young pianists and have discovered a wonderful resource that I want to share with you. Lynn Freeman Olson has compiled and edited First Steps in Keyboard Literature: the Easiest Classics to Moderns in Original Forms. Distributed by Alfred Publishing, this collection is a perfect addition to the piano teacher's library if you are looking for repertoire to introduce your beginning students to Classical literature. The selected pieces are rarely longer than 1 page and many of them are composed in a basic 5-finger position. Rhythms are simple – nothing more difficult than some running eighth notes – and the scores are large and clearly arranged, making them perfect for young eyes. I anticipate purchasing several copies of First Steps in Keyboard Literature this semester as my students and I begin the journey towards our first recital together.
I would love to hear about your first experiences with a studio recital. Your success stories will encourage me to keep the faith. I'll also welcome any stories about mistakes you made that I might be able to avoid. On Monday, I will examine the concert from the other side of the flood lights and explore their importance in the development of the educated non-musician. Let the sharing begin!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Finding Chamber Partners

It's the beginning of a new concert season and I am trying to line up chamber recitals for the coming year. The process is proving to be more difficult than I first anticipated. Despite the difficulties, I have high hopes that things will develop and I am certain that I will have several rewarding performance opportunities on my calendar.
The first problem I am encountering is that most of the serious musicians in my area are gainfully employed with one of the colleges in the area or they are so busy with their "regular jobs" –meaning non-musical jobs – that they simply are not interested in committing the time to preparing for a major performance. I completely understand both positions. For my colleagues at an institution of higher learning, it is much easier to schedule rehearsals with a pianist who is at the same school full time. For those employed outside of the music industry, Life often gets in the way of rehearsing and performing. After a long day in the office, there is little energy left to devote to the pursuit of public performance.
So what's a chamber pianist to do? Here are a few steps that I am currently taking personally. I don't know what the results will ultimately be, but it's what I'm trying at the moment.
  • Ask! This has been the most difficult hurdle for me to overcome. I never want to be a burden to anyone and tend to be rather shy, so I wait for musicians to approach me with performance ideas. I have come to the realization that the worst thing that can happen if I propose a concert idea is that they will say they are not interested. When this happens, focus on the positive aspect: you have planted the idea that you are interested in performing with the individual. It never hurts to ask. A great collaborative opportunity is often only an invitation away!
  • Perform! Pianists are very fortunate to have the opportunity to present pleasing programs as soloists, so plan to play a solo recital (or several) this season. With careful publicity and excellent musical preparation, you may attract the attention of an interested musician as a result of your solo performance. Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth references as well. Someone in your audience may be so impressed by your recital that they simply must tell another musician how well you played and spark some interest. Make sure to include your contact information in the program!
  • Persistently communicate. It's easy to talk about a chamber program in theory, but it takes persistent communication for a group of musicians to set a date and choose appropriate repertoire. Rather than waiting on the other performers – this is probably a carry-over trait from our years of viewing ourselves as the subservient "accompanist" rather than an equal partner in the ensemble – take the proverbial bull by the horns and lead your fellow musicians in the task. While there is a fine line between annoyance and persistence, I'm finding that the benefits of walking as close to that line as possible are much greater than the perceived risks of crossing it.
  • Look beyond the norm. Currently, I perform with three chamber ensembles. It is very easy to get comfortable and see no other recital possibilities. Rather than relying solely on these comfortable performance situations, I am opting to look outside of the box for unexpected opportunities. There is a risk of rejection, but you may just be surprised by the positive responses you get. Consider approaching students at a local college (other than the one that knows you best) or inquire about the possibility of launching a chamber music series for a local church or synagogue.
  • Consider traveling. It's always exciting to have the opportunity to perform in your hometown with another musician with which your audience is not familiar. Just think of how fun it would be to be the traveling musician! This is the perfect opportunity to combine a passion for travel with your professional pursuits. If finances are an issue (and when are they not), start by looking for performance opportunities in cities where your friends or family reside; often these situations will result in economical lodging.
  • Remember the power of networking. The best way to find a chamber partner is to put yourself in situations with other musicians. Attend concerts, join the local music society, sing in the church choir, or provide accompaniment for a young artist competition. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are also a powerful resource to keep your name and face in front of those with which you want to perform.
What do you do to find new chamber opportunities? If you could play in any type of ensemble, what would it be? For me, I'm looking to form a piano trio at the moment. Any violinists and cellist reading Collaborations that might be interested?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

You're Welcome!

Catching up on some of my favorite blogs and ran across this wonderful entry by Billie Whittaker over on "Good Company."  As soon as I read it, I knew that I simply had to share this post with my readers!  Enjoy....and kudos to Billie for an insightful and honest look at the different types of "thank yous" we hear on a regular basis!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thoughts from the Shanghai Circus

Hello, my friends!  I have missed sharing my thoughts with all of you recently, but felt I needed some time away from life in general, so I took a much needed mini-vacation at the end of last week.  Now that I'm home again, I find myself trying to get back into the routine of writing. 

I traveled to Branson, Missouri, a quaint little town in the Ozark Mountains that is known for its family-friendly stage shows.  Since I was essentially taking a vacation from the life of a performing musician, I decided that I wanted to see a show that didn't have a strong musical theme.  I chose to see the Chinese Acrobats of the New Shanghai Circus.  I shouldn't have been surprised, but as soon as I set out to enjoy an evening without thinking about music, my mind was filled with the things I could take from the program and apply to my music.

