Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reviving old times

I seem to have acquired a cello student. I spent some years teaching cello, though never many students at a time. I had a few students during my first stint in school, taught as part of my job in North Dakota, and then taught throughout the last stretch of graduate school (through the community music school at the conservatory and also as a teaching assistant for my teacher). I had a few students after that time, while I was working at my office job, but my heart wasn't in it at all. I finally just said the heck with it, I don't need this anymore, and quit teaching altogether.

I do kind of like teaching -- I mean, who doesn't like having people actually listen to what you have to say? --  but I haven't felt the world was burning to hear what I had to say about playing the cello. Also, at this point in my life, I'm more starved for time than money. So I haven't had a lot of motivation to get back into it.

A few months ago, I got an email from a violinist friend who had met an adult cellist who wanted to take lessons. So I sent the latter an email, explaining that I could teach her though I don't have a lot of time for it. After some more back and forth, we finally arranged a time for her to come to my house for an initial lesson.

It was weird, being in the teacher seat after all of my recent student experiences! But those experiences have really helped me understand what students want/need from a teacher. I'm afraid I was a little disorganized in that I didn't have any of my instructional stuff at hand, and also that I hadn't thought through how I would approach this. On the other hand, until you actually see and hear what someone is doing, you don't know what they are going to need, so maybe winging it a bit was okay. At least I know how to play, and I think I know how to explain it. Also, this was just supposed to be an informational meeting, and I didn't charge her for it. She must have felt it was worthwhile because she said she wanted to have regular lessons, so we set up a time for her to come back in two weeks. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pop-Up Pianos needs your help!

Image from Sing for Hope. © 2008-2012 by Sing for Hope
My Internet friend Nancy Williams sent me a message the other day about Pop-Up Pianos. It is an idealistic endeavor to put whimsically decorated pianos in public places and then donate them to worthy organizations. They had a successful beginning in 2011.

However, in brief, their original sponsor passed away, so they are in danger of having no funding for this year. They are asking for donations to fund this year's event, and Nancy is offering to match up to $1,000.

She describes it more eloquently than I can. Check out her posting:

Pop-Up Pianos

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Chopin Project

Last night, my husband and I heard a recital by the pianist Brian Ganz at Strathmore. Brian is doing a series of concerts over 10 years in which he will perform all of Chopin's works. The first concert was last year, and I was not on the ball enough to get tickets ahead of time, so I made sure to acquire some well in advance this time.

As I mentioned in some posts from 2010, I knew Brian way back when he was accompanying students at the University of Maryland 30 years ago. I was remembering last night that I actually had heard him a few years before that, when he must have been around 16. I briefly took lessons from his teacher, and she invited me to play at one of her "at homes," when she had all her students play for each other at her house. I was far and away the very worst player; Brian was the biggest star. I think he played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Anyway, he has always been an amazing pianist and musician, full of intelligence and warmth but also seeming to have whatever technique was needed to convey the piece he was playing. My husband asked me what I thought made him special as a pianist, and I replied, "His emotional connection -- to the music and to the audience."

All of this was on display last night, when he not only played, brilliantly, some of Chopin's powerhouse pieces (including the two Op. 40 Polonaises, the Op. 49 F minor Fantaisie, and the Op. 61 Polonaise-Fantaisie, among others) but spoke to the audience between works with both thoughtfulness and humor. The theme of this particular concert was "Dances and Fantasies," and he covered some interesting material in his speeches in a way completely accessible to anyone. (He also stayed poised and relaxed even after someone decided it was a good idea to applaud in the middle of Op. 49, leading a good portion of the packed house to applaud as well; Brian just kept his hands on the keyboard and waited until they were done before proceeding.)

During one of his addresses to the audience, Brian mentioned an article from c. 1982 about Chopin by the academic Douglas R. Hofstadter. The article was an attempt to explore the secrets of Chopin's music by examining its structure and other elements. Yet its mysterious allure remains -- mysterious. Hofstadter closed with the following:

What is the secret magic of Chopin? I know of no more burning question.
--Metamagical Themas

As Brian pointed out, quite a statement for a scientist to make.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Split personality

Part of my time is being spent these days trying to instill very fine, new motor skills into my piano playing. In all my years of piano lessons, no teacher ever mentioned using a flexible wrist to direct the weight of the arm into the hand and fingers. It was all about fingers, à la Hanon: "Lift 'em high, bring 'em down hard." Also, "Keep your wrist flat, keep your arm still." The teacher I had last year seemed to be attempting to teach me to use more flexibility, but she never told me *how* to do it. I'm already feeling like this is giving me more ability to control the sound I'm making on the piano.

Then, the other part of my practice time, I am flailing around on the cello with "Pezzo Capriccioso." The big question is whether, by May of this year,  I will be able to play the two sections of spiccato 32nd notes up to tempo, with a nice bouncy bow, light and clear but penetrating sound, and "with feelin'" (as Arlo Guthrie says in "Alice's Restaurant"). An hour or more can go by before I realize it, fiddling around with the metronome, rhythms, small sections, big sections, checking intonation. Compared with what I'm doing on the piano, I feel like I'm attacking the piece with a sledgehammer.

What is this piece about? I read that Tchaikovsky wrote it during a summer, after a young friend of his had died, for another friend of his to play. I'm imagining that it's a sketch of a mercurial, charming, changeable personality -- someone who tries to be serious but simply can't do it without cracking up. A comedian. It contains snatches of a beautiful melody that never goes anywhere, and virtuoso passages that disintegrate without finality. It seems like ideas for a concerto that never got written. If I hold this in my mind, it helps a bit.

All the same, this is a serious technical challenge. I know I'm living dangerously planning to play this just a few months from now, and the safest route would be to revert to the easier piece the conductor wanted in the first place. But I am intrigued by it, and it *is* making me practice! So I'll give myself a few more weeks, at least, before I make a final decision.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Monsters and Angels"

A few weeks ago, I finally decided to order Seymour Bernstein's book, With Your Own Two Hands. This has been a curiously difficult book to find, given its popularity. A small music publisher, Manduca Music, now sells all of Bernstein's books and music (he is a composer as well as an author and teacher). While I was browsing their site, I noticed another book of his that looked interesting but that I had never heard of: Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music. I was in one of those what-the-hell-I'll-order-it moods, so I threw it into my cart along with the With Your Own Two Hands; a CD, Retrospective; and a book on Chopin's notation. When my package arrived, I opened Monsters and Angels and then couldn't put it down until I had finished it.

The general public has the notion that there are some absolute measures of musical success, beyond being able to play; that "studying with" someone renowned as a player or teacher automatically confers the latter's wisdom (one often hears a student spoken of as being a "child" of such-and-such teacher); or, contradictorally, that lessons are sort of interchangeable, and that no matter which teacher you have, if you attend certain celebrated music schools you will acquire certain skills. Those in or of the system have a vested interest in maintaining this set of beliefs.

The fact is that there is no one right way to go about learning how to be a musician, and no one person or institution has a lock on the secret, because there is no secret. Also true is that there are a lot of really, really bad teachers out there, ranging from incompetent to malevolent.

As I read Bernstein's book, I had one jolt of recognition after another. The most striking was his description of attending the Mannes School of Music, where he was accepted into the studio of a very famous teacher who turned out to be one of the "monsters" of his title. After a miserable month or two, he succeeded in persuading the head of the school to let him transfer to another teacher and proceeded to have a productive year of lessons, classes, chamber music, and performances. However, the famous teacher's nose was put seriously out of joint by Bernstein's successful end-of-year concerto performance with the school orchestra, and so she used her clout as their biggest name instructor to engineer his expulsion from the school. From the book:
In spite of my mother's and everyone else's support, I, and I alone, had to face the fact of my expulsion. I felt isolated, like being on the stage. . . . the realization of just how vulnerable and insecure I was made me even more depressed. . . . Weeks went by during which I did not so much as touch the keyboard.
I experienced something similar -- in fact, it was eerily similar. I was not so accomplished a performer as Bernstein at that time, but the scenario of famous teacher being petty and vengeful played out in an analogous fashion. The school in question, however, would have been happy to continue taking my money, but I bowed out, vowing to never pay tuition again. I emerged from this intact, but I carried a sense of failure for a long time, as well as the feeling that I was defective and alone.

This is just one example of the many deeply felt observations in the book about a life in music. The section describing his stint in the Army is fascinating and could be a book in itself. I also greatly appreciated the many passages in the book describing what it was actually like for him to play in public -- both the angst and the pleasure -- and how he prepared, how hard it was for him to judge the worth of his own performances (many times when he felt he didn't play well the reactions of others were quite different), how he learned what he learned.

I should add that although one senses that these are stories he has probably wanted to put to paper for many years, Bernstein's overall approach is not negative or vindictive. He tries to understand his monsters and what made them that way, and he expresses compassion for them. There is some bitterness about opportunities missed but also serenity in his acceptance and appreciation for what life has offered him.

After I had read the book, I went searching for a review of it and could not find one, other than a few reader comments on and Google books (at each site are two reader reviews, one negative, one positive). It was published in 2002, but apparently did not make much of a splash (compare with Mozart in the Jungle, somewhat along the same lines though not nearly as well written or as historically interesting). Is it because in many cases he named names? Did it cut too close to home for the New York Times?

I hope this brief description of the book will turn up in some online searches and at least spur a few people to read it. In any case, I deeply appreciate this book. I only wish I had read it years ago.