My hand

Source:  Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Source: Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

I jammed my hand last week when I tripped on a box in a narrow, unlit hallway.  The box contained a heavy piece of equipment.  It didn’t budge.  I landed with my right hand jammed against a door frame.  It’s similar to a volleyball injury.

When I played volleyball in high school, these types of injuries happened from time to time.  They felt like no big deal then.  I wasn’t enjoying piano lessons and had not yet made a career choice.

Now, however, this sort of injury is terribly frightening.  It suddenly brings a great deal of vulnerability into focus.  After all, I moved to a new State for employment purposes just 3 months ago.  And that employment depends on my being able to play.

While choosing activities from day to day, I have made an effort to seek balance.  I don’t want to do music all the time, every minute.  I have other interests.

But this injury has made it all too clear what is most important in my life.

Today I was able to practice for the first time in 5 days.  The swelling is receding, and obvious bruising never happened.  I can move my fingers without pain.  The knuckle area at the palm feels crowded.

So, I know tomorrow will be better.

My teacher slammed his hand in a door once, just 2 hours before a concert.  He told me that there are only so many fingerings you can redo in an hour!

And my stepmother, who recently fell and is now home following surgery for a subdural hematoma, told me to be more careful.  You know what falls can do.

Just the fact that I can write about this is an indication of emotional progress.  I was devastasted last week, and frightened.

 

Inga

Hartt School foyer entrance

 We first met in the foyer of The Hartt School in January.

I had taken the bus from Northampton in order to see a performance of “Street Scene” by Kurt Weill, the student opera.  It was a Sunday afternoon in January, shortly before the first day of classes and the start of my new job.

The bus schedule had me at the school very early.  However, the event was ticketed, so I needed the time to navigate the system.  Although I had an ID, my name was not yet in the ticketing system.

After obtaining a ticket, I remained in the foyer, a large room with upholstered benches lining the walls.

Audience members began arriving as curtain time approached.  As the foyer was becoming rather crowded, two elderly women entered together.  It seemed to me that they could use a place to sit, so I offered to stand, giving them two seats together.  They gratefully accepted, then continued the conversation, inviting me to sit with them.  I was happy to make their acquaintance, especially as they were among the first ten people I had met in Hartford.

It soon became clear that they were both opera fans who often attend Hartt performances.  Their names were Ingeborg and Shirley.

Inga told me that she changed her name to Inge at first, but got tired of being called “Inkie” all the time.  So now it’s Inga.  Her companion’s name was Shirley.

Ever since January, I have kept an eye out for them.  And on Monday evening, it paid off.  Inga attended a vocal concert.  The program was entitled “Occident Meets Orient,” and was wonderfully sung by Carole FitzPatrick, Robert Barefield, and their terrific pianist, Russell Ryan.

I approached her at the reception.  She looked frail.  Shirley was not with her.  I didn’t ask about Shirley, but may at a future encounter.

Inga told me she’s going to the Connecticut Concert Opera production of “Gianni Schicchi” by Puccini and Pasatieri’s “Signor Deluso,” and wanted to know whether I’m going, too.  We’ll both be attending the Sunday matinee on November 2nd.

I’m looking forward to seeing her!

I resigned!

steepgrade

Last week, I came to the decision that I needed to resign from my church job.

In the days that followed, it was obvious that this was the right move.

The atmosphere was chaotic, the supervision oppressive.  I had been unable to sleep at night, waking up in physical pain, with clenched fists.  I had become sick to my stomach on several occasions.  There were so many pieces of information competing for space in my brain that I couldn’t focus.  My practicing was affected, not to mention my ability to enjoy life.

Since I resigned, I have regained the ability to enjoy my surroundings.  I can listen to music and actually hear it.  I found that my soul is intact.  I have protected my integrity and the integrity of my playing, and feel optimistic about the future.

Addendum regarding that glamorous lifestyle

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons. Flickr.com user "Ilpo's Sojourn"

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Flickr.com user “Ilpo’s Sojourn”

When writing about Robin Williams’ passing, my thoughts needed to be put into written form. They were not all from one place, in that being on stage means the performer is not him/herself while on stage, in a way. Sports are something entirely different.

I want to say more about being an artist.

