Keep Pushing Forward

One of the challenges of learning new music is that there are literally so many notes. When I look back on the four Chopin Scherzi that I learned anew (2) and relearned (2) this year, that’s 82 pages of printed music. When organizing, musicians usually think in measures. Even using measures, there are 967 measures in the 12-minute Fourth Scherzo. How do you tackle pieces that are so daunting in length? Keep pushing forward.

There are plenty of metaphors out there about facing Goliath, an 800-pound gorilla or a large elephant, but the concept is the same: Take small bites. I write in pencil a small date/time code to identify my latest stopping point. It’s something that I did years ago when reading books, mainly because I constantly lost bookmarks. My goal in each practice session is to move forward from that spot about 50 measures or so. Of course, I have to loop back to practice difficult spots earlier on, but I have to always keep pushing forward!

One thing that I’m careful to do on longer pieces is to front-load learning. Tackle the difficult parts first, then leave the easy stuff for the end. Even though each Chopin Scherzo has very different musical themes, the construction is remarkably similar. I start with the the measures from the beginning through to the beginning of the middle section. Then, I skip forward to the coda (at the end), which tends to have some new material that is typically indicated at a rapid tempo. Once done there, I make my way back through the recapitulation, which lay between the middle section and the coda. Then, after all that hard work, I get to learn the middle section, which is almost like the ice cream or cake at the end of the meal!

In addition, I’ve also sometimes used a practice notebook, much like the spiral notebook I ask my students to use for their lessons. Lately, however, I just make my practice notes in Trello. It’s really helpful to have some type of journal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s written or electronic, as long as its consistently used. The more music I have to learn, the more organized I have to be. Using the traffic light colors alerts me to how well I’m doing. I use five colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, and green to indicate my progress on each piece.

I’m sometimes jealous of my school-aged students, who have regular practice routines built into their schedules. I practice when I’m already around a piano. That’s typically after teaching or after my work at the church. I do have a very good Yamaha U1 48-inch upright at home, but I almost always find something else to do at home. Sometimes it’s good to be somewhere that you have limited distractions!

Posted 2019-09-03

Schumann and Beethoven To Go

Listening to music in the online era seems a bit more like just another computer task, whether it be shopping online or even writing an email. The only difference is that it’s served via a music platform, like YouTube or Facebook Live, instead of some other computer, tablet, or cell phone app. So why not Schumann and Beethoven To Go, since that is how it is likely to be consumed?!

As I just hinted above, my virtual audience is much larger than my physical one. I’m not going to rehash my thoughts of my last blog post, but instead, continue to focus more on my online audience. The move to thinking about an online audience has been quite a challenge. I allow extra time to get my live stream ready before each performance. I post to both Facebook and Instagram both before and after events, in order to entice and provide listening links, respectively. After each Facebook Live event, I edit the recording to eliminate dead space, give program information, plus provide launch points for each piece and movement.

So what inspired me to put together works by Schumann and Beethoven? Before I explore that, here is a link to the concert program itself. I first heard Schumann’s Papillons in a recital given by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I remember sitting on stage in Symphony Hall in Boston as he thundered those octaves at the beginning of the second episode. That immediately dismissed any notion that this was a lesser work. It may not be as virtuosic as some of Schumann’s later and longer works, but it provides many challenges – including those very octaves!

Beethoven’s Second Piano Sonata, Op. 2, No. 2, is brand new to me. I selected it since I already played the first sonata in college, as well as several others sprinkled through the entire catalog. I don’t have a goal to learn all 32 sonatas, but I figured that with the first two sonatas learned, I might want to learn a few more eventually. It’s humbling to realize that a lifetime of piano playing hasn’t made learning anything by Beethoven any easier!

Now that I’ve offered Schumann and Beethoven To Go, I’m wondering whether I should have offered any food or beverage pairings. Okay, I’ll leave it right there, because I really now have to go practice!

Updated 2019-06-11 | Originally Posted 2019-05-28

I bought a piano!

I wasn’t looking to buy a piano.  Really! But I bought a piano anyway. The interest was sparked by a piano parent who was searching for an acoustic piano. But I was surprised when she emailed me an advertisement for a 48-inch Yamaha U1 upright, built in 1977. This is a top-of-the-line upright, which Yamaha continues to make in Japan, along with their tallest model, the 52-inch U3. They offshored production of all of their shorter uprights decades ago.

When it was clear that my piano parent was pursuing pianos in a much lower price range, I made the call. It’s tough to fairly evaluate resale prices for used instruments, but I knew that the asking price was correct if the instrument was in excellent condition. However, even well-loved instruments can develop issues requiring significant rework, so I didn’t want to take any chances.

I hired my preferred tuner to do an analysis of the instrument, since a $60 fee was well worth saving hundreds or even more if I chose poorly. I have to be realistic that this might be the last instrument that I purchase. Yes, I’d still love to have a Steinway B or Mason & Hamlin BB, but this is a practical decision for now.

Everything worked out, and I was able to find a new owner for my Knabe spinet that is old enough to have ivory key covers. It was a gift to me, so it is now a gift to a new piano parent. I never loved this piano, but that’s more a reflection on me than it; I have better instruments available to practice where I work. It still has more to give, and I hope it will be appreciated for years to come.

Adopt a new-to-you upright of your choice. You won’t be disappointed!

