Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Experience

Ugh. I'm preparing to say "goodbye" to my 41st year in a few days.

Actually, I'm okay with it. 39 upset me. 40 was a calmer version of 39. And I think 41 has been a summing up of the last 20 years for me.

In these final days of 41, three events seem to have closed out that epoch in my life meaningfully.

1. a solo recital on the SEU series consisting of works from my auditions for D.M.A. programs that I have played several times since, as well as compositions by myself and my friend James M. Gurthie from our Chowan days
2. a final day in the recording studio with my colleague Shudong Braahmes on our Massenet chanson project
3. accompanying a couple of anthems on the South McKeel school music program including "Sahaytah" by Ben Allaway which was a lovely experience of sharing in a work about peace and community with a choir of children before a very large audience

I think I'm sensing that, over these last 20 years  (plus the 21 before that) I've gathered a little experience. This state of having a little experience under my belt is not so much about learning concepts - I think I've known these concepts for a while - but more about being able to apply them more than before.

What are these concepts?

  • Concentration is the name of the game in performance, recording, and maybe in living, too. In making music, one concentrates on the sounds and how they unfold. You have to discipline your thinking and develop the ability not to be distracted by internal chatter that's not relevant to the sounds themselves. At the same time, you need not to get confused by concentrating on concentrating!
  • The honest emotion of the moment when we come face to face with the music is the appropriate emotion. In performance, we sometimes fool ourselves into acting like we're feeling all sorts of things in the mistaken notion that we will have a compelling performance that way. It's the music that moves the listener and perhaps the performer's earnestness, not our manufactured histrionics.
  • When working with other musicians, truly knowing the tempo gives a lot of peace. In classical music, we often feel that what happens within the time-span of the musical work is what matters, but being with the tempo in advance together is an important staring point that can set up a better relationship with your collaborator and the music.
  • Our perceptions in the moment of music-making are often inaccurate. Our high level of focus within very specific parameters and our expectations can confuse us about what we're actually hearing. Recording and playback prove this. I sometimes hear intonation problems and lack of rhythmic coordination during performance that are not even there on the recording! Performing and listening are very different experiences. Trusted listeners can provide useful feedback we wouldn't have otherwise.
  • Stress usually doesn't help you perform better and it's mostly about stuff that doesn't matter anyway!
  • The experience of beauty and of health, including healthy relationships, are not just important for our development and refreshment as artists. When you take a walk by the lake or a trip to the art gallery, or have a good conversation with a friend, it doesn't just speak to your artistry. It ministers to your soul.
  • Things take time. This is true of getting a recording just right and evidently it's true of getting my bad moods to clear out!
I think that's what I know and am applying a little more frequently.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Recital Prep

The new year has brought with it new responsibilities, new experiences, and new interests. Today, I'm a week away from my annual solo recital on the Southeastern University series and am contemplating my preparation.

In recent days, I have enjoyed hearing works such as Schumann's Aufschwung take on a wonderful dimension when played in studio class in the large space of Bush Chapel. I often find that the true potential of a work isn't really revealed until it is heard in a concert space. I've also been very pleased by my students and their independent preparation of works learned over the Christmas break. Thank you, Dr. Kaplinsky, for trying that idea with your studio back in 1992.

Also on my mind these days is The King's Speech which I finally got around to seeing. I was moved by this story of determination and I thought about how little determination I put into things. I want to put determination into the arts and into peace in the here and now.

Last week, we had the pleasure of hearing the same young musician play both Tchaikowsky's Rococo Variations and Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto. Between the two works was Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, a veritable concerto for orchestra that expresses Rachmaninoff's faith with numerous references to his earlier works. This technique of "life motifs" reminded me of the rich symbolic syntax of Shostakovich's symphonies.

A few days after that, we attended the memorial concert for Florida Southern College's Robert MacDonald, a gentleman who was a great force in the shaping of Lakeland's arts life. His students admirably played works by Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Gershwin to a packed house. Family members also performed with flare and poise as they celebrated and grieved. Testimonies indicated the life-changing compassion and selfless giving of the man.

And now, I turn to my own work.

Someone recently asked me if there was a theme for my upcoming recital. My answer was "things I can play . . .given the amount of practicing I am doing."While I haven't been doing as much solo playing as I used to, I am hoping that I can achieve ease and successful communication in performing through good quality thinking as I prepare.

