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

Breathe

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!"

Monday, January 11, 2021

Quotes

I've been collecting inspirational quotes for years.  I've included a few here.  Perhaps one day I will expound on them.  For the present, I hope they provide just that: inspiration to approach the piano with confidence and to play with satisfaction.  

At the piano I am a teacher, a coach, a cheerleader.  No, I don't have pom-poms, although now that I think of it...  These various quotes and others have instilled confidence in me to encourage my students to strive for more.  I think it's working!

~~~

Gabriel Faure, in a letter to his son Philippe in 1908: "For me, art, and especially music, exist to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence."  

"The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."  Lester Bangs

Ella Fitzgerald: "I know I'm no glamour girl, and it's not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I've got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing."

"Talent is only a starting point."  Irving Berlin

Gilbert Kalish, a longtime professor of piano performance at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said he finds the necessity of adjusting to quite different pianos an "interesting challenge."  He emphasizes to his students: "You don't play by feel; you don't play by habit; you play by sound, by listening to what's being produced.  You have to learn to trust yourself, not to depend on someone out there listening."

"Every skill you have today was once unknown to you."  --James Clear

Maya Angelou: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."


Friday, January 1, 2021

Welcome 2021!

 A new year.  Yay!  Say "Good riddance" to 2020!  Greet the new year with open arms and good intentions.  My list of good intentions includes updating this page more frequently.  Shall I start today?

The past 9 months have been... well, claustrophobic, to say the least.  I just want to open my doors, greet my piano students in person, invite my neighbors in for tea, go shopping.  To say I have become inured to social isolation is perhaps taking it too far; yet I fear the backlash when the OK is finally sounded.  What, go outside?  Remove my mask?  But the potential germs!  Toni, get a grip!  Get the vaccine!  Go outside!

My piano lessons have continued, somewhat unabated, even through the pandemic.  I moved everything to Zoom in March, and much to my delight, most students have stuck with me!  I developed a Facebook page for my students' eyes and ears only.  They performed a successful Spring Recital, a Halloween Recital, and a Beethoven Birthday Bash all on Facebook, and I was quite pleased.  It's not the venue we want, but it's what is available in this time of quarantine.  I am proud of what all my students, young and old alike, have been able to accomplish over these months of internet lessons.  But I do look forward to the day we can return to in-person lessons.

In the meantime, we persevere.  We continue to meet weekly for lessons, and we continue to practice between lessons.  We learn to read notes, count beats, and maintain steady tempo.  We find our place on the page, we circle trouble spots, and we review, review, review.  In that regard, the pandemic has not changed things.  In fact, we have learned a lot of independence as a result of social distancing.  We have learned confidence in our own ability to carry on, to move through a piece of music, and to perform, even if only for our immediate family.  

May 2021 open many doors for creative expression.  The concert hall awaits...