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......