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!"