Category Archives: music

The Third Annual Piano Recital

It seems just a few months ago I wrote about my first piano recital: how I’d never done it before, how I’d overcome a life of nervousness, and how it felt like jumping off a cliff. And I wrote that I survived the event.

Actually that first recital was April 2015. I only invited a few people, close friends who already loved me, and would continue to love me no matter how I played.

The next year the event was enough bigger to do a small rehearsal for a select group before the main event.

This year there were two main events: the first for 15-20 neighbors, the second for 15-20 friends.

Here’s what I’ve learned with these annual recitals:

  • Friends enjoy hearing my music. They often say they had a fun afternoon at my house.
  • I’ve learned to focus on the first few measures of each piece before I begin to play. That makes for a better start — and a single start.
  • Listeners like to learn about the composer and the composition before they hear the music. Informed listening is engaged listening.

Each performance is unique and music is always a work in progress. A piece is never totally finished, even though Dr. B has blessed it.  Music I played last year is way better now because it’s had time to settle, mature, and become more expressive. There’s always more practice to be done and more nuances to be incorporated. Always.

If I wait until my playing is perfect, no one will ever hear my music. My passion for Beethoven and Schumann and Debussy will never come to the light of day. Talking about my music is not the same as actually playing it for others.

Life, like musical performance, is the same way. If we hide ourselves until we’re perfect, no one gets to experience who we are, in all of our wonderfulness and quirkiness and fabulousness and uniqueness. If we’re always apologizing for our errors and mistakes and shortcomings our successes and accomplishments and milestones remain hidden with us.

My playing wasn’t perfect. In fact, I made mistakes in unexpected places.  There was no silent self-beating for my imperfect performance. No one cares about my mistakes; in fact, they rarely notice. I didn’t apologize — because I played my best. “Beethoven may have just rolled over,” I shared after the sonata. “I know he’s never heard it played like that! In fact, I was a little surprised myself.” We laughed together.

I ventured out of my comfort zone — again — and actually looked forward to the afternoon performances. My friends enjoyed my music and visiting with each other over cookies and lemonade. “Thank you so much for inviting me!” was an oft heard comment.

What more could anyone want?

So, get out of your box. Rid yourself of the excuses you’ve hidden behind. Challenge yourself. Take a new step.

Stepping out is not easy. Growth is not easy, either, but it’s worth your effort.

Until next Tuesday . . .

Half Speed

Sometimes I think I’m jinxed. The last few times I’ve played Beethoven’s sonata (opus 109) at my lesson, the music has fallen apart. I make clumsy mistakes. I have memory lapses. Why can I play it well at home and so disastrously at my lesson?

Dr. B is much kinder and more patient with me than I am with myself. Even though my disappointment is obvious to him, he always comments on the bits I played well: a phrase here or there, perhaps correct rhythms, or good dynamics.

“The piece just needs more time to mature,” he said. To me, it’s had enough months to mature. Perhaps not.

“To get it more solid,” he continued, “you need to slow it way down. Work with the metronome. Then gradually increase the speed every few days. After several weeks it will be much better.”

Dr. B always has techniques for improving difficulties. I do what he suggests — I’ll either prove him right or prove him wrong — because what I’ve been doing obviously hasn’t created success.

The next day I set the metronome at 50 — half the speed I’d been playing. Immediately I realized I couldn’t play the music slowly. My fingers didn’t automatically get me where I wanted to go, which meant my memory wasn’t secure. I studied the difficult spots, and worked until I could play them slowly. I also noticed dynamic markings that I’d overlooked in my rush to play faster.

Playing slowly was harder than I thought. Several days were required just to play the first page correctly. And this was a piece I already knew!

