Monday, December 26, 2011

Too Busy?

I hope you all are enjoying a wonderfully relaxing holiday season with your family and friends.  I think most of us use this time each year to reflect over the past 12 months, making observations about life and gleaning nuggets of wisdom.

In 2011, I encountered a situation I had never faced before.  I found myself with so many opportunities to play, lecture, and teach private lessons that I simply could not do it all.  What a wonderful situation to be in!  On the other hand, it was also a distressing situation.  You see, now I had to make some difficult choices and let some people down.  So now I am asking myself these questions:  How do you know when your performing schedule is too full?  How do you decide what opportunities to let go and which to take?

This time, the answer to the first question was obvious.  I knew that I had too many things on my plate because I could not figure out the logistics of being everywhere that I needed to be.  It was simply impossible to drive the distances required and fulfill all of my duties in the available time.  As I've continued to ponder this situation, I have asked myself if there were other signs signaling a problem -- if the scheduling had not been a problem.  Here's what I've come up with.

I didn't feel overwhelmed by the music.  I felt as though I could have played more music and done it excellently.  A very wise friend, however, made a comment that struck a nerve.  He said that no one else cares about your personal health and mental well-being, so sometimes you simply have to know when to say "no."  While I could have easily played the music for these performances, I had to pay attention to some other things.  With my current schedule, I was experiencing a lot of fatigue physically.  I found myself relying on sodas, chocolate, and jumping jacks to get me through the day.  There were stretches of 10 or 12 days where my only communication with my parents was by phone. (This is more alarming when you realize that I LIVE in their home to assist them.)  I wasn't away from home;  I was just coming in late at night and departing the next morning before they were awake.  That was causing a certain amount of emotional stress as well since I felt that I was not honoring commitments that I had made to my family.  While I am actively pursuing my career with all my might, I must insure that I am taking care of myself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Musicians will always have times of extremely difficult schedules, but these are normally associated with the final preparations for an upcoming performance.  I knew I was in trouble when there were no performances approaching and I was keeping this insane schedule.  When my career begins to eat away at time devoted to other areas of my life for extended periods of time, it's time to re-evaluate the schedule.

Now the question was how to decide which opportunities to turn down.  That was an easier problem to solve. I asked myself two simple questions.  1)  Will this performance significantly advance my career goals?  2) Does this opportunity promise to bring me personal happiness? If the answer to neither of these questions was "yes", then I passed up the performance.  It was difficult to back out of commitments I had made at an earlier date, but I had to come to the realization that my situation had changed since agreeing to the gig.  I took comfort in backing out of these commitments, however, since I gave ample notice of my resignation and provided viable recommendations for accomplished replacement pianists.

It's never an easy thing to admit that your schedule is full and nothing else can be added to it, but I am thrilled with the decisions I made and know that I have learned a valuable lesson from this.  Honestly I hope to face this problem many more times over the course of my career.  It just means that I am active in my playing and being sought out because I'm doing a good job.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lessons Learned at Union

This fall, I had the privilege of beginning a new part time position at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee as staff pianist.  While my responsibilities only had me joining the music department 2 to 3 days per week, I have learned some valuable lessons by surviving this first semester in the position.

  • Organization is Key!  Because of my limited time on campus, I have to insure that I am completely organized in order to make the most of my time.  My calendar became permanently attached to my right arm....most of the time.  There was a period of approximately 2 weeks where I couldn't find my paper calendar and was relying exclusively on my iPhone.  Amazingly, I didn't miss any major appointments thanks to iCloud technology.   In addition to using an e-calendar, I also found email reminders imperative;  nothing is worse than having blocks of time wasted due to students not showing up without advance notice.  I am considering using a site like Music Teacher's Helper in the spring to provide additional assistance.
  • Commuting is not a dirty word!  Union is roughly 85 miles from my home, so I find myself doing a lot of driving.  Initially, I thought this was going to be a waste of time.  I found that this round-trip drive became some of my most productive time of the week.  The quiet time devoid of distractions allowed me to ponder issues,  review upcoming lectures, and brainstorm about research projects and upcoming events.  Additionally, it was a prime time to listen to repertoire that I was currently learning.  I'm actually finding myself missing that time on the road now that I am on break.  
  • Protect Practice Time!  A new position meant that I had to push myself to perform at my best in all situations.......from the weekly lesson to the concert hall.  Since I am not the only staff pianist at Union, I find that my colleagues push me to maintain a high level of excellence through their high standard of performance as well as their friendship.  With all the driving and playing, practice time became a hot commodity and one that I had to protect at all cost.  Though most of the music was not extremely difficult technically this semester, I wanted to make sure that I allowed ample time to shape pieces musically and continue to develop my personal skills as a soloist as well as collaborator.  Pianists who lose the drive to continue developing and excelling are the ones who fall into the background as "accompanists" rather than maintaining their position as an equal partner in performance.
Have I learned everything?  Certainly not.  That's part of the excitement and fun of my position at Union. This semester will include balancing several student degree recitals with other responsibilities;  these will bring a new set of challenges that I look forward to exploring and conquering.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Making a Lasting Impression

For the past several days, Memphis has been abuzz with activities in celebration of the life of a musician: Elvis Presley.  Like many cynics in the area, I poke fun at the fans who are crying their eyes out because of his death and the crazy costumes seen along the streets and at the candle-light vigil.  Still, I must admit that there is something intriguing about the man who forever shaped American music.  What lessons can we as musicians learn from his life and memory?