Really, from back in the summer, I was aiming to make this program a return to more serious pianism for me. I have been pursuing practicing, when I've had time, with that in mind. Through that, I have been learning that piano-playing answers really come through practicing.

My plan in this last week is to approach the recital as a sharing of great texts. These works, pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, are wonderfully textured fabrics, and when shared with listeners, somehow, out of the forms, the flow, and the phrasing, a semblance of life springs. It is my role to know these great texts better and better, to ponder and convey the discoveries of their composers. The performance really is a recitation of patterns and possibilities as envisioned by these geniuses.

In addition to those great traditional works, I'll also be sharing a little essay of my own in musical landscape writing. My three Chowan Etudes were really more etudes for the composer than the performer, while the concluding work of the recital is definitely an etude for the performer. My friend, James M. Guthrie, has written a superb work combining a Brahmsian sensibility with octatonic pitch organization and the occasional ancient-sounding cadence. Of all the new pieces I've played, this one strikes me as exciting and unique enough to become part of the standard repertoire if  a few other pianists would start playing it.

As I think back over the repertoire I just mentioned, there might be a more satisfying theme in the idea of the vortex. From Bach through Guthrie, these pieces typify the swirling movement and organization of our world, external and internal. Maybe feeling that in the music can help us all to embrace such a dynamic in our lives. Myself in particular!

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

On Re-hearing Beethoven's Eroica and Something a Little Bird Told Me

This evening, I had the important privilege of hearing a live performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. I've taught the piece many times but have not heard it in person for years.

As I listened to our Imperial Symphony Orchestra play, I was reaffirmed in my calling to classical music. I sensed once again the special place in the human experience held by art forms such as the orchestra, the ballet, the opera, gamelan, or gagaku . . . in which numerous performers collaborate and coordinate at a high level in an endeavor that invites the individual and the culture into deep philosophical consideration. To maintain such traditions must truly be to stand against the everyday undermining of civilization.

During Beethoven's sonic epic, I was stirred by countless thoughts:

how grand the conception and masterful the craft

how modern the sounds - engaging in every fluid moment, plus Rite and Spring is already there

how imaginative the orchestral color

and what a melding of patterning and human emotion

what creativity of form

what limitless depths suggested within such well-defined boundaries

not to mention the long journey from at least J.S. Bach through his sons to Haydn with some influence from Mozart, all of whose contributions were needed to make such things possible


On the same concert, my colleague and friend, Annabelle Gardiner, performed The Lark Ascending of Vaughan Williams. Her playing was characterized by seamless bowing, sure intonation, and beautiful inflection, all amounting to a statement of profound serenity. While the musical movement was very natural, the touch of Vaughan Williams somehow placed it within a greater parenthesis of stillness. And in that stillness, I felt an acknowledgment that our grasp on the moment is feeble, that the present is always slipping into memory, and that nature breathes with us.

More wonderful than all of this was the fact that, as I mentioned to another friend, the work is ideal for Annabelle in that its virtuosity is selfless and its ways are graceful, genuine, and without power-oriented rhetoric. It's a perfect work for this colleague who is always nurturing, genuine, and humble. Those spiritual qualities are why I think she can play beyond categories of presentation and confidence, replacing them with much-needed presence and empathy.

Thank you ISO, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, and Annabelle Gardiner.

And to all, a good night.



Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Piano Lessons - MANDUCARE PIGMENTUM

This semester, I re-read Ruth Slenczynska's excellent book Music at Your Fingertips. It's a very practical manual for pianists, and I was encouraged and intrigued to discover how many of its lessons had become a part of my own work during the years since I had last read it.

Slenczynska suggests that a pianist think not so much in terms of learning musical works as absorbing them. The idea is that simply remembering a collection of facts to be recalled more or less at leisure (which might be what the word "learning" connotes for many of us) does not provide the broad and incisive grasp required to do the work of a pianist. Indeed, a pianist is expected to remember an astronomical number of facts which must then be reproduced in sequence and in real time through physical means that, ideally, convey a high level of thought and some spiritual engagement. I like to think these information-rich, real-time, pressure-performance qualities make being a pianist a little like being a trauma surgeon - only for a surgeon, the stakes are a tad higher.

