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.

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

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

Bitten by the Bach Bug

This winter, I have not suffered any type of cold or flu that is going around.

However, I have been bitten by another bug, that of the long-dead composer, J.S. Bach. How it started was rather random: I was reading an article on the NY Times Website about András Schiff, the Hungarian/British pianist whom I first saw perform at Tanglewood when I was a teenager. The article mentioned how Schiff had recently played the entire Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, a set of 24 preludes and fugues written in every major and minor key.

Typically, these types of performances are done in small spaces and often on period instruments, attended by a small cadre of dedicated fans of early music. This performance was opposite in almost every way: the performance was at the London Proms Festival, held in cavernous Royal Albert Hall, which has over 5200 seats. The piano was a modern Steinway Model D. More impressive, the performance of just under two hours was by memory and without intermission.

As a young piano student, I had to learn a few of these pieces to satisfy requirements for music school auditions, juries, and degree recitals. But they were never fun! The organ seems to be the perfect instrument for Bach, where the pedalboard can help out when there’s just too much to play in two hands. Comparing the organ, an already mature instrument, to the various keyboards of the time isn’t fair. However, after hearing Schiff play these pieces, I decided it was me who needed the second chance!

So, I decided to learn the entire volume of Book One as well, though in my own way, at my own speed. I will play the first four preludes and fugues as piano postludes at church during the month of February and add several more every few months until I finish sometime in 2019. At first, they won’t be memorized, and I’m not even committing to ever perform them as an entire set memorized. It’s about the journey, not the destination. So far, as I work through the fourth prelude and fugue in C# minor, a particularly difficult one, it’s going a lot better than it did 30 years ago!

Last Updated 2018-02-19 | Originally Posted 2018-02-02

Beethoven Bagatelle Strikes Gold

As part of my job as a church organist, I occasionally program a series of piano pieces.  Frequently they will be a series of compositions by the same composer, such as the Impromptus of Schubert or Songs without Words by Mendelssohn.  For the month of November, I planned a number of unrelated pieces that I wanted to play.

Since I haven’t played a lot from memory recently, I went with the easiest from the set of pieces first, the Bagatelle “Für Elise” by Beethoven.  I expected that it would receive at best a few pat compliments since it is not a difficult piece for a professional musician.  My surprise was how much I connected with people by playing this.  My only reasoning is that it’s a piece many adults know first hand since it’s one of the first pieces played past the beginning level.

Still, in my mind, the compliments were outsized compared to other pieces where the difficulty was so much higher, yet didn’t connect in the same way to my listeners.  It even sparked the interest in an adult who came up to me afterward to say he was considering taking lessons again.

I’m sure there are many lessons to draw from this, but the most obvious one is not to be afraid of doing something simple or easy, as long as you do it well.  In retrospect, the reaction I received shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I had a similar reaction when I heard the piece on a CD played by Claudio Arrau, one of the great pianists of the 20th century.  It was the inspiration for me to re-learn this piece!

Last Updated 2018-01-15 | Originally Posted 2017-11-07