I have never been an Elvis fan, but have encountered many friends who would sooner have their teeth pulled than miss an opportunity to extol the virtues of the King of Rock and Roll.  These individuals are not lunatics by any stretch of the imagination, but they continue to talk of Elvis' influence as though he is still alive.  (Now THAT'S an entirely different source of contention among the Graceland faithful!  I'm sorry, folks, but ELVIS HAS TRULY LEFT THE BUILDING!)  Since my friends are not totally crazy, I decided to think about the life of this man and see what I can learn.

Elvis was aware of his environment.  He knew what trends were on the rise and which were on the way out.  He was not afraid of trying something new and welcomed the opportunity to re-interpret standards of the past.  What a lesson we can learn!  Classical music is largely about looking to the music of the past.  In order to maintain a level of relevancy, generate interest from a new generation, and influence modern society with our music, it is essential that musicians be aware of society's trends and look for opportunities to link them to our own performances.  This obviously involves looking to the works of contemporary composers -- those who are currently writing -- and performing their works alongside those of the establishment.  Additionally, I think it is important to consider the possibilities technology makes available to our craft.  Should we explore combining sight and sound into a single concert experience?  Do we use social media to connect with our audience in informal settings such as house concerts?  Thinking outside of the box made Elvis the center of attention and will do the same for any other musician who executes their unique plans effectively.

Elvis was not afraid of scrutiny.  While many laughed and jeered as he introduced new sounds, Elvis continued with his plan with confidence.  As any musician begins to depart from the status quo, there will certainly be nay-sayers who proclaim the certain failure to come.  Having the fortitude to stand for personal convictions in the midst of criticism is quite possibly one of the most important -- and most difficult -- traits a successful performer must have.  You may not agree with my choices or my execution, but please respect the choice I have made and allow me to pursue my plans; honest support and good wishes will generally result in the same being returned to you.

Finally, Elvis influenced his audiences.  There was simply something about him that drew crowds to him. Never taking this for granted, Elvis kept his audiences as the central focus of each performance.  We may not attract massive crowds to hear our performances, but the fact remains the same:  every time we walk on stage, we have the opportunity to influence people with our music.  It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Regardless of WHAT we are performing, the goal of music is to speak to the soul of the listener.  To speak deeply to the inner being of another person requires great preparation on my part and a certainty of the message that I hope to convey.  Music is language and language is powerful.

Even though I am not a fan of the music of the King, I admire his influence and acknowledge his continuing legacy.  I hope someday that those who hear me play might express some of the same qualities about me as I see in the life of Elvis Presley.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Music in Translation

There are some issues that I simply wish would just go away.  One of these seems to have been a topic of discussion in my world for far too long:  playing music composed for the harpsichord on modern instruments.  While I respect the importance of historical performance, I feel that this is too limiting in the musical development of our students.  Where do we draw the line?  Works composed for harpsichord are off limits, but those for forte-piano are okay?  Or is it a matter of the age of the performers:  you can play all works on a modern instrument until you complete high school and then the rules change?  Who gets to decide what is appropriate?  Why does it really matter?

The topic came up again in a conversation with a friend who teaches English literature.  She made a very powerful observation that essentially settled the issue in my mind.  In other disciplines, it is admitted that the ideal situation is to read literature in the language that it was written;  however, because the texts are so important to a thorough understanding of the discipline, they are often read, evaluated, and cited in translation.  She went further to explain that sometimes works are "translated" when there are significant developments in a language.  Works such as Canterbury Tales and Beowolf have been translated from Old English into modern English so we can read, comprehend, and experience the majesty of the texts.  Thus, it follows that musicians may find themselves in situations where they need to "translate" the performance of some compositions to modern instruments in order to experience them firsthand.

As musicians, most of us will agree that it is ideal to perform Bach and Scarlatti on the harpsichord.  When that option is not feasible for whatever reason, we study the literature on a modern instrument.  Not only do we study it, but we also perform it.  After all, the art of performance is not just about the musician's interest and pleasure; it is also a means of educating our audience and exposing them to music from all eras and of all styles.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

New Blog: Music for the Master

By now, most of you who read my blog on a semi-regular basis know that I have been active in church music for many years.  My roles over the years have included pianist, conductor, and arranger.  Now I serve a church in Collierville, Tennessee as Director of Music Ministries.  As I thought about the content of this blog, I realized that the worship ministry discussions were getting lost in the mix and muddying the waters of our other discussions.  Out of this realization, I have begun working on another blog -- Music for the Master -- where we will explore issues related to the music of the church.  For those of you who serve a local congregation in any variety or are interested in the role of music in the church, I invite you to join the discussion.  I plan to continue writing here as well, so stay tuned for more dialogue to come about my many piano collaborations.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Learning Literature Quickly

On Saturday evening, I received a frantic text message that a performer scheduled for the following morning had backed out at the last minute.  I was asked to cover the performance.  With little advance notice and nothing in my arsenal at the moment, I was forced to pull something together very quickly.  Fortunately the repertoire wasn't too difficult this time, but we have all faced those stressful situations where we have less than 24 hours to get a piece as polished as possible.  Rarely is this skill taught to our advanced students.  So I began to WOULD I teach this skill?

