Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lessons School Didn't Teach

School doesn't teach everything we need to know for a career as a collaborative pianist. We definitely get a solid grounding in music history, theory, and performance. What I have found most difficult to learn are the important lessons rarely discussed in the classroom. Here are a few of the conversations I wish someone had had with me before leaving school.


  • Repertoire lists are important...and challenging! Every music school should advise students to maintain a thorough repertoire list on the first day of class! It's also important to determine what material is included. Is it limited to only works performed publicly or does it include every piece of music I successfully navigate in lessons? Should it only represent what I'm prepared to perform at a moment's notice? Those questions just address content, too! There are issues of organization and layout as well as developing a plan of how and when to update the list.
  • Practicing smart is essential. If you are working as a musician, the reality is that you may not have large chunks of time to devote to personal practice. It's important that you learn how to make the most of short segments of time scattered throughout the day as well as developing skills to learn music very rapidly.
  • Knowing how to play does not completely equip you to teach. Teaching is an art that every pianist should develop. You probably don't want to start with more than 3 or 4 students though. There is much more involved than simply showing a student where to place their hands on the keyboard! It takes time as well as trial and error to develop your skills as a pedagogue. Teaching group lessons and lecturing about music are also challenging (and fulfilling) opportunities the pianist should explore.
There are many other topics such as pricing, scheduling, and turning down gigs that need to be discussed as well. What lessons have you learned? Share your advice and experiences in the comment section below.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Playing Through the Pain

The Spring 2014 semester at Union University has closed and it's time for some reflection. The term was filled with joy and sorrow for the entire campus, but was especially felt by the music department. In the midst of all of this, I struggled with severe headaches just as the bulk of my recitals came to the stage. For the first time in my career, I found myself needing to play through the pain.

As pianists, we are ever mindful of our hands and arms. Before proceeding, let me be perfectly clear: I DO NOT ADVOCATE PLAYING WHEN PAIN OCCURS IN THE HANDS OR MUSCLES ASSOCIATED WITH THE PHYSICAL MOVEMENT OF PLAYING. There are times, however, when we are dealing with pain in other areas -- physically or emotionally -- and do not have the luxury of canceling. These are the times that the show must simply go on. Here are a few things I learned that helped me play through the pain.

  • Consult your doctor quickly. Pain is not normal and should not be ignored. A visit to the doctor can put your mind at ease, (hopefully) diagnose the problem, and provide information and relief from the pain. (At the time of this writing, my doctors and I have not determined the cause of my headaches. I'm taking comfort in the fact that some things have been ruled out and the pain is being effectively managed with medication.)
  • Rely on your preparation. You learned the music when you were feeling better. You invested the necessary time to thoroughly prepare the repertoire for performance. Now is the time to have confidence in the process and allow some aspects of the music to happen automatically.
  • Adjust your expectations. When feeling less than perfect, most musicians will not play as well as they normally would. Rather than becoming frustrated with the results, acknowledge the effect your health has on your playing and know that you will play as beautifully as you possibly can in the moment.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for adjustments. Are the lights exasperating your ailment? Can an adjustment in the stage arrangement make movement less painful? You are an integral part of the performance, so ask for modifications. Those sharing the stage with you are probably aware of your health issues and want to be accommodating if at all possible for the benefit of the performance as a whole.
  • Breathe! Now that the concert is under way, it's time to enjoy the music as much as you can. There's no harm in taking a cleansing breath on stage between movements or slightly extending your time off stage.  If an extra moment allows you to communicate more effectively, your audience will graciously wait.
I hope none of you ever find yourself needing to play while in pain. If you do, take comfort that many times your audience will never know if you take the necessary steps to relax and give the best performance you can in the given circumstances.