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.