The first step is analyzing the harmonic structure.  You can survive a difficult passage that you might fumble through IF you know where you are heading.  This is especially important if there is an unexpected modulation that jumps out at you when you least expect it.  The other culprit (especially in church choral music) is the unexpected shift to a minor mode.

Seek out patterns!  Repetition is one of the foundational aspects of music and helps us learn music more quickly.  Don't just look for exact repeats; sequences and partial repeats can save us a lot of time working out tough passages.  Learn it the first time and see if you can continue to use the same fingering with minor adjustments.

Speaking of fingerings.....WRITE IN YOUR MUSIC!  Mark your score up.  Neatly inserted fingerings, chord symbols, and lines showing the rhythmic structure can be your best friends when you are basically sight-reading on stage.  Depending upon the circumstance, I have used a different color for each type of mark.

What about you?  What do you do right away when you're trying to learn a new piece in a short time frame?  I am always looking for new hints that I can add to my bag of tricks.  Please share your insight in the comments section below.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Compositions for Children

I have been highly interested in putting together a program of music intended specifically for children.  As I began the search, I found the common works we would expect - Debussy's Children's Corner and the Schubert and Schumann Albums for the Young.  As I began to look deeper, I discovered a couple of additional works that I wasn't familiar with that are proving to be quite rewarding.

First on my list is Musiques d'Enfants (Op. 65) by Prokofieff.  This set of 12 pieces are rather short and are trickier than they first appear.  Not only am I finding them to be wonderfully rewarding to perform, several of the pieces are appropriate for intermediate students who are wanting to explore Russian music.

The other set that is on my plate at the moment is Children's Songs by Chick Corea.  The first 15 songs were originally composed for the Fender Rhodes with the remaining songs intended for the acoustic piano.  Corea states that any of the songs can be played on either instrument.  These are proving to be a little more difficult to become intimate with at this point.  While the Prokofieff grabbed my ear from the outset, Corea's works are less pleasant immediately.  I anticipate that as I spend more time with them in the coming weeks these pieces will become just as appreciated and treasured as the others.

Do you have suggestions of pieces that I might consider adding to my program?  I am thrilled that I have the opportunity to work with children in my church position as well as my teaching and thought it would be fun to present a program that reflects that aspect of my life.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: Why Mahler?

Recently I came to realize that while I know quite a bit about musical trends and movements from a historical perspective, my knowledge of the biographies of many of the major composers is less than complete.  As part of my personal goals, I am beginning to add biographies to my reading list.  The first biography that I completed was Norman Lebrecht’s fascinating book Why Mahler?  How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.

Lebrecht paints a stunning portrait of a musical genius who feels as though he belongs nowhere.  He is not accepted by his Viennese home, finds no relief in Judaism, and is never comfortable in the United States.  Additionally, his works are often overlooked and considered inferior by many of the critics of the day. 

Lebrecht is also careful to present the love between Gustav and Alma with honesty and clarity.  Alma’s penchant for exaggeration – or blatantly lying – to present her life in a favorable light is addressed on numerous accounts.  Their mythological love is handled with dignity and simple honesty.

One of my favorite scenes comes at the end of the biography.  Returning to Europe on board the SS Amerika, Alma is putting the couple’s daughter Anna to bed.  Mahler knows that he is going to die soon, so “he gives final orders to Anna Moll [a family friend].   He wants to be buried beside his daughter Maria in the Grinzing cemetery, without fuss, and just ‘Mahler’ on his headstone.  ‘Anyone who comes to look for me will know who I was and the rest don’t need to know.’” (Lebrecht, 194)  This Devil-may-care attitude is indicative of Mahler’s life and career.  Such a fitting end for an interesting and passionate man.

Why Mahler? is written in three major parts.  Section I deals with some frequently asked questions about the man and his music before launching into a thorough biography in Section II.  The final section examines issues of interpretation and will be a valuable resource to any student of Mahler’s orchestral works. 

Lebrecht explains the need for this final section by telling us about Mahler’s views as a composer and conductor.
Mahler was, on the one hand, a precisionist who tried to leave nothing to chance and, on the other, a dreamer in pursuit of an unattainable perfection.  Recognizing these limitations, he licensed conductors to use their discretion when performing his works.  “If after my death something doesn’t sound right,” he told Otto Klemperer, “then change it.  You have not only the right but the duty to do so.” (Lebrecht, 212)

Lebrecht then launches into a detailed analysis of major recordings of each of the orchestral works, citing successes, failures, and missteps by leading conductors.  Lebrecht is quite thorough and provides both historical and contemporary examples.  While this section is not a page-turner like the biography, the extensiveness and breadth of the discussion makes it an enormously valuable resource.