Eventually I worked my way through all six pages — at 50.  At every stumble I rechecked the music, drilled the tough spots, checked other markings on the music. Once I could play with no mistakes, I increased the metronome to 55. After a few more days, I increased to 60. And so it’s been for the last few weeks.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • My memorization wasn’t as secure as I thought, which explains disastrous playing at my lesson.
  • Slow practice allows me to pay attention to the details: rhythm, dynamics, articulation, notes
  • Slow practice is about being careful and getting it right and listening.
  • “Perfect slow” will eventually be “perfect fast.” It’s the only way to get there.

My questions for you are

  • What are you trying to accomplish at full speed before you’ve mastered the details?  Where do you find yourself repeating the same mistakes or continuing to have the same struggles? What if you slowed down, looked at the details, and worked them to your satisfaction first? What if . . . .

 

  • Where are you speeding ahead because you don’t think you have time to slow down? What if you decided to give up on mediocre and sloppiness? What if . . .

 

  • Where are your personal disappointments? What if, instead of declaring yourself a failure, you slow down, look at the pieces and parts, and create a plan for small changes.        What if . . .

In all my years of piano playing, I’ve never understood the value of slow practice until now. I was always in too much of a hurry to play full speed.

Dr. B wants the music right first. Speed comes later.

Until next Tuesday . . .

 

The Death of Dickens

I killed Dickens. Last week. On a warm spring afternoon.

I hit delete and he was gone from my life.

You see, I read him once in high school. A Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t like it much then but it was required reading.

In recent years, as I’ve added classics to my regular reading, I’ve often thought I might enjoy A Tale of Two Cities, now that I’ve acquired some literary maturity and experience.

So I downloaded Tale to my phone. Occasionally I read snippets, but mostly I read for extended periods of time. I managed to get halfway through the book, with nary a hint of engagement with Dr. Manette, his daughter Lucie, Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, or Madame DeFarge.

I tried. Really, I did.

Leaving anything unfinished is difficult for me. But, as Charlie said to me last week, “Life’s too short . . .” Two days later, on that fateful spring patio afternoon, my neighbor said, “The earth won’t stop and lightening won’t strike if you don’t finish the book.”

I knew they were both right.

Not only did Dickens fail to engage me in his story, he caused me to give up my morning reading habit. That is unforgivable — and that’s what caused the crime.

So right then and there, with one witness to the event, Dickens met his demise.

Sometimes we need to stop what we’ve customarily done, if it’s no longer working for us — particularly if it’s keeping us from our best, dragging us down, or robbing us of precious time.

In another situation, I have three musicians in my life who hear me play regularly and who offer critical comments. Of those three, there is One for whom my playing is never good enough. Comments about sloppiness or mistakes bury the rare word on what I’ve done well. My progress is seldom mentioned. Few remedies, tips, or solutions are offered. The other Two musicians, always offer positive comments before the criticism and along the way, when they see I’m struggling, they offer words of encouragement. They work with me to learn new techniques for improving my playing. With them I believe I can play better. The criticism of the three may be the same, but the way it is delivered is quite different.

It’s like I have a musical bucket that needs to be filled every once in a while. The Two give me enough positive comments along with constructive help that I continue working and improving. The One, on the other hand, has created a hole in my bucket — a bucket that cannot hold nourishment or sustenance for the journey. I only experience discouragement and defeat.

Like Dickens who didn’t engage me, the One musician drags me down, offering no enticement or interest to keep me forging ahead.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. That’s the way life is. I always want to tip the balance toward the best of times. This week I’ve been reminded to examine some habits and routines and experiences and people who fill my time.

Life is too short — to spend it with people who bring us down, activities that keep us from our best, and habits that are no longer effective.

Check your bucket for holes.

Until next Tuesday. . .

 

Live Performance

Recently I’ve attended several musical performances: a 19-year-old pianist in the local Young Pianist Concert Series, an up-and-coming organist, a visiting Russian pianist, a faculty recital at a nearby university, and the combined men’s choruses of two local universities. Each performer or conductor discussed their music with the audience before they played or sang. The concerts were excellent — as I expected. But that’s not the point.

