Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fostering Student Enthusiasm

Every teacher longs for the day that students show enormous enthusiasm for the topic. When the newfound excitement is the result of a "lightbulb" moment or finally connecting two seemingly unrelated concepts, the thrill is immeasurable. I have witnessed this student excitement repeatedly in the past few days.

Several of my students have attended concerts this week and have found it invigorating to make connections between the classroom lectures and the realities of the concert hall. Nothing brings a smile to my face quicker than hearing a student tell me how much they enjoyed the experience. For many of the students, it was their first time to attend a classical concert. Their expectations (despite my best efforts) were low. When they finally grasp the concept that they understand more about the concert than they had anticipated, they are thrilled and let down their guard, enjoying the experience for what it is.

Once the thrill of new knowledge has worn off, the challenge becomes finding ways to continue fostering the excitement in the life of the student. That's where I'm finding myself these days....attempting to motivate some students to continue in their academic pursuits while trying to build enthusiasm in those who have not yet tightly screwed their "lightbulb" into the proverbial socket. The challenge of multitasking is what makes the art of successfully teaching students so difficult and incredibly fulfilling!

Monday, September 24, 2012


Last weekend, I had the good fortune of hearing Gabriela Montero play the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Montero's playing was exquisite and exhilarating.  While I enjoyed the Rachmaninoff, what most caught my attention was what happened upon her return to the stage for bows.

Montero explained that improvisation had been a tradition of many great composers throughout history and was something that she had enjoyed since her childhood.  She then proceeded to improvise for the audience.  What I found most impressive was that she accepted a suggested theme from the audience;  the selected song was Elvis Presley's Hound Dog. This was certainly one of the last songs I would have thought to consider for improvisation. The resulting experience was phenomenal! As I left the auditorium, I began to consider the role of improvisation in my own music making and in the lives of my students.

Montero mentioned that she had always enjoyed improvising and seemed to imply that it was something she could simply do. Did she really have no one teach her about improvisation? Is improv something that you are simply born with or you don't have it? In my own musical life, I have never considered myself imaginative and thought that only composers can create new sounds. While I understand harmonic progressions, I find myself tied to the page when I play. When I attempt to improvise, I am afraid to depart from the sounds that are defined as safe and acceptable.

I have equated improvisation with a skill set needed in jazz performance only. Since I am not a jazzer and have no aspirations to become one, I have never seen a need to develop my inner ear. After witnessing Montero's performance, however, I realize that I have been shutting out an entire dimension of music making that can only enhance my own performance.

So the question becomes how do I begin to learn how to improvise? It certainly doesn't come naturally to me. I struggle to simply let go and follow the music wherever it may take me. Often I find that a figure reminds me of a melody I know and I begin to play that work. How do I get past the fear that I'll make a mistake that will simply not be acceptable? While I'm learning how to improvise myself, are their exercises I can introduce to my students so we can grow in this area side by side?

As you can see, I don't have any of the answers.....just lots of questions. I don't think I'm the only one out there that is petrified at the thought of improvising in front of an audience. I would love to hear from those of you who have explored the magical world of improv and found comfort, joy, and personal success. Where did you start? What tips are you willing to pass on as I begin my own journey into this foreign realm of music making?  Leave your experiences, stories and suggestions in the comment section below.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Necessity of Weekly Lessons?

On Saturday, I had a very successful lesson with my newest student. It was clear that he had worked hard and was making progress on the pieces I had assigned just a few weeks earlier. Due to a conflict with my schedule last week, we hadn't seen each other in two weeks. At the end of the lesson, his mother informed me that they would be out of town the following weekend. Because of the lesson time we found that would work for both schedules, these know that cancellations like this will be more of the rule than the exception. We have mentioned that bi-weekly lessons might be a feasible solution. That got me thinking....are weekly lessons absolutely essential for the intermediate and advanced student?

Of course, I believe that the ideal situation is for student and teacher to meet weekly in order to check progress and give direction. For many teens and adults, however, such a schedule is tough. (Who am I kidding? It's often difficult for the teacher to find another lesson slot each week!) Will bi-weekly lessons be so bad? Is it possible to provide adequate guidance to keep the student busy for 2 weeks without overwhelming them in a single session?

Without launching into my personal opinions (as they currently stand at least), I'd like to hear from the other teachers out there. Have you ever given a student lessons every other week? What did you find to be the biggest challenges? Do you have suggestions of things to make sure I am aware of from the start of this arrangement? I'm really looking forward to hearing from all of you!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Teaching with a Hymnal

One of my late elementary students is also my niece.  She is showing lots of promise as a vocalist and intends to pursue music as a career. She is passionate about church music and enjoys playing it. So a few weeks ago, I decided to use her as my guinea pig and experiment with using the hymnal in my instruction to students actively involved in the church.

