Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Grand Piano": The movie

We are fortunate to live near a fantastic movie theater that shows old and new films and hosts several film festivals every year. They are currently doing a "European Union Film Showcase," with more than 50 movies of all types. My husband noticed that one of the films was titled "Grand Piano" and had an interesting premise:

Lured out of retirement, disgraced pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) attempts to conquer his nerves and rejuvenate his career with a tribute performance to his mentor. But when he sits down at the piano in front of a sold-out crowd, he finds a terrifying message: "Play a wrong note and you die." Now Tom must overcome the ultimate case of stage fright, and discover who has it in for him. This spine-tingling thriller from Spanish filmmaker and rising star Eugenio Mira provides a fresh take on its Hitchcockian setup, and was a sensation at the 2013 Fantastic Fest. With John Cusack and Kerry Bishé.

So my husband and I went to see it last night.

The first bad sign was that during the stylish credits, with a soundtrack of an orchestra tuning up and then some rather creepy piano music featuring nontraditional techniques (plucking strings, etc.), a Bösendorfer piano was shown in bits and pieces that made it look like a torture device.

Next came the movie's exposition. The protagonist, Tom, was shown having nervous sweats on a bumpy plane ride, followed by a muffled and mostly incoherent cell phone conversation with a woman while he was getting off the plane and walking through an airport and finding his limousine driver. It was somehow conveyed that the city he had just traveled to was Chicago and that he was on his way to perform in a concert. While he's riding in the limo, there is a ludicrous sequence where he's being interviewed live on the radio via his cell phone, with the interviewer asking questions like, "So, Tom, you're about to play your big comeback concert with the most difficult piece ever written after your disgrace five years ago. Are you nervous?"; at the same time, he changes into his tuxedo, which emerges, along with his dress shoes, bow tie, and cummerbund, completely unwrinkled from the little backpack he is carrying (which was actually the only believable event in the film).

The "concert hall" at which they arrive looks suspiciously like an office building with a marquee stuck on the front and a lot of people in evening dress milling around on the sidewalk. When Tom goes in, he walks through -- the musical instrument museum I visited in Barcelona a couple of years ago! See, this film was made in Spain, even though it's set in the United States and is entirely in English with American actors. I'm assuming they stuck the museum in there to make the joint look a little classier without having to spend money on a set.

The orchestra conductor greets him -- and hands him a folder with his music! What? One could argue that a world-class pianist wouldn't be using music to play a concerto, but it's plausible. However, we are to believe that this is a famous musician with terrible stage fright who is about to play his first public concert in five years, yet he's arriving only minutes before it starts, with no rehearsal with the orchestra, with no chance to warm up, and without his own copy of the music? And why is it in Chicago? And where did he fly in from? And why is it night time when he arrives but daylight in subsequent scenes in the lobby just before the concert is supposed to start? Questions, questions . . .  and no answers.

The entire plot (hope I'm not ruining this for anyone) hinges on the fact that an evil sniper has gotten hold of the music in the folder and written nasty notes in red explaining that Tom and his beautiful actress wife, who is sitting in a box seat in the hall (which, btw, looks  more like a run-down old movie theater than a fancy-pants concert hall in one of the largest U.S. cities) will both be shot if he misses a single note.* The notes then explain that "at the next rest, go to your dressing room." Um, excuse me? In the  middle of a piano concerto, the pianist is supposed to leave the stage for some inexplicable reason?  This was made easier here because the orchestra (never named, and suspiciously sparse) was placed in the front of the stage, and the piano (supposedly the treasured instrument of Tom's late teacher, who was also fabulously wealthy [a fabulously wealthy piano teacher??!!], though it looked like an ordinary 7-foot Bösendorfer to me) was on a raised platform at the very back of the stage, with steps conveniently leading up to it from backstage.

When Tom does make the trip to his dressing room (somewhat reminiscent of a similar trip made by the band Spinal Tap), he finds text messages on his cell phone instructing him to look in a pocket of his backpack and extract an earpiece, through which the villain then spends the next hour hissing evil messages at him -- and somehow, Tom is able to speak back to the guy even though there's no obvious microphone (though I may not be up on wireless technology these days), which he does while he's playing the rest of the concert, and, despite his supposed stage fright, not missing a note. Though it's hard to tell, actually, with the piece being a mishmash of ersatz Rachmaninoff and bad movie music.

Another thing about that music: in addition to the fact that it is completely untouched by fingerings or markings of any kind except for the killer's notes in red, in capital letters, which look like they were painted in with nail polish, it in no way matches anything that is coming out of the piano. And judging from the pianist's hand position, it would seem his real problem might have been not stage fright but tendonitis.

Oh, I could go on -- that the trip to the dressing room was only the first of many during rests in the music, after which the pianist enters perfectly in time without missing a beat; the pianist attempting to get help by texting on his phone through the music on the piano with his left hand while continuing to play with his right; the villain's creepy sidekick who manages to murder two people without anyone noticing (one of them by bashing her head against a mirror and then slashing her throat with a piece of the glass -- the film maker using this moment as an excuse for a cool cut to a cello bow slashing across the strings); the conductor stopping after the first movement of the concerto to make a speech;  the pianist attempting to retrieve the score for the difficult piece, which the villain requires him to play on pain of death, that he has inconveniently tossed on the floor and that the theater janitor immediately picks up and for some reason tosses into a blazing incinerator that is conveniently placed backstage -- of course, doesn't every theater have a janitor who burns trash during orchestra concerts? -- and then remembering that his wife has somehow gifted him a tablet computer while he was away (where, and why?) and had it placed in has backpack (how? -- and this is the same backpack that contained his tuxedo, shoes, etc.), so he runs back to the dressing room yet again, pulls it out of the box and is instantly surfing the Web, finding his recording of the piece, and jotting down notes on a copy of the program while he taps it out with his fingers on the dressing room table (all while the orchestra is playing what must be the world's longest tutti section way back there on the stage); the climactic scene when the pianist and the villain (a complete waste of the talents of John Cusack) end up grappling together in the rigging above the stage and crashing into the Bosie while the conductor is accompanying the pianist's wife in "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" as she sings from her seat in the box (without any amplification, of course; this makes it sound way better than it is).

I had a brief moment of hope when Tom is lying on the stage after his fall from the rafters and starts to stir that maybe it was all a dream while he was passed out from terror at having to perform . . . but unfortunately, no.

I am writing this as a public service in case anyone searches around for reviews to this movie. It is making the rounds of film festivals now, so hasn't been reviewed except for in a few trade papers, blogs, and reader comments on websites. All the reviews we found when we got home, sputtering in amazement at the badness of this thing, were -- positive? "Slick, stylish, and admirably fast-paced thriller" . . . "Hitchcock-inspired" . . . "the best Brian de Palma movie he never made" . . . sigh. Is the general public really that ignorant? No, on second thought, don't answer that.

Well, folks, you read it here, at least IMHO, in one word: fail. Unless you need a good laugh. (We seemed to be the only people in the theater laughing, however.)

