Monday, September 04, 2006

How to Practice?

It’s Labor Day weekend in California and I have been reflecting about the fruit of my labor, or more accurately, the process of my work as a pianist. As the fall semester gets started, I always have a few new students joining my studio who need to figure out my way of doing things and it always takes a bit of time to get them up to speed. I have been wondering if I needed to write some sort of FAQ sheet for new students or at least some sort of guide to my approach.

Yesterday I was reading a thread on the Piano World Forum that started with this post from a piano teacher in
New York:

“I was wondering what you do with a new piece. What do you do from the time first sit down with it to the time when you know all the notes and start to make music with it? Do you learn the difficult technical parts first? Do you memorize the piece first? What do teachers do?”

I found it an interesting exercise to try to put my ideas about learning new music at the piano into a fairly brief statement. While not precisely a method, this is what I try to do in principle:

  1. I start by studying the most basic information--notes, fingering and rhythms—as thoroughly as I know how, in order to secure the foundation before I try to do anything with style, expression or interpretation. Most often this means working phrase by phrase, at times very slowly. I try to mark fingerings clearly enough that I can discern my fingering easily when I return to the piece years later. I also practice conducting the phrases and counting carefully as I play (yes, out loud) to make my rhythmic understanding of the music clear.
  2. As I work through the score I also address any mechanical/technical challenges that have emerged. I attack the most difficult passages in isolation, often hands alone as necessary. My goal is always to play as slowly as I need in order to allow myself to think and hear each passage clearly. Also, as my sense of the ideal sound becomes clearer, I work to clarify the choreographic elements of the playing so that the movements of my hands/arms/body integrate with my musical ideas. In fact I have developed a certain internal mechanism. A “Yuck!” detector, you might say. Whenever my thinking or listening gets clouded over because the motor control computer has overloaded, there is this little warning that goes off inside my brain that says “Yuck!” This is the warning that says, “Pause, slow down, go back, look again, re-think, and try it again.” The weirdest aspect of this is that when I am doing my best work it is quite intuitive and almost completely non-verbal.
  3. I continually work to refine my sense of the ideal sound for each phrase in a composition. One game I play with my attention is to ask at every joint in the musical structure, “What’s new here?” I try very hard to find some new information or nuance that needs to be highlighted with the arrival of each new idea. Even the sameness of a repetition can bring its own kind of expectation—“Hey, if I just said this same thing again, then something different must be coming.” I work on this element through score study away from the piano initially, and then by mentally "pre-hearing" a phrase prior to playing it.
  4. As for listening to recordings of repertoire that I am learning, I have mixed feelings. I was taught that if one listens to recordings during the learning process, you really need to listen to many performances (5 or 6 minimum) and not just one. While this is not always practical, it can be instructive. In my own teaching, I ask my students to wait to listen until they have formed some idea of how they hear the music. Too often, hearing the CD makes them rush through the learning process too quickly. Often they are tempted to play too fast too early and the music is less thoroughly absorbed. However, I do like to work with recordings of my rehearsals. Even though I am absolutely phobic of microphones in nearly all situations, there are few things that will improve performances more efficiently than hearing recordings of my trial runs. It does help to do it often so the process is less stifling and less foreign.
There is nothing new or earth shattering here. Good teachers have taught most of these things for a long, long time. Still, I think this is as close to a manifesto as I will produce any time soon. But then again, I will probably remember something else later.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

MF Horn No More

Yesterday morning my good friend, Dan Nelson, came into my office and said, “My heart is heavy.” With Dan, I never know if an opening line like this is to be taken at face value or if there is a tongue jammed into one cheek or the other. It turned out that he was quite serious and that he came to tell me that Maynard Ferguson had died on Wednesday. This information has an immediate impact on us because the legendary trumpeter is booked to play on our Jazz at the Point series later this year. His passing will require us to do some quick adjusting but there will be plenty of time for that. We talked a while longer and reminisced about when we first heard Maynard and what his music meant to us.

In the middle 1970's when I was a teenager growing up in a small town outside of Niagara Falls, New York, Maynard could be heard on AM radio playing his versions of MacArthur Park and the theme music for Rocky. His albums were marketed with splash and energy, and his band was always filled with some of the most amazing young players I had ever heard. As a young pianist trying to find a way into contemporary music of that day, Maynard's recordings caused me to seek out the music of Chick Corea and Stan Kenton. As my listening to jazz stretched both forward and backward, I was hooked for life.