Let's begin by understanding a few things about Sara. Her innate musical abilities surpass her technical skills at the piano. Because the sounds of a traditional method book have not captured her interest, she has resisted practicing. That's when I decided I had nothing to lose with this experiment. Here's how things have progressed so far.

I found that the hymn Jesus Loves Me is in C Major in my congregation's hymnal (The Celebration Hymnal). We began with a simple sight-reading exercise of the soprano line and discussed how the pianist's eyes and ears work in union together to learn a familiar piece of music. Sara enjoyed playing a familiar piece, so I took things a step further and encouraged her to play the soprano and alto lines. This proved to be more challenging, but definitely possible. It was also an opportunity to further discuss thirds in preparation for our first introduction to chords and harmonic progression. Sara found the greatest challenge in overcoming the hand shifts required to play the piece. Since it was a familiar piece, however, she was willing to apply herself and work through the difficulty.

Today's lesson was a wonderful experience for both of us. Sara had put in the time to successfully get through the entire hymn. After her performance, she mentioned that she was still struggling to make things sound smooth -- a perfect segue way into my instruction on the importance of carefully chosen finger patterns. Rather than moving into her method book today (which I admit I use as a crutch since I'm still developing as a teacher), I thought this might be a good time to begin discussing chords. To my great surprise, Sara grasped the concept quickly and discovered the natural relationship between the dominant and tonic. This week, Sara is going to experiment with creating a chord chart for the hymn as well. I'm interested to see what she comes up with and which method she feels more comfortable working with.

I'm not certain how long we'll continue to use a hymnal in our study of music, but for the moment it is proving to be an invaluable tool. Are you using the hymnal or some similar tool in your studio? I'd love to hear the assignments you are using and the results that you're experiencing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bouts with Brittan

A new semester has begun and that means I have lots of new music to learn. It's actually one of my favorite times of the year. I thrive on getting all of this wonderful music in my hands that I'm not familiar with and getting to plow through it so I can learn the notes as quickly as possible.

This year has an added "treat" for me. I'm one of the pianists for opera workshop. This term features Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. This is going to be an interesting experience for me since I am not terribly versed in the British composer's works and it will be my first time to play rehearsals for a full-staged opera. (Previously, I've only played scenes or assisted during vocal coachings.)

I picked up the score late in the spring so I could learn the music over the summer. I worked through a few passages, but quickly realized that I really don't like the show. Its harmonies are challenging and often feels extremely repetitive. At the end of August, however, the cast and I got together for a rough read through. I was pleasantly surprised! Intellectually I know that is a perfect formula, but it was so nice to realize that this short opera is not going to be the horrendous experience I was anticipating. Thankfully I'm only responsible for 1 hour of rehearsals on Monday afternoons most weeks. A few passages are going to demand a lot of work on my part to just get through them, but most are actually quite pianistic.

I know I'm going to learn a lot through this experience. I'm certain there are things I should be preparing for that I am omitting because of ignorance. What was the one thing you wish someone had told you when you played for your first opera? I'll keep you all informed of what's happening as we progress through the semester.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Constantly Changing Circumstances

Flexibility is not a quality that comes naturally to me. I have a plan and generally like to follow that plan to the project's completion. The past few weeks have required lots of flexibility for me personally. I think some of the lessons I have learned will make me a better teacher and performer.

For the past couple of weeks, I have struggled with a horrible sinus infection paired with a separate infection in my lungs. Needless to say, I was pretty miserable and really didn't feel like doing much of anything. The junior college where I work has a policy of not canceling class under any circumstance. In an effort to insure that learning continues, it becomes easy for faculty to feel as though they are being punished rather than cared for during illness and difficult times. My sickness was the worst during the first week of classes. I could have gotten a sub, I suppose, but my students did not have the elementary knowledge they would need to perform an assignment without my presence that would not have been a waste of their time. I decided to pull myself out of bed for the week and teach the classes, modifying the lectures on the spot. Many of the concepts that I normally demonstrated vocally were not possible this semester because I could not produce a sound! Some portions of the lecture require more energy than others, so I found myself re-evaluating course progression in order to allow me to catch my breath while attempting to insure that students were making important connections between concepts.

My responsibilities at the church didn't go on vacation either. It became clear early on that the plans I had made would have to be altered for at least two weeks. This wasn't as difficult at the situation at school, but it still demanded attention.

On Saturday, I'm finally beginning to feel like a human again and I'm looking forward to my first lesson with the new student transferring into my studio. I have planned for the lesson, selected repertoire I think he will enjoy, and developed a plan for how we will progress this term. At our initial meeting together, I was impressed by his musicality and his willingness to tackle demanding repertoire. We began our time together on Saturday by reading the opening passage of Schumann's Knecht Ruprecht (Op. 68, No. 12). It was then that I made a startling discovery. You guessed it...the student can't read bass clef! When I asked how he had learned to play the things he presented to me initially, he revealed that he had simply counted the lines and spaces to figure out the left hand notes. Since he was able to play complicated left hand passages, his former teacher simply assumed he was reading the notes.

