Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Honesty to the Score

My chamber ensemble rehearsed yesterday for an upcoming patriotic recital. As we worked through the repertoire, I was asked to make some changes to the arrangements. While not an uncommon request, it got me thinking. How free are we to make changes to a composer's work? Just how honest does a musician need to be to the score?

As pianists we run into orchestral reductions on a regular basis. Generally, these scores result in one of two questions. The question we HOPE to ask is this: What voices do I double in order to flesh out the score? The dreaded question (and sadly, the more common one in my experience) is what notes am I leaving out in order to make the piece playable. Both of these modifications to scores are appropriate since the score was not originally conceived for the solo piano. The goal of any good reduction is to make the piano sound orchestral. Often this requires doublings--especially in the left hand. On the flip side, some publishers fail to consider the differences between study scores and performance scores. They simply put every single note onto a single staff; it sometimes feels as though the reduction should come with a note attached that reads "Good Luck!"

For this patriotic concert, we are performing several traditional songs that are set in moderate keys for the average singer. My vocalist is a coloratura soprano! The low settings have been causing lots of difficulty in programming and making sure she sounds her best. The request has been made to transpose the songs a third higher. Fortunately the parts are not difficult, so it's not an outlandish request. Intellectually, I don't have a problem transposing songs to better keys. The songs of many composers - Brahms, Wolf, and Schubert, for instance - have been published in various keys for differing vocal ranges. While the original key of the song may be more comfortable for the pianist, the transposed keys are also valid since the song's structure remains in tact. The principle is the same in my situation.

So far, everything seems to be kosher and unoffensive to my traditionalist mentality. There is one final request that has been made. The art song "Nancy Hanks" by Katherine Davis is clearly set in the key of E minor for the majority of the piece. At the final cadential point, the composer indicates a resolution to the parallel major - E major - followed by a series of melodic fifths in the keyboard. The effect is one of hope and honor. The open fifths provide some ambiguity as to the final tonal area of the piece; without the presence of the third, we cannot state with certainty that the work ends in major or minor. Personally, I think this final cadence serves as the climax of the entire song.

Herein lies the dilemma. I have been instructed to change the major chord to the minor. After reading Geraldine Boyer-Cussak's blog entitled "Who is Your Customer?" I am realizing that at times it becomes necessary to put your musical instincts aside in order to appease the customer. So, this weekend I will play the minor chord. I may be cringing, but I'll play it.

But the question of musical ethics still remains. Once we establish that the published score is reliable, do we have the right to make changes to the harmonic structure of a composer's work in order to suit our personal tastes and preferences? I feel as though it is the responsibility of the artist to perform the selected music as closely as possible to the composer's notated intentions. Once we begin to alter the composition itself, we cross the line from "interpreter" to "composer."

This is not the first time I've encountered this issue (not even in relation to this piece!) and it certainly will not be the last. It's just one of those things that makes you ask "What do I really think about this?" I'd love to hear your opinions about the performer's responsibility to remaining honest to the score.

Time to go back to my transposition work now!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reflections on Music Camp 2010


I survived! Music Camp is over and I'm back to the regular routine of writing. As I begin my recovery from the past 14 days, my thoughts are revisiting the experience and I am reminded of a few things about children and their abilities. While these concepts are true about music in the church, I believe the application reaches into our private studios and music classrooms.


  • Children are sponges! Kids absorb new material quickly and thoroughly. This fact becomes painfully obvious when it becomes necessary to reteach due to a misconception or poor planning. Once a child "learns" material, it is often extremely difficult to unlearn.
  • Instruct in multiple learning styles for maximum retention! As a church musician, my primary goal for Music Camp was to instill Biblical truths into the hearts of children while teaching them some introductory musical concepts. The primary method of instruction was singing. By adding visual cues, the learning was further enhanced. Movement activated the kinesthetic learning style while including drama appealed to the creative side of the child. By gradually adding new dimensions of instruction, the child was repeatedly instructed in the basic truth.
  • Repetition is key! Although adults often become frustrated with repeated presentations of material, children seem to thrive on it! While the repeated lesson may be identical, the child's interaction with the material is not. Each return to familiar material allows the child to explore the concept at a higher intellectual level. This, in turn, allows for further discovery and questioning.
  • Children can achieve! Let this be a constant reminder to you. Children can perform at high levels of excellence, so set the bar high, give them the necessary tools and support to succeed, and watch them soar!

Now, it's time to crawl back into my cave and recover a bit more; it's almost time to start planning for my next musical adventure with the children of my congregation.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Cliburn Competition Videos

Happy Friday, everyone! I have been extremely busy with music camp this week and things are actually beginning to look and sound good. I couldn't bear the thought of not sharing something with you for an entire week, though! So, here's a brief entry on the final day of this week.

