Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?

Watched this documentary knowing full well the turn of events: immense talent descends into self-destructive behavior -- booze, drugs -- and dies young. "Who Is Harry Nilsson?" isn't an amazing film portrait but it does provide an entry point to the musical offerings of said raconteur. 
Nilsson was probably most well-known as The Beatles' favorite artist in the late 1960's. After the Fab Four had issued many public remarks upping Nilsson's work, Nilsson struck up enduring friendships with Ringo Starr and John Lennon. During different periods, each served as Nilsson's "wingman" when Nilsson would set out on his regular, wild binges. One is struck by what an angelic voice Nilsson possessed yet squandered due to misbehavior. His last wife remembers him with a smile and a laugh, which is lovely to see. What a long-suffering woman! 
Another takeaway for me from this film is Nilsson's likeness to a more recent depressive singer-songwriter who flamed out: Elliott Smith. Some of the Nilsson songs presented here reminded me of some of Smith's work. Each man was blessed with a non-traditional rugged handsomeness, so there's a physical comparison to be made as well. 
I've tried before with Nilsson; I still don't particularly care for his music. But others certainly do, and I have no doubt that "Who Is Harry Nilsson?" will add numbers to his fanbase.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Just purchased: Pedal Extender

The Piano Pedal Extender I ordered last week arrived in the mail on Monday and I placed it straight into use with a couple of my younger students on Tuesday. The pedal extender attaches easily to the piano, "extending" the piano's two vital pedals upward, thus allowing more height-challenged pianists to begin work on their pedaling technique despite their feet not yet reaching the floor. 
I've been meaning to purchase one of these for awhile and finally made it happen. The extender will be a fixture in my home Castro Valley studio. I purchased the extender for a very reasonable price from CPS Imports. Great service, great product.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Marc-Andre Hamelin: No Limits - The World of the Piano, Vol. 2

Marc-André Hamelin: No Limits - The World of the Piano, Vol. 2

Marc-Andre Hamelin is an outstanding Canadian-American concert pianist. This documentary film presents Hamelin as he prepares for a solo concert, checking in with him several times in the months and weeks leading up to the performance. His insights into the music he's practicing - selections by Haydn and Debussy, among others - are always revealing. We witness him sight-reading the Haydn work for the first time. Many would mistake his playing for a finished performance, but it becomes clear immediately that Hamelin maintains exceedingly high standards for his work. Also included on the DVD are the concert and an hour long sit-down interview in which Hamelin is probed by a staid French journalist. Hard to get through that interview, but the rest of the package is golden.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

MTAC Convention 2011 - Day 3

I am attending the annual Music Teachers Association of CA (MTAC) convention at the Marriott hotel in downtown Oakland this weekend.
Here's a summary of the events I attended today:
"Practicing Performing" lecture by Fred Karpoff:
- Mr. Karpoff's whirlwind presentation this morning focused on wisdom he's gained from two prominent performance coaches: Don Greene, Ph.D. and Robert Caldwell. I say that the presentation was "whirlwind" because Karpoff was allotted a mere 45-minutes to deliver a bushel full of material. He was speaking so fast at times that I thought steam would begin surging from his ears. Unfortunate that he was forced to rush, because he had much vital material to share.
Upon reflection, the most striking thing he said this morning was that we spend too much time practicing the wrong things. We should seek to stimulate performance scenarios more frequently in order to become more comfortable with the tense sensations inherent in that endeavor. It's a fact that too many seasoned (and unseasoned) musicians have developed an unhealthy relationship with the act of performing music for an audience. So how to combat this malady? Read on.
*Don Greene insists (as do many other teachers and coaches I've heard speak) that a performer needs to channel their nervous energy into exciting performances. Nerves are normal. It's up to the performer to decide what to do with them.
*A Greene quote: "Risk is essential to success."
*The greatest threat to a successful performance: muscle tension. We must learn to relax!
Thus, here is Karpoff's/Greene's suggestion for how to prepare for a performance. This is essentially a meditation exercise:
  1. Pick a focal point below eye level (this is proven to reduce left brain activity, which is a great distraction)
  2. Think about a slow, full breath. Inhale through nose, exhale through mouth.
  3. Scan key muscle groups: allow head and neck, shoulder, arms, torso, hips, legs and feet to be very loose.
  4. Define your "center" (somewhere on your person - your body). Direct your energy downward.
  5. On final exhalation, open eyes, find your focal point from step #1 and then begin to focus energy outward.
The Drill: Practicing Performing
  • Leave the practice room and turn on your recording device.
  • Elevate your heart rate to approximately 100 bpm (simulating the nerves inherent in a real performance).
  • Center yourself (see above meditation steps).
  • Finally, re-enter the practice room, play your best.
  • Evaluate your recorded performance afterward with positive feedback. Don't fall into the trap of continually beating yourself up!
Two Vital Skills of Great Performers
  1. How well they begin a piece
  2. How they handle a mistake
*More miscellany:  Two days before a performance: "Carbo load" (i.e. big pasta dinner) and go to bed early. This is your energy base for the upcoming performance.
*Robert Caldwell is the author of the book The Performer Prepares. This book examines the many factors that elevate powerful performers to their lofty heights of achievement.
Caldwell's 4 Stages of Performance
  • Planning
  • Rehearsing
  • Performing
  • Afterwards (this stage is too often overlooked; how will you greet people afterward? will you rest peacefully that night?, etc. Prepare!)