My plans for the term immediately changed and I had to decide on the spot how to salvage this lesson that was suddenly not going to go according to my plan! I introduced reading the bass clef and moved on to another piece that had a static bass part. Why? I didn't want the student's first lesson to be completely frustrating and I needed to have some time to regroup and decide how we were going to proceed in the coming weeks. I still don't have a clear vision of how we'll move ahead, but I'm anxious to see his progress when he comes back this week. I'm seeing a lot of left hand works and piano duets on the immediate horizon. It's a good thing that I'm learning to be more flexible......or else I'd still be tied in knots because my plans had fallen through before they even started!

Fortunately, the constantly changing circumstances is part of what I find exciting and thrilling about a life in music!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Obstacles for Adult Students

Last week, a friend told me about her prior experience with piano lessons. As a young person, she took lessons and enjoyed them. While she didn't make tremendous strides during her short time with the instrument, she continues to be enticed by the piano. Now that she is finding more leisure time to pursue recreational interests, she has considered asking about studying piano with me. What has stopped her? Fear.

After I examined my interaction with this adult to make sure that I wasn't a source of the fear (which I don't think I am!), I began to consider what might hinder an adult student from returning to the study of piano. Here are a few of the barriers that I have seen in adult students.

  1. The Aging Brain. This has to be the #1 thing I hear from potential adult students. They have convinced themselves that music is best understood by a child and that they will be fighting an uphill battle coming to the instrument as an adult. I have found that some concepts that children simply accept as fact meet with resistance from adults who do not yet have the theoretical background to musically explain them. While it may be a source of frustration, most of my adult learners are normally content when I tell them to assume that I'm telling them the truth for a few weeks; when they have all of the tools they need, they will see the puzzle come together logically.
  2. Not Enough Time to Practice. Adults are extremely aware of the hours that are devoted to the study of an instrument in order to become proficient and accomplished. Most adults return to the instrument as recreational music makers. As soon as we both agree that this is a worthy goal and define satisfactory progress as that which brings them pleasure, the stress fades and they realize that they will practice when they can for the simple joy of making music.
  3. Fear of Comparison. The last adult student to join my studio was all ready to begin lessons, but before committing had to make sure of one thing: he would not be required to play on recital with the little kids! It wasn't fear of standing in front of a crowd. He simply didn't want to have peers compare his performance with that of an eight-year-old.
  4. Fear of Failure. This obstacle knows no age limit. Numerous potential pianists talk themselves out of even beginning the process of learning to play the instrument because they convince themselves they will never be able to do it. With children, I can normally assuage some of their fear by assuring them that they will always leave my studio knowing more than when they entered. Adults aren't so easy to convince. Personally, I think the adage applies here:  "Shoot for the moon; you'll at least hit the stars!"
My friend hasn't spoken to me any more about beginning lessons. Personally, I really hope she decides to pursue it....and not just because it would be additional income for me. I find great joy in working with adult students who are approaching the instrument without stress or paralyzing fear; instead they sit on the bench for the love of the music and are often surprised at what they are able to accomplish once they clear the obstacles blocking their path.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Great Beginnings

Summer has finally come to an end for me. A new year of teaching begins on Monday morning. I'm ready to get back to it, but there is always that slight twinge that longs for a longer vacation. I have spent much of the week preparing for the coming semester, making adjustments and revisions to my procedures and refining lectures that I wasn't happy with. I'm expecting a great beginning next week.

In keeping with the theme of beginnings, my mind was racing while driving this afternoon through all of the wonderful beginnings found in music literature. I don't know about you, but I enjoy a piece so much more if it has a good opening that simply draws me in. I decided to limit myself to trying to determine my three favorite openings. While all of these may not be perfect openings, they are the ones that speak most directly to me.

Chopin's Ballade #3 in Ab Major is so simple in its chorale-like tune, but beautifully written.

I love the haunting opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and can't listen to it enough!

Last (but certainly not least), it is without argument that the opening moments of Orff's Carmina Burana are among the most dramatic and exciting in music literature.

What are some of your favorite beginnings from music literature? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

When Gifted Students Quit

It's a disheartening event that every teacher faces at some point. A promising young pianist comes to your studio to inform you that they will no longer be studying the instrument. You discuss the situation with them in an attempt to determine if there has been a misunderstanding or some sort of frustration that can be fixed. For most of us, a lump settles in our throat as we realize that a gifted musician is on the verge of walking out the doors of our studio for the final time.

