Monday, May 31, 2010

A Great Documentary

This morning I watched a wonderful documentary that I wanted to share with all of you. Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 follows this single concert grand from the earliest stages of shaping the frame to the final tuning. Along the way, master pianists from all genres discuss how each instrument has a personality of its own. I thought the film beautifully explained the distinction between instruments in a manner that a non-musician could understand and respect. By the end of the documentary, you will be reminded of the craftsmanship that is so highly prized in the Steinway and appreciate anew the personal attention that is given each instrument making each one unique and one of the finest instruments available.

Friday, May 28, 2010


This week has been full of joy, excitement, frustration, and laughter--all rolled into one big roller coaster ride! Today is proving to be quite full as I am spending this last day before the holiday weekend putting the finishing touches on preparations for the course I will be teaching during the summer session that begins on Tuesday.

I wanted to share a couple of posts that I found extremely interesting myself written by colleagues in the field this week.

First is a look at the Brahms Sonata, Op. 120, No. 2 by Jere Douglas, the clarinetist that I had the privilege to work with in Houston last weekend. His commentary on metronome markings will give my readers another perspective after my earlier rants. Take the time to follow the links to learn more about the history of the metronome; the perspective they provide is valuable. I am honored and humbled by Jere's kind words. We both enjoyed our experience together so much so that we are already making plans for another program later this fall.

The other link is to a video of a lecture given by Benjamin Zander on music and passion. I stumbled upon this wonderful clip while reading Footprints in the Snow, a charming blog by a music education major in Ohio (I believe!) I have only followed Willow's blog for a few days now, but I have been very interested in her insightful commentary and fresh observations related to music education. You should definitely check her out.

Don't miss the Zander video! It is roughly 20 minutes long, but is amazingly practical to musicians and non-musicians alike. The role of passionate leadership presented by the Maestro here is one that many of us seem to forget as we go through the routine of our days.

Enjoy your holiday safe and happy.....and I'll see you again early next week.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Variations on 'America' by Charles Ives (arr. Daniel Dorff)

Over the years, I have often wished that other collaborative pianists would share their insights into the works they are currently learning in the thought that it might prove helpful (or at least, insightful) when I ultimately encounter that piece of the repertoire.

Currently, I am preparing for a July 2 recital that is scheduled to showcase patriotic music for flute, soprano, and piano. The first work that I will examine is Charles Ives' Variations on "America," arranged for flute and piano by Daniel Dorff. As an additional help, I have found a single recording of this arrangement by Pam Youngblood, flute, and Gabriel Bita, piano, that appears to have been released on May 25 of this year.

The Variations were composed in 1892 for organ solo. They were premiered that same year by Ives at the Methodist Church in Brewster, New York. It seems that many of the variations were improvised at that time (as opposed to being completed) and were subject to the approval of the young composer's father. At that first premiere, the polonaise--which was re-inserted as variation IV--was considered inappropriate. The Variations on "America" would ultimately be orchestrated by William Schuman.

The organ composition is interesting because it contains some of the earliest examples of Ives' use of bitonality. The brief forays into bitonality appear as interludes that separate variations II and III and the final two variations. These brief interludes were added to the composition in 1909-10.

The work maintains some of its viability in its original form because it is the only major work for organ by Ives. Despite its historical importance, the important sonorities of the organ's registrations are lost in Dorff's arrangement and make the work rather dull in my opinion.

Regardless of my feelings about the piece, I will be performing it in just over a month, so let's take a look at some of the challenges. First is the question of key. I have not yet obtained a score of the organ solo, so I cannot verify this statement at this time, but let me share with you what my research suggests thus far. Several examinations of the interludes have been located that discuss the use of the keys of F major and Db major in Interlude I followed by Ab major and F major in Interlude II. Dorff's arrangement places both interludes a whole step higher. I question the necessity of this, especially in consideration of the impact that the new tonal areas will have upon the technical aspects of the keyboard part. (As a side note, Dorff's instruments are saxophone and clarinet.)

