Classical Music in the Cloud

Yesterday I came across Melanie Spanswick’s blog post about Valentina Lisitsa by way of Twitter. I read the post and watched the first video at the bottom of the page. After one hearing I had fallen in love with Rachmaninoff’s G major Prelude and tweeted to Melanie that I was downloading the score from IMSLP. Well, I printed it out and spent last night preparing it for a future recording for my Go Play Project.

It’s hard to believe that not that long ago I may never have come across this particular prelude. And if I had heard it on a CD or on the radio, it would take at least a week to order it, that is, if I ever got around to it. With Twitter, YouTube, IMSLP and Soundcloud – the musicians’s world has changed in amazing ways.

I remember a conversation I had with Karl Ulrich Schnabel back in the late 80′s about the future of classical music. A friend and I were at his New York apartment for a coaching for our duo-piano team. As we were leaving we started talking about the state of the arts and I remember he was very optimistic. He was convinced that there would be a renewed appreciation for classical music in the early 21st century.

As of today IMSLP has 199,000 scores and 17,000 recordings available for download. There are 266 groups on Soundcloud devoted to classical music, many of which have well over 1000 members.  Valentina Lisitsa has over 53,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel where her 192 classical music videos have received 44,064,397 views.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking but it certainly seems like classical music is alive and well and has a new home in the cloud.

(Listen to Week 23: Debussy’s La fille au cheveux de lin)

Letting Go of Perfectionism

Letting Go

“Red Balloons”

Well, it took me a while to get around to reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Sure I’d heard about the morning pages and I knew about the artist’s date, what did I need to read the book for? Well I got the book from the library yesterday and, as I usually do with non-fiction, I opened the book to a random page and started reading. Here’s what I found. It happened to be a bit about perfectionism.

To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, perform a perfect audition monologue.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough — that we should try again.

No. We should not.

It took a lot of will power this morning not to do “just one more” recording of this Scarlatti Sonata. But I had plans for the day and decided that it was “good enough.” My goal was to finally learn this piece, since I’ve loved it for years. It’s not difficult by any means, but I’m never totally satisfied with the opening ornaments. (I have a similar “fear” of the opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata  Op 2 No 3 in C major.) But there it is. I did it. It’s the best it is right now. And I’m putting it out there. I’m letting it go.

(And by the way, I’m so happy I finally picked up this book. It showed up at the right time….)

Juggling the Repertoire

As I approach the halfway mark in my Go Play Project, I realize that it was inevitable that I’d improve my time management skills. After all, the pieces I’m recording are either brand new repertoire, pieces I may have only looked at once or twice, or pieces I’ve learned before but haven’t touched in years. I’m usually not thinking more than one or two weeks ahead as I plan out upcoming recordings but I do have a few tips for anyone who’s thinking of working on their own version of the Go Play Project.

I knew from the beginning that there would be weeks when I wouldn’t be able to put the time into practice that I wanted to. For example, this past weekend we took a much needed mini-vacation to the Jersey shore and got back home Sunday night. I pulled out an old stand-by, Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat Op 9 no 2, a piece that I’ve performed many times, turned on my ZoomH2 and ended up posting the first recording of the evening. I have a few other short pieces up my sleeve for emergencies and I’m sure I’ll be using them before the end of the year.

I also have several new short (but more difficult) pieces that I try to practice every day (more Brahms and Rachmaninoff) with the goal of recording them later in the summer. I try to spend time each day only on the most technically challenging sections whittling down my practice time to the bare essentials. Sometimes I find it’s only one finger crossing, or one awkward leap, that needs consistent practice to smooth out an entire section.

Then there are the larger works that I’m bringing back such as Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse and Chopin’s Fantasy in f minor.These are pieces are still on the back burner, but they are in the stack on the piano along with a few other “bucket list” pieces and I try  to get to at least once a week even if it’s just for a “walk-through.”