I faced this situation for the first time last week. I have had students quit before, but those never took me by surprise. They weren't making progress and it was clear they weren't enjoying the study of the instrument. Last week's announcement caught me off guard. The student (who happens to be one of my nieces) was making consistent progress as well as really beautiful sounds. She didn't practice as often as she should have, but there was a level of natural talent there that was carrying her through. As we discussed the situation, her answer was one that rips the heart of every piano teacher: "I have never enjoyed playing the piano." There is really no way to argue with that answer.

So what happens to cause a promising young pianist to quit? Very often, I notice the departure occurs as they enter their teen years. Other opportunities appear that are more enticing. Very few of their friends are involved in music lessons outside of the school band. Anything that requires commitment, times of solitude, and self-discipline are often undesirable.

How can we make lessons more enticing to these students? There's a very interesting discussion on just this topic occurring over on Color in My Piano. I've enjoyed the suggestions to just keep students in the age group playing -- allow their interests to largely shape the direction of the lessons and find aspects of the music to work on rather than feeling restricted by method books and teacher preferences.

Visit Joy's wonderful blog to read the comments made there and add your own comments here.


Monday, August 13, 2012

When Musicians Collide

I know it's hard to believe, but musicians don't always see eye to eye. Seriously! Musicians (myself included) are people with strong opinions that are expressed with lots of assertion and emotion. Those are the things that make them great artists. Those same things are why we are so hard to work with. So what happens when two musicians with differing opinions attempt to work together? It will either be an exercise in compromise and collaboration or it will end in a train wreck.

I've found myself in both situations as a collaborative pianist. (I've had personal conflict with other musicians as well, but that is another post. Today's post focuses solely on the musical disagreement.) When two highly opinionated artists bring opposing idea to the table, the exploration begins. Considering both points of view with honesty and fresh eyes allows a new interpretation to emerge that often results in the musical magic we constantly strive for. However, when one member of the ensemble refuses to bend, others can feel slighted and that their opinions are inferior. In any ensemble, every member is important and has ideas to bring to the table. The issue is deciding how to consider all of these ideas and still end up with a musically sound result.

I'm not perfect by any means and have been known to make others feel inferior. I hate it, but I recognize that it can be a problem for me, especially in relation to music making. I find this happens most often when I am sensing that my contributions are under-appreciated by the other musicians involved. I despise when a "know-it-all" attempts to show me the error of my ways in a manner that will cause me public embarrassment. Those are the times that I generally come out with both guns blazing! Here are a few techniques that I try to employ in these situations to avoid the possible train wrecks of music making.

  • Allow others the opportunity to express their ideas. It seems so simple, but it can save a lot of heartache! Even if I disagree with the logic, I can respectfully listen and then respond calmly.
  • Clearly establish a time frame. Nothing will get me in an uproar quicker than suggestions for change being offered in the 11th hour! While our performances never become perfect and above the need for modification, I personally find that there must be a date for an upcoming performance when we simply have to agree that this is the interpretation of the score that we are going to present. After that date, I encourage players to make note of ideas that can be used when the piece is programmed again in the future. (Please understand. I am not talking about wrong notes here. I'm referring to things such as phrasing, accents, etc.)
  • Clarify who has the ultimate decision. Clearly the decision will normally be made by the musician who is featured most of the time. That makes early sonatas a little easier. When more people are involved and/or all lines are truly equal, it can become more difficult to make a fair decision. Let's be realistic: we're never going to agree on everything! In order to present a clear interpretation of a piece, it often has to be the vision of a single person after they have carefully listened to the ideas of others. It may be advisable to allow each member of a small ensemble (2-4 players) be responsible for the direction of a specific piece -- especially if everyone is a volunteer player!
  • Keep personal issues and performance issues separate. How I wish this would always be practiced! I have seen more performances fall apart because the two aspects could not be separated. I want to be friendly and welcoming to you while we're performing together, but it is not necessary that we be the greatest of friends. As a general rule, I don't socialize with the musicians I am performing with. That's simply my preference. One of the most rewarding ensembles I have experienced stopped working together because of this very fact. While we performed together wonderfully, personal differences could not be left outside the rehearsal hall. To this day it saddens me to recall those final performances, but I am not naive enough to think that things can be corrected.
Musicians are emotional about music because it is an extremely personal art. We are sharing our innermost thoughts and ideas with a listening audience. Remember that everyone in the ensemble shares the same passion about the music that you do, so treat them as gently as you would want to be treated as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The World's Best Pianists?

Recently I was asked by a piano student to give him a list of the world's best pianists. I began to name many of my favorites, explaining what it was I admired about each of them. Before I got too far into my list, this bright student interrupted, saying he really wanted a list of the very best -- not just my personal favorites.

Needless to say, I was slightly taken aback by his response but managed to maintain my composure. We then discussed how subjective it would be to judge who was the best in any of the creative and performing arts. When we began to discuss the "best" male vocalists on the radio today, he began to understand the issue a little more clearly. While some lists may include artists like Adam Levine and Alan Jackson, others may include Garth Brooks and Barry Manilow while excluding the others. The decision would be based entirely on one person's definition of "best".

