I'm very grateful for this article from Interlude writer Frances Wilson. She begins with the observation that most musical biographies seem rather formulaic. Venues, conductors, competitions and teachers. There are alternatives:
Wouldn’t it be refreshing, once in a while, to read an artist’s biography which was less a list of achievements and name-dropping, and more about the personality behind the dry words and the professional photograph? To discover more about that person’s musical influences, their likes and dislikes, what music excites them and why, and what makes them tick as a musician? Details that may not be found on the artist’s website and which might bring musicians closer to their audiences. In reality, most artist biographies tell us very little about the musician or musicians we are about to hear in concert and seem only to serve the requirements of their agents and managers.
I remember just before I made my first version of my website. I was nervous to do it: I was a hack! I didn't have major accomplishments, I didn't have a lot of performances to advertise, and why would anyone be looking for information about me anyway? I relented only to treat my website like a portfolio, but I still felt that its presence suggested that I had an inflated sense of my own fame.
Writing a biography was very similar. I couldn't create as impressive a biography as those I read of professional musicians. Even amongst many of my student colleagues, I didn't have the biggest named schools, or major competitions, or prestigious festivals to arouse audience interest.
Besides, some people's biographies come off sounding fake or contrived. "I studied with the student of a student of ___________ famous teacher." "I won some competition only 5 people heard of" "I made up a series of adjectives which have no objective value regarding my playing".
Then I read the book Beyond Talent by Angela Myles. Her idea regarding biographies was to tell your story as an artist. She suggested collecting 'raw material', any aspect of my career, talent, strengths, fun facts, which made me, me. What was the brand that only I could sell.
I crafted a biography which I used for several years (with minor adjustments here and there) that I was happy with, because it gave the audience context to my performances. My biography wasn't there to wow them, it was there so that my personality, my history, and my music making could emanate from the same source.
So no more hiding behind inflated accomplishments. I'm calling for a resurgence of honest biographies that tell stories. True stories.
(and by the way, I've been revamping my own biography. It will roll out in a few weeks, before the end of July!)
more active arms. You want big motions, big power, to come from bigger joints and bigger muscles. Fingers are really good at the small things: articulating. The arm, specifically the elbow joint, is really good at creating the motion needed for a big sound at the piano. The common wisdom says that you play the piano with your fingers. I try to emphasize with beginning students that the fingers are more than anything just a conduit for bigger muscles to transfer motion to the keys. Tiny muscles that they have, we want our fingers to have to work only as a last resort.
Obviously, this is complex language. When teaching beginning piano students, you don't want to overburden them with technical language. In fact, you don't want them to really know that they're learning at all. A fundamental principle in piano pedagogy is that you relate new knowledge to old knowledge.
What kids do understand naturally, by the time they're beginning piano lessons, is brushing their teeth. And unless they use an electric toothbrush, they understand that bristles on an old-fashioned toothbrush don't do any work themselves. But they're essential to brushing! Kids immediately and intuitively understand that it's our arm that's the source of motion when brushing their teeth.
So, I give them a toothbrush to play on the piano. It just so happens that the 'arm' of the toothbrush corresponds nicely to our forearm, the 'joint' of our hand holding the toothbrush corresponds to the elbow. The bristles of a toothbrush even look like our fingers hanging from our hand in a beautiful piano hand position.
I'll have my students play quite a bit with the toothbrush, then ask them to treat their fingers just like the bristles. Generally, they intuitively make the connection, they can play with quite a big sound, without pushing or forcing. Their fingers are more passive and their arm more active, and they have nice alignment as well as hand position. Throughout their early years, I can continue to refer to "toothbrush arm" as a technical tool for specific pieces.
This way I also never have to talk about their wrists. They innately understand that the "wrist" of a toothbrush isn't floppy, but it isn't a cement block either. Again, it's a conduit, a tube where motion from the arm travels to the fingers. They get that all the wrist has to do is just not get in the way.
And so as I adjusted my performance to align to a quarter-note pulse, the piece changed from the brooding, introspective piece to a very angry, agitated one. The piece drives forward, barely relenting, until you reach the climactic diminished 7th chord right around 0:58. Then the picardy third that follows isn't so much a ray of sunshine as it is a sarcastic "well, whatever", still angry.
I think it fits the piece really well. My teacher wanted certain harmonic tensions and resolutions in place but he was willing to go along with it. I played it this way in a couple competitions, as well as for other teachers in studio classes, lessons, and a few commented on it, a few didn't. Anyone who was very familiar with the piece clearly noticed the difference. If I encountered any resistance, I maintained that it wasn't really 'faster', my performance, it was just in the proper meter. Tap along to the quarter note, and it isn't a speedy beat!
