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Different Kind of Feedback

I received very different kind of feedback after performing a new piece in my repertoire, the Chopin Scherzo No. 2: “I am glad that you learned that for yourself and that you shaered it with us!” It’s not the typical response following a performance. I knew that the comment was well intended, coming from one of my favorite people at First Methodist of Bella Vista. Still, it took a while to sink in what that actually meant.

While my reasons for wanting to learn new repertoire on the piano and organ are multi-faceted, it’s clear that they are all related to my goal to become better at both. I encourage my students to set and achieve goals, in a way that’s appropriate for their age. If I find a child is shirking responsibility, I try to address his responsibility in the process. One of the many benefits of piano lessons is becoming responsible for one’s work. The piano is just the tool that allows that to happen.

Performance is the natural culmination of music study. If you’ve taken the time to learn a piece, you should share it with others. Recitals and music festivals are the formal way to do this, but there should be other ways too. Performing for family, church, school, or a retirement community are equally valid. Live performance gives you feedback that you can’t get in any other way. Plus, it helps focus and refine your work, since there is a fixed date on the calendar that will make you accountable!

Learning and performing go hand in hand for me. I couldn’t imagine learning and then not performing. I have had some students, particularly adults, who have no interest whatsoever in public performance. That’s okay too. What doesn’t work well is performing without learning. Yes, I have performed more times than I’d like to admit without being sufficiently prepared. Building an audience is difficult, and it’s important to do your best. I’m grateful to have the chance to learn new pieces, polish old ones, and share them with my audiences and inspire a new generation of musicians.

Posted 2019-02-20

Fear or Laziness?

I was practicing after teaching this week, something I do whenever I have the chance. When learning new pieces, I sometimes find it difficult to get started. Once I get started, it’s sometimes difficult to keep making progress. Such was the case in trying to get through the entire Chopin Scherzo No. 2. It’s a new piece for me, with 780 measures over 23 pages that I’ll perform as a church postlude on February 10th.

It was really tempting to just practice the portions that I already knew, versus getting further into the piece as I must. One of the techniques I use is to mark the date at the furthest point that I have practiced. Then, I use that endpoint as a starting point for the next practice session. What was frustrating this particular evening was that I really needed to move forward quite a bit to stay on my timeline. And I was having a hard time doing it.

That’s when it dawned on me…was this fear or laziness? Or a combination of both? My particular challenge is one that I set for myself. I decided a while ago to commit to learning lots of difficult new music on both the piano and organ. Even if I’m the only one who knows I didn’t do my best, it bothers me.

I’m in good shape right now on that piece, and on the other pieces that are upcoming. But that will only remain true if I keep remembering to battle these two foes, fear and laziness, by continuing to push forward each time I practice!

Posted 2019-01-31

What is your goal?

I got the chance to do quite a bit of reading during time off from work, especially following Christmas Eve, which included two services and a very difficult organ recital in between those broadcast via Facebook Live. Without looking for it, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the New York Times titled I’ll Never Be Rachmaninoff. It was written by an adult piano student who returned to the piano following a long absence. Her goal was clear; but what is your goal?

It’s not the first time I’ve written a post based on the recreational benefits of piano study, but I think it always comes across better in the first person. Jennifer Weiner tells the story of finding teachers, and how study positively affected her life and daughter as well. Ms. Weiner was a very competitive person in youth and in life, so the last thing she needed was to resume piano study with the hopes of becoming great. Her goal was to be good, not great, and she describes her journey towards just that. Thus, the title of her article is particularly compelling.

I try to remember to ask my students about their goals and to regularly check in with them that lessons are meeting them. Often, especially with younger students, the goal is pretty general, just to play better, and the means to get there isn’t specific. For other students, particularly teens and adults, there are more specific goals in mind. It might be to reach higher levels in classical study, to play pop songs, or to play Christmas carols for their family.

