Join Bob Sterry and yours truly for an evening of irreverent British humor, songs by Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman and more, and the great party atmosphere of Tony Starlight’s! Make your reservation early. $12 cover.
Change is difficult. Over the past six months I have learned that truth at a cellular level when I had to face some unavoidable (and extremely inconvenient) truths. Facing these truths led to huge upheavals in my personal life, including two moves (the last one during December), new studio space, new performance goals—and all while continuing to teach (in Forest Grove)and to music direct and play a show (in Cannon Beach).
Change is exciting. It is a blustery January day and I am sitting by the window in Portland—a city I have wanted to move back to for years. My world has opened up for me—both personally and professionally—in ways I only dreamed possible. The love and support I’ve received from the people in my life has softened and humbled me. I learned that it is impossible to know that people love you when you insist on doing everything yourself.
Change is inevitable. When the truth of a sad situation becomes unavoidable, the only choice is change or die. I chose change. My 2014 resolution is to live that change with courage, kindness, and love.
Come enjoy a little holiday magic in Cannon Beach! Great music, great fun for the whole family. Visit http://www.coastertheatre.com/TheHolidayMusical.html for more information!
Last week, after three days of rehearsals, I got up really early Tuesday morning and drove home from Cannon Beach in time for a 9:00 AM lesson. I got home by 8:30 and promptly put a kettle on for tea and changed my beach clothes for more professional garb. I didn’t know how tired and distracted I was until I looked down and saw my socks floating in the toilet rather than sitting in the laundry hamper where I was sure I’d thrown them…
Most musicians will tell you that one of the most difficult parts of practicing or performing is focus. Even the most dedicated players struggle to stay in the music when nerves, life, fatigue and/or a host of other distractions attempt to pull us out. The task is further complicated by the type of focus musicians must have in order to play well: We must be fully in the present, without ever forgetting where we just came from and while always anticipating where we are going.
It’s a big task. If we focus too closely, we lose the musical thread. If we don’t focus enough, we forget what key we’re in or what section of the piece we’re playing. Getting angry with ourselves about inevitable lapses only makes things worse, so we work to keep a sense of humor and accept that we’re flawed human striving for perfection.
Some days we succeed. Other days we do the musical equivalent of fishing soggy socks out of the toilet, laugh, take a deep breath, and try again.
Last week I taught the same lesson to two students in one day: one was a high school junior and the other a retired advertising executive. And although they are different genders, different ages, and playing completely different music, they wrestled with the same problem, namely, how to get their performances to match their ideal conception of the piece. It is the lament of artists of all ages, levels and art forms: how to create art when the reality of our work rarely ascends to what we think it should be.
When I first encountered the Platonic Ideal in a college philosophy class, I never questioned the truth of it. Any philosophy stating that everything that exists is a mortal and imperfect representation of the ideal immortal version (which is in another realm) speaks to an artist. Our entire lives consist of the struggle to bring our mortal and imperfect versions of our art closer and closer to the ideal, while accepting the reality that we will never escape the prejudice of being fallible human beings creating fallible human art.
So, if we cannot reach perfection, what is it we really do when we return to the piano day after day after day? We slog on, drilling notes and fingering, studying the score, rehearsing passages over and over, always holding on with faith to the hope that through hard work and devotion we will see the mundane transformed by those flashes of the eternal. We work with the tools we have been given—the music, our imperfect selves, and imperfect instruments—to create those gifted moments when the transcendent breaks through and bathes us (despite our brokenness and imperfection) in the light of truth and beauty.
Ah, summer…long warm days…a relaxed schedule…the perfect time to spend time be barefoot on the back patio, good book in hand, and icy drink within reach. When it comes to scholarly research and historical study, pianists are spoiled for choice. We do read these books and glean much…just not in the summer.
