Tuesday, December 9, 2008

12 rules of being a first year piano student at the conservatory.

  1. Don't have fun at concerts, stand around looking snooty and slightly bored.

  2. Have contempt for any kind of mainstream music, including popular classic pieces. If people like it, then it is not good.

  3. Spend five hours each day criticizing other musicians at your school or on the Internet.

  4. Spend five minutes every other day actually practicing your instrument.

  5. If you're going to start playing the piano, make sure you start with the most technically difficult music you know. The Rachmaninoff second concerto, Liszt's second Hungarian rhapsody and Flight of the Bumblebee are all popular choices. Make sure to mention that you are "playing" those pieces to everyone you know.

  6. Carry the score to those pieces everywhere you go, preferably with the title page clearly visible to everyone.

  7. Once you are able to play the first couple of bars of the above piece at half speed with lots of mistakes, proudly tell everyone you know how you "nailed it" the last time you played it.

  8. When you are unable to "nail it" in front of someone else, make sure to blame: 1) nerves, 2) cold hands, 3) lack of sleep, 4) the piano. When you are alone, you always play it perfectly and your word should be enough for other people and for your teachers.

  9. Talent is the same as technical skill. The faster the fingers, the more talented the musician.

  10. Show off your piano, show off your sheet music, show off your artist clothes, show off your bohemian lifestyle, show off everything... show off your dog (get a dog). How others see you is the most important thing.

  11. Whenever you listen to another person play, make sure you mimic them. Play an "air piano" at recitals so that people know that you can do whatever the person playing is doing even better (this is not in the least bit annoying).

  12. Fast is good. There is no good slow music, except when it's Liszt.


Some additional rules for the jazz students:

  1. A single note sounds bad. Play in chords, play it in octaves, play it with chords in one hand and octaves in the other (and an arpeggio somewhere in the middle).

  2. There are countless possibilities to the chords you can use to supply texture and color to your playing. With so many options out there, pick the two chords you like best and use them in everything you play.

  3. Length is the single most important factor in a solo, it doesn't matter if you keep doing the same things. If you can't go for length, then go for playing as many solos as possible.

  4. If it is impossible to be a good jazz pianist, at the very least pretend you are Chick Corea. It's all in wishing hard enough, no practice or talent required.

  5. Dissonant chords are the only chords.

  6. Sixteenth notes are the only notes. (This does not apply to trumpets or saxophones playing very very high, in that case they are not permitted to hold a note for less than four seconds).

  7. If it's not a piano or a trumpet, it's not a real instrument and should not be playing solos. That goes double for bass. In any case, if there's a piano on the stage, there's really no point in having anyone else there.

  8. If you can't pretend to be Chick Corea, you can at least pretend you know how to play Latin jazz piano.

  9. On second thought, don't do that. It's really annoying.

Monday, December 1, 2008

#69 Rhythm and gesture.

We naturally express rhythm and expression by a gesture, a movement with our bodies. That's what happens when a small child spontaneously dances to music. Rhythm as a function of movement and the relation of muscular tension and relaxation is hard-wired into our system; in our breathing, in our walking, in our vital functions.

Physicalising rhythm is a vital first step into developing a good sense of time. Expressive gestures, dancing, and something as simple as clapping or tapping our feet are things that we should not stifle in young students. Ideally, by constantly reinforcing the recognition of rhythm in the timing of our movements, we help the student to reach a point where the very movements he makes when playing are inseparably linked with the rhythm and expression of what he plays.

Walking around, dancing, jumping, clapping, stomping our feet... these are all good things which we should encourage. I like to encourage parents to let their children play a simple percussion instrument, or at least to let him bang on the pots and pans in the kitchen once in a while (which my grandmother let me do to my heart's content when I was very young).

A metronome is essential to learning precise time, but the very first step is translating rhythm into a physical gesture, not spending hours trying to follow along with the clicking, beeping or blinking light.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

#68 Listen to non-piano music.

Puccini, Vivaldi, Renaissance and Middle Ages music, ethnic music, Rossini, Verdi, Massenet, Berlioz, Bellini, Gregorian Chant, Paganini.

There are countless composers out there who wrote practically nothing for the piano. I get irritated with any pianist that doesn't know music beyond Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. A lot of the best piano music out there is inspired on these composers that many pianists are not familiar with--- Bach transcribed dozens of Vivaldi concertos and continuously imitated the Italian baroque forms in his music; Chopin idolized Bellini and his groundbreaking way of writing for the piano was an attempt to imitate the singing melodies of Italian opera; Liszt was mesmerized by Paganini's diabolical virtuosity and set out to create that same kind of sound for the piano; practically every composer tried to imitate some kind of folk music elements from his region, and that kind of music in its raw form is easily obtainable today.

The hardest thing for pianists to do is playing a good melody, what better way to learn that than by listening to music for the voice? Even so, I'm surprised that so many "pianists" can't name more than a couple of operas and some have never sat and listened to a single one.

Stop being a pianist, be a musician. There is a lot of music out there, don't limit yourself to the clanking of our 88 keys all the time; don't box yourself in. By listening to all kinds of music, your piano playing can only improve.

Walking on clouds of melody.

I've been pretty busy lately and the "Daily Piano Tips" haven't been as "daily" as they should be. I've been filling in for our local orchestra's pianist, who is still incapacitated from a bad fall she had a couple of months ago. For the past two weeks, I've been immersed in Puccini (I've been playing the celesta, organ and some piano parts). The orchestra played a programme with scenes from Tosca, Bohéme and Butterfly as well as some of his orchestral intermezzi and most famous arias.

[caption id="attachment_578" align="alignright" width="238" caption="Carissima mía, you have to walk on clouds of melody."]walking[/caption]

Shostakovitch once said that Puccini wrote horrible music and great operas. It's easy to get that reaction, considering that for the past hundred years, almost every musical has been a reworking of Puccini's greatest hits--- Andrew Lloyd Weber is particularly guilty of that. In my opinion, Puccini's melodies are amazing in every sense. He is reputed as saying "you have to walk on clouds of melody" to one of his singers. I've grown to love his music; he left us with a whole heaven of melody on which to walk. Some composers--- Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Wolf--- had that gift for melody which, for some reason,  made them looked down upon by many in the musical community