Thursday, December 26, 2013

Goal Setting

As another year comes  to a close, people everywhere are beginning to set goals for 2014. Music educators are not immune to this process. Many of us are reflecting on the progress our students made in 2013 and considering the next goal to present to them. In all of the planning, it becomes easy to overlook the opportunity to set new goals for the most important musician in our studio:  OURSELVES! Few of us pursuing careers in music hold a single job title, so it may be important to set an obtainable (and valuable) goal for each part of our musical life.

I tend to devote the smallest amount of time to my personal development as a soloist. My piano students are all beginners and intermediates. I rarely have an opportunity to perform major solo works. Over the years, I have moved away from solo performance because I have not developed the ability to play securely from memory. Recognizing this weakness in my skill set has led to my first goal of 2014:  I will memorize two major works for solo piano. That's not an overwhelming project, I know. Because of my time limitations, I decided to keep the number small so I have plenty of time to explore methods of memorizing and try to discover what works best for me.  The two pieces I have chosen are Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 2, No. 1 and Chopin's Scherzo in Bb minor, Op. 31.

My major area of performance is as a collaborator with vocalist. My bread and butter comes from knowing the major song repertoire. I feel secure in my knowledge of the German, Italian, and English rep; French songs are another story. I haven't mapped out a plan yet, but my goal is to become more familiar with the songs of Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Poulenc, and Hahn. At this point, I anticipate intentionally listening to the songs and reading/learning through the complete works. It's a goal; now I simply have to solidify a plan and get to work.

Presenting informative and enjoyable lectures can be a challenge. The situation becomes more difficult when the audience is composed of college students you are desperately trying to engage with the material. Encouraging music students to strive for piano proficiency can be just as daunting. This year, I hope to add new technology to my classroom teaching. Right now, my lectures include slide shows and video clips. Now I'm looking for methods to supplement the content outside of the classroom while providing students opportunities to interact with the material in class without the fear of public failure. I'm a musician, not a technology geek. I have no idea what this is going to look like or how it will work, but I have read that many educators are finding success by incorporating technology in the classroom. It's time for me to get on board and learn some new techniques that will improve my teaching and increase my students' understanding.

There you have my professional goals for 2014. What's on the horizon for you in the new year? I would love to hear about your plans in the comment section below.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Importance of Duets

Last week I joined a dear friend and colleague, Ellen Patrick, to perform at the annual Christmas concert presented by her church. The event was a lot of fun and very relaxed. Ellen and I played Sleigh Ride Duet Fantasy arranged by Zach Heyde and Frank Tedesco. The arrangement was quite nice and rewarding to performers and audience alike. After playing, I began to think back on the role that duets have played in my own life and why I think they are so important.

From the very beginning, my teachers have always had me playing works for piano four-hands as well as works for two pianos. My first public performance was a two piano work -- a concerto that I played on the public school's Christmas recital in 1978. The situation was less than desirable, but the love of playing in ensemble was developed early on and has shaped me ever since.

Why are duets so important?  Here are just a few reasons that I have come up with this week.

  • Duets serve as an introduction to other forms of collaboration. Duets present challenges of ensemble that are unique to themselves while also introducing students to universal issues of balance, communication, and blend. Playing with another piano student is not so intimidating since we are all familiar with the instrument's challenges. As pianists become confident in playing in piano ensembles, they are much more willing to venture into chamber ensembles with other instruments.
  • Duets are a great way to introduce students to the style and literature of unfamiliar composers. My personal introduction to the works of Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, and Schubert began with the study of their works for four-hands. When I fell in love with Poulenc's music, it wasn't a stretch to look to the four-hand works of Milhaud and Tailleferre. Mozart's duet sonatas were an excellent way to learn about the necessary attention to phrase markings.
  • Playing with friends is fun! As a teen, I found myself at a crucial point in my development. I was struggling with some technical issues and my frustration level with the instrument was on the rise. I was ready to walk away from private study for good. Wisely, my teacher recognized my frustration and added duets to my repertoire. Duets traded the grueling work of solitary practice for a social experience. I enjoyed getting to spend time at the piano with a friend while still growing as a musician. Quite simply, I learned to have fun with my instrument again! This fact is still true for me. When I find myself getting tired of working alone in a practice room, I begin to seek chamber opportunities. Sometimes there is nothing better than sight-reading some Schubert duets to fill your soul with laughter and great music!
  • Duets expose strengths and weaknesses. While playing with a colleague, I immediately hear things from my partner's playing that I want to improve in my own. Can I play that phrase as lyrically as he does? What do I need to do physically to match the warmth of her tone? I really have to work on those scale passages to match the crispness of his sound! Because my playing will be directly compared to that of my duet partner, many students find themselves practicing more to make sure they are not seen as the weak player in the ensemble.
I love chamber work and have made a career out of it. Even though I love working with singers and instrumentalists, I still find myself longing for a regular diet of piano duets. I miss the joy of making wonderful sounds with a partner at a single piano.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Benefit of Preparation

Thorough preparation is essential for polished performances. Too often, young musicians assume that preparation ends when they have learned to play the notes and rhythms accurately and the piece has been memorized. While these are crucial steps in the preparation process, they are no more important than the shaping of the music that occurs through ensemble rehearsals.

Adequate ensemble preparation also prepares the team to face unexpected challenges that might arise during the performance. By working through the piece as a team, each member has a clearer expectation of what might occur if one member is having an "off" day. I was reminded of the importance of this aspect of preparation last week.

As we are approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, lots of performances are happening. The rehearsals and performances have led to some fatigue on my part; late last week, the fatigue turned into a nasty cold, complete with fever. Under normal situations, I would have put myself to bed to recover. This was not an option because I had performances on both Thursday and Friday. It was now time to see how my preparation would carry me through when I was feeling less than my best.

In both performances, all musicians were comfortable with their individual notes. Both ensembles had participated in coaching sessions to help shape the music. The difference came in the additional rehearsals; while one ensemble had rehearsed thoroughly outside of the coachings, the other was relying almost exclusively on the rehearsals that occurred in lessons.

What was the final result? To put it simply, I played both performances with less than my normal vigor. However, the ensemble that had rehearsed without a coach present had a much more fulfilling performance. We had experienced errors together without anyone else involved and had learned how to respond. The performance was not flawless, but it held together much more easily because of our mutual understanding of the music. The other ensemble's performance left much to be desired. As my performance suffered from illness, my partners had not been prepared to respond sufficiently and I didn't have enough private rehearsal experience with them to rely on my musical "auto-pilot."

Next time you find yourself wondering if you really need to schedule another ensemble rehearsal, hear this voice of experience. You might not realize how important the rehearsal is until you find yourself needing to rely upon the experience of collaborating together that is gained there.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rehearsal Scheduling Website

I love accompanying other musicians in their performances. That love guided my decision to focus on collaborative arts in graduate school and it has led to my current position as staff pianist. The most frustrating aspect of the job has always been scheduling rehearsals. Soloists would call or text me to ask for a rehearsal, but they had no idea what my availability was really like. Comparing calendars was always difficult.

As I started splitting my time between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, I posted sign-up sheets for students to arrange rehearsals. Problems quickly appeared. It wasn't convenient for students to get to my sign-in sheet, so they didn't. Worse still, singers would sign up for a rehearsal after I had already left and I would miss the scheduled meeting because I didn't know about it. It was frustrating for everyone involved. I knew there had to be a solution that would help me maintain my professionalism while making the process easy for everyone involved.