*Additional spoilers: Late in the movie, the villain reveals that the reason for this request for perfectionism is not sadism but financial: that the fabulously wealthy piano teacher has hidden his vast fortune in a Swiss safety deposit box and that the key (get it, key?) is hidden in the Bosie and can only be retrieved if one plays the last four measures of "the most difficult piano piece ever written." Why this had to be done by the pianist, at tempo, and in a public concert, and why the villain knows this, and how he is supposed to get the key after it pops out of the piano, is not explained. Among many other things.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What next?

These past couple of weeks have been a little rough. It took me most of this time to get over my cold, and then I got an eye infection, and I've just generally been feeling out of sorts. I have some musical projects to work on, but nothing as absorbing as the Schumann concerto.

It is still strange for me that I don't have to go to work every day. Because of this, I have the issue that I find myself saying about various tasks, "Oh, I can do that tomorrow." So things get put off. My practice time feels like it's falling victim to this: I'll do an hour or two, feel tired or frustrated or like I'm losing my concentration, and then pack it up with the thought that tomorrow is another day.

But the thing about practicing is that it's like a river -- it keeps rolling along, and you do it every day if you can, but there's no end to it. You can set goals for specific pieces, so that on such-and-such a date you will perform it or record it or call it done, but the potential for improvement and work that could be done never closes. This is both stimulating and frustrating.

So the musical things coming up:

This weekend, I'm playing Scandinavian folk dances for an annual Luciafest. This is with a large group  and I tend to get lost in the mix, but it's kind of fun in its own way.

Next week, I'm meeting with a flutist and a pianist to read through some trios. The idea is to eventually perform if the group gels well enough. Both players are very good, so it should be enjoyable.

In January, I scheduled myself to play the piano on an AMSF recital. I haven't decided what to play; it's a toss-up between the opening movement of the Bach C minor partita and the Brahms Rhapsody No. 1 in B minor. When I attempted the latter for my piano teacher this morning, I had a total breakdown about a half minute in, which doesn't augur well. After I got over that hump, the next student arrived while I was wailing away on some big chords, really getting into it, and my teacher came over and touched my hands to stop me and said, "Softer ..." Oops. So we'll see how that goes. I do have over a month until the recital.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Schumann concerto video

Here it is (split in two to fit YouTube's length requirements):

First movement:

The rest:

People have generally been very kind about this performance. I am probably too close to it right now to be objective, but what I miss is clear expressiveness. What was in my mind didn't come through very well. But it's respectable, I think, and certainly technically clean, which is worth a lot with this piece. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

It's done

I performed the Schumann concerto yesterday, finally! It went well. I made one stupid slip near the beginning, in the second theme -- my mind wandered and my fingers zigged when they should have zagged -- but I think I recovered decently and kept going. My friends said they didn't notice. But overall, I felt amazingly in control and free to be expressive. So from that standpoint, a success.

The orchestra and conductor did a great job. They really sounded good.

There's a video (nothing fancy -- just a straight shot of me playing), but I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it yet. If it isn't too embarrassing, I'll post it. Still recovering from my cold, breathing and sleep all messed up, decompressing from the excitement of performing, I couldn't sleep at all last night, so I'm in a fog today.

I hope to get myself reoriented soon and figure out what's next musically.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

If it's not one thing ...

Things had been moving along fairly well with this upcoming performance -- it was not everything I hoped it would be, but that's how it goes.

But on Thursday, I woke up with a raging sore throat, the kind where nothing helps at all -- not hot tea, aspirin, or copious amounts of water. Normally, I don't get too stressed over a cold. They pass after a few days or a week no matter what you do. But to get one right now! I canceled my piano lesson and took several long naps, interspersed with a little practicing.

Friday, the runny nose thing started. I took more naps, practiced a little, and went to the dress rehearsal. The Schumann felt just on the edge of being out of control.

When I got home, I ate something and went to bed. Right about then, the cold had reached the point where I couldn't breathe and couldn't get comfortable. Somewhere during the night, I lost my sense of smell and thus taste. I am sitting here now trying to eat a bowl of broth I made that contains onions, cayenne, lemon juice, and Tabasco sauce, and I cannot taste it at all. It could be a mud puddle.

I took a decongestant just in case it might help, though I'm not optimistic. I took a long walk this morning just to get myself moving around, and I'm going to try to practice this afternoon and evening. I hope I am able to get through the concert tomorrow, but frankly, this sucks.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Kind (and probably wise) advice

From an Internet friend:

Take a deep breath, relax, and smile. You are really good, and the audience is going to love it. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

More rehearsals, thoughts

This weekend was the second round of rehearsals for the Schumann concerto. Yesterday's was in the morning. I slept too late, so only had time to get dressed and have breakfast before rushing over there, and I didn't have time to warm up at all. The conductor had invited a couple of friends to watch him and give critiques, one a conductor, the other a cellist, which he announced just before we started. So I was all shaky, and the whole thing felt horrible. Plus, the orchestra was still sounding pretty bad. My recording told the tale.

At my last piano lesson, my teacher showed me a way to practice a technically difficult passage wherein you set the metronome at some determinedly slow tempo and then play the shortest note value at that speed. The section we were working on, 10 measures of Beethoven sonata Op. 90, involves rapid 16th notes in an Alberti bass encompassing leaps of a 10th. He had me set the metronome at 60 = 16th note and play the left-hand part of the passage with one finger (first thumb, then fifth, then fourth). At this slow speed, it sounded like random notes. We then moved the metronome up to 80, then 100, then 120.

This helped so much with this passage (which had been turning my hand into a claw) that I decided to try it in the last movement of the Schumann on the sections with continuous 16th notes (though skipping the "one finger" part of it, obviously). Although the problems are different on the two instruments, the principle is somewhat the same: this gets you to feel the distance between each note and perform whatever motion you need to get there in a relaxed fashion. So I spent a few hours yesterday and today working those passages in the concerto.

I also, after wrestling with my pride a bit, emailed the conductor and asked if could take the last movement slower. Schumann marked it 114 = quarter note (which actually doesn't exist on any metronome), and we've been doing it probably faster than that, what with the rushing on everyone's part. In any case, it's not held together very well, and I felt very pressed and insecure.

I am listening right now to today's rehearsal -- basically just a run through because of time limitations -- and wow, the conductor really kept it at 108 = quarter note. It felt like we were crawling along, even though we were just a notch or so slower than what we've been playing. But it felt great to be able to play all the notes without panicking.

As for the rest of today's session, my other preparations involved bringing my own chair (the chairs at the place we rehearse are very low metal folding chairs; my own chair is at least a couple of inches higher, which makes a big difference in how secure my seating position feels, with my longish legs) and getting there 10 minutes early so I could warm up with a few scales. I also tried, while playing, to concentrate on the emotional scenario of the piece that I had come up with. So whenever my thoughts started drifting along the lines of "how'm I doing?" I steered them back to what was happening in the music.

In total, it all went much, much better. If I can play it somewhat in the area of how I played it today, I will feel relatively happy.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Battle scars

My poor left hand:

On the left, my beat-up index finger (slowly healing). The dark stuff on there is the New-Skin.

