Tuesday, April 19, 2022

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

 Practice, practice, practice!  

I've just returned from a weekend in New York.  What a whirlwind weekend it was.  To catch the 7:33 Amtrak out of Baltimore, I had to leave my house at 6 a.m.  We pulled into Moynihan Station a little after 10.  Having taken the escalator upstairs, I still couldn't find the exit to the street.  Fortunately, I was meeting a friend, and she talked me up more flights of stairs to get to street level.  Already I'm overwhelmed by the city that never sleeps!

A little more than 24 hours later, I hailed a taxi to take me uptown to Carnegie Hall,  The draw?  One of my students was performing in a recital!  I first met Anda in 2019, when she was a 6-year-old beginner.  Always eager to please, still we struggled to read notes, learn rhythms, make music.  But she had enthusiasm, and a mother who was equally eager for her to succeed.  

I actually credit the pandemic with her unparalleled learning curve.  When school went online, we also moved from in-person lessons to Zoom lessons.  Anda did well in her school studies and excelled in her music studies.  Not being able to go outside and play with her friends, she sat at the piano, for hours, every day.  Not only did she learn to read those notes, the pitches and the values, but she also learned to express herself musically at the keyboard.  Her parents, noting her progress, bought her a fine instrument to play.  She played Beethoven's  Fur Elise, she played Handel's Passacaglia, she played soundtracks to video games that I can't even pronounce.  

Last summer, her mother asked if I thought she was ready to prepare for a piano competition.  I've never prepared for a music competition; I have qualms about making music competitive.  But I agreed.  Anda had certainly shown she's got what it takes.  They chose Mozart's Rondo alla Turca, a fast-paced piano solo in sixteenths, arpeggiated chords, phrases in octaves; in other words, a lot of notes for 8-year-old hands.  We had 6 months to learn it, memorize it, and polish it for the Elite International Music Competition.  

And polish it she did!  We were lucky the actual competition was a) in-person, and b) local.  Anda played beautifully  The comments from the adjudicator matched my own thoughts: questions on phrasing, use of pedal, and the like.  Anda accepted the critique with grace, and we awaited the results.  Second in her age group!  The prize for all her hard work?  A place in a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York!  

How thrilled was I, her teacher, to be invited to attend this recital.  And what a show!  46 children in all, ages 3 to 18, performed music of great difficulty, all with such grandeur, such finesse.  I have reconsidered my reluctance toward music competition.  These children were poised, happy, artistic.  I was delighted to be in the audience, absolutely proud of Anda's success, and looking forward to a future bright with music.  Not only will I be able to say, "I knew her when..."  but also, "I got her started!"

Friday, January 7, 2022

Holiday Sounds

Oh, what a night!  

Late December back in '21. 

All were gathered, we had so much fun!  

What an evening, what a night!  

Last Monday evening, I invited all my students, young and old, to share in a Holiday Piano Party.  Twelve pianists performed holiday music and more, to the absolute joy of all in attendance.  We had Chopin, we had Mozart, we had Handel and Bach, all to wish us a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

These past 22 months have limited public performance.  I was thrilled to obtain permission at the local church to host this event.  We were all masked, of course, which made announcements a bit muted and awkward.  But the masks could not hinder the beautiful music each participant performed.  They worked hard to master their respective pieces, and to get over the anxiety of playing for others.  I was so proud of everyone!

No formal program was intended, and we chose names out of a hat for performance order.  Took a bit of the edge off, I think.  My youngest student got to open the program.  He has been taking lessons with me a mere 4 weeks, and delighted his audience with a 5-finger version of Jingle Bells, followed by an anime soundtrack he taught himself by ear.  Kudos, Samuel, for a job well done.

Ha, I just realized, anime opened and closed the program.  Josie pulled off a rip-roaring version of Fukashige a la Carte, worthy of the silver screen.  

In between these 2 bookends, we heard variations on Jingle Bells, a Chopin Prelude, Bach's Jesu, Joy of man's Desiring, Mozart's Rondo a la Turca,  and so much more.  I was thrilled to welcome back a student from 2 years ago to play the Chopin; Eleanor now attends Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.  She even provided some Christmas tunes to quiet and focus the audience as we awaited the start of the program.  Anda and Myra played a Jingle Bells duet; this was their first time paying together, and after a rocky start, they did great listening to each other and staying together.  Anda used this audience to prepare her for a Carnegie Hall debut to be held in April 2022.  You read that right: Anda placed second in her age group in the Elite International Music Competition in early December, earning her a place on the recital stage at Carnegie Hall this spring.

The program lasted about an hour, followed by cookies and drinks, and a surprise violin performance by Will, the brother of 2 of my piano students.  The acoustics at All Saints truly enhanced his playing.  We were all thrilled that he brought his violin!

