Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not sure why I do this to myself

I have gotten myself into a situation. It began last spring, when for some unfathomable reason I volunteered to play a concerto with my chamber orchestra. Initially, the idea was to do something big. The Dvorak concerto was mentioned (not by me). The conductor asked me to send him some suggestions, which I did (and I was getting all excited about playing C. P. E. Bach -- I love those pieces though they are not traditionally showy; I also thought the orchestra would have a chance of sounding pretty good on one of them). Some time went by, and then I got an email asking if I could play Fauré's "Elegy."

As they say these days, meh. It's one of those stereotypical sad cello pieces that sounds like someone's funeral is either taking place or is imminent. It's also at the technical level of approximately junior high, but does not lie particularly well. It would take lots of work to get it to sound good, but it would never sound like I had put so much into it. I dreaded spending the better part of a year working on it. At first I thought, okay, not my favorite, but I'll be a pro, learn the piece, play it really well, et cetera. The only problem was that every time I sat down to work on it, it made me depressed.

So I approached the conductor at a rehearsal this fall and asked if he would be okay with another piece of the same length. The upshot was that he agreed to change from the "Elegy" to Tchaikovsky's "Pezzo Capriccioso." And now I must make sure that I am in shape to play all those spiccato 32nd notes and jump around in thumb position by this coming June.

My experience of these things is that it is not enough to practice only the piece; I need to work on other things that include the same technical challenges but are more difficult. So my plan of attack, at least to start, is Popper (Etude No. 6, and maybe some others) for bowing; Bach Prelude No. 6 for thumb position and intonation; and scales and arpeggios. We'll see how it goes.

Here is a video of "Pezzo" that I liked when I came across it on YouTube. Very clean and expressive.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"You and the Piano": A lesson with Seymour Bernstein

This was posted today on a forum I read:

A friend received this email from his old piano teacher, Seymour Bernstein an author (With Your Own Two Hands) and concert pianist living in NYC, aged 85 now and still going strong.

"Here it is, my video made in 1986 entitled YOU AND THE PIANO. , I believe that this video is one of the important accomplishments of my professional life. Having had a lot of distance from the time it was made, I now consider it to be a powerful educational tool for all pianists of any age and level of accomplishment; and even for other instrumentalists who often ponder what to tell their pianists concerning balance of sound.
Now I need your help. I want to establish a partnership with YouTube. But they won’t consider it unless there is measurable activity for my videos. A hit occurs when someone clicks onto the video file. So please, send these files to your friends. They need only open them up and that constitutes a hit.
Thanks so much for your help, and my warmest wishes to you.
Seymour "

I Thought you may be interested in his techniques etc.





These are wonderful videos. If you are at all interested in piano technique, please check them out. I have been meaning to get a hold of Mr. Bernstein's famous book mentioned in the note above, With Your Own Two Hands, and now I will really try to do so.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Interesting experience

"All right, Mr. DeMille . . ."

Almost two months ago, I was asked if I'd be interested in playing the piano for a two- to four-minute video to be posted online. My first thought was, "What's wrong with good old audio? Got plenty of those already." My next was, "Hmmm. A challenge. Why not? What's the worst that could happen?" So I agreed.

Next I had to decide what to play. First thought: "Better do something easy." Second thought: "This is a great opportunity to display my obsession with Bach -- and find out if I can do it under pressure." After some more consideration, I decided to stick with my most recently learned prelude and fugue set -- WTC I/18, in G sharp minor.

I thought I knew these pretty well, and of course I had already recorded and posted them here, but continuing to practice them for another six+ weeks was, as usual, enlightening. Every time I sat down at the piano, I would play them first, cold, from memory. I could play through both pieces with assurance as long as no one else was in the room. But I knew I did not know them as well as I should. For one thing, though I could look at a measure, put the book away, and play to the end of the piece, I could not do this from any place in the piece without taking that look first. But I kept chipping away, trying to get better at this. I also kept trying to play as slowly as possible, which is harder than one might think. Every place I stumbled or hesitated, I went over: Am I using the best fingering? What exactly is going on there?

The date for the taping grew closer; my performance jitters increased. The video aspect stepped this up many notches. I had to think about how I looked, raising all kinds of personal demons. I also didn't know what the piano would be like, or even what the people involved would be like.

The night before, my normally resilient stomach went into overdrive, and I sat up until 3 a.m. feeling like I was going to hurl. I finally crawled to bed and was able to go to sleep with my intestinal dignity intact.

After that low point, the experience itself turned out not to be so bad. The people were very nice and easy going, the piano was a lovely older Steinway in a calm setting, and I was able to play with some semblance of mastery. We did more than one take so we could get several angles, and by the fourth one I was even enjoying it. I think I did okay. But even if it turns out I didn't (the proof is in the playback), this was really an excellent thing for me to have done. It was a great lesson in how to put aside thoughts of inadequacy and just work with what I had at the moment to try to make music.

But it was so tiring!!!

So it's in the can (unless the camera wasn't actually on or something). I will post a link when it's available.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blog cross-post: Reaching Beyond

My fellow blogger, Shirley Kirsten (see her link in my blogroll: Arioso7's Blog), posted a link to this documentary about an inspirational piano teacher, Irina Orlov.

If you have about an hour and a half to kill, it's well worth spending the time on it. I may even watch it again sometime.

Reaching Beyond

Note: the site linked here is in Russian (I believe), but the video itself is in English.

(I was interested to note that she is in my locale, and several people I know are interviewed.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

From the archives: Stravinsky

This past weekend, I played in the second season concert with my chamber orchestra. The program was the most interesting one we've done, I believe: Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite, Mahler songs (Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Das Himmlischer Leben), Debussy First Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra, and Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker.

Playing the Stravinsky brought on some cringey memories of my attempt at the solo cello version of the piece, titled "Suite Italienne." The cello part of the orchestral version is pretty easy (even the separate "solo cello" part). Stravinsky later arranged the solo version for Piatigorsky (or rather, Piatigorsky arranged it and he and Stravinsky collaborated on the royalties), and it, on the other hand, is extremely difficult. I learned it for one of my master's degree recitals, but really, my skills at the time (both virtuosic and organizational) were not completely up to the task. I struggled with it for months and never felt satisfied. I have carried around for almost 30 years the idea that the performance was a disaster.

However, when I got home from the concert last night, I pulled out the recording of that recital, fired up the tape player, and burned a digital copy of it and was (somewhat) pleasantly surprised. It's a prim and slightly timid version, a bit light on interpretive genius, but not necessarily untrue to the composer's original conception. Stravinsky apparently wasn't terribly interested in the cello (this is his only solo work for it), so a cool, non-schmaltzy interpretation actually seems about right.

So here are a few movements. If any of you out in blogland want to hear the rest, let me know and I'll post the others. This performance took place on March 9, 1983.



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The numbers all go to eleven"

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don't know.

Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.*

I have always been a Nerd (that's with a capital "N," thanks). When other kids were going to rock concerts and smoking pot, I was at home baking bread and listening to NPR. So I can count on one hand the number of rock'n'roll events I've attended. Oh, I do like a lot of the music and listen to it happily on a home stereo, but there are many things I dislike about the live shows. Among them:

  • Expensive!
  • The audience more often than not has to stand up the entire time. It's like being herded to the slaughter house except they don't hit you over the head, they just take your money. It's presented as being more fun -- hey, guys, you can dance! and jump up and down! -- but in reality, after an hour your feet start to hurt.
  • There is usually a long, boring opening act by a band you have no interest in hearing.
  • They are TOO LOUD!!!
 My husband noticed that the rock great Ray Davies, of Kinks fame, was going to be doing a show in our neighborhood, at the brand-new venue The Fillmore. He excitedly bought tickets. Davies is now in his late 60s, still with a great, strong voice. I really enjoyed the album he did a year or so ago with a choir:

The Kinks Choral Collection

So I was somewhat looking forward to it, with my usual trepidation (see list above). As we were leaving the house last night to go to the show, I grabbed a pair of earplugs --*just in case*.

