Backwards Day!

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Backwards day!

A delightful seven-year-old, arriving for her lesson, immediately announced “This is Backwards Day!”  Who knew?

I went with it, of course.  Resistance would have resulted in one unhappy student.  What actually happened?  We had tons of fun!

What transpired

  • We said, “Goodbye!”
  • We shuffled her books so the top one was in back
  • We chose a piece from the back of the book
  • She played the end first
  • We went backwards, line by line
  • “I love it” became “It love I”
  • Fast became slow, and vice-versa
  • Loud was soft
  • Cresc. was dim.
  • She tried a piece with her hands crossed (good practice!)
  • She taught me how to play something while she sat in my chair
  • She asked me questions like she was the teacher
  • And then we said, “Hello!”

Why backwards?

  • Backwards is good!
  • Start in different places
  • Vary repertoire
  • Play different dynamic schemes, different rubato, different tempi
  • Try the opposite if Plan A isn’t working
  • Find fingering backwards ~ where do you need to end?
  • Nail the endings by practicing them first
  • Practice movements, songs, and sections in reverse order for more flexibility and security

Why backwards works

  • Reversing the order of movements assures “equal time” when something interferes with your practice session
  • Going backwards is fun!
  • Shaking things up enhances concentration
  • The usual expectations of the same thing in the same way every day are avoided

Do you sometimes practice backwards?  Do you help your students mix it up?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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PianoAnd: The lid. Full stick, half stick, or none at all?*

Source:  Wikimedia.  Public domain.

Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

No worries!  The following is not a scientific analysis!

*The lid may be closed or removed entirely.

Where do our preferences come from concerning the position of the piano lid in performance?

  • Early teachers
  • It’s always been that way
  • Never thought about it

If you think about balance, I’m sure you must have your own list.

Variables

What are the important considerations when balancing other instruments/voices with piano?  If you’re the soloist, your main concern is that your part will be clear.  But what about the other performers?  If you’re the pianist, YOU want to be heard.  (There are exceptions.  Sometimes pianists seem to be intent upon disappearing out of a fear that they will be too loud.)

Assuming that our goal is to find appropriate balance among all participants, there are several variables that need to be considered from venue to venue:

  • Acoustics of the room
    • Curtains (at the front, back, and sides of the stage, at the windows, and on the walls of the room), seat cushions, carpet, wall hangings, hard surfaces, shell/no shell behind the performers
    • size of audience (which wears clothing that soaks up sound)
    • the way sound travels on stage (can you hear other performers?)
    • other variables in the hall (i.e. moveable acoustical features, such as blinds, panels, walls, ceilings)
    • Sometimes a room has a muffled sound. A closed lid, in that case, means that the piano’s sound is not clear.
  • Where is the soloist in relation to the piano? If the piano is “too loud,” is that actually the case, or would moving away from the piano create a separation in the sounds (soloist/piano) and resolve the problem?  Try it!  A change of only a few inches often makes a huge difference.
  • Size of room, size of piano. Smaller rooms with larger pianos may call for a shorter stick.  I would tend to consider this arrangement, but I know other musicians who use full stick regardless.
  • Type of music? Joseph Fuchs used full stick ALL the time for violin/piano.  Part of the resonance of the violin came from the piano’s soundboard.  When playing music with more density in the writing, I would tend to prefer short stick.
  • The pianist’s manner of producing sound. When less arm weight is used, the sound is lighter.  More transparent writing in combination with less arm would make full stick clear but not overwhelming.  Also, voicing the piano part (more focus for prominent lines) goes a long way.

Wooden block

Perhaps you feel that using the short stick would be too much.  In addition, some pianos no longer have a short stick.  Occasionally, manufacturers include only full stick or a variation, about 3/4 high.

You can take a wooden block with you.

A rectangular block, painted black, about 5” or 6” x 3” x 2”, is a better choice than a hymnal or book.  Propping the lid open with a book results in a dented book cover.  In church concerts, churchgoers are sometimes offended when hymnals are used in this way.  (Setting anything on top of the Bible is considered sacrilegious.  By extension, the hymnal, which contains sacred texts, is included in this category by some.  If you want to be invited back, don’t prop the lid open with a hymnal.)  Also, painting the wooden block black helps to avoid audience distraction.  The dimensions of the block allow it to be used on either side and on end.  Plenty of options.

Recording

Using a recording device to assess the sound is a great way to go when you have the time.  Yo-Yo Ma swears by it, placing the recorder at varying distances from the stage. This can be done during solo practice sessions, rehearsals, and warm-ups, as well as in performances.

The acoustics of the room change depending on the size of the audience.  Rehearsals typically take place in empty halls.  Once the audience arrives, everything changes.  So keeping an open mind, listening to the room, making adjustments in one’s playing during a performance, and trying various options make a difference.

Takeaway thought

My hope is that performers will be aware of the variables.  For the music to reach the audience effectively, the sound needs to be clear.