Both of the bitonal interludes are presented by piano alone. In the original organ setting, the use of contrasting manual stops for each key area allows the passages to be played effectively without forcing the audience to question the performer's ability to play! Dorff's suggestion is to play the right hand fortissimo while playing the left hand pianissimo. While this does lessen the offensive sounds, it also makes the bitonality merely an academic endeavor rather than an aural experience.

Lastly, I take issue with Dorff's metronome markings. When compared to the Youngblood/Bita recording as well as recordings of the organ solo and orchestrated versions housed at, Mr. Dorff's suggested tempi appear to be a bit extreme. For example, Dorff marks the allegro of variation V as dotted quarter note = 112 (noting that the allegro is in 3/4). Ives' marking at this point in the original composition suggests his intentions: "as fast as the pedals can go." Such comments clearly suggest that Ives preferred clarity over speed.

I am intrigued by the organ solo, but hope to never see the flute arrangement again after the July 2 recital. Based upon my time spent with the piece and listening to the available recording, I find it an ineffective arrangement with few redeeming qualities outside of variation IV (the polonaise).

If I come up with any new (and interesting) insights as I continue to work through it, I'll be sure to pass it on.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Open Letter From Your Collaborative Pianist

While in graduate school, I went through an extremely stressful semester as a collaborative assistant at the University of Memphis. At the height of my frustration, my mentor suggested that I journal a letter to the offending parties and address the major issues in general terms. She assured me that I would stumble across the letter later and it would bring a smile to my face. This week, I found the letter and had to laugh. It's ironic how some of the same issues continue to come up again and again. I thought I'd share the letter with you, my collaborative friends, without commentary. I hope it brings a smile to your face as it did to mine! KF

Dear musician,

We have been working together for some time, but I don't believe we have ever been formally introduced. I'm the one who sits behind the large black piano while you are playing your solos; I am your collaborative pianist.

I know that you don't always take notice of me since I generally sit behind you, but that does not mean that my participation in the recital is less important that yours. Realize that my colleagues and I no longer refer to ourselves by the condescending term of "accompanist"; instead, we refer to ourselves as "collaborative pianists" for two basic reasons. First and foremost, we are pianists. We are not defined by the vocalists and instrumentalists that we support in recital; we have spent countless hours developing our skills and mastering piano technique and deserve to be recognized as skilled performers. The adjective "collaborative" suggests that we are equal partners in the musical process. Without sounding overly arrogant, it is important that you realize that without our assistance, many of your most important works could not be performed. Since these master composers saw the inclusion of the piano as essential to the work they created, it is imperative that you also recognize our importance and stop treating us as a necessary evil.

Speaking of treatment, I don't ask for false praise. I DO, however, demand respect. This can be shown in a couple of basic ways. First, don't be so presumptuous to tell me how simple my part is to play. I am the authority on the piano in our ensemble. Since I would never venture to expound on the difficult technical issues you face in the work, please return the favor.

Secondly, please show respect for my time. When you arrange a rehearsal time, it is both unprofessional and insulting when you consistently arrive 15 minutes (not to mention 30 minutes) after the agreed time. Please do not feel insulted when I begin to leave at the end of our designated rehearsal time. While you arrived late and may have the flexibility of schedule to rearrange the rest of your day, that is not always an option for me. In addition to my commitment to you, I normally have other rehearsals following yours as well as responsibilities as a church musician, teacher, scholar, and family man.

To further show respect for my time, please provide music for upcoming recordings, performances, and masterclasses in a timely manner. You have devoted months--sometimes years--to your personal preparation of many of these masterpieces of the repertoire. While I am capable of learning a recital in a very short amount of time, it is neither desirable nor fair to me for you to continually put me in that precarious position, especially when the circumstances do not demand such action. I perform better when I have had the opportunity to become secure in my part over time--just as you do. Six to eight weeks of advance notice is not out of the question and is greatly appreciated.

Appreciation goes a long way in getting the best work out of anyone. My work as a pianist is not a hobby; instead, it is my career. Kindly submit your payment for services rendered in a timely manner and without complaint as fees were discussed and agreed upon prior to the beginning of the project. In the event that I have volunteered my services because of my general kindheartedness or our friendship, please be mindful of that fact. When you are not paying for my services, courtesy demands that you show some form of gratitude for my work (often a genuine "thank you" after a performance is sufficient and greatly appreciated) and have a level of flexibility and compromise in matters of repertoire and scheduling. After all, at any point that I feel under appreciated--or worse yet, insulted--I am within my rights to end our collaborative relationship.

