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

Great Success and Utter Disappointment

Great success and utter disappointment might be a slight exaggeration. However, it shows the range of emotions I felt after giving what I consider to be my best organ recital on Sunday, April 28th at First Methodist in Bella Vista. My playing was really pretty decent, even good at times, and was about the best I could have expected. The Widor Toccata was the only piece that I had learned before this year. Anyone listening to me now versus several years ago would notice significant improvement. I am well on my way to playing the organ in mid-life as I did the piano when I graduated from music school.

I didn’t have a large network through which to market the recital, but I got the word out early, and even let the program sit for long enough to make a change from a shaky to a solid final selection. In the last year or so that I have been giving piano and organ recitals at the church, I have been getting audiences between 12 and 35 people, so I reasonably expected that I’d at least hit the low number, despite it being the Sunday after Easter and there being a couple of competing activities at the church.

Oh boy, was I wrong about that: Only five people showed up. That included my page turner, Music Director Larry Zehring. He reluctantly pitched in when I couldn’t find a single volunteer from the choir.

Strangely, I wasn’t as bothered by this as I might have been in the past. After all, I do broadcast and archive my recitals via Facebook Live, so they do have an online afterlife. The primary motivation for giving the recital was to prove to myself that I could do it. Having an audience of any size to hold me accountable was really the main criterion. This counted! Playing to an empty house, even in the best circumstances, is still just practice!

As I go forward, I need to be clear about my motivation, and what is and isn’t important. I have to focus more on the great success and less on the utter disappointment. I have to realize that most people are more concerned about their brunch plans than noontime recitals. Plus, there are only so many fans of the organ. Whenever I hear a national recitalist in Tulsa, there are barely 50 to 100 attendees for recitals that are free of charge. Maybe this was a reminder from God to keep looking inward, instead of outward, as performers want to do. I did well and should let Him take care of the rest.

Posted 2019-05-05

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

Give Yourself Permission To Suck

It’s said that perfectionists never get anything done. Despite that somewhat true saying, the expectation is often that we shoot for perfection. There are even expressions for those who don’t, like “close enough for government work or jazz.” Fortunately, there are enough folks who see that lie for what it is. As Sierra Teller Ornelas suggests in this article (h/t Kara Cutruzzula), give yourself permission to suck!

I remember trying this on for size as a freshman at New England Conservatory of Music. I took a class in violin, which was offered primarily as an introductory class for music education majors. For me, a performance major, it was just for fun. I learned first hand why it’s virtually impossible to learn violin, with any proficiency, as an adult: we know how bad we sound! Learning to draw the bow in a pleasing way takes months for everyone, whether child or adult. Fortunately, children don’t know (or care) how bad they sound, until they sound good. Henry, a double-bassist down the hall in my dorm, reminded me in case I wasn’t sure. He demanded that I go down to the basement practice cells because I was that bad!

That doesn’t mean we should purposely do badly. What it does mean is that you can’t possibly do something extremely well, without lots of experience doing it badly at first. As a professional musician, I know that my first performance of any new piece, despite thorough practice, will always be the worst performance. Hopefully, my worst performance will still be good enough to be perfectly acceptable, maybe even better! Ms. Ornelas explains this in her work as a television writer and producer:

You’re taught this insane work ethic, so if it’s not perfect, it’s garbage. And the way you actually create art is by making garbage first, and then getting better and better. And so giving yourself permission to suck is such a hard thing to do.

Legendary salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said basically the same thing decades ago: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly…until you can do it well.” And I’m sure plenty of sages have said similar things. As Ms. Ornelas said, “Make mistakes in front of as many people as you can.”

Posted on 2018-05-21