Sunday, July 22, 2012

Piano camp

When I arrived at Williams College for the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat last Saturday after a long and tiring drive, it was hot. I discovered that my room was on the third floor of an unairconditioned dorm and the practice room pianos in the 1970s-era concrete-constructed music building were entry-level Yamaha uprights.* That first night I couldn't fall asleep until 3 a.m., and I was thinking something along the lines of, "I've been to music school; I have a nice piano at home; I could have stayed there and taken the week off of work and just practiced, so why the heck did I come?" But there was also the anticipation of the unknown and the stimulation of being on a bustling college campus and the excitement of being handed a crisp information package with times scheduled for everything. So I gave myself up to the moment.

The moment consisted of

  • morning lectures on various topics, specifically Alexander technique by Debi Adams, piano technique and history by Alison Barr, and free-flowing music appreciation by Peter Mose
  • afternoon practice (involving some scuttling around finding the best pianos) and private lessons;
  • evening discussion sessions and other activities;
  • lots and lots of enjoyable and stimulating conversation (over meals and coffee, with wine at the dorm at night, and in between all of the above).

The group was small (limited to 20 students), and the ages ranged from 40+ to 70+. Some were retired, some still working, and two were even music teachers. Most came from the Boston and Toronto areas (because that is where the three teachers were from), but one person was from California, one from Colorado, one from Texas, and another from Louisiana. They were all really great people; I can't remember another occasion when the company was so congenial. We were all very different and had different backgrounds and playing levels, but the common thread of enthusiasm for playing the piano was strong and created a real bond right away.

Most human social groups tend to get competitive in some way, but this one did not (at least from my perspective). I think this was a factor of the more mature age group and that this experience was specifically designed to be nurturing and noncritical. There is a fine line between that and treating students like kindergartners, but I felt the retreat masters managed to walk that line successfully, for the most part. Even the less successful attempts, such as sculpting the scapula bone from Play-Doh or trying to pass rubber balls around the room in time to the Pachelbel Canon, at least made us laugh. 

I think everyone appreciated the way the various activities were tied together. For example, Debi and her duo partner, Mike Serio, performed a recital one evening; there was a class on the technical problems of playing four-hand piano the next day; and throughout the week students worked on duo movements together and then those who wanted to played them for the group informally on Saturday morning. Another example is the Brahms recital at Tanglewood by pianist Gerhard Oppitz that we attended: Peter acquainted us with some of the musical material early in the week; the day of the recital, Alison gave a brisk lecture on Brahms with more detailed discussion about the music we would be hearing; and then the next day we had a group discussion about the concert.

So these were all tangible things I can describe, but I would categorize the less concrete, though perhaps more important learning as the emphasis on listening -- to oneself, to the music, to others; on body awareness -- what is comfortable, what is not, and why; and on music as a human experience, with all the weaknesses and foibles that entails as well as the good stuff. 

People were not required to perform. We were given a few opportunities to play for each other, which some of us did -- I took every one possible -- but there were some from whom we never heard a single note the entire week. But, as Stuart Smalley would say, that's . . . okay. 

Somehow I have come away from this feeling more comfortable at the piano. Perhaps it's the cumulative effect of being immersed in it for a week and in having so much of what I've been doing validated by what I was hearing (both verbally and by example). In any case, staying home and practicing would not have been the same.

*In case anyone is reading this and considering signing up for next year who is perturbed by my description of the facilities: Except for that first unusually hot night, the room was very pleasant. I slept well and I woke up every morning looking up into the branches of a huge maple tree outside my window. As for the pianos, in addition to the practice room clunkers (which at least had been tuned for us), there were several very nice Steinway grands in the teaching spaces that we could practice on when they weren't being used. The one in the recital hall was wonderful, and I was able to play for several hours on it during the week.

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