In closing, let me gently remind you of a few facts that seem to have slipped your mind recently. Metronome markings are generally suggestions rather than law. It is much more desirable to play musically than to frantically scramble about our respective instruments simply to achieve some mandated speed. Neither you nor I are infallible; therefore, be willing to consider the possibility that problems of ensemble related to rhythm and phrasing may be generated from your errors just as easily as they can originate from me (despite your constant protestations of your constant work with the metronome). Above all, remember that you are not the only performer on the stage. Both of us want to present the best recital possible. The results will be much better when we are working as a team with unity of purpose rather than two opposing musicians who have been offended and insulted.


Your Collaborative Partner

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reflections on Mosaic

Last Friday, I had the privilege of performing in the Mosaic recital held at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. The program was well received and all involved played exquisitely. The program consisted of two works for clarinet and piano (Brahms' Sonata Op. 120, No. 2 in Eb Major and Prelude #2 from Gershwin's Three Preludes), two for flute and piano ("Black Anemones" by Schwanter and Gary Shocker's Native American Suite), and trios by Sean Salamon and Mariano Oblios. To bring my recitals to a fitting closure, I like to reflect on the music performed as well as the performances themselves and see what I learned about myself, my playing, and music in general. Today, I'll share some of these thoughts with you.

Since most of my collaborative work has been with flute recently, it is not unusual that I have generally positive reactions to both pieces since I was heavily involved in their selection. While the Shocker was not a new piece for this program and is not extremely demanding technically, it is an audience pleaser and a charming work that I enjoy playing. Schwanter''s "Black Anemones" is a beautifully wrought work that is filled with challenges for the pianist. Much of the difficulty stems from the rhythmic precision required by both players. If either instrument stumbles in the slightest, there are few opportunities to find each other again due to the piano's perpetual motion and its repetitive figures. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary music in my opinion. The rhythmic complexity is unforgiving, but the sound often comes across as one that is without metrical structure. Sadly, many soloists approach these ethereal compositions without strict attention to the rhythms, pursuing their interpretation of the composer's desired effect instead. Such performances, often generated by repeatedly listening to a recording without thoroughly studying the score and its demands, can lead to shaky, unsatisfying performances. Fortunately, I was favored by the collaborative fairies on Friday night and everything of major importance lined up.

The two works with clarinet are among my favorites. The Gershwin is an adaptation of his solo composition for piano by the same name. While the Gershwin is charming, the sonata was the highlight of the program for me and the work that I invested the most time in. The Brahms sonatas are staples of the repertoire for both clarinet and piano and should not be missed by any collaborative artist. While the sonata has many opportunities for virtuosic display, the greatest challenge lies in matters of ensemble. Once again, attention to rhythmic precision is essential. This week, my partner and I struggled through some differences of interpretation as well. The basic issue was a question of how much rubato to employ in Brahms' composition. Obviously rubato will be present because of the period in which the piece was composed. Several times, each of us individually wanted to take liberties at the end of phrases that caused technical and/or musical issues for the other. Upon closer examination of the score, we realized that these points of difficulty were often not the actual end of the phrase, but rather a point of passing the theme to our musical partner. Once we carefully looked at the score (together and individually), it became clear that Brahms had often written his rubato into the score; we simply had to judiciously interpret what was clearly expressed on the page. It was a pleasure to work with an instrumentalist who was so passionate about the music and recognized that he was only one member of a three-person team in the music making process--comprised of the two performers and the composer. I look forward to future collaborations with this generous and intellectually stimulating musician.

The weakest aspect of the entire performance for me was the inclusion of the trios. I understand the logic behind presenting works for the three of us to perform together; they should have served as a unifying point of the concert. Personally, I felt as though they were poor selections that suffered additionally from our lack of rehearsal time as an ensemble. I realize that limited rehearsal time is often the norm for chamber ensembles and that we were dealing with schedules that could not be altered. Despite our situations (and excuses), the reality of the situation is that our limited rehearsals (roughly 1.5 hours on the day of the recital) resulted in unfamiliarity with the score, which further led to early entrances and sections that must be simply acknowledged as "poorly played."