Please experiment!  And… go.

How do you approach the piano lid issue?  Comments welcome!

piano_music

Source: Google search. No evident copyright.

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Please take a look at my e-book!

“Goal-oriented Practice”
Are you practicing well? Is your imagination working for you?

My book will help you take a step back, save practice time, learn more music, and perform with confidence. Whether teaching, playing solo, or collaborating with other musicians, you will find many practice- and performance-tested suggestions here.

50% off!!!  Absolutely NO JARGON!  Even my non-musician little sister says so.

Click here for the book intro, table of contents, reviews, and reader comments.

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PianoAnd: Children’s voices

Robin.  Source:  Pixabay

Robin. Source: Pixabay

Collaborating with children’s voices is something that requires listening and imagination. The first thought many pianists have is, “I can’t play too loud. I’ll cover them up!”

Unfortunately, the thinking process sometimes stops there.

Are there other options?

When the only goal is to stay out of the way, is that enough? How can we not be too loud and still be expressive?

In a recent performance with children’s choir, the program included “The Birds’ Lullaby” by Marilyn Broughton. I’ll refer to her beautiful composition in the following examples.

Example 1
The Birds' Lullaby ex1

Dynamics

The first step in finding expression, for me, is to find workable dynamics. My goals are to:

  1. express the text;
  2. support the singers; and
  3. make the piano solos interesting while enhancing the entire piece.

Introduction

In the introduction, the indicated dynamics were helpful. Piano and mezzo-piano needed to be there, and the crescendo to a level above mp needed to be practiced. I looked through the piece to determine how far that could go. I wanted to reach the loudest dynamic level on the downbeat of bar 7, then diminuendo into the choir’s mp entrance (but not below).

Accompanying the singers

At the singers’ entrance, the pianist’s role changes. S/he must listen in a different way. How can s/he be supportive without getting in the way? Where does the pianist’s expression come from?

To be supportive of the singers, simply disappearing from the fabric of sound is not an option. The choir’s pitch and rhythm could lose their integrity.

Bass line

In this piece, the bass line can certainly match the singers’ sound. It does not need to be softer! Since the bass is in a different range from the voices, it will not be covering the voices.

Counter-melody

As for the right hand when the singers enter and beyond, the top line can be more prominent. When played with a focused sound, it will be heard as a counter-melody.

Example 2
The Birds' Lullaby ex2

Moving part

On the second page, the short piano interlude begins on the word “through,” with a crescendo into the next chorus entrance. With a little advance planning and practice, this moving line can be interesting. In fact, it propels the piece while the singers hold a long note. They also need to breathe! The pianist’s crescendo to mf encourages them to sing their next entrance at that dynamic level without even thinking.

In scores where dynamics are indicated only in the voice part(s) or the piano part, both singers and pianists can benefit by looking at the markings in the other parts. What if the dynamics apply to both? (Why wouldn’t they?)

Interludes

This piece has three verses, with the voice parts expertly arranged differently for each (i.e. canon at the measure, canon at 2 measures, and crossing voices). The two piano interludes are nearly identical. Our job is to make them interesting! I wanted to find a way for the interludes to sound different from each other while matching the singers’ volume at the end of their verse and meeting them at their new volume at the start of the next.

First

The first interlude worked well with a simple arc, soft to louder, then diminuendo into the second verse, which was softer than the first. The dynamic scheme I used was mp to mf, then dim. to p.

Second

Finding a compelling way to play the second interlude was a little harder. After trying two or three different ideas, I noticed that the third verse was marked with a louder dynamic. I wanted to crescendo into the singers’ entrance.

So I found a way to start the interlude piano, then play a dynamic arc (cresc. and dim.) earlier than in the first interlude. Following the diminuendo, I could then crescendo from piano to mezzo-forte. This time, I played from p to mp to p, then cresc. to mf.

Problem solved? Not entirely.

The right hand of the piano part was in the same range as the singers’ entrance. My right hand melody continued past the singers’ entrance. So I needed a way to crescendo without covering them up.

Voilà!

It took a little longer to realize that the right hand could diminuendo while the left hand, which had moving notes, could crescendo at the same time. It worked like a charm. The interlude was compelling, it supported the singers, and nothing interfered with the children’s voices.

If playing a simultaneous dim. and cresc. seems like a juggling act, it might help to think about it in a different way. Try thinking about your feet. When we walk, we transfer weight from one foot to the other. One foot has more weight on it than the other. They feel different.

Another instance would be like driving a stick shift. One foot depresses the accelerator while the other releases the clutch. Now get the same feeling in your hands that you have in your feet. Problem solved!

In listening to pianists, my impression is that many people cresc. and dim. with both hands doing the same thing at the same time. However, playing fugues requires voicing separate parts, even when two or more parts are in the same hand. That requires using different amounts of weight on separate fingers. So why not apply this to other music? Why not use each hand differently when playing with hands together?