"Silent Film for Composers Workshop" by Donald Sosin:
- After the lunch break (today I ate my bag lunch on a bench I found across the street from  Ogawa Plaza; Ogawa was too depressing for me yesterday and I wasn't ready to go back there) I returned to the Marriott to take in the first of three sessions on accompanying silent films. The presenter Donald Sosin is remarkably talented. Throughout the presentation, he demonstrated ideas at the piano. He is a wellspring of pianistic styles and a brilliant improviser. No wonder he often tours Europe as an accompanist at silent film festivals. I will be unable to attend the second and third sessions of the workshop tomorrow, so I was glad to catch this one.
*When accompanying a silent film, the music has to tell us what sort of a day it is, since there is no audible dialogue. The action onscreen can be completely neutral, but the music tells you what's going on emotionally.
A (brief) silent film timeline:
  • Circa 1895:  Silent films at this time were not always accompanied by music. Often there would be a musician on hand to perform interludes between screenings of unaccompanied silent films. This musical performance would fill the time while the projector changed the reels. The music would also help to draw more customers from the street into the theater.
  • Circa 1905:  Theatres begin to see the immense valued in adding live music to all film screenings. Musical accompaniment becomes standard.
  • From there, things developed quickly and accompaniments became more elaborate. In 1907, for example, Camille Saint-Saens wrote a full silent film score for a 7-piece ensemble.
  • 1927-28:  Massive theatre organs become fixtures in fine cinema establishments, but this development occurred just as the popularity of silent films began to wane.
Considerations for a Silent Film Accompanist
  • First there is silence and a blank screen
  • Once an image appears, the musical parameters begin to emerge
  • Sometime the musical choices are obvious
  • Decisions about music are crucial to one's response to a film (this statement is true for silent films as well as modern motion pictures)
Further considerations for the performer:
- Tempo
- Pulse
- Rhythm
- Melody vs. Accompaniment
- Style
- Library music vs. Original music
- The regular division of the phrase vs. Unpredictable phrase length
- Repetition and Memory
- Quoting other material
- Tone color, orchestration texture
- Improvising and live performance with regard to audience 
- The space of the performance
etc. . . . .
Mr. Sosin had 8 piano students at his disposal. Several of the students volunteered to try live demonstrations, accompanying fragments of scenes from projected films. Each was remarkably talented and not one student floundered - it was cool! Tomorrow evening each student will be present their own live accompaniment to a (very old) Disney short cartoon selected by Mr. Sosin: "The 4 Musicians of Bremen".
The predominant piano styles of silent film accompaniment are styles from the period the films were made: ragtime, stride piano, foxtrot, and early jazz. I don't have a love affair with any of these styles, so I don't know if the road to further silent film music exploration will be long for me. I feel spread so thin in my work and family life already that it's difficult to imagine having the time or energy to dig deeper into this musical realm. Still, the future is unwritten, so who knows?
Not sure whether I'll be attending the final day of the convention tomorrow, but if I do I'll post about it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

