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!