Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bach research, ongoing

I started collecting ‘classical literature for church services use’* from the Baroque era – first, Bach. As he is an outrageously prolific composer, I kept it simple for now and went with selections from his better-known composition groups. All of these are pieces I found appealing and can work up in a couple of days/weeks. The added bonus is a lot of this is transferable to the organ, also.  Here's what I've picked so far:

Two part inventions – #s 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14
Three part inventions (aka Sinfonia) – #s 2, 3, 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
English Suites - No. 3 in g minor, BWV 808
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 - (tbd)
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 - (tbd)


*What else am I supposed to call it?  ‘Real’ music? 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Outdoor Pianos!

Are you bored?  Check out these outdoor pianos in Melbourne, Glasgow, Albany NY and others!

New Project

I have a project this semester – an Independent Study on church music.  It will have an emphasis on planning out solo organ/piano music for the entire church year.  Specifically, I’ll be pulling together appropriate music for services (prelude-offertory-communion-postlude), both hymn arrangements and accessible music from the ‘solo classical’ piano repertoire.  At the end of the semester, my goal is to have a selection of piano and organ literature that is appropriate for each major church holiday (Christmas, Easter, etc) and the rest of the year. 

Also, the project is to get a better grasp on the many aspects of being an effective church musician.  I’ve begun to see that the pianist can do more than provide pleasant music or lead congregational singing*.  It is similar to how a sensitive choral pianist knows what to listen for in choir rehearsals – they can diagnose the choir’s issues and respond as needed, while anticipating the director’s needs also.  A good choral pianist helps facilitate a pleasant and effective rehearsal for everyone involved.  

A good church musician can facilitate a meaningful experience for the congregation: and one of the ways is to complement the day’s message and tone with thoughtful musical selections.   

I’ll continue working on hymns, also – learning about registrations, varying the hymns to match the lyrics, etc etc etc.  I hope to blog this all out, both because it keeps me honest and working - but also, I haven't found much out there that quite addressed this they way I'm approaching it.  

*It’s the difference between the two compliments “you are a wonderful player” and “you play a wonderful service”.

2nd Time Around

Year 2, semester 2 of grad school degree #2:

What have I learned so far? 

Playing the Organ is mindbending.
            Organists are another breed.  They think as an orchestrator in order to register (choose voices for) their pieces.  They read 3 staves as a matter of course, and perform using hands and feet.  Their repertoire goes back further than piano repertoire.  They need a thorough grasp of musical history and organ history (development of the instrument) so they can both perform the piece (articulation/gestures) and register the piece correctly. 
And they have different shoes.

Performing from memory takes a unique focus
            Note the word ‘performing’ - it’s a different task than playing something from memory, alone within a practice space.  For a pianist, performance from memory involves a controlled energy fixed on the music that is being made in the present – as well as an ongoing mental anticipation of upcoming music.   This kind of musical focus is really hard to maintain when you are being stared at by a bunch of people. 
            It’s another level of concentration, different from performing with collaborators/with music, that I find fascinating*.
I have a lot to learn about practicing
            Or, in other words: it’s really easy to waste time in the practice room.  Mental self-discipline means you pay attention, listen to the sounds you are producing, and use critical awareness to evaluate what is correct and what needs to be adjusted.  This is hard.
            Practice makes permanent. 

*I did solo work as a part of my other degrees, but all my recitals were collaborative.   So now I’m learning the difference between playing 10-20 minutes memorized vs 60.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Updating the Resume

A true lesson in humilty: updating your resume(s).  

As a freelance pianist, it can be difficult to maintain a steady presence in any one area.  Many times*, one will take the jobs that are offered/found - and then adapt as needed.  Here are some examples: taking a church gig (without knowing how to play the organ), taking a theatre pit band job (never having dealt with keyboard patches/volume pedals/Mainstage), or accepting a piano teaching job (yet having little experience with an expected age group).  These are fairly typical events, and the good news is: over time, a freelance musician ends up building many different skill sets.  

On the other hand, a freelance musician can watch skill sets go completely unused.  That's what I realized after putting together an updated set of rep lists and CV info.  I have learned way more Musical Theatre repertoire over the last five years than Classical Voice rep - just because those were the jobs that fell in my lap.  Now I have the luxury (in many senses of the word) to ask - what do I want to do?  As I ponder this question, please enjoy (and critique if you like) my resume/rep lists as they tentatively stand. Keep in mind these are resumes, not CVs, so I prefer to keep them to one page. Getting a new headshot comes up next. God help me.  

*The situation of employment opportunities differ from pianist to pianist, from city to city, and can hinge on that frustratingly elusive element - luck.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


*Recently, I have been enjoying a unique privilege: to weekly perform on an incredible (beautiful Steinway full grand piano) instrument.  This also happens to be coupled with immediate feedback from trained ears - another HUGE privilege.  Most students call this 'piano studio' - and it usually isn't appreciated until way after the fact.

And I appreciate it now.  A lot.