I recently stumbled across a series of video archives from the 2009 Cliburn competition. I've thoroughly enjoyed the playing I've heard and exploring some repertoire with which I was not completely familiar. I was inspired to find some time to hit the practice rooms after listening; here's hoping it has the same positive effect on you as well!

Have a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Understanding Classical Music - Chopin


Recently I was asked to write a brief article aimed at non-musicians who are interested in exploring the works of major composers. The hope is that it will ultimately develop into a series of articles covering a wide gamut of styles, periods, and composers. Here is my first installment in the series, focusing on the works of Chopin.

Frederick Chopin (1810-1849) was a Romantic composer of Polish nationality. Chopin began studying piano at an early age, showing signs of great promise from his earliest performances. Chopin deeply loved his homeland, but found himself relocating to Paris due to the Russian suppression of the November 1830 Polish uprising. Chopin would spend the rest of his life in France. While in Paris, Chopin would engage in several relationships with various women--most notably his affair with Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym George Sand. Despite his passion for life and his native Poland, Chopin was frail and ill throughout much of his adult life. His death in 1849 was due to complications with tuberculosis.

As a composer, Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano. His writings demand total mastery of the instrument technically while exploring emotional depths through the various sounds of the piano. Composers living at the height of the Romantic era (1820-1900) were attempting to express themselves in ways that had not been heard before, and Chopin was no exception. To begin understanding the works of this giant of Romantic music, let us consider three basic characteristics: Chopin's Polish pride, his short compositions, and his legendary technical abilities at the keyboard.

Many composers of the 19th century were nationalistic. Their pride in their native land was expressed in their music by using folk melodies and dance tunes of the people. Chopin's nationalism can be seen in his Polonaises and Mazurkas. The Polonaise was a slow dance of the Polish people in 3/4 time. Because of its characteristic sharp rhythms, the dance is militaristic in sound. In contrast, the Mazurka is a fast Polish dance, also in 3/4 time. The difference here is that an accent (playing a note louder than the others around) is placed on either beat 2 or 3. This is unusual because we expect the accent to appear on beat 1. By basing his compositions on the dances of Poland, Chopin was introducing all of Europe to the charm of his beloved Poland. As you listen to the dances, you cannot help but feel a sense of pride emanating from the piano. Personally, I adore both of these dance forms, but have a special place in my heart for the Polonaises. For an introduction, listen to the Polonaise in C minor (Opus 40, No. 2) or the amazing Polonaise in Ab major (Op. 53). (Opus numbers--abbreviated Op.--are given to pieces to help catalogue a composer's works. Often the numbers are assigned in the order the compositions were originally published. Don't worry if you don't remember all of them or completely understand how they work; many professional musicians have trouble remembering them as well.)

Most of Chopin's compositions were written for piano solo and are in miniature forms. This is great news for the neophyte to classical music. These pieces are often shorter than 5 minutes in duration and are very satisfying without the complexity of a long sonata movement. As we have already seen, Chopin composes multiple works within a single musical genre (like the polonaises above). Another dance that is popular with Chopin-lovers is the waltz--also in 3/4 time. To get a feeling for the light, lilting quality of the waltzes, listen to the Minute Waltz (Op. 64, No. 1). As another example of Chopin's miniatures, the Nocturnes are beautiful short pieces that evoke images of nighttime; you'll want to make sure you listen to the most famous Nocturne in Eb major (Op. 9, No.2). Continue by exploring others in this genre as most of them are easily approachable without any prior knowledge of the music.

Chopin was a virtuoso of the piano and respected by his peers. A virtuoso is a performer who has incredible technical skills at the instrument. You might think of a virtuoso as "the best of the best!" This level of skill is not something with which a person is innately born; years of preparation and devoted practice are required. Chopin composed a series of etudes, or technical studies, to continue to develop his own pianistic skills as well as those of his students. While we normally do not get excited about listening to piano exercises, the etudes are much more than mere finger exercises and something not to be missed. I recommend listening to at least two of the Chopin etudes: the majestic Revolutionary etude (Op. 10, No. 12) and the Black Key etude (Op. 10, No. 5).

Most of Chopin's music for piano is easily accessible by any audience and is readily available in most record stores. Enjoy the adventure and begin the exploration!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Where Did All The Time Go?

Late last month, Chris Foley asked his readers at The Collaborative Pianist Blog which month was the busiest of the year for them. As I thought through my year, I answered that April was the most intense month for me. That time normally involves Easter activities and lots of recitals to play. Don't forget about preparations for studio recitals and wrapping things up for the end of the spring semester.