When the public attends a concert or watches a performance by other means, they can become mesmerized.  It’s magic.  It’s a chance to suspend cares and discomfort.  They have the wonderful opportunity to enter another world.

Performers do that, too!  Having the ability to do that is the reason many performers are on the stage in the first place.

I can’t speak for all performers, obviously, but just yesterday, I entered another world while practicing.  Sometimes this occurs in mundane ways.  Just before leaving home in the afternoon, I felt hungry.  So I took an energy bar along and headed for a practice session.  While practicing, I forgot all about being hungry.  Five minutes after stopping, I was ravenous!

It is often not only possible, but necessary to place whatever problems or concerns one has into an invisible box while practicing, rehearsing, and performing.  If the music doesn’t come first, the work is compromised.  What are you going to do, turn to the audience when you miss a note and say, “Oh, sorry!  I was thinking about…  I forgot to turn off the over.  I forgot to lock the door.  I’m worried I might miss my plane.  I’m planning dinner for tomorrow night!”

Performers have daily lives, just like everyone else.  When they are not “on,” they can feel insecure and vulnerable.  Think for a moment about what percentage of their time is actually spent performing.  Not so much, right?  That leaves plenty of time left over for whatever normal life is supposed to be.

Sometimes the difference between those two lives, performing and not, can be difficult to navigate.  After a concert, there is very often a huge letdown. Just because someone is a good performer does not mean their entire personal life is wonderful, easy, ideal, glamorous… feel free to add your own terms here.

You may feel you know a performer if you follow his/her career.  But that is just a small part of that person’s life.

I’ll give you one more example about the glamour involved:  My piano trio drove from New York to Pennsylvania to play a concert.  On the way back, we got lost and ended up stuck in traffic for miles.  At some time around 3:00 a.m., we all became hungry at the same moment.  Even though we were only 1/2 hour from home, we stopped at a highway rest area.  So there we were, standing in the empty parking lot in concert dress, enjoying burgers and fries from Roy Rogers off the top of the cellist’s BMW (a relic), laughing about our glamorous lives.  We arrived home at 4:00.

I’d do it again in a second.  We had a blast.  But the next day each of us had to get out of bed and practice.

Back to top

A tribute to Robin Williams

Robin Williams.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.  Photographer's Mate Airman Milosz Reterski - Navy NewsStand.   Actor/comedian Robin Williams entertains the crew of USS Enterprise, December 19, 2003 (cropped) Actor/comedian Robin Williams entertains the crew of USS Enterprise (CVN 65) during a holiday special hosted by the United Service Organization (USO). The show took place in the ship's hangar bay and featured the visiting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, NASCAR driver Mike Wallace, and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) celebrity Kurt Angle. The shirt worn in the picture is the popular "I Love (Heart) New York" translated into Arabic.

Robin Williams. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Photographer’s Mate Airman Milosz Reterski – Navy NewsStand.
Actor/comedian Robin Williams entertains the crew of USS Enterprise, December 19, 2003 (cropped)
Actor/comedian Robin Williams entertains the crew of USS Enterprise (CVN 65) during a holiday special hosted by the United Service Organization (USO). The show took place in the ship’s hangar bay and featured the visiting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, NASCAR driver Mike Wallace, and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) celebrity Kurt Angle. The shirt worn in the picture is the popular “I Love (Heart) New York” translated into Arabic.

So many people are posting on Facebook upon learning of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide.  I posted, too, then tried to do something else.  I feel compelled to post here as well.

Read the NY Times article

Depression needs to receive much more press and public discussion.  Comedians, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, writers… often struggle a great deal, unbeknownst to the public.

Toni Nadal, who is Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach, once said in an interview that people just don’t get it.  They see what happens during the performance (or, in his case, the tennis tournament) and think that represents the artist’s/player’s daily life.

I agree.  People don’t see what happens in everyday life, whether it’s jet lag, lack of sleep, performing/rehearsing when under the weather, altitude changes, relationship issues, sleeping in a different bed every night… it’s a very long list.  In tennis, even the balls are different from tournament to tournament.  They come off the player’s racquet differently, react to weather conditions, and travel through the air differently in each location.