Postlude

The lullaby ended softly. The short postlude needed some shape, so I decided to begin mp, then diminuendo, with focused, high bell tones at the end.

Source: Pixabay. Public domain.

Source: Pixabay. Public domain.

Followup

You may be wondering how I know that my ideas were effective. You are absolutely correct that a performer’s assessment of her/his own performance might be inaccurate.

And here’s my reason: Immediately after the concert, several audience members approached me to say how much they had enjoyed what they had heard!

Look for my next post:  “PianoAnd:  The lid. Full stick, 1/2 stick, or none at all?”

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

Please take a look at my e-book!

“Goal-oriented Practice”
Are you practicing well? Is your imagination working for you?

My book will help you take a step back, save practice time, learn more music, and perform with confidence. Whether teaching, playing solo, or collaborating with other musicians, you will find many practice- and performance-tested suggestions here.

50% off!!!  Absolutely NO JARGON!  Even my non-musician little sister says so.

Click on the link to see the book intro, table of contents, reviews, and reader comments.

What did you find here?  What would you like to see? Comments welcome!

If this post has been helpful and you think your friends and contacts would benefit from reading it, please share.

I would appreciate it very much. Thank you!

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PianoAnd: Collaboration

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String_quartet

String quartet. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

What is collaboration?  What does the term imply?

I recently came across the book The Collaborative Pianist’s Guide to Practical Technique by Neil Stannard.*

*Thanks to Gail Fischler.

 The introduction states that:

Collaborative pianists need all the same technical skills required of soloists, and some would argue that they need to be able to play mezzo forte and under.

My immediate reaction was, “Wait a minute!” Let’s look more closely.

A Definition

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration

Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. It is a recursive[1] process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective determination to reach an identical objective[by whom?][original research?]) — for example, an endeavor[2][3] that is creative in nature[4]—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Most collaboration requires leadership, although the form of leadership can be social within a decentralized and egalitarian group.[5] In particular, teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition and reward when facing competition for finite resources.[6] Collaboration is also present in opposing goals exhibiting the notion of adversarial collaboration, though this is not a common case for using the word.

(Note:  color and bolding added by GS for emphasis.)

Breaking it down

This implies much more than the prevailing misconception, by now outdated, concerning collaborative piano playing. Even after more than 50 years of the progress begun by Gerald Moore and further championed by Gwendolyn Koldofsky and others, a significant number of pianists continue to subscribe to the habit of just showing up without practicing.

An additional component of this view seems to be a desire to stay out of the way!

I strongly disagree with this idea. If one’s sole interest is not to be heard, then why show up at all? (Gerald Moore’s humorous book, “Am I too Loud?” was first published in 1962!)

The author of the book quoted above says, “some would argue that they need to be able to play mezzo forte and under.” If one is to interpret this as a recommendation to play mf and under at all times, I have to ask, “Why?”

The music

The piano part/reduction is part of the total fabric of sound. It is crucial to have a point of view about the music which is expressed primarily by the manner in which one plays.

Even when playing for very young musicians, the bass line can be prominent. They need the support. An obligato line above or below the singers’ range should be heard. Introductions, interludes, and postludes are shaping the piece, not interfering. The rhythm should be clear and compelling, providing a foundation for inexperienced musicians. Why are we there? How are we supporting a young musician’s efforts if we may as well not be in the room at all? Do we not have a responsibility to be there?

In other situations, with more experienced singers and instrumentalists (who produce more sound), the solo line is not always the most interesting. Think of Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata (violin/piano), for example:

Spring Sonata excerpt

The violinist clearly has the theme throughout the opening statement. And then, in the 2nd system, 4th bar, the piano has thematic material, marked crescendo, proceeding without pause into a restatement of the same theme. Since the piano part is occupying a higher range at that point, it will be heard.

Note that the violin and piano parts are both marked piano, even though each plays thematic as well as non-thematic music. The equal dynamic markings would imply that both parts are to be heard. Why would the piano part be less important/played at a lower dynamic than the violin?

We have another example in Händel’s “Care selve” from Atalanta:

Handel Care selve

In this aria, the vocal and piano lines are beautifully interwoven. Listen to the incomparable Montserrat Caballé and her superb pianist, who should have been credited on YouTube! What do you hear? Is the pianist voicing his part? The bass line is always there, the melody is clear when echoing the singer, and the interludes fill the room.

A heads up: prepare to be floored!

Teatro Real de Madrid, 1979

When learning Handel’s “Sweet Bird,” I listened to several recordings so I could learn more about ornamentation. Roberta Peters’ performance with a flutist was stunning. They opted to do only the exposition (one page), then added two more pages of a duet. Their sounds blended perfectly, with the most amazing trills. I was in awe listening to the ensemble’s perfectly matched sound, ornaments rhythmically free (rather than using regular note values, the performers, who were often trilling in 3rds, used slower notes, then faster, then added a turn). I listened to the recording over and over, mesmerized.

