Week in review, February 14-20

Turgid thought of the week: Ensuring quality results requires intentionality - in time and in focus as well as in the mechanics of practice. Several things reflected that reality this week in very different circumstances. 

I spent two evenings and Saturday afternoon accompanying high school band students for their regional solo contest. I'm always fascinated to see which students start at a high level, and maintain this focus throughout the two weeks I interact with them, and which students start at a lower level, and by sheer force of will and well-spent practice time reach a level similar to their more-gifted peers. Unfortunately some students also start at a low level and never progress at all...In this case it's a particular measure of a student's determination, since the high school in our area has few regular instrumental teachers other than the band directors, and so the students are limited in the amount of detailed technical instruction they receive outside ensemble rehearsals. They may get a few minutes each week with a clarinet teacher or a tuba teacher, but to really excel in these circumstances requires intentional application of time and focus outside normal "learning" hours.

In my own work, I experienced the necessity of time and focus while preparing a chamber recital with two of my colleagues. We are performing Dominick Argento's "To Be Sung Upon the Water," a homage to Schubert with text by Wordsworth, scored for soprano, bass clarinet, and piano. Argento's language in this work is extremely precise, but frequently difficult to parse. A semiotics analysis would be a good dissertation... What makes it so powerful, however, is Argento's use of triadic (but not common-practice) tonality in opposition to twelve-tone rows, augmented triads, mirror effects, and other devices as he illuminates the text. Added to all that, the work is quite difficult for all three performers individually and as an ensemble. We spent five hours together last week, and we'll have a dress rehearsal tonight before Tuesday's performance. This is one of those pieces that gets more profound the more you work on it, though, and we're very excited to share it with our audience. 

All of this "extra" business meant that it wasn't a very good week for my family - with a six-year-old and a four-year-old at home and baby number three due in three weeks, being out ten to twelve hours each day doesn't sit well politically. Thankfully my wife and I have learned over the years to communicate early and often about schedules and expectations! It doesn't mean we're happy and content all the time (what?! you're leaving for ten days when the baby isn't even a month old?!), but it helps me stay in touch with reality and think hard before accepting or pursuing that next out-of-town "opportunity." The nature of relying on performing and teaching for a living results in periods of rather intense weeks with almost no time at home alternating with relatively quiet weeks where I might be home more than normal. We're continually trying to plan for a good balance (e.g., not being gone three weekends in a row), but trying to remain patient (her) and humble (me) during the busy times. 

My practice concerto for the week was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Aside from the eternal joy of working on Beethoven, my thoughts ran something like "nice piece to have around, but who is ever going to program it??". Such an odd logistical puzzle for a symphony board to consider, since the choir and soloists really don't have much to do. You'd be paying a lot for not much stage time. The only time I've been involved in a performance was at my undergraduate school, where the local symphony used two college choirs and faculty soloists. Maybe if you put Chichester Psalms opposite the Choral Fantasy it would make more programming sense...

Enough rambling for this week! Sincere thanks and best wishes to those of you brave/bored enough to read my thoughts! Hey, there's much worse stuff out there you could be doing, right? 

Week in review, February 7-13

In the eternal search for more consistent ways to blog, I'm borrowing an idea from my new colleague Ken Freeman. Here's a snapshot of my week: 

I was privileged to hear a phenomenal recital of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder on Monday, with Ken on piano and bass-baritone Brian Kuhnert singing. I hadn't experienced those songs live before...what an impact. Doesn't hurt (help?) that we have two children and one more on the way! Even more astonishing is that Friedrich Rückert, the poet, wrote 425 of these poems after the death of his children. There's definitely an amazing history behind this work. 

The semester in which I teach piano lit is always enjoyable. This week we covered the French Baroque, Scarlatti, and the Sons of Bach (or S.O.B.'s, as we endearingly call them). It is really gratifying to see the students engage with these pieces, which we rarely see in recital programs. We specially enjoyed the colorful titles and sound effects in various pieces by Couperin. 

