Long Road to Chopin Scherzi

It began as a teenager…

The four Chopin Scherzi have always had a special place in my heart. I was looking for a flashy piece to play for a local scholarship competition when I was a senior in high school. My teacher Susan Starr suggested that I learn the first scherzo, though it would be a tough go to learn in just three weeks, with at most two lessons beforehand. It was tough to learn, and I didn’t learn it well enough to place in the competition. I did end up playing for one of the winners, though, as a collaborative pianist!

As a 17-year-old, I was very impressionable. I got to know many of the pianists who were on the scene, since I went to several solo piano recitals and concerto appearances at Carnegie Hall during my senior year, often on school nights! Although I never heard Ivo Pogorelich play live, I do remember listening to his recording of the Chopin Scherzi on my Sony Walkman as I waited in the infamous Port Authority Bus Terminal to get home. Someday maybe I’d play all of those pieces as well! Back then, he dressed like a rock star and had hair that matched.

Virtuosity needed but don’t forget the musicianship…

Although a large hand is helpful, what makes Chopin difficult is the frequent stretches between the fingers, and the weird passage work that isn’t made easier by simply knowing your scales and arpeggios fluently. Of course, having good technique, including scales and arpeggios makes playing Chopin possible. However, you also have to learn his unique, frequently-occurring virtuosic passages as well. Despite all of that, the music needs to keep shining through despite all the difficulty.

Learning and relearning is hard work…

While I was at Purchase College, I added the third scherzo to my repertoire, and at some point, I also added third ballade, maybe during my gap year between Purchase and Juilliard? However, I guess I lost the urge to complete the set with the missing two scherzi. That came later, a lot late, as in last year! It wasn’t until last 2019 that I relearned the first and third scherzi and learned the second and fourth for the first time. The performances were far from stellar, and my playing of the fourth was pretty awful in spots!


Chopin’s Four Scherzi
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An arrival point…

This year, I finally feel like these pieces are starting to sound decent. They’re not yet memorized, which will be the next step since turning the pages during passage work detracts from the performance. There are also still some rough patches, which only can get worked out by repeated playing in practice and for some “tune-up” recital audiences. Even famous recitalists play for friendly audiences with a hushed invite list and zero publicity. It’s the type of thing you need to do to make sure you are giving the professional venue your very best playing.

Success depends on your metric…

It’s easy to get depressed by listening to pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, or even newcomer Kate Liu, because my playing is not anywhere near theirs. However, it’s back to a level in some ways similar, and in some ways even better than when I was in music school. That’s quite difficult to do when your life doesn’t revolve around performing. So many people leave music altogether after graduating with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. If they stay in music, they often don’t have the time or energy to practice after spending their days in administration or teaching lessons.

Enjoy…

Please enjoy this project for what it is! And just in case if you’re curious, I looked up Ivo Pogorelich. He sort of disappeared from the concert stage for a long time, and his recent recordings have gotten mediocre reviews. Age has also not been kind. With a bald head and an aged face, he looks more like an Eastern European hit man on an episode of a TV crime drama than a former rock-star pianist! I have the memories from that old cassette tape, but it’s anyone’s guess where it actually is. Besides, I’m too old to remember that!


Chopin’s Four Scherzi
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score of Chopin Scherzo No. 4
Near the end of the Chopin Scherzo No. 4
Last Updated 2020-09-04 | Originally Posted 2020-09-04

Say Hello to the Curious Squirrel


Connect with the Curious Squirrel

  • Say Hello! in the comments at the bottom of the post
  • Contribute to my continuing education fund via the church
  • Subscribe to the Curious Squirrel Monthly Newsletter
  • Listen to the Curious Squirrel in Action
  • Recommend me to those you know searching a piano or organ teacher

Introduction

In late 2019, I received approval to start a new concert series at the church where I work, First Methodist of Bella Visa, called the Curious Squirrel.  My mascot is Samuel the Squirrel, a critter who attended and wouldn’t leave my recital at Central Methodist in Rogers. Although he was a nuisance during the recital, he was an inspiration towards my new marketing plan! How I got here is the rest of the story!

A Blessing

When I landed my part-time salaried job at First Methodist in 2012, I received the chance to participate in the professional Wesley Series as an added bonus.  I performed in concerts including singers, violinists, and woodwinds. It was really the type of opportunity I had wanted my whole life.

A New Focus

When funding for that series ended in early 2017, after 21 years, I no longer had the opportunity to participate in professional chamber music at the church. So, I decided to go solo on organ and piano. During the past two years, I offered 18 events. The few concerts that weren’t solo involved vocal recitals with Chancel Choir members, and even an Irish Sing-A-Long in March 2019 that I hope to make an annual event.

