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Showing posts from 2010

Genghis Blues

Another tremendously affecting documentary. The low-budget look of the film is fitting given the rural northern Mongolia setting where most of the action takes place. Paul Pena was a blind American blues musician who fell in love with Tuvan throat-singing. So enamored was he with this otherworldly sound that he began practicing these singing techniques on his own in his San Francisco home. He became quite accomplished. Word spread of his unique ability and a trip was planned that would bring Paul to the native land of these bewitching sounds. The hospitality shown to Pena during his visit to Tuva is a joy to see. He repays the grace of his hosts with spirited performances of their native music. It is a story that must be seen to be believed.

Nurturing Creativity In the Next Generation

World-renowned concert pianist Byron Janis has written another excellent article for the Wall Street Journal. It focuses on important lessons he's learned, both as a teacher and a student. The article was published on 12/8/10 and features many insights from Janis' formative years. Here is an excerpt: We hear a lot about piano performance but not about piano teaching, other than when program notes inform us that so-and-so studied with so-and-so or at such-and-such conservatory. Yet we should know more about it. As Rousseau observed, the child is the father of the man: The budding pianist's lessons shape the concert artist the public later hears. Over the course of my career as a student, performer and teacher, I've realized there is no "right way" to teach the piano. But there is one cardinal rule that should be every teacher's credo: It is essential to allow talent its own creativity, and not give in to the temptation to impose your own.
Read the full articl…

The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge

This documentary is thoroughly riveting from start to finish. It casts a spotlight on the annual Cliburn piano competition held in Fort Worth, Texas. A humanizing portrait of artists attempting to achieve great things. There are so many moments of deep emotion worth savoring, both onstage and offstage. The musical merit of each participant is indisputable, and when a winner is crowned at the end it hardly feels as though they are head and shoulders above the rest. Each participant is a virtuoso, and as such, they make fascinating subjects.

The Passion of Joan of Arc @ Paramount Theatre, Oakland

I attended a screening of Carl Theodore Dryer's classic 1928 silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" this evening. The film was accompanied by a 22-piece orchestra and 100+ choristers. The musicians performed the oratorio "Voices of Light", composed some years ago by Richard Einhorn. He wrote the music specifically to accompany this film. Anyone who knows the story of Joan of Arc knows that there's no happy ending here. Her sufferings, graphically depicted onscreen are harrowing to behold. Maria Falconetti's performance as Joan has become legendary. Some hail it as the greatest film performance of all time. Her visage is magnetic. It feels as though she's disintegrating before your eyes. My father is notoriously close-minded in terms of films he'll watch. His classic line is: "Why would I pay to watch a movie that challenges me? My job challenges me enough, and they pay me!" He definitely wouldn't have enjoyed this evening's pro…

December 2010 Teaching Schedule

-- I will not be teaching during the last 2 weeks of December. Enjoy the break! I will resume my regular weekly teaching schedule the week of January 3, 2011. -- The 5th annual Piano/Guitar Winter Recital will be held in the CSUEB Recital Hall on Sunday, December 12 between noon and 4pm. More details can be found here. Have a happy month, Jesse

It's a fact...

Music education helps children in their studies of other subjects. Several smart people have concluded this. Here are some quotes from various smart people on this subject: 1. On the basis of observations and experiments with newborns, neuroscientists now know that infants are born with neural mechanisms devoted exclusively to music. Studies show that early and ongoing musical training helps organize and develop children's brains. -"The Musical Mind," Susan Black, The American School Board Journal, January 1997. 2. Two research projects have found that music training--specifically piano instruction--can dramatically enhance children's spatial-temporal reasoning skills, the skills crucial for greater success in subjects like math and science. - Neurological Research, February 1997; Rauscher and Shaw, and Neurological Research, March 1999; Shaw, Graziano, and Peterson. 3. School leaders affirm that the single most critical factor in sustaining arts education in their scho…

Wattstax

"Wattstax" was a concert organized by Memphis's Stax Records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots in southern California. The concert was envisaged as "the African-American version of Woodstock". "Wattstax" is an interesting time capsule, preserving a moment in U.S. history when racial tensions were a constant issue and the fashion was decidedly Dy-No-Mite. My musical highlight was watching the Staples Singers perform "Respect Yourself". Oh, man - awesome. Family bands always sing together so well. Comes from doing it all their lives. The film closes with an Isaac Hayes performance. In 1972, Isaac Hayes was the Man, fresh off his mega-successful "Shaft" soundtrack. But I've never cared for his music, so I just fast-forwarded through his portion.  Watching the audience members at the  "Wattstax" concert is arguably more fun than watching the concert. The assembled throng is nattily attired in the hi…

