Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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 schools is the active involvement of influential segments of the community in shaping and implementing the policies and programs of the district. - Gaining The Arts Advantage: Lessons From School Districts That Value Arts Education; President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and Arts Education Partnership, 1999.
4. Physician and biologist Lewis Thomas studied the undergraduate majors of medical school applicants. He found that 66 percent of music majors who applied to medical school were admitted, the highest percentage of any group. Forty-four percent of biochemistry majors were admitted. As reported in "The Case for Music in the Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, February 1994.
5. Students who study music and the arts score higher on the verbal and math portions of the SAT than students with no coursework or experience in the arts. - Profiles of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, The College Board, 1998.
6. A 1997 Gallup Survey on Americans' attitudes towards music revealed that 89% of respondents believe music helps a child's overall development and 93% agree that music is part of a well-rounded education. - Americans' Attitudes Towards Music, The Gallup Organization, 1997.
7. The very best engineers and technical designers in the Silicon Valley are, nearly without exception, practicing musicians. - Grant Venerable, "The Paradox of the Silicon Savior," as reported in "The Case for Sequential Music Education in the Core Curriculum of the Public Schools," The Center for the Arts in the Basic Curriculum, New York, 1989.
8. The publication Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need To Know and Be Able To Do states that "preparation in the arts will be valuable to college entrants whatever their intended field of study." - The College Board, New York, 1983 [still in use].
9. An education in the arts readily engages a wide variety of learning styles and increases learning potential for students. Schools who have integrated music and the arts into the curriculum have seen an increase in test scores and student attendance and a decrease in drop-out rates. - "The Arts and Student Achievement: Ideas for Schools and Communities," background paper for the Goals 2000 Satellite Town Meeting, ArtsEdge.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Wattstax (30th Anniversary Special Edition)

"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 hippest garb of the day. We can speculate now that no one will ever wear this clothing again, but I'm sure we will. All told, an average concert, with several unfunny (in my opinion) Richard Pryor interludes, but still worthy viewing due to historical significance.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Accepting criticism: To some extent, students can learn the above two skills by participating in informal recitals, where they play in front of an appreciative audience such as friends and family. Playing in front of a judge in formal auditions/competitions/festivals/exams where they are evaluated teaches them to accept comments and criticism and learn from different opinions. Again, this is such an invaluable life skill, whether the student becomes a professional musician or not later in their life.
  4. Learning the value of hard work: Hard work will ultimately be recognized, and when students are rewarded with success in an audition/competition, they learn that it was all worth it – all the time and effort they spent practicing and polishing their performance. The sweet taste of success motivates them to continue working hard and do well again next time.
  5. Coping with unfavorable results: Should the student be unsuccessful in a particular competition, they learn even more from the experience. The nature of competitions is that no one will always be the winner. Sometimes the best is selected, sometimes not. There is an element of luck in all competitive events; sometimes it is just not your day. Who has not had a memory slip ever? Who has given complete perfect performances every time? Learning to deal with less than desired results teaches students to be mentally and psychologically healthy musicians and human beings.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

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

The General (The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) (1926)  Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Ultimate 2-Disc Edition]
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 hour plus. Secondary to this requirement is to keep the themes fresh and not allow the music to become too stale.
Initially I had a difficult time turning my attention to the action onscreen. The pianist was seated front and center, facing the screen. But I gave him my full trust after early demonstrations of his ability, and after that I didn't perceive any difference between his playing and the Buster Keaton action above him.
After a twenty minute break (soundtracked by some awful 1980's pop schlock piped over the speakers), we members of the sparse audience were treated to another Keaton film, "Steamboat Bill, Jr.". Again the same pianist accompanied the action.
For this film he favored a couple famous classical themes: Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# minor" and Liszt's "Liebestraum". Again the music was excellent.
I had never previously seen any of Buster Keaton's films. I preferred "The General" to "Steamboat Bill, Jr.", but each was excellent and featured amazing stunts by Keaton. Easy to understand why he is esteemed as a titan of the silent film era. He has a winning screen presence that still translates today.
I left the theater wondering how I would accompany a silent film. Perhaps I'll have an opportunity to try one day.


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 at 4½ minutes.
Fourteen of the Preludes are full of light, gaiety, serenity and a kind of happiness. Seven contain anguish, rage and fury. Three are simply sorrowful. No matter how tiny, the Preludes loom large musically. Each one is a masterpiece of compressed emotion blended with an unequaled pianistic ingenuity and originality. Many of them are horribly difficult to play. When Robert Schumann read them, he proclaimed Chopin to be the "proudest poet soul of the age."
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

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 they work in their studio with a grand piano at their disposal and teach in light of that instrument and its capabilities. This can produce confusion for the student.

[Another source of confusion is this: many modern upright pianos are built with an extra soft pedal occupying the middle position of the three. This extra soft pedal can be pressed down with the foot and locked to the left, producing an extremely muted tone from the instrument. 

What typically happens inside the piano when this pedal is applied is this: a long banner of felt or thin cloth descends between the hammers and the strings inside the piano, creating a buffer between the hammers' striking of the strings and thus producing a softer sound when keys are pressed.

This extra soft pedal is a modern innovation. One doesn't encounter it on older upright pianos, and I personally have never encountered it on a grand piano.]
Many students have as their home instrument an electronic keyboard or digital piano. These "pianos" typically have only one pedal (if they come supplied with any at all), a "damper pedal". Regardless of the instrument,  the damper pedal is by far the most commonly used pedal. It is arguable that one could live their entire life loving music and playing the piano without ever bothering about the soft pedal or sostenuto pedal. Those two are employed mostly in advanced piano music, and even then satisfactory performances can be delivered without their use.
With all of the above out of my system, here are some informative links about each pedal, archived at the vast Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary website:

Monday, November 1, 2010

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,