MTAC Convention 2011 - Day 2

I am attending the annual Music Teachers Association of CA (MTAC) convention at the Marriott hotel in downtown Oakland this weekend.
The city of Oakland is a great tease. It seduces you with its grand history, cultural diversity, and urban attitude. But just as soon as you let your guard down it buffets you with some harsh reality. For many Oakland residents I'm sure the first blow is a personal encounter with crime. I can attest to this sensation from my years living in Oakland: when my car was stolen, I experienced a loss of innocence coupled with a feeling of violation. I love Oakland, but now that I'm almost two years removed from living there I understand better why it's best for me to reside elsewhere.
On my lunch break today I was saddened at the number of homeless people sleeping on the ground in Ogawa Plaza at midday. Adding to my melancholy was the amount of rubbish on the ground in the plaza. Trash was everywhere and it was not a pretty sight. My Jamba Juice smoothie provided little comfort. Despite my being surrounded by a bevy of modern skyscrapers and impressive architecture, I felt little hope.
Here's a summary of the events I attended today:
"How Can A Wrong Note Be Perfect?" lecture by William Westney:
- I arrived a little late to this 10am presentation, but I don't think I missed anything. I think I got all the meat. Mr. Westney's remarks were largely informal and seemed off-the-cuff. He developed a nice rapport with his audience. Westney is author of the book Perfect Wrong Note - Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. He has developed an interesting philosophy regarding the actual value of "mistakes" in practice and performance.
Soon after I found a seat in the conference room, he presented this quote:
"If you are cursed with perfectionism, you are absolutely sunk... There is no end to the self-nagging, the self-castigating. It hides under the mask of 'self-improvement'. It never works."
- Frederick Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim
Other notes I jotted down:
*Mistakes - or "wrong notes" - have nothing to do with us personally. Don't respond to a wrong note with fear or shame. Mistakes always provide us with good information on how to make corrections.
*We don't start with accuracy; accuracy is the destination, not the starting place.
*Start out playing a piece loudly and forcefully. Then over time, and once greater comprehension has been gained, add more subtlety to the performance.
*When correcting a mistake:  1) Ramp up the energy (play more loudly, forcefully)  2) Pay attention  3) Let your body figure it out (via repetitions)
*Practicing and performing are not the same. Practicing is not performing slowed down... practicing is an entirely different process.
*An observation of my own: Westney's musical demonstrations at the piano were unique. In demonstrating his practice techniques, he rarely played in tempo but instead played in a halting style, with numerous stopping points mid-phrase. He played loudly, often devoid of a steady pulse. He was showing us the process of his fingers becoming comfortable with the stretches, shapes, and patterns required of them. He made this remark toward the end of his speaking: "Practicing things you're just learning at a mezzo forte dynamic helps the fingers become more secure and settled."
*Practice musical elements in small, small pieces - don't be afraid to chop up a portion of a phrase or motif for practice purposes - pausing frequently to sustain, relaxing the wrists and becoming grounded in the required technique. 
*A Zen quote: "Give up control to find control".
*When learning a piece strive for zero tension. Structure practice techniques based upon the pursuit of this goal.
*Our top criteria as performers ought to be: "How can everything I'm playing feel great?" If this criteria is met, the music will follow.
Things to master first, and be consistent about:
  • Arm gestures
  • Fingering
  • Understanding (but not playing) the rhythm
Things to introduce later (and NOT do all the time):
  • Dynamics and Tone Color
  • Playing the Correct Rhythm
"Coaching Teachers" led by Scott Smith & William Wellborn:
- This was an interesting presentation in which two brave teachers taught a "lesson" to one of their students up on stage in front of an audience. "Master" teachers Mr. Smith and Mr. Wellborn would interject their thoughts and comments every few minutes, in the hope of enhancing the student-teacher process and eliciting better results from the students. The session was hit-and-miss in my view, but still, a unique thing to witness and there were insights to be gleaned. 