To the right, my pinky suffering from an infected hangnail, thus the bandage. Do you know how much it hurts to play the cello with something like that on a finger? I never knew, until now. A soak in hot salted water last night helped.

At the very right, the scar from a paper cut received when I was fishing the mail out of the mailbox the other day.

Maybe I should wear gloves at all times until this concert is over.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Perceptions are odd

At the second rehearsal of the Schumann today, I felt tired, my finger was hurting, I didn't get a chance to warm up before we started so my hands were ice cold. From my point of view, I sounded awful.

Yet, when I loaded up the recording I made of it and listened to it this evening, it was quite a bit better than I was dreading. The tempos were good. By the time we got to the last movement, I was even more tired than I was at the beginning and was losing concentration, so I fluffed a couple of places, but overall, it sounded clean and confident. The orchestra was kind of pathetic today -- we were missing the entire bass section, most of the first violins, one cello, one viola, and some of the winds -- but I soldiered along pretty well.

Even the opening, after which I wanted to run and hide in a closet, didn't sound all THAT bad. Here, check it out:

Schumann concerto, somewhat fluffy opening

So the lesson here: don't panic. Keep going. Make the best of what I've got, what I've done with it, and where I am in the moment. Probably a good idea in any situation.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


I had my first rehearsal today of the Schumann with the orchestra. That's not what I'm ughing about, though -- it went pretty well. I was happy that although things weren't perfect on my part, I never felt that utter panic of not knowing what comes next or whether I could play it. Even the development section of the last movement, with all the tricky back and forth between cello and orchestra, just rippled off my fingers without a second thought.

I recorded the rehearsal and listened to it carefully when I got home. I took notes and made a list of all the places that particularly bothered me. The orchestra had its usual first-rehearsal sound (less said about that, the better), but I expect they will improve as they get more familiar with their parts. So I was raring to go and work on my list, but the "ugh" is that I have ripped up my left index finger from playing. My fingerings apparently use that finger a lot for hard shifts, with the result that the skin has been peeling off. Very frustrating.

I did practice for an hour or so this evening, but decided it would be prudent to give it a rest for the rest of the night. My finger even hurt too much to play the piano -- I knew when I was wondering if any of my pieces avoided that finger that it was time to give up. So I soaked my left hand in hot water for a while, then put on some lotion. It may be time to get out the New-Skin again. I still have a bottle of the stuff that I bought about 20 years ago (no kidding).

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The crux of the matter?

At my piano lesson today, after we had worked for a while on the Brahms Rhapsody in B minor (Op. 79 No. 1), which I've been slogging away at for months now, my teacher said (paraphrasing a bit, but this was the gist of it), "The problem is that you don't know what you want to do with this. It's not technical ... You're just letting whatever happens happen." And he was mostly right (as usual). We have talked about things like imagining the piece orchestrated (which instrument would play which line, etc.), which somewhat helps, but when I sit down at the piano all of that flies right out of my head and there I am, thinking only of what notes I have to play.

But exactly how loud or soft do I want those notes to be? How articulated and phrased? What mood do I want to evoke, even if just in myself?

It is obvious that if you have a really clear idea of how you want something to sound, it is much more likely to come out that way. I think this is why sometimes technically difficult pieces are easier to convey -- you have no choice but to think hard about what the end result should be and how to get there. It's the easier pieces that often harder to pin down, perhaps because there are so many more options.

The Schumann cello concerto, though admittedly difficult enough technically is also difficult in this way, too. I'm afraid I'm not too clear on the answers to these questions with regard to this piece, either. This is the scary part about it.

Yet I balk at making decisions. I'm not sure why this is. I keep playing and practicing it, hoping it will all become clear to me, even though I know it should be the other way around (i.e., clarify mentally and then play and practice to achieve that result).

So big sigh ... but I will keep at it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An eerie calm ...

Image from *

I'm performing the Schumann cello concerto in three weeks, and I'm not in a panic, which somewhat worries me. But maybe this means I have progressed in some way and have more self-confidence. The first rehearsal with the orchestra is this coming weekend.

I had something of a break this past week from the deep practicing I have been doing because I had a big editing job that was due yesterday. The freelance projects I've taken since I stopped working full time help me keep my hand in the editing biz, which I somewhat enjoy for its own sake, plus its being a source of income. I took this project because I thought it would be a good distraction from obsessing about the Schumann, and it did help with that, but it took quite a few hours; I feel much freer now.

My task for today is to record the concerto for the conductor so he can listen to what I'm doing. I suggested this because he doesn't have time to meet in person before we start rehearsing, but thanks to the Internet, we don't need to!

I've been doing some reading and thinking about practicing. I finally read The Talent Code after my piano teacher mentioned it every week for about a month. Interesting stuff, though I have to say poorly written in the sense that it's dumbed down to the extreme. I found this review by a random blogger that I think is spot on.

There's a section in the book describing the author's visits to Meadowmount, the famous summer music camp started by Galamian in 1944, and I found the "gee whiz!" POV kind of silly, as if the kind of work promoted there was unusual. The reader would have been better served if the author had mentioned (if he even knew this) that this is a pretty standard conservatory-level approach. Also, that Meadowmount is extremely selective both in terms of faculty (who all have to be famous musicians) and students, so by the time they get there, both are already on a high level.

But I have to say, this book put a spotlight on why all the bad teachers I've had were so bad. (Not to be too negative or anything.) And, for that matter, why the bad therapists I've had were bad, too. I've always felt that the best way to teach is to get right down to exactly what the student can do to improve, in microscopic detail, rather than using shaming, personal attacks, or vague niceness. The idea that deep, behavior-changing learning takes place in a focused, practical, problem-solving way rings true to my experience, but most of the teachers I've had did NOT teach that way, or did not go far enough in one direction or another.

I also purchased an e-book about how to practice by an accomplished pianist and teacher, and fellow blogger (Graham Fitch, of Practising the Piano, which you can find on my blog list). I'm finding all of his little practice tips interesting and helpful, to the extent that I will read a section and then rush to the cello to try it out on the Schumann. I spent a session doing what he calls "little bits fast": taking small sections of a measure or two and cycling them up to tempo and then joining them together. This almost miraculously helped smooth out a number of problems, especially in the opening of the last movement, which is annoyingly both simple and devilishly difficult.

I've also been practicing the piano a bit. I started working on a Beethoven sonata, Op. 90 in E minor. My lack of time for this right now is leading me to try to understand more efficient practicing. It bugs me that it always takes me so long to learn something -- like, months and months of flailing around ineffectively -- and I'm sure I can improve on this. If I don't, my repertoire will continue to be severely limited. When I mentioned my poor practice methods, my teacher agreed that is probably the case. But I've clung to them for so long because they do seem to work up to a point.

We were talking about this at my last lesson, and one thing he said about focused, bit-by-bit practicing, was, "You have to have faith that it's going to work." I'm trying to apply this approach to learning the Beethoven, which is a completely new piece for me -- I've never even heard it, let alone played it. So we'll see. In any case, this gives me something to look forward to musically after the Schumann performance.

*Believe it or not, the caption under the source for this image reads: "Does an eerie calm precede a storm or is that just an old wives tale?"

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A self-referential query: Comments, anyone?

I've been writing this blog for about 4 years now. I loosely keep track of visitors to this blog and which pages are popular.

These three are the big hits:

How to sell a cello

What not to wear for the cello lady

There has been a fairly steady stream of visitors but very few comments over these years, and I've been wondering what does or does not move you to comment on a blog. So a question for visitors: What brought you here? Did you find it interesting or useful? Will you return? What were you looking for when you found me?

Other bloggers run giveaways or contests to get people to comment, but unfortunately I have nothing to offer along those lines. But I promise to read all comments.

And whether you comment or not, thanks for reading.

Thanks for your input.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Another chance to excel

My husband went through a phase when he joked around in the morning before he left for work, saying, "Another day, another chance to excel!!!" (yes, with at least three exclamation points).

Today I had another chance to excel. A friend is playing a concerto with another amateur orchestra in a few weeks and came up with the idea of us playing for each other -- two cellists of a certain age reclaiming some youthful vigor by putting ourselves out there in front of an orchestra. So I went over to his apartment and listened to him play through his concerto, and then he listened to the Schumann. We kept the criticisms to a minimum, offering just a few constructive ones, wished each other luck, and called it a day. It was very much worthwhile.

But I got rather nervous, even in these relaxed circumstances. I had to will my leg not to shake -- not sure what that's about. I had a few places where I slipped (though my friend said my recovery was great), but overall, everything was there and in place.

Since my lesson this past Monday I have been more conscious of a lack of nuance and have been working on it. I think it's a bit better. Musing on this, after I got home I searched around and came across a video of Bernard Greenhouse teaching this piece in a master class. He was in his 90s at the time, I believe -- amazing, actually. Anyway, he emphasizes here how there are numerous ways to be expressive by shading and shaping the sound with vibrato, choice of fingering, and bow but that ultimately it has to come from inside, and it has to be controlled by the demands of the piece. My favorite thing that he said was,
You have to learn to control your emotions when you play the instrument according to the dictates of the music you're playing. You can't just get on stage and be full of energy and play everything with the same energy. It doesn't make music. You have to learn how to control that hand of yours and control the emotions which go with it.

It's between 4:00 and 6:00 on the video:

Maybe it will help to think of each note, gesture, phrase as a "another chance to excel" (vs. "another chance to screw up" :)).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Motivation and self-esteem

I'm having a little trouble here.

I'm not feeling comfortable about this Schumann performance and am trying to analyze why. Yes, it's a difficult piece, and yes, I know it won't be perfect (whatever "perfect" means), but (as the guy I took a lesson from earlier this week put it), no one's going to die.

I think the difficulty lies in what my piano teacher describes as "being mean" to myself. In fact, he ascribes to the philosophy of "strict but not mean." What this means, in a nutshell, is holding oneself or one's students to the highest standard while not denigrating the person or self-flagellating. He concludes:
To be mean is to instill fear. Fear gets a certain result. It gets what the teacher wants or great rebellion. It does not get a creative result, a free result, or a musically adventurous result. These are much more valuable than just right.
Students are first and foremost fellow musical travellers. Respect them and care that they learn how to do things right. Sometimes it’s necessary to be firm and direct, but weaknesses in the playing never justify personal insult. Let people be themselves and they are usually quite wonderful. They also do their most expressive playing that way.
(Click the link to read the entire piece.)

Maybe I'm pressuring myself more because having quit my job, I feel I have to prove something -- though not sure what. That I'm "serious" about this? That I have to make it all "worth it"?

The answer, however, is NOT to avoid practicing (like I'm doing at this moment, at almost 11:30 on a sunny Wednesday morning) but to practice without saying bad things to myself, like, "You can't do this"; "You are not good enough to play this piece"; "This is going to sound awful"; and "WHAT was I thinking???"

Way too much of this has been creeping into my practice sessions, with the result that I feel I've been beaten up by the time I'm done. I'm going to try to shift my attitude from here on out, with my goal being to approach practicing the cello in a positive light: as exploration, adventure, communing with the composer, challenging myself technically and artistically, and figuring out how best to create an enjoyable experience for myself as well as the orchestra, conductor, and audience.

And if I don't quite manage to do that, I'll have to try not to hate on myself for hating on myself! Tricky stuff ...

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tired and overwhelmed

You'd think that not having a job would mean no more of that tired, overwhelmed feeling. Well, okay, it's definitely better than it was, but the things I'm doing are stretching out to fill my days.

I blame most of the overwhelm on the Schumann concerto. Sometimes I question my sanity in choosing to perform this piece. But then I think, c'mon, Schumann himself would have been happy that you are playing it, however imperfectly. And what is "perfect," anyway?

Earlier this week I got together with a pianist friend and we played through it. It was good for me to have to go to someone else's house, unfamiliar territory, and play in front of another person. Plus, I recorded it, so that gave me good feedback. I did pretty well with it until the third movement; as everyone says, this where the real difficulties lie. The worst place was the development section, which consists of little fragments of one to two measures passed between the cello and the orchestra, ranging through numerous keys and chord progressions. Hearing the orchestra part totally threw me off, even though I thought I had it figured out.

Aside from that, the biggest issues I could hear on the recording were these:

  • A lot of slamming at the beginnings of notes and phrases, resulting in scratchiness throughout
  • Too much all the same dynamic (loud) and energy (forced)
  • Not enough shaping of phrases

Oddly enough, these things are similar to what my piano teacher has been telling me, especially the forcing. I need to trust that my sound will carry at soft dynamics. We're always told that the cello has to "cut through the orchestra," but when I look at how Schumann orchestrated this, many times there are only a few instruments accompanying, which allows the soloist to be heard without trying so hard. So actually, this makes my task easier and more enjoyable: instead of drilling everything at fff, I can relax and figure out how to make it sing and let the cello do its thing.

Next week, I have a lesson with a cellist in the National Symphony (different person than the one I have been consulting with -- the latter recommended that I go to this other guy because he recently performed the piece, plus he's taught it quite a lot). I'm also getting together with a cellist friend who is playing a concerto with another amateur orchestra; we are going to play for each other. These ventures should help as well. I hope.

My overall concern is that I don't have a clear idea of what I want to say with this. That's probably one of the most difficult things for us classical musicians to achieve. We get so caught up in playing the notes and markings, in producing a beautiful tone, and in demonstrating our technique that the art of telling a story gets lost. In some ways, the music does it for us in its structure (sonata form, ABA, rondo), but that only takes you so far. I will continue to ponder on this.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Anxiety dreams

I think everyone has these at times -- the dreams where you have a test you haven't studied for, in a class you haven't taken, or you have to give a speech and you're naked and don't have any notes.

When I have these kinds of dreams, they are almost always about performing music. I had one the other night: I was supposed to play a difficult solo piece with an orchestra, and I hadn't practiced it even though I could have, so I felt not only anxious but guilty. I had blown it off, thinking I could do it, but now I was with the orchestra at some vast performance venue, and we were milling around while waiting for a rehearsal, and I was in a panic. I was also worried about my cello, and I looked inside through the f-holes and saw that the sound post was not only leaning, it was oddly shaped, like a twig, skinny at one end. Then it fell, and the bridge fell, and though in the dream I started crying I was also relieved that maybe I wouldn't have to play.