In a time when all pop music was dominated by guitar driven bands of one flavor or another, Maynard carved out a successful niche for himself and inspired a generation of band geeks to keep playing and listening. I doubt anyone knows how many concerts and clinics Maynard gave in High School auditoriums over the last 30 years.

As Dan and I reminisced yesterday, he commented, "This is really the end of an era." Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson were the last of the serious touring big bands. Kids like us dreamed of being good enough to be picked up by one of them. The personalities that led these bands were towering figures for us and with their passing we feel smaller, more vulnerable.

P.S. Here is an amazing video on YouTube of Maynard from the 1960's playing 'Round Midnight. This is fabulous!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Tennis anyone?

Here is a very entertaining photo collection of famous musicians playing table tennis. My favorite of the bunch has Thelonius Monk in his signature pork pie hat playing gleefully.

Shown here is Arnold Shoenberg happily engaged. Yes, Virginia, it's second Viennese school ping pong. Who knew?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Strings by the Sea

For the past decade or so I have spent a few days each August working as the staff accompanist for a marvelous camp, Strings by the Sea, that is hosted on our campus. Along with running the usual gauntlet of Bach, Vivaldi and Seitz concerti in student performances, each summer there are also opportunities to make music with other members of the camp faculty.

This year brought some extra special treats in that I was asked to play with two very gifted faculty cellists. Renata Bratt is based in Santa Cruz and plays incredible jazz and fiddle music. Together we played some old New Orleans style jazz and then samba'd with Jobim. Then, collaborating with Evangeline Benedetti, playing masterworks from the French cello repertoire, was an absolute highlight of my summer. Learning and playing the Fauré Elegie with her was a profoundly moving spiritual experience. "Van" has served as a member of the New York Philharmonic since she was appointed by then-music director, Leonard Bernstein.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Back at it!

Had a great time away--Bruckner 7th with the Grant Park Symphony, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Like many of you, summer is my opportunity for more reading or at least different reading than at other times of the year. While away I read Noah Adams' Piano Lessons for the first time, lots of fun. This gave me an interesting look inside the mind and motivations of someone coming to the instrument without any agenda other than playing for themselves.

Later, I read Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind (1993). This set of thoughtful essays traverses a dizzying range of material from the anatomy and neuroscience of human hearing to a quite exacting parsing out of Freud, Jung and most of German philosophy from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. While not exactly light reading, there is much food for thought here. In particular it was interesting to read a psychiatrist's analysis of why humans make music and why listening for aesthetic pleasure is so deeply important to so many of us.

Storr's earlier book, Solitude: a Return to the Self (1989) was an absolute revelation. With so much of a pianist's time spent alone in confined spaces with only his instrument for company, Storr's exploration of the ways solitude operates in human experience is absolutely enlightening.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ready for Time Away

"It's been a quiet week in Lake . . . "

Well no, but I am getting ready for about ten days of vacation during which I intend to rejuvenate and recalibrate sufficiently to gear up for a new school year.

In this season of my life I juggle my playing and teaching very awkwardly around my kids' schedules. Summer camps, ballet classes, immersion Spanish at the local junior college, a middle school graduation—supporting these involvements often trumps memorizing another page of notes or pitching a concert proposal to a presenter two time-zones away. With three adolescents in the house life is never boring but I also know that this time is fleeting.

My wife and I are not nostalgic for the “terrible twos” but we’re not ready for the grandkids either. It has been a while since the sight of a newborn gave my wife that “I want another baby” look. We are solidly confirmed in our middle age, and we enjoy the vast majority of it. For two musicians to build a reasonably functional life in the same city, stay married and reasonably sane is no small achievement in these times.

One of the reasons I was drawn to the strange and wonderful life of college teaching was the calendar with the long summer vacation. Ironically, "summer" has become one of the more difficult of my life management challenges. This summer we could only find a single week when all five of us can get away at the same time.

My ideal vacation is close to a beach or the mountains with books, quiet and comfortable access to a piano. The kids have roundly vetoed any such concept this year. They want to be tourists, see a White Sox game, climb the Sears Tower and generally exhaust themselves with over-stimulation. Warning: it really is a bad idea to raise children who think independently--it's just so inconvenient. So we’re off to Chicago and we’ll have a blast.

An aside: Paul Robinson, my piano guru/technician/friend, took me to visit the newly rebuilt Steinway D that he recently finished at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Diego. It is GORGEOUS. A beautiful piano that plays like an absolute dream, it is a magnificent achievement. Bravo!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Where's the Juice?

