Months ago, I wrote about my love of Amy Beach and her Ballad, Op. 6. I was finally working on this great piece after dreaming about learning it for many years. Back in February, at my first Choosing Joy performance, I was relatively happy with how the piece went off. I won't go too deep into analyzing the performance. But I figured I would share it-wrong notes and all-as a special treat to those who read my blog. Check it out:
Prevailing wisdom tells you that when playing a fugue, one should always bring out the subject. I suppose the logic is ironclad: the whole point of a fugue is to have the main theme/subject weave itself in and out horizontally while 3-5 voices weave in and out of themselves vertically.
But I wonder if this way of playing a fugue defeats the purpose.
Isn't the genius of Bach that he could combine the subject and independent material in remarkable ways? It's more that he hides the subject? So if we're constantly pointing out the subject, we're working against the genius of his polyphonic writing.
I like to make the appearance of the subject much more subtle, and bring out the top voice more often than not. Give the audience some credit: most will know what they're listening for, and will search for it anyway. We don't have to hit them over the head with the subject. Even for the audience without significant musical training: fugues are set up that they get to hear the subject alone to begin the movement, then hear it flow from one voice to the next. Given just a little musical ear, and they understand this concept, and will track it as the texture becomes more complex. To me, this unveils a much greater, more subtle form of compositional genius.
I have one more comment before I leave sleeping and schedules for a little while. I found a really great article discussing how to identify your most productive times of the day, and how to best utilize your energy highs and lows by categorizing the different tasks that need your time.
The article asks you to consider your tasks on a scale of high or low for energy and for impact. This gives you four types of tasks: high energy/low impact, low energy/low impact, high energy/high impact, low energy/high impact.
Once you've identified the best times of your day to get work done, you want to put your highest energy, highest impact tasks there. That's why I practice in the morning, about 3 hours after I first wake up. My best mindset is then filled with my most important task.
I take this idea further when I schedule my teaching during my low energy points in the day. I don't find teaching college aged students particularly tiring, but it's still very impactful, so late morning and early afternoon is my best time to get this done, efficiently for my own mindset and levels of energy.
Low energy/low impact things still have to get done. Ideally, you can all these things in around the edges so that they get done in places where you need a boost of confidence in your productivity. These kinds of things, like answering email, are important, but are never your top priority. But if you crank several things out in a few minutes (given their low energy requirements), you feel rather accomplished.
Hopefully you can keep the high energy/low impact tasks from your life!
Now this way of scheduling isn't always perfect. I teach my youngest students when they're out of school, late afternoon and early evening. This is a nebulous time for me, as sometimes my afternoon second wind lasts till 8 or 9 PM, sometimes it's over by 5 PM! But this is certainly a high energy/high impact kind of work. Sometimes you can't do all of your work in the most productive parts of your day. I counteract these low energy teaching days by always having snacks on hand, drinking plenty of water, and standing up to teach instead of sitting.
If you've never given a lot of thought to how you schedule your day, I urge you to. I feel most like myself, and most like a successful musician and teacher, when I have a productive strategy in place and keep to it with consistency.
One year ago I made the first post in my officially rebranded blog. I renamed this space "pianistic intentions", because I'd been reflectively intensively on the idea of what it means to stand out as an artist. It seemed to me that there is a category of musicians, professional and amateur, young and old, who successfully combine the best of performance traditions, with their own, distinctive, individual voice. This is something they do with purpose and with intentionality.
I want to listen to intentional pianists. I want to develop intentional pianists, I want to be an intentional pianist.
So much writing about classical music, so many piano blogs, don't get at this specific distinction of how to be a unique artist. It's also really difficult to approach this topic when teaching advanced pianists.
I had a conversation with a younger graduate student in piano performance recently. I'd just heard a performance and complimented what I heard. They answered "well, I made a mistake but I don't think anyone noticed". I get how difficult it is to accept compliments when you're disappointed in your own performance. But I think there's something different going on beneath the surface.
This pianist thought that their performance ought to be judged solely on the merits of whether the right notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics had been played.
It just so happens that I've overheard this same pianist practicing. I could tell that this pianist practiced in a way to avoid errors, or at least get through them. Not to fix errors, and certainly not to develop an individual musical voice. Not to problem solve, not to hear the music in a new way, not to challenge their perceptions of how the piece should be performed.