It's become something of a routine for me this semester to have a "concerto of the week" and a "chamber piece of the week" to help round out my holes. I've played quite a few recitals, but not more than a handful of concerti and, much to my embarrassment, very little chamber music. Lessons learned too late from being a quiet personality through school... Anyway, this week was Beethoven's "Emperor" and the Faure piano quartets. I always have a total blast working on the Beethoven concertos; it seems like every note is perfectly placed (by Beethoven, not by me!!) and the spiritual content of these works is on a completely different plane. Plus, yesterday I found myself listening to Alfred Brendel's recordings of Beethoven 4 and 5 with Sir Simon Rattle and found my whole idea of the concertos transformed. Brendel seemed to find the perfect tempos and inflections to make these pieces into epic movies, full of fireworks and action but also incredible pathos and tenderness. I've never heard anything like it. 

Unfortunately I can't say the same about the Faure quartets - I listened several times to both of them, did some reading, and just couldn't get into them. It is probably my issue rather than Faure's...thankfully I get to work with his "melodies" quite a bit during my accompanist duties. 

One thought on practicing before I'm done: Always be thorough, even on a time budget. I found myself working through the Emperor and not really focusing as well as I should have been. With such a big piece, and with 60-90 minutes per day, I felt that I had to cover more material, and so I didn't spend enough time polishing phrases and fixing technical issues. By Friday (maybe inspired by Brendel?) I learned my lesson, and went back to polishing several of the trickiest spots so that they shone, rather than just looked nice from a distance. Plus, this has the added benefit of making much less work down the line, should I ever get the opportunity to actually perform the piece. 

I hope this was interesting...I think I can finally promise that it will at least be regular.  

E major, transcendent

While listening to Richter's immaculate live recording of Beethoven's Op. 109 sonata this morning, I was reminded that E major seems to signify transcendence, spiritual elevation, across quite a few different composers and time periods. A few other examples off the top of my head, from the piano repertoire, of course...

Bach's E-major fugue in book II

Beethoven's C-minor piano concerto, second movement

Brahms' intermezzo, op. 116, no. 4

Liszt's Sposalizio and several Consolations

Ravel's G-major concerto, second movement


Any others you can think of, especially music outside the piano repertoire?

"Redeeming the time..."

"See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, for the days are evil." ~ Ephesians 5:15-16 (NKJV)

I've been thinking about this passage quite a bit recently, but in a different way than perhaps St. Paul meant. Time is the one gift given to everyone equally. We all have 24 hours in a day - plumbers, senators, musicians, students. Some of us work 9-5, some work third shift, some work around the clock (moms, anyone??). Whatever our main schedule, though, we all have "undesignated" time - breaks, time between one activity and another, or even time we set aside as "free time." I'm interesting particularly in small bits of undesignated time, such as (in my case) the five or ten minutes between classes and lessons.

What we do with that undesignated time goes a long way toward determining our success at what we do. Recently I've found that if I have a small amount of undesignated time, I can focus on a small task, or a small part of a larger task, and feel that I've accomplished something useful. For example, I can practice a few bars, or a page, of a larger work that I am learning. I could answer two or three specific emails that need thoughtful responses. I could pick up one room of our house. Those five, ten, or fifteen minutes suddenly become quite useful and productive.

What I avoid when focusing on a small, attainable task is the "mental repose" of tuning out for a few minutes and playing 2048 (my latest corollary to "Clash of Clans"), or sitting around wishing I had more time to "really accomplish something."

If you're comfortable in your own skin, you might become better at what you do

As I was following my Kansas City Royals' amazing comeback toward their second consecutive ALDS title this week, I ran across this story about how manager Ned Yost has changed his approach in the past few years. 


Ned's thoughts on leadership, collegial decision-making are very insightful. What particularly interested me, though, was his decision to let his players create their own routines and traditions, and to allow each player's unique personality to contribute to the team's identity. This quote stuck out to me:

"I think if you're comfortable being who you are instead of trying to be somebody who wants you to be somebody else, you become more successful at [your job]." 