That's when I discovered web-appointments.com. This online appointment center allows me to set aside rehearsal times based on my availability. Students are able to reserve rehearsals at their convenience as long as they have internet access. Once an appointment is made, it is not finalized until I confirm the rehearsal with the simple click of a button. To make things even more convenient, clients provide their phone number and email address at the time of registration; these come in really handy when I'm running late or need to reschedule.

While it is not necessary to obtain a domain name for the site, it has proven to be a worthwhile investment for me. The web address is now easy to remember (compared to the default address provided by web-appointments) and clients don't have to keep up with an awkward address on a random piece of paper.

When I first began using web-appointments.com, many clients were apprehensive and didn't want to use it. With a little encouragement (and using the site myself to schedule appointments for them), they quickly grew to appreciate the ease of scheduling. The best news of all? Reminder emails have resulted in a significant reduction in no-shows since using the scheduler.

I can keep singing the praises of web-appointments.com, but the best way to understand it is to check it out for yourself.  Depending upon how you pay for the service (either quarterly or yearly), the cost breaks down to less than $10 per month. Once you get used to the system and get things arranged correctly, you'll wonder how you managed to schedule rehearsals (and lessons) before.

FYI - I have received no compensation from web-appointments.com or their providers for this review. KF

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

In honor of the "spooky" sounds associated with the final night of October, enjoy this performance of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor performed in the Sydney Town Hall.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

When the Music Stinks

Have you ever been given a piece of music that you despised? Maybe a better word to describe your feelings toward the music is "detest", "loathe", or "hate." If you've studied music for very long, I am pretty confident that you have encountered just such a piece. Studying the work promised technical development and insight into a composer's style. Still you found yourself making every effort to avoid practicing the piece.

While all musicians find themselves in this situation from time to time, collaborative pianists can find themselves here quite often. Perhaps you have had a bad experience with Baroque music that has left a bad taste in your mouth. Maybe you struggle with Hindemith's harmonic language. Even though you don't enjoy the music, the pay check requires that you learn it. What do you do when you encounter music that "stinks" for you personally?

  • Listen. Sometimes I make a snap judgment about a piece without really knowing the work. By investing the time to listen to some good recordings, I've actually come to enjoy working on some of the music that I initially anticipated hating.
  • Keep your eyes wide open. As you are learning the piece, look at it carefully. Is there an interesting interplay between voices that makes the piece more exciting? Are there elements that remind you of another era or composer? Finding these influences sometimes open up new worlds in the music; these revelations can make your practice time much more enjoyable and benefits your final performance.
  • Allot your time. When I find myself avoiding something in my practice time, I set a timer and commit to working on it with diligent focus for ten minutes. I tend to discover that a lot can be accomplished in a short amount of time; since I'm making progress, I'm enjoying the practice session. When I enjoy the practice, I work on the piece longer than expected. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
Whatever you are avoiding at the moment, make the commitment and get to work on it. I'm willing to bet that you'll find things hidden in the music that you will actually enjoy. 

How do you approach a piece that you've been avoiding?  Share your ideas with the rest of us in the comments below.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lessons Learned in the Piano Lab

It's hard to believe that my first semester of teaching class piano has reached the halfway point. I've learned some valuable lessons that I want to make sure I don't forget. Hopefully they will also be beneficial to you as well.

  • Just because a student passed the previous section of the course does not mean they are prepared for the material in your course. This lesson has taken me a few weeks to fully understand. Some students advance to the next level by the skin of their teeth. While they have learned how to play pieces for a test, they have not necessarily developed the skills necessary to proceed. These situations raise a complex issue of teaching philosophy:  are assignments tailored to the individual's abilities or is a course-wide standard maintained? If we are tailoring the course to meet students where they are, we are essentially conducting multiple private lessons in a single room. That defeats the purpose of having class piano!
  • Class lectures take longer than you think! When I began teaching correct fingering patterns for the C Major scale (two octaves, hands together), I expected it would take no more than 10 minutes. Twenty minutes into class I found myself discussing why fingering matters...and we still had not started the scale. At the opposite extreme, a discussion of functional keyboard harmony that I thought would be more difficult to explain was understood by the students after 5 minutes. 
  • Always have supplemental work on hand. It never fails that someone is going to complete an assignment days before the rest of the class. Rather than simply having the student move to the next assignment, it's sometimes good to provide some entertaining music to develop sight reading skills or let students explore improvisation on a given theme. As long as it's not presented as "busy work" the student often appreciates the break from the routine and continues to make valuable progress at the piano.
  • Group playing is valuable! Occasionally, it's beneficial to have the students unplug their headphones and play as an ensemble. Whether the class performs a piece in unison or simply runs scales and arpeggios, these group plays allow the students to compare themselves with their colleagues in a non-threatening manner. It also provides an opportunity to experience the joy and challenges of playing in an ensemble.
  • Creative assignments can push students beyond their comfort zone. I wanted my students to work on playing a four part chorale setting. Many of them were horrified at the thought of playing from a hymnal. By adding another dimension -- allowing them the freedom to re-harmonize the hymn's melody -- my students launched into learning to play the hymn with excitement and less fear. Technically, some of them weren't entirely prepared to play the four voice hymn; without a doubt, those who completed the assignment reaped tremendous benefits as beginning arrangers as well as pianists.
  • Faulty technology can undermine the entire process. Not every teacher utilizes the monitor/communication system commonly found in piano labs. I do and my students have responded positively to the privacy the headphones provide and the extra monitoring they receive from me throughout the hour.  However, when headphones and microphones don't work, students get frustrated. The best way to avoid the frustration is to have clear knowledge of what works in the room and what equipment needs to be repaired or replaced.
When I was first assigned to teach the course, I really didn't think I would enjoy it at all. I viewed it as a resume builder. Now that I have experienced the class first hand and have been given the liberty to experiment, I have really come to enjoy the format and look forward to each class session. I don't have the teaching of class piano down to a science yet, but I definitely plan to continue teaching the course as long as I can.

If you have taught class piano, I would love to hear from you.  What is the one piece of advice you would share with any professional new to the format? What new discoveries have you made recently? 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Surviving Injury

Dealing with injury is never fun. Many musicians are constantly sensitive to activities that might injure their bodies and impair their ability to perform. Recently I began to experience minor pains in my chest and shoulder. What I thought was just a passing ache resulted in a visit to the emergency room last week with severe chest pains. Thankfully, the pain was the result of an injury to the left side of my neck. Everything will be fine in time; I just have to allow my body time to heal. In the past week, I've learned a lot about dealing with injuries and thought I would pass some of my experiences on to you. Hopefully it will help you should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Pain is not natural! I hate hearing musicians convince themselves that the maxim "No pain, no gain" applies to our field. Muscles in the hands, arms, and shoulders should not hurt while playing. While we constantly experience various levels of tension (that we also need to address), pain is the body's signal that something is wrong. Do not ignore pain! If the activity hurts, stop what you are doing. If the pain persists or is severe, consult a doctor.

Evaluate the source of the pain. Once we can identify the movements that are triggering the pain, we have valuable information to share with a physician or musical coach. When I finally stopped and thought about my situation, I realized that my pain was worst after carrying a book bag on my left shoulder. At the keyboard, I experienced the greatest discomfort when playing jumping bass lines (think of ragtime figures). Using a rolling book bag and simplifying those bass figures for the moment allowed my body to heal.

Regularly rest! I push myself constantly and often neglect getting adequate rest. I'm not just talking about sleep either; our muscles need relief while we are awake as well. Permit yourself to enjoy an afternoon lounging on the couch. Take a walk in the woods and enjoy the sights and sounds around you. Curl up in front of the fire with a good book.

While resting your body, remember to care for your spiritual man as well. Whatever your personal faith, take time to find comfort, rest, and peace as your spirit man connects with the One who is greater than yourself. For me, I have found great comfort in reading Scripture and meditation.

Use ice or heat. I'm not an expert on medical treatments; consult your doctor for what will be best for your specific injury. My personal pain radiated from a strained muscle in my neck that was pulling on other muscles in my shoulder and chest. The best therapy for me turned out to be soaking in a warm tub of water. Not only does the warm water reduce tension in my shoulder, it also soothes my mind and slows my general pace -- leading to rest.

Medications can be helpful. I hate taking drugs, but they are sometimes necessary. I am currently taking anti-inflammatory medication as well as muscle relaxers and pain relievers. The medication allows me to rest and aids the healing process; some of them inhibit my ability to perform (as well as driving). An open conversation with the prescribing physician will lead to a drug regiment that will permit you to do what is necessary and get the maximum benefit from your meds.

Take care of yourself above all else. Musicians often find themselves working in ensembles. Each individual is important to the group's success. It can be a tricky situation when you need to tell other musicians that you are resting in order to allow your body to heal. While no one likes to hear such news from a collaborative partner, we all know that it is necessary from time to time. Only you know what you can do in that moment. Perhaps you need to "mark" certain passages during a rehearsal. If you're not playing at all, consider attending the rehearsal anyway if possible. Making notes in your score and discussing ideas with your ensemble can also be productive parts of the rehearsal process. What is NOT productive is playing in spite of the pain and doing additional damage to your body.

I certainly don't have all of the answers. I'm learning some of these things as I go through my current issues. My neck is getting better daily. With discipline, rest, and following the doctor's instructions, I expect to be back to my old self in a few weeks.

What have you found to be most important as you survive injuries that effect your playing? I welcome your advice and stories in the comment section below.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

There Are No Shortcuts

We all find ourselves in the trenches occasionally. Time has gotten away from us and a performance is quickly looming on the horizon. We frantically begin practicing with a new-found diligence. Despite the hours we invest, we still wonder why the final performance didn't live up to its potential. The simple fact is that there are no shortcuts when it comes to practicing.

Some are blessed with the ability to sight read well and learn repertoire quickly. Others have tremendous technique that can conquer most challenges in a timely manner. And then there are those who have an uncanny ability to memorize music with very little effort. I fear that too often young musicians fool themselves into believing that once a piece is memorized, it is ready to be performed. I have found that for most performers this is simply not the case.

In order to give a confident performance that speaks to an audience, the performer must move beyond the notes on the page. The music must live within us. It must be as natural to our existence as is the very act of breathing. How does the music become an organic part of our being? Time. There's no shortcut.

Once we fully understand the importance of practice time, we find ourselves longing for the opportunity to perfect our craft. If practice is always a burden, it might be time to re-evaluate the role of music in your life. Just something to think about......


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Listening and the Developing Musician

Musicians understand the importance of regular practice in order to master their craft. We acknowledge that performance is necessary to communicate our thoughts through sound. We agree that it is necessary to read about composers in order to develop a fuller understanding of their music. Sometimes, however, we tend to forget about another valuable part of our development: listening.

Listening allows the developing musician to become acquainted with the repertoire. A pianist may spend his entire life learning new repertoire. Despite his best efforts, there will be no way that he will play all of the solo sonatas written for the piano. When we begin to consider the miniature pieces, concertos, and chamber works written for the instrument, the list of available music becomes daunting. Listening allows us to become aware of repertoire that we may never play, providing a backdrop of the sounds of a composer's works as well as historical eras.

Pianists should also listen to works not written for piano. In order to play "orchestrally" when such a sound is desired, the pianist must be intimately aware of what the orchestra sounds like in all of its colors and varieties. Lyrical, legato lines seem to float from the keyboard with greater ease when compared to the way that a flute or singer might approach the line. A Baroque fugue takes on new life when envisioned as something written for string quartet.

Examining various recordings of a single piece aids the listener in understanding the difference that subtle nuances can make. Additionally, encountering numerous artists sharpens one's ears as they develop their own artistic voice. By considering how different performers shape a single phrase, the pianist is challenged to pursue greater personal artistry while developing their own interpretive voice. With the addition of video performances, the developing musician is able to examine some technical aspects of different pianists. Perhaps a lower wrist placement seems to be associated with a greater warmth of sound. Another video might suggest an unusual fingering pattern. These observations combined with the sound produced can be taken to a practice room for careful experimentation.

Lastly, listening develops the musical taste of the pianist. While I tend to enjoy listening to specific players, it is important to listen to others as well. I learn from hearing what I don't particularly like as much as I do from what I most enjoy. It is an interesting exercise to ask others for suggestions -- peers, teachers, and non-pianists -- of recordings that they enjoy and find interesting. You'll find that you are exposed to approaches you did not expect and might find something new to appreciate.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Teach Harmonization at the Keyboard?

I am in my third week of teaching class piano. In many ways, it has proven to be very easy so far. I'm teaching the third semester of a four-term sequence. The students know basic technique and read fairly well on their own. Much of my role right now is providing feedback and direction to help them achieve the course requirements.

When I was first asked to teach the course, I knew that much of the focus would be on building technique and learning repertoire. Still, I knew that I wanted to devote a significant portion of the class to practical harmonization at the keyboard. While I knew that I felt it was important, I had not yet taken the time to express WHY. That's what this post is all about. I think it will be interesting to revisit my thoughts as the semester comes to a close and re-evaluate my decision.

Harmonization involves providing chordal accompaniments to single note melody lines. In the early stages, the chord progressions are provided using both Roman numeral analysis and chord symbols; as the student's skills develop, the focus shifts to generating their own progressions. Is the development of the skill beneficial for the student? My answer is a resounding "YES!"

The process of harmonization reinforces the theory that they are learning. It's one thing to talk about secondary dominants, another to hear them while observing their appearance in scores, and still another to actively apply them in "real world" settings. Additionally, the skill aids the student's awareness of harmonic structure -- an awareness that will prove helpful as they begin to transpose, conduct, or compose.

Since many of my students plan to teach in an elementary setting, the ability to quickly create a plausible accompaniment will be useful. Many music texts for the early grades provide accompaniments that are simplistic to say the least. While they are valid arrangements, it is nice for the modern teacher to have the ability to re-harmonize songs in a way that is more pleasing to their contemporary audience.  The trend of re-harmonizing traditional pieces is also seen in the church -- another area in which my students may find themselves serving. This fact is the inspiration for the major harmony project my classes will explore this semester. Students will select a hymn to play; the first verse will incorporate traditional harmonies while the final stanza will feature their newly imagined harmonic structures. One thing is certain.....it should be interesting!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Six Elizabethan Songs by Dominck Argento

In the spring, I was introduced to the first song in this cycle ("Spring") and fell in love with the music. With a recital coming up later this semester, there is a possibility that we will program the entire cycle. I thought it would be a good idea to learn a little more about the work and put some initial thoughts on paper before I get music in hand.

Dominick Argento was born in 1927 and is considered one of the leading American composers of our day. Argento studied at both the Peabody Conservatory and Eastman School of Music, earning a PhD at Eastman in 1957. The composer has given us 13 operas and was one of the founders of Minnesota Opera.  In 1958, Argento was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent the year in Florence.  It was in this year that Six Elizabethan Songs was first published for high voice and piano; the work was revised in 1962 for soprano and Baroque ensemble.

The text of the cycle is somewhat unusual for Argento since it is taken from traditional poetry. Other works use diary entries and letters written by various composers. In this celebratory year of the English composer, Benjamin Britten, I found it especially interesting that two of the texts Argento uses in this work appear in Britten's oeuvre as well:  "Spring" shows up in Britten's Spring Symphony while the poem by Ben Johnson featured in "Hymn" is used in Britten's Serenade.

In order to acquaint myself with the entire cycle, I found a recording on YouTube and made a few notes. I'll be interested to examine a score and compare my initial perceptions with the reality of the printed music.

The first of the six pieces is "Spring." The song features an active accompaniment that is punctuated by crisp, detached octaves in the bass. With a charming middle section, this opening piece is exciting and pure fun for the singer and pianist.

"Sleep" follows with beautiful harmonies centered in the lower register. An aggressive middle section arrives unexpectedly, marked with sharp and chilling passages in the right hand against a legato vocal line.  "Winter," the third piece of the cycle, sounds as though it may be the most virtuosic of the set. The song's opening with an unaccompanied vocal line sets it apart from the others of the cycle.

Although "Dirge" is one of the simpler songs of the cycle, I was strangely drawn to its mystery. The chords are simple, reminiscent of church bells. The chords reinforce the dissonance between the piano and the voice and seem to make use of tritone relationships throughout.  "Diaphenia" returns to the joyful sounds of the opening song; its fast sequential passages are similar to "Spring" and were not that interesting on first hearing. One of the challenges the cycle will present is establishing clear differences of mood between "Spring", "Winter", and "Diaphenia."

The closing "Hymn" presents another challenge. With its chordal accompaniment that is often constructed in two-note phrases, it will require some careful planning to insure that the piano's melodic line remains in tact despite the interruptions that occur due to rests and/or sound decay.

Perhaps the most challenging ensemble issue for Six Elizabethan Songs will be found in the attempt to maintain the desirable balance between voice and piano. Whether because of the rapid passages, low piano registers, or thickly textured chords, constant attention will need to be given to the piano's dynamics in relation to the singer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Orchestral Recommendations?

While doing some shopping last week, I ran into a former student who had taken music appreciation with me. It was nice to hear of her success and that things were going well in her new career. As our conversation continued, she told me that she still listened to the CDs from the class and was ready for some new music. Rather than plunging into unchartered music, she asked for some recommendations. That's music to this teacher's ears!

As we continued talking, I learned that she most enjoys the orchestral repertoire. With little forethought, these are the five pieces I recommended in the produce section of Wal-Mart.

  • Piano Concerto #3 - Rachmaninoff
  • Symphony #1 - Mahler
  • Symphony #7 - Beethoven
  • Adagio for Strings - Barber
  • The Planets - Holst
What orchestral works would you have included in your list of recommendations for a musical novice (assuming they have already been exposed to several of the "major" works)? I'd love to hear your recommendations in the comment section below.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "Joy" of Chamber Music

I love making music in ensembles. There's nothing quite like creating wonderful sounds with other musicians. It allows us to experience the process from a different perspective. Chamber music provides an opportunity for experiential learning with our peers. Collaborative work is a joy because we are enjoying a partnership with other people.

Where there is a group of people, there will be multiple opinions. Regardless of the number of opinions, differing opinions can lead to conflict. Chamber music is no different. Though we come together to make beautiful music, the rehearsal process can be a stressful experience fraught with conflict. Any musician who has participated in a chamber ensemble has experienced conflict (or else they are a saint). Here are some of the things I have found that greatly reduce conflict.


  1. Every idea is worthy of consideration. Because everyone in the ensemble is coming at the music from a different perspective, differing ideas about interpretation are certain to arise. I try to make sure that rehearsals begin far enough in advance of the performance to allow us to explore ideas that come up. This insures that all members of the ensemble feel as though they are a contributing part of the team. As the ensemble continues to work together and gets to know each other as individuals and musicians, the ideas seem to gel between the members and reduces the number of times this "trial and error" approach will be used.
  2. Establish what takes priority. There will be times when we come to an impasse between two opposing interpretations. That's when we have to determine what aspect (or which voice) has the ultimate decision. In a solo recital (with piano collaboration), the soloist will generally be the final authority. In a string quartet, the decision may ultimately be made by the first violinist. What I often find is that the impasse is associated with a issue related to phrasing (maybe a better way to say it is "melody") versus a technical difficulty or tempo. If a situation arises that demands a distinction, is the ensemble more interested in the musical effect or a technically clean performance? 
  3. Commit to compromise. We all want to give the best performance possible. Sometimes I will concede to a differing opinion after I clearly express why I am so adamant in my position. By conceding, I am committing to diligently work in my personal practice time to make the approach work. When I display a willingness to bend, I help to create an environment of compromise. I also establish that I am thoroughly committed to the overall success of the performance. If issues related to ensemble, phrasing or technique continue to arise in the same passage, other players are often more willing to try to find another alternative that allows the music to work. (However, if a player consistently doesn't return to rehearsals with problematic passages resolved, compromise is not going to be at the forefront of everyone's mind!)
  4. Remember it's not forever. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn over the years. As a student, it's sometimes easy to forget that I won't always have to work with these same musicians forever. There will be a number of opportunities available to make music in ensembles. For whatever reason, if your current chamber experience is not all that you had hoped, commit to doing your best work in order to maintain a good reputation. Once this performance is over, you are free to begin looking for other opportunities.
  5. Attitude is everything. Other musicians are watching your interactions in chamber ensembles. Your peers know who plays the role of the diva and who is doing their best to maintain a positive attitude. Don't let what you perceive to be a negative situation drag you down. Keep your attitude positive and focus your attention on the beauty of the music itself.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Organ Lessons? Really?

Throughout my life, I have told anyone that asked that I was a pianist. Occasionally I will play a keyboard if needed (even though I find myself kicking and screaming the entire time). I was never interested in learning to play harpsichord or organ. I'm not terribly fond of the sounds. In a way, I think I felt that I would be "cheating" in my love affair with the piano if I studied another instrument.  I've always been faithful to the piano....except for that one summer in college.....

Let's start with the truth. I absolutely hated my music theory professor. I thought he was arrogant and irritatingly condescending. (Nearly 20 years have passed and I still hold the same opinion.) My classmates and I always laughed at him as he played piano in class because it was horrible and terribly LOUD! His explanation was always that he was an organist.

In a moment of insanity, I decided to enroll in organ lessons during a summer session with this "wonderful" guy. I knew that the technique would be different and that it was a skill I might need in the future. I also wanted to see if the man's organ lessons were more entertaining or enlightening than his theory classes. Since there would be no jury exam at the end of the session, I thought I had nothing to lose.

The first lesson included a quick tutorial of the instrument, how to set stops (which I still don't fully understand), and the assignment of a couple of pieces. I have blocked the works from my mind; I do recall that one was a short fugue in the style of Bach while the other was by Emma Lou Diemer. Before he left me to practice, I was told to notice that both pieces were marked legato.

Left alone in the organ room, I realized I was in for a long summer. Lyrical fingering is not something that comes naturally. As I began to experiment with finger substitutions and unusual fingering patterns, I came face to face with some of the technical weaknesses I had ignored as a pianist. Things began to get better with a little bit of work.....but it would quickly fall apart. Now I had to figure out how to play the pedal line while maintaining what was going on in my hands! I was on board the Titanic, anxiously waiting for the proverbial glacier to put me out of my misery.

I don't know if it was grace, mercy, or humor that caused the professor to give me an A in organ for the summer. While I didn't learn much about organ performance, I did learn a lot about humility. What's brought these scenes back to my mind? In the past week, I have had three gigs come across my desk that all require playing the organ to some degree. There's a certain amount of trepidation even thinking about taking on the challenge. On the other hand, part of me feels as though there's part of my musical development that hasn't been completed. I find myself considering resuming organ lessons...and hoping for better results this time.

For every teacher, I think it's important to experience the unsettled feelings associated with attempting to obtain a new skill. It makes us more sympathetic as our students face similar challenges and it reminds us that patience, encouragement, and fun are some of the most powerful teaching tools in the teacher's arsenal.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Seeking Young Audiences

Earlier this week, a friend of mine sent me a link to the trailer promoting LA Opera's upcoming production of The Magic Flute. The images are intriguing and I am interested in seeing the production. Take a minute and view the short trailer here

The more I thought about the production that was being advertised, the more I began to realize that LA Opera was pursuing a young audience. That's an interesting concept, so I decided to check out the rest of their upcoming season. What I found was both interesting and disturbing.

Seven operas are included in this season. Most are standards of the repertoire: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Lucia,  and Falstaff. Two lesser known works, Thais by Massenet and Billy Budd by Britten, are not totally surprising -- especially given the fact that 2013 is the centennial celebration of Britten's birth. The work that caught me totally by surprise was the revival of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach. Forgive me, but this "changing image of opera" was bad enough the first time around! Why bring it back?

I get that visual effects and the abstract attract young audiences. I further understand that explicit sexuality draws modern audiences. (Carmen, Billy Budd, and Thais all carry a "parental discretion advised" statement.) What I'm wondering is if all of the re-imagining, explicitness, and exploration of the "unusual" is really a service or a disservice to the art form. At what point do we stop attempting to entice audience's to attend and begin to expose them to the power of music without all the bells and whistles?

I'm certain I'll be accused of being a purist and elitist. Nothing is further from the truth. I'm all for using new means of expression when they enhance the musical experience. I'm just wondering where the line is between enhancement and intrusion.

I'm an enormous fan of the work at Los Angeles Opera. I owe much of my understanding of the form to the incredible work the company has done over the years. I fully intend to see the production of The Magic Flute they are presenting this year. I am simply raising an issue that's been on my mind for some time now and was brought to the forefront as I viewed their season line up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

PractizPal - A Metronome and More

Rarely do I win anything. Imagine my surprise when I received word that I was the winner of a PractizPal giveaway that I had entered on One Bright Corner. When the green unit arrived in the mail, I knew I wanted to check it out thoroughly and give you my feedback here. Before I start telling you about my PractizPal experience, let me begin my assuring you that I am receiving no compensation for this review and am not a vendor of the reviewed product.

What is PractizPal? To put it very simply, it's a high quality metronome and practice log. Encased in a brightly colored plastic shell, the instrument is extremely durable. (I can confirm this since I dropped it within minutes of having it out of the box!) As you can see from the picture above, the PractizPal features five large buttons to control everything -- the perfect size and set-up for little hands.

The large treble clef button in the center is the hub of the PractizPal. Once the teacher or parent has set the daily practice goal at the time of set-up, students simply hit the button at the start of their practice session and get to work. When they need to take a break, the student hits the treble clef again. If you resume later on the same day, PractizPal picks up with the timer right where you left off. Once the student has reached the practice goal for the day, she is rewarded with a round of applause from PractizPal. Even when you're working in the privacy of your home work space, it's nice to hear appreciative applause for a job well done!

Does the student need a reliable metronome? Click the metronome button on the right side and it starts right away. Use the arrows to adjust the speed of the clicks as needed. What I really like about the metronome is that there are no "special" sounds indicating downbeats and the volume can be set as low, medium, or high. (PractizPal has been handy for me too while working on thickly textured passages. The metronome doesn't get lost amid the sounds of the piano.)

When the student returns to her lesson, she brings the PractizPal with her. The teacher can quickly click the bar graph button on the left side of the unit to view the practice report. Reports are available for an entire year. This has been valuable for me as I worked with my students. We've discovered when practice is hard to fit in. Once the student and parent were aware of the problem, they began to look for possible solutions. The student sensed some level of accountability, parents were aware of expectations, and the results spoke for themselves.

While I've had a good experience with PractizPal, there are some things that could be improved by the manufacturers.

  • Currently, only one student's practice record can be maintained in PractizPal. At a retail cost of $49.99, that's a huge expense for families with multiple students enrolled in lessons. If a single unit could manage multiple students, parents have fewer things to keep up with and there is less likelihood of confusing which unit records which student's progress.
  • While I love the applause that occurs when the practice goal is reached, it would be beneficial to have the timer continue. Students currently have to stop their practice to acknowledge reaching the goal and restart the timer if they wish to continue practicing. That results in an unnecessary interruption that will often stop the practicing all together.
  • PractizPal turns itself off -- a great feature for young students! However, if they forget to push the treble clef button at the end of their practice, the timer continues to run. While experimenting with the unit myself, I forgot to end the session. My practice log records a 15 hour session! That would have been wonderful if it had really happened. Any chance that an exterior microphone might notice that the sound has stopped?
  • Along the same lines with the microphone, I see a wonderful opportunity to allow students to make mp3 recordings of their practice. The recordings could strictly be used for self evaluation or files could be uploaded and emailed to the teacher for comment (especially by students that are only in lessons bi-weekly). Additionally, teachers could record practice instructions and memos for parents as they monitor practice at home.
PractizPal is not a perfect device, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. If your budget allows, I think the unit is a wise investment for every music teacher's studio.  For more information about PractizPal or to order, visit their website at www.practizpal.com.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: The Mastery of Music

If you've been involved in music for very long, I'm sure that you are familiar with The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey. Earlier this year, I stumbled across another work by Green that I wasn't familiar with --  The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry. The title caught my attention immediately; sadly the book didn't see the light of day under mounds of music and paperwork that demanded my attention.

This week I saw the green cover again and took the time to dive in. What a wonderful read! Green devotes an entire chapter to each of the ten pathways he identifies as necessary for artistry.  The pathways are communication, courage, discipline, fun, passion, tolerance, concentration, confidence, creativity, ego and humility. To assist in the mental organization of the book, Green associates each characteristic with an instrument that is stereotypically associated with the quality. Who can argue with the assertion that trumpet players have loads of confidence? I especially found the humor in discussing tolerance from the perspective of the musicians in the middle -- the violas as well as music managers.

Green's prose is easy going and tinged with memorable phrases. To add to the quality writing, Green includes anecdotes and interviews from leading instrumentalists. Their insight into the importance of the  specific characteristic and suggestions on strengthening that quality in your own life are definitely worth consideration by all musicians. I am certain that I will return to various chapters of the book again and again in the years to come.

Two discussions in particular spoke to me as I read The Mastery of Music for the first time. First was the chapter on courage.  Dale Clevenger, principle horn player with the Chicago Symphony, had this to say about the courage of musicians:
I don't think of what I do as particularly courageous -- but I do believe that what we do is deeply important: we affect the souls of those our music touches. To me, playing music is a very high calling: it is a responsibility, and a sacred trust. Making music may sometimes be difficult and sometimes fun -- but for me, at least, it is first, last, and always an honor and a joy. (Green, The Mastery of Music, p. 65)
What a beautiful expression of why we make music on a regular basis! I immediately found myself ready to rehearse with new vigor after reading that passage.

The other discussion that resonated with my soul was the chapter devoted to creativity. This pathway is referred to as the journey into the soul. In his examination of composers and improvising musicians, Green included several gems that I find it hard to select just one to highlight. So I'll share a few of my favorite statements.

Creativity breeds creativity just as humor breeds humor.  (p. 239)
Most people don't enjoy eating the same food, viewing the same movie, or wearing the same clothes every day. Creativity seems to be inspired by a human desire for variety, uniqueness, and personal expression. While the creative process is always going on within the souls of everyone, sometimes we need a specific inspiration to bring these impulses to an artistic form. (p. 244)
[from an interview with Fred Hersch, jazz pianist] Picasso said that if you want to create art, you have to make a mess. You have to take the time to experiment. You can't get side-tracked by perfection issues if you want to be a great artist. You have to take chances -- and a certain percentage of them are not going to bake. But over time, your batting average will get higher.
I can't offer enough high praise for this inspiring book. Get your hands on a copy and let yourself begin to travel each of the pathways to artistry with new vision.

The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry was published by Broadway Books in 2003. 
 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review of "Music in the 18th Century"

Since summer tends to be a slightly slower pace for me, I try to catch up on some of my academic reading. A quick search on the Barnes and Noble website revealed that a new Norton History series entitled Western Music in Context has been edited by Walter Frisch.  Since the first volume on medieval music wasn't available, I decided to begin with John Rice's volume on Music in the Eighteenth Century.

I found Rice's work informative, insightful, and unique in its approach to the topic. I was surprised to find that the luminary composers that are normally associated with the era -- Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven -- did not dominate the volume. I found it refreshing to explore other composers in the light of the century's history and developments.

Possibly the greatest attribute of Music in the Eighteenth Century was its arrangement. Rather than telling the musical story from a strictly chronological point of view, the music's development was traced geographically as well as historically. It was fascinating to explore Paris in light of the French Revolution, St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, and London in the 1790s instead of just focusing in on the city of Vienna. Rice's prose is extremely well-written and easy to follow. The book seamlessly weaves historical events and political developments with composers and their output. (Additionally, a companion anthology which I did not purchase is also available to allow further study of the era's music.)

Every text has a weakness. In my opinion, Rice's explanation and use of theoretical terms related to the "schemata" identified by theorist Robert Gjerdingen in 2007 was the potentially fatal flaw of the work. I found the inclusion of the schemata explanation to negatively interrupt the flow of the book. I further questioned their inclusion and the validity of their use (a question Rice raises at the end of the chapter). Without the theoretical discussions, I believe the text and accompanying anthology could be a valuable resource in academic settings in the future.

I plan to continue investigating the Western Music in Context series. I appreciate the series' readability while maintaining a high level of scholarship. I'm looking forward to diving into the volume devoted to the 20th and 21st centuries in the coming months.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Is Memorization Really Necessary?

I love to play the piano. I love the feeling of playing in front of an audience and communicating with them simply through the sounds I draw from the instrument. I HATE playing from memory. I've spent years avoiding public solo performances because I wanted to avoid the memory work. Now I'm asking myself (again) if it's really necessary.

I understand that there are some definite advantages to playing from memory. Memorization removes the necessity of turning pages. It suggests that we are intimately acquainted with the piece and have studied it thoroughly. We are able to lose ourselves in the music when playing from memory.

I am also well acquainted with the negatives of playing from memory. Memory slips are par for the course and can rattle the player's confidence. When that happens, I find myself only thinking about getting off the stage; the joy of sharing the music with an audience is gone! Just because I'm using a score doesn't mean that I am reading every note. It just means that I am more confident with the music in front of me and want to insure that I can play beautifully without stressing out about an unexpected memory slip.

I've planned recitals with the intention of using a score and learned the entire program before canceling at the last minute. I assumed that some in the audience would label me as an inferior musician because I didn't memorize every note. I allowed fear of others' opinions to keep me from doing something I enjoy. That's simply not acceptable.

Perhaps my fear of memorization comes from never developing a good approach. I've tried analyzing chord progressions, sequences, and melodies before memorizing. That is certainly helpful in getting to know the piece, but it doesn't help me with the memory work. I'm just really slow at memorization and get frustrated with myself as I struggle through the process.

I know that the only way to get better is to actually do it. So I've pulled out some scores that are completely new to me (and not terribly complex) and started to learn a couple of new pieces. Now I'm beginning the process of memorizing. I'm approaching the memory work differently with each one and will see which procedure seems to work best for me. At this stage, if I memorize a few measures each day I am considering it a successful session. As I stretch my memory muscles, I am confident that the process will become easier over time.

How do you memorize music? Do you feel it is necessary to memorize the repertoire for a solo recital? I welcome your comments.



PLEASE NOTE - I will not post next Thursday in observation of the July 4 holiday. I will resume blogging the following week.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Managing My Music Library

My music library has been taken over by binders filled with various photocopies of music. I rarely throw copies away because I want to have access to the scores in the future (in theory, at least). If I know I have played the piece before, I am tempted to toss it out, but I rarely do because I know that I cannot easily put my fingers on the music. What was originally meant to be a treasure trove of music quickly grew to an unmanageable mess! I literally have all of the vocal music I played throughout my graduate studies as well as the other random pieces I have encountered since then.

When I began to discuss this issue with other pianists, I found that most kept their music in a single binder. I decided to tackle this Herculean task until I actually counted and realized that I have 21 three-inch binders filled with music! I had to come up with a solution. After several faulty attempts, I finally arrived at a method that works for me.

Since most of my scores are art songs and arias, I separate the music by language. All French repertoire is located in one binder while another houses the English songs. (The separation is only by the text used and not the composer's nationality.) After I separated everything, I alphabetized the songs by composer's last name. This was so academic and beautiful in my mind, but I quickly found out it was not the most useful. Students could easily tell me the title of their repertoire, but didn't always know the composer with the same degree of certainty. After accepting that my library's usefulness was more important than its correctness, I began to alphabetize according to title. (Whether or not to include definite articles such as "der," "die," and "das" in the arrangement is a constant battle for me. At the moment I include definite articles in the alphabetizing.)

A master list of all works filed in the binders can be found at the beginning of each one. The first copy of the list includes only the songs in that volume arranged by title. Three additional copies of the entire catalogue follow, sorted by title, composer, and language respectively. These lists are helpful when trying to construct a set of songs by a single composer or in the same language.

Is there an easier way? Possibly....and I welcome hearing how you organize your amassed photocopies in the comments section below. Now that I have the catalogue begun, it is simple to update it at the end of each semester. I am still in the process of merging the music from the remaining 15 binders of graduate school music, but it's actually not too bad to do. As I organize the music, I'm reminded of wonderful music I have played and rediscover some gems of the repertoire that I had forgotten about.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Makes a Masterpiece?

This summer, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a group of inquisitive students in my music appreciation class. As we began our survey of music history, I mentioned that we will be looking at masterpieces of the repertoire together. A question must be raised: What determines which piece will be a masterpiece? It's an interesting question that my students and I are exploring this week. I don't know that there's a definite answer, but here are some of the things that have come to my mind.

A masterpiece is timeless. Although the work may introduce new sounds and compositional techniques, they are not used as cliches. The sounds are thoroughly explored and somehow manage to remain fresh with each repeated hearing.

A masterpiece communicates universally. The composition's power extends beyond national, religious, and economic boundaries. It speaks to our humanity and focuses on our commonality.

A masterpiece is often revolutionary. As mentioned earlier, those pieces that we tend to appreciate the most challenged the establishment. The music leapt beyond the confines of the accepted and safe to bring us something exciting. Regardless of whether we're talking about Machaut's Notre Dame Mass or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, change was in the air.....and change is exciting!

As the week comes to a close, I'll be updating this post with the criteria my students provide for a masterpiece. I think it will be interesting to see what these non-musicians have to say on the topic. As a further exercise, I asked them to consider which piece composed during their lifetime will be discussed in 200 years. I expect that most of their answers will come from the realm of popular music...and rightfully so!

As I thought about the piece from the past 40 years that will be discussed two centuries from now, I kept coming back to "We Are the World." I think this song will be discussed as a landmark that began a new level of collaboration between artists that was rarely seen prior to the work. Additionally, "We Are the World" was certainly a global message that revolutionized the music industry. Genre and racial boundaries were forgotten as the musicians sang the message of hope in an effort to help those less fortunate. Touching lives through music is the ultimate goal of every performer, after all.

What do you think? What criteria would you add to my list? Which song from your lifetime do you think will be discussed as a masterpiece in 200 years? Join the discussion in the comment section of this blog below.


6/13/13 UPDATE:  Here are the songs submitted by my students thus far that they think will have "masterpiece" status in 200 years.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
  • I Believe I Can Fly (R. Kelly)
  • The Cost of Living (Ronnie Dunn)
  • Can't Touch This (MC Hammer)
  • Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
  • Gangnam Style (PSY)
  • I'll Be There (Michael Jackson)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Getting Back to Basics

Summer is finally here and life is a little more relaxed. Most of my performance responsibilities are on hold until the fall. My teaching load is significantly lighter and I'm feeling rested after the busyness that comes with the spring. With some extra time on my hands, I'm finding that this is the perfect time to get back to the basics.

Regardless of our current duties as musicians, everything we do is based in our mastery of certain basic skills. Even though we use these skills on a regular basis, it's a good idea to revisit them from time to time and give them some direct attention. If your situation is like mine, you might find that there are several sets of "basics" that you need to revisit. Summer may be the perfect time for you to take care of this.

First and foremost, I am a pianist. As the school year gets moving faster and faster, I find that I have less time to devote to sight-reading and adding new literature to my repertoire list. Since I don't have repertoire that needs to be mastered at this time, I'm using the summer as a chance to read through Schumann's lieder (low key) as well as The Messiah. Even though I'm familiar with a lot of this material, I've not performed much of it and can't claim to have it under hand. Sight-reading -- even at a slow tempo -- will prove valuable when I encounter the music in the future.

I'm not just looking at vocal music though. I know that solo repertoire is the best prescription for improving technique. I'm working my way through volume one of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. I'm in no hurry; I simply want to master the music and enjoy the sounds. I started by sight-reading the preludes before settling in to begin working. At the moment, I'm exploring the preludes in C# major and C# minor.

Teaching is the other main part of my career. My music appreciation class is adopting a new edition of our textbook this fall. I'm using the summer to revise my lectures, looking for portions that need to be expanded, clarified, added, or removed. I'm truly enjoying looking at my lectures from a critical point of view. In my private piano studio, I've realized that I am not familiar with music written for children by major composers. Right now, I'm looking at Dello Joio's Lyric Pieces for the Young, Schubert's Album for the Young and Chick Corea's Children's Songs. I may not be able to use much of it in my current situation, but it's important to know what's available.

What are you doing this summer to make sure you're ready for the challenges that will come when school starts again? I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Searching for a Life Jacket

This weekend, Union University will host its Benjamin Britten Centennial Celebration. In addition to interesting lectures and masterclasses, the music department is presenting a production of Noye's Fludde. I am actively involved in many of the festival's activities and am keeping my eyes open for life jackets and life preservers to make sure I don't drown during the Flood!  There are lots of interesting insights I have gained while preparing for the festival that I'll be sharing in the weeks to come. In the mean time, send good thoughts and lots of prayers my way. If all goes well, I'll see you again next week when all the flood waters have subsided and I find myself once again with my feet on dry ground.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Living the Life of a Pianist

Some days are tough as a musician. It's not that we don't love our work and the joy of making music. It has nothing to do with the hours of practice or the time spent explaining the same concept to a student. There are just days that a "traditional" job with the stability it provides is enticing.....and I find myself dreaming of how life could be very different. The dream quickly turns into a nightmare as I think of clocking hours at a desk job, completing the same mundane task over and over.

Like many musicians, I am continuing to search for the ever elusive full-time position in the field. That means that I freelance in order to make a living. What does that look like for me? My mornings and evenings (on alternating days) are spent teaching music appreciation courses at a local community college. I love introducing students to music that they have never explored before; I flinch at some of the administrative duties and sometimes frustrating colleagues, but the joy certainly outweighs the negative aspects of the job.

I get to feed the collaborative artist inside by driving to Union University in Jackson, Tennessee a couple of times each week to work there as one of their staff pianists. The students are great; the faculty are welcoming and fun. The 85-mile drive can be taxing, but it's a price I'm willing to pay to work as a professional musician. The time at Union has cut down on the amount of private collaborations I have been able to take on....and I miss making music with other professionals and sharing it with the public. Hopefully, I'll find myself in a situation in the near future where I'm not doing quite as much travel and can seek out more chamber opportunities.

The gift of music in my life has been a blessing from God for which I am extremely thankful. As an act of thanksgiving, I also serve a local church. (It's also a source of income, but I try to focus on the worship rather than the work.  I don't always succeed, though.) I wear many hats at the church. In addition to directing the music ministry efforts, I coordinate the teaching of children, have my hands in teen ministry, and provide some administrative support. It's nice to have a non-musical aspect to my weekly schedule (I especially enjoy working with the kiddos), but it can be overwhelming at times. I find it especially hard to switch approaches as I work with volunteers in the church. Students and professional colleagues are a bit more understanding (and appreciative) of clear, honest communication; volunteers require a more gentle approach. After spending years working to overcome my natural tendency to sugar-coat my musical opinions, I'm sometimes my own worst enemy in effective communication with volunteers.

Lastly, I maintain a very small private studio. I am intentionally keeping it small at the moment for a few reasons. Firstly, I simply don't have much more time. My target audience members are late elementary and middle school/junior high students. My available hours don't match theirs. Secondly, I don't have a convenient space for teaching. This is the larger issue at the moment. I share a home with my parents in a small community. My piano is located in the center of the house in a guest bedroom. I don't like teaching students in a bedroom (for obvious reasons) and I don't want to impose upon the schedules of my parents by having students traipse through the house during their primary rest times. I enjoy teaching piano lessons and think I'm good at it; when I find myself in the new situation that I alluded to above, I fully intend to market my teaching in a new city and build a solid studio.

It may look a little nontraditional to you. It is nontraditional. What you may be missing is that it is fulfilling, filled with joy, constant adventure, and lots of fun. Like every other career, there are times where I'm frustrated and overwhelmed. That doesn't mean I'm looking for a career change though; it simply means I'm having a tough day. I'll continue looking for a full-time job in the music field, but until I find it, I'll be content to freelance and pull it together one performance and lesson at a time.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Is It Live or Is It Memorex?

I always got a kick out of the commercials for Memorex audio tapes when I was growing up. Here's one of the ads that I clearly remember. It seemed so amazing that a recording could have the same acoustic effects as a live performance. While I still thrill at the technology, I find myself asking if it is live or is it lip-syncing?

As most of you know by now, Beyonce Knowles was accused of lip-syncing during President Obama's Inauguration earlier this week. I'm not here to debate whether or not Beyonce actually did use a prepared recording. Instead, I want to think about the question of integrity as it relates to the life of an artist.

My music appreciation students composed their first journal of the semester yesterday. Many of them were struggling to find a topic, so I provided some possible topics in class. One idea was the issue of lip-syncing. A large number of them chose to write on the subject; frankly, I was surprised at their views on the issue.

The overwhelming feeling by these students was that it was completely understandable that a professional artist would record their voice. Their acceptable reasons given for relying on a recording were cold temperatures, the possibility of not being able to hear clearly, and stage fright in front of millions of people. It was stated repeatedly that "everyone does it" and served as a moral imperative making it an acceptable action.

I don't want to make this into a bigger issue than it really is. Let's accept the fact that lip-syncing is not a matter of life or death. I must take exception with the issue though. Of the three reasons provided by my students (many of which I have also heard proclaimed by the media), I can accept the issue of the weather -- at least, to a degree. Any artist given the opportunity to sing at such a historic occasion is willing to risk a cold. I know that cold temperatures can reek havoc on the vocal cords; that risk is part of the excitement of watching a "live" event.

Many have compared singing in the open air of Washington with the acoustic issues one faces in a football stadium. Are you kidding me? I simply don't see the connection. Monday's setting was wide open with few objects around that would have caused the bounce-back that is the main reason cited. Stage fright? No way! These artists are touring all over the world, facing enormous audiences on a regular basis. It's part of the job and something performers learn to deal with.

As an educator, I am troubled that these accusations are not viewed as more seriously by some in society. Any student who falsely submits work that is not their own is charged with plagiarism. When an examination is administered, it is an opportunity to show the level of preparation and how well they perform under pressure. Yet we find it acceptable for a singer to pre-record and pass it off as live? Do you really think the recording wasn't doctored in the studio? Do we have any assurance that the first take was the only one?

It simply comes down to this for me: if I am going to hear you in person, I expect to hear you performing LIVE! Otherwise, I'll just stay home and let you send me the CD or I'll download the video on YouTube.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Looking for a Hero

Sometimes I forget that I am not Superman. It's easy to think I've got plenty of time to learn a demanding program when it's several months out. If you're like me, the repertoire can be so enticing that I commit without really considering everything else that will be on my plate at the time. Scheduling for the collaborative pianist is so important (and a topic for a later post). When you find yourself overloaded and the recital date is nearing, what's the appropriate thing to do?

I found myself asking this very question last week. Union University is celebrating Benjamin Britten's centennial next month. The weekend celebration includes performances of Noye's Fludde, a faculty recital featuring his chamber works, as well as masterclasses and a presentation of the composer's sacred works. I'm scheduled to play a main role in all of it....and I'm looking forward to it. As the date draws closer, I realized last week that there is one piece that is simply not where it should be at the moment. Given my rehearsal schedule and teaching load, I don't have confidence that I can be ready to give a solid performance by the festival. That's a stressful realization....and something that I had to do something about.

After considerable time at the piano identifying the issues and calmly and rationally thinking about them, I came to the conclusion that NOW was the time to speak with the program's director. The festival is still several weeks away and will provide another pianist (with less to learn) plenty of time to prepare the piece. In my email, I outlined my concerns regarding the piece technically as well as the rehearsal logistics. I pressed send and waited for the response....and kept practicing!

I have to admit that I was nervous sending the email. I am proud to be part of the team putting together the festival and want to do the best work I can. I didn't want it to appear that I was lazy or simply had waited too long to begin working on the piece. Still I knew that I had to give an honest evaluation of where things stood at the moment.

To my great relief, the response was very positive. Another pianist hasn't yet been secured, but we are looking. In the meantime, I continue rehearsing with a bit more calmness since I know that there are going to be no great surprises when our guest artist arrives in a month. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I will be relieved of that piece in the next few days. Then I'll be able to concentrate on all of the OTHER music I have to learn!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Total Body Endeavor

I have always known that playing the piano involved the entire body and that good health is imperative to performing at one's best. When I'm not feeling well, any sense of rhythm is out the window. Most of the time I have associated this central truth with respiratory infections and injuries/aches in the hands, arms, and shoulders. Over the holidays, I was reminded of just how important a healthy body is to my playing.

On Christmas Eve, I broke the smallest toe on my left foot. I'll spare you the details of how it happened because I've shared it in other posts and it is rather embarrassing to admit that I am such a klutz! Initially I didn't think anything about it; I assumed it would be a minor inconvenience at the most. Imagine my surprise when my first practice session after the holidays was a disaster that accomplished very little. What was the problem? I could only play at one tempo -- the one that was being pounded into my body by the throbbing in my toe. I tried rehearsing with my foot elevated in a chair. That completely threw off my balance and resulted in tension in my shoulders.

The swelling began to subside in a few days and I tried to go back to the practice routine. I still couldn't put any pressure on the outside of my left foot. Sounds were unbalanced because my body was unbalanced. I noticed that I was making awkward movements with my arms and wrists to compensate for what was going on in my feet. (Thank God for the mirror next to my piano!) I am in the process of learning music for a Britten Centennial festival next month and didn't want to ingrain any bad form into my playing while learning the repertoire. So I spent a week working on the music away from the piano.

Now that I've been away from the piano for a couple of weeks, I am finally beginning to get my feet back under me. I'm still unable to work for long stretches of time, but I'm finding enough balance in my body again to get back on the bench and work through some of the more challenging passages. By the time my schedule returns to the normal level of craziness at the end of the month, I'm sure I'll be physically ready to take on the musical challenges. Until that time, I just have to let my body mend and trust that things will get better with each passing day.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What Does It Take to Teach?

Recently I had a conversation with one of my music students about becoming a private music teacher. As he asked about the requirements, I realized that there is little oversight in the field. Anyone can claim to be a qualified teacher. It's sad, isn't it! I'm sure many of us have worked with students who received poor instruction from a previous "teacher." The process of correcting, clarifying, and relearning can be difficult and frustrating for both the student and teacher. While speaking to this potential future teacher, I wanted to make sure that I was clear about the ethical requirements I would put on anyone considering teaching.


  • Have a realistic understanding of your skill sets. It is imperative that you know what you are capable of doing as well as what you cannot do. In addition to knowing your skills, however, you must be honest about what you are capable of teaching! Not too long ago, I had a student that was wanting to learn to play "gospel" music -- a word that has several meanings in the deep South! After an introductory lesson and several discussions clarifying the student's goals, I realized I was not the best teacher for her. While I would have enjoyed working with this gifted student, I would not have been serving her needs in the best possible way and helping her find a more qualified teacher was the ethical decision. For many teachers, this issue arises more often as students progress into the intermediate and advanced levels. At what point do you need to admit that the student has gleaned everything you have to offer? (I've experienced this first-hand as a teenager and I plan to share my situation and experience in the coming weeks.)
  • Have formal training. Having a degree in music is the best situation, but I'm not implying that only those with a degree should teach. I WILL say that only musicians with SIGNIFICANT amounts of training should venture into teaching students of any level......especially beginners! I have found that those considering teaching have convinced themselves that they are qualified as long as they know more than the student. That's simply not true! A qualified teacher is able to look far down the road and see the implications of each successive concept that is introduced. 
  • Have a desire to help others make music. This should be obvious, but often it's not the case. If you are teaching music for the money or the flexible schedule, you are barking up the wrong tree! The driving force behind teaching must be the love of the music. This is the reason that I am very selective in the number of beginning students that I teach. Elementary music education is not my passion. While I could fill my schedule with beginning lessons and maintain a full studio, I know that the students deserve a teacher who finds tremendous fulfillment in teaching the basic concepts of music. When do I teach a beginner? Normally I tend to take on those students who have had a bad experience with another teacher as well as later beginners (8-12 year-olds). I find that I am able to connect with them more than their younger counterparts.
I find that these are some of the key aspects. Other things (like location, reputation, ability to instruct and share knowledge) can be developed over time. What would you add to my list? I'd love to hear from you!