I'm posting a slightly abbreviated version of my first post about "pianistic intentions" below. The student I was speaking with has gotten the copying part down, but has yet to move past it.
I still stand by the framework of this original post. Everything that I've posted since then has been with the intention of moving pianists from the point of copying, towards a more intentional pianism. I haven't always been steady in my work, but I'm expecting that the second year of blogging (dare I say, intentional blogging?) will be even more fruitful than the first.
On May 22, 2017 I wrote:
A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
Musicians, I think, are notorious for working late and sleeping in. I used to be in this crowd. I loved getting to a piano around 8 PM and having the rest of the night ahead of me, without any commitments to anyone, where I could practice. I felt 'the muse' late at night, I felt inspired. It was harmless if I wasted 45 minutes with friends talking in the hallways outside our practice rooms because I could always just practice later.
As I expanded on in my Friday post, I reached a crisis point where I couldn't manage to get my practicing in if I tried to work late.
I don't know much of the science behind it, but I do feel like I think better in the morning, even though I would have sworn several years ago the opposite. As I think back now, the last five years have easily been the most productive of my life, musically, and most positive of my life personally. Perhaps I felt inspired working late in years past, but that doesn't mean that the work I actually did was any good.
I've told enough friends, colleagues and students about my love of mornings to know that most people will still reject the idea. They aren't morning people, you see.
I'm very much of the opinion that anyone can become morning people. Here's how I did it.
We're very familiar as a society about sleep cycles, but we don't think about our awake cycles. When we're awake, our bodies go through natural cycles of energy. I always get tired around 1 or 2 PM, regardless of how much sleep I got the night before. I get through it by either working (I do well if I'm teaching during this time), or I take a quick cat nap (10 minutes with about 5 minutes snoozing after my alarm is enough for my brain to shut down, without getting into too deep a sleep). Either way, I catch a second wind and have a long productive period through the rest of the day.
The trick to being a morning person is to always be a morning person. Sleeping in is the worst thing we can do for our productivities and scheduling. I've yet to have anyone tell me where their internal battery is located, you know, the one you have "catch up on sleep" for. Unless your body needs healing, in which case sleep is the best state your body can do that in, do not sleep in (more than an hour or so).
We also usually don't accommodate our sleep cycles when we're trying to get up. In my doctoral work, when my workload was so heavy that I had to cut out sleep time, I was able to be very successful if I slept 6 hours a night. I would feel worse in the morning if I slept 7. The reason is that we will feel much better waking up if we wake up during the lighter part of a cycle. Since our cycles work in about 90 minute increments, you ought to wake yourself up after 3 hours of sleep, or 4.5, or 6, or 7.5. I've adapted to well with this strategy that I still only sleep about 6 hours every night.
The biggest thing is consistency. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, and you'll be surprised at how quickly you become a 'morning person'. Give yourself a few weeks of following these simple rules and I bet you'll be a morning person in no time. Please let me know if it works for you!
I wanted to follow up on Friday's post to talk a little about why I love mornings, and what I do when I wake up so early.
I'm not the kind of morning person that wakes up energetic and singing praise of the day. It is difficult for me to wake up, and I do let myself it snooze once or twice (this is a planned thing, I give myself the time to do it intentionally). I do need a good hour before I feel like myself after waking up. I do 'need' my coffee.
All these things are good and fine. When I say I love mornings, I don't mean that I get up and attack the day. I don't even follow strategies that some suggest, like exercising first thing, or meditating.
I love mornings because it's a time for me to be an introvert. I am a classic introvert, meaning I need time to be alone to recharge. Being around others is draining. Even though my wife is the singular exception to this rule (I wouldn't mind if she joined me first thing in the morning), I like time to be completely by myself. I drink a cup of coffee and check social media. Usually I don't check social media again until the evening, after work.
Then after about 20 minutes, I read. About a year ago, I read this simple idea if you read 20 pages a day (not a lot of reading), every day of the year, you're reading over 7,000 pages through the year, which means you'll read at least 20 books a year, at an average of 350 pages/book. Reading just one more page per day adds another book. But twenty-some books was way more than I had read since I was in high school, and I jumped in. I love this time, and it has helped me value reading over social media or TV throughout the rest of my day.
After about an hour, I go wake my wife up, spend time with her, get her coffee and help her get ready for the day. Given that she works a typical school day, and I work partly after school, this is crucial time to spend together.
Once she leaves, I finish up my third cup of coffee, and read some more or send some emails. Then by 8 or 8:30 I'm either practicing, or heading off to teach a class.
I have found that morning practicing is extremely rewarding. I think much more clearly, and I listen better. My mind is totally alert for a couple hours. In general, I've had my best performances since becoming a morning practicer and I don't think these things are unrelated.
Tomorrow I will tell you the secret to becoming a 'morning person', even if you're certain it'll never work for you.
I love mornings.
That I would write that sentence with 100% honesty would have surprised me little more than 5 years ago. I used to love my late nights and sleeping in in the morning. This reached its pinnacle at the end of my undergrad where I was able to practice till 1 or 2 in the morning, and sleep as late as I wanted in the morning without any commitments. But in the midst of my doctoral degree, I made a significant switch.
Initially it was out of necessity. The nature of my coursework meant that I only had limited time to practice. And many occasions throughout the day happened where I'd want to practice, I'd have a little time, and no practice room was available.
Funny that my teacher, in hearing of my plight, didn't think the solution was for the school to buy more pianos!
Instead, he related that when he arrives at school, between 8 and 8:30 AM, no one is practicing. Obviously, students who regularly can't get into a practice room ought to reorient their schedule to where no one else is practicing.
This proved to be a good mood. I was able to practice way more. And because I still valued my coffee time, as an introvert, I was able to wake up at least 1 or 2 hours before I "had to" to get to an available practice room. When I got married and my wife had to leave earlier for work, I woke up earlier still.
Now I wake up between 5 and 5:30 every morning, almost without exception. I look forward to weekends, not because I can sleep in, but because it's time where I can be awake and enjoy my mornings even longer. I LOVE mornings.
I'm going to expand on my routines more over the coming days to give you some insight into why this has been such a transformative practice for me as a person, and as a musician.
I've been giving a closer listen to Anton Rubinstein's Concerto #4 in d minor, Op. 70, since finishing his biography last week. You can check out the score here.
Listening to the first movement, one cannot avoid the connections between this work and the more famous 1st piano concerto of Tchaikovsky. A tendency towards heavy blocked chords jumping across piano registers, the piano accompanying a lyrical orchestral melody with scalar passages, alternating octaves. The piano textures are remarkably similar, and take nearly the same kind of technique from the pianist. The cadenzas also begin the same way: arpeggiated Gb major chords in the LH, like a harp, while a RH melody slow builds.
So the question is: who copied?
Clearly the answer is Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein's concerto was written in the early 1860s, and the first version of Tchaikovsky's came in the early 1870s (never mind the revisions that it went through). According to the biography, Tchaikovsky adored the older Russian from a young age, and though Rubinstein could be considered the younger Russian's teacher, he rarely gave him much mind. Evidently Rubinstein was mostly a teacher by example, rather than a mentor.
Tchaikovsky eventually tired of the relationship and felt taken advantage of. But clearly in this early work, he took many ideas from Rubinstein.
I wouldn't say Rubinstein managed to create moments that are quite as memorable as Tchaikovsky's. The concerto opens without much note, and though the first piano entry is energetic and extroverted, still has no match to Tchaikovsky.
Rubinstein's melodies are beautiful, but not quite the earworms as Tchaikovsky's.
Still: this is a worthwhile concerto. It is very dramatic, especially the coda which follows the first movement cadenza. It shows off the pianist very well, but isn't tremendously difficult.
I'm surprised more students don't pick this piece up. It would make a great stepping stone to the more famous Russian concertos that followed it, but it's still a great piece. I suppose it doesn't have quite the practicality, because few competitions would accept it, nor would many orchestras think to program it.
But there are some excellent recordings out there (I've listened to Matti Raekallio and Joseph Banowetz) and I think many people know of the piece. Let's hope that more pianists pick it up.
Many learning strategies include setting goals. There's lofty goals like winning an international piano competition and landing a full-time University teaching gig in 7 years. Or one might look more at the short term. A piano major at the beginning of a university semester might set the goal of performing a senior recital in 8 months time with a certain set of repertoire. Then working backwards, they decide what progress needs to be made and at what point in time.
I did this with preparation of my Choosing Joy Recital. A few months out, I decided how many complete run-throughs from memory I'd like to do in the weeks leading up to the first performance. I decided which pieces or even which sections of pieces would be most difficult to memorize. I decided where the most pressing technical challenges were and I made set goals of when to manage these goals. I thought intently about how much time I needed to solve the most difficult sections, but also how I could spread these out so that any one or two weeks wouldn't feel overwhelmed with work.
In the end, I had a week by week list, and in some cases, day by day breakdowns, of what practice accomplishments I needed to make. And I didn't follow any of it.
Really by the second week, I was off track. Inevitably something got in the way, and probably something legitimate. I didn't practice when I wanted to, I didn't get done all that I wanted, and soon my schedule was worthless.
This article helps explain why. It states what's perhaps on obvious trap (but one we always fall into) which is that unreasonable goals are so easy to make. You can decide on a goal to become a millionaire in 5 years, even break it down into smaller savings goals of $30,000 every two months, you're still probably not any closer to reaching your goal.
I'm lucky that my failure to reach my goals never made me unhappy. In fact, while perhaps a little behind, I was well prepared for my recital, and it went off rather well. This is likely because I followed the suggestions in this article, namely that I set rules, and enjoyed the process.
I'm very keen on a keeping a set schedule (I'll probably write about some of my routines in a future post). As I prepared this program, I had set days and hours that I practiced. I tested myself regularly (see Monday's post), and I adopted daily or weekly goals based on those results.
The work got done, and I enjoyed myself. I didn't feel guilty about not setting an arbitrary schedule which had no flexibility for life to get in the way. The older and more advanced a performer you become, the better to trust your instincts. Have deadlines, and have routines in which the work can get done. Work, and let the results happen on a smaller scale.
I recently finished reading Anton Rubinstein: A Life in Music, by Philip Taylor. I had been eager to become more familiar with the life of Anton Rubinstein (not the better known, more recent pianist, Artur Rubinstein). Rubinstein is today known as a gargantuan pianist from the latter half of the 19th century, a contemporary of Liszt, and epitome of the Grand Romantic Artist. Many people have compared my beloved Nyiregyhazi to Anton Rubinstein: the huge romantic gestures, passionate performances full of equal parts enthralling personality and wrong notes.
In the end, Taylor's biography focussed less on pianistic aspects of Rubinstein's career. In fact, more insight into his playing can be found in the occasional mention of his work in After the Golden Age. There was some insight into his general artistic vision, and his dedication to performing. Across many months in 1872 and 1873, he performed over 200 concerts in the USA, including one stop very close to my current home, performing in Toledo, Ohio (I want to see if there is any record of this event locally).
The book did emphasize his work as a composer, more than that of a performer. This was intriguing. I suppose I realized that he had written a lot of music, but I had only really heard his 4th piano concerto, and then, not in a professional setting.
In fact, Rubinstein seemed to regard himself as more of a composer than performer (similar, again, to Nyiregyhazi). He wrote over a dozen operas, several symphonies, an abundance of chamber music, lieder and a tremendous amount of piano in the form of concertos, sonatas, variations and character pieces.
I've been looking at a lot of his music and listening to some. It seems fair that his output here has been forgotten some. It is rather conventional, and dare I say derivative of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert, with a few certain Russian touches. Not that there's a lot that is bad but given when he wrote, history was ready to give posterity to composers doing something more new.
Some of it is very beautiful. As I write this, I'm listening to his Ocean Symphony for the first time. There are many beautiful melodies and gorgeous climaxes. He seems to understand writing for the orchestra very well as all sections are utilized in turn, and he writes quite a bit of polyphony. He seems to use form well to create drama and arch. But none of this is anything Beethoven hadn't done.
I may learn a few piano pieces, perhaps to build a repertoire of encore pieces. I think it's most interesting to observe how much history can change our perception of artists. Perhaps if Anton Rubinstein had been alive during Beethoven's time, we'd speak of him as a giant, and Beethoven as a side character. Perhaps if Anton had been alive 20 years later and been recorded, biographies of his life would focus much more on his pianism. As it is, it's difficult to say a lot, other than report on reviews and accounts of his recitals.
I wonder what it would have been like to hear him play, but for now, we must focus simply on his legacy as heard through his student, Josef Hofmann.
"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