While the Oblios was charming, it was clear that the keyboard part was written for a harpsichord or other early instrument which did not translate well to the modern piano. (No, I'm not a elitist who demands that compositions be played only on the historical instruments for which they were intended. I just think we have a responsibility as musicians to make sure that the compositions we perform translate effectively to our modern instruments.) The Salamon, on the other hand, was a work that I could have gone a lifetime without hearing. According to one of my collaborators, the trio has received wonderful reviews. I must admit that I have not searched out any of these statements online. Based upon my experience with the work, I found it to be a driveling piece of fluff that never actually went anywhere of interest musically. (Sorry for such a harsh review, but that's what I am known for--I am blunt to a fault.) Perhaps my poor response to Salamon's work is due to an uninformed performance on the ensemble's part. I don't think that is entirely the case, but I will at least concede the possibility respectfully to Salamon's status as a composer. Rather, I attribute much of the work's inadequacies to the fact that it is an early piece by the 16-year-old composer. The nocturne consisted of redundant harmonic progressions under an uninteresting melodic line. The repetitiveness of the trio continues into the closing variation set; supposedly written in the style of Bartok, I heard few similarities between the works of the 20th century master and Mr. Salamon.

With so many negative comments, it seems that I was unhappy with the performance. Nothing is further from the truth. In reality, the issues that I have raised in this blog are simply a reflection of my personal taste and address issues that comprised less than 5% of the total performance. The remaining 95% of the concert was of the highest quality and something about which I continue to be extremely proud. As a musician who is constantly pursuing new levels of excellence in my performances, however, I must thoroughly assess each public appearance in order to learn more about myself as a pianist so I can successfully chart my path on my continuing journey as a professional musician.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Reworking Hymn Settings

The use of traditional hymns in conjunction with praise and worship songs is the mark of a blended worship service. The lyrics of the familiar hymns often add great depth and richness to the music's theology. Musically, the two styles often find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, never to meld together into an unified whole.

What is the pianist to do? One option is to completely rearrange the hymn setting, making a new composition that barely resembles the original in order to make it fit the more contemporary style of the service. Often this results in modified melodies and rhythms, creating confusion for the singers. Additionally, these significant changes eliminate the familiarity of the hymn and the sense of tradition for which the blended service is searching.

Many churches have found that only two options are possible. Some have separated their worship time in half, using only traditional hymn settings in one section followed by contemporary praise music in the other. Other congregations find the choice of music so divisive that the only way the issue can be resolved is by conducting two separate services, distinguished by the style of music used.

I find both of these options unacceptable. As a young person, I draw strength and increased faith from the heritage expressed in the great hymns of the church. The songs of today are giving new voice to these same concepts in a manner that speaks to our modern society. How sad that we sometimes feel as though we must choose one mode of worship over the other. The Psalmist recognized the importance of looking to the past when he stated "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread" (Psalm 37:25). Earlier in the Psalms, David also instructs the people to "Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy. For the Word of the Lord is right and true; He is faithful in all He does" (Psalm 33:3-4). By examining the worship of ancient Israel (especially in the Davidic era), the traditional Jewish music existed alongside the new songs of praise that flowed from the hearts of worshippers. Oh, that our times of worship would be unified expressions of adoration to God rather than statements of our musical preferences!

As a church pianist, it is our responsibility to work with the minister of music in order to explore ways that the hymn settings can be updated (when necessary) in order to allow them to fit seamlessly into the blended worship service. Here are two basic techniques to get you thinking - both having positive and negative aspects.

Option one is to alter the rhythmic structure of the hymn. This can be as simple as altering the speed of the song. Many times, I have found that singing a familiar hymn slower than normal forces our minds to focus on the lyrics and helps us discover truths expressed there that we have missed for years. Alternately, moving a slower hymn along a bit can have a similar effect; "Blessed Assurance" can be an anthem of security (sung at a stately tempo) or a personal statement of confidence (at the traditionally slower speed) - it all depends on the tempo.