As I stated at the beginning of this post, performance opportunities have been limited in this time of Covid.  We held lessons online for 16 months, and occasionally still rely on Zoom to get together when necessary.  Being able to gather together and make music together is great therapy for all: the kids learn stage presence; the parents beam with pride; adult students overcome performance jitters.  We all hope the Omicron variant will not hinder future performance events, but at least we got this chance to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

May 2022 be kinder, gentler. May we continue to make music to share.  

Sunday, October 31, 2021


We held our first (annual?) Bachtoberfest just last weekend, and kudos to all who participated.  Even my brandie-new beginners took a turn in the spotlight.  As their teacher, I was absolutely thrilled!  We started working on this event way back in August.  

(Almost) everyone learned a Bach composition: Minuet in G, Prelude and Fugue in C, Solfeggietto, to name a few.  We started by looking for patterns, melodic, rhythmic, to help make sense of the whole.  Next we aimed to make those melodies sing, to meet Bach's cantabile instructions.  In most cases, we truly appreciated the "sewing machine" nickname given to Baroque-era music.  It just goes on and on, with hardly time to breathe!  

We found our breath between performances.  Paying homage to the German flavor of the evening, we enjoyed bratwurst and pretzels!  And in keeping with the season, between bites, we also enjoyed some Halloween tunes.  

Bachtoberfest was an adult event.  My kids performed their Halloween recital yesterday.  Oh, what a hoot!  Sponsored by the Frederick County Music Teachers Association, there were 77 participants, representing 10 county teachers.  Certainly the largest group event for this group.  Kids and teachers alike, even a few parents, arrived in costume: angels and ninjas, witches and cats.  The music ran the gamut as well, from absolute beginner to quite polished advanced musician.  One high scholar in particular performed her own composition, including percussion which she had previously recorded to accompany her spectacular piano performance.  What a day!

And what a month!  Music, music everywhere.  Even the church choir is singing again.  Makes my heart glad.  Oh, we're still wearing masks, of course.  But what a thrill, to be able to gather and enjoy making music together.  The beat goes on...

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Summer Soiree

All of my students have now had the opportunity of a post-pandemic public performance, and what a joy last night's petite soiree was  This was an adult evening, wine and cheese and piano playing.  I think everyone involved enjoyed themselves.  I know I did!

My younger students presented their Spring Recital in June, to much acclaim.  Two of these young musicians chose the same piece to perform. Handel’s Passacaglia, arranged by Bobby Cyr.  It was interesting to hear their different interpretations of the same printed piece.  These are two young people, and tempo is everything to them.  The Passacaglia flew off the piano keys, much to the delight of my adult students in the audience.

A-ha moment, indeed.  You like this music?, I asked the adults.  How about you learn it too?  “Passacaglia” is an old Italian or Spanish dance tune, a theme and variations over a repeated bass line, and typically at a slow tempo.  In this particular case, it is a series of scales in the right hand, and a simple chord progression in the left hand.  I gave each of my adults 6 weeks to learn at least 2 lines, the opening theme.  Some chose to go on, learn more, while others were quite content with the 2-line challenge. 

We got together last evening to share our results.  The learning curve worked to our advantage.  Between us, we were able to cover the whole piece, all 8 iterations of the theme.  We talked about how Handel/Cyr worked out the left hand, the repeated interval patterns beginning on different notes in each measure, but the pattern was the same measure to measure.  We noticed the scale pattern in the right hand, how it turned itself upside down in the second iteration, how it disappeared in the third section.  We talked a bit about how each of us went about learning it, and about how we struggled to get our hands to play nicely together.  And of course, we fed our performance with wine and cheese.  We rounded out the evening with a sightreading session, playing through duets together.  My lesson coming out of that: introduce the duets in the next lesson, with the goal of a polished duet soiree in September! 

You may ask, why would I teach the same piece of music to multiple students for the same performance?  I had never done so before, even having the 2 girls play the same piece at the Spring Recital.  In the case of the girls, it was a piece I knew both girls would enjoy, and they both really wanted to include it in their recital repertoire.  For the adult soiree, my thinking was different.  I wanted them to compare their learning techniques, their insights along the way.  As an added bonus, I learned different learning techniques!  I was able to help each of them by applying what I learned from each of them.  And we all had compassion for the struggles of the others.  It was a fun experiment.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

It's Independence Day!

Today is so beautiful, so temperate, so atypical for July 4th.  It's hard to sit inside; I want to be out, soaking in the sun. Perhaps once I've finished this little missive. 

What are we doing in the musical world this Independence Day?  I started my day in church. The choir anthem this morning was Finlandia, music by Jan Sibelius, words by Lloyd Stone. 