Now I am beginning to think that I was terribly mistaken. My life does not feel as though it belongs to me during the month of June. A few private lessons are continuing through the summer and I am teaching class daily at the college. A chamber recital is on the agenda for early July, so there are lots of notes to learn and rehearsals to attend. Somehow, my responsibilities at the church have snuck up on me. Next Monday, I will begin directing a two-week music camp for students ages 5-12 that will culminate in two performances of a children's musical. This annual event is always a lot of fun, but I am always very thankful when it comes to an end so I can finally get some rest. I have to remember that the weekend in the middle of it all (June 19-20) will be filled with Father's Day activities. I'm getting tired just thinking about it all!

Practice time is a prized commodity right now. What am I saying? Sitting still for a few minutes to catch my breath is priceless! For the next few weeks, I doubt you hear much from me here at Collaborations, but be assured I have not forgotten about you and will be back to a regular writing schedule in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Am So Honored!

I just saw that Chris Foley mentioned my Open Letter From Your Collaborative Pianist on his blog The Collaborative Piano Blog. If you are visiting here for the first time, thanks for joining me. I welcome your comments and look forward to getting to know all of you as we discuss music together.

Playhouse on the Square's Oliver!


On Saturday evening, I finally got to see Playhouse on the Square's current production of Oliver! I went in with high expectations of this wonderful show by Lionel Bart based largely on the reputation of Memphis' professional theater troupe. Oliver! has fond memories for me as well; I have had the good fortune to be involved with two wonderful productions so far in my career. Saturday evening's performance had some surprises and some obvious downfalls. Here's my take on how things went.

First, let me acknowledge that I did see the production during its final weekend on stage. I know the stress that is placed upon the voice over the course of a show's run. I am also aware of the difficulty of keeping a role fresh night after night. Now that I've made the disclaimer, here's what I heard and saw.

This was my first visit to Playhouse's new home on the corner of Union and Madison. What an amazing space! Very intimate in feel, yet able to accommodate a sizable audience. My seat was near the back of the house, yet I felt as though the players were within reach; such a nice effect for the audience.

I expected a sterling performance by Dave Landis in the role of Fagin and anticipated that the youngster playing Oliver (Ty Lenderman) would be the best that Memphis had to offer. To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement. Landis' portrayal of Fagin was not bad, but flat. Many times, it felt as though Fagin was slipping into the background--too far for my taste--rather than providing the support the other members of the cast desperately needed. Musically, the character was unmoving. Landis' rendition of "Reviewing the Situation" was superb (not that the music director assisted him much), but by that late point in the show, I had already checked out and was ready for the final curtain.

Oliver himself was painful at moments. Lenderman was cute and looked the role. His dancing was quite good. While his acting was stilted at times, I can even forgive that transgression. But to mutilate beloved songs such as "Where is Love?" is unforgivable! Ty's voice had a gentle, pure quality at times and showed great promise. However, as he moved into the lower registers, he began to take on this pushed belting sound that was contrived and completely out of character. (Imagine a child trying to imitate an adult man's sound while throwing in a bit of Ethel Merman....that's what it sounded like!) Understand, I do not fault Ty for this; I hope to see him back on stage again with the support of a strong musical director that can help him produce the best performance possible. The issue here was the inexperience of the musical director of the show (making his debut with this production). All of the children were singing with a choral "hoot" common in elementary education but inappropriate for the stage. From the opening song, "Food, Glorious Food," I knew we were in for a long night.

Diction was another source of annoyance, but not in the singing where you would expect me to complain. The cast as a whole had been coached in an English dialect due to the setting of the show in Victorian London. While it was effective for the most part in the singing, the dialogue had so many variations of dialect and levels of enunciation that it was impossible at times to understand the actors' mumblings. The worst offender in this aspect was the actor portraying Mr. Bumble (Bryan Robinson). I could overlook singing all of the high A's in "Boy for Sale" in falsetto as well as the general buffoonery of his characterization. However, don't waste my time by attempting an accent that so totally distorts the language that I cannot understand your lines. There is something to be said for the willing suspension of disbelief! As an audience member, I can accept southern accents in London; just let me hear the story.

Despite the negative aspects of the show, there were some wonderful moments as well. First and foremost, the performance given by Stephen Andrew Parker as the Artful Dodger was tremendous! Parker is the all-around performer: beautiful voice, clean dancing, and solid acting. What more could a director ask for? Throughout the evening, I looked forward to Dodger's appearances on stage; Oliver! owes this talented performer for much of its success during this recent run.

The highlight of the evening for this musical director was the adult ensemble. Their gusto combined with fine individual voices created a moving experience into the Dickensian world. "Who Will Buy?" was a treat for the ears as the quartet of singers sang beautifully. An unexpected gift came at the end of this number; a young rose seller (Sydney Bell) sang the final appearance of the theme. The voice was amazing and worth the price of admission! Why Playhouse has not mounted a production of Annie or some similar show as a vehicle for this child actress is beyond me! Her performance as Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe received great reviews and this theater-goer is ready to see her on stage again.