Altering the rhythmic structure can be a bit more advanced as well. Consider the hymn "At the Cross." The traditional setting is in 4/4; with a little imagination, the hymn can easily be altered to 12/8, creating a lilting beat with only the slightest modification to the vocal line's rhythms.

Altering rhythms will sometimes meet with some opposition from the traditionalists of your congregation; they may say that the new rhythms throw off the hymn's structure. With a little time, the congregation will get used to the new rhythms and will even be able to move effortlessly between the traditional and the "new" version. I encourage you to explore your hymns; often you can change the rhythmic pattern of the accompaniment without altering the vocal lines at all. These can be especially exciting for the musicians and congregation alike. How neat would a jazz setting of "Victory in Jesus" be if included in next Sunday's worship set?

A second approach to reworking hymn settings involves re-harmonizing the hymn itself. Be warned....this will cause your praise team intense frustration unless you write new parts for them and allot ample time to learn the new progressions. While the harmonies work quite nicely, they often do not follow traditional voice leading techniques and do not go where your singers expect. If your congregation mainly sings in unison, however, this is a wonderful option to provide interest without creating too much stress for anyone involved. One of my favorite aspects of this technique is the freedom we have to emphasize certain words of the lyrics by grasping the listener's ear through the use of interesting chords within the progression. This gets easier with practice, but is definitely worth the time invested. Here's how I first began to explore re-harmonization in my personal church work.

For years, I had loved the "Doxology" because of its amazing lyrics as well as its use during my college days at Pepperdine. Nothing could match the beauty of a capella voices singing this hymn of the church....and such powerful lyrics! When I tried to transfer the hymn into my congregation, however, I found that the simple harmonies that were so effective a capella lost their beauty when instruments were added. Rather than tossing out the baby with the bath water, I went to the piano and began to play around with the harmonies. What I ended up with was a contemporary harmonic sound that remained true to the melodic line of the hymn. It has now become the standard setting of the hymn for my congregation and one that we use on a regular basis.

Here is a basic lead sheet for my harmonization of "Doxology." Feel free to use it (or modify it!) as you like.


Can every hymn be re-harmonized or altered rhythmicly? Probably not. But I think with selective use of these (and other) techniques, our blended worship services can become more interesting and less divided along the lines of musical styles. Above all, remember that our efforts are not only to create something new or to show our skills on our instruments. As David reminds us in Psalm 29:2, our goal is to "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness."

With a heart of praise!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dumky Trio

I thought I would end each week together by giving you insight into some of my favorite chamber works for various ensembles and exploring some new works together. To kick things off, here's a recording of the Beaux Arts Trio playing the opening movement of Dvorak's Dumky Trio. Notice how effortless Menahem Pressler (b. 1923) makes the piano part look! You can learn more about this tremendous pianist and his career by visiting his website.

I've never played this piece but have always wanted to. Any takers?

Have a great weekend everyone! We'll start our next set of adventures on Monday.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Music Appreciation: Why Do Students Struggle?

I greatly love teaching music appreciation. It is a joy to expose novices to the great music of the Western world. Unfortunately, few of my students have a clear understanding of what the course will entail when they enroll.

As a professor at a community college, I hear the same expectations each semester. "My advisor told me that this course would involve sitting in class and listening to a little music." Sadly, these uninformed advisors give an uninformed synopsis of the class. The course opens with a cursory examination of the general characteristics of music. The majority of the semester is devoted to a historical overview of music history from the rise of Gregorian chant in 450 through the end of the 20th century.

Responses to the course vary, but mostly fall into one of two extremes. Most students admit that the course was more demanding than they expected, but that they have a greater understanding of how music developed over the centuries and became what we have today. Others, sadly, feel as though the course was too difficult and a waste of their time. All they hoped to do was find some music that they liked.

Generally, I find that the students with the negative responses share some common characteristics. Firstly, it seems as though most of these students come from backgrounds that include little (if any) exposure to cultural experiences. I do not expect students in my class to have any formal training in the arts, but I do find that those who have at least been to a concert, musical, play, or museum tend to do better. Often this lack of interaction with the arts is associated with the abject poverty from which many of my students come.