To truly be up to the pianistic task, one must absorb the work to be performed. The work itself must become part of us, and the absorption process necessary to bring that about takes time. The numerous steps and sustained effort required are quite different from what we might picture ourselves doing to prepare for a quiz, for example.

Because of all this, and as odd as it sounds, "eat paint" has become our unofficial studio motto this semester, mostly because I've talked about it a lot.

Imagine the following. For some inexplicable reason, you want to literally ingest a large Rembrandt canvas. You're desire is to truly absorb a physical work of art into your system. How would you proceed?

The wise course, short of seeking psychological help, would be to eat the paint in tiny portions over a long period of time. Otherwise, it will very quickly make you very sick.

This silly scenario sheds important light on the music-learning process.

First and foremost, it helps us envision the tiny amounts of musical material we ought to consider at any moment in the practice room. The temptation to go with the flow of the music and just play through things is very strong and is often not even recognized as a temptation. Being in the moment with the music is what we desire, but slowing down and maybe even stopping the musical flow to zero in on the details is what we need. To continue with these liquid images, performance is baptism in a rushing river while practice is discovering the life in a few drops of water as viewed through a microscope.

In addition to helping us understand the appropriate scale for our musical study work, "eating paint" also reminds us that if we try to absorb too much too fast the experience will become toxic. I am sure this happens most days in most practice rooms. And the symptoms are probably pretty much the same as if we were to eat too much actual paint: frustration, fatigue, fuzzy thinking, physical discomfort, and other phenomena.

Click here to view and consider eating paintings by Rembrandt.



Sunday, December 01, 2013

Piano Lessons - Practicing and Teaching

This semester, I returned to being the primary piano teacher for piano majors at my university. It was a good time to return to this role, and a number of basics came into sharper focus for me as I articulated them for students over the course of the semester. Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to write a series of posts about these concepts.

I begin with the fact that teaching piano is, in large part, teaching people how to practice.

More than performing, or even teaching, practicing is the lifeblood and daily bread of musical life. If, on some level, you don't enjoy practicing, then music is probably not the life for you.

But before you or I give up, let's make sure we have really given it a chance. What often passes for practicing - haphazardly running through music in a practice room - is not practicing.

Practice time is really a (preferably) daily time for engaging mindfully and intentionally in practices. These activities become effective and meaningful when repeated regularly. Short of that, little practicing is actually occurring.

When I think of my own journey with practicing, teaching, and performing, I realize that a life with music can be a good path to self-integration and personal growth, if we are willing to make the journey.

At an early age, most of us are affirmed for our performances. We develop the dream of being performers and that dream fits well with our self-ness.

Over time, we realize that teaching is, at the very least, part of making a living as a musician. With a broader view of the history of music, we realize that teaching simply is part of being a musician. An examination of virtually any style of music will reveal a series of mentors who have handed down and developed their tradition.

It also turns out that teaching fulfills our social aspect in a way that performing never could.   

In maturing, we also realize that our daily work at the instrument can help us to achieve a healthy inner balance. We learn to appreciate rich comforts of routine and discovery as we fulfill our callings in the quieter pursuits of musical study.

Altogether, this journey can deepen our empathy for, and recognition of, the experiences of our fellow musicians, whether they be young students, collaborators, or sages we know. From the path of a life in music, we can also see that our identity is not just that of performer or teacher, recording artist or adjudicator. All of these things and many more are facets of a shared identity that crosses boundaries of time and style, the identity of musician.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Possible Steps toward Self-Acceptance and Everyone-Else-Acceptance

For musicians and others,
and especially me:


Take a deep breath.

Notice something.

Consider where you are.

Do so many times a day.


Why?

Most of the time, we're so busy inside and so fixated on our activities
that we need steps like these to become aware of the world around us
and to get some perspective on ourselves and others.

When we pause and reconnect,
I think we have a better chance of seeing ourselves and others more like God sees us.

 
Above, a powerful panel on St. Paul's Church in Manhattan
where I often worshiped with my good friend, Lloyd,
and attended Mass with my parents after the 1994 Thanksgiving Parade.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Stress

A dull headache,
a slight bit of breathlessness,
a barely discernible tightening of the chest,
plus a touch of tunnel vision -

That's my state after fifteen minutes spent writing an e-mail to all those who might know whether or not I need to rearrange my morning to show up at a court date for a young friend I look out for. (And I'm actually in pretty good shape!)