One of my adult students had that last goal. She just reported back that it went well. For this particular student, the focus was short-term, to play a series of Christmas carols well enough for a sing-along. She enjoyed it enough and received enough positive feedback that she’s considering more study, though not right away. That’s great!

Whatever your goal is in piano study, I hope to help guide you there. Whether your goal is to be good or great, I think Sergei would approve!

Posted 2019-01-02

Listen to the piano

I’m often asked my advice about what piano someone should get. However, my advice is not often followed, since I’m providing an answer from a lifetime of musicianship and not one supporting a desire to save money or buy a so-called maintenance-free instrument. So how could I possibly make more of a dent, to get someone to try to think differently? Listen to the piano.

Since I perform quite a bit, I play a variety of instruments. Most of them are acoustic instruments, but there are occasions when they are not. I played for a birthday party earlier this year where I was provided with a very short 61-key electronic keyboard, without damper pedal. I’ve also had the chance to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Just for the record – for those of you who refuse to even consider an acoustic instrument – please consider this model. If taken care of, it will provide you many years of enjoyment, and have resale value if/when you no longer want it.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played any keyboard without thinking it’s a compromise. I’m not talking about this from a purist or snobbish viewpoint, though I certainly could do so. Listen to the piano. How does it sound? To me, there’s only way to produce the sound that a piano should have, and that’s with a hammer hitting a string. Yes, I get that sampling has improved greatly during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. But they just aren’t real!

Listen to the piano. I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through an interview on a subscription site to which I belong. She often posts students playing her old American-made grand piano that has a sound that could only come from that instrument. Between the moving parts of hammers and strings and the fixed ones like the iron and wood, each piano has a story to tell, if you just listen. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. There are compromises made when building such tiny pianos, but they can still sing and inspire.

So that’s how I’m going to start when I’m next asked this question. Perhaps my advice will go unheeded. But maybe he will listen to the piano. And who knows? That might make all the difference!

Posted 2018-12-23

Festive 2018 Finale

Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the year-end recitals. Two made their recital debut; the other two are becoming old pros performing in public.

Since all of the parents have given me consent to post their children’s photos, I have included them in the photo carousel below. I’m really proud of them all, and am excited to hear how they grow over the coming semester.

All of my students have plenty of chances to perform publicly. In this past semester, we had a Halloween performance party and played for the residents at a local retirement community. For those participating in the Sonatina Festival, there was a warm-up recital in Springdale prior to the event itself.

My private students do miss out on the school recitals, but we often have in-home recitals instead. It’s a more intimate chance to perform for their family and friends.

Here’s to continued success in 2019!

Posted 2018-12-21

One Very Bad Experience

I had a wonderful run recently as the substitute pianist for the Bella Vista Women’s Chorus (BVWC). My performance agreement included two rehearsals and three concerts with the group, but ended with the final concert this past Tuesday. I had high hopes as I arrived at the venue, since the first two concerts were really successful.  The lobby and grand parlor were beautifully appointed, and a very shiny baby grand piano awaited me. However, during the choral warmup, I learned that this concert was not going to be the success for which I hoped.

There were five to six notes that were sticking, including the A4.  This is a pitch in the center of the piano known as the tuning pitch used by orchestras. When several of your pieces are written in D Major and F Major, it’s impossible to avoid this note, since it’s part of the tonic chord! The problem was that if I transposed pieces, I ran into other notes that were broken. For instance, there were two sticking notes in the bass, a B-flat and E-flat in the bass, so in avoiding one problem I encountered another.

To someone who doesn’t play the piano professionally, this may seem like a minor deal. Perhaps this piano would have been a treasure compared to the ones used by the Jewish musicians who were trying to make music to keep their sanity in Theresienstadt. But this is an upscale retirement community, not Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, which purports to care about their residents by providing the means for groups like the BVWC to bring the joy of music that we all need.

Some of the residents I talked to between the warmup and the concert asked me how I was dealing with the problem of the broken keys. I said not very well!  They were fellow pianists who had mentioned the problems to the staff many times over the past several years without any success.  It was clear to me, even without their confirmation, that the piano had not been maintained for years.  I noticed that the instrument was also wickedly out of tune.  Pianos do go out of tune mildly due to seasonal changes in the temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.  This was instead pure neglect.

While playing in the concert itself, I frequently lost my place in complicated repeating passages as I scanned ahead on the page for the A4.  I was trying to avoid playing that note so as not to injure my hand. I chose to play in octaves low and high trying to avoid the broken notes. As a performing musician, I don’t make a lot of money, especially when working with all-volunteer groups. When the opportunity to make music is taken away from me, there is nothing left.

Lesson learned. I will insist that the concert organizer confirms that the performance instrument is completely operational.  Simply put, all 88 notes play correctly.  It’s a welcome bonus if the piano has been tuned recently, but sometime in the last year is the minimum standard. As a backstop, I will be adding a clause to my standard performance agreement:  If a piano is not completely operational, I am free and clear to walk out of a performance and still receive the performance fee.

Posted 2018-12-12

My Music Charity Picks for 2018

Introduction

Giving Tuesday is a real thing, as evidenced by my inbox today. There are so many emails and pleas for my money. I’m not against giving, but I do find it annoying when charities spam me multiple times per day. Worse, I really hate when they call asking for very specific amounts to be pledged during that very same phone call. In the end, I unsubscribe or ask to be added to their Do Not Call list. I prefer to make my annual charitable donations from a quiet place, giving to groups that speak to my best self, based on what I have to give. Lately, it hasn’t been much.

This year, I chose three music charities for contributions. It just worked out that about the only thing binding them is their common mission of music. The local charity is the smallest, too small to be ranked by Charity Navigator. The other two have top 4-star ratings from Charity Navigator; I’ve provided a link to Charity Navigator for those larger organizations if interested. Each organization has a different target audience. Each uses its resources in the best possible way to help those it chooses to serve.

My Picks

Opera in the Ozarks – I believe that giving should start at home, and this pick has been giving back to its community annually since 1950! Based in Eureka Springs, Opera in the Ozarks, and its parent organization, the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony, presents summer opera during June and July using a pool of 50 talented young singers in an apprentice program. It offers three full-length operas in a rotation, and even offers residents of NW Arkansas a discount for attending on opening night.

The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation – Founded by the composer of the film score for the 1990s movie, this Los Angeles-based charity provides musical instruments to under-funded public school programs.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) – MPR is a local NPR affiliate in its home state, but it’s also an important national producer of music content benefitting radio listeners throughout the U.S. I’m most grateful that they continue to support Pipedreams, a long-running weekly program broadcasting organ music from around the world. They also produce a smattering of classical music shows, such as Performance Today, and they also produce many special Christmas/New Year programs that are picked up by many local NPR affiliates. My favorites are the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge and the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert.

Outside of classical music, they also present Live from Here, which used to be called Prairie Home Companion. The new host, brilliant mandolinist Chris Thile, has completely revamped the show and it presents a smattering of uniquely American music styles. MPR is even busy outside of music, with shows such as Marketplace, which presents financial news frequently spliced into NPR news programming.

Posted 2018-11-28

One Facebook Share

One Facebook share. Most of you have probably shared something on Facebook. Marketers encourage us to do this all the time since they understand the power of multiplication. I expect that maybe a dozen of my followers might see the photos I post of my students, typically from their performances at festivals or recitals. A few people may even like the photos. So what was different in this case? One Facebook share!

One of my piano parents, who apparently has a very large friends list, decided to share the post including her daughter. It blew up – in a good way. The stats are attached at the bottom. This post was seen by 418 times, and of those 25 liked it, and 6 commented on it. Just from one share!