Juggling my practice between several different pieces simultaneously, each at their own level of completion, along with the weekly goal of “putting it out there” keeps me motivated and energized. This is not the way I worked in the past, but it works for me now since I’ve become a teacher/mom/blogger/and master multi-tasker!

So you’re practicing?

originally posted by: ingeniousx on tumblr

Over the past few months I’ve noticed that when I mention to people that I started practicing piano again I get a variety of reactions. Most look at me like I just told them I took up a new hobby like quilt making or needlepoint. One suggested that it must be “relaxing” for me. My students usually give me a sidelong glance as if they’re wondering why I’d bother practicing piano at my age.

Luckily, most have no idea of all the musical “baggage” that accumulated over the years- the self-doubt, the performance nerves and the deterioration of technique from not practicing. There were the nagging thoughts that maybe I should be improvising and composing rather than playing music of dead composers. There were the times when making music was drudgery – hours of playing background music for a women’s bridge tournament and Christmas gigs with endless repetitions of I’ll Be Home For Christmas. There were horrible accompanying jobs (the orchestral reduction for the Jolivet bassoon concerto). And even while teaching the old saying “those who can’t play teach” would sometimes start running around in the back of my head.

These days I’m feeling very fortunate. I have the best group of students ever and I’m making the time to play the music I really want to play (such as this week’s Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableau Op 33 No 8 in g minor). Of course, some things have changed around here. The TV hasn’t been on since the Superbowl. The beds go unmade most days and the laundry piles up. Meals are take-out or super-easy to prepare. The piano is priority. Each week (now at week #20) I become more determined to see this year through.

Oh yes, and speaking of other people’s reactions to this whole piano practice lifestyle…once in a while I get a wonderful response.

Last night my Twitter friend, Rhea Borja (@RheaB) messaged me that she was inspired by the Go Play Project to record Schumann-Liszt’s “Widmung.” Here’s her first take! Have a listen!

And follow along to get updates on new weekly recordings by clicking “like” on the Go Play Project Facebook page.

My Favorite Online Master Classes

I love browsing the piano master class videos on YouTube and I have a few favorites that I return to time after time. These are the great pianists and teachers who speak in more general terms about the music, concepts that can be applied to all music. Below are links to a few who have inspired me…

  1. Here is a two-part video of Rubinstein working with a student on Chopin’s g minor Ballade. Near the end of this clip he talks about nobility in music. “Music is an art of emotion, of nobility, of dignity, of greatness, of love, of tenderness….but never show-off pompousness…Liszt liked to show what he can do but there is always music behind it.”
  2. In the first part of a two-part video filmed at her former farmhouse in Portugal, pianist Maria Joao Pires talks about the bar line and how we should never hear it because it has “zero to do with the phrase.” She talks about time and space and breathing in music. Later she talks about how we must believe that “miracles can happen” because in music, they do.
  3. In this first part of a six-part video master class with Gyorgy Sebok we learn about the distinction between music told from the first person point of view and music that is an illustration of something… “when you don’t resonate but you understand.” Later he talks about how some pianists control by tension, but how he prefers controlling by freedom. Using the example of a Parisian waiter carrying a tray of soup he talks about how we can control things better in mobility. He also spends time explaining how to create the illusion of a glissando on the piano.
  4. Finally, there is the Barenboim master class six-part video series on the Beethoven Sonatas. (A complete list of the videos can be found here.) Barenboim talks about rubato, legato, how content determines speed, the sense of well-being that comes from tensionless playing, and how the performer should always go from the standpoint of the ear because the ear knows everything and remembers everything. Six hours of video and fifty years insight from Daniel Barenboim, priceless.

Happy listening!

Diving Back Into the Big Pieces


Piano (Photo credit: MagnuZ)

Somewhere along the way, in my early 20s, I made the mistake of relying on a teacher to pass down the precise details of technique, fingering, pedaling, phrasing, and ultimately interpretation as I learned new repertoire. When I got a wonderful fingering for a section of the coda of Chopin’s 4th Ballade, it was like getting a special family recipe handed down from my great-grandmother. An unusual syncopated pedaling in the last movement of the Waldstein Sonata identified me of a member of a particular teacher’s studio. Many pianists even make a game of tracing their piano teacher lineage (What a burden to have to bear!… You studied with someone who studied with someone who studied with Beethoven?)