So how do we answer this question? In this situation, the student and I explored Harold C. Schonberg's work The Great Pianists: For Mozart to the Present and used it as a launching pad to examine important pianists of the past. While he was fascinated by the accounts of Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, he was most interested in those who he could easily hear and revised the question: Who do you personally consider five of the greatest pianists (living or dead) who can be heard on recording.

Here are the artists that I provided as my answer (in no particular order). Numerous other pianists could be mentioned without much justification needed as well.

  1. Vladimir Horowitz
  2. Glenn Gould
  3. Jean-Yves Thibaudet
  4. Sergei Rachmaninoff
  5. Alicia de Larrocha
My list is certainly not perfect and not conclusive at all. I would like to extend the same question to all of you. Who do you consider the greatest pianists of all time? Which five pianists would be included on your list? Is there a specific recording that you especially admire? Which performers do you recommend that your rising piano students listen to as they have the chance? Leave your answers in the comments section below. I'm looking forward to getting lots of feedback on this one.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Lessons from the Opry

I'm fresh back from vacation and ready to start thinking about music again. Charleston was a welcome break, but my first musical inspiration came in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Those most familiar with my musical preferences know that I can handle almost any type of music for a time. ALMOST any type of music...just not twangy country, bluegrass, and gospel. There is such irony in this fact since I was raised in the deep South, lived in a home that ADORED these sounds, and serve in a church with a rich Southern gospel tradition.

At the end of my vacation with my parents, I found myself back in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with tickets to see Smokey Mountain Opry. I was convinced this was going to be the longest 2 1/2 hours of my life. Before the show, I turned to my Mom and asked if she would give me CPR if I began to convulse uncontrollably because of the bad music. The newest show on the Parkway, I was pleasantly surprised to find that SMO was a wonderfully entertaining show with strong vocals, an outstanding band, and a wide variety of musical genres.

As I left the theater, my mind began to race with the lessons that could be learned from this experience. Here's what I came up with based upon this single performance and my personal mindset at the moment. (In other words, these are my opinions; if you disagree, that's fine!)

#1 - Exceed their expectations! In any audience, there will always be members expecting a less than stellar performance. Regardless of why, it is our responsibility as engaging performers to rise above their anticipations. This process begins with the programming. Does the performance offer variety of styles, tempi, and moods? Are there rises and falls in the dramatic progression of pieces? As we near the performance date, have we eliminated predictable routines and included elements of surprise -- both aurally and visually?

#2 - Be willing to make difficult cuts for the benefit of the total experience! I have always thought it would be fun to serve as a consultant for a production company doing this type of show. While the whole was exceptional, there were 2 or 3 performers who would be terminated (assuming that last night's performance was the standard) and a few others would be given serious warnings. Additionally, a few songs were beyond poorly performed; rather, they were painful to watch and should be cut from the show. Specifically, the song "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" in the movie set was awkwardly staged, poorly sung, and uncomfortable for the audience. As I look back on the show, it seems clear that "Flowers" was used as a filler in order to allow the technical crew to prepare for the demanding scenes saluting Top Gun that followed -- including the appearance of a fighter jet on stage. While allowing time for the set up, "Flowers" also robbed the audience of excitement and sapped the energy that should have been rising to a climax as we neared the opening rock anthem. Perhaps the song was more effective in the run, but now it has lost its effectiveness. It would be in the best interest of the show to remove it and rearrange the set in order to keep a better pacing.

Similar consideration must be taken in regards to our own solo and ensemble repertoire. Despite the number of hours we have invested in a piece and our emotional connection to it, it is crucial that we examine it truthfully. Is the piece ready for a public hearing? Does its inclusion create an unforeseen problem in the flow of the recital as a whole? If a negative answer arises to either question, we must consider dropping the piece from the concert -- even if the programs have already been printed (I've grown weary of that lame excuse!) -- and do what is the most musically honest choice. Our audience has placed their trust in us as artists to make the tough decisions to insure their total enjoyment of our performance.

#3 - Accentuate your strengths! Three singers rose to the foreground and were amazing: the host (JT, I think), his wife, who was outstanding in the gospel set, and the lone African-American member of the cast. The African-American tenor was featured on only 2 songs that I recall -- "Thriller" and a Frank Sinatra standard which escapes me at the moment -- while other cast members were repeatedly in the spotlight and consistently flat and straining. Where has the musical director been? Even though it's tough in a long run like this, roles need to be reassigned and whatever staging changes necessary need to be made in order to accommodate them. This show is too good to suffer in order to protect performer egos.