This Is My Song, O God of all the nations, 
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.  
This is my home, the country where my heart is. 
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating, 
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

I am quite familiar with the music, but had never known the words. How lovely, how utterly apropos for Independence Day.  This day, of all the days of the year, we celebrate America's independence, but we need also acknowledge the interconnectedness of us all.  We all have hopes and dreams, and we share these hopes and dreams across borders.  The blue sky, the bright sun shines over all.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine. 

As I come to the end of my thoughts today, a small wren has perched outside my window.  Can you hear its song?  It too sings of peace throughout the land.  May your Independence Day be safe, and our nation be at peace.  


Saturday, June 26, 2021

Ephemeral Joys

The blackberries are in!  Every day for the past 2 weeks, I have communed with nature in my urban oasis.  I have wild blackberries growing in my garden, and each day more and more are ready to pluck from the vine.  I have also harvested the first of many zucchinis, as well as fresh mint and basil.  These last 3 will last all summer, but the blackberries are ephemeral.  

Sort of like the elation of a Spring Recital, especially this year.  We had been online for 15 months.  All "public" performances were prerecorded and posted to Facebook.  Sonatina Festival 2020, Spring Recital 2020, Halloween Recital 2020,  Beethoven's Big Birthday Bash on December 16th, 2020, Sonatina Festival 2021, we performed in the privacy of our own homes, probably numerous times, and chose the best recordings to post on Facebook.  Finally, in June 2021, we gathered to make music together, to share the music we had learned over the past season, and to receive applause and accolades for our artistry.

My kids used their pandemic time well and applied themselves to their music studies.  Although the whole online experience was less than ideal, and something I hope never to have to experience again, the time away from baseball and soccer, from playdates and school field trips, allowed for more opportunity to focus on the piano and to accept challenges that perhaps would have been scoffed at a year earlier.  

We all learned a lot about ourselves, about music, about focus, to name just a few lessons.  And quite honestly, I did not know what to expect come recital time.  I had not had in-person lessons with these kids until the week before the recital.  The kids who regularly practice on electric keyboards did not have much opportunity to play on an acoustic piano before the recital.  We didn't have piano class or a dress rehearsal, but jumped right in, cold turkey.  

And they did it!  I was so proud of these young musicians, ages 8 - 16, for their perseverance, their focus, their courage to perform after 15 months of isolation.  I admit, it was not the best recital.  There were flaws, glitches, music that blew off the music stand.  Concert etiquette needs a review -- when and how to bow.  

But the joy of the moment carried me, and I hope my young students, through the day.  They could rest on the laurels for a bit, all performance worries set aside for now.  They did their best, and their best is enough.  And now, we begin again, learning mew music, new techniques, accepting new challenges for the next public performance.  Their best will get better, because they persevered through the pandemic.  They stayed true to their art.  

Sunday, June 20, 2021


I am a collector of books.  I love to spend time at a book store, and I always bring something home to put on my bookshelf.  History, fiction, biography.  I have a lot of books.  I don't always read the books on my bookshelf.  Sometimes I just look at them,  

The other day, as I was sitting on the floor looking at my collection of books on music, I pulled out a book on practicing, Passionate Practice, by Margaret Elson, that I had purchased in 2008.  Still had the receipt in it.  No, I had never even cracked the binding!  This morning in particular, I pulled it out, opened it up, and enjoyed the first few chapters.  Over the next few weeks, I intend to get through the whole book.  In the meantime, I can share some of its contents.  

For openers, B-R-E-A-T-H-E.  Yeah, right there in black and white.  When you sit down to play the piano, (or whatever you sit down to do), remember to breathe.  I have coached my students to take time to breathe before performing in a recital, or even mid-lesson, and to consciously relax their shoulders.  Seems to make all the difference.

Navy Seals use the 4-7-8 breathing technique to calm their nerves and help them focus on the task at hand.  Breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts, and repeat.   I have found this technique to be quite effective in stressful situations, and I even use it at night to help me fall asleep! 

I've also tried box breathing, or 5x5x5 breathing,  Inhale for a count of 5, hold the breath for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5, hold for 5, repeated 5 times.  Again, effectively relaxing.  

Seymour Bernstein, in  With Your Own Two Hands,  states that the importance of breathing "in the interpretation of music cannot by overemphasized."  He suggests that you practice different breathing techniques as you practice the music, perhaps inhale on one phrase and exhale on the responding phrase.  For soft passages, you might try holding your breath.  "You will discover that difficult passages are facilitated when you inhale before you play them and exhale as you play them."  

Mr. Williams, my 6th grade teacher, used to count to 10, "So help me, Hannah, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10" and then proceed to yell at us for one misdemeanor or another.  Perhaps he should have practiced a breathing technique instead; might have made 6th grade more bearable, for all involved!"