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.