Point of view

When I was a scholarship student at the Aspen Music Festival, the Juilliard String Quartet was in residence all summer. Their open rehearsals were attended by singers of all voice types and interests, and students who played a variety of instruments. Why were so many students attending, week in and week out? The quartet talked about the music. During one rehearsal, a disagreement continued for several minutes. The cross-rhythms in Brahms needed clarification among the players.

One instance in which cross-rhythms are found is in 6/8 time, when the notes can be divided into groups of 2 or 3. When there is one more than one part, both groupings can happen simultaneously.

In this memorable rehearsal, each player was staking a claim to the way he wanted to play a section containing cross-rhythms. The violist opted for one rhythmic grouping; the cellist another. When the 2nd violinist chose a larger note grouping, the 1st violinist decided, “I’ll just fit in.”

At that moment (it didn’t take long!), the other three players ganged up on him. “No! You have to make up your mind!”

The rehearsal had just become more… interesting, as the quartet’s cellist Joel Krosnick would say.

The decision was made, and the quartet tried it out. Each player was doing something different! It was wonderful.

What would have happened had everyone opted to “Just fit in?” How compelling can that be?

I submit that staying out of the way is not music, and it certainly is not collaboration. If you have nothing worth saying, why play at all?  If you can’t be heard, what’s the point? What contribution does that make?  How is that supportive?

Bottom line

In order to collaborate as pianists, we need to ask for the music in advance (and obtain it!), practice well, and have a point of view about the music. In rehearsals, our point of view may change. Collaboration means hearing what the other musicians have to say. An interpretation reached by sharing ideas is what collaboration aims to achieve.

To reiterate the definition provided above, when we collaborate, we:

…work together to realize shared goals [in] … a deep, collective determination to reach an identical objective…

What does “collaboration” mean to you? How did you arrive at your conclusions?

Comments welcome!

Check back for my next post, PianoAnd:  Children’s voices

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

Please take a look at my e-book!

“Goal-oriented Practice”
Are you practicing well? What do you do when you hit a snag? How do you help your students practice?

Do you have a plan for putting difficult pieces together at performance tempo? How do you help your students achieve a steady tempo without slowing down in difficult passages?

This book will help you take a step back, save practice time, learn more music, and perform with confidence. Whether teaching, playing solo, or collaborating with other musicians, you will find many useful suggestions here.

50% off!!!  Absolutely NO JARGON!  Even my non-musician little sister says so.

Click on the link to see the book intro, table of contents, reviews, and reader comments.

What did you find here?  What would you like to see? Comments welcome!

If this post has been helpful and you think your friends and contacts would benefit from reading it, please share.

I would appreciate it very much. Thank you!

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Where’s the beat? Teaching syncopation.

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A young boy plays with a toy drum that was given to him during Joint Task Force-Bravo’s visit to at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in Comayagua, Honduras, Jan. 25, 2015. The Sisters of Charity Orphanage is one of seven different orphanages from around the Comayagua Valley that the U.S. military personnel assigned to JTF-Bravo have supported over the past 17 years. In addition to spending time with interacting with children, members have also collected and donated much-needed supplies and food, as well as helped in minor construction work on the buildings in which the children live. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman). Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

A young boy plays with a toy drum that was given to him during Joint Task Force-Bravo’s visit to at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in Comayagua, Honduras, Jan. 25, 2015. The Sisters of Charity Orphanage is one of seven different orphanages from around the Comayagua Valley that the U.S. military personnel assigned to JTF-Bravo have supported over the past 17 years. In addition to spending time with interacting with children, members have also collected and donated much-needed supplies and food, as well as helped in minor construction work on the buildings in which the children live. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman). Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

Isn’t this a wonderful photograph?

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Background

A high school flutist and I performed the piece excerpted below on a recital in April. She plays quite well, but this piece was full of syncopation. Keep in mind that she was looking at the flute part only (top line). Pianists usually play from the complete score (solo line plus piano part).

Excerpt from "Allegretto" from Suite de trois morceaux, Op.116 by Benjamin Godard

Excerpt from “Allegretto” from Suite de trois morceaux, Op.116 by Benjamin Godard

First Run-through

The soloist knew her part securely. But the rhythm in the piano part, not surprisingly, threw her off. She took the right hand part (off-beat) to be the beat. So, for example, in the 3rd bar of the 2nd system, her quarter note was one beat late, played after the last chord in the piano part.

Second Try

I played my part as printed, counting out loud. We would stop along the way to correct rhythmic mistakes. She would look at the score when the rhythm threw her off.

That approach resulted in about 50% improvement in our brief rehearsal.

Taking a Closer Look

I continued to think about her that evening. How could this be a better experience for the student, with the performance in front of an audience only a few days away? Was it sink or swim? Or could I do something to help?