But what happens when a student leaves the comfort of the conservatory nest and doesn’t have a teacher coaching and demonstrating the repertoire every step of the way? Are they prepared to tackle a large piece and polish it to performance level on their own?

I wasn’t. At least I thought I wasn’t.

But I did have choices. For a while I decided I’d play only “new” music, challenging technically, but less so musically because there’s no tradition to follow. Then there was the job playing popular standards in a restaurant…no quicker way to become a sloppy pianist. Once I even tried free improvisation by rolling rubber balls inside the piano…very cool, but really??

Every pianist I know has a “bucket list.” Mine includes Beethoven Op 109 and 110, Schumann Fantasy in C, Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61, Brahms Handel Variations, Schumann Carnaval, and many others. I know my 16-year old self wouldn’t think twice about tackling one of these “big” pieces. And now I’m happy to say, with a few months consistent practicing under my belt, I might be…finally… ready to put aside the doubts and insecurities that have taken root and dive back in.

As a side benefit, this experience has taught me a lesson about my own teaching. Over the past few years I’ve been demonstrating less and demanding more from my students. I’ve become less micro-managing, and hopefully better at instilling confidence as well as knowledge. My goal is that every student will want to sit down at the piano and explore a new piece of music when they reach adulthood.

That’s why this blog post from Bruce Brubaker struck a chord with me. He says:

I prefer to believe that what’s happening in a “lesson” is the scrutiny and exploration of process. That’s why very satisfying work can occur with music not known in advance by the “teacher.” All those details of enunciation, metric grouping, fingering, the pedal — are not the point. From lessons the student comes to know, as Schoenberg puts it, “… that one must come to grips with all the problems — not how to.”

When explanation and singing won’t do it and I succumb to playing during a student’s lesson — it feels like a little failure. Better for the synthesis of ideas and the grappling with issues to lead to sounds arising from within the student, the analysand.

A Lesson from Bubba

Bubba Watson signing autographs on the putting...

Bubba Watson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rather than sitting at the piano for my usual Sunday night recording session, yesterday I chose to spend time with some Peeps, chocolate bunny ears, and and the exciting finish to the US Masters Golf tournament. By now you’ve probably heard of Bubba Watson, the new American golf sensation and wearer of the Green Jacket, but you might not know is that Bubba has never had a golf lesson.

This caught my eye because as I’ve written before, I’m constantly amazed by so many of the self-taught musicians I see, especially among college age kids. They are driven by a love of music, collaborating, and composing. I know I’ll sound like a heretic by saying this… but are teachers actually needed for weekly piano lessons if the student is truly self-motivated? Wouldn’t drop-in lessons be good enough?

Watson, 33, is unlike just about any Masters champion we’ve seen…..On the course, Watson has little in common with the recent crop of factory-produced golfers, the swing machines with their swing gurus, sports psychologists and mostly by-the-book games.

He is self-taught. Self-motivated. And not afraid of self. The guy has a pink driver, for goodness sakes.

The next golf lesson he takes will be his first. His game might be reckless, but at least it is his game. He goes down swinging. Or, on a day like this, when he bags his first major victory, he stands tall swinging away…

“I don’t play the game for fame,” he said. “I don’t play the sport for fame. I don’t try to win tournaments for fame. I’m just Bubba. I goof around. I play around.” (read more here)

Besides golf, Bubba has his hand in music too. You can see him in this video  featuring the PGA Tours first and only boy band, the Golf Boys. He’s the one in blue-jean overalls.

So today, as I sat down to record the last two sections of Schumann’s Papillons, I thought about Bubba. And even though I knew I hadn’t put in the time I should have on this piece, and I’d never “studied” it with anyone, I thought to myself, “Hey, I like this piece. It’s fun to play!”