The female singer mentioned above was a stand out in her rendition of "How Great Thou Art" in the middle of a struggling 2nd half. Everything in me wanted to see this section extended -- only 2 selections were presented and the spiritual medley was average at best -- and continue to feature her. This would have given ample rest to tired male cast members and recognized that a majority of the Pigeon Forge crowd has a strong affinity for gospel music. Honestly, the big band set at the beginning of the 2nd act was a train wreck. I would shorten it and allow more time for the strong gospel singing.

Early in the show, we were treated to a large ensemble singing a cappella with beautifully complex harmonies and clear attention to detail. The standard was set high and I was excited to hear more. Sadly, that was one of the few times where a large ensemble sang with this degree of accuracy. Even while enjoying the show, I found myself thinking back to the sounds of the opening songs and hoping to hear them again.

Recitalists and conductors often feel pressure to be everything to everyone. While in school, we were required to present a representive piece from each major historical era. Not everyone plays all genres and schools with equal excellence. Personally, I don't play Baroque music well. It's not a matter of technical deficencies or ignorance of the style; the music simply doesn't click with me. On the other hand, I play French and American 20th century music quite well and have spent many years grasping the style of the early Romantics. When I prepare a program, I make sure that I focus on my strengths. It makes me more secure as a player and results in a more satisfying experience for my audience. Do I ever play Baroque music? Of course! When the program cries out for Bach or Scarlatti, I'll add it and do the necessary work to prepare it. I simply don't fall into the trap of believing that a program is incomplete without it.

As you can tell from the lengthy post, Smokey Mountain Opry struck a chord with me. I'll be interested in attending the show again in the future to see if it maintains its high level of performance or if it's just the result of a strong beginning that is not maintained.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Continuing Education: The Importance of Reading for the Professional Musician

If you are anything like me, I was thrilled when I graduated from college that I would not have to sit in a classroom again on a regular basis.  I imagined my days filled with lots of time to practice and perform.  What a wistful dream that was!  As I continue on my own professional journey, I am continually reminded of how important it is to continue learning at all cost.

Musicians are eternally aware of the necessity of regular practice.  We thrive on the opportunity to appear on stage and share our music with an audience.  When we think about it, our education involved so much more than just practice and performance.  Why would we think the reading, writing and listening that occurred during those formative years are less important to our continued growth?

I love to read fiction.  It's my major method of relaxation and escape.  I do not find the same enjoyment reading about music.  Biographies, articles, and reviews can feel as though they are work and needed to be read with an analytical and intellectual eye.  Since I have recognized my feelings toward reading this material, I treat it as part of my work.  I schedule time each day to do a little of it and don't read while on vacation or taking a day off.

It's impossible to read everything that comes across my desk that I think is valuable. Here's a brief description of the types of reading that I try to include in my weekly reading times.

Books:  I am fascinated with composer biographies and spend the majority of my lecture time at the community college devoted to this material.  When I read a new biography on a composer, I tend to rework the corresponding lectures.  This helps to keep my lectures fresh, but it can also be distracting from other pressing tasks during the school term. When possible, I limit my reading of new biographies to the school breaks.

I continue to consult books throughout the year, however.  They serve as a first stop whenever I am doing any type of research.  What I find is that as I read the passages indicated in the index related to my topic, I get a sense of the author's writing style as well as the depth and breadth of the material.  Usually I have a good sense of whether I want to read the entire work or allow it to maintain its status as a research tool.  Those books I discover that I do want to read are placed on my active reading list that I consult when choosing my next reading goal.

Blogs:  What I miss most about school is the opportunity to share ideas with others in my field and listen to their thoughts.  Open dialogue about issues directly related to the field of music is an invaluable tool for personal development.  Every morning begins with a reading of the blogs that I follow.  Rarely do I comment on the post right away.  I enjoy allowing the ideas to simmer in my mind throughout the day.  This way I find the thoughts of another author sparking new ideas in me; very often these new ideas find their way here to be developed.

I include blogs outside of the musical realm in my daily reading as well.  I was surprised at how often an article about reading, crafting, cooking, or children have given me inspiration that improves my musicianship.

Reading blogs are not the only way the blogosphere has a positive influence on the musician.  In the coming days I'll tell you why I find writing a blog so valuable as well.

Magazines and Journals:  I neglected periodicals for far too long because I always seemed to be interrupted while reading the articles. I also felt that there was simply too much material to read each month to make my subscription worth the cost.

Currently I organize journals into three categories:  1)  must read entirely;  2) scan and read selections; 3) want to read.  At the moment, there are only two magazines in the first category:  Clavier Companion and Worship Leader.  These two works keep me grounded in the major areas of responsibilities that I currently hold as a pianist.  When my copy of American Music Teacher arrives, I scan it quickly and identify the articles I want to read. AMT found itself in this category because many of the blogs I follow are pedagogical in nature and this was one way to allow additional reading in other areas.  The list of magazines I would like to read constantly changes.  Opera News is currently at the top of the list since I am playing more and more opera scenes and this is a genre about which I have limited knowledge.

As I continue to transition to reading on my iPad, I am finding it is easier to read more articles in a shorter amount of time.  Convenience is an amazing time saver!

Reviews:  Musicians often find themselves needing to express intangible musical concepts to non-musicians.  Reading reviews are a great way to improve your language for such tasks.  Additionally, reviews provide insight into current concert trends while introducing you to unfamiliar music in addition to performers and conductors you might not be familiar with.  I also find it fun to read reviews since I enjoy traveling; the articles give me a sense of the musical culture of cities around the world that I have not yet had the opportunity to visit.

Now the obvious question:  how much reading do I actually do in a given day?  I shoot for an hour of reading throughout the course of the day.  If the day is insanely busy and I have very little time to spare (which happens more often than any of us would like), I make sure to get through the day's blogs and try to include a short magazine article.

What are your reading habits?  I'm always looking for recommendations, so tell me the blogs, magazines, and books that you consider must reads for all musicians in the comments section below.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Students Transfer

Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to meet a young pianist who will be studying with me in the fall.  This teen student came to me after spending several years with another teacher.  While he has gained some valuable skills, he does not enjoy the repertoire being assigned and his mother expressed that she does not believe he has progressed as he should have in the past year.  As they began to discuss the possibilities of transferring to my studio, I began to think of ways that I could better serve students who transfer from my studio.

Transfers are natural.  They occur because a family relocates.  A student may desire to study an area of piano outside of their current teacher's expertise.  Conflicting personalities would also be a valid cause for a student to seek out another teacher.  In a few cases, the student has progressed to the teacher's skill level and must be encouraged to seek out another mentor.  As a profession, how well are we serving students who transfer?

In the American public school system, a student transfer is accompanied with a massive file detailing the student's history.  It contains test scores as well as transcripts -- which outline what material has been introduced, repeated, and mastered -- and paints a portrait of the student's development.  Additionally, many students also have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) which identifies learning disabilities as well as an intensive strategy for accommodating these needs and reports regarding each accommodation's effectiveness.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to receive similar information from former piano teachers when new students opt to study with you?  While the files that are developed in public education are extensive on each student, a piano student's file could be generated with little difficulty.  The best teachers take some time at the end of each term to reflect on their students' progress, evaluate their mastery of concepts, and develop a plan of action for the future.  When a student transfers, what a gift it would be to the new teacher to provide this valuable information along with a brief note of introduction to the student.  No one has more information about the student's positive (and negative) musical traits than the current teacher.

Do I currently have these files ready on my students?  No, but I do see the value and plan to implement a simple version.  At the end of each term, I plan to list the repertoire studied and a brief statement of what was addressed in the lessons (major focuses for the semester).  By identifying a few things I plan to address in the coming semester, I am also beginning to consider new repertoire.  Personal reviews about memorable lessons (both good and bad), performances, and response to pieces could also be added.  If you wanted to make it even easier, simply organize your notes from your weekly lessons into a file and have everything in one place.  When the time comes for your student to leave your studio -- for whatever reason -- give them the gift of knowledge by offering to share your records with their new teacher and elevate your level of professionalism.  After all, as teachers our greatest concern is for our student's development.

In a perfect situation, what information would you like to know about a student from a prior teacher?  In what circumstances can it be a hindrance having a teacher's input?  I look forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Humor in Music

 Last night, I had the privilege to attend Carole Blankenship's faculty recital at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.  I came to know Carole during my graduate work and have always respected her musicality and thorough attention to detail.  This performance certainly met my expectations and provided an exhilerating evening of music.

I was intrigued by the program from the outset due to the inclusion of a work by Libby Larson that I was not familiar with.  The cycle Me was conceived for soprano and piano based on the writings of Brenda Ueland.  The cycle traces one woman's development from childhood, through her awkward teen years and the devastation of a failed marriage and the death of her parent.  With lots of humor provided for both the soprano and pianist, the song cycle takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride until its final "goodbye".  

Perhaps it is due to my personal mindset at the moment, but while I find the cycle as a whole to be quite successful, I think it is the humorous settings that hold the entire work together.  As concert goers, we anticipate hearing music that is serious in nature at classical performances.  However, when we attend, we are not always hoping to find deep answers to life's questions; we are hoping to be entertained.  For me, humor is a key element to personal entertainment.

One of my most pleasing experiences as a soloist involved my discovery of music's humor.  At Pepperdine University, I was assigned Haydn's Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50.  I vividly remember my struggles with the opening single-note staccato theme in my desperate attempt to "say" something with my music.  I was especially perplexed when I began to work through the open pedal passages that occur later in the work.  