Secondly, connected to the first point, many of these students received their primary and secondary education in settings that did not include arts education in the curriculum. Because our nation's education system is dependant upon tests to verify student learning and instructor success, teachers find themselves seeking additional instructional time to prepare students for benchmark exams. Since there are few questions that relate to artistic concepts, exposure to the arts is one of the first things removed from public education.

Lastly, these students demonstrate remedial skills in reading and writing. Though some may argue that success in the arts is not dependent upon these rudimentary skills, I counter that argument by holding that learning of ANY type must involve interaction with a variety of ideas - ideas generated by others (discovered through reading) as well as the individual's response to these thoughts (worked out in the written word). The student's difficulties in the music classroom is another indicator of the failing status quo of the American educational system.

The question is not whether the content of the course is appropriate (that's another discussion entirely) but how we as musicians can help them succeed. First we must identify the problems and initiate an aggressive plan to overcome the difficulties. To address points one and two listed above, I use as many recordings (both audio and video) as possible during my lectures. has become an essential resource during my preparation. (Sadly, I must contend with the site being blocked by the administration of the school, limiting the interaction my students can have with the music videos while on campus.)

The final issue is much more difficult to address and one that cannot be overcome in a single semester. Because I recognize the importance of language skills in the educational process, I am adamant that my music appreciation class (a general education course!) will be writing intensive. I require students to explore their thoughts about music in several non-research based journal entries throughout the semester. These journals allow students to develop their writing skills while giving me insight into their understanding of the concepts presented in class in a non-threatening manner. Additionally, students attend recitals and compose reviews of their experience as well as the music encountered.

It is frustrating as a teacher when my students rail against the assignments they are given. While they assume that the tasks are intended to make the course more grueling, the reality of the situation is that they are meant to assist the student's understanding of the course content. Will I be able to help every student see the reasons for their struggles and that there is a way to overcome them? Probably not. If I reach one student, though, my efforts are not in vain. That is the hope that keeps me coming back semester after semester.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Teaching the Art of Practicing

In cities all over the world, multitudes of piano students daily hear those familiar words that come from every teacher's mouth: "You really must practice." Most students and their parents have a vague idea of what it means to practice. Some of these misconceptions include long hours sitting mindlessly at the piano and repeating their assigned pieces ad nauseum.

Recently I was having lunch with a group of music teachers. As we reflected on our personal early music studies, the topic of practice arose. The general consensus was that teachers defined effective practicing as total time spent at the instrument and that few of us received any instruction in practice techniques and methods.

I don't know about you, but I would rather engage a student who has spent 20 minutes in quality practice than one who has played non-stop for 60 minutes but was unsure of the reason. I can't fault students for lack of proper practicing unless I give them instruction in HOW to practice.

I have found that at some point, every student (regardless of age or level) will present opportunities for instruction on practice techniques. Think about it: when was the last time one of your students arrived in your studio only to tell you how busy their week has been and they simply did not have time to practice? Immediately my eyes glaze over, I assure them that it is okay, and prepare myself for a monitored practice session (code-named the weekly lesson).

Rather than viewing the lesson as a waste of time, let's show the student HOW to practice, giving them tips that will lead to success - even when you only have limited rehearsal time available. Here are a few skills that can be learned by students of any ability level and will serve them for years to come.

  • Self-Evaluate your playing. One of the first obstacles to effective practice is the inability of students to effectively judge their own playing. Most of us try to incorporate this into every lesson by asking students what they thought of their playing. By allowing students to verbalize their evaluation, we validate the truth that they CAN make judgements about their playing. By using their evaluation as a guide for the lesson, we can also model how to generate a work list for their practice sessions.

  • Become the teacher! Combined with the self-evaluation, I encourage my students to ask themselves "What Would Mr. Kennith Say?" after ever piece they play at home. Then, students are to choose the most important improvement from their list and begin the process of fixing it.

  • While there are many ways to learn troublesome passages, one of my favorites to teach is playing the passage from the end to the beginning. Once a student identifies the troublesome passage, students begin playing the last half of the passage. (If this still gives them difficulty, shorten the passage until the student can play the passage successfully.) The process adds another note on each successive repeat. When a student isn't sure if they have conquered a passage or were just the recipient of good luck, I advise the child to not move on until they can play the passage 3 times successfully. (In the method's purest form, a mistake negates the you have to start again!) Continue until the entire passage has been conquered.