In Her Shoes

After considerable thought, I realized that the student was relying primarily on what she had heard during our brief rehearsal. She didn’t have the piano score, and told me she had not listened to recordings.

Going by sound alone complicates things in this case.

Try it! When you sing one low note followed by two higher notes at the same pitch, listen to the way the higher pitch is easier to hear. It would take a lot to make the low note take over as the anchor. Hearing the pitches without looking at the score can easily sound like the low note is an upbeat.

A singer, by contrast, would have the score to refer to. Instrumental parts are published separately, so only the solo line is available unless they keep a copy of the score (or someone provides it).

To add to the challenge, I learned the next day that the student has a cochlear implant. That would make it more difficult to hear anything, possibly also causing a delay in the perception of sound.

The Next Day

Fortunately, there was more rehearsal time available. I checked with the teacher to ask whether it would be acceptable for me to call the student’s parents with the goal of finding another time to get together. We found a time for the following evening.

Recording the Piano Part

I realized that we had only rehearsed the piece one way; as printed.

Since the off-beat is so easy to hear as the beat, I wanted to try something. The student had her phone with her, so we recorded the piano part twice:  the first time on the beat; the second as written.

The “on the beat” version went very well! We practiced the piece that way again. This time, the student tapped (stomped, really) her foot on the beat.

Then we practiced the piece as written. She was much closer.

The Core Problem

The student had been attempting to understand the syncopation without knowing where the beat was.  You can’t have an off-beat without feeling the beat first.

I encouraged her to march around the room, stamp her feet, and sing, play, clap… whatever would get the rhythm into her body. I suggestion that she count, tap, stamp, clap, or whatever else she wanted to do, louder than the piano part.

Her First Response

“I can’t tap my foot in the performance.”

I agreed, and went on to say that it’s OK to tap your toe inside your shoe, especially the first time you’ve ever done this. And you can do whatever you need to do in rehearsal. The audience doesn’t see you rehearsing, nor does it know what you’re thinking in performance.

Solo Flute Practice

She did it! She had two days left to experiment, and addressed the problem at home without my being there.

Performance

Wonderful! She played out, sounded secure, and was not particularly nervous.

Followup

Two or three weeks later, I ran into her at school. After we said hello, I asked how she felt about the performance. Her response: “It went better than I thought it would. I felt very comfortable.”

And that, of course, makes it all worth it.

Contrasting Performances of “Our” Piece


As good as it gets. Enjoy!


This performance is closer to our tempo.

Purchase the score

What do you do when a student is thrown by something new? Comments welcome!

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

Please take a look at my e-book!

“Goal-oriented Practice”
Are you practicing well? What do you do when you hit a snag? How do you help your students practice?

Do you have a plan for putting difficult pieces together at performance tempo? How do you help your students achieve a steady tempo without slowing down in difficult passages?

This book will help you take a step back, save practice time, learn more music, and perform with confidence.

50% off!!!  Absolutely NO JARGON!  Even my non-musician little sister says so.

Click on the link to see the book intro, table of contents, reviews, and reader comments.

What did you find here?  What would you like to see? Comments welcome!

If this post has been helpful and you think your friends and contacts would benefit from reading it, please share.

I would appreciate it very much. Thank you!

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“Don’t go to music school”

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“Penguin questioning by mimooh” by Mimooh – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1Nkzxok

Hmmm… 

When I made the decision to become a music major, I didn’t allow the question of practicality into my head. I remember saying things like, “Mooooom, it’s what I do!” “It’s meeeeee!” and “I can’t live without it!!!”

At times, musicians who are already working professionally have acquired a comprehensive education in music before reaching college. A music degree would not necessarily enhance their careers. Language study, literature, or history might make more sense.

Lately, though, I have gotten to know several accomplished musicians (not yet professional level) who have either double-majored (solo instrument/biochemistry, solo instrument/computer science, solo instrument/liberal arts) or chosen other fields while hoping to continue with music, professionally or “on the side,” after college.

Students’ reasons for going to college seem to be far different in 2015 than in past decades. Tuition has become so expensive, fewer students can afford to spend time in college exploring their interests and deciding what kind of job they might want to have post-graduation. Priorities have shifted, making it far more important to choose a major that corresponds with the best job prospects. Student loans go on and on, so having a decent salary soon after graduation is paramount.

Schools with which I am familiar have stopped offering “fun” courses, concentrating on business training instead. At UMass/Amherst, for example, it was easy to sign up for private music lessons for one credit through the university whether one was a degree student or not. The Continuing Education department offered tap dancing, drawing for beginners, and adult piano class for years. Now the summer catalog features classes in arts management, languages, and wind energy. Take a look at the Fall Continuing Ed. course listings here. Want tap dancing? Photography? Drawing? Try someplace else.

In Connecticut, students would hang out at the jazz department at The Hartt School in the evenings. Faculty would jam along with students for camaraderie and fun. What an opportunity! For the past few years, though, the place has been quiet after 5:00 p.m. One professor told me that students just want their piece of paper (degree).

