Thursday, October 28, 2010

Musical Nightmares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Understanding Classical Music: Program Music

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Returning to Familiar Places

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

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

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

Friday, October 8, 2010

A New Challenge

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rhythm, Rhythm, Rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Improving Your Sight Reading

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Musicianship and Theory Classes

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 4, 2010

Trying Out Wagner!

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

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

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