Tag Archives: performance

Raw Classical

We were moved today by the unexpected rawness of Ezra Azmon’s viola-playing on the corner of Walmer and Bloor, just outside the gray brick of the Shopper’s Drug Mart. I had read about him in a Star article and I’m glad to have finally heard him live.

Something about the sound of the bow urgently clinging to the strings with each gesture made every phrase more palpable. Azmon’s music was a salve for the heavy tiredness of the last few weeks.

More on Azmon here: //www.cbc.ca/i/caffeine/syndicate/?mediaId=1074472003654

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House Music

On Saturday, May 23, we held the fourth annual Student Salon, an event I started so that my piano students could have a space to play without the stress of a formal recital. For the past two years, I’ve added the requirement that they play by memory. Keep ’em on their toes. I could see them more worked up over this and sometimes I’ve wondered whether this takes away from the casual music-sharing feel of the event. I even added a program so that they commit to pieces they have decided to play. No backing out last minute! It’s a tough thing, challenging them and making it feel like performing isn’t this be-all, end-all moment.

Last Saturday, though, I think it worked out. A couple of students surprised me by deciding to play, by memory, pieces that we had decided in advance to play with the score. I know how difficult this is in front of an audience and how vulnerable one can feel. And they handled it with humour and honesty. Students shared interpretations and even their own compositions. Every one of them got in the cypher and did their thing.

They're growing up! Missing some people in this shot, unfortunately.

They’re growing up!
Missing some people in this shot, unfortunately.

This could not have happened without the supportive audience that created such a comfortable environment for musical risk-taking. I wish I had this while developing as a musician. Instead, I only had recitals and competitions in which the pressure to be perfect made me anxious and messed with my focus on the day of performance. I learned a lot in those settings, but sometimes I wonder how I ever got through them still loving music.

So, thanks to everyone that participated for filling my home once again with warmth and music.

(P.S. I never did mention what I played despite being kind of asked that day. It was the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 5.)

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Practicing to Perform – Log #2

This one’s going to be a combined log from yesterday’s session and today’s.

I was thinking that I needed to record myself in order to hear myself in a more distanced way. Since I had to figure out what camera to use for a teaching video assignment, I ended up filming my two recent practice sessions.

This added another dimension of self-consciousness to my playing, which I find useful as the performance draws near. It allows me to practice the concentration required to pull off the whole piece, including the ability to keep going, musically, no matter what happens. I begin to approximate the hyper-awareness I feel when playing in front of people.

This heightened awareness brings with it a different perspective on what my whole body is doing while I play—my overall movement, how my arms are feeling, my facial expression (I don’t like seeing myself on film!), awkward technique, loss of focus, tangential thoughts, coaching thoughts.  It actually takes a lot of effort to keep thinking of the piece as I immediately process all that I have felt and heard.  It is very difficult to save judgement for later, but it is necessary in order to attain complete engagement with the music. Or maybe I try too hard to keep focused? Perhaps the thoughts just need to happen.  Allowing this is another challenge altogether.

As I played while recording, I noticed that there are places in which I actively guide myself toward musical direction. This may be a sign that I haven’t fully learned the music, or that I’m still working through what I really want to do in a section. The result, upon playback, is that there are moments when the connection between sounds needs further finessing. On the positive side (I must always to remember to note the positives!), I’m really bringing out the interplay between voices.  My contrasts are good. (Though I have just realized that the camera mic isn’t great, and so I have adjusted my touch accordingly. I have just been told, however, that my dynamic contrasts are coming out just fine, so I need not have adjusted after all). My overall sense of direction and momentum is holding the piece well, harmonically and rhythmically.

Through the video, I also noted sections in which the tempo sped up, ever so slightly. This led me to do a bit of metronome work in order to decide what speed I feel is appropriate at this time.

I also spent more time working on the releases of phrases, as at my lesson last week, the last sound of the phrase would cut off a bit abruptly. It seems I’ve got this under control now. I’ve also made the discovery that forte 3-chord slurs can be a challenge to pull off because the peak and decay of the phrase must happen within 3 beats. I tried singing while playing and this seemed to work, but my small hands really have to work to voice these big chords.

Today’s practice session worked about the same, with more focus on performing the whole piece. I had my partner and brother listen to me play to make me more anxious. Good news is that it didn’t make me more nervous, where normally this attention would have. They reported some inconsistency in some lines, which I believe have to do with the lighter touch I tried to use since I didn’t hear dynamic contrasts in the previous video. Now I know I just have to audiate and it’ll be fine. Too bad this adjustment set me back, though. Overall, however, my harshest critics thought it sounded really good! Hurray!

Some psychological questions came to me yesterday with regard to the actual performance. What is my performance goal? How do I see tomorrow’s performance fitting in to my overall piano-playing history and learning? In relation to my goal, how should I judge what I hear and feel and think while I play, as well as after?

I have never pointedly asked myself these questions, and I wonder if answering them will do me any good. Whenever I have asked something along these lines, the questions would come in passing and would barely be acknowledged, because I was afraid to dwell on the possibility of a negative outcome. Interestingly, it requires effort to picture a positive outcome, but picturing a disaster comes so easily!

Anyway, since I’ve asked…

Tomorrow’s performance will simply be a way for me to see how much of my work can result in an expressed musicality. (And truthfully, I have not had much practice time last term, and last week I only got 3 or 4 hours all week; this week, about the same). I’m curious to know how comfortable I am, at this point, with this piece being heard by my colleagues, who probably get more opportunity to perform than I do (my program has a greater focus on research and writing). So in terms of positioning tomorrow’s playing, it will be a moment from which to learn. My goal, however, is to let go of the music by enjoying it as I play. It is such a strange phenomenon to have people watch you try to enjoy music. It feels almost voyeuristic. Perhaps it is this feeling I have always had, that playing music is such a personal sharing, that makes me feel most vulnerable. It makes sense, then, that a musician can become so anxious and even overly self-critical. Anxious, because it is such a display of emotion, and self-critical in an effort to present only the best.

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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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