The drill when we got there: We waited in line outside for about a half  hour. They came along and checked IDs and gave us plastic wristbands color-coded to drinking age (from the looks of it, the vast majority had not been seriously carded in about 30 years -- IOW, we were among our age cohort). Then they let us in in batches. People at the door checked our bags (for weapons? I dunno) and scanned our tickets, after which we were admitted to the actual concert space and found out yep, no chairs. We decided to stand on the main floor rather than in the balcony. Then we waited some more. Then Davies's backup band came out and played for about 45 minutes. They were both boring and LOUD. I put in my earplugs. Somewhere around 9:00, Davies finally showed up. He sounded just as good as he did on his recordings, and he had a fabulous guitarist with him; when it was just the two of them on stage, the music was enjoyable. However, when the backup band came back out and they started rockin' out, it was TOO LOUD. The balance was awful.

For most of the people there, this was a trip down memory lane, and they were ready to sing along and were probably already deaf anyway (if they go to a lot of these things), so what it sounded like didn't matter. I was basically worrying about my ears the whole time. After my hearing loss episode two years ago, even though it didn't have anything to do with being exposed to loud noises, I've been sensitive to how fragile and valuable one's hearing really is.

So, for me, never again (if I can avoid it). Back to Nerd-dom.

 *From "This Is Spinal Tap" (in case you have been living in a cave all your life). We happen to have seen this last week, in a special showing in honor of 11/11/11. I have to say, it was much more enjoyable overall than this concert.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Time, time, time

In planning what I want to do versus, or in conjunction with, what I need to do, I dream of finding a perfect balance.

I have a job in an office where I work all day, every day, Monday through Friday, except for holidays, snow days, and the occasional odd situation (earthquake, electrical outage, World Bank protest, etc.). My free time is my own. I never have to work overtime or bring work home. When I leave the office, I'm done until I return. I've had stretches when I dreamed about work -- dreary dreams involving typing on a computer -- but I think that happens to everyone. (Doesn't it??)

There have been periods since I started working full time when my glorious free hours yawned before me, but the deeper I have gotten into the piano, the more spoken-for my time has seemed. At first, merely playing the piano was exciting to me because I had spent so many years thinking I was too over the hill to even try. As practicing has become more a part of my routine, playing time has changed from "play time" to work. It's tiring. I wonder often if it's worth it.

But as necessary and even inherently gratifying as my office job is, it is not the core of my life. If I didn't have this job, little would be missing from my intellectual and emotional sense of well-being, but if I couldn't play music, life would seem empty indeed. On the other hand, if I don't work really hard at the piano, my ability to pay the bills isn't affected.

I don't know what the answer is. All I know is it's a challenge. The challenge is not so much making time for the things I want to do but arranging the best frame of mind for doing them. One simply can't learn or be deeply creative when feeling rushed, with niggling thoughts about other priorities. The mind must be clear, calm, alert, and fully focused on the task at hand.

I do know one thing, though: I don't want to wake up one day 20 years from now and realize that I didn't even try to do what I wanted to do.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Speaking of Carnegie Hall . . .

Though they weren't terribly interested in music per se, my parents tried to instill interest in and respect for the world of classical music in me and my sisters. It's actually a rather interesting case study of nature versus nurture: Out of five girls raised in the same family and environment, only one (me) developed an interest in it. None of the others even listens to the stuff, let alone plays an instrument. One of my sisters went a bit farther with the piano than the others, and even bought a spinet and gave a few lessons to some neighbors' children when she was a newlywed, but that was many years ago, with the piano long gone. I don't believe she listens to much in the way of music, though she does attend some of my concerts in a show of family solidarity. (She doesn't read this blog, though!)

So when I was growing up, we had a small and tattered collection of records in the house, including some albums of Broadway show tunes, a few random classical recordings, and a set of Great Classics purchased one per month at the A&P. We also had some aimed at children, including a set of Singing Science records and one that had a James Thurber story on one side and this on the other:

I do remember that this was the flip side of the other recording, and I do not remember this album cover. In fact, I don't remember that this was the name of the story, so perhaps what we had some sort of reissue of the original 1948 version you see here. In any case, it was played to death in our house and was finally discarded at some point.

This story has it all: unctious, cheerful male narrator; slightly wry and ironic tone; culture and humor; pathos and a happy ending; and piano music! It's a life in music told from the piano's point of view.

For years, I have been wondering if I could find a copy of it, and now I have, thanks to the folks who set up this site:
 Kiddie Records Weekly began in 2005 as a one year project dedicated to celebrating the golden age of children's records. This period roughly spanned from the mid forties through the early fifties and produced a wealth of all-time classics. Many of these recordings were extravagant Hollywood productions and featured big time celebrities and composers. Over time these forgotten treasures slipped off the radar and it has become our mission to give them a new lease on life by sharing them with today's generation of online listeners.

And here it is, in all its crackly glory (but without the big scratch that made it skip near the end on our family's copy):
If you click on the link, you can listen to the mp3 and/or download the file and images. The pianist on the record, Frank Glazer, is still alive, btw, now 96 years old, still playing and teaching.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fiasco (lite)

This past weekend, my husband and I went to New York. We love going there, doing the cultural stuff, eating good meals, and just walking around watching people and enjoying the city. One reason we went at this time was because there was a Golandsky Institute workshop that I decided would be interesting to attend.

So on Friday, everything went smoothly -- we got there, had lunch, checked into our hotel, and walked down to the Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village to listen to a short concert by a young pianist named Lara Downes who has just released a CD called "13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg." It's a collection of 13 one-movement pieces by contemporary composers based on the Aria movement (i.e., the theme) of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The performance space there is a dimly lit, long, narrow room in the basement with the stage at one end, bar at the other; they've decorated it by hanging mirrors along each long wall, providing interesting exercises in perspective:

Photo credit: Mr. Harriet
The audience was small, a big proportion friends of the performer, including a couple of the composers (one of them William Bolcom!). As for the piece, it has a lot of depth to it but the piano there was kind of lacking so it was hard to get the full effect. We bought the CD and I'm looking forward to listening to it at leisure. One interesting tidbit: The pianist was using her iPad with a foot pedal instead of sheet music. This worked reasonably well, but she did run into technical difficulties when she tried to play things out of order and couldn't find the correct pages.

After the show, we walked over to Little Italy and had a huge dinner at a vegan restaurant and then a brisk walk back to the hotel.

The next day: A different story altogether! It was raining in the morning, a bit soggy but not too bad. I made it up to the workshop location near Piano Row/Carnegie Hall a little damp around the edges but intact. First problem: I pulled out my checkbook, and it turned out my husband had used the last check without telling me, so I had no blank checks. They said I could get some money from an ATM and pay them later.

So I settled down for the presentations. My teacher had said this would be a good event for me to attend, but (you knew there would be a "but," right?) it turned out to be aimed solely at Taubman teachers or potential Taubman teachers and assumed a great deal of advance knowledge, which I obviously don't have. I won't go into a blow by blow, but the gist was that there seems to be a certain amount of disdain for students who won't go for the full remodel (the "retraining"). So I felt uncomfortable both because of my sort of outside status and because I guess I fall into this latter category.

The ideas are pretty interesting, but so abstract. I would like to hear how this all translates into actual playing; it sounds good in theory, but how is the music when all is said and done?

Noon came, and there was an hour break for lunch. This is where things got extremely soggy. I ventured out into the street and into a blinding wet blizzard, with big globs of slushy snow coming from all angles. My umbrella was no match for this stuff, and my thin shoes and jacket got soaked in short order, not to mention my jeans. I wandered around looking for an ATM without success. I finally ducked into a cafe and had some soup, and had a mental reconnoiter, resulting in the decision that I did not want to go back and sit for three hours with wet clothes unless it was to hear Glenn Gould arisen from the dead. (He'd make a good zombie, wouldn't he?)

So I gave up and went to the hotel and spent the afternoon trying to get dry. My shoes were such a lost cause that I stopped on the way and bought a pair of boots.

The snow and rain continued well into the night, but we forged on and went out to dinner (pretty good Greek food) and then to hear Steve Kuhn's trio at the Jazz Standard. What a great pianist! From where we were sitting, we could see his hands on the keys AND reflected in the fallboard of the piano, and I noticed he did all the things that are the aim of Taubman technique (at least as I understand it): He keeps his hand and arm aligned behind his fingers, he does not stretch or lift his fingers, and he does not twist his body around; he just sits there and plays with great tone.

