Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sources of Cookie-Cutter Performances

Last week, my thoughts were sparked by comments made by Dolly Parton and Seal about returning to "pure and simple" performances. I came to the conclusion that the trend toward multi-media enhanced Classical music performances may often be attributed to a poorly developed interpretation. This week, my mind has been asking a single follow-up question: "WHY?" Here are a few of the culprits that I think are contributing to these less-than-inspiring recitals.

Emphasis placed on technique over artistry. Much of our work in music education is devoted to helping young artists develop their technique. After all, without a solid technique it is impossible to effectively communicate with an audience. However, there comes a point in the preparation process where the performer's focus needs to shift from the mechanics of making music to artistry, communication, and personal interpretation. When the shift occurs, the student often discovers the necessary step of improving their technique in order to accomplish their goals. This can result in a renewed interest in technical study on the part of the student now that they see the purpose of the work in their own repertoire.

The prevalence of recordings. I am an advocate of listening to performers from all generations and schools of thought. However, recordings can be intimidating to a young artist. When listening to a recording that is considered the gold standard, it is possible for the student to become convinced that they will never be able to perform at an acceptable level. Additionally, students may begin to listen to one artist exclusively -- resulting in mimicry rather than using the album as inspiration. There is another danger for the student that listens widely and indiscriminately to recordings. When one encounters a large number of mediocre performances, it is easy to fall victim to the opinion that things are "good enough" in their current state, eliminating the pursuit of higher levels of artistry.

Necessity of quick preparation. Music is not ready for public performance when the notes and rhythms are accurately learned. Time is needed for the melodies and harmonies to marinate in the soul. Collaborative partnerships need time to develop a mutual sense of direction and interpretation. Quite simply, the music needs ample time to mature. Sadly, it has become a trend in many schools to prepare and present material as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next program. The resulting music can often leave the audience wanting more and the musicians not fully enjoying the experience of presenting a mature, well-prepared recital.

The lost arts of reflection, experimentation, and imagination. Because students are preparing performances so quickly for fast approaching deadlines, there is rarely an opportunity to experiment musically. I don't see many students reflecting on the music and developing their personal interpretation. I long to have a student enter a rehearsal and tell me about the idea they have regarding a turn of a specific phrase...and then we give it a try. I believe that it is in the reflection and experimentation process that performers develop their own voice and begin to become contributing members of the artistic community.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Am I completely missing the point? Do you see additional sources of these cookie-cutter performances? Join the conversation by adding your comments below.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stripped Down Performances

Earlier this month, country music legend Dolly Parton announced a major tour throughout the US and Canada later this year. The announcement was inspiring considering the singer's age as well as the fact that it has been more than 20 years since her last major tour. What I truly found remarkable and thought-provoking was Parton's description of the tour -- the concerts will be "stripped down" to reflect the promotion's Pure and Simple title.

In our technologically driven society, some observers attribute classical music's declining audiences in part to the genre's failure to entice patrons with the latest technology. This explains the appearance of light displays, intricate PowerPoint presentations, and movie clips in recital halls around the country in recent years. While I am all for using all forms of media when it enhances the overall experience, I also find that its inclusion is not always beneficial. I think it is time that we face the fact that all of the sparkle is sometimes included in an effort to disguise an inherent deficiency.

It seems that Dolly is on to something. During his March 18, 2016 interview on The Chew (ABC), Seal stated that the current plan for his upcoming European tour will feature him and one or two other musicians on stage. No light shows. No dancers. When asked why, Seal suggested that the audience wants to just focus on the message of the music. Is it possible that classical audiences are dwindling because we are no longer communicating relevant messages to them? Have we failed to present music that speaks to the heart? Do we as performers intentionally bring personal interpretations of the music to the recital stage that we have painstakingly developed in the practice room or are we simply regurgitating a soulless version of a favored recording?

That's the challenge facing musicians today. In the coming weeks, I'll explore what I believe to be some of the causes of our present cookie-cutter performances as well as steps today's teachers can take to break the cycle while training the next generation of musicians. I hope you'll join me for the conversation.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Technology for the Piano Studio

As our world is daily effected by modern technology, our piano studios are also changing. Students of all ages come to us more tech-savvy than ever before. They expect our teaching to include the use of apps and other forms of technology that will be beneficial to their learning. Here's a quick look at some of the websites, applications and equipment I am currently using in my collegiate studio on an almost daily basis.

  • ForScore Music Reader. After spending the early years of my career as a collaborative pianist hauling enormous binders filled with photocopies of scores from rehearsal to rehearsal, ForScore changed my life. The iPad app holds lots of music that is clearly displayed on the tablet. With the ability to mark the score easily as well as the imbedded metronome and recording equipment, ForScore is one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal at the moment.
  • AirTurn Blue Tooth Page Turner. Paired with my iPad and ForScore, my AirTurn system allows for hands-free page turning. Set up is easy and the dual pedal configuration is highly mobile, reliable, and affordable. Rarely do I play a performance or important rehearsal without using my AirTurn.
  • Recording Capabilities. Recording lessons, rehearsals and performances is a valuable tool for every musician and most of our students have the capability to record -- both audio and video recordings -- from one of their devices. Additionally, sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud enable performers to reach a large audience without spending a cent on travel. 
  • Metronome. Students have no excuse for not practicing with a metronome! There are many free apps that are quite good. I encourage my students to use the simple metronomes so they aren't distracted by all of the "bells and whistles" that come with many for-purchase apps. Why pay for more when we just need a clear sound that keeps a steady beat?
  • Online Music Sources. It is now possible to obtain music very quickly with the advent of digital scores. Additionally, many free scores are available. I find myself accessing IMSLP regularly as I research new music that is now in the public domain and finding scores for students who are struggling financially.  Students enrolled in my class piano course are no longer carrying an enormous textbook; instead, they purchase a semester's license to Enovative offers everything from repertoire to score reading excerpts, transposition exercises, and harmonization projects in a single location at a reasonable price. Perhaps most importantly, each of Enovative's repertoire selections is accompanied by a video performance that displays solid technique and musicality. (In case you can't tell, I'm a big fan of the online text and would love to chat with you about it further if you are interested.)
  • Listening Sources. Whether you prefer YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, or Naxos, there are plenty of places to direct your students to hear performances -- both good and bad -- of repertoire they should know as well as pieces they are studying. When you don't find what you're looking for, the option to upload your own recording is also an option. When you can't listen to a live performance, these websites offer the next best thing.
  • Survey Monkey. Yes, I'm using Survey Monkey in my studio instruction. It's an easy way to collect comments on peer performances in a piano lab setting or studio performance lab without forcing introverted students to stress over speaking in front of a group of their peers. In my personal experience, I've found that a few confidential surveys help everyone's confidence to grow and realize that they have insightful comments to make on musical performances that can be helpful to their friends.
Now I'd like to hear from you. How are you using technology in your studio? Share your experiences and ideas in the comments below.