This 5-voice fugue was quite difficult to learn, but I'm rather happy with how it sounds. It sounds very busy, but there's quite a lot of clarity in this performance. This performance would come from October of 2010.
that some of the more virtuosic elements of the piece (simple as they seem to me now) were a struggle. I could tense up in the big chordal or octave sections and I imagine my rhythm suffered terribly, as did sound and voicing. I think it's also the reason I hit some clunkers; say in M. 5-6, I'm holding a fixed hand position as I shift positions and never establish the new positioning.
But this piece is a particularly dangerous one if you can't sing at the piano. It's almost made to be played "beaty", that is, EVry SINGle BEAT sounds the SAME. The first two phrases share the melody between the hands, and the homorhythmic nature, AND the range of the melody lends itself to be played so badly, so easily.
I know that we worked so hard on creating a singing line, and instilling an organic rubato. At this point, even though I'd been playing it for several years off and on, you can hear the artificiality of some of my musicality.
Consider the beginning. First of all, the tempo is too slow (perhaps to aide some technical struggles later. You can hear that I speed up for beats two and three, and I bet that was something we were trying intentionally, to move the phrase forward. Secondly, I make a HUGE agogic accent on the F in measure two. I'm sure my teacher was trying to get me to highlight the highpoint of the phrase, but it sounds so fake here.
I do like the section that follows pretty well. I think I have a nice staccato to accent timing in measure 9 and 11. I wish measures 10 and 12 would drive just a bit more, but overall I think the musicality is natural.
I remember in the "nocturne" that follows, M. 14-20, we worked a lot on rubato...I think I spend a little too much time "enjoying" the pic-up measures and they become monotonous. But, I like the sound here.
Something I'm quite pleased with is the laying of voices in M. 65-82. Here in the development, takes the technique of the opening, but changes the monotonous rhythm so that the principle melody is dotted half-note and quarter-note, leaving the hand crossing in place as a filler voice. I think I highlight this rather well, and am glad I don't try to "correct" Brahms by playing the melody as if it were written the same as in the exposition.
My favorite part of this piece has always been the closing theme in the exposition, and especially in the recapitulation. There's something about that surging left hand that sounds so triumphant, even in the minor key. I know my teacher warned me not to playing everything too loudly. I'm sure I was just banging, but following the advice, you hear me pull back in measure 112, again, so artificially. If I encountered a student banging in something like this, I'd encourage them to think more lyrically within forte/fortissimo, leaving the relative dynamic level untouched.
So it's interesting, the first old personal recording I had, I probably remembered as worse than it actually was. I would have thought that this oft-played piece from my late teens or early twenties would have come off better. But I'd take my playing in that Haydn any day over this Brahms.
(I should rerecord this Brahms!)
Any music teacher worth their salt, who requires their student to make musical goals, knows to push their students towards realistic goal setting. That's not to say that a student shouldn't have a goal of "playing at Carnegie Hall", or "win the Cliburn Competition". But in order to achieve these goals, we need to formulate a series of interim goals.
The deeper you go in creating these short-term landmarks, the further you're actually getting from making goals, and the closer you are to making systems.
I'm a big fan of scheduling my time, and acting in a consistent manner day to day. I wrote about aspects of my schedule when I spoke about my morning routine, and matching activities up with energy schedules.
James Clear expands on this idea in an article about the benefits that systems have over goals. He suggests that if a coach of a sports team focusses on the systems built and refined in daily practices, inevitably is going to have greater success over the course of a season, than a coach focussed on winning a championship at the end of the season. If a championship is unattainable without the day to day systems in place anyway, why not put all energy and expertise into perfecting the system.
Clear uses his own writing as an example. He set to a system of writing new articles every Monday and Thursday. Over the course of the year, he had produced a volume of work equivalent to 2 books. But if he had started that year with the plan to write 2 books, so many questions and unknowns would have gotten in the way: what should the book be about?, how should it be structured?, what sources should I draw on?...This is only off the top of my head.
I spoke about something similar to this in a post called Dangerous Goals. James Clear's article adds elements to the discoveries I made there. Particularly, his second reason to focus on systems rather than goals.
One critique that may be made about focussing on short-term systems rather than long-term goals, is that if we have no 'eye on the prize', we won't work towards anything in particular. But his point is that once we attain a quantifiable goal, we can easily lapse into passivity, perhaps regressing on the skills that took us to our goal. If we can't identify and replicate the systems that led to an achievement, even a new goal is like starting from scratch.
Setting goals and working towards them is like trying to tell the future. We can't turn ourselves into something we're not. What we can do is start with an acknowledgement of our strengths and weaknesses, and work on systems, habits and schedules, that utilize our strengths. New skills will emerge, new habits formed, and inevitably we are capable of producing much greater work than ever before.
So before you worry about visualizing a performance goal far off in the future (even six months is too far away), focus on your practicing. How is your practice system working out for you? How are your day to day routines supporting that system? Are you spending enough time practicing? Are you spending your practice time efficiently? Are you strengthening these artistic systems with personal growth, social time and paying attention to your physical health?
Most of us would agree that the best piano playing has a certain spark of intuitiveness, spontaneity that could not be planned. Don't worry too much about planning your playing in the future. Plan your day, plan your work habits, and you might be surprised by the artistry that comes out.
One writer I really admire is a guy named James Clear. He's the source of the read 20/pages a day system that I mentioned in an earlier post. He writes extensively on habit formation and strategies to formulate creative excellence.
I happened upon a podcast interview with him where he expounded on a lot of ideas in this article: The Difference between Professionals and Amateurs. In short, the difference that he discovered is simply a willingness to commit to regularly engaging in one's chosen work:
Being a pro is about having the discipline to commit to what is important to you instead of merely saying something is important to you. It's about starting when you feel like stopping, not because you want to work more, but because your goal is important enough to you that you don't simply work on it when it's convenient. Becoming a pro is about making your priorities a reality.
I know that I myself have always had trouble committing to seeing repertoire or a recital program through to complete, professional-level mastery. When I was getting tired of practicing the same pieces, my undergraduate teacher would extol the virtues of theater actors: "They have to perform the same play with the same lines and the same actions day after day. They can't afford to get tired of it, and neither can you."
It's true, the point is well taken. These professional artists had to commit to the artistic merits of their production. They had to invest their own talent to bringing a play or a musical to life day in and day out.
I had the opportunity to ask a singer on tour with a Broadway musical how they achieved this professionalism. He said that in such a large ensemble, everyone's individual approach in a given night allowed for subtle variety which could only be noticed by the actors. A scene where the cast casually socializes, free of choreography, would allow for different interactions every single time. The actors could test each other's commitment to character by pushing different boundaries in an attempt to make others laugh. Even the most systematic and planned blocking allowed for variations night in and night out.
I really took this insight to heart. It is the sign of a true professional to withstand seeming monotony and find artistic variations within the repetitive routine.
Pianistically, we have set choreography of notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. We even have more subtle elements imposed upon us by performance practice, and the expectations of our teachers or colleagues.
But beyond this there is still a wide margin for variation. The balance between our hands can shift between phrases to show different nuances of a story. Rubato can ramp or ease up to highlight dramatics arcs. We can explore the extremes of individual articulations; staccato does not just mean detached.
A professional pianist shows up with regularity to explore these variations while the amateur pianist explores a piece only when, and until their inspiration lets up. Even the pianist who moves on to pursue something else, even if practicing consistently, but not consistently pushing one's understanding of certain repertoire, will never reach the same kind of professional artistry that others who show up and dig deeper will.
I thought that a good summer project would be to revisit some old performances of mine. The oldest recordings of myself that I know to be in existence are from my second year of my undergraduate studies. I haven't found the CD of that session, but I'm sure it's somewhere in my home. I do have my junior and senior recitals, plus several other recordings from my undergraduate years, not to mention all recitals I've done since, and non-recital sessions of other works too. I'm lucky that I've made sure to get decent recordings of almost all major repertoire i've learned.
My memory would tell me that my piano playing back in the day was awful. I've improved technically since then, and clearly I had no idea how to listen to my own playing, interpret music correctly, or practice for strong, individual performances.
As I listen back, I was actually quite wrong. I don't hate my playing from my late teens and early twenties. I hear problems in it, but I also hear an individualistic artistry which I recognize as an early version of my playing today. So I thought I'd share some old personal recordings and comment on them.
First up is my Junior recital from January 19, 2007. This was my first full recital program ever, including Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D, WTC II, de Falla's The Miller's Dance, a couple Debussy Preludes, Morel's 2nd Study in Sonority, (maybe something else?) along with this Haydn Sonata. This date is the only time I ever wore a tux with tails, rented for the occasion, and for some reason, I thought so much hair was a good idea.
that one of my biggest issues was a tight hand and wrist, likely due to under utilized finger position, and poorly integrating all of my upper limbs. You can also hear it in the scalar passages like M. 36-37.
Some of the musicality is naive. You can count out all of the fermatas, they're far too unoriginal and ill-contrived. I would like to hear more detail in the articulations, especially a closer attention to slurs. A lot of "hits" are the exact same strength, i.e. M. 74, 76.