By the following morning, the storm was over, the sky was clear, the sun was out. We had a glitch-free trip home.

So to sum up: Am I justified in calling this a fiasco, or was it actually valuable in some way? I suppose any information is useful. I can't help feeling that there are many valid paths to achieving beautiful playing, and something in me rebels at orthodoxy. I have been the victim of so many other people's misguided notions of how things "should" be when they have tried to impose them on me, or judged me lacking because of them, that I am skeptical.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Still here

I'm still here, still practicing the piano; I just don't have much to say.

I had a pretty good lesson this weekend. We worked on the First Arabesque and touched on both musical and technical points. We also looked at the dreaded Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3. Conclusion: it's hard.

I'm hoping to be able to record both Arabesques at some point, but I'm certainly not satisfied with them yet.

I've been toying with the idea of getting a video recorder. On the one hand, I kind of like being in blissful ignorance about how dorky I possibly look when I play, but on the other hand, isn't it better to know the truth? Also, I've heard it is very helpful to see what you're doing physically from an objective point of view. The camera doesn't lie, so they say.

On the cello, I've been browsing through my rather large collection of music and pulling out pieces at random and playing through them, to see if anything piques my interest. There's stuff there that I didn't know I had and don't know why I have it. Did I actually buy all of it, or what? In addition to the standards (all the usual suspects -- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Haydn, Elgar, etc.) are pieces by Klengel and Romberg, Boellman and Reger, Dohnanyi and PDQ Bach. It makes me appreciate the piano repertoire.

I had a conversation with someone a couple of weeks ago about why I was playing the piano so much rather than the cello, and I said one reason is the solo music for cello is limited; for most you need supporting players, who are not so easy to find. He said, "But there's Beethoven, Brahms . . . "

I: "But that's not solo."

He: "Oh. Right."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Impossible dream?

I'm starting to wonder if what I want in a piano teacher is just not possible.

I want someone who can provide both specific technical instruction as well as overall guidance (i.e., what should I work on? what pieces would be good? what sorts of goals are realistic?). And then I want someone who will take me seriously -- and by that I mean disregard any negative preconceptions they might have about a student who is 53 years old.

The first thing on my list is the easiest to find, it seems -- probably because it's the easiest to do. I know from my teaching days that you can get through a lot of lesson time focusing on minutiae.The student comes in, plays (or attempts to play) their piece du jour, and you proceed to pick it apart (why are you using that fingering? this would be better . . . there's a piano there, not a mezzo-forte . . . did you know you're playing the rhythm wrong there? . . . etc.). When I taught, I would then assign some specific things for the student to do in terms of practicing over the coming week; students who followed my advice would always come back playing the piece much better the next time (pats self on head here . . . ). Any teacher who can't do this just shouldn't be teaching.

The overall guidance thing requires the teacher to actually think about the student's individual situation and goals -- IOW, think outside the basic teaching box, at least a little bit. This seems harder to come by. Although sometimes you get this without the previous type of help, which is definitely worse than the other way around. However, I believe a big part of a teacher's job is helping the student choose appropriate repertoire and having a sort of big-picture plan.

And then, finding a lack of prejudice -- talk about impossible dreams. Maybe it really is asking too much. But somehow I feel that I can do so much more than they think I can.

So you may be thinking that I am disappointed with my new teacher, after the second lesson. I will say that he seems to be good at the first job. On the second, he has not shown much interest. He's very much into the benefits of Taubman retraining, which involves dropping all music for an indeterminate time and working only on relearning one's physical approach to the piano. I do find the Taubman principles interesting, though at the moment I guess am not up for the radical approach. He has said that's fine, that he is willing to do only a little of it while working on music (and he offered this during our initial phone conversation), but he obviously thinks that is not the best way to go about it.

My feeling, though I may be wrong about this, is that I am not doing everything wrong; I am not hurting or tied up in knots when I play. So wouldn't it be more organic to build on what is natural and instinctive, gradually changing the things that need changing?

Addressing the third point, the fact that he suggested the retraining may mean that he does take me seriously. Or is it just a one-size-fits-all prescription?

In any case, I'll just keep practicing. What else can I do?

Friday, September 30, 2011

New Bach recording

In honor of our orchestra dress rehearsal tonight, I took the day off of work today, which gave me time to record this:

WTC I No. 18 in G sharp minor

Perhaps it is premature because I may go to my lesson this weekend and find that there are all kinds of things I can work on -- which I am sure is true -- but on the other hand, this meets my current standards (it's memorized, I can play it fluently, I was able to get a clean recording).

So here it is -- enjoy! Any comments are welcome.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Progress (what I'm working on, current edition)

I am almost ready to record WTC I/18. The seemingly magical switch from halting, tedious effort to making music has happened once again, and I can play through both prelude and fugue from memory with at least a modicum of interpretive finesse.

I am also making progress on the Debussy First and Second Arabesques. The second is nearly memorized -- I'm just working on getting all the sections to flow together without stumbles. The first started at a more advanced place because I was so familiar with it, but any mysteries are being resolved. It has taken me about a month to get to this stage, compared with four months for the most recent Bach set. It seems most music that is not Bach is so much simpler and easier to grasp.

The impossible Scarlatti Toccata is feeling better.

When my right hand starts feeling overworked, but before anything hurts, I've been stopping and practicing some Berens exercises for the left hand. I really like these; they simple and definitely pedagogical (various scale and arpeggio patterns in various keys), but they are musical as well.

My second piano lesson is scheduled for this coming weekend. I'm looking forward to it and hope that it will provide further enlightenment.

We also have an orchestra concert on Sunday, so I've been getting reacquainted with my cello over the past couple of weeks. We've been getting along pretty well, so far.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Taubman tidbit

At my recent piano lesson (described in my previous post), while we were talking about my interest in learning Bach, my teacher mentioned a pianist who teaches at the Golandsky Institute seminar every summer in Princeton: Father Sean Duggan. He is a Benedictine priest who teaches at SUNY Fredonia and who won the International Bach Competition twice, in 1983 and 1991.

I came across an interview with him in which he said this:
"The Golandsky/Taubman approach is useful for Bach,” Duggan says. “It’s useful for any piano playing. Ease at the keyboard, facility, and tone production come into play with Bach. Even pedaling. I believe that when you’re playing Bach on the piano, you should use the resources of the piano to make the music come alive. If you try to make the piano sound like a harpsichord, the pieces sound dry and lifeless. You have to be true to Bach and, also, true to the piano.

“Edna had a big impact on my performing and my teaching,” Duggan says. “My performing keeps improving, and my teaching has grown a lot. Edna is a remarkable teacher. She has incredible insight. She knows the right words to use to get you to do the right thing. She has razor-sharp eyes and ears. A lot of teachers have that, but she has it to an extent that I have never before experienced in anybody else.”

I would love to hear him play.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New teacher, first lesson

I had my first lesson with the new teacher over the weekend. He is a Taubman technique devotee/trainee. I did not seek him out strictly because of that but because I feel having this focus on the physical -- how you are using your muscles in dealing with the piano -- offers some promise of staying away from mysticism. What I mean by "mysticism" in relation to piano lessons: attempts to define, explain, and categorize the various phenomena involved in playing with things that have no basis in physical fact. For example, I once had a teacher tell me that my approach to learning music was "masculine." Excuse me? And that means what? And of course is what every young woman wants to hear. Or my recent teacher's constant marveling at how I was able to play anything at all, given that I work all day -- aside from making me feel like a freak of nature, how does that help me figure out how to improve? I want someone who can look at what I'm doing at the moment and tell me what is preventing me from playing better.

And of course, there is an appeal in working with someone who at least has learned some relatively proven methods of avoiding pain and stress and gaining fluidity. Naturally, you never know how well someone can teach something that he knows, but at least you are starting with a basis that means something.

Don't know if any of that makes sense, but, FWIW ...

Anyway, I felt we communicated well and on the same wavelength (oops! a little mysticism there, I guess!), and I found this initial lesson helpful. I have not decided if I want to plunge into what in Taubman they call "retraining," which tends to commit one to some months of no music, just exercises. For now, I'm just going to keep plugging away at my chosen pieces. The first thing I played yesterday was my current Bach prelude and fugue. They are at the stage where they are almost memorized but not quite, so I used music and played them all the way through, which in itself was extremely helpful to me. Yes, I could play them for my husband or my friends, but as I may have mentioned in the past, playing for the relatively uneducated listener (i.e., musically speaking) stresses me out more than playing for other musicians. The former tend to be very ho-hum -- if something does not sound bad, they think it must be easy -- and easily bored, and then they say things like, "Well, as long as you're enjoying yourself!"

After I played, we talked about what I thought could be better followed by what he thought could be better. I mentioned my perennial problem with rushing, and he pointed out things I could do with phrasing and figuring out where to breathe and where to shape lines that could help. From there, we got into a little Taubman work -- he noted that my weaker fingers (3 and 4) are pretty tense, and that in general I am curving way too much.

We kind of left it that I would just keep these observations in mind but continue to work on my pieces -- the Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Scarlatti, or whatever else I want to learn. It's a little amorphous -- I mean, don't we all at least secretly want some genius taskmaster to say, "I want to you do this, this, and this," which then will magically solve all our problems? -- but on the other hand, I really am a big girl now and can think for myself, at least on a good day. So I will have another lesson in a few weeks. At the very least, this gives me a goal that is not as stressful as a performance as well as the opportunity for some educated feedback.

Monday, September 5, 2011

This and that

I see it's been a month since my last blog post. Here is a rambling post reflecting my rambling frame of mind.

I've been practicing the piano -- mostly my current Bach prelude and fugue (WTC I/18 in G sharp minor), and almost have it memorized.

I've also been learning Debussy First and Second Arabesques. The First Arabesque, in E major (more or less -- though there is some whole-tone tonality thrown in) is popular with intermediate students, and I'm very familiar with it, but I've never heard anyone play the Second Arabesque (G major). I thought it would be a good exercise to learn them both. Debussy wrote both pieces in 1888, and they were his first works for piano, I believe.

I have dabbled a bit in two Scarlatti sonatas (the Toccata I have mentioned in earlier posts and the beautiful slow sonata in F minor that is played a lot). Schumann has gone by the wayside mainly from lack of time and energy -- my job has been demanding this summer, and I've been coming home drained and tired, and there are some technical things in Papillons that I'm afraid I could hurt myself with if I proceed without due consideration. I figure it's better to play whatever I play with deep concentration and as well as I can rather than forcing myself to do everything I had hoped but at a lesser level.

I've been experimenting with different fingerings for my old nemesis passages in the first movement of Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3. At the Taubman workshop I attended this past spring, in my 15 minutes with Edna Golandsky, she suggested playing the double thirds as well as the broken arpeggios beginning of the development with two hands. With the former, a little extra muddiness is introduced because you have to hold down the pedal to keep the left-hand notes sounding, but it's extremely freeing -- the beginning of the piece goes from potential disaster to "Hey, this is fun!" With the latter, it's slightly trickier because you have to jump around the keyboard, but most of the tendonitis-causing tension from trying to play the arpeggios with the right hand alone disappears.

It really bugged me that when I brought this piece to my teacher this past spring, after working a bit on those first measures, she kind of threw up her hands and said, "Some pieces just aren't meant to be played!" I knew, of course, that what that really  meant was that she didn't know how to teach it, having never played it, but this pronouncement zapped my confidence. I mean, here I'd worked on this on and off for almost a year, feeling like it just needed some tweaking to be pretty good, and this is what I got instead.

This, among a multitude of other reasons, is why after mulling it over during the summer I decided that even though I did learn some things from this teacher, I didn't want to continue with her in the fall. I have made contact with another teacher who was recommended to me by several people, and I will have my first lesson next weekend, so we'll see.

Cello playing has been limited. For one thing, I hurt my shoulder while we were on our vacation (I think it happened when I slipped coming down the steps of a double-decker tourist bus and kept myself from falling by grabbing the handrail -- which wrenched my shoulder). It wasn't so severe that I noticed it much until we were at home -- and it was exacerbated especially by the motion required to move the bow across the cello strings. I decided to rest it as much as I could, like in the old joke:
Patient: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
Doctor: "Then don't do that."
(Okay, it's not funny. But you get my point.)

This plan appears to have been working because most of the pain is gone, and I can play the cello with only a touch of soreness now. I got together with our neighborhood band and played for a couple of hours, and my shoulder feels pretty good. This is good, because we start rehearsals for the first orchestra concert of the season in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


This appears to be a favorite encore piece for Marta Argerich. Could I ever possibly play this that fast? I guess a girl can dream:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Still practicing

Even though my run of piano lessons had a somewhat discouraging effect on me, I have continued plugging away. My return to practicing after our vacation was not as difficult as I thought it would be. So here's what I've been doing:

  • Bach, WTC I/18 in G sharp minor: I chose this partly because I wanted more work on something with lots of black keys. I know "they" say that C major is the most difficult key, but come on -- reading all those accidentals in a key with lots of sharps or flats is not easy, nor is learning what to do so that your fingers don't slip off the narrower black keys. I started this in the middle of May, and only now is the prelude memorized. The fugue is not, but it's at least starting to feel like music instead of a finger tangle. The prelude is a gentle, melancholy one, in 6/8, really more like a fugue than a prelude. The fugue is somewhat marchlike, in 4/4, but odd in that the subject starts on the second beat of the measure, and it is hard to find the downbeat anywhere in the piece.
  • Chopin B major Nocturne and C sharp minor waltz: These are the pieces I worked on a bit in my lessons, after my teacher chose them for me. These pieces are full of what should be singing melodic lines. I had the nagging feeling the entire time I was working with this teacher that she looked at me as your average uptight, perfectionist adult student who needed lots of help with freeing myself up to be expressive. Now granted, there's some of that in me, but you'd only have to ask any of my former teachers if I were a perfectionist to get a big laugh. I'm almost convinced that the most freeing thing for me would be improving my technique so I could come closer to what I imagine without having to struggle so much with everything. Whenever I mentioned this, though, my teacher would say I had plenty of technique -- as if "technique" were only the ability to play lots of notes! I think of technique as anything one does physically, and there are lots of things I am only managing to do by instinct, without really understanding them, and many others I am not able to do at all. Anyway, I never felt like the things we worked on in these pieces helped me play them more expressively. I just felt tension and awkwardness. I want to record them so I can really hear what I'm doing, but I haven't had the time or energy. Maybe this coming week.

  • Schumann, Papillons: I had started this before our vacation, but I haven't looked at it since we got back last week. There's some technical stuff here I'm really not sure about, like all the octaves, and the pedaling, but it's fun to practice.

Over the weekend, I worked a bit on some new pieces:

  • Debussy, First Arabesque. Okay, the reason for this, aside from its being pretty: It's relatively easy, and easy to memorize; very familiar; good vehicle for practicing tone and voicing; and a nice piece to have at the ready. I have never learned any Debussy, so this seemed like a good place to start. (Though, full disclosure, of course I used to sight-read through this years ago, so it's far from being new to me.)

  • Scarlatti, Toccata in D minor: When we were in Barcelona, we went to hear a guitar duo concert (it was aimed at all the tourists who throng Las Ramblas and the Old City at the center of town, but it was actually charming and tasteful, and the duo was very good), and this is one of the pieces they played. They also played a slow Scarlatti sonata that is also a favorite with a lot of pianists, which I would also like to learn, but I need to look it up and dig out the music. I had printed the Toccata out a while ago out of curiosity so I had it at hand. This may be a total wild goose chase in that the repeated notes may be beyond me, but I thought it would be fun to give it a try.

As for the cello: It looks like there will be no big concerto in my future, at least not in the coming year. The conductor said that another amateur orchestra has programmed the Dvorak so he doesn't want to play it as well (though frankly, I doubt if our audiences overlap). He suggested the Faure Elegy instead. Okay, I know it can be beautiful, in the right hands, but it simply doesn't interest me. I suppose I can pretend I'm 15 years old again, but I'm afraid no one will be fooled. In the meantime, this has given me a further excuse to avoid the cello. It's odd, because I do have a hankering to play, but there's something keeping me from diving back in.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The vacationing musician

I'm not accustomed to taking time off from everything and going somewhere for no other reason than to go there, but that is what I have been doing for the past 10 days. My husband had to drag me kicking and screaming from all my Stuff -- piano, cello, kitties, garden, sewing (though note that I did not include "work" in that list) -- for a trip to Barcelona. It took me at least four days after we arrived to unwind enough to start enjoying not having to do anything more than figure out where to eat next.

I had thought that maybe I could find a piano or two along the way, but it wasn't meant to be. Our hotel happened to be a few blocks from a music school (Esmuc), so I went over there the first morning and (figuratively speaking) pressed my nose against the window, but the young woman at the front desk said no, I couldn't rent, borrow, or otherwise use one of their practice rooms unless I was enrolled at the school. Perhaps if I'd had a name to drop it would have gotten me in there, but I just gave up. However, I did take a trip through a nice museum in the same building featuring an exhibit about the history of western music, with instruments of all kinds beautifully displayed (read more about it here: Museu de la Musica).

They also had an exhibit that was a sort of petting zoo for a handful of instruments, one of which was a cello, but when I tried to play it found that no one had rosined the bow recently so it was impossible to get a sound out of it. Maybe someone on the staff had sneaked in there and greased the thing after hearing one too many children sawing away.

Note: This is not a picture of me. I nicked the link from the museum's website.

As our time there progressed, I felt my identity as a musician seeping away a bit, not altogether a bad thing. But I dreaded that feeling you get when you eventually try to play again, when the first touch of the instrument is bizarre because you know what you are supposed to do, but it feels like a distant memory at best. We returned yesterday evening, and with trepidation I sat down at the piano -- but it wasn't so bad. I played the C major Bach prelude from WTC I and then Chopin's B major nocturne, and then I decided to quit while I was ahead (i.e., before I fell over from jet lag).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thought from the interwebs

On one of the message boards I read, someone started a discussion about "life lessons" -- particularly things people wish they had learned earlier in life. One woman commented (and I hope she doesn't mind my quoting her):

For some reason we get it stuck in our heads that all the people we've ever answered to are still watching us and waiting in the wings to correct us -- to tell us our priorities are wrong or to critique the way we do something. Last summer I was sitting there wondering why I wasn't drawing anymore, and I realized I was waiting for "permission" from all my critics. Why they would have opinions on this, I don't know (none of them are even artists). But like many people, for most of my life I've carried around an audience of critics in my head, assuming they would correct me and disapprove of things I did or didn't do... even if they wouldn't really. Anyway, I did start drawing again, and the critics in my head didn't say a word. I may have prejudged them. Critics typically don't even notice what we do right, anyway, when it comes right down to it. So don't wait for their approval.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Slow blog

I've been silent for a few weeks because I haven't been able to clarify my thoughts enough to write anything coherent. That really hasn't changed, but I thought I'd give it a shot anyway.

The net effect of my four months of piano lessons seems to have been somewhat negative. I feel discouraged. There is so much I need to learn if I ever want to play the piano anywhere near the way I imagine I could, and I don't know how I'm going to learn it. This teacher gave me little splatters of things, but not in a very usable form. I felt very talked-down-to, as if it was an accepted fact that it is too late for someone my age to do what I want to do. Now that my appetite for being taught has been whetted, I am beginning to doubt that I will ever find the right teacher.

I have continued to practice every day, but some days it's hard to make myself do it. I've been plugging away at another Bach prelude and fugue (WTC I/18 in G sharp minor) but without much enthusiasm. I started working on Schumann's "Papillons," which is fun. We had the sheet music kicking around since I was a child, so my sister who took lessons must have worked on it, though I can't imagine how -- another stellar choice by my first piano teacher. I may have mentioned that she would pick these outrageously difficult pieces for me -- and apparently for my sister as well -- that we could in no way play, but worked on for years on end without any understanding or mastery. Anyway, I remember trying to sightread through "Papillons" many a time, but it was as clear as mud. Now I feel I understand what to do and how to do it. We'll see.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Still thinking (and what I'm working on)

So, one decision made: no lessons this summer. I haven't come up with a plan yet for the fall and beyond. I briefly considered attending the Golandsky Institute summer program (it's a week long, in July), but it interfered with some vacation plans, and for the money, I think I would get more out of another semester of lessons. I'm still not sure if I will continue with this teacher. Some good things, some bad things, so not clear to me the best course of action.

For now, I am working on a new Bach prelude and fugue set. I'm not sure why I chose this one (WTC I/18 in g sharp minor), actually, except that it's short, and the key is challenging. I've been trying to alternate between major and minor and to vary the technical challenges.

I also want to try to record the Chopin nocturne and waltz I learned at the behest of my teacher. I believe she chose these so she could work with me on tone, producing a singing line, and voicing, and we did spend some time on them, but I'm not feeling like they are sounding all that great. I find myself thinking, "Just add some vibrato!" Um, no, not on this instrument!

Speaking of the cello, our orchestra played its last concert of the season on Sunday. It was kind of a meh program, but, oh well. However, I was talking with the conductor afterward, and he said next season I can play another concerto if I want, and I can choose whatever I would like. Such an opportunity! Dare I program the Dvorak? It is actually not so technically difficult as some others; there's a lot more room for error than in Haydn or Boccherini, for example. But it's long. Also, even though it is undoubtedly a wonderful piece, it is so, so, so overplayed that I can hardly stand to listen to it, let along practice it for a year. Whichever piece I choose (if I decide to do this), I will have to spend a lot of practice time on it for many months which is daunting. OTOH, I do think I'd like to take advantage of this and play something.

So next stop is the music store to order some cello concertos to peruse.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What next?

My semester of piano lessons is almost at an end. What do I do now? Sort of thinking in pixels, here . . .

I know I'm going to keep practicing whether I continue to take lessons or not. What I'm not sure about is whether the lessons are worthwhile enough with this teacher, or even with any teacher. I'd say 90% of what we have worked on has been tone production and voicing, and the other 10% phrasing. This is fine as far as it goes, but I believe there's more to playing the piano than these things. Also, there's been little advice on how to practice beyond, "Just play around with this!"

This teacher has said from time to time, "You have an amazing memory!" Um, I don't think so! I've developed a basic ability to memorize and work something up to an approximate performing level, but mostly I feel like I'm muddling my way through, and it would be nice to get some actual instruction on this stuff.

The other issue is that I'm serious about learning the entire Well-Tempered Clavier. It's my main piano love. But this teacher seems to have no interest in this. I suspect she thinks it's one of those crazy "adult student" ideas that is completely unachievable. And okay, I am never going to be able to play the entire two volumes in one concert from memory, like Angela Hewitt, but I can at least continue to learn them one at a time. I brought in WTC II/15 back when I started working on it in February and we worked on it for a few minutes, and I mentioned it from time to time as the months went on, but she never asked me to play it for her again. Everything we have worked on has been music that she has chosen, and that's fine -- I have learned a great deal from working on it -- but OTOH, none of it has deeply spoken to me in the sense that I felt impelled to learn it.

I like the fact that she brings up things I wouldn't have thought about. I mean, anyone can tell you to play the right notes. You don't even need a teacher for that (after all, the notes are right there on the page). Once you're beyond the basics, a teacher is helpful for things that are not so obvious, or perhaps for things that are obvious to an experienced listener but not to you.

This has certainly been better than having the kind of teacher who churns you through a vast number of etudes and pieces but doesn't actually teach you how to play them. When I was in graduate school, there was another cello student who had a teacher like this; she finally switched teachers after much travail and insistence with the administration of the school (which is another story in itself). She would work on a pile of things for a week or so, and then the teacher would give her new ones, even though she couldn't really play the first pile. It was a total waste of time, not to mention money (seeing as the school was not cheap). If I had to choose between a teacher like my current one and a teacher like that, obviously I would choose the former.

So I suppose the question is whether I could do better. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In the interests of science

I finally listened to the recording from Sunday, and whoo boy -- why did I rush so much? Adrenaline, can't live with it, can't live without it. I guess I'm not ready for Carnegie Hall yet.

But there are a few nice moments here and there, and at least I kept going when stuff happened.

Beethoven, Sonata Op. 31 No. 2, first movement, rushin' version

Monday, May 23, 2011

Recital accomplished

This afternoon, I played on the adult student recital at the music school where I'm taking lessons. This was my second shot at the first movement of Beethoven's Op. 31 No. 2 (okay, "The Tempest," to make it easier for everyone).

I felt very well prepared, but even so, sitting down at that big piano in front of an audience without any music in front of me was like standing on the high dive over the deep end. I really had to assert mind control to shut up that voice in my head telling me I couldn't possibly do this.

I was scheduled first (again) -- this time because I had told my teacher I had to leave after the first half hour of the recital because I had an orchestra rehearsal -- so I didn't have much time to get nervous. But I was still nervous. So the exposition the first time through was rushed, and I missed a couple of things. In general, though, I had it under control, and starting with the repeat things felt better.

I got a good response from the audience, my teacher was happy, and the director of the school complimented me as I trundled out the door with my cello. My husband recorded it for me, but I haven't gotten the nerve up to listen to it yet. Maybe tomorrow. For now, I just want to bask in the fact that I actually played the piano in public and that it wasn't a total disaster.

Thought for the day: As we were eating lunch at home before heading out for this thing, I said to my husband, "What's the point of doing this, really?" And he said, "It's important. It's art, and culture, and music, the things that are part of civilization and make life worth living."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Bach

After dithering over how much of a perfectionist I wanted to be, I decided this version is not bad. This was recorded all in one take, with no editing other than removing some silence at the beginning and end and normalizing the audio.

This Prelude and Fugue set is one of the easier ones, though as usual I found it challenging enough! It's taken me about 4 months to get to this point with it. There is a version of the fugue in this set that Bach called a "fughetta" that is even easier than the one here.

When I first looked at this music a few years ago, I thought it was a bit boring, but as usual with Bach, it has grown on me, and I like it very much now.

Angela Hewitt, in her liner notes for this piece, says that it "has lots of gaiety and charm," and that "not for the first time, Bach has a twinkle in his eye at the close."*

*From Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Angela Hewitt, piano, Hyperion Records.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This made me feel a little silly, but . . .

I am scheduled to play my Beethoven movement on a student recital at the music school in a couple of weeks. At my lesson last night, my teacher had me practice walking to the piano and bowing, and then sitting down on the bench, waiting an appropriate amount of time, and raising my hands into position. Then I practiced standing up after playing and bowing again and walking away. She critiqued each of these actions and had me repeat them several times.

Now, as I told her, I've been performing for about 40 years, and I've done a lot of walking on and off stages in lots of places and bowing for lots of audiences. OTOH, I haven't done much of this as a pianist. I can't remember getting much instruction on stage deportment with any instrument, though I suppose I learned something by watching other people. In any case, at age 53 I have now had a lesson on it.

Even though I went home and described this to my husband, and he said, "Are you s****ing me?" and we laughed about it, it actually is useful to do something like this. In this case, because my lessons are in the same space where the recital will take place, it served as a mini dress rehearsal. Aside from understanding what you need to do (which, actually, I DO know after all these years), it gives your nerves a chance to experience by anticipation what they will be subjected to at the performance.

I do draw the line at wearing patent-leather mary janes and tying my hair back with a ribbon, however.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Shame, or why I seem to have so little of it

There was a lively discussion on Piano World recently about a poster's participation in an amateur competition. The competition people sent him recordings of all his performances, and so he posted them. He was unhappy with some things, particularly a slightly insecure Appassionata performance, but IMO, they were great! Very impressive in many ways. Most reactions were positive, though there was some criticism (and one person even said the second movement of the Beethoven was "pretty bad"; the original poster luckily seems to have a thick skin).

Sometimes when I think about what I have posted here (and who knows who is listening), I feel pretty embarrassed, but I do it anyway. I know that my posted recordings are lacking in many (possibly most) respects. But I post them because I think they may be of interest to other amateur musicians who are struggling with the same issues. If I have no other goals available, I know I can always use this forum to give myself one.

So thanks for listening!

And speaking of listening, I am almost ready to record my current Bach WTC attempt. Coming soon . . .

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have successfully performed anything on the piano from memory in front of other people. My nervousness about the AMSF recital lay in the fact that I didn't know how I would react to the situation. I knew that the stakes were very low, that it would not matter in any material fashion if I messed up. My fear was of having a bad experience, of finding out that the hours I had spent in preparation had been insufficient, or even wasted, and that I really don't know what I'm doing.

As I was fretting over this on Friday -- panicking over not being "ready" and so on -- I decided that I was going to use this as a learning experience. The worst that could happen would be a total neurological flatus episode, where I would break down, stop, and have to attempt to read the music while someone sat and turned pages for me, or else crumble to the floor in tears and have to be carried out. Such scenarios were not likely. More likely would be a few little memory slips, a few missed notes, a few poorly executed pedal maneuvers, or maybe just a boringly paced 10 minutes of music.

As it turned out, the latter was more or less what took place yesterday afternoon (although I don't believe my 10 minutes of music was particularly boring). The recital was held at one of the member's homes (a beautiful town house from the turn of the 20th century in a quiet corner of DC). The piano was a very resonant rebuilt Steinway from the same era as the house.  Six of us played, and a few friends came to listen, so that made an audience of 10 or so, plus the other occupants of the house (one human and two dogs), who listened from upstairs.

The atmosphere was informal, more like a piano party than a recital, and they put me first on the program, so I didn't have the opportunity to sit there worrying about it while listening to everyone else. My husband said I looked calm and relaxed. I didn't feel completely at ease -- at a few points, I could feel my pulse pounding -- but my extremities did not shake, my hands did not turn cold, I didn't rush (I don't think). I kept breathing and pressed on. In a short time, it was over! Success!

My husband's comment: my playing was good, and it was musical, though you could tell I was an amateur. (Sigh. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said, "I didn't mean it in a bad way!") Anyway, I'm happy about how it all went. Maybe next time, I won't feel quite as insecure beforehand.

Here's what my husband describes as a "bush recording," made with his iPhone. He missed the beginning, but you get the idea:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


One of the great difficulties of performing is putting things into proper perspective.

Last fall, when I was looking for ways to motivate myself to perform on the piano, I decided to sign up to play on an AMSF "Sonata" recital. This is a recital category devoted to longer works -- sonata movements, or even full sonatas. At the time, I was working on the Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3, which I thought I could get together by the time of the recital in November. However, by the time I contacted the coordinator of the event, the recital was full. The next one was scheduled for April, so I signed up for that instead.

Fast-forward to February, when I started lessons with a teacher who told me to stop working on that Beethoven sonata and choose something else. I knew I had the April deadline coming up (and had mentioned it to her at my first lesson), and I was dubious about learning (even relearning) another piece in a month and a half, but I pulled out the first movement of Op. 31 No.2, which I had worked on on my own a few years ago, thinking that, okay, I already knew it, and it's not so technically difficult, and I would be having lessons on it, so why not give it a go?

My lessons on this piece have been focused largely on tone, touch, and voicing. The big picture (memorizing, overall interpretation, preparing to perform) has been left up to me. Basically, I've only gotten as far with this piece as I have because of what I already knew. There are some passages that are simply physically awkward, and I still don't know how to un-awkward them.

The other night, I sat my husband down and made him listen to me play the piece and was dismayed at several train wrecks that occurred. I realized that I didn't know for sure what fingering I was using in all of those places, that I hadn't practiced hands separately nearly enough, that I was rushing. So since then, I've been trying all the tricks I can think of (playing with the metronome very slowly; writing down each finger on each note; playing hands separately from memory; practicing in different rhythms). This helps, of course, though I think it's too little too late.

I thought briefly of canceling on this event, and if it were something of great importance to my career that would cause woe unto me if I messed it up, I would. But the reality involves playing in front of a forgiving audience of maybe a dozen people at someone's house, for no stakes, so though I am certainly taking it seriously, it's not do or die.

I don't know why, but the closing sentence from The Great Gatsby keeps floating through my mind:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Is your bias showing?

I noticed this review in the Washington Post of Simone Dinnerstein's concert last weekend:


I wonder how many reviews of men would contain lines like these:

. . . she saunters onstage in a sensible black pantsuit . . . 

Dinnerstein’s Cinderella story — a virtual washout at age 30 who set the world on fire with her self-financed CD of the “Goldberg Variations” — is well-known by now.

 In Goethe’s final line from “Faust,” “The eternal feminine draws us upward.” Dinnerstein seems to commune equally with higher spiritual realms and deep maternal instincts.

I also disagreed with the following statement:
In Schumann’s “Traumes Wirren,” the fingers certainly had fleetness but lacked the last ounce of power and clarity.
I've heard a good cross-section of pianists on the performing circuit in the past few years (including some of the biggest names in the business), and I can't recall any who had more power -- and fire -- than Dinnerstein displayed at the concert I heard last week (though many had less).

I suppose you could argue that, well, she is a woman, and men and women are different. But somehow this hit me the wrong way. This particular reviewer probably didn't think there was anything objectionable in taking this slant -- and he did say,

She is unquestionably an artist of true expressive force, striking a near-ideal balance of objectivity (accurately rendering what is on the page, even when technically awkward) and fantasy (searching for what lies behind the notes). This was one of the best recitals I’ve heard this season.
And then, it's his right to say whatever he wants to convey his reaction to the concert. If everyone were all namby-pamby PC about everything, what a boring world it would be. But on the other hand, when someone is at that high a level of achievement, summing up their artistic vision as " 'The eternal feminine' "being connected with "higher maternal instincts" seems, I don't know, condescending? What say you?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Further instructions for the cello section

Another installment of Tom Zebovitz's messages for his cello section:

Dear Fellow Cello Anything But Mellow Players,
First of all, I want to point out that the term "sectionals" does NOT mean: "Don't bother showing up." This is an opportunity to play your instrument the entire rehearsal, something unheard of, unless you play violin, in which case you generally find yourself fervently wishing the break would arrive sooner. I assume all of you are like me, wanting to get as much quality time with your instrument as possible whenever it is in contact with your body.
So, dudes: Play On!
All others need not read beyond this point, unless you wish to be enlightened about the Cellists' Philosophy to Living Life in the Bass Clef with the Occasional Trip to Trouble in Treble Hell.
OK, Kids, I promise we will have a great time in the cello sandbox Wednesday night. The first item on the docket is about self-discovery and Zen. Really, it is! We will do some rhythm investigations that will give you insight into why and how we play the way we do. Come with an open mind and we will expand your horizons.
Please reread the first sentence of the first paragraph of this communique. This will work if all of us are present. So, shampoo your hair, do your nails, finish that report on Tuesday so you can be present, physically and cosmically, on Wednesday. I know I will.
It's important to note that the reason we will be taking a walk on the wild side of rhythms is because of the Serenade. I do sense some resistance to the piece, but, hey! That's human nature; it's modern. Having said that, I view it as a learning experience. We will all be better and more versatile musicians when we not only understand the unusual patterns in the Serenade, but when we also cut loose our dependence on beats 1 and 3. Realizing that any beat, or off beat, can be The One is liberating.
And, once we can let go of conventional beat thinking, the Beethoven, which has its own rhythmical challenges will line up like a bunch of baby ducklets going for their first dip. Beethoven will be about technique, such as playing softly and beautifully. The focus is on movements 2 and 3. We will also come to understand that it isn't a polycello concerto for 12 different cellists. Rather is the heartbeat of the orchestra pulsing as one powerfully understated instrument. Our section is a community, the friendly neighborhood in Orchestraville.
Don't you just want to vomit???
See you Wednesday, all of you. If you die, you still have to bring a note from your mortician.
“ Fine art doesn’t just happen. It requires an act of inspired, participatory creation.”
—Maybe Ansel Adams, maybe not!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Simone Dinnerstein

I was seeing a therapist a few years back, and it so happened that this particular woman was a music lover, so she was very interested in all my travails in that area; we spent a lot of time talking about them. Sometime around 2007-2008, she mentioned Simone Dinnerstein. Dinnerstein is a pianist who went to Juilliard and studied with some good people (including Peter Serkin and Maria Curcio), and  then, as I have heard her tell it, she had a baby and was casting about for what to do next. She was in her 30s at the time. She decided to learn Bach's Goldberg Variations, reasoning that even if nothing came of it careerwise it was at least great music (I think this last point was what interested my therapist vis-à-vis my situation). Dinnerstein ended up self-financing a recording of the Goldbergs, and it became a huge hit, launching what appears to be a major career as a performer.

This weekend, Dinnerstein was in Washington for a recital on Saturday night, and the evening before, she gave a master class that was open to the public, so I went to check it out. (We already had tickets for the recital, part of a subscription series.) Some of the piano-related things she talked about:
  • Gauge tempo and pedaling on the performance space. In a really resonant space, you need to play slower than in a dry space and use less pedal.
  • Use fingers to produce color, a singing tone, more contact with the keys, and to play to the key bed. She quoted Rachmaninoff's dictum to "feel the wetness in the key."
  • Think about voicing and producing a variety of colors.
  • Shape each line (this particularly in the context of Bach).
  • Be planful but not completely predictable.
Possibly the best thing she said (IMO, anyway) was that in a performance, if you make a mistake or if something goes wrong don't stop and don't show it in your face or body language -- just press on. Everyone -- everyone! -- has bloopers, but most of the time, the audience will not even notice. And anyway, nobody died.

Another interesting comment was that in her opinion, jazz musicians are the most intellectual musicians of all because they have intimate knowledge of every chord progression they play, but at the same time, they play so freely. She said they generally are much more knowledgeable about harmony than any classical musician. She added that classical pianists should listen to music played by other instruments and preferably in other genres than classical (i.e., if you are familiar with the sounds produced by other instruments, you will have a better idea of different tone colors you can try to produce on the piano).

She came across as very down to earth, though serious and dedicated to her art. This was also in evidence at the recital the following evening, where she played Schumann's Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces, Bach's English Suite in G minor, three Bach chorale prelude arrangements by three different composers, and Beethoven's Op. 27 No. 1. Encores were a Schubert impromptu (really dazzling!) and Schumann's "Of Strange Lands and People" from "Scenes From Childhood." (She preceded the Beethoven by informing the audience that if they came to the reception and shook her hand, they would be only seven handshakes from Beethoven -- her teacher studied with so-and-so, who studied with an earlier so-and-so, and so on back to Czerny, who studied with Beethoven.)

There was something about her playing that was so much more interesting than some of the other pianists I've heard in the past few years. I think it's because she took chances and did some unusual things, and her voicing was in general extremely clear, with the important lines emerging ringingly from the composers' tangles of notes. Her performance was both polished and exploratory.

I often wonder if I'm doing the right thing by spending so much time playing the piano, but then I hear something like this, and it feels like it is the right thing. I feel connected to something larger. In any case, I doubt if I could stop! It's turned into a compulsion -- but one I think my former therapist would approve.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thanks for the memos

I am on an e-mail list for a local amateur orchestra. It's one of those groups that's not a good fit for me -- alas, it's just a little too basic. The people involved do seem to have fun playing, however. They rehearse once a week and do a few concerts every year.

One of the cellists, Tom Zebovitz, has been sending some messages to the cello section that reveal a certain gift for language as well as an understanding of some cello essentials, and with his permission, I will be sharing a few of them.

Here's a recent note about an upcoming cello sectional:

Hello Intrepid Cellists!!! And, Maybe Bassist(s)!!!
For those of you not fortunate enough to have chosen the cello as your life's inspiration, please disregard this e-mail. It is for the enlightened eyes of our cello (and bass) section alone. Any confidential information revealed in this e-mail must be held closely to the vest and not divulged under any circumstances unless you are asked in desperately phrased, assertively asked, pointed questions. Civilians may now return to practicing.
I see we are doing sectionals tonight. I'm bringing a metronome, take out your notes about counting, if memory serves, we may have to count as high as six.....
As much as I would like to focus on the Beethoven, I think the Serenade requires our attention. I plan to devote two-thirds of the time to the Serenade. The challenges in the Serenade are rhythmic, so we will be working on the rhythmically challenging sections. There is no point in going over some of the ridiculously high sections of the piece. If you want to work on discovering where the G, two octaves above middle C, is in the nosebleed section of your fingerboard: May the Force Be with You! But, that's between you and your A-string.
In the Beethoven, we will be working on high-profile solo sections, such as the 2nd movement. I also want to work on the third movement, the home of the "stealth rocket theme" that quietly shoots up our four strings. It needs to be quiet, smooth, tense, and together. The rest of the symphony, which is a cornucopia of great cello themes and solos is pretty bombastic and more forgiving of the occasional clinker.
If anybody has thoughts about sections deserving of our attention in either of the pieces, please let me know. We can cover them tonight as well.
If you are still reading this and haven't fallen into a catatonic coma requiring large volumes of Mountain Dew to help you snap out of it, I'd like to share with you my philosophy about making music.
With the exception of some of the more modern music and the occasional instruction from a dead decomposer, I feel cellists strive for purity of sound. Everybody is different, everybody's instrument is different also, however, I believe there is a way of playing that will produce a minimum of scratching, creaking, croaking, frictiony, squeaking, scraping noises that many of us have learned to live with and even filter out so we don't hear them anymore.
Producing that purity of sound begins with the placement of the bow before you even make the first scrape. Getting your string to vibrate resonantly from the start is a technique about which, I'm sure, somebody has written a long book. There are little tricks to getting your strings to vibrate beautifully.  The most effective is to gently pluck the string with an available left-hand finger just as you begin to move the bow with the right hand. I also understand that open strings, especially the A-string, sound pretty darn pure, but, need to be avoided in favor of a fingered note, simply because those notes are so darned pure and twangy. Finding the optimum bow-contact position on the string, the angle the hair contacts the string, the pressure on the bow, the speed of the bow, the pressure used in the fingers of the left hand are all critical in producing pure sounds. When you practice, I suggest experimenting with these variables.
OK, I'm done, see you tonight. Come with bells on your toes....

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Another Sunday, another concert

We had our third orchestra concert of the season today. I had to get the cello out of mothballs for this. I spent some time over the past month playing scales and simple etudes just to get my fingers working again. However, it seems that as long as I am practicing some instrument at a fairly intense level -- these days, obviously the piano -- it's not so hard to get my cello playing back up to a decent (if not super high) level within a day or two. The same synapses in the brain must be firing no matter what instrument one plays.

The main piece on the program was a world premiere of Joseph Santo's "Vísperas de la Santa Cruz," which he describes as a "concert Vespers." That is, it's meant to evoke the feeling of a service but not actually to be used for one. I know little to nothing about Catholic liturgical music, but simply as music I found the piece interesting. Though probably not groundbreaking, it has some nice effects, and the writing is graceful. My husband says he enjoyed listening to it.

There was some griping among the orchestra members about having to play this, not because of this piece, especially, but because there's a tendency for amateur musicians to grumble about playing anything they have never heard before that is in an nonclassical idiom. And then, they don't want to spend a lot of time practicing something they will never play again. (I should add that this does not apply only to amateurs!) However, this particular piece seemed to have been written with the amateur playing level in mind; though it has a few tricky places for some of the instruments (not the cellos, though), overall it is not technically difficult. All the difficulties are in getting the ensemble to play together. I think we did okay, though it would have helped if more first violins had been at every rehearsal.

Anyway, I found it refreshing to play something different. Believe me, I've played lots worse . . .

The concert opened with Verdi's overture to I Vespri Siciliani, an opera that actually has little to do with Vespers, but it was a nice contrast to the somber Santo piece. The cellos have a pretty section solo, too.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The continuing struggle

With lessons, that is. Eight down, nine to go. It feels like a trial. I'm taking these with such a huge grain of salt that they are becoming hypertension hazards. Why am I such a skeptic?

In some ways they are good. For one thing, having to play something for someone every week is exactly what I need. And then, the teacher is saying the right things, I think. She is talking a great deal, every lesson, about touch, and tone, and using the wrist and arm. At the end of each lesson, she sort of waves it all off, saying, "Just have fun with all this!" which I suppose is also a good attitude to have (rather than taking it too, too seriously).

Most of my doubts lie in the direction of execution. It's one thing to say "Bring out the melody," but another to explain how to do this consistently. This teacher does try, but the mechanism is not really clear to me, and unfortunately, she is not able to fully demonstrate what she is saying. By that I mean that she can show me individual motions but cannot show me how they work in context -- that is, when you are performing the whole piece. No, it's not good to be too obsessed with details, but on the other hand, the details are what form the whole. Too many sloppy mistakes, missed notes, rough transitions, anachronistic interpretations, and so on, and the listener loses heart. One of my teachers used to say that an audience will accept only a limited number of oopsies before they turn against you.

Should a teacher be able to play what she assigns to a student? I know there are plenty of teachers who cannot, but it has always seemed like a major obstacle to me. I have often wondered how Dorothy Delay (the famous violin teacher who was at Julliard for many years and who taught just about everyone you have ever heard of, but who was not known for her own playing) was able to teach so many virtuosos so effectively. Perhaps they were at such a high level of playing when they got to her, she didn't have to teach them any technique -- it was all refinement. (Any Delay aficionados out there, please feel free to comment. I never met her or watched her teach myself.)

I also wonder about whether it's better to simply play rather than getting bogged down in trying to achieve some ideal sound that I may never be able to produce. Isn't it possible to be musical without so much attention to this? I mean, who the hell is going to listen to me, anyway? And then, once you have sufficient technical ability to play without strain and self-injury, isn't "good tone" one of those subjective things? Or is mine so bad that I have no business playing the piano in the first place?

I should add that I do feel this is helping my piano playing, overall. It's making me listen to myself more carefully, and I think I sound better. However, I have the instinctive notion that I should continue to forge ahead and do what gives me the most pleasure, taking from this teacher and others what is useful and meaningful to me and setting aside the rest -- along with the salt. I know that with the cello, it took many years of letting everything I heard and experienced sort of simmer together on a back burner before the jumble of ingredients melded into a palatable dish (most of the time, anyway).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another person's WTC project

The music critic of The Oregonian, David Stabler, decided a year or so ago to spend a year practicing the Bach preludes and fugues. The plan was to practice one set per week for 30 minutes a day -- not for performance or recording or from memory, but to get acquainted with all of them.

Here's his first post about it (October 2008):

Goats in the shed

And here's the last (February 2010):

A year of playing Bach

When I heard about this, I was looking forward to reading some details, though few were forthcoming (either he didn't post much about it or there was a website shakeup and posts got lost, but I could find only one other than these). He writes very well. It would be nice to read more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy Bach's birthday!

Born March 21, 1685

My older sisters all took piano lessons, the first two only briefly, the third for some years. This third sister (who is 7 years older than I) stuck with it long enough to learn a little Bach. My first memory of this music is a Schirmer edition of something -- the inventions, perhaps? -- with the old buff-colored cover and the mysterious (to me, as a child) appellation, "Bach," front and center. Despite my sister's halting attempts at it, the music struck me as comfortingly organized, cheerful, substantive. Even my untutored ear responded to its many levels, from finger exercise to harmonious, architectural whole.

When I started lessons myself, I spent a few years on utter dreck (cheesy arrangements of pop tunes, etc.), but at some point my teacher decided I was ready for the good stuff, so she told me to get the book "Eighteen Little Preludes and Fugues" put together by Busoni. I wish I could say that I instinctively knew what to do with this and developed incredible skill and sensitivity in my playing, but alas, I did not. I knew there was something important there, but I did not know how to get at it.

Early in my cello-playing career, I discovered that Bach had written six solo suites for cello, and of course I wanted to play them. I began my explorations into them at age 14; one could not really "finish" such a thing, though I delved into it fairly thoroughly. I suppose the official culmination was my doctoral thesis on the fifth and sixth suites and the lecture recital I gave on the same topic.

Though they comprise great music in their own right, the solo cello suites are not at the same level as the keyboard works or even Bach's solo violin music. They could even be described as primitive -- just six preludes exploring various techniques and six simple sets of dances. This was probably intentional on Bach's part because the cello was relatively unexplored territory at the time, and it was not his instrument. The cello suites progress in difficulty, so I believe they were meant as pedagogy. There is implied counterpoint and some multivoice writing, but basically they are fiddle tunes. Even so,  any other solo cello music pales in comparison, and time spent on playing them is rewarding in many ways.

But the keyboard music is  infinitely more so. There is so much to play there, and again, on so many levels, that they can be enjoyed anywhere on the spectrum from occasional hobby playing to full-time, lifetime endeavor. I am somewhere in between. When I'm being realistic, I know that I will never play as many of them as I would like. On the other hand, the music exists and will be there for me whenever and however I choose to take it up. As it is for anyone.