Posted 2019-04-17

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

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

Bach Reaches Audience

It took me a long time to program Bach on a sufficient basis during Sunday worship. At the first job where I was organist and choir director, I avoided playing him altogether. I feared people would not connect. At the next job, I played some Bach, but not a lot. At my current position, where I’ve been since 2012, I’ve fully embraced him. I challenged myself to play the entire Orgelbüchlein, as Bach intended, from Advent to the end of the Christian year. It was extremely meaningful to me, though rarely did anyone make a comment. Bach reaches audience? Not so much!

Now, I’ve moved over to the piano, and am one-third of the way through Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And it’s going pretty well! I wasn’t surprised to hear feedback at the beginning of the cycle. It’s a big project, and the first Prelude and Fugue are pretty well known. However, I didn’t expect comments on the fifth, even though it’s one of my absolute favorites. Or the seventh, which is unusual in almost every way, and certainly not a piece I’m yet comfortable playing. But I do hear comments each week!

The comments are all over the place, as you would expect from people who are mostly hearing these pieces for the first time. But the fact that there is buzz, and that people are sitting through the performances, is enough to make me smile. They are connecting to pieces written nearly 300 years ago, when the piano was still in its infancy, and many other instruments were still evolving as well. I think with great music, people know innately that it’s special. I’m just glad to be the tour guide during this two-year journey.

I’m sure there are some folks who don’t connect at all to these pieces. Hopefully, something else that I’m currently offering, or played in the past, has been meaningful to them. My philosophy is to offer a concentrated yet varied program of the best music that I can learn and perform. Music can provide deep personal meaning to so many lives, including those who I may never get to know other than a passing Sunday morning greeting.

Posted 2018-08-27

Piano Miniatures

What are piano miniatures? My definition would be any piece that’s no longer than five minutes and unmistakably describes its composer. You might think of these as piano encores, and you would be right. The only difference is that I don’t want to save them just for the end of a recital. They can stand on their own, and deserve to be shared whenever the opportunity arises.

I am going to be learning and memorizing these to be shared in a variety of places, including where I am the church organist and where I teach piano. However, I’d also like to share them in other places, wherever a piano is found and I have permission to play. I would like for these to be my calling card! In order to keep track of my project, I will be posting both my repertoire and where the performances took place, on this page.

What’s your reaction to my experiment? Will it be well received? Would you welcome a piano miniature in your life?

Miniature Pianist

Last Updated 2018-06-21 | Originally Posted 2018-06-04

One Thank-You Note

One thank-you note. What made it special? It was the only one!

I recently agreed to take on a block of accompanying for juries at the University of Arkansas. Fourteen to be exact. For each student, there were two half-hour rehearsals, plus playing for the jury itself, about 8 to 10 minutes long. The pay was decent, and really there was no need for a special thank you other than the check I will eventually receive. However, one student S took the time to handwrite the thank-you note below. The stationery on which it was written was accordion folded with each of the letters from the words “thank you” represented.

I wish I could say I practiced the art of saying thank you, whether in written or email form, as often as I should. Cheers to S! She has this part of life down pat!

thank you note
A Special Thank You Note

Posted 2018-05-12

Ballet Pianist

Ballet pianist. Those are two words that I thought I would never say again! Between 1987 and 1994, I had two separate jobs as a ballet pianist. The first was at Rockland (NY) Community College during a gap year after my bachelor’s degree. Then, after I got my master’s degree from The Juilliard School, I worked for several years at the Connecticut Conservatory of Dance and Music in New Milford, Connecticut. This school anchored an old industrial building, built with solid brick that was perfectly re-purposed as a performing arts school and apartments.

I was living at home in Orange County, New York, at the time, and the daily drive was pretty long. I was taking classes at New Paltz College (SUNY) towards an elementary school teaching certificate, which I earned, but it didn’t end up generating a job when I needed one. For about a year, I took a pretty full load of classes in the morning, drove to the school in the afternoon, and then returned home fairly late at night. It was about three hours driving total. I really don’t know how I got my homework done, but somehow I made it work!

As for my skill at the craft as a ballet pianist, it wasn’t great. I was successful at figuring out, most of the time, what type of music was appropriate for a particular exercise. I was not a good improviser, and am not much better at that today. Unfortunately, that’s an important skill to have if you want to be highly successful in this work. I also lost some joy in playing the piano when I had to adapt pieces written by great composers into regular eight measure phrases played at an inflexible tempo. The tasteful flexibility of tempo might be the hallmark of a great musician, but it’s a disaster for dancers!

More than 20 years after I last played for a dance class, I saw a group email asking my local organization of piano teachers if anyone would be interested in playing occasionally for auditions and exams at the NWA Conservatory of Classical Ballet. It seemed promising since the pay was good, and the school is just over one mile from my house. Fast forward: I just completed my second year of playing at the school this past week, though these last two days I was battling a nasty fever. Playing for the exams has been a lot of fun and rewarding. The auditions are sometimes a little challenging, but the visiting teachers are always very nice.

The school itself is tucked away in a nondescript area on J Street in SE Bentonville. It is one of the few ballet schools in the U.S. that teaches the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) curriculum, which is widely known in English speaking countries outside of the U.S. It was founded by Margie Bordovsky and her daughter Mariah to continue the legacy of RAD teaching in Northwest Arkansas established by Peggy Wallis. They present performances throughout the year, but the highlight is The Nutcracker, presented annually at the Arends Arts Center.

ballet dancers
NWA Conservatory of Classical Ballet – used with permission

Posted 2018-03-19