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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.
Jesse

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