Benefits of Formal Music Evaluations

Most of my students perform in the twice yearly recitals I organize. I also offer a more formal music performance and evaluation option each spring in the form of the Certificate of Merit program. I am able to offer this program for students because I am a member of the Music Teachers Association of California (MTAC). The benefits of yearly, formal music evaluations are different than those offered within a more casual recital setting. I was reminded of this when reading a recent blog post by teacher Yiyi Ku:
Benefits for students: Meeting deadlines: Having a specific date means certain pieces must be learned, memorized, and polished in a given time frame. This teaches the students about time management and the importance of meeting deadlines – immensely useful skills to have in all aspects of life.Handling pressure: Coping with nerves, anxiety, racing heartbeats, and learning to perform one’s best under pressure is one of the most important life skills students can learn.Accepting criti…

"The General" & "Steamboat Bill, Jr." @ Bal Theatre, San Leandro

I watched two classic Buster Keaton silent films last night at the historic Bal Theatre in San Leandro. It was an excellent time. The films were accompanied by a pianist (whose name escapes me).  Interesting to consider how much more work was available to musicians prior to the onset of "talkies" (i.e. films with sound). In this instance the pianist had some themes that he must have planned ahead of time to perform with each film, but much of his playing sounded improvised. During the first film "The General", he favored ragtime piano styles. Strains of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" littered his playing. But not in an obscene, annoying way. He also adapted a well-known Thelonius Monk tune "Blue Monk" into a slow boogie-woogie style. This piece complemented some of the "runaway train" scenes especially well. The pacing of the  music accompanying the film was impressive. Essentially, the pianist was required to play non-stop for an ho…

Chopin's Small Miracles

From an article written by David Dubal, published in the Wall Street Journal, 9/3/10: Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), whose 200th anniversary it is this year, is the overwhelming favorite composer for the piano. He possessed the most subtle intuitions and fathomed the mysteries of the world. Oscar Wilde once said of him, "After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." Most of the 24 Chopin Preludes were sketched out between 1837 and 1838. They are the ultimate miniatures. In an age when the symphony and sonata still held sway, writing these aphoristic Preludes was revolutionary. All except two contain a single musical idea, each boiled down to its essence. Never had brevity been so brief. Ten are under a minute in length; nine last just over a minute. Only the celebrated No. 15, the so-called "Raindrop Prelude," attains the length characteristic of a small piece, clocking in a…

The piano pedals

One of the questions I am asked most frequently by students is: "What does each pedal do?". I try my best to explain the functions in person, but to complement my explanations here is a post detailing the piano pedals, their use, and application. Most students have upright pianos at their disposal at home. Upright pianos rarely have an effectual "soft pedal". A teacher will explain to a student to a student, "The pedal on the far left is the soft pedal. Hold it down with your left and then when you play you should hear a muted sound with a different character." The student goes home, tries it, but alas the soft pedal produces no audible change. But the teacher has not lied. It's just that most upright piano soft pedals have no effect. They are just window dressing, garnish for the look of the instrument. Also, upright pianos rarely have a functional "sostenuto pedal". Instruction regarding this pedal is also difficult for teachers, as often th…

November 2010 Teaching Schedule

-- My teaching schedule for the month of November will be uninterrupted save for the Thanksgiving holiday in the last week of the month. I will not see Thursday students that week. -- Our Winter Recital will be held in the CSUEB Recital Hall on Sunday, December 12 between noon and 4pm. More details are forthcoming. -- The Certificate of Merit 2010-2011 cycle is in full swing. I will be collecting CM fees with payment for November lessons. This month I will finalize repertoire selections with each participating student and make sure that everyone has all the handouts they need to tackle the material appropriate their level. -- The monthly Ear Power program will be on hiatus until Spring 2011. Students: start dreaming up which favorite songs you'd like to nominate for selection when we resume in March! Have a happy month, Jesse

Young @ Heart

While viewing this, I was struck by how rare it is to see seniors depicted in a motion picture, en masse. They are generally the "avoided generation" in films. You will be thankful that director Stephen Walker invested the time to document the Young@Heart chorus. This beloved Massachusetts choir is comprised of members 70 years old and above. Every member has stories to tell. The film is more of a meditation on old age, death, and the passage of time than a simple music documentary. It is truly heartbreaking to witness members of the chorus struggling with the challenges of older age. But their resilient spirit is undeniable -- an inspiration. If only more of us could greet each new dawn with the grace and enthusiasm they radiate.

