One Piano Parent Listened

When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!

She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.

After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!

Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!

Posted 2019-06-28

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

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 by piano parents for recommendations on buying a piano. It’s a loaded question. I often have to ask several follow-up questions before giving an answer that will satisfy what they are really asking. In ideal terms, I’m thinking about the instrument that would best serve the student now and several years into the future. In practical terms, the parent is often looking for a bargain and something that will work now. It’s sometimes even difficult to get a parent to consider an acoustic instrument, even when money isn’t the primary constraint. How can 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 electronic. There are those grin and bear moments, like when I played for a birthday party earlier this year with a borrowed 61-key electronic keyboard, damper pedal not included. Not all electronic experiences are like that. I often get to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Although there are other companies that make legitimate keyboards, I really like this model just because I’m most familiar with it.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played a keyboard without feeling compromised. I’m not talking from a purist or snobbish viewpoint. 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. Sound sampling has greatly improved during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. They just aren’t real!

I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through social media. 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. Listen to the piano. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. All spinets have the compromise of a drop action, but they can still sing and inspire.

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

Update: My former Knabe spinet is now in the home of a new piano student, as a result of the purchase of a Yamaha U1 48-inch upright.

Updated 2019-06-24 | Originally Posted 2018-12-23

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

Practice Makes Better

I had just completed my first day of teaching in a new year at Shepherd Music School. It was a long day since I included some make-ups from the day before due to being sick. I shopped at the mall grocery store, where chicken is on special one day a week. Having put those in the car, I took a brief walk around the village of closed stores. Wow, it was great having the energy to do more than move from kitchen to couch to bed on repeat! Practice was far from my mind, or so I thought!

Unexpectedly, I ran into Dave and Buster’s, which is the new tenant in the old food court building. I’m always interested in investigating new businesses, no matter what they do. However, I will admit to especially liking those in which adults are encouraged to act like kids. I walked in, put $5 on a card, and had enough credits to casually play about 30 minutes worth of games. I even earned enough tickets to cash in for a ping-pong sized high-bounce ball.

There was a real mix of games, from those that were pure chance to ones where skill and experience are important. That’s especially important because just a little bit of an edge can mean scoring big versus earning just a couple of tickets. And that’s when it hit me. I was drawn almost exclusively to those games that required skill. After playing the basketball toss, Skee-Ball, and the piano game, I wanted to do it again and again. Yes, I wanted to practice, because practice makes better! Of course, getting really good at any of these games just unloads your wallet. At least you get to cash in your tickets for some merchandise that is almost exclusively branded with the Dave and Buster’s logo!

Practicing the piano follows the same logic. I want to practice my new repertoire to perform it to the best of my ability. Depending upon the difficulty, learning a new piece could take just a couple of hours in one sitting or dozens of hours over many days.

When I set minimum practice standards for my students, I think about what I go through now and then. I sometimes show students my books, filled with fingerings and practice markings. I don’t feel bad asking my youngest beginner to practice at least an hour a week, which could be just 20 minutes a day over three days. For an older beginner, I’ll ask that to be stepped up to 30 minutes a day. My best student, who is solidly intermediate, practices about 3 hours per week, typically 30 minutes per day over 6 days. It’s not a crazy or excessive amount, but it’s enough. Lessons are extremely productive: feedback is offered, practice solidifies the suggestions, and then we move on to new pieces fairly quickly.

Practice is where the real learning happens. Sure, I may be effective in giving guidance, suggestions, even a fingering that might work better. But it’s the student who determines what to do with all of that. I can’t take credit for what happens at home. I can just brag on my students who have done the work themselves, and be happy that I have had the chance to guide them along the way!

Posted 2018-08-16