Wonderfully written in a mostly flowing prose style, Why Mahler? is an excellent book to add to any music historian’s and performer’s library.  Whether you are looking for a simple introduction to the life of this composer or intimate details, this book will certainly have what you are looking for.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Teaching in Students’ Homes

As the summer begins to wind down, I find myself finalizing plans for a new year in my piano studio. With the decision to move to a new location comes lots of excitement as new students are preparing to begin learning about piano playing. My former students are just beginning to contact me about their future plans. One option that is available to them is the possibility of continuing lessons in their homes. When I initially made the offer to these students, I honestly didn't expect that any of them would opt for that. I am happy to say that I have a student who plans to continue studying with me and I will teach her in her home. I feel perfectly comfortable with this family so I am not terribly worried about the process. However, now that I realize this is a valid option for many students, I have begun to consider the pros and cons of teaching private lessons in student homes.
Here are the positive aspects
that I have come up with so far.
  • Stable schedule.
    If a cancellation is going to occur, there is a greater responsibility on the family to notify me so I don't arrive unexpectedly.
  • Fewer cases of forgotten music.
    Although they may not be able to place their hands on the music immediately, there will be fewer opportunities for losing music by transporting it from piano to car to studio.
  • Community awareness.
    I anticipate other families noticing that I am visiting at the same time each week and associating my presence with the sounds (hopefully pleasant) coming from the house. It's just another opportunity to publicize my studio and possibly secure additional lessons.
  • Teaching on the home instrument.
    Students sometimes have difficulty transferring the concepts learned in the studio to their home practice environment. By teaching in the home environment, I anticipate that we can establish some routine to follow for the remainder of the week that we have demonstrated in the lesson.
  • Parental presence.
    Parents are always welcome in my studio (as long as they are not distracting to the lesson), but few of them actually take the opportunity to observe. Teaching in the home creates a greater likelihood that the parent may be working in a nearby room, hearing the comments and instructions given to the student. This scenario offers increased inquiry from the parents about assignments and progress. It also insures that I will have solid face time with parents each week; no more drop offs of a student without at least seeing the adult.
  • Increased pay.
    Let's face it – earning a higher rate for the lesson is one of the primary reasons any of us would consider teaching in the home. Parents are aware of the cost of gas and are willing to pay an additional fee since they do not have to travel. Additionally, they are thankful that you are fitting their home into your busy schedule.
There are a few negatives
that are a bit of a concern to me.
  • No control of the learning environment.
    Since I will be teaching in a student's home, I will have little sway over the established environment of the home. Will the television be blaring in the next room? Will an older sibling be listening to an ear-piercing CD upstairs? There are additional concerns as well including traffic in the area, pets, and lighting.
  • Quality of the instrument.
    It has been my experience that many parents of beginning students give significant consideration to the financial cost of an instrument with less emphasis placed on its quality. While I understand that some families are doing the best they can to simply have an instrument at all and pay for weekly lessons, a student can be significantly hampered if they never have the opportunity to play on an instrument of the highest quality.
  • Use of technology and manipulatives.
    I am looking forward to adding computer-aided learning to my bag of tricks this year in my studio as well as recording students' lessons for their personal reference. In-home students will miss the benefits of these lesson aspects since I won't be packing up all the equipment to carry in for a single lesson.
  • Student isolation.
    There is simply something to be said for watching students leaving the studio before your lesson time. It was always a thrill to me to catch the last few minutes of the lesson prior to mine and to compare myself to their performance. It's also a great way to be introduced to new repertoire. In the home, the student will miss out on that sense of camaraderie and community generated by being in the studio. I will attempt to alleviate the isolation by making personal invitations to participate in group classes and outings throughout the year.
Do you teach students in their homes? What bullet points would you add to my lists? Tell me about your experiences as well as the positives and negatives you see in the comment section below.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Video: Arnold Schoenberg

We are down to the last few days of summer school, so I have begun an abbreviated look at the music of the early 20th century with the students.  Today we spent a sizable portion of our time together looking at Arnold Schoenberg.  My students were very impressed with Wagner's contributions at the end of the Romantic era, so they were fascinated with Schoenberg.  It is always amazing to me that Schoenberg's advancements move so far forward that he has to abandon tonality entirely.  I cannot begin to imagine the genius that would conceive of this possibility.

In my research for class, I ran across an interesting (and brief) video on YouTube about the composer's life and influences.  Take a few minutes and appreciate the life and music of Arnold Schoenberg.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Adult Piano Lessons

When some people think of piano lessons, their mind immediately imagines a child sitting quietly at a piano, mindlessly practicing dull finger exercises.  Thankfully that is not an accurate image on several fronts!  The aspect of piano lessons that is sometimes most surprising is that adults can enjoy lessons and experience success.

Why would an adult learner want to take piano lessons?  The reasons are as diverse as the individuals.  Some are returning to an instrument of their childhood; many express that they took lessons for a season and now regret leaving the study of music for other pursuits.  On the flip side, some adults find themselves with more time and self-discipline to devote to a new hobby that has always intrigued them.

