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 think.....how 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.