My goal for these recitals was two-fold: For me, it was an opportunity for me to build repertoire and experience in solo performing. There’s nothing like scheduling a recital to force discipline, even if that means spending 12 hours on the organ in one afternoon and evening to learn a piece to be ready for the next day! For the church, the concerts were presented as a gift for the both church members and the Bella Vista community. It’s so rare in our area to have classical events available. I feel an obligation to give them, to the extent that I have the time to do so.

Try Something Different

All the while giving these free events, I was trying to re-establish a professional concert series at the church, but there was no support for that. Zero. I decided to shift my focus to something that few could object to – continuing education.  The church has a small continuing education budget for music, which covers my membership in the American Guild of Organists with a little bit of money left over for things like lessons, certifications, and learning materials.

However, this fund makes just a squirrel-sized dent in the cost of an organ convention, whether it be a regional or national one. Nor, does it cover much towards a summer week-long sacred music class. Church musicians are very isolated in their work, and these opportunities are a wonderful shot-in-the-arm to revive and revitalize church musicians for the work we do in our church communities.

How You Can Help

Pre-Covid-19, I purchased a bright red, squirrel proof box, which accepts cash or checks for any gift concert attendees wish to make towards my continuing education. You can write your check to the church, with a memo line mention of the Curious Squirrel. When I need to make a claim against the fund, I’ll do so with the church administrator.

When I switched over to my bite-sized recital project called the Weekly Acorn in May 2020, I established a PayPal link that can be used for contributions. This link goes directly to First UMC of Bella Vista, but I only receive the proceeds into my fund if you put Curious Squirrel or Weekly Acorn in the Add a Note area.


You can learn about future Curious Squirrel concerts and Weekly Acorn events by subscribing to the Curious Squirrel Monthly Newsletter.


A Toast to Success

Here’s a toast to the future success of the Curious Squirrel! If you’d like to see a listing of concerts under the banner of the Curious Squirrel, just look for the icon on my Concerts page.

The Curious Squirrel saying a tentative hello!
Say Hello to Samuel, the Curious Squirrel!
Last Updated 2020-06-29 | Originally Posted 2019-12-22

Sonatina Celebration 2019 Success

The Choral Hall at NWACC – One of the two performance spaces of the Sonatina Celebration

The Scenario

Six of my students from Shepherd Music School and one of my private students participated in the annual Sonatina Celebration held at NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) on November 9, 2019. I didn’t post on last year’s festival, but you can read my first go-round at the Sonatina Celebration in 2017. The group sponsoring this, the NW Arkansas Music Teachers Association, is a local affiliate of the National Music Teachers Association (MTNA). This particular festival was started by the group in 1995 to give students an additional chance to perform with no other testing included.

How it Works

Each of the students must perform a piece with Sonatina or Sonata in the title. They choose two contrasting movements to play by memory. The exception is if the piece is an advanced one, in which case only one movement is required. Each session includes around 10 pianists, most of who don’t know each other. In this situation, even the most confident kids sometimes admit to being a little nervous at first. However, the award that’s given is based on how well the students does at playing her piece. Performers are grouped together in age groups, so often there is a wide range of levels, particularly among the older students.

The Results

Three of my students received the highest Superior Plus rating, typically only earned by about 25% of all students. The four others received the second-highest Superior rating, which accounts for about half of all students. Lots of practice went into that level of achievement. I was lucky to be the one to help these kids along the way.

It’s Fun but It’s Not Everything

The halo from the Sonatina Celebration has lasted for the past week, but it’s not the end-all goal. Learning the piano is developing a skill that can provide joy for a lifetime. It provides a connection back to centuries of music and musicians. It opens the door for an understanding of the arts in general, which in turn makes life pretty awesome!

Posted 2019-11-15

Halloween Piano Party 2019

It’s said that you can’t officially call something an annual event until you do it at least twice. With that, let me present a summary of our Second Annual Halloween Piano Party. We always seem to have some type of drama before starting. Last year, we couldn’t get into the building because the door code didn’t work. This year, the code worked perfectly! However, I left my footprints behind – literally – in the floor wax as a contractor was working off hours. I didn’t have another way to get in the building, but that didn’t make the contractor any happier with me. Oh well!

We had really good attendance this year! Most of the participants were playing their sonatinas under pressure for the first time. We held this event three weeks ahead of the November Sonatina Celebration. The composers represented included Lynn Freeman Olson, Muzio Clementi, and Anton Diabelli. The pianists could perform in costume, so it wasn’t all that serious. However, the ringmaster below took his costumer as serious as his playing!

This ringmaster means business, on and off the piano bench!

Everyone got a chance to play something fun after the sonatinas were presented. There were some favorite pieces from method books, a Bossa Nova that’s being worked up to audition for a jazz workshop, and a piece by contemporary composer Andrea Dow.