In addition, I have heard that high school guidance counselors have been recommending against going to music school. Why? The changing job market is undoubtedly a major consideration. What is happening to pursuing things one is curious about? That seems to be more elusive.

Funding has shriveled so much recently that concert series have been canceled. Orchestras, opera companies, and smaller groups have disbanded. Players in surviving organizations have taken major pay cuts.

It is true that only a small number of those pursuing a major career in music will actually “make it big.” Even with a great deal of talent, luck is required. Having money and knowing influential people both make a difference, Being ready for one’s luck is crucial. And even then, there are no guarantees.

Do these scenarios sound familiar? Is this why Bert Stratton recommends, in his New York Times op-ed piecenot going to music school?

A different writer provides an accurate list of what is needed to make it as a pro.

Paul Weller of Salon talks about the music industry today.

Further thoughts…

With all this in mind, my goal in teaching has always been to instill a love of music in my students. When a child is grown, I would like for him/her to know what is happening when attending a concert, listening to a soundtrack, and educating his/her own children later on. Isn’t this where informed audiences come from? Future supporters of the arts? Savvy board members? Donors with an eye on sustaining the arts for generations?

Audiences and financial support are crucial. Aren’t people who were exposed to music as children more likely to be enthusiastic participants in adulthood?

… and links

Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts, by Randy Cohen

From kidsmusiccorne.co.ukr:
Why is music important?

Music key to learning

12 Amazing Things Scientists Discovered about Music This Year

Throw out the bath water! An excellent article about breaking down fences, expanding the definition of art to be friendlier and inclusive:

Each of these articles is relevant to the place music occupies in today’s world. In the interest of a civilized society, we all need to care so music remains in our schools, our concert halls, and all of our lives.

What in this dialogue resonates with you? Would you send your students to music school? Your children? How are you engaged in encouraging creative expression?

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

Please take a look at my e-book!

“Goal-oriented Practice”
Are you practicing safely? How do you approach physically demanding works? Do you power through when the pressure is on? How do you guide your students?

Do you have a plan for putting difficult pieces together at performance tempo?

This book will help you take a step back, save practice time, learn more music, and perform with confidence.

50% off!!!  Absolutely NO JARGON!  Even my non-musician little sister says so.

Click on the link to see the book intro, table of contents, and reader comments.

What did you find here?  What would you like to see? Comments welcome!

If this post has been helpful and you think your friends and contacts would benefit from reading it, please share.

I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

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Further discussion: ergonomic instruments, injuries, perfect pitch

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By Sullivanthepoet. (Own work.) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Town crier in Plymouth, Devon, England, 2014. By Sullivanthepoet. (Own work.) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

New information updates previous blog posts!  Recent input informs the way we handle injuries, where each of us is in the perfect pitch conversation, and ergonomic instrument development.

First, Don Ehrlich, who plays an ergonomic viola, posted this comment on Facebook:

Don:  Hi Gretchen, An interesting point in time that this [link to my guest post] reached my computer. You don’t know this: The injury to my right thumb got worse and worse. For example, I played a performance of Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, where in rehearsals I couldn’t get my bow to behave as I wanted it to. (It did work out in the performance, thank heavens.) Turns out to have been a broken tendon. I found a Very Good hand surgeon in Kaiser South San Francisco. He operated on me on April 13. I’m only now in recovery, trying to regain my skill, strength and endurance. Today I had an appointment with my physical therapist, one recommended by my surgeon. He is weaning me off my range-of-motion exercises and giving me strengthening exercises. Life is never easy, I guess. There is a new-styled frog for violin/viola bows, the Galliane frog. It’s supposed to be ergonomic, though I don’t know how. I was hoping to have it in place already, for my recovery, but that hasn’t happened yet. I can keep you posted, if you like.

Gretchen:  Thanks for being in touch, Don. I was unaware that tendons could break. Best of luck, and yes, please keep me posted.

OK if I add your comment to your guest post?

Don:  Of course.

My physical therapists usually like to say to avoid surgery at all costs. Well, for me it became intolerable, and surgery became necessary.

Gretchen:  Thanks, Don. I know 2 other people who have had tendon surgery (a finger was trapped in closed position for both). They are completely back to normal now; one is a pianist.

I’m glad you did it, given the circumstances.

Don Ehrlich’s guest post:

A previous post about playing with pain and ergonomic instruments:

A related article:

Another Facebook find, from Beth Parker:

Science Has Great News for People Who Can’t Sing
http://www.interlude.hk/front/science-great-news-people-cant-sing/

A related discussion:

and my e-book!

“Goal-oriented Practice”
Are you practicing safely? How do you approach physically demanding works? Do you power through when the pressure is on? How do you guide your students?

This book will help you take a step back, save practice time, learn more music, and perform with confidence.

50% off!!!