This past week I was directing the Point Loma Keyboard Institute for teenaged piano students where I spent quite a bit of time talking about developing clarity of musical intention. The patience necessary to read a score deeply enough to communicate its content is not common anywhere, let alone among the young. As I worked with these kids, in brief glimpses I saw moments of it spark to life (often in the midst of Clementi sonatinas and Burgmuller etudes).

There are different ways to pursue the poetic realm but it certainly is essential to our craft. Olivier spoke of being "workman-like" in developing a character and Serkin drew analogies between practicing the piano and digging ditches. However, this labor is in the service of a mysterious alchemy aimed at gilding our inner selves.

I am fond of telling my students that the music they learn today will become part of their intellectual furniture for the rest of their lives. A weekend post from Cathy Fuller reminded me that this golden stuff is the magical juice we long to find, and all too often we despair when it is absent.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Walter Rummel Bach Transcriptions

This morning I stumbled upon a fascinating CD of Walter Rummel's Bach transcriptions at the Hyperion website. Rummel was a Godowsky student who was active in the "Golden Age." Does anyone know of scores for these pieces? The MP3 provided by Hyperion is a gorgeous performance of Rummel's arrangement of "Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen" BWV127, played by Johnathan Plowright.

Released in 2005, the 2-disc set is number CDA67481/2 in the Hyperion catalog

Friday, July 07, 2006

What kind of English?

Here is a funny diversion for speakers of American English that might be a fun at your next dinner party. I chafe a bit at writing the oxymoronic misnomer, "American English," but when I took the quiz found on the page linked below, my geographic origins were pegged very precisely. Quite weird!

As an upstate New Yorker, educated in the Midwest, my quiz results identified me as 55% General American English, 15% Yankee, 15% Upper Midwestern, 0% Dixie and 0% Midwestern. Now I know this is not high linguistic analysis, but it is a surprisingly accurate interpretation based upon a short questionnaire of customary usage habits.

Try it yourself and see what you think.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

And another vote for Rzewski

Today on listen 101, Steve Hicken has written a very interesting post about the revolutionary nature of Rzewski's "the People United. . ." To me these are stirring words that musicians need to hear in a time when being revolutionary is as daunting as ever and certainly not a safe choice. I was especially taken with the images of Jasper Johns' and Barbara Kruger's flag pieces that Mr. Hicken uses to illustrate his entry. Heady stuff indeed and very timely in light of the recent congressional debate over a proposed flag burning ammendment.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Playlist suggestions for Independence Day

This week Sequenza 21 sent out a call for July 4th playlist suggestions that has prompted some really interesting responses. The suggestions submitted to date offer a very interesting list populated by American works from the usual suspects, e.g. Ives, Carter, and even William Billings, but also there have been some titles new to me.

My own slightly warped perspective might propose Frederic Rsweksi's 36 Variations on 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated!' (1975) and Debussy's Feu d'Artifice for starters (Yes, I know he's not an American, so save it for Bastille Day!). Also, George Walker's Piano Sonata No. 2 (1979) is an "acknowledged masterpiece" built upon a masterful set of variations on a Negro spiritual melody. Incidentally, in 1966 Walker was the first African-American composer to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music.

What would you put on your list? You can either comment here submit your suggestions directly to the Sequenza 21 site.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Fun with Powers of 10

If you ever struggle to regain a sense of balance or perspective in your life, here is a classic video that might help. The film was made by Charles and Ray Eames in collaboration with composer, Elmer Bernstein. More information about the Eames' most famous film can be found on the Eames Office web pages. Also, the Elmer Bernstein home page is a tremendous resource of information about one of America’s most prolific film composers. From a purely technical perspective, it is amazing to see this collection of imagery executed decades prior to Google Earth®.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Put my music in your I-pod

My latest CD recording, Delight, Touch, and Inspire is now available for digital download through the Apple i-tunes store. You can also listen to streaming audio and download my music on Rhapsody.

Playing on the Point once again!

It's July and it's really hot by San Diego standards. It has been a long, long time since I have written in this blog. Honestly, I have been trying to find the right voice, the right content and just the right time to put stuff here. Maybe I am just getting old and lazy.

Anyway, I have lots of fun projects in the works. The Point Loma Keyboard Institute starts on July 10. I will be playing my Bach in America recital, teaching a piano literature seminar on Mozart and sharing master class duties with my friends Jane Bastien and Victor Labenske this year.

For 2006-07, I have recital tours planned for New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. I also have several concerts in California so check the concert calendar often on the web pages.