I didn't 'get' it back in undergrad - it wasn't appreciated as a luxury because it became expected.  Access to excellent instruments often isn't appreciated at the time because performers don't know the range of suck-ness that exists out there: the disparate jangling of notes eliciting a sympathetic jangling of nerves - missing notes, strings, etc.  Pedals not working. Keyboards with only 4 octaves. Pianos barely in tune with themselves, sticking keys (rising slowly by the minutest of increments), keys that draw blood upon trying to execute a glissando - or how about keyboards that have notes that do not sound**.

It's so wonderful to hear how an ideal instrument can fill a room.  The world is filled with non-ideal piano situations - that much more reason to enjoy the access to excellent instruments when/while you can.   

*I wrote this and forgot to post it during the school year.
**Or worse - my latest experience has been with a keyboard that the F#2?  sounded like it was being smacked with a hammer, no matter how delicately you touched it.    

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Practice Techniques

-From the studio of Dr Courtney Crappell at UTSA -

Practice sessions/marathons can easily get repetitive - here are some different practicing approaches:

Learning a new piece
1. Hands Separate Practice – Especially useful during the first day of practicing a new piece--use 3x3 at this point: 3x RH, 3x LH, 3x HT (Lysinger)--and then the month before performance. This is an indispensible technique for accurate learning of classical music.

2. Count Aloud – Be able to count at many different levels: subdivisions, beats, measures, and phrases. This is a crucial prerequisite for true artistic expression. Also, prepare to count the harmonic rhythm.
3. Metronome – Alternate sometimes with counting aloud. Work from slow to fast. Also, prepare to play with the metronome beat on weak beats or syncopated beats instead of on strong beats.
4. Rhythms – Related to group drills, but based on smaller groups (L=long; s=short): play L-s-L-s, s-L-s- L, L-L-s-s, s-s-L-L, L-s-s-L, s-L-L-s, L-s-s-s, s-L-s-s-, s-s-L-s, s-s-s-L; for triple divisions, L-s-s, s-L-s,s-s-L, etc. After groups of 4 or 3, double to groups of 8 or 6. For longer groups of rhythms, say letters for longs (A-B) and numbers for shorts (1-2-3-4-5-6) to keep track (e.g. “6-A-B-1-2-3-4-5”)
5. Blocking – Play all of the notes that fit into a single hand position. Supplement this with block-shift point practice—find the note that ends one block, and begins another, then create smaller blocks that are connected by those single notes. Often, the thumb plays the single notes. 

Tackling trouble spots 
1. Flexible Tempo (Gates) – Slow down your playing when you feel your mind cluttering. Be able to change your tempo while playing at the pinnacle of musicality.
2. Varying Tempos – Use flexible tempo, then slow, then moderate, then fast. You can also use a metronome to work from slow to fast (see “metronome” below).
3. Group Drills – (A variation on rhythm drills) For particularly challenging passagework (e.g. cadenzas), practice playing the first three notes as quickly as possible, then the next three, and so on. After groups of three are simple, try fours, fives, sixes, and sevens.
4. Accents – Instead of changing the rhythm (as in “rhythm” practice), add accents in the same patterns as those listed in rhythm practice. An accent replaces long notes. Short notes are unaccented. Also, useful to accent a specific finger number (e.g. finger 4) for awareness (Thompson).
5. Use the Aural Image (Gates) – For clarity in voicing within a single hand, play a chord or pattern with two hands to get the “perfect” aural image, then focus on the sound and play it with the single hand.

Striving for artistry
1. Voicing – In polyphonic passages (N.B.: homophony, e.g. chorales, is also polyphony), be able to voice each melody line.
2. Sing – Be able to replace any voice within the texture with your own.
3. Experience Dynamic Contrast (Gates) – Be able to play before and after dynamic markings.
4. Shaping – For more control and awareness, play passages while counting crescendos, decrescendos, ritardando, and accelerando. Also, while watching score, conduct dynamics, then play.
5. Play the Chords – Play the harmonies alone (for contrapuntal works, play the implied harmonies—for homophonic works, simply remove the melody) to get a sense of tension and release within the progression.

Techniques for solid learning and memory
1. Stop and Start (Thompson) – Add pauses or play even and odd measures.
2. Backwards by Sections – Divide the piece into manageable sections (6-12 measures long). Play the sections in reverse order by memory. e.g. play section 10, then 9, then 8, etc.
3. Random Sections – Similar to backwards by section, but sections are selected at random.
4. Hands Separate – Should be used at each stage in the memorization process, but is especially useful in preparation for performance. (Can begin process by ghosting RH or LH, then placing it in lap.)
5. With the Metronome, Counting Out Loud – Prepare to count at different divisions of the beat (e.g. sixteenths, eights, quarter, etc.)

Want more?  Here's a link for the entire document - it is a useful handout for reminders on varying your practice sessions.  Dr Crappell also wrote a great MTNA article on Preparing Students for Vibrant Sonatina Performances