From what I’ve read, people with a well-developed sense of humor are often depressed.  Harvey Korman, for example, was known to have struggled with major depression throughout his life.

So Robin Williams’ death, in some ways, should come as no surprise.  We need to pay more attention.

R.I.P., Robin Williams.  Thanks for all you gave us.

Please share your thoughts.

Back to top

“Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain”

Reset button.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Reset button. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A fascinating piece by Dr. Daniel Levitin of McGill University appears in today’s New York Times.

Dr. Levitin writes about the way we arrive at solutions, advocating dedicated project times interspersed with listening to music, taking a walk, or just plain daydreaming. He suggests that our brains, which assimilate so much more information with ever-improving data delivery, need to take breaks in order to function well.

He goes on to suggest that we check email, text messages, and voicemail only during certain times of day, turning off our devices at other times.

Very interesting!

Speaking for myself, I will hear my phone beep when a text message arrives or Facebook sends an alert to my phone.  I always want to know who it is!  I will stop doing whatever task is at hand, whether that is computer work, practicing, or something else like reading a book.  Then I will call the person back, comment on Facebook, or send an email.

During one recent practice session, I was awaiting directions to a rehearsal venue.  So I practiced with my phone on.  You can guess what happened:  I texted quite a bit more than I practiced.

I have turned off my devices for years in order to practice or get other work done.  It’s refreshing to read Dr. Levitin’s suggestions about doing exactly that.

What do you think?

Back to top

Singing what you play: how does that work?

Pete Seeger teaching William Boyce "Alleluia" round in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, 2011  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Pete Seeger teaching William Boyce “Alleluia” round in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Do you sing your music as you practice?  I recommend it (see previous post).

For the past 2 or 3 days, I’ve been thinking about why this works so well.

When playing involves brain work only, one can become caught up in the exact length of each note, the weight given to each, the dynamic changes from one note to another.  That level of detail is crucial to interesting playing, of course, but isn’t that mind-boggling, doing all that thinking?

When I practice in that way, I find that I am physically removed from producing the sound.  I am not a participant in playing phrases. I notice that when I sing while playing, my body takes care of all that.

When the amount of breath sent through the body to produce the sound varies from pitch to pitch, the breath maintains the line.  The body (arms, hands, tips of fingers) produces music, not just mathematical changes. What if someone told you that to reach a certain goal involving myriad details, all you needed to do one thing?

This is the best explanation I can come up with at the moment.  I hope it is helpful.  Singing makes all the difference.  It coordinates separate, much smaller details, making them an organic whole.  And it’s so easy!

Back to top

Why singing is the best thing you can do

Source:  Wikimedia Commons.  Carl Van Vechten, 1880-1964, photographer.  Public domain.

Leontyne Price. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Carl Van Vechten, 1880-1964, photographer. Public domain.

This afternoon, I practiced some music I hadn’t played in several weeks.  While reviewing notes, fingerings, and dynamics, I found myself thinking about the function of the passage I was working on at the moment.  Was it melody?  Accompaniment?  Beginning, middle, or end of a phrase?  And then I started altering the lengths of the notes to accommodate the direction of the line.

But that felt too removed from the sound. Then, by chance, I started singing the line. Everything changed immediately.

Why?

It was no longer necessary to intellectualize the length of each note (this one is shorter, this one is slightly longer, this one falls away from the previous sound, this one leads up to the next one).

Singing instantly makes the line legato, continuous, and infused with life.  Singing makes it human.  Pianos don’t do that.  Organs don’t either, really, unless the organist uses the volume pedal all the time.

So this is my recommentation for today, tomorrow, next week, next month…

Sing the line!  It changes everything.

Back to top

How much does practice factor into elite performance?

Tags

, ,

 

Carnegie Hall

According to a July 14, 2014 article in The New York Times, practice may contribute only 20-25% of the edge needed to reach an elite level of performance.  A 1993 study, by contrast, places that factor at 80%.

I have to say that I still think 20-25% is a significant percentage.

Read the article and see how you react.  

The last paragraph, in my opinion, says it all:

But in the end, the most important factor over which people have control — whether juggling, jogging or memorizing a script — may be not how much they practice, but how effectively they use that time.

Back to top