But on the good side, I do back off for M. 78 to create a nice little line. There are other moments where I listen and match the tension and release of a line well, say M. 60-61
I really like how I listen to the ends of phrases; M. 4-5 and M. 6-7 make a nice pair, and M. 10 captures the confusion of landing on this strange chord really well.
Overall, it sounds like I do get the jocular character of this piece quite well. I don't have all the tools to execute it yet, but I do hear something in my playing that I like, and I'm grateful that I had great teachers who heard it as well.
I love school, whether as a teacher or as a student, but I love summer holidays more. There's something about the combination of the environment coming alive around me while ideas and knowledge are mingling in my brain, birthing creative energy that I'm all too eager to let out.
Summer and holidays, time away from school, are inextricably linked in my mind to developing relationships with people. Maybe it's because I have met so many great friends at summer music festivals, or maybe it's because I fell in love with my wife, and knew that I wanted to marry her, in the summertime.
It's mingling that makes me feel most alive. Mingling with people. Mingling with ideas. Mingling with the peaceful outside world.
But interpreting a piece of music is another form of mingling.
People change and our relationships to them change. Sometimes that means they leave our lives, but I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm going to grow and change as a person and the way I interact with everyone will, too. The depths of how I knew my wife on our wedding day seems almost superficial today, but it felt profound then. There’s nothing I would trade for the profundity of our relationship today, and I expect to say the same thing every year from now on.
Music is similar. The longer we study a piece, the better we know it, the more profoundly we understand its depths. Yet, unlike people, it’s never changed, only we have. It stays the same, and we understand it better.
We can constantly mingle with a piece and explore its depths. It will never change but it can still provide that sense of wonder, profundity and exploration that summer time or mingling with people does for me.
That’s why, paradoxically, though the beautiful nature of late spring and early summer is so inspiring to me, it often inspires me to go inside, to practice, and explore. We get to learn so much about ourselves and our relationships with other people because a musical piece acts as a mirror, showing us how we’ve changed and grown.
I'm sure that psychologists have studied the age at which children become meta-cognitively aware of the differences between long term and short term memory. This is something I need to try to find out.
I came to the realization, with one of my teenaged students, that he wasn't practicing with his long term memory in mind. In The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney writes some about ingraining the correct version of a piece in our mind. He laments the kind of practicing where a mistake is encountered, corrected and then never addressed again. What he's getting at, I think, is that there's the conscious, working, short term memory. Then there's the unconscious, storage, long term memory. Usually we practice so that our short term memory understands the right or the wrong way to play something, but we don't realize that there's no guarantee that our long term memory knows the difference.
What gets stored in our long term memory will be the version that we've practiced most, the one that can be chunked and related to some piece of information already in our long term memory.
Some day I'm going to try an experiment with a more advanced, teenaged or early twenties student:
I'll assign them the task to memorize a few paragraphs of some text, maybe something musical to distract them from the point. I'll instruct them to only memorize the text for 10 minutes a day, each day for one week. Each day they'll take notes about what they did, how they approached memorization. I assume the way they'll practice memorizing text will be more conducive to long term memory storage, than the usual way we practice piano.
I'm very passionate about practicing in efficient and effective ways. I've written an e-book about it, which you can get for free here. No matter how hard I try, I often feel like my ideas and tactics aren't appreciated, or even taken up at all, by my students. But I think we naturally will approach memorization of text differently.
Ultimately, the problem is that we don't think about learning a piece of music as a matter of memorization. We're not memorizing the notes from the get-go. We're memorizing the gestures, the choreography of the piece, which are necessary to play it with fluidity, without making major mistakes. This is called implicit memory (and I define and explain this concept extensively in the e-book). I hope that the idea of memorizing text will help students connect to a more efficient method of practicing, where long-term memory is the ultimate goal.
When you encounter a rest in musical notation, you should do anything but rest.
This observation isn't really new. It's a nice quip that many people have said. Teachers themselves, pedagogy instructors, and students. All have realized that so much goes on in a rest.
I'm commenting on it, because I find myself as a teacher forgetting the advice. Or, I forget to consider this as a fundamental issue slowing down a student's learning process.
Rests have musical value, of all kinds of variety. It could be interruption or surprise, and very often it's a musical breath, an essential aspect of voice-like phrasing.
Often, rests are technical, and it's in this sense that I forget the maxim. Often times, rests mean to move. Whether or not a composer inserted the rest intentionally, we often need rests to find a new hand position. Think of a rest as a momentary pause is absolutely incorrect.
The same could be said about long note values. It is difficult for younger students to engage with these in any way other than counting out the correct number of beats. But we want to draw students into a dual-way of approaching longer notes: both counting the durational value, but also using the 'hold' as a chance to look ahead and prepare what comes next, at least mentally, if one can't do so physically.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act