This dream also fed into my anxiety about my appearance, because in the next part, I was examining my shoes, remembering that when I had picked them out, they were a sort of gold color, but now they appeared to be an orange-ish red patent leather, and when I slipped one off I noticed it was the wrong size (too small).

I've had many other dreams like this.

I've also had some real-life experiences that were too close for comfort, but I'll keep those to myself!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

For the sake of inclusiveness

Given that the purpose of this blog is to describe my musical experiences, I thought I should mention one I had this past weekend.

I've been a member of the Adult Music Student Forum (see link in the sidebar on this page) for some years now. I think I joined sometime around 2005 or 2006. It was founded in 1988 with the purpose of providing opportunities for adult amateurs to perform, and it certainly does that very well. The founder of the group, Matthew Harre (you can check out his website, Musical Fossils, in the sidebar as well), is a fine piano teacher; though I have obviously known about him for a long time, a series of fortuitous events led me to finally get it together and begin taking lessons from him about a year and a half ago. As I've documented a bit here, I've learned a tremendous amount from him, about the piano and music in general. His level of teaching would not be out of place in a great music conservatory.

After I'd been studying with him for about six months, he surprised me by asking me to join the board of directors of the AMSF (though he is no longer on the board, he is closely involved in a number of ways), and then I was further surprised to be appointed treasurer. So I was suddenly forced to become more involved with the group. I also suggested that my adult cello student join, so that makes me both a teacher (as a cellist) and a regular member (as a pianist). When we started planning this year's annual meeting, which is a milestone as the 25th year of the group's existence, someone made the suggestion that we organize a performance of AMSF teachers for the entertainment part of the meeting. I volunteered to play, and that is how I found myself bringing my cello to this AMSF event.

I had chosen the Largo movement of the Chopin sonata because it's both beautiful and simple to put together -- neither part is difficult. In fact, it's one of the few romantic cello sonata movements that is both high art and requires only modest ability from both players. My duo partner for this occasion was the excellent pianist Frank Conlon, who has been present on the D.C. music scene for as long as I can remember and who also has a long connection with AMSF.

I was really pretty nervous for this because it was the first time any of these people (including my piano teacher) would hear me play the cello, and also, because we were last on the program, I had to play without warming up at all. When Frank and I rehearsed the piece last week, I recorded it and was dismayed at how bad I sounded: it was pushed and forced the entire time. But what I love about performing (as opposed to endlessly spinning one's wheels in solitude) is that this forced me to figure out what was bothering me and how to fix it. So I sat down with the music and analyzed where it needed to be gentle, where it should ebb and flow, and where the climax was.

At the event itself, there was some initial awkwardness with getting set up and putting my endpin holder on the floor (necessary because it was slippery wood), and then someone took a picture of me just before I started (I am always so insecure about how I look), but I carried on and felt good about how it went. Unfortunately, there is no recording, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

ETA: This is the picture that was taken of me as I got ready to play:

Here's a video of Daniel Gaisford, looking a little like Franz Liszt, in a tasteful performance of this piece:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Schumann: aspirational version

For the past couple of months, I've been returning to this video of Mischa Maisky playing the Schumann concerto with Leonard Bernstein conducting -- each time I see it, I get a few new insights into this piece. I love the cleanness and elegance of this performance. I'm guessing from the color of his hair that it was done some 30+ years ago.

First movement (there is an ad at the beginning -- just be patient, it's worth it):

Second and third movements:

I know I'm not going to play it at this level, but I can at least aim for the ease and expressiveness you can see here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My new life: how it's going so far

It has now been almost a month since I left my job, and I'm still getting used to not having to go to work. My big fear was that somehow I would fritter away my days, but that hasn't been happening so far. I was warned by many people that without a full-time job, my time would get filled up quickly, and that's true. I get up most mornings by 8:00, have breakfast, take a walk, and then practice the cello for the rest of the morning. After lunch, I have been doing some freelance editing, or chores around the house, or running errands, or teaching, and before I know it, it's time for dinner. The afternoons tend to disappear, so I'm still finding myself practicing the piano in the evening, although not as late as before. All those other things I was going to do, like clean out the garage, organize my files, and paint the living room? Maybe someday.

With the pressing business of getting the Schumann concerto learned, at the outset of this new regime I envisioned practicing the cello 6 hours a day. I quickly discovered that my fingers (especially the side of my left thumb, which presses the strings down in thumb position) could not handle more than about an hour of cello at a time, nor could my mind, so despite my almost panic that I have to get this thing learned NOW, I have had to moderate my practice time.

Nursing my aching arms and wrists and assorted nerves and muscular elements, I have worked my way up to 2 to 3 hours a day, at least three times more than I was doing before I left my job. These also have generally been concentrated hours, when I am alert and rested, versus struggling to stay awake while practicing at 11:00 p.m. And it is definitely making a difference: the Schumann has moved from OMG scary to relatively playable, plus I'm building up my stamina and calluses. With more than 2 months left before the first rehearsal, I am hopeful it will come together.

I'm continuing with my piano lessons, currently with Brahms, Bach, Debussy, and Bartok. I have been working on the Brahms Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 1 in B minor for some months -- my teacher's choice, to meet some pedagogical points he's not totally shared with me. A few weeks ago, he asked me to give some attention also to Op 79, No. 2 in G minor. I had originally protested against working on this because because it is probably the one piece I learned in some detail with my first teacher (with whom I studied from ages 9 to 16, mostly unprofitably, a long sad story in itself), and I could toss off the first couple of pages whenever I needed to play something. 

It's edifying to revisit this piece, which I hammered to death for decades, with a new perspective, being asked to play softer and more lyrically -- and also mortifying when I realize how horrifically I had been playing it all those years, loosely interpreting the marking "Molto passionato, ma non troppo allegro and the dynamic of "f" to mean "let 'er rip." Imagine: I could have gone to the grave thinking that was all pretty okay. I suppose as with many things in life, better (to try and do it right) late than never! The two Rhapsodies together are teaching me a lot about relaxing the hand, playing big chords, pulling a long melodic line out of an energetic mass of notes without harshness.

I have not forgotten my WTC project, and I am still practicing WTC I/2 and hope to record it soon. But in my lessons I have been concentrating on the partita in C minor, which has been good for me -- it's Bach on a more expansive scale, with more of those long melodic lines (again) and less of the concentrated finicky detail of the preludes and fugues.

I would really like to play the piano on a recital sometime, but I think that will have to wait until after the Schumann concert in November. There's only so much stress I can take!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bit of wisdom

At my last piano lesson, I played "Serenade of the Doll" from Debussy's Children's Corner. My teacher asked, as he usually does after I've played something through, how I thought it had gone. I said, "It wasn't too terrible." We both laughed, and then he told me about a conversation overheard on the Metro:

Tourist: Everyone told us people in DC are so mean, but we haven't found that to be true at all! Everyone we've met has been really nice!
DC Native: In DC, we're only mean to ourselves.
"So don't be mean to yourself! I thought it was pretty good."

It's something of a conundrum: On the one hand, you have to be self-critical or you'd never improve. On the other, if you get into the habit of telling yourself how bad you are, this starts permeating your self-image and eroding confidence in what you're doing.

I guess as with everything, there's a happy medium somewhere in there.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Today is the first day ...

Friday was my last day at my full-time desk job. As I've told anyone who cared to listen (and some who probably didn't), it's both scary and exciting.

My biggest fear is that I won't be disciplined enough to make the most of it and will spiral into slothfulness. But the desk job had gotten to the point of being intolerable for a lot of reasons; the status quo was not tenable, so there was no choice but to move on.

It's exciting because I now have the freedom to pursue my interests without the draining 10 hours or so per day I had to spend being at work and commuting. I have lots of ideas for how to construct my days and plan to experiment finding the right balance.

I have plenty of constructive activities that will keep me busy, some even remunerative, so I'm hopeful things will shake out appropriately. My first big project will be getting the Schumann cello concerto in shape. Taking on this piece was ambitious, to say the least. Many cellists have fallen on the rocks of this thing -- but hey, it's not boring! So August is going to be Schumann month. Stay tuned ...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Schumann cello concerto and ... Frankenweenie?

I had a cello lesson today in which we went through the Schumann concerto and discussed different ways to play all the hard bits. Near the end of the lesson, my teacher said what I need to do now is put it all together into a coherent whole. I said, "Yeah, it's kind of like Frankenstein right now." He started laughing and asked, "Have you ever seen the movie 'Frankenweenie'?" and mentioned in particular the bit at around 1:55 -- pasted here for your enjoyment:

"I can fix that!"

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Well, that was fast!

I uploaded the video of the Haydn on Wednesday night and received an email that I passed the audition on Friday. Two days instead of the two weeks they mentioned.

I am now officially qualified to teach Suzuki cello, Book 1.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Haydn concerto -- my version

So here I am, playing the first movement of the Haydn C major cello concerto, sans accompaniment. I wrote the cadenza.

I don't know why I always look so sad when I play. I guess this music thing must be serious business!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Haydn concerto -- listening

While trying to make my a capella video of the C major cello concerto to fufill the requirements for the class I just took, I've been listening to random different versions of it on YouTube. I find so many unsatisfying, inappropriate, show-offy but not musical, and so on. A few are horrifyingly harsh, as if the cellist thought what applies to Dvorak goes for Haydn, too.

But I love this one -- the best I've heard so far, even comparing with Rostropovich, Yo Yo Ma, et al. She has a lovely tone and plays with expression but in accordance with the period of the music. And it's live (in front of an audience).

Friday, July 12, 2013


Every time I start to learn a new piece, I seem to find it necessary to futz around with it for a while. The while could go on for a couple of months. I go at it from many rather useless angles -- try to play it up to tempo, try to memorize it before I can really play it, try to play it mechanically without thinking at all -- even though I know these things aren't going to work. Once, when I was at a piano lesson, my teacher had to tend to something in another room but told me to keep playing, so I started playing one of the pieces I was just starting, and when he came back in he said, "I hope you don't practice like that!" I responded with something snappy like, "No, but I sightread like that!" But that got me thinking that, uh, yeah, I do kind of practice like that. But it's more like a way of feeling my way around the piece, and eventually something clicks and I suddenly know exactly how to practice it and go from struggling to really being able to play it.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought this up in a lesson. I felt like an idiot -- I ought to know how to practice by now; I'm even teaching people how to practice! But hey, I'm not proud. If I need help, I'm not ashamed to ask for it. The advice was to focus on short sections, perhaps one page at a time, and apply various techniques to each. As an example, we worked on the last page of the Rondeux from the Bach C minor partita: slowly, hands together; then hands separate; then hands separate, staccato; then hands together, staccato; then hands separate using only one finger; and so on. This was all fine, and what I already knew. But the next  piece of advice? Put that piece or movement away and work on it again another day. This butts up against my natural impatience, wanting to get it all done NOW, despite my knowing that with practicing, you never get it all done NOW. And if you try, it almost always backfires and you end up getting nowhere.

Over the past two weeks, I have dutifully attempted to apply a more patient approach. At my lesson yesterday, I played the first movement of the Bach, and my teacher rather excitedly asked me to play the next movement -- and then the next -- and then the Brahms. He was hearing something different in my playing; he said I sounded like a different musician. These weeks also happened to coincide with my decision to resign from my job, so who's to say which had more of an effect? But it's encouraging. I hope whatever it is continues to develop.

Friday, July 5, 2013

What I've been up to

I see it's been almost two months since my last post! Lots going on but hard to focus my thoughts on it all.

Last week, I took a Book 1 Suzuki teacher training course offered at our local Suzuki association's summer institute. A Suzuki institute is a week-long series of classes for students, teachers, and parents. I took this same course in 1987 and 1990 (back then, you had to take Book 1 in two separate courses; now, they cram it into 8 rather long days so you can get it done all at once).

The course involves a series of lectures interspersed with observation of teaching and a little hands-on experience leading a group class of kids through one song in the book. I really don't remember what the earlier classes were like, but this time around, I enjoyed it very much -- the other  people in the class (there were 11 of us) were all interesting, of varied ages and levels of experience, and it was fun watching the kids interact with the teachers and their parents. I enjoyed it even though I had to get up at 6:00 every morning and drive to Virginia. It was like going back to music school.

My one regret is that I didn't take very good notes. I was too zonked from the change in my sleeping schedule to be thinking clearly and didn't devise a system for it. But there were lots of handouts, and a lot of it was similar to the material I learned the first time around.

And now I have lots more ideas about how to approach my own teaching, which was the main reason I took the class. I still need to make the required audition video -- they ask for it before the class starts, but they give you a month after to get it in. If I don't get the video in on time, I won't be able to register the class officially, which would be a shame, so I'm working on it. There is set repertoire; the most difficult piece fulfills all future requirements should you want to continue with the other books in the method (there are 10 of them), so that's the one I'm going to record -- the first movement of the Haydn C major concerto. So stay tuned for that. (Though I don't know yet if it's something I will want to share with the world.)

I have begun my teaching gig at the music school. So far, only two students signed up for the summer, but that's okay -- I get to ease into it.

I guess my biggest news is that I am resigning from my full-time day job. I may or may not continue there part time, but soon a lot more of my time will be my own. I'm a little scared and a little excited about this change. I hope I can make the best of it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Plugging along on piano

I am of course continuing my piano lessons. Bach, Brahms, Bartok, and Debussy are all on the plate at the moment. At a recent lesson, my teacher asked if I was planning any performances any time soon. I wish! The dates never seem to coincide with my availability and level of preparedness. He opined that I hesitate because I have "standards." Maybe so, though I'm hardly a perfectionist. I think the problem may be that I'm working on such hard pieces.

This is good in many ways. It's challenging, and I'm learning techniques (like fast repeated notes, how to voice thick chords, and how to play fast in general) that have always been baffling to me. But are they too hard? Are the tasks insurmountable?

The bad part is I don't have anything simple I can just toss off on request. I suppose I could remedy that on my own by working up a few pieces that are within reach just for this purpose. But as I keep lamenting, I have so little time; every week is a scramble just trying to make progress on what I'm doing for my lessons.

All that being said, I'm still very happy with my teacher. He always tells me things I find interesting and useful, and I think we work well together. So I will press on. Perhaps it all will come together in time.

I got the job

I found out a couple of days ago that I got the teaching job! I'm pretty excited about it. Stay tuned ...

Friday, May 10, 2013

Music/life happenings

I see another month has gone by without a post from me. It's not that I'm not doing anything musical -- on the contrary, I'm going crazy and only wish I could quit my job tomorrow so I could have time for everything I want to do.

As the date for this fall's performance of the Schumann concerto hovers ever closer (looks like it will be in November), I am motivated to practice by a combination of fear and desire to do my best. This past weekend I had my first full lesson on the piece with a cellist from the National Symphony, and I'm both surprised and grateful that he's done a lot of prep to help me, including consulting with the principal cellist in the symphony and getting me a copy of the latter's part with all his bowings and fingerings. We went through the entire piece and he walked me through some of his choices on these points as well.

Good and appropriate bowings and fingerings for most pieces are obvious, at least to me, but there seem to be infinite plausible ways of playing this concerto that create subtle emphases one way or another (should there be a slide here, or there? change strings or shift? connect all these notes or break into shorter bows?). So I'm feeling like I need to try out as many as I can think of before I settle on something. Either it's something about this piece (which may very well be true, because it's technically complicated) or I'm getting pickier, or both. In any case, I'm glad I pushed myself to find someone to work with me on it rather than trying to do it all on my own. I've already garnered a lot of wisdom.

Another thing that's been going on is that over the past couple of months, something has been driving me to pursue more teaching opportunities. I've been teaching one adult cellist for more than a year now, and this winter I took on a child beginner as well. I realized that this is something I really enjoy doing. I like the human interaction (which I get very little of at my day job) and the challenge of explaining and conveying technique and music, and trying to do it well. It also reinforces everything I know and gives new insights.

That is why I've put out feelers about acquiring more students, and this week I had an interview for a part-time job at a small private arts school (music, dance, drama, visual art). The interview consisted of talking with the school director, who is someone I know from college (yay networking!) and the outgoing cello teacher, teaching a 20-minute lesson with a current student at the school, and performing a short bit of something (I played a page of a Haydn concerto). I will find out in the next few weeks if I got the job or not. Even if I don't (and I can understand if I'm not the best choice), the whole experience was totally engrossing.

I'm going to continue to explore teaching possibilities and am looking forward to what happens next.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Such a slacker

I've been a bad blogger. My excuse is that the "kinda fried" conditions have been continuing, with some health issues interspersed (though I'm fine now).

I've been practicing both instruments, though dividing my time between them is slowing me down considerably.

We went to hear András Schiff this past weekend. This was his rescheduled concert from last fall, that was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy. The original program, as you may recall, was Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, but what we heard the other night instead was all of the French suites plus the French Overture (not really an "overture" but a long, grand, multi-movement piece).

He did a beautiful job with these, of course, though hearing them all together was a bit much. I agree with this very positive review in the Washington Post:

Andras Schiff Delivers Immaculate Unvarnished French Suites

Other than that, my music life has been Bach, Brahms, Bartok, and Schumann in my practice room, plus teaching my cello students every week, plus my piano lessons. I guess that's a lot to be doing!

But anyway, I'm still here. I'll try to think of something more interesting to say next time.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Master class: Yuliya Gorenman

This past Sunday, I participated in a master class taught by Yuliya Gorenman for the Adult Music Student Forum.

Yuliya is a lively and warm person as well as a thorough virtuoso. She said lots of helpful and useful things: tips on how to practice, how to analyze, how to pedal, how to use your arms to get a big sound. The setting, an average-sized living room with two concert grands side by side at one end, was not ideal; both piano lids were closed, so the sound, though loud enough for sure, was muffled.

I played the Villa-Lobos piece I've been working on. I don't think it was the best I could possibly play, but considering that I was not feeling well that day, hadn't had lunch, hadn't warmed up or even tried the piano, had been sitting listening for an hour and a half, AND that this was the first time I had performed the piece, it wasn't too bad. I managed to get a recording of it on my phone:

Villa-Lobos, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, Preludio

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kinda fried

I haven't been posting much lately. Reason: I have too much to do, not enough time.

Piano work seems to increase exponentially as I improve, like running on a treadmill that keeps upping the tempo. Sometimes I feel like I'm about to fall off. In addition to about 20 to 30 minutes' worth of technical work (scales, chords, short exercises) I've taken on a Bach partita (No. 2 in C minor), a Bartok Mikrokosmos (No. 153 -- last one in Volume VI), and am still working on several Brahms pieces. Oh yes, plus the Villa Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 Preludio, which I am scheduled to play at a master class next weekend.

So there's that.

And then on the cello, I'm working on the Schumann concerto for a concert this fall, date TBD. I want to also practice some etudes (Popper and Piatti) as well as the Bach Suite No. 4 in E flat, but wow, so little time.

In an interesting development, I just met with one of our local National Symphony cellists to play for him and talk about these things I'm working on. It was really fun, and it looks like we'll be getting together a few times more for some lessons. So I actually have a teacher now, at least for a bit! He described what we'll be doing as more coaching than lessons, but whatever you want to call it, I think it will help. I've kind of been worrying that the Schumann doesn't seem as awful to play as I remembered from my attempt years ago, that maybe I wasn't appreciating its difficulties fully. But my coach today was very encouraging about where I am with it.

This is all very nice, but every night I have to decide whether I want to have two short practice sessions so I can fit in both instruments or one long one on either piano or cello so I can get more done. Either way, it's exhausting doing this after a full day of working in an office.

There's an orchestra concert coming up in two weeks -- luckily, not difficult cello parts, but I do have to go to the rehearsals and be reasonably prepared. In fact, I have to head out to a rehearsal in about 15 minutes.

I'm also now teaching two cello students, which takes up a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons.

In the rest of my life, in addition to going to work, I'm of course taking care of things at home and trying to maintain my physical and mental health.

So yeah, kinda fried.  But what's the alternative?

Carter Brey talking about cellos

Carter Brey is principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, someone I always enjoy hearing. I came across these videos in which he's talking about the difference between Baroque and modern cellos, and specifically about playing Bach. He's playing all of the solo suites in New York next month on Baroque-style instruments, including using a five-string cello for the sixth suite.

Some interesting stuff here ...

James McKean, who posted the videos, is a luthier based in New York who made the Baroque-style instruments Brey is using here, and I am assuming he is the off-camera interviewer.

Carter Brey: The Bach Suites for Solo Cello from James N McKean on Vimeo.

Carter Brey: The Bach Suites part 2 from James N McKean on Vimeo.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Angela Hewitt, in person!

This past Saturday, I had a chance to watch a master class taught by Angela Hewitt at the Washington Conservatory. Three pianists in their 20s played, all conservatory graduates with strings of accolades in their bios (competitions won, honors garnered, etc.).

I was too shy to take a picture, worried that it would be intrusive, so I don't have any documentation other than my notes. But it was cool to see Hewitt at close range and hear her speak about playing the piano. She made a point of saying that she has not performed any of the three pieces on the program (a Schubert sonata; Chopin Ballade No. 1; and Beethoven Op. 111, first movement), which I thought was good, though it made me wonder why the performers didn't choose something in her repertoire so both they and the audience would get more out of the experience.

It was also interesting to me to first listen to these people play, making my own assessments, and then hear what Hewitt had to say. One of the performers, for example, I thought had a strange technique -- she lifted her fingers extremely high; from where I was sitting, I could see her right-hand pinky curling up before almost every note. Even though she played accurately and with expression, she looked uncomfortable, somehow. Hewitt zoomed right in on the finger thing, and also commented that she feels one should not hunch over the keyboard but sit back, both to be more open to the audience and to free the arms.

This was really the only time she mentioned technique (at least while I was there; I had to leave in the middle of the last person's session). The rest of the time she spoke about tempo (e.g., the idea that slow movements in which the harmony moves slowly should be played faster so they hold together better for the listener), phrasing, and voicing. She was fairly formal but was kind and respectful of the students. She played a bit to demonstrate some of her points, with the disclaimer that she was sight-reading, though she sounded beautiful.

All in all, a good use of a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The innards of a lesson

I thought it might be interesting for any pianists out there if I posted a description in a little more detail of what I worked on in a piano lesson -- and also as a record for myself!

At my most recent lesson, this is what we did:

We talked about my ongoing issues with playing scales fast, and then my teacher asked me to play the trill exercise that I've been practicing every day for this past year (it's one he still does himself, I believe). After observing what I was doing, he suggested another exercise that's difficult to describe, but involves holding down each finger on a note and tapping each adjacent key with the next finger, allowing the other fingers on that side to move as a relaxed unit. So you would hold a C, for example, with the thumb, and then play the D with the index finger, keeping the other fingers close and relaxed. Then hold down index finger on D, play the C with the thumb. Then hold down D with the index finger, play E with middle finger, and so on.

Then I played the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 Preludio. I had a memory lapse in the middle and so stopped to pull out the music and started back at the beginning; after saying that it was coming along, my teacher observed that I was attacking melody notes with flat fingers -- kind of smacking them down -- creating a harsh sound. Also that I wasn't keeping a steady tempo, and that in the final section of the piece, where there are big chords that require a lot of leaping around with the left hand, that I was short-changing the rhythm. He turned on the metronome and we worked with that for a bit. Final observation was that a tricky octave run in the left hand was suddenly loud, though not marked to be, which was jarring.

At my last lesson, he had told me to start learning Brahms Op. 79 No. 1, one of the Rhapsodies, so I played the first page or so (haltingly). He suggested that in working on this, I should count carefully, and in terms of physically playing it, should not hold onto the chords after they sound, allowing the pedal to do so, because otherwise it's impossible to play it at the proper tempo.

We then moved to Brahms Op. 117 No. 2, the beautiful B flat minor Intermezzo. I played it all the way through, and then we started talking about something interesting: moving at the keyboard. He asked me to move as I played so that my torso was directly in front of where the melody was being played -- and mentioned a sort of "rule of nose," that your nose should be over the melody note. I tried doing this, and it did feel more organic and like I was more connected with what I was playing, so I'm going to try to do this with everything and see what happens.

My teacher mentioned that there are pianists who don't think you should move, and then others who move very subtly so it's not that dramatic. So there are different schools of thought on this. I know from my experience playing the cello that moving while you play is essential, especially in chamber music if you want to stay together. But in addition, it connects you with your instrument and you become more of a unit with it. This is always harder to do with the piano because, well, you aren't actually holding the thing.

We finished up with Bach, the C minor prelude and fugue from WTC I. I played them both all the way through (from memory). In the prelude (and I kind of knew I was doing this), he commented that my sound at the end was more strident than it was at the beginning -- and I don't remember what else, but I do know that I played it again, and it was better the second time. Then on the fugue, he said something like, "It was certainly lively!" though that wasn't entirely a compliment! And we ended shortly after that when the next student arrived.

What always surprises me is how much we cover in an hour. When I'm teaching, I'm doing well if we even get partway through two short pieces, yet in what I've just described, we worked on technical exercises and four different pieces, yet it didn't feel rushed. Anyone out there reading, what's your experience? How much stuff do you play at your lessons?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A year of piano lessons

It has now been a year since I started taking lessons from my current teacher. What I've been learning has certainly altered my perception of what playing the piano is all about.

One aspect of playing that he stresses quite a bit is the tactile one: feeling the keys and the vibration of the string and the resistance as you lift a key. I had never thought of the piano in that way; it always seemed like a big monster machine, maybe a giant manual typewriter. I've known all along I was missing something, especially in recent years, but the various teachers I've had never mentioned anything like this, and I was too focused on playing notes to notice subtleties like these. Oh, I suppose on occasion when I had the chance to play a really responsive and beautiful-sounding piano, I would think, "Hey, there's more to this than playing the right notes," but I didn't know how to take it any further.

Another concept completely new to me was how little force one needs to use. I was raised on lifting the fingers and hitting the keys hard, but I'm learning that creating volume comes from the combination of using the wrist, the weight of the arm, and the speed with which the key is depressed, and that actually, plenty of volume usually is created without exerting a lot of effort. It's a kinder, gentler, more relaxed approach to playing the piano, and I think a warmer, purer sound is the result (though of course I still have a long way to go).

And then there is the matter of how to move around the keyboard, execute big leaps, and play fast -- all things I used to try to do with brute force and wishing for luck. In combination with using less effort, per the previous point, I'm finding I can play faster and more easily.

The whole issue of voicing, while not new to me, has been a major theme. How very much one must bring out the important line, and keep everything else in the background, is constantly surprising.

Most of all I have appreciated my teacher's patience and willingness to hold me to higher standards, though he always does so with good humor. I know when he tells me to do something, it's based on what he is hearing and not on a lesson plan or a rote instruction.

So sign me happy (music) camper.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Another year already??

I am way overdue for the obligatory new year's post: an occasion to evaluate the previous year and make resolutions for the next one.

The main comment I have is that this past year has flown by. In some ways it has been exciting: I finally am having the kind of piano lessons I have always wanted; I am really getting back into playing the cello; I started teaching again. I am more involved with music than I have been since I was at the conservatory. In other ways it has been frustrating: I never feel I have enough time to do justice to anything; my day job is less than compelling. I have done a lot of soul searching and pondering on what it all means and whether I'm following my best path.

In the big picture, I am very fortunate. I have the easy life of a person in a modern Western country, with the means and the leisure to follow my enthusiasms. I am limited only in the ways all people are limited.

I want to make some changes, but I do feel I am working from a good base already. So we shall see.