Practicing to Perform – Log #1

In my Adult Piano Pedagogy class, we have been asked to journal our performance prep process.  So I thought I’d post it here, as it’s pretty good blog fodder.

I’ve known for about a week that next Tuesday, I’ll be playing a piece in class, knowledge which hasn’t really sunk in, I don’t think, since it hasn’t pushed me to spend more time on the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata I’m preparing. Beethoven Opus 78On the other hand, this could be a good thing, as in the past, the idea that I’ll be performing would have nagged at me, perhaps to no benefit. Performances have always entailed some sort of competition, even if only with myself, to play as perfectly as possible. At some point during the Rome summer program, I began to see the process of performing as a continuous job, much like other jobs I’ve had. That is, I work at it, and sometimes, I have to give a presentation. The presentation makes me anxious and excited, but at some point I just let it go and allow the “show” to come out however it will at the given time.

So I find that my practice sessions so far have not been significantly different.  I’ve gone through the technically challenging parts and have played through the piece to get a better sense of overall direction. The only change I have made so far has been a conscious decision, this morning, to pay close attention to the sound and feel of sections that I am simply not convinced by. These sections tend to occur in transitional areas where one section or idea ends and another begins. Here, the challenge for me is to satisfyingly conclude a “scene” with an appropriate segue to the next. This segue, however, is frequently a momentary silence. The quality of the breath between these sections can be a challenge to pull off, as it requires a pulling back of physical energy that must be reintroduced appropriately, accounting for the mood and character of the next scene. The technical choreography involved is complicated. How do you momentarily silence momentum without stopping it?

This problem actually changed my practice plan. I had only meant to play through the movement with extra attention to unconvincing (in sound and feel) passages—to note them without going back—making a mental list of things to work on. Instead, what I heard demanded attention right away so I went back and corrected them. The whole process took me an hour, for a movement that lasts about 5 minutes.

My concluding observation is that an impending performance makes me more sensitive to details I might normally play through, thinking I’ll do it another time. With less that a week to prepare, though, the time to make corrections is now. I don’t spend more time practicing, but I become more alert, causing me to be clearer about my immediate goals.

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Music with your cupcakes?

Just recently finished recording Noël Coward’s “Zigeuner” for a short film written and directed by Sara Fenton.  It’s called Cupcakes and you should really check it out (see below).  The emotion captured in simple gestures really struck me each time I watched it.

The online version currently uses a rendition of the song played by Zoltan and His Gypsy Ensemble, with rich tones and dramatic swells accompanying the action’s calm, unaffected pace. The string parts really fill out the visual story, so I was disappointed to discover that the sheet music with vocal and piano parts that I got my hands on resulted in a very thin sound. 

So, my first unexpected challenge was arranging the piece for solo piano in order to bring out more textures.  I’ve only ever arranged very simple short pieces, and I haven’t written anything since undergrad, so I was a bit worried that I didn’t have enough time.  I also wanted to do the music and film justice.  After a couple of days of Sibelius work (such a great program!) and continual tweaks with each play-through,  I finally got a version I was happy with.  Turns out, I write music the same way I write papers—I always find some other way to say something, and wonder which option is best. Luckily, there are always deadlines to force me to stop.

The recording process itself was great new experience—recording equipment with chapel backgroundnot at all hand-sweat producing, like live playing; surprising to me, because everything is sonically etched for all eternity (or until point of deletion, whichever comes first).  We had use of the Steinway grand at Rosedale United Church, which was a beautiful, calm place to play. After a short warm-up and sound checks, we were off.

Since the film had already been cut, the length of the piece needed to be of roughly the same duration. Keeping in mind the right pacing was a challenge. We wanted to keep certain cadences in time with the action, so knowing how much liberty to take with the tempo in order to keep the “schmaltzy” feel within the time constraints sometimes felt like an awkward dance.  Like when you’re trying to learn choreography and your elbows and knees keep poking out all wrong. Thankfully, it didn’t end up sounding quite that way, but with each listen I realized I wasn’t allowing space enough for the sounds to peak and diminish naturally.  It was a great relief to eventually let go of the sense of the movie’s duration and just play freely.  

The Steinway had a wonderful full tone, which, though beautiful, definitely changes the atmosphere of the film, to which Zoltan’s version gives a nostalgic crackle.  I later listened to the new soundtrack with the movie rolling, and I really liked the resulting expectant and wistful effect.  Here’s hoping others like it too. 

It’s pretty neat hearing your playing against movie scenes.  SO COOL! I’ve always known that music changes the perceptual feel of a film, but having a hand in shaping the visual affect allowed me to experience it more palpably—a really enjoyable session.  Sara was great to collaborate with.  She cared to know what I thought, and liked that no two takes were ever the same. She’s also a dancer, so she understands the connection between movement, space, and sound so well, which is so useful when playing, too. Another plus was that we were on the same page every time! 

Can’t wait to see the final product. 

In the meantime, enjoy the current version:


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Pretty exciting…

I can type my name into U of T Library’s search field and my first ever academic journal article comes up!  Independent music teachers, followed by academics, make up most of American Music Teacher‘s readership.  I hope this article is helpful, or at least interesting, for those who have wondered what to make of “inattentive” young students.

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In the midst of it all

Just returned from a full day of piano playing.  Choir rehearsal ended at 9:20 p.m. and I just got home.  It occurred to me on my walk home that I’ve been at the piano for most of the day, beginning with practice at 10 a.m.  Just stopped for meals, and to teach  a couple of kids.  I should be worn down, but that choir rehearsal was great.  There’s nothing like feeling in sync with everyone and hearing lines weave in and out.  I don’t always just enjoy it while I’m playing, so this moment caught me off guard.  I found myself tuning in to everything — the brilliant brass, the broad bass, the full chorus of voices, my notes floating between sounds.  It felt genuinely peaceful and joyous.

Moments like this, I’m glad to finally find myself in music.

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Want a bit of jazz?

Members of the choir I accompany at the Newman Centre are putting on an evening of  jazz tonight at 7:30 pm. You can pay at the door, and while you’re at it, enter yourself in a raffle draw for incredible prizes, e.g. tickets to the TSO, Theatre Passe Muraille, dinner at the Keg. I heard some of their rehearsal last night, and they’re sounding great!  If you don’t have plans yet, head over to U of T, corner of Harbord and St. George, grab a glass of wine, sit back, and enjoy.

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Student Music Salon

Last December, the first Student Music Salon was held at my home studio on a sunny afternoon.  It was a casual affair, showcasing student compositions, duets, and solo repertoire. For most of them, it was the first opportunity to perform, and they did so with incredible presence and focus. Best of all, it was great for me to see the joy on their faces as they played, despite their expressed anxiety beforehand. As one student said, “I feel nervous and excited” — Perhaps the best combination possible.

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