Should You Buy a New or Used Piano?

Here's an excellent (though slightly dated) article on this subject by noted piano teacher Martha Beth Lewis. 
If you don't have time to read it, then just remember her closing thought: 
"In the end, you should buy the best piano you can stretch to afford, whether it's new or used. And have a [piano] technician check it out before you sign the check."

Six Ways to Enjoy Detailed Practice

Practice suggestions from musician and author Gerald Klickstein: Six ways to enjoy detailed practice 1.  Bring meaning to every gesture. You might be working on a scale or a masterpiece, but, regardless, shoot sparks of imagination through every sound you make. 2.  Isolate problem spots in context. When you tackle troublesome passages, sense the dramatic framework from which they’re extracted. For example, if a string player practices a 3-note segment with a tricky left-hand shift, she should still express the emotional energy of the larger phrase. 3.  Take pleasure in excellence. In my book The Musician’s Way, I highlight seven Habits of Excellence: ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone, focused attention, and positive attitude (p. 20-23). To be meticulous in practice, we have to enjoy embodying these qualities. So choose accessible music, set high standards for yourself, and revel in meeting your standards. 4.  Listen deeply. As you play or sing, listen intent…

Pianist Arlette Felberg on Practicing

"Do not dissipate your formative years. Deal with problems and solutions NOW. Do not take shortcuts. Be scrupulous in your learning of details, especially fingering and phrasing. Listen to yourself and others. Practice creatively, with joy and expectation and the fullest brain activity. Be open and flexible. Learn to focus and concentrate. Build a reliable technique. Do not merely recreate the music, experience it! Form stylistic understanding by listening to the operas of Mozart, the string quartets of Beethoven, the symphonies of Brahms, the Schubert lieder, the Brandenburg Concerti of Bach, etc. It will give you greater insight into their piano works."

Nadia Boulanger: Mademoiselle

This is a worthwhile documentary for any serious musician or music teacher. Nadia Boulanger - the teacher of so many giants of 20th century music - is shown to possess a vast, sharp intellect even at the ripe age of 90. She expresses multitudinous gems of musical and philosophical wisdom in this short documentary feature. I would liked to have learned more about her youth and how she came to possess such a rapacious musical mind - the film scarcely touches on her younger years - but still this is fascinating viewing for those who are intellectually curious and interested in discussions about the way artists think.

It's Official...

The Ear Power song for October 2010 - "Bulletproof" by La Roux - is not beloved. Not one of my students has expressed an interest in learning the song this month. Red-haired children the world over are silently shedding single tears down their pale, pale faces. I didn't nominate this song... one of my students did. Then it received votes in favor of it from a number of other students, to the extent that it ranked 3rd in popularity on my most recent "Ear Power" song list.  Maybe students are getting burnt out. I don't know, but I'm not going to cease the Ear Power endeavor. I believe it is eminently worthwhile. Perhaps I just need to stay patient in waiting for younger students' musical tastes to mature. Not that I love "Bulletproof" much - I don't! But I do prefer it to any of the songs we've worked on previously. Never mind, there are always plenty of other things to work on in the meantime.


Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

I have never cared for Rush's music, but this is a solid documentary profile of the long-standing Canadian power trio. I knew Neil Peart was a peerless drummer, but I learned from this film that he also pens most (all?) of the band's song lyrics. The band members come across as normal guys who possess a strong work ethic and a passion for making music and challenging themselves. It was a fun movie to watch and perhaps someday I'll even become a fan of their work (I'm still not persuaded).