Probably all of us can relate to the experience of trying to be someone we're not in order to fulfill some perceived, or actual, outside requirement. Maybe it's a boss, a significant other, a family member, or a mentor. The point that really came across to me in Ned's quote is that when we develop and embrace a secure sense of our own identity, not beholden to anyone else, we will have much more energy, drive, and vision to pursue our particular mission.  

I could go quite a few places with this, but I think for now I'll leave it there.  

An ideal concert routine

While playing three recitals in three days a week ago at the Steinway Halls in the DFW area (affectionately known as the Metroplex), I found myself falling into an interesting routine on concert days. Normally, I don't have the luxury of having an "empty" day before a recital, although I usually take the afternoon off to clear the mind and rest the body somewhat. In this case, I was able to set my own schedule. Here's what I came up with:

Wake up around 8:00am, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and conversation with my hosts (staying with family in the area)  until around 10:00, at which point I would do my morning shower routine. 

About 10:30, I start going through the scores for the evening's program. I try to listen intently in my head to each phrase, also going back over passages to ensure that I know the analysis of each progression. This mental practice also helps me "feel" each note before I get to the piano. 

Around 1:30 or 2:00 I get to the hall and start practicing, after chatting with the technician to discuss any issues with the instrument. From then until 5:00, I play each note of the program slowly, as "roundly and soundly" as possible, to create a solid "feel-mage" (William Westney's term) of each gesture. I start with the slower sections, then move into the faster sections and make sure I am using my technique appropriately to the instrument that I'm playing on that particular day. (The differences among pianos, particularly Steinways, are a topic for another time.) I end my practicing with the first thing that I play, in order to set up my brain for the start of the program.  

From 5:00 until the 7:00 showtime, I have a light dinner, return to the hall around 6:15 and stay backstage as much as possible to quiet down and reach a calm state of mind before the concert. I don't play any more until the first note of the program.  

Program done around 8:30, I return home, decompress for a while, fall asleep around 11 and do it again the next day! 

So, that's my current "ideal" - what is your idea of a perfect concert day? I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments.  

Monday morning conductor

What if a conductor gave post-concert feedback to an orchestra the way a football coach talked to his team? This is too much fun not to try, so here's my imagination of what Mike Riley would have said after Nebraka's last-second "Hail Joseph Smith" loss to BYU last Saturday. 

"Well, guys, we really messed up that ending. I think we got a little nervous and lost focus in the coda. I know programming Tchaikovsky 1 made for a tougher-than-usual opening concert, but now I know you've got a picture of the standards I want us to achieve every show.  

"Strings, we've got to do a bit more work to get in sync with one another. You've really got to listen all the way from first-chair to last-chair. We really did have a few good moments, but there were just too many of us who were slightly off-pitch, and forgot some of the trickier bowings.

"Brass, you had a tough opening piece, but after intermission you really rose to the occasion. I know we had that giant crack on the last chord, but just use that as motivation to be 100% focused from the downbeat to the final cutoff. 

"Winds, again, we really had some beautiful moments, like that spectacular clarinet solo right after intermission. You can take a lot of confidence out of this performance, even as we all work to maintain focus and energy through the whole evening.  

"Percussion...we got some work to do. There were just too many missed entrances, and the cymbals totally whiffed twice. It was like you were aiming too far to the left or something. I'm going to need to take some extra time with you during the next set.  

"As for me, there were definitely a few cues I want back. Especially toward the end, I tried to get a little fancy with some cutoffs and just confused the heck out of you. I thought that the programming was ambitious, and I knew it would be tough, but I also want you to know what I think you're capable of. Let's learn from tonight and come out with a vengeance next time. Mozart and Vivaldi may be a step down in technical difficulty from Tchaikovsky and Debussy, but I want to see how you increase your attention to detail. Don't forget we've got Don Juan and Mahler 5 coming up toward the end of the season, so find your groove in your practicing and mental prep work now!

"That is all. Practice early and often. I've got your back and I'm your biggest fan. See you next week."