I wrote a post this summer called Small Action Big Impact, of which this could be a part two! Though in that case, I was talking about a review on a Website, which was viewed by more people than I could have imagined. The principle is the same. So at this time of Thanksgiving, I’m reminded to make the effort to be ever thankful, whether that’s expressed in a smile, a kind word, or even a note of encouragement or thanks. It also makes me redouble my effort not to hurt anyone through an unkind word due my impatience or judgment. You never really know what impact either may have.

Posted 2018-11-26

Christmas 2018 Organ Recital

Background

I’m really nervous and excited about my upcoming organ recital, which is less than three weeks away. I had 29 guests for my organ recital earlier this month. I was really pleased to have a mix of people from all three services, as well as guests who heard about the program via a listing in the local newspaper.

December’s 25- to 30-minute program has five pieces, four of which are brand new to me. While browsing through stacks of music I’ve collected over the years, I came to realize a while ago my limits in learning new music. In order to have old favorites, it’s necessary at some point to learn new ones! There are composers whose music I’ve barely touched due to an unfamiliar style or because they write incredibly difficult music. There’s both on this program.

The first two pieces by Dandrieu and Daquin are written in the post-Baroque Galant style. It’s just a glimpse at an almost forgotten era of music composition that connects the Baroque to the Classical eras. My refuge is in the Bach chorale prelude, which I’ve played for many years. The Dupré Magnificat is a soft and flowing piece with delicious modern harmonies. The Langlais is a triumphal piece that you are sure to hear me play again soon, perhaps on Easter Sunday 2019. Explore this new repertoire with me!

What, Where, and When

Organ Recital – First Methodist of Bella Vista, Arkansas

  • Sunday, December 16, 2018, 12 Noon
  • Monday, December 24, 2018, 6:55 p.m.

The Program

  • Carillon ou Cloches – Jean-François Dandrieu
  • Noël X pour Grand Jeu et Duo – Louis-Claude Daquin
  • Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 – J.S. Bach
  • Magnificat IV – Marcel Dupré
  • Fête – Jean Langlais
Last Updated 2019-01-30 | Originally Posted 2018-11-25

Halloween Performance Party

We had a lot of fun at the Halloween Performance Party, but not all of it was scheduled. Samuel the Squirrel didn’t appear as he did during my recital at the church two weeks ago. This time, we couldn’t get into the building; the code for the keypad didn’t work. Luckily, the custodian saw me and let me in the building. One of my students came up to me to let me know that there was a stranger in our performance space. It turned out to be one of my students in disguise as Napoleon Dynamite!

Although it was disappointing that only 4 of 12 students showed up, which included some last-minute cancellations and no-shows, we had a good time anyway. The Sonatina Festival participants went first. This was the first time they were performing their newly memorized pieces in front of an audience. When it comes to performing from memory, I find that a couple of warm-ups really help to work out the nerves and the memory issues. It’s better to mess up in front of one’s fellow students before going into the formal warm-up where they will be grouped together with students of the other participating teachers.

After we finished the Sonatina Festival performances, it was time for anything but sonatinas! My adult student played a Christmas Carol and a repertoire piece, one of the festival participants played a Burgmüller study, and I played the Halloween-appropriate Funeral March for a Marionette by Gounod. This ended the playing portion of the party, though I had a lot of candy still left to give out. It was composer trivia time!

Each of the students gets a subscription to Piano Explorer magazine, which I think of as the piano version of the children’s magazine Highlights. Each month a composer is featured, with Schubert and Scarlatti being the most recent ones. There is even a quiz at the end of each issue, which is where I found many of the questions I asked. Turns out the kids hadn’t done their reading. Worse, according to one student, Schubert composed in New York City. At that point, the parents cashed in! They answered pretty much all of the questions, despite my giving some very generous clues. The kids were happy that there was enough candy left for them to take at the end. For me, it’s good to know that I have to do a better job of follow-up and to set the scene for what a composer’s life was like once-upon-a-time!

Here is a picture from the party, which I almost forgot to take since I was having too much fun. And, to be honest, I was still trying to figure out how Schubert made it to New York from Vienna!

Posted 2018-10-29