The benefits of adult piano lessons are both emotional and physical.  My adult students report that they find the routine of a practice regime to be relaxing; they are further transported to a happy place as the sounds of the instrument wash over their ears, cleansing the cares of the day.  Others treat playing the piano as physical therapy, especially those suffering with arthritis in their hands.  The movement of the hands somehow seems to release some of the tension and restore mobility.

Adult learners experience success at the piano due to their increased mental capacity and hand-eye coordination.  In certain cases, however, their increased ability to think logically can become a stumbling block.  While a child simply accepts some musical facts, the adult learner wants to understand the "why" behind the principle.  This deeper voyage into music theory can create temporary frustration for the adult learner, but ultimately leads to a fuller understanding and mastery of musical concepts.

Adult students are self-motivating and highly disciplined.  They are aware that the practicing process brings gradual results and that consistency and perseverance are key.  Because the adult is pursuing musical instruction without pressure from an authority figure such as a parent, the student relaxes more and enjoys the trip rather than focusing all their energies on reaching the final destination.

Is it ever too late to begin studying music?  Not at all...especially when we realize that the joy is in the process as well as the final product. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How Young is Too Young?

Like most piano teachers, I get asked a ton of questions about piano lessons over and over again.  One question seems to come up more often than the others:  what is the youngest student you are willing to teach?  In other words, how young is too young?

I wish there was a simple answer to this question.  No two children are exactly alike.  A 4-year-old may be ready for lessons while a 6-year-old is not.  Here are some of the questions I ask inquiring parents to help them determine if now is the time to begin lessons for their youngster.

  • Does the child have a firm grasp on the alphabet, counting, and sequencing?  These skills are fundamental to some of the basic elements of playing the instrument.
  • Can the child remain focused on a single task for several minutes?  While the lesson is broken up into various segments and activities are varied in order to keep young minds active, the student will still need to be able to remain on task for 5 minutes at a time. 
  • Has the student shown interest in playing the piano?  You would not believe the number of times that parents answer "no" to this question.  While I firmly believe in musical education, it is not something to be forced upon a child.  Placing them in lessons before they are emotionally, physically, and intellectually ready can result in a negative experience.
Once I have asked these simple questions, I begin to get a sense of who the child is - in the parent's mind, at least.  If it seems that the child might be ready for lessons and is younger than 7, I advise the adult that young children sometimes progress slower than their older counter parts.  I cannot predict where it will happen, but there often seems to be a single concept that becomes a roadblock to the young mind and takes a while to get past.  Rather than focusing on what they cannot do, I choose to spend a lot of time re-enforcing what they have already learned in order to insure that they are still enjoying playing the piano.  Generally, the student will let me know when they are ready to explore the new concept again through their questions and we normally have success.

If the parent is cool with a slower pace for the young child, I recommend having a few lessons together without making a long term commitment.  This allows everyone involved -- teacher, parent, and student -- to see if the relationship will work and is worth the investment of time and finances at this time.

If pushed into a corner to give an age, I normally suggest that a child begin lessons no earlier than the spring semester of kindergarten.  There's nothing scientific that I've found to support's just been my experience.  Let me hear from you.  How young is too young to begin piano lessons in your studio?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Job Hunt: Telephone Interview Success

Recently I have heard stories from more and more musicians about their experiences with telephone interviews.  Whether you are auditioning for a performance gig or a teaching position, it is highly probable that you will need to discuss your skills, ideas, and experience with another person before meeting them in person.  Successful telephone interviews are essential to getting to the next round of the interview and can be extremely daunting.  Here are a few things I have learned from doing various phone interviews over the past few months.

  1. Prepare your environment.  Since no one will see us, it is easy to think that the physical surroundings are not important.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Not only does a quiet setting allow one to maintain a level of professionalism and thoughtfulness, an appropriate situation provides the means to present yourself in the best light.  Make sure to have a copy of your current resume and the job description close at hand.  Material to make notes during your conversation may also be helpful to keep you focused and on task.
  2. Anticipate standard questions and prepare responses.  Phone interviews are stressful enough. You can alleviate unnecessary anxiety by preparing answers to questions that will arise in almost any interview situation.  These questions may include a brief introduction of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and how you handle collaboration and/or conflict with colleagues.  I have found it helpful to briefly outline my responses to these questions in order to refer to them during the dialogue.  This advance preparation allows you to rest mentally while showing your interest in the position through your preparation.
  3. Do a little research.  Take the time to investigate the institution you are talking to and learn a little bit about them.  An informed interviewee is able to answer questions in regards to the specific situation at the institution. 
  4. Have a glass of water.  Nerves combined with lots of talking produce a dry mouth.  Whether you drink it or not, you'll be glad to have the water close at hand.....just in case you need it.
  5. Listen. Nothing is worse than answering a question that was not asked.  Listen carefully to each question, make notes as necessary -- especially as interview questions can sometimes be quite involved -- and answer the question asked directly and succinctly.  If you are not clear on the meaning of the question, feel free to ask for clarification before launching into a diatribe.
  6. Ask questions.  At the end of most interviews, you will be given the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewer.  By asking questions, you signal that you have thought about the position and the process in advance and are genuinely interested in the possibility of joining the team.  Questions might include a request for information about the music department's size, opportunities for private instruction in the community, community music organizations, and the anticipated timeline of the hiring process.
By no means am I an expert at phone interviews.  I'm learning as I wind my way through the application/interview process.  I'd love to hear your suggestions to add to my list of tips. Leave your ideas in the comments below.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Studio Issues - Redesign or Relocate?