On Friday evening, I was drawn into the performance by the beautiful colors, the variety of dances displayed, and the artistry of the overall performance.  This program moved from the grace of the butterfly lovers soaring over the stage on their satin ribbon to masterful displays of technique using a child's toy before ending with the heart-pounding excitement of the acrobats with their see-saw.  The connection to music is fairly clear.  By programming recitals that include moments of sheer beauty in addition to moments of exhilarating spectacle, the audience is thoroughly engaged because of the diversity and variety of music presented.

As I left the auditorium, I continued to reflect on the Circus as a whole.  I felt as though some of the routines were severely inferior to the others.  This was made painfully clear because of the act's placement in the show.  Following one of the most beautiful displays of dance I had ever seen came a second-rate attempt at illusion.  The props did not support the intended illusion; the "magician" had little stage presence.  Sadly, this act occurred half-way through the second act.  Just as the ensemble should have been preparing the audience for a climatic finale, the show hit a major snag from which it never recovered. 

It is essential as performers of any kind that we carefully plan our programs with the audience's emotional journey in mind.  While there may be a piece that I would like to play early in the recital in order to navigate a difficult passage without fatigue beginning to set in, I must remember that the program's order is not exclusively about my comfort.  Certainly I must consider what sequence will allow me to give my best performance.  I must also make sure that my preferred order leads the listener from one piece to the next in order to insure that they have a satisfying musical experience.

Lastly, I noticed the audience's response.  By nature, an acrobat's performance will contain amazing feats performed in rapid succession.  While I do not claim to be either a dancer or acrobat, as a performer, I do understand that the most difficult routines also contain moments of simplicity to allow the audience and artist to prepare themselves for the climax to come.  Friday evening's audience was what I consider to be a typical cross-section of the average American audience.  It was amusing -- and actually frustrating -- to sit in the audience and listen to the "oohs" and "aahs" at the beginning of each new act that were accompanied by thunderous applause.  As the routines proceeded, the spectacle became more exciting and impressive, but the audience had already lavished its highest praise and was ready for the next act to take the stage.

Most disheartening, however, was the realization that audiences enjoy thrilling moments because there is always the possibility of failure.  During a wonderfully beautiful segment featuring a cast of young ladies who were balancing spinning plates high in the air while performing elegant gymnastic tricks, one member of the cast appeared to have lost focus momentarily, causing plates to noisily crash to the floor.  These professionals continued to maintain their part in the scene while making every effort to discreetly clean up their mess in order to insure their colleagues continued success in the performance.  While I was thrilled with their commitment to recovery, I was appalled by the audience's response. 

A mature couple sat directly behind me and loudly commented on the accident.  Not only did they point out the misstep and laugh, they made wagers with each other for the rest of the night regarding which performers would be the next to stumble.  (Thankfully, this was the only catastrophe that we would observe on this night.)  What I came to realize is that audiences are often thrilled by technical display not only because of the excitement they provide, but also because of the possibility that they may catch us in an obvious error.  Am I being too pessimistic to think that a performer's mistake gives the audience an opportunity to lessen the talent of the individual and feel better about themselves?  I hope I am only seeing the worst in people, but I fear that it may be all too true. 

I do not intend to end this post with a negative impression.  Facts are facts:  planning is essential, artistry must be the centerpiece of our programs, and audiences can be mean.  The good news is that I am only responsible for two of those aspects.  If I plan effectively and relentlessly pursue artistic excellence in my concerts, I have done everything I can.  While I want the audience to have a pleasing experience, I know that their responses -- whether positive or negative -- do not define my talent, my happiness, nor my success.  That's the biggest lesson I walked away with after visiting the Shanghai Circus while on vacation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Repertoire - Woodland Sketches by Edward MacDowell

As my long time readers know, I am planning a solo recital for the fall season.  It has been very nice to choose music of interest to me personally without having to bend to the demands of academia.  I was settled on very little of the program in the early stages.  The only thing that I knew was that I wanted to highlight American music in the second half since it is my favorite school of music.

While exploring the works of Copland and Barber, I encountered lots of familiar works, but nothing that felt right for the program.  I didn't want anything overly dramatic.  I wasn't looking for nationalistic music -- I've had my fill of patriotic music recently -- so I wasn't sure where I was headed.

After working through some of the rags and some small works by Ives, I recalled a couple of charming pieces from my early years of study:  "To a Wild Rose" and "From Uncle Remus."  Both short pieces by Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) are part of his larger work, Woodland Sketches, Op. 51.  As I began to read the score, I expected to find simplistic ditties that would be of little interest;  thankfully I lay aside my preconceived notions and discovered a wonderful example of American music.

Composed in 1896 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Woodland Sketches is MacDowell's most famous composition. Peterborough, which later become the MacDowell Colony, was the site of the composer's family farm and was known for its peacefully serene woodland setting.  The 10 miniature pieces of Woodland Sketches seem to take their inspiration from the natural beauty of the area.

While an example of early American music, the piano suite shows more influence of the French and German schools than of the American composers who were active at the same time.  With luscious harmonic structures, the simple melodies are lovingly supported, transporting the listener to the beauty of the forest.  MacDowell was not a musical lightweight, however; technical demands are made upon the soloist in several of the pieces, most notably "Will o' the Wisp" and "In Autumn." 

Perhaps the closing paragraph of the Schirmer edition's introduction to the work provides the best synopsis of Woodland Sketches' place in history.
A bygone era, gracious and sensitive, has been captured and retained in a series of poetic miniatures, and its piquant perfection of feeling is the result of its clearly defined circumspection.  MacDowell employs a limited harmonic range and a simple melodic line, but his originality and quiet virility has given us not a precious bouquet pressed in an album, but a suite of musical water colors, delectable and tensile, a work not of spurious sentimentality but of genuine sentiment. (Woodland Sketches, Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics, Vol. 1805)