As a reward for the great playing, I distributed some candy bars, Belgian chocolates from Aldi, and Red Delicious apples. Surprisingly, the apples were really popular! And thus, the Halloween Piano Party 2019 came to a close. Sorry, I have no candy left to share, but I can share some pictures. Enjoy!

Posted 2019-11-01

Spring 2019 Finale

Four of my students from the Shepherd Music School participated in the semester-end recitals, Spring 2019 Finale. Their pictures are below. A couple of brand new students who are very young did not participate, and my two adult students also chose to sit this one out.

New Wrinkle: House Recitals!

I also tried something new this time: house recitals. Since I teach several in-home students who aren’t affiliated with Shepherd, I have to find opportunities for them to play. I often just do in-home recitals just for them, in lieu of a lesson. However, I also like for all of my students to get to know each other, regardless of where they are enrolled.

Figuring out how to do this seemed pretty obvious. Most of my students live in one of three areas. And there are about an equal number of students in each geography. I already had an invitation to check out the spinet piano one of my families had just gotten their daughter, so some of the planning already took care of itself.

At a Church

The first house recital was held not at someone’s home but at a house of God. It was at the church where Shepherd is based since none of the piano parents volunteered their home for the event. The three participants played the beautiful Baldwin grand piano in the sanctuary that is typically off-limits. My most advanced student got the chance to make a mini-recital debut playing much of the repertoire he learned over the semester. One of my adult students also participated, since she felt more comfortable in this small group setting versus the very busy Shepherd recitals.

At a Home

The second group was the one where I was invited to visit the newly-acquired spinet. There were extra adults and kids there in addition to the piano parents and student participating. I played to conclude the recital, as I did in the first event. When it was all over, the kids went into the backyard to bounce on the trampoline, and the adults enjoyed conversation in the living room. Although the goal to play was met in both cases, I much preferred the fun atmosphere of the second recital. This type of recital really benefits from being held in a home environment.

At the Emergency Room

The third group was for a single family with three students that lives a distance from the other two groups. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to a medical emergency that occurred just before I arrived. One learns to roll with the punches!

Last Updated 2019-09-25 | Originally Posted 2018-06-14

ASMTA Regional Festival 2019

I participated in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) regional festival again this spring.  I had four students enrolled, the same as last year. Two of those were continuing students; two were new students. This event was held on Saturday, April 6th, in the music building at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  I didn’t sleep well and woke up before 6 a.m. since I was petrified by the possibility that I could oversleep.  I was scheduled to do musicianship testing, which took the entire morning after my 8 a.m. arrival.

I was able to get pictures of 3 out of my 4 students.  That’s because I insisted they stop by my testing room before they left.  All of them received a Superior rating of 1, but one did better than that by securing a 1+ as the first alternate to the winner for her level.  My studio did a lot better this year in supplemental testing as well, with several certificates awarded for scores of 90 or better in musicianship and written theory.

It is always interesting to compare notes with teachers in the break room during lunch.  We discussed the surprises and disappointments of the day, and traded stories about what else is going on in our lives, musical or otherwise.  As you can imagine, this event only happens due to the hard work of several volunteers over weeks and months before the event; my helping out on the day of the event doesn’t compare to that!  My thanks to them!

Posted 2018-04-18

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

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
bright Christmas decor in the chancel area
Christmas at First Methodist of Bella Vista
Last Updated 2020-05-10 | 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

ASMTA Regional State Festival 2018

I participated in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) regional state festival for the first time this spring. I’ve now lived through a full-year cycle of teaching which included the Northwest Arkansas Music Teachers Association (NAMTA) Sonatina Festival last fall. This event was held on Saturday, April 14th, in the music building at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. From the moment I arrived, some minutes before 8 a.m., the halls were filled with kids and their parents. My four students were scheduled later in the day, and I managed to see all of them at some point during the day.

However, the experiences were extremely different. The Sonatina Festival is solely a performance-based event, with none of the theory, technique, sight reading, and ear training that are a key part of the state event. However, the regional state festival is very worthwhile to the students who participate. But it is not for the recreational piano student. There is a lot of work required to prepare a memorized program in addition to doing the musicianship and theory work that is tested separately.

The good news is that all my kids played well. All of them scored in the superior range. In fact, one of my students did well enough to be considered as an alternate to go to the state finals! As for the other testing, there were mixed results. Two of the kids did pretty well, one did okay, and another, well, missed the boat as the expression goes.

Due to the nature of the festival, where each student tests and plays at different times, I wasn’t able to get a group photo. However, below is a picture of their ribbons, placed on top of a blank certificate. I am grateful to the committee who lost a lot of sleep doing the advanced planning. Many of my fellow NAMTA teachers donated their entire Saturday to run the festival. As always, they were very generous sharing their teaching insights with me. Finally, thanks to the parents and kids without whom there would be no point to any of this!

ASMTA Certificate and Ribbons
ASMTA Certificate and Ribbons

Posted 2018-04-17