Winter Recital 2010

Mark your calendars: the next Piano/Guitar recital will be held Sunday, December 12 between noon-4pm. The event will be held in the Recital Hall of the Music Department at CSUEB, as usual. More details are forthcoming. Jesse

October 2010 Teaching Schedule

-- My teaching schedule for the month of October will be interrupted. -- The Certificate of Merit 2010-2011 cycle is about to ramp up. During the first week of October I will distribute a handout regarding C.M. to students/parents who I think the program can benefit.
-- The Ear Power song for the months of October 2010 is:
"Bulletproof" by La Roux


-- I think it's worth reminding my students that once we reach the end of a month's work on the Ear Power songs I invest my time in transcribing and notating the music. Archives of these songs - includes September's selection, "Live Like We're Dying" by Kris Allen - can be found in pdf format on my main website here.
And yes, again I remind you: -- I have opened a new teaching studio at my home in Castro Valley and am teaching from home weekly, every Wednesday and Thursday. If you know anyone who lives in the C.V. area and is interested in piano lessons, do encourage them to contact me - I am still accepting new…

The future of "Ear Power"

The Ear Power song for the months of September 2010 *was*: "Live Like We're Dying" by Kris Allen

No, I'm not putting an end to this program, but in future months I will cease posting weekly (or bi-weekly) updates on our progress learning the "Ear Power" song of the month. I'm looking to diminish my workload. In all truth, if participating students are on top of things they will be fully equipped to keep track of the progress themselves. Meanwhile, several students ask me again and again, "What's the Ear Power song for next month??". And every time I respond the same way: "Be patient, and it shall be revealed." It's always posted on the front page of my website on the first of the month. Have a happy day, Jesse

Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell was a fascinating man who wholly devoted himself to his chosen work: music. He faced personal tragedies and obstacles along the way but never strayed from his quest for musical perfection. Very cool to witness footage of the guy performing, singing and accompanying himself on his cello. Prior to his premature death he dipped his toes into every genre of music imaginable: country, punk, classical, & disco. Despite never receiving wide acclaim during his lifetime, his music lives on in the shape of the thousands of recordings he left behind. 


**This amazing thumb piano rendition of Russell's song "A Little Lost" by Swedish musician Jens Lekman is in the Extra features on the DVD. It is a remarkable performance. 

Why Music?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by a music teacher in Bakersfield, CA. She entitled it "Why Music?":
I often hear from parents about your frustration in having to constantly remind your children to practice.  As my Mom says, here you are trying to steer these young lives into beneficial directions, but they all have their own motors!  So it’s easy to begin to question if it’s all worth it.  Well, here are some things to consider.

Diligent practice of music will make your children prosperous…successful in life.  To support this idea, think for a moment about the requirements of successful music practice.  To be successful you must:
1. Be willing to work hard. 2. Be faithful on a consistent basis, even when you don’t feel like it. 3. Pay attention to details - not skipping over things. 4. Have the ability to work on your own and not rely on others. 5. Use your creativity to solve problems (i.e. tricky fingerings or new interpretations) 6. Be persevering - able to follow thr…

MTAC General Meeting in Castro Valley

We piano teachers pursue our chosen career for a variety of reasons, one of which is the autonomy the work offers. As self-employed business owners, we don't have to answer to anyone! Right? Well... this is not so when you are a member of the MTAC. This morning's meeting was mandatory. Then in the spring every active member is required to commit a full day working an assigned job for the CM Exams. Draconian punishments are threatened if either of these requirements are not met.
All this is fine. I recognize the pros and cons of being an MTAC member. I'm willing to put in the necessary time. 
The new president of our branch is very soft-spoken and this leads to many teachers being disrespectful and chatting incessantly while she tries to address the room. This behavior is so childish. Anyone who occupies a position on the board does so as a volunteer and receives minimal pay, if any. So the least we can do is give them our attention for a few minutes.
Some things are predictab…

Desperate Man Blues

Everyone is obsessed with something. Joe Bussard's obsession happens to be collecting old 78 records. His enthusiasm is infectious. This documentary is simple: it is an invitation to hang out in Joe's basement and listen to him expounding the virtues of his mammoth collection of rare sides. 
In the words of Neil Young: Are You Passionate?

Building Practice Habits That Work

From a 9/6/10 post on a Music Teachers' blog by Chris Foley entitled "Building Practice Habits That Work":
As music teachers, how can we help our students to take advantage of these techniques and create more effective practice habits? 1. Changing locations. This might be a bit difficult for piano students, but is remarkably easy for just about every other instrument. Getting students to practice in different locations within their house might be a way to create a constantly changing learning environment, whether they’re in the living room, basement or their bedroom. The effectiveness of this technique will come as no surprise to university students, who are used to constantly changing quarters in their frantic daily quest for a practice room. 2. Alternating activities within one session. Most teachers probably teach this way already, carefully budgeting their teaching time between repertoire, technique, ear training, sight reading, and theory. However, it would appear that…