Summer is upon us and that means I will be traveling for much of the summer.  As a result, I have cancelled piano lessons for the summer and using the time to reflect upon the past year while planning for the fall semester.  At the top of my list is the question of redesigning my current studio situation or simply relocating.

The spring brought massive amounts of rainfall to the Memphis area.  Many properties experienced significant water damage, including the Arts Annex of Delta Arts.  The arts organization of Crittenden County, Arkansas has generously allowed me to use the annex for the past few years at no expense.  The facilities have been convenient and the price was right.  During the storms, the annex experienced some severe damage.  Add to this the constant threat of losing the annex due to the financial constraints of the arts organization and you will understand why the thought of relocating is on my mind.

The instrument in the room is sufficient for teaching beginner students (yes, I hear your collective groans because of that statement), but most of my students are now reaching a level where a better instrument is no longer a luxury but a necessity.  The space is not exclusively devoted to my teaching; other organizations benefit from the use of the annex. This is wonderful for public relations, but causes difficulties for me when it comes to scheduling and decorating.

I would generally grin and bear it, but another option is available at this time.  The church that I work for has mentioned that it might be possible to begin teaching there with the idea of developing a music conservatory to serve the community.  There are definite benefits to this scenario.  The instrument is concert quality.  The facility is already equipped with technology and sound equipment.  Students would be able to present recitals on the same instrument they use weekly.  Personally, it would eliminate an additional stop in my already over-scheduled life.  The benefits are great.

The negative comes in relation to my current students.  The church is approximately 30 miles away from my current studio location.  While it is not unusual for families in eastern Arkansas to commute across the bridge into Tennessee, it may deter some of these students from continuing their studies with me.  I have come to enjoy working with these young people and we are making strides together in their love of the piano. 

The other negative relates to the process of recruiting new students.  I consider this to be one of the greatest difficulties in establishing a piano studio.  While I do not currently have students in the southeast Shelby County area, it is a larger market and one in which I regularly perform.  I have a reputation in the area.  When I consider the fact that there are only 7 students in my studio at this time, I feel confident that I will be able to find the same number of students across the river. 

As you can see, I'm in the early stages of making a decision, so nothing is settled at all.  What factors do you consider when thinking about relocating your studio?  If you have already gone through the process of moving, what lessons have you learned from the experience?  What would you do differently if you had it to do all over again?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dinner Party

A former student of mine conducted an interview with me today for an introductory speech.  Nothing overly exciting about that.....I'm always happy to talk to my students and help them out when I can.  There was a question that was thought-provoking and one I had never been asked quite this way.

The question was phrased something like this.  Imagine that you were hosting a dinner party for two musicians -- a living performer and a dead composer.  Who would you want to invite and what would you serve for dinner?  I laughed about the last part of the question since I would probably end up ordering take out!  I knew the student was needing answers, so I gave a valid response off the cuff.  I have continued to think about the question and have really had some difficulty narrowing my response to just two people.

For the current performer, I'm leaning toward a conductor.....maybe Michael Tilson Thomas or Esa Pekka Salonen.  Both of these men give such riveting interpretations and appear to be both highly intelligent and delightful conversationalists. 

The composers have me in a pickle!  I would love to sit with Copland to talk about his approach to American music, but I also think it would be absolutely amazing to listen to Mozart or Stravinsky talk about the art of composition.  Wagner would be fascinating -- despite his personal philosophies about humanity, he certainly knew something about dramatic moments! That doesn't even begin to explore the wonderful possibilities.....Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Bach........the list could just go on and on.

Who would attend your dinner party?  What's on the menu?  I'm really anxious to hear your responses to this one!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Waking to a World of Music

Today marks the beginning of a new semester of music appreciation classes at MSCC in West Memphis, Arkansas.  I am really looking forward to this summer term as I am using it as an opportunity to try out some new approaches in a short-term setting.  If things go well, I will implement them into the regular course this fall.

As I reviewed my opening lecture last night, I was reminded of the concept that music is all around us.  I always look forward to showing the students a video recorded performance of 4'33".  It breaks the ice a little bit in this "super serious" class, but it also serves as a reminder that sounds are all around us -- just waiting to have their beauty discovered.

I suppose that is why I was so receptive to being awakened by a morning serenade.  Shortly after 6am this morning, work began outside my window.  The rhythmic banging of machinery provided an interesting accompaniment to the songs of two competing birds who have set up nests just outside my bedroom window.  Normally I would be horribly annoyed at such an early wake-up call, but this morning I found myself intrigued and strangely drawn to other musical sounds from my environment. 

I honestly hope that this pseudo-aleatory performance is a sign of how things will go for the next few weeks.  I really want to take a new look at music with fresh eyes and discover new treasures that had slipped into the background noise. 

When was the last time you stopped long enough to listen to the symphony of sounds playing all around you?  If you stop long enough, you just might be surprised at the masterpiece that will greet your spirit and your ears.

*Image by Vickie Warner -

Friday, May 27, 2011

I'm Still Here.....

It's been way too long since I have found time to write.  Tornadoes, historic floods, recitals, teaching, family weddings, travels and work have demanded my time.  Despite my absence in the blogosphere, I have been a very busy pianist and look forward to sharing my thoughts with you once again.

Currently I am in the process of making a decision about my summer schedule.  I can definitely use the extra income associated with private lessons, but the summer is an intense time for the other areas of my life as well.  I am contemplating giving my students a "holiday" and returning to a regular teaching schedule in the fall.  I know it's not the ideal situation for their musical development, but I also know that I am a better teacher when I am rested and excited to see them on a weekly basis.  What are your personal experiences?  I'd welcome your input.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Teaching Philosophy

Once again, I find myself applying for jobs around the country in hopes of landing that first full time position.  As I prepare for a new round of applications and interviews, I am reviewing my materials and have found that my philosophy of teaching needs a serious overhaul. 

Of all the supporting documents that are requested, this one causes me the most difficulty.  In my current situation, I am constantly changing hats.  My morning begins as a lecturer before morphing into the role of private instructor and collaborative artist.  The difficulty that I am having is developing a statement that reflects the principles I strive to adhere to in my teaching that are not exclusive to my role as either a classroom lecturer or private instructor. 

Further, I am finding that my teaching philosophy is a work in progress.  Each day brings new insights and revelations into the art of teaching students about music.  The document, therefore, can be little more than a snapshot into my educational philosophy at that moment in time.  A reflective instructor is constantly reviewing and evaluating their approach and making necessary modifications to their instructional methods.  While I do find that my basic philosophy of education is established, it is my hope that my philosophy remains flexible and malleable -- constantly subject to revision as I have new insights and experiences.

What do you find to be the most important aspect of your teaching philosophy?  What things do you wish you had considered early on that you overlooked?  I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lessons Learned in the "Garden"

This week I have been doing a lot of resting and reflecting on my recent experience with a local production of The Secret Garden with an area high school.  Much of what I have realized is not a new revelation, but rather important reminders of lessons I have previously learned.  Here are some of the highlights.

  • Theater is fun!  Despite the long hours of rehearsal and the tired arms, I truly enjoyed being involved in the creative process of a musical again.  Over the past few years, I have been working exclusively in youth theater with a troupe that doesn't push to do anything that will challenge or better the students.  I had forgotten how fulfilling a meaningful and demanding score can be.  Not only that, but the cast feels a sense of pride with each new accomplishment that pushes them to work harder.  As their energy increases, the excitement is contagious.
  • Making connections....One of the most beneficial aspects of my time in the pit was meeting other musicians who are working in the area.  For this production, I sat directly in front of the violins (odd location, but definitely a new sound experience!) so I got to talk to many of the string players.  After a few days of playing together and getting to know each other, we began to exchange contact information and connect via Facebook and other social media.  What will be the professional benefits?  I don't know.  Perhaps the most valuable part of the process was actually MAKING the contacts.  Since I don't consider myself to be overly social, I often avoid situations that require me interacting with people I don't know personally.  My time in The Garden provided me the opportunity to practice these important skills in a safe, non-threatening atmosphere.
  • Time is of the essence!  Since the musical was not my only responsibility for the past 6 weeks, my time management skills were of paramount importance.  I found myself looking for 15-minute segments throughout the day that could be used effectively to make sure that everything got done.  Most surprisingly for me, I departed from using a traditional paper calendar and transferred my organization to Google calendar.  Going electronic meant that I could access my schedule from my smart phone without having to manage another book.  Task lists were permanent fixtures of this adventure; honestly, I have probably accomplished more in this incredibly busy season than any other time of the year.  Now I'm just considering how to transfer the productivity into the times that are not so crazy.
  • Searching for down time.  Over an extended run, my body and mind were put to the test.  Fortunately, I planned periods of rest in my day and protected them from any interference.  I also examined my daily routine to find what tasks were essential and which were not;  non-essential tasks were put on hold for a while (including blogging).  I believe that since I did find time to rest daily I have avoided major health issues now that the show is over;  I also credit my new daily vitamin regimen.  (Gotta love gummy more trying to swallow huge pills for me!)
So there you have it -- a look into my mind over the past few days.  Now it's time to move on to other exciting projects, including planning the music for my niece's wedding and rehearsing for an upcoming recital in Texas. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Long Distance Recitals

One of the benefits of being a relative neophyte in the collaborative arts is the constant opportunity to encounter new challenges in my profession.  I have been asked to collaborate with a close friend of mine who will be presenting his final graduate voice recital later this semester.  Rehearsals will be limited due to geographical separation;  he is working in Florida while I am currently in Arkansas.

Fortunately much of the program is comprised of chansons and American art songs that are familiar.  Despite their familiarity, there are numerous options in regard to phrasing and tempi.  In order to insure that our time together is as productive as possible, I am taking a few steps to make sure both performers are approaching the music from common ground.

First, I have asked for a CD containing performances that he is using in his own preparation.  While I generally do not like to listen to recordings when preparing a performance, in this case I see how it can be a time saver and give us both a standard performance that we can discuss via email.

Secondly, I am taking the score's metronome markings literally. There may be some fluctuation of tempo when we rehearse, but the published markings will give us both a common starting point.  For those pieces that include no metronome marking, I am listening to recordings online and sending him the metronome markings that I am rehearsing.  In both situations, he can alert me in advance if he plans to sing the work significantly faster or slower.

Lastly, I am spending time in my practice time to sing the vocal lines.  (Thankfully there are not many dogs around my piano;  the howls of horror would be rather frightening!)  This is not an attempt to achieve a high-level vocal performance on my part;  rather, it is to become intimately aware of those places where additional time may be needed for breathing.  While I may not catch them all, I will find the most obvious and be prepared to allow adequate time for the singer to reload.

How do you prepare for a recital when the soloist is not close enough to allow for rehearsals?  Fortunately, I have worked with this musician for several years and am acquainted with his preferences and musical interpretations.  I anticipate a successful recital -- and lots of fun -- as we return to the stage together.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rediscovering Bach

Like most pianists, I have spent many hours studying the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).  From the simple works contained in Anna Magdalena's Notebook and the two-part inventions to the preludes and fugues in the Well Tempered Clavier, I have done my fair share of works by this Baroque master.

When I performed my last graduate recital, I played the Italian Concerto and swore that I would never play another Bach piece as long as I lived.  It's not that I don't respect the composer.  Neither do I adhere to the philosophy that Baroque music should only be played on period instruments.  (In a perfect situation, period instruments are ideal, but we have to play on the instrument that is available.)  I just simply did not enjoy the music.  I'm speaking heresy to many of you now, I know.  It's just a personal preference.  I would much rather play a lovely melody of Beethoven or Faure than fight my way through the thick textures of Bach's polyphony.

This opinion was formed in childhood.  A very well-meaning teacher had me plow through all the inventions despite my complaints that I "hated this dumb music."  With a twinkle in her eye, she declared that when I got older I would finally understand just how beautiful this music is.  (She then had a gleefully wicked grin as she told me that I WOULD play the inventions now and survive!  Oh how I miss her sometimes!)

Now that I don't have a teacher sitting over my shoulder constantly lauding the glory of Bach, I am finding myself drawn to his brilliance again.  As I teach my music appreciation students, we take a look at the fugue and begin to see how intelligent a composer had to be to conceive of a well-wrought composition in this form.  So I decided that it was time to take a journey through the Well Tempered Clavier on my own and give this composer a fresh look.

I have decided to start at the very beginning (you's "a very good place to start").  The C major and C minor preludes and fugues were very familiar to me, so it didn't take very long to get through them.  They aren't performance ready, but I was anxious to get to some material with which I wasn't familiar.  Where did I find myself?  You guessed it -- face to face with the third prelude in the volume -- in C# major!  After a few deep breaths and talking myself out of quickly running away and finding another work in a more appropriate key, I dove in and began to learn this beautiful prelude.  I grumbled for a few days as I continued to miss E#'s and B#'s, but the frustration quickly passed as I began to be swept away by the harmonic beauty.  The progressions are not mind shattering on paper, but in Bach's hands the music moves to the next tonal center at the perfect moment, creating tension and release.

I'm finding myself anxious to spend some more time with Mr. Bach now.  Will I get through all the preludes and fugues this year?  I'm not sure about that......I don't want to be TOO radical.....but I do plan to spend some quality time with this composer and let the beauty of his sounds wash over my ears with a fresh attitude and approach.

Now, I really must get back to the piano......time to start learning some notes in the C# major fugue!

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Change of Scenery

The New Year is bringing about lots of change in my world.  People have made resolutions that involve dieting, de-cluttering, and professional development.  One such resolution is effecting my music these days in a very positive way.

Like many recent college graduates in this economy, work has been difficult to find.  In an effort to eliminate some expense I am living in my parents' home.  When I moved home, the only place for my piano was in the family room. Needless to say, this arrangement did not allow for much practice time when my father was anxious to watch his favorite television program in the same room.

Yesterday I rearranged things and placed the instrument in my bedroom.  My hope was to move the piano into the dining room -- a room with less traffic that would permit me to move my piano studio into my home.  Despite knowing that this is not necessarily the final arrangement, I found myself rather disappointed.  In an effort to avoid some awkward situations that arose, I found myself practicing in my room.  Surprisingly, the new location produced a very desirable sound quality from the instrument and has sparked my creativity.  I have accomplished more quality rehearsal in the past two days than I have in the past two weeks! 

Have you experienced a similar phenomenon?  Has a rearranged room or change of physical location sparked a renewed motivation or varied your interpretation of a piece in some way? 

I am enjoying my new scenery so much that I have seriously contemplated purchasing a second instrument for the dining room so I can continue to practice in the acoustical Heaven that is my bedroom.