Mr. Smith was outfitted in a leather jacket and had spiked his hair, while Mr. Wellborn wore a conventional 3-piece suit, his hair combed and parted. They could be a great comedy duo, based on appearance alone.
I did take a few notes:
*Students learn better if they learn with big muscles first (i.e. forearm motion) and then transition the movements to smaller muscles (i.e. fingers).
*According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Education, students are 7 times more likely to learn and retain concepts if they speak/verbalize the concepts during the learning process.
"If you miss a note you either don't know what the note is or you don't know where the note is."
- Theodor Leschetizky
*With longer, more difficult pieces it's best to learn the music in small pieces, with a minimum of 10 repetitions on each section per day between lessons.
*Rather than ask a student to play 3 times accurate, and then move on to the next phrase/section, try for 5 accurate repetitions (hopefully with each repetition becoming more musical).
*This weekend I've witnessed many reminders about scale technique that I need to integrate into my own teaching. When performing scales begin softly, crescendo to the top, and diminuendo on the way back down. Technique exercises can - and should - be performed musically, with nuance and thoughtfulness.
*This last note is difficult to articulate but still I'm going to include it here because it's a good teaching reminder about an essential pianistic skill: When turning the thumb under there's an anticipation required of the thumb. When turning, the thumb should be in line with the note prior to the one the thumb lands on. For example, with an Ab Major scale the R.H. thumb mid-turn should be in line with the Bb prior to its landing on the C.
I'll post again tomorrow.

Friday, July 1, 2011

MTAC Convention 2011 - Day 1

I am attending the annual Music Teachers Association of CA (MTAC) convention at the Marriott hotel in downtown Oakland this weekend.
I couldn't rouse myself from sleep for any of the early presentations this morning. June was a challenging month for me, and now it's July 1st; this convention snuck up on me. I'm going to do my best to glean insights from the weekend's events, despite my fatigue.
Here's a summary of the events I attended this afternoon:
Meeting the authors of the "Just The Facts" Theory books:
- Any parent or student of mine knows that I swear by the "Just The Facts" music theory books. Almost all of my students work from this series of books. They are absolutely the best I have found. A couple months ago I was placing a phone order with them and the woman helping me, Regina, mentioned that they'd have a booth at the MTAC Convention this year. I promised I would come by and meet her then. 

I doubt she remembers me from our phone conversation, but when I found the "Just The Facts" booth in the Exhibit Hall I started doling out my plaudits straightaway. Regina was at the booth and later her co-author Ann stopped by. I told them repeatedly, "I'm your biggest fan!" and purchased a couple books that I needed. It was a cool experience; I interact with their work 3-4 days a week, every week. Fun to now be able to say that I've met them.
"Teaching the Romantics to Young Pianists" lecture by Dennis Alexander:
- Mr. Alexander offered many excellent insights in his presentation. He is not only a piano teacher but also an oft-published composer. Nearly every musical excerpt he performed to demonstrate his points was from one of his pieces. So that was interesting. Thankfully, it never felt like he was urging us audience members to buy his books. He seems a genuine, sweet individual. 

Some assorted takeaways:
*Decide what "picture" is being painted by the music. Students should sometimes be asked to actually draw a picture to better express the sound of a piece they're playing.
*A general performance practice: when ending a piece, hands should float up, wrists first and then hands slowly return down to one's lap.
*When performing a piece requiring hand position changes, float wrists above the keyboard on the way to the new position, with the wrists in motion in time with the pulse of the music (hard to express this point in words here without the visual demonstration Mr. Alexander provided).
*Where is the "heart" of each musical phrase? Have student draw an actual heart above these moments - 1 heart per phrase. In performance you move your body slightly toward the instrument when the "heart" is reached, to add emphasis, and then pull away thereafter.
*Words to employ when teaching rubato:  hug, stretch, flexible, tenderly, elastic, love, bend (i.e. "'Hug' this note when performing this passage").
*The presentation ended with this excellent quote from another music educator:

"When we play the piano, we create a dance with our bodies, and the keyboard translates that motion into sound."
"Care and Maintenance of Your Piano" lecture by Gavin English:

- Gavin English is an employee of Steinway pianos and his lecture veered dangerously into "Steinway propaganda" territory -- he was pushing his products heavily -- but still he offered many excellent insights. His presentation was broken into 5 parts:
  • Cleaning Your Piano
- Use a thin cloth, lightly dampened with water
- No waxes, no polishes
- Piano keys should be cleaned with a lightly dampened cloth. Avoid getting moisture on the side of the keys.
- Do not clean a piano using paper towels! Use a cloth instead.
- To whiten ivory keys: use a small amount of peroxide on a cotton swab
  • Tuning - the best maintenance
- If you have purchased a newly manufactured piano, the recommendation is: tune your piano 4 times in the first year. Tune the piano 2 times a year in subsequent years.
- The main factor in a piano's tuning fluctuating is humidity.
- Try to maintain a climate of 35-50% humidity -- without wide swings of temperature -- in your piano room. To measure humidity in the room, buy a hygrometer at a home center.
- Best time to tune a piano? Two or three weeks after a seasonal change, so that the instrument has already settled in the new climate.
  • Voicing
- Voicing a piano controls, to a large extent, the tone of a piano and is separate from tuning. Technicians can adjust the characteristics of the piano's hammer felts to affect the range of tone that can be produced by the piano.
- Voicing is based on individual preference and should be discussed with a technician. Considerations such as wanting a "bright" sound vs. a "mellow" sound from the instrument are some of the common discussion points.
- As a piano is played, the condition of the hammer felts will change. For normal home playing, voicing service is recommended every 2-3 years or so, as you perceive changes in the instrument's tone.
  • Regulation
- Regulation of the piano action adjusts the overall touch and consistency with which each note responds to your playing. Your piano "action" consists of approximately 7500 parts manufactured primarily with wood and felt. As the felt compresses over a period of time, the evenness of touch will change.
- For normal home playing, regulation is recommended every 2-3 years.
  • Environment
- Avoid positioning your piano in the path of direct air from heating/cooling vents, or in the close proximity of a humidifier.
- Try to maintain relative humidity of 35-50%.
- Avoid exposure to direct sunlight as it will bleach the finish of the piano and adversely affect tuning stability.
- A cheap insurance policy: monitor your piano room with a hydrometer, which will measure the relative humidity in which your piano resides.
I'll post again tomorrow.

July 2011 Teaching Schedule

-- My teaching schedule during the month of July will be fragmented. Please read the following:

Monday students:  We'll have 2 lessons in July. We won't be meeting on the July 4th holiday. I'll see you on the 11th and the 18th. We will not meet on the 25th because I will be out of town.
Tuesday students:  We'll have 3 lessons in July. I will see you on the 5th, 12th, and 19th. We will not meet on the 26th because I will be out of town.
Thursday students:  We'll have 2 lessons in July. We will not meet on the 7th because I will be out of town. I will see you on the 14th and the 21st. We will not meet on the 28th because I will be out of town.
Sunday students:  We will have 2 lessons in July. We will not meet on the 3rd, 10th, or 31st. I will see you on the 17th and the 31st.

Please contact me if you have any questions! Sorting out the above schedule has required a lot of brain power; I hope I have all the details right.

-- July is my first month teaching Tuesdays at my home studio in Castro Valley. Hooray! Welcome to my new Tuesday students.
-- I am attending the MTAC convention in Oakland this weekend and will be blogging about the events I attend.

-- The Summer Film Scoring project will kick into gear with select students in July. Though the selected short cartoon is only 3 minutes long, I think the length is intimidating for students who have never undertaken such a project before. So my new plan is to divide students into "teams" of 2, each taking a share of the composing work. More details are forthcoming.

-- The Ear Power song for the month of July is "Twist and Shout" by The Beatles. Download link below.
The Beatles Box Set - The Beatles