The point is the “magic of presence.” Watching the performer appear on stage, noticing how they approach their instrument, observing their preparation to play, hearing the first sounds, absorbing their interpretation of the music, noticing the nuances and their musical dexterity, experiencing the unique connection of musician and composer, and inhaling the breath and life of the concert hall.

You see, there is no concert, no communication if you will, with only a performer. There must be an audience to receive the notes and phrases. Musicians make music every day in the privacy of their practice rooms — but that’s only preparation for the performance, the musical sharing and communication with others. Performance is live, with giver and receiver, with dynamics and interactions unique to the occasion. That particular performance can never occur again, even with the same performer playing the same music in the same hall with the same audience in attendance.

This “magic of live performance” is important in our non-musical conversations as well. Our texts and tweets and emails are the equivalent of looking at a sheet of music. We see the words, we see the dynamic markings in the formatting of the text, perhaps we can hear the person’s voice in the words if we know them well. But so much is missing — their actual voice, their body language, the twinkle or the tear in their eye, the wrinkle in their brow, the lilt of their words, the cadence of their speech, the rush, the pause, their eyes that engage us.

What I’m suggesting is

  • Listening to music lets you hear the notes but the rest of the communication is missing.
  • Tweeting, texting and emailing gives us the words, but eliminates nuances of non-written communication.
  • Reading a book is not the same as hearing the author read his/her words and witnessing their voice  and body language as an enhancement to their words.

Many of us only get to the first level of communication: we see notes in a score, words on a screen or page, hear music filling the background of our other activities. In fact, we often try to read and watch television at the same time, or put the music on to kill the silence, or think texting is real conversation.

We can do better.

Try a new venture this week:

  • attend an author-reading at your local library or bookstore
  • attend a live performance: theater, opera, a recital, a concert
  • visit with a friend, have face-to-face conversation with all electronic gadgets turned off.

Your life will be forever enriched by the live performances you participate in.

Until next Tuesday . . .

Standards of Play

During the academic year I frequently attend recitals and concerts at the university. Many are given by students in fulfillment of their graduation requirements. Faculty and guest artists also perform throughout the year.

This week I heard two pianists – both with impressive credentials. Nikita Fitenko, a native of Russia, played an entire program of Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Moussorgsky. Though he appeared to play effortlessly, he talked about the difficulty of the music afterwards. Yu Jung Park, a native of South Korea, performed Beethoven, Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Schumann.

In the not too distant past, I would be personally discouraged after such fabulous performances. “Why do I even bother trying to play the piano,” I would say to myself. “I’ll never be that good; I’m not even close.” After a couple days, I would reluctantly return to the piano, determined to try again, and believing that hard work will eventually pay off.

My attitude has changed since those days. It’s easy to be wowed by artistic brilliance and overwhelmed by the barrage of notes that few humans can play.  Though much of their music was unfamiliar to me, I listened for the things Dr. B discusses with me at my lessons: tempo, phrasing, dynamics, control, articulation, pedaling, themes and key changes. Such things are present in every piece of music and I’m working on them every day.

This week I heard crisp, articulate playing — clear notes and pedaling, no mushiness, no notes slopping into other notes, careful phrase endings, and lyrical breaths (pauses). There is so much beyond just getting the notes right.

I also saw musical confidence. They played with conviction, without hesitation, and without mistakes. Their playing exuded great power and exquisite softness, and everything in between.

As I returned to practice today, I posted two words on my music rack: crispness and confidence. I stopped when I heard sloppy, mushy pedaling — and figured out how to create clarity in the passage. I stopped when I made mistakes — some new, some familiar. Uncorrected, these nagging mistakes, along with memory slips and a wandering mind, will continue to haunt me and undermine my confidence.

I value gifted performers, not so much for their repertoire, but for their mastery and confidence in the details.

So I’m working with new energy on my own music: conquering the tricky spots and gaining confidence in their inability to trip me up.

Show up. Do your work. Master the details.

Until next Tuesday . . .