My dear friend Brenda Kell, manager of Portland Piano Company, gave me my favorite current summer read: Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger. The book is the diary Rusbridger kept of his year-long project of learning Chopin’s G Minor Ballade as an amateur pianist—and all while being editor of The Guardian in London. It is real, funny, poignant, and is infused with a passion for music and for the piano that so many of us share. It will join my short list of favorite reads about making music. Here, in no particular order, are books I revisit regularly and recommend frequently:
Piano for Pleasure by Charles Cooke (a great how-to guide for fitting piano into a busy, professional life)
Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures by Noah Adams (funny and real account of learning to play the piano by NPR host Adams. His description of his first public piano performance still makes me laugh out loud)
A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad (still the best book out there on getting out of your own way and overcoming performance anxiety)
The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self by William Westney (should be required reading for neurotic pianists everywhere…i.e., every single one of us)
Confronting Silence by Toru Takemitsu (OK, a bit of an off-beat choice but it really makes me listen to music with fresh ears)
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (a great novel that paints a very realistic picture about life as a professional musician)
So…pick up a few of these books, get a glass of icy lemonade, kick off your shoes and enjoy!
It is post-rehearsal during “tech” week. Actors and one pianist (me) crowd around a table in a Cannon Beach bar decompressing with drinks and laughs. The conversation turns to one of the actors on the cast whose insecurities have manifested in some lies and posturing. One actor sums up the sentiment of the entire group:
“I wish he would just be himself. We love everyone, as long as they are themselves.”
As utopian as that may sound, he speaks the truth of a closely-knit group of actors that includes retirees and employees, gay and straight, old and young, clergy and agnostics. They’ve even welcomed a pianist into their group. What matters is that you show up, be professional, and be yourself.
I walked straight into rehearsals after a season of adjudicating classical piano exams and competitions and the contrast could not be more striking. As a group, classical piano teachers are petty, vindictive, bitter, and all-around mean. We pride ourselves on being judgmental. Other teachers have prompted me to state (at regular intervals) that I “hate my own kind.” Feuds run for decades. “In” crowd and “out” crowd can be determined by where someone goes to church. Piano competitions are all too often awash in the acid of long-held feuds between teachers. They say it’s for the kids, but how can young students profit from pettiness, angry adjudicators, and an overall attitude that winning is everything?
My immersion in the theater world reminds me that the best artists are those who let their art make them more generous and accepting people. If we want to shape the next generation of artists to be caring human beings in addition to good musicians, we have a responsibility to lead by example. Are there piano teachers out there doing this? Yes, and I am grateful to count many of them among my closest friends. Do the rest of us have a long way to go to become this gracious? Yes again. Years ago a good friend told me, “Oh honey, live a little!” Words to live by.
Several weeks ago I had the honor of being Master of Ceremonies for the 7th annual Cascades Classical Music Competition in Bend, Oregon. Instrumentalists aged 20 and younger arrived from all over the state and played for a panel of seven judges, as well as a room full of supportive parents, teachers, and community members. From the youngest age group to the oldest, the playing was spectacular. In-between division events, the students spontaneously sat at the pianos and “jammed” classical riffs together—playfulness taking the place of the formal performances of the competition. There was no tension and no competition terror; Cascades Classical is a place where talented young musicians can play their best and have fun doing it.
What is most remarkable about this event is that each year it is a labor of love pulled together on a financial shoestring by professionals who volunteer their time and talent to making it come to life. Even the judges—all talented professionals with eye-popping resumes—donated their time. In a world where artists and musicians are struggling to make a living, volunteer time means time away from the paid gigs that make up our salaries.
So why do we do it? Cascades Classical Music Foundation (and other organizations like it) survives because we have a passion to pull together as a musical community and support our fledgling members in their training. It exists because the students’ parents and their teachers see the value in helping young players reach great artistic heights while still letting them be kids.
As in any competition, some players are chosen as “winners.” The final medal winners can be found on Cascades Classical’s website, www.cascadesclassical.org. The winners’ circle, however, includes so many more than those pictured. These winners are every one of the students who played so beautifully that sunny Saturday. They are the future of classical music. The other winners were the rest of us—Cascades Classical board members, adjudicators, teachers, parents, and community members. Through the magic of that day we heard the future, played one artistically crafted note at a time, from their hands to our hearts.