After confirming that notes and rhythms were solidly under control, my professor wisely told me to simply have fun with the piece and to allow "Haydn to help me laugh."  As I began to see the sonata's humor, I experienced success with the piece and learned a valuable lesson:  in order to have merit, music does not have to be "serious" and "mature."  Now I find myself returning over and over again to explore works filled with bubbling laughter and those that poke fun at the musical establishment.

What pieces do you go to when you need a good laugh? I'm ready to have my funny bone tickled again by the strains of beautiful music.

Monday, January 23, 2012

It's a Question of Interpretation

Today was one of my favorite days to lecture in my music appreciation class.  It's still very early in the semester and everyone is getting to know each other.  As we continued our preliminary examination of music, we found ourselves face to face with melody.

The reason I love this lecture is because I finally get to let my sense of humor come through momentarily. You see, a few years ago some singers introduced me to Florence Foster Jenkins' recording of the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute.  If you're not familiar with this historic recording, allow me to introduce it to you.

After playing this "wonderful" recording, I point out to the students that anyone can make a recording if they have enough money.  It's important as audience members that we separate an individual performance from the composer's intentions.  I am certain that Mozart rolls in his grave each time this recording is played!  I'm always happy to see the proverbial light bulb above most of the students' heads while I must simply shake my head at the few who simply do not get it!  Since I can't leave that sound in your ear, here's a much better recording of the aria by the amazing Rita Streich.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Techno Jeep!

A new semester began yesterday with 21 students (mostly concurrent high school students) and everyone seems to be engaged and looking forward to a fun class together.  That's definitely a change from the past few semesters I've taught!

As we discussed what constitutes music, I showed them an example of musique concrete.  This morning this video was sitting in my inbox from one of my high school students.  Isn't it amazing what these percussionists were able to accomplish with a jeep?  Great video!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sick of Cycles?

Since I'm still enjoying a little down time before the new semester takes off next week, I've gotten to spend some quality time on various social media sites.  I've been struck by the number of orchestras who are doing Mahler projects right now.  The two most notable -- it seems -- are San Francisco's with Thomas and Los Angeles' with Dudamel.  A company working through the symphonic cycles of a composer is nothing new and not surprising.  Numerous orchestras have done the Beethoven cycle;  not to be left out of the cycle frenzy, it seems that opera companies around the world are mounting Ring Cycles.  This apparent trend raises a couple of questions in my mind.

While I was an undergraduate student in southern California, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played a lot of Stravinsky.  For a while, it felt as though the orchestra was unable to perform a concert that DIDN'T include something by the composer.  Early on, I was fascinated.  I looked forward to being exposed to a wider gamut of Stravinsky works and went to the concerts expecting to learn more about the composer's harmonic language and style.  As the seasons went on, I found myself treating the seemingly endless Stravinsky as something that had to be endured rather than treasured.  My ears were under assault and my mind longed for something more -- something different.  

This is the catch-22 of cyclical performances.  It is inspiring to the academic mind to delve into the depths of a composer's work list and discover unknown treasures.  On the flip side, it can be a death blow to attracting young audiences, many of whom know little about music and want to experience a wide gamut of styles as they discover what they like and don't like.  For all music lovers, it is true that "variety is the spice of life."  

Since it appears that these cyclical performances are here to stay (and I don't necessarily think that's an entirely bad thing), I find myself wondering which composer will have his moment in the limelight next?  Amidst all the possibilities, my money is on Shostokovich.  I have no basis for that guess tonight, just a gut feeling.  

What do you think about the cycle frenzy?  Who will be the next symphonic composer featured?  Have you ever considered a piano recital series based on the same premise?  Do you think it would work?  I look forward to hearing from you all. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Single or Double?

I am convinced that pianists are a breed all their own.  As I have been preparing to play for a few lessons in Union's abbreviated winter term, I have begun to think about requests I want to make from my student singers.  The biggest issue that I'm considering:  single-sided or double-sided copies of their music.  Feel free to laugh at me now, but it really makes a difference.....and I see many collaborative pianists in cyberspace nodding their heads in agreement.

I can't come to a personal preference and have been playing with it most of the day.  Double-sided copies are easier to turn and more closely resemble the feeling of original scores, but inevitably, the light hits the page just right and the notes on the back are visible.  Now THAT can cause some confusion.

Single-sided copies are easier to get from the student, but require hours of taping music together that could be spent practicing.  The upside to this process, however, is that I have control over the location of page turns.  Once the pages are taped together, everything becomes noticeably thick;  I'm always fearful of turning two pages mistakenly in these situations.

The reality of the situation is that I'm generally happy if the copies I get include all the notes that are on the original page.  Of course, if the singer isn't worried about missing notes on the page, I don't suppose I should worry about the missing notes from their performance!

Do you have a preference?  Do you play from photocopies or do you demand original scores for performances?  Your input will definitely make this post a real page turner!