And I threw caution to the wind and came up with this.

Papillons and another book

(The second installment of Papillons is now posted on Soundcloud.  Third and final installment coming next Sunday.)

My year of piano immersion is leading me to pull out and reread some piano related books from my bookshelf. Russell Sherman’s Piano Pieces is  is one of those books that you can open to any page and find pearls of piano wisdom – everything from his thoughts on the thumb and the relationship of the fingertip to the piano key to piano competitions and pedagogy… and much more.

As I plunge ahead with my goal of recording 52 piano pieces (and pieces of piano pieces) I wonder if I’m making a mistake by choosing quantity over quality for this project.  Here’s sensible advice from Russell Sherman:

Should the student polish up a few pieces over and over again, refining touch and sensibility? Or should the student learn to deal, however conditionally, with many different pieces, augmenting repertoire, experience, and means of judgment? Quality vs. quantity, a tedious argument to be resolved in favor of productivity; i.e., a goodly amount well done, some chiseled and some not.


Choosing Risk over Perfectionism

Cover of "Art & Fear: Observations On the...

Cover via Amazon

Last week I received a marvelous book from an online friend. The book is Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a quick read but it’s already full of highlighted sections and dogeared pages.  As I prepare my next installment of Schumann’s Papillons for recording on Sunday, I’m starting to wonder if I made a big mistake by jumping into this project so unprepared. I haven’t even looked at this piece in almost 20 years and I don’t even remember if I ever had it polished and memorized. But it’s a piece I love and one I want to keep in my repertoire.

I came across this nugget in my reading to get me over this hump and back to the piano bench this morning.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept….Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.

And as I finished the book this morning – this:

In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

The Pianist’s Sketchbook

Cover of "An Illustrated Life: Drawing In...

Cover via Amazon

The other day I was browsing through An Illustrated Life – drawing inspiration from the private sketchbooks of artists, illustrators and designers, by Danny Gregory. it’s the type of book that when you flip through the pages, I can guarantee you’ll want to run out and get a sketchbook and a set of pens and start doodling and sketching.

It got me thinking. Why should visual artists have all the fun? Why don’t classical musicians seem to want to pull back the curtain and show the world what inspires them and all the hard work that leads up to the final polished performance. What would be the musical equivalent of the artist’s sketchbook? The musician’s doodlings? The pianist’s process?

Well, I think I found it…. on Twitter. I’m lucky to have found some of the most creative and friendly musicians on Twitter. A tweet about a piece of music sends me right to IMSLP to download the score. Another tweet about a concert and I’m off to read reviews and find clips on YouTube. And a tweet about a productive practice session sends me right to the piano bench.

Here are just a few of the pianists on Twitter who have inspired me to take the leap and start my own musical sketchbook of pieces that are still a bit raw, the collection I call my “Go Play Project.”

Erica Sipes (@ericasipes) has recently been blogging and posting a video diary of her preparation of Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto for an upcoming concerto competition. Her careful methodical practice has convinced me to pull in the reigns and take the time to check fingering and details and practice slowly in a way that no piano teacher or coach ever seemed to be able to do.

Jocelyn Swigger (@jocelynswigger) is keeping an audio practice diary as she learns ALL the Chopin Etudes, an goal many pianists probably have, but how many of us ever follow through? Hats off to Jocelyn and thank you for sharing the invaluable details of your practice.

The most popular pianist on YouTube, Valentina Lisitsa (@ValLisitsa) pulled back the curtain last summer when she live streamed her daily 14-hour practice sessions. Now if that wasn’t enough to inspire you to go running to the piano I don’t know what would.

And as far as tweets go, I find that James Rhodes (@JRhodesPianist) shares his love of piano with his Twitter followers in the most authentic and genuine way. In my opinion, his twitter feed comes very close to being the musical equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.  How can any pianist not want to move away from his or her computer screen and head for the nearest piano after reading tweets like this and this and this?

Take a listen to this week’s addition to my “sketchbook” – Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu, Op. 66.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: