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.