There are many other methods leading to effective practicing. I have a suggestion wall in my studio where students post their own ideas for practicing. Often, I'm surprised at the great ideas they come up with.

What's your favorite practice process to teach you students? I'd love to hear from you.

Happy practicing!


Monday, May 17, 2010

A Minor Case of the Butterflies

Today I traveled to Lake Conroe, Texas, in preparation for a recital that will be presented in Houston on Friday evening. I must admit that I am a little apprehensive at the moment. Is it common for professional players to still get nervous?

The past week has revealed some stressful facts about this program. I learned on Friday that I had not received two movements of the new trio that we are performing as well as working some of the kinks out of a new work that Sandra and I will present for the first time in this recital. These are minor details; I'm an experienced pianist and know that I can pull it off with grace.

The cause of my anxiety tonight is actually tomorrow's rehearsal. The featured performer at this week's recital is Jere Douglas, a clarinetist who is based out of Houston. He and I have corresponded online and became aware of each other through our mutual friend, Sandra. However, we have never spoken or met. Tomorrow morning, I will drive to a location I have never visited to meet a musician I only know as a persona in a social forum to begin rehearsing an extremely difficult work, Brahms Sonata in Eb Major, Op. 120, No. 2. I'm sure we'll be talking more about the rehearsals, the performance and the repertoire at a later date. For now, I'm going to try to use these butterflies as a springboard for an exciting rehearsal tomorrow as Jere and I begin the journey of making music together.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Offertory Success

As Featured On EzineArticles

One of the first tasks that will be given to any church pianist is that of providing a weekly offertory. While some may consider the presentation of a solo one of the easier aspects of the position, I feel that the quality of the weekly offertory is one of the major factors that distinguishes a good church musician from a superb one.

Because of the role music plays in the church service, the offertory must be selected with care. Think about where the solo will occur in the order of worship. Are you following a lively choral anthem that will lead right into the congregational worship? Will the offering follow a generally somber prayer for the needs of the congregants? If you find yourself in a church without a strong liturgical tradition as I do, the positioning of the offertory may be altered weekly. There are few scenarios worse than a grandiose arrangement that follows a quiet time of meditation. Without advance thought and planning, you can sometimes find yourself in an awkward situation.

Additionally, it is important to think about your congregation. An uber-contemporary church may not respond to a classical setting of your favorite hymn. In contrast, the latest praise and worship chorus is probably not the best option for a high liturgical service. Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes - in what is commonly referred to as a blended service. In these settings, the choices become more difficult and more exciting as well. How often have you tried to find a great arrangement that blends a contemporary chorus with a traditional hymn without giving the impression that one of the pieces is more important or, worse still, more holy? There are a few arrangers today who are doing just these type of settings, but they are few and far between, generally demanding extreme technical facility as well.

More often, I find myself looking for arrangements of hymns that are approached with harmonic and rhythmic freshness. My current congregation is a multi-generational group with eclectic tastes in music. I have quickly accepted the fact that I will never please everyone present with my selections. Because I have so many preferences in my congregation, I get to explore some unusual settings. Some of our favorites are jazz settings of hymns such as Leaning on the Everlasting Arms and a complex harmonic treatment of Great is Thy Faithfulness. I didn't begin using these unusual arrangements immediately though; just as with all other areas of ministry, as the congregation develops trust in you as a music minister (for that is what every church pianist should strive to be), they will also extend that trust to your musical selectivity.

Here are a few closing thoughts on making your weekly offertory a highlight of the weekly service for those that you serve.

  • Select pieces weekly in an attitude of prayer. All too often we forget that our solo will be a part of the worship service. We can simply choose to provide pretty background music while the important activity of collecting the congregation's cash is performed. I think the better decision - and the one for which we strive - is to play music that is anointed by the Holy Spirit to aid those who are hearing as they worship in the act of giving.
  • Always have a few selections that you can fall back on. We've all been in the situation where the week got too hectic and our preparation time suffered. Perhaps the scheduled soloist became ill at the last minute, making the planned offertory less than desirable. Having a few selections in your back pocket gives you some flexibility whenever the need arises to make a last minute substitution. Use them sparingly though or they will become part of the normal rotation and you'll find yourself in need of some new fall-backs.
  • Don't sacrifice beauty for showmanship. Have you ever listened to a church pianist play a solo only to later ask "What WAS that song?" The arpeggios are beautiful and the tricky scale passages are impressive, but if they get in the way of the music's message, we're taking the focus off of the One we are to worship and shining the spotlight directly on ourselves. ( anyone else feeling the sting of those toes that were just stepped on?)
  • NEVER attempt to play beyond your technical abilities!!! As a musician, I am all for stretching myself and continuously developing my technique. The worship service is not a practice hall, though. Just as bad as shining the spotlight on how beautifully we play is presenting a glaring example of an ill-prepared solo as part of a worship service. I am not in competition with the pianist at the church across the street, so I don't have to attempt to play as beautifully as she does. I just have to bring my musical offering to the Heavenly Father each week as a loving sacrifice that brings Him honor and my worship. When we try out that new arrangement that is just a bit too difficult (or - Heaven forbid - completely beyond our skills) we risk interrupting the flow of the service and distracting the congregation from their worship.
  • Always play for the Audience of One. This is the last point on my list because I believe it is the most important one. All that I am as a Christian, a musician, and a person is because of Jesus. It is a wonderful feeling to have an audience respond to beautiful playing with appreciative applause - and, let me add, there is nothing wrong with receiving these accolades! Scripture teaches us to give honor to whom it is due. More than anything though, I want the applause of Heaven that comes as I play for the audience of One - the One who gave His all that I might have life. He is the source of the music and our constant goal should be that our music bring attention only to His grace, mercy, and greatness.

Do I get tired of trying to find a new piece each week? Of course! Like everyone else, I have a core set of arrangements that I rotate through. But the blessing of sharing my gift with God's people outweighs the long rehearsals. Occasionally, God opens doors because of our obedience as well. A few years ago, the congregation provided an opportunity to professionally record some of my favorite arrangements. In July, I will have the chance to sit down in the studio again and record two new CDs - one for Christmas, the other songs of praise and thanks.

Happy playing!


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Collaborative Pianist in the Making

Just over a year ago, I was awarded the Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Memphis in piano performance with an emphasis in collaborative arts. Since that time, my professional life has become one adventure after another - many of which my formal training little prepared me. That is what sparked my plan to write this blog; hopefully I can share some insight into the career of collaborative pianist (as well as its joys and frustrations), raise some questions about music in general, and give my readers cause to smile at some of my personal experiences.

While my formal training prepared me for working in chamber ensembles with other musicians, that has proven to be only one aspect of my musical career. In addition to my performing engagements, I currently maintain a small piano studio in West Memphis, Arkansas and direct the music and children ministries of a congregation in Collierville, Tennessee. As though that is not enough, I am on the faculty of Mid-South Community College in West Memphis and also actively participate in the efforts of the Crittenden Youth Theater and Delta Arts.

With so many hats, I sometimes feel more like a juggler in a three-ring circus rather than an established pianist. The sheer number of responsibilities I face in any given day can quickly become overwhelming. At times, I wonder which ball is going to drop first and what the fallout will be. Do I regret the career choice I have made? Not at all! Despite the occasional stressful situation, the variety of responsibilities keeps life interesting and allows me to be involved in many avenues of my passion for music.

In this blog, I plan to devote one day each week to the varied avenues of my current career. Discussions will vary from church music and ministry to music education and private instruction. Of course, I'll be including thoughts about pieces I am learning or rediscovering as a result of upcoming performances. Will everyone agree with my analysis? Certainly not! If we all agree, we will have little opportunity for discussion. Hopefully, my posts will spark your personal thoughts and be a stimulus for lively discussions among musicians in all areas of the field. Such discussion is one of the most important things (outside of practice!) that challenges members of the musical community to find new levels of excellence in their personal pursuits.

I look forward to getting to know you and hearing your thoughts as we explore our mutual love of music together.