What did you find here?  What would you like to see? Comments welcome!

If this post has been helpful and you think your friends and contacts would benefit from reading it, please share.

I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

Many thanks to Don Ehrlich and Beth Parker. 

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Q&A: Ergonomics of piano playing

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

While a computer tech was trouble-shooting at the house this week, he was interested in my ergonomic keyboard. In fact, he is going to purchase one.

Take a look!  http://www.thehumansolution.com/keyovation.html

That got me thinking about this post, first published in 2010.

Someone searched this blog recently for “ergonomics of playing the piano.”  Let’s replace that with “playing the piano safely.”

We can maintain our ability to play the piano for decades by being aware and looking for variety.

Awareness of warning signs is important to avoid injury.  Once someone incurs an injury, s/he becomes more vulnerable to further injury in the future.  So even if you think it could never happen to you, it happens all the time.

Be Aware

If you feel numbness, tingling, or pain, you need to take a break.

If anything hurts, even a stiff neck, you need to look at that.

Practicing mindlessly for hours on end without a break is never a good idea.

Incorporate Variety

What’s your plan?  How do you practice?

Going at something as fast and loudly as possible will get you injured in no time.

Here are a few ideas about staying safe.

You can practice:

  • hands alone
  • slower than performance tempo
  • loud/soft
  • changing range on the keyboard
  • alternating difficult passages with less stressful ones
  • mixing up a stint of staccato practicing with legato (use your body in different ways)
  • for leaps and glissandi, measuring distances and calculating timing by faking it (above the keyboard ~ no need to play all that often)
  • feeling chord shapes in your hands, also above the keyboard
  • more carefully when you’re tired

You can:

  • alternate practicing and gripping activities with passive activities, such as reading or taking a walk, talking on the speakerphone.  For example, lifting weights and practicing are both stressing your body, thus making you more vulnerable to injury.  Your body needs a break in between.
  • play with your hands and arms in a natural position (you don’t have to be exactly lined up with the keys!)
  • look at your practice setup ~ lighting, chair height, your distance from the keyboard (do you have room to navigate?)
  • always use healthy body alignment (feet on the floor, supporting your body ~ no slumping forward, no legs wrapped around chair legs, no feet on chair rungs, no head on hand on elbow resting on the piano)
  • look at the music away from the piano
  • conduct, sing, walk the rhythm, clap, speak the text in rhythm, try dynamic changes out with your voice
  • take a 20-min. break every hour
  • practice in more than one chunk of time during the day
  • eat 3 healthy meals every day (don’t skip a meal in order to practice!)
  • exercise!
  • stretch your body and warm up your hands before practicing (5 min.)
  • stretch your arms, shoulders, and back after practicing (5 more min.)

Computer use (i.e. more use of your hands)

Same thing.  Look at your setup, use good body alignment (don’t lie on your bed, resting on your elbows).  Take breaks.  Move your arms, shoulders, and back when you type, like you would on an old manual typewriter with tiered keys.  Stretch before and after computer work.

Computers probably demand more fast work without breaks than practicing an instrument.  No one talks about good body alignment in workplaces.  Deadlines are much more important.  (Fed-Ex leaves in 5 minutes!  Are you done yet?)  And, unless you’re self-employed, you’re likely to have someone who wants you to produce more, faster than you need to be going.  Pressure means vulnerability to injury.

Why not take a look at your usual approach to the computer during your time off, at home?  Try looking at yourself in the mirror, or ask a friend to help.

At work, you can set your phone alarm to alert you once an hour.  Stand up, walk around, stretch, breathe, and something relaxing.  Take a break!  The up side of leaving your work where it is for a few minutes is, you won’t turn into a pretzel!

What do you think?  What is your approach to practice and computer use?  Do you have certain ways of going about it that work particularly well for you?  Do you take breaks?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section!

You can read much more about ergonomics here.

And while you’re here, please take a look at my E-book! “Goal-oriented Practice” is all about being smart, saving time, and achieving better results.

If this post has been helpful and you think your friends and contacts would benefit from reading it, please share. I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

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The single most important thing you can do right now to improve your practice sessions

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Circles that are tangent to each other

Image via Wikipedia

 

​How often do you spend hours practicing, only to realize later that much of that time was wasted?  Do you find that you need to revise your plan as you go along from time to time?

If the answer is anything other than “occasionally,” you can do something about it.  Practicing does not have to be unconscious.

Life happens.  You get a phone call, expecting it to be brief, and it turns into something else.  Or someone comes to the door.  Your child’s school calls, and now you have to drop everything to pick up your daughter.  Schedule changes happen ever 5 minutes some days, it seems.

You had planned on having a block of uninterrupted practice time, and then this happened.  Sticking to your original plan won’t work.  How are you going to learn all that music?

Deciding what to do when you need to change plans

Make a plan for this practice session based on what you can realistically touch upon in the time available.

If some of your planned time has been derailed today, make a new plan.

  • Less time per piece/section
  • Save some repertoire for next time
  • Look at the music you need to do soon
  • Keep notes about what you left out; be sure to look at it next time

Adjusting your plans results in better practice than attempting to do everything, regardless.

Reserve part of your consciousness in order to self-journal your practice in your head.

  • How much time have you spent on one passage?
  • After a few minutes, are you making progress?

You may want to switch to something else for the time being.

If taking a minute every so often to assess your progress just doesn’t happen, try setting an alarm for every 20-30 minutes.  Sometimes musicians, myself included, become completely involved in the music and don’t want to stop.

Tailor today’s practice to the way you feel.

  • If you are tired or under the weather, practicing at performance tempo can wait a day or two.
  • If you are feeling pressured by deadlines or having too little time, practicing faster and faster is not likely to help.  If you are conscious of this as a tendency, you can set a slightly slower tempo and see better results.  The hardest part of doing that is realizing that you’re caught up in going faster because of a time crunch!

If you find yourself yelling at the composer, the instrument, the editor, the publisher, the wrong notes, or yourself, something is wrong.  None of that is helpful.  Take a step back, take a deep breath, and try another approach.

It’s not about the time you put in.  It’s about the music.

Identifying what needs to be done today, right now, can help you meet a deadline.

During college, I felt that putting in a certain number of hours per day/week meant that I was progressing. And then I found a wonderful teacher who was able to convey what was important. Learning the music well is the game plan, not awarding points for time spent.

I know from personal experience that revising one’s practice plan on the spot is easier said than done. But it is possible, and you’ll be saner for it. By being aware of how we use our practice time, we can obtain better results. Even if we reach the end of our available time today without realizing what happened, we can refocus tomorrow.

Do you have a habit of self-monitoring your practice sessions?  Or do you have regrets after you’re finished for the day?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Updated from March 2010

Related articles

For more about practicing, all in one place, take a look at my e-book!

Goal-oriented Practice
New review by pianist and conductor Andrei Strizek

Introduction, Table of Contents, Reviews, Readers’ Comments.

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Remembering Jean Ritchie, 12/8/22-6/1/15

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Jean Ritchie with her sons, Peter (L) and Jon Pickow

Jean Ritchie with her sons, Peter (L) and Jon Pickow

Jean Ritchie, the wonderful folksinger who was born in Appalachia and brought the dulcimer to a much wider audience, died on Monday at the age of 92.

Harp on the willow tree, now it is hung.
One man, one faith, one God, to them I clung.
Sweet were the songs of life, now they are sung.
Harp on the willow tree, now it is hung.

– Jean Ritchie (from Epitaph for Myself)
from Jon Pickow’s Facebook page

I had the pleasure of meeting Jean at a Christmas party at her home in Port Washington, Long Island.  Her son Jon had invited the entire Norman Luboff Choir.  We were on break from a tour.

Meeting Jean and being at the party was such a delightful experience, one I shall always remember.

My impression, on hearing the guests, all folksingers, share songs in turn:

Six or eight songs had been sung, and now it was Jean’s turn.  She was standing with her back to the room, washing dishes.  Had that been me, I may have asked others to sing, delaying my contribution until I had finished what I was doing.  Not Jean.  She continued washing dishes and sang beautifully!

Isn’t that wonderful? It wasn’t a show. She had no need to change a thing: she didn’t turn to face the audience, didn’t put on more makeup or change clothes. She didn’t ask for more light. There was no printed program. She just sang. Singing wasn’t something different. It’s who she was. I have always admired that.

You can find more about my impressions of the party and the wonderful folksinging guests here:

Authenticity in Performing

New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox:
http://nyti.ms/1AOebha
Be sure to scroll down to watch a video of Jean singing “Shady Grove” while accompanying herself on the dulcimer.

from NPR:
http://n.pr/1RI8kOE

The Wall Street Journal
http://on.wsj.com/1QcmvOS

Lexington (KY) Herald-Ledger editorial:
Jean Ritchie, a righteous voice of Kentucky

The Courier-Journal:
http://cjky.it/1GpeL7p

Jean Ritchie’s Induction into the Long Island Hall of Fame:
http://nyti.ms/1EYlOwL

from AMP, Alternate Music Press:
http://alternatemusicpress.com/features/jeanritchie.html
includes discography and books by Jean Ritchie

from The Mudcat Café:
http://bit.ly/1APmU2O
featuring an exhaustive list of related links

from DailyKos.com:
http://bit.ly/1QabRbh
More videos!

Jean Ritchie’s memoir:
Singing Family of the Cumberlands

DVD:
Mountain Born:  The Jean Ritchie Story
KET Teacher’s Guide

Memorial donations:
http://www.appalachianvoices.org/

Rest in peace, Jean.  We will miss you greatly.

If your think your friends/network would find this useful, please share it with them — I would greatly appreciate it. 

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