Will I return to Playhouse on the Square? Certainly. It is one of the finest theaters we have in the area and they constantly produce high-quality work. I will just be a bit more reserved in my expectations, especially when attending a musical in the future.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Importance of Reflection

As musicians, many of us are reflective my nature. How did that performance really go? Is there a better practice technique to implement that will get the desired effect? Will an alternate fingering help facilitate that technical passage with increased accuracy?

For those of us who also teach, the reflections continue. How much of today's lesson did my student truly understand? What exercises will be beneficial to the student's development? How could I have better explained that concept? Is this better understood through explanation, demonstration, or self-exploration?

Summer's relaxed schedule is a perfect time for extended periods of reflection for me. This year, I am reflecting upon my own musical development. By taking a look at the experiences and repertoire my teachers' incorporated at various stages of my learning, I am observing how my musical path led to the collaborative arts that I now enjoy. Additionally, I am finding myself challenged to find ways to use some of these same techniques to pass on the gift of collaboration to a new generation of students.

By reflecting, I am learning more about myself, my philosophy of teaching, and my approach to training young pianists. These insights are turning my musical memories into a learning lab where I can observe master teachers and consider firsthand the effect the various approaches had upon the student.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Am I Really Considering a Solo Recital?

After actually sitting down to read a recent issue of American Music Teacher, I found myself fondly remembering the joy of playing solo works by Chopin and Schumann. Now that I specialize in collaborative work, I generally use solo works as exercises and sight-reading projects rather than serious studies. I know.....many of my dear teachers are rolling their eyes.

I suppose my lack of interest in solo playing is most often associated with my utter hatred of memorization. Without fail, I experience a memory slip in every performance I give and have a terribly difficult time recovering. Today was an epiphany of sorts. I am no longer a student, so I don't have to conform to any standards other than those I set for myself. If I want to play a recital from score, that is my prerogative.

So I began thinking through solo rep and am seriously considering doing a solo recital this fall featuring music of Schumann in this anniversary year. I've not settled on a program obviously, but I must admit that immediately I was drawn to the Scenes from Childhood and the Album for the Young. Of course, there are other works that have been attractive to me over the years that might round out the program more.

Since it's also an anniversary year of Chopin, I have to consider his works as well. What pianist would ever consider NOT playing this master's compositions when afforded the chance?

I'm shaking my head in disbelief that I am even contemplating a solo recital. I guess the performance bug has bitten and I want to make music as a soloist in order to tell everyone (myself included) that I'm not an accompanist, but rather a pianist.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Summer Piano Lessons

Summer is always a difficult time for the piano teacher. Lessons become difficult to schedule because of family vacations and other conflicts. Practicing becomes a chore as the heat rises and nature beckons children outside. Who can resist lazy days next to the pool or spending fun times exploring the neighborhood with friends?

This summer, I have opted to give my regular students the summer vacation off. I have several recitals planned that demand my attention in addition to commitments at the church and the junior college. While some pedagogues are appalled by my decision, the parents of my students are thrilled because they don't have to juggle their schedules all summer long. Happy parents ultimately lead to happy students and a happy teacher!

I do not want to neglect my piano studio this summer, so I've devised a plan. I'm not sure how it will work, but it is certainly worth a try. Tomorrow I will post several flyers around my small town announcing that I will be teaching a limited number of lessons in my home during the summer months. This is a change from the norm for me as I use a small studio space during the school year for my lessons. I am presenting the summer lessons as a shortened term that does not have any long term commitment. I am available for lessons later this week and will continue through the end of August.

Here's my thought process. If a parent is unsure about their child's interest in piano lessons, summer is the perfect time to give it a shot without feeling the necessity of making a long-term commitment. This point is re-enforced by the fact that I'm teaching in my home instead of the studio space. At the end of the summer session, any student that wants to continue with lessons will have that opportunity. I still have plenty of space in my studio.

Since I'm dealing with the summer time, I'll constantly be looking for ways to make the lesson as exciting as possible for all of the students. We may not progress musically as quickly as I might like, but there is a greater goal in sight. If the student enjoys the lessons this summer, they will tell their parents and I will have a good opportunity to add that student to my fall roster. How can it go wrong?

As I thought through this idea, I decided that it was actually a win-win situation. Worse case scenario--I don't get any students, but I get some publicity in a community that knows me well and that I have not targeted for potential students. Best case--I spend a few afternoons a week teaching in my home and pick up a few additional students for the long-term. Together, we will get to have fun while learning how to make music. The fact that I can make a little additional cash doesn't hurt either!