I will be surprised if I receive any useful information as a result of my e-mail. I probably won't even get a response.

Add to that the constant flux of the many performance and creative projects in which a college music professor is enlisted, and the ongoing efforts to help students learn whether or not they are all ready to, and I also need to list grades on MyFire.

Stress!

I actually deal with it pretty well, but it's not just my problem.

I recently watched an excellent documentary that explains a lot and warns of even more. I recommend multiple viewings since its message is counter-cultural and of dire significance.
http://www.pbs.org/programs/killer-stress/

It turns out that our bodies frequently continue to prepare for life and death crises even when the stimulus is really just an internal psychological concern. The heart reorients to supply blood for fight or flight, blood pressure goes up, etc., not because we're being chased by a predator but because we have to speak in public!

Good stress helps us rise to a challenge. Mismatched stress paralyzes, impairs, and chips away at longevity.

Who are the most badly stressed? Those who are on the lower levels of a hierarchy they care about - those who feel they have no voice and few channels for expressing power positively. No wonder the powerless become subversive or just disengage. The instinct for self-preservation demands it.

What reduces this type of stress? A sense of autonomy and connectivity as well as collegial styles from those at the top.

Stressed people age remarkably faster. Stressed people's bodies put on weight in a way that contributes specifically to heart disease. And a great many things happen internally that spell disaster in the long-run for the chronically stressed individual.

On this Sunday, I confess feeling a little resentment toward those who cause me stress, but I am reminded that, in general, "they know not what they do." I desire to know the difference between working something out and stressing out. And I want to limit the bad stress my students experience in the educational process with me. So often, students help my stress with good attitudes and kind words.

What contributes to our stressful lifestyles? Here's some of what I think.

1. The way we have allowed technology to take over our time, and our internal functioning, and our relationships! The society into which I was born was peopled by professional folk and others who set about life in a reposeful and balanced fashion and were not inundated by unfiltered information and messages. There was a time in the day when the mail arrived and the letters were written. A limited number of folks used your phone number, and it was usually of some importance when they did.

Today, the computer sits on my desk alluringly suggesting that someone may be responding to me or reaching  out at any moment. My hopefulness for connection through that machine stays nervously engaged even when I am supposedly concentrating. Those born into this world have known no other way, so their mild ADD seems normal to them.

In today's professional world, instant response is the name of the game. E-mail waltzed in and took over before we had a plan for it or knew we should resist it. And so we become impatient if our document isn't passed around and edited by everybody before brunch, and we think that's a normal pace. We add stress to ourselves (and animosity between ourselves) when it doesn't happen that way.

I bet some of the best professionals limit their computer time when possible so they might set their whole persons to activities that build legacies and civilization.

Many good tips about slaying the e-mail monster can be found here: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/07/17/email-tips/

2. In college work, the ever-expanding layers of "assessment" fill up time and take away energy from traditional endeavors of scholars and teachers. I know it's the wave of today, and maybe of the future, but it wasn't the wave of twenty years ago or of the preceding thousands of years. And it's the role of educators to mention such things. Feel free to provide your own rant at this point.

3. Our society's celebration of the super-human who multi-tasks and keeps adding tasks and never says "that's asking too much of one person" is another contributor to the problem. Just as we don't do much to celebrate peacemakers, we also don't take out time to remember those who contributed something important to our world by moving at a deliberate pace and being fair to everyone in their lives. We need to be aware of other ways of being, and we might just need to push back while we can still function pretty well.

I'm yet to offer any solutions. I'm mostly sounding an alarm in my little community.

But here's what I know and keep rediscovering. Practicing sabbath keeps a bit of the better, older way alive for us. It slows the pace and makes room for some quiet life. Not only is it a time to stop working, but it might also be a time to stop thinking about working.

What to do with that silence? Take time to observe nature. Listen to fine music. Let the shapes of these things speak to you. And while you're at it, stop talking to yourself. Develop a bit of discipline for relaxation so as to stop the obsessive twittering of your mind about the moment or what to do with the next one.

I'm going to do that right now.

If you don't have access to a lovely natural place today, here's a photo of my friend Rev. Ricky's property back in North Carolina for your own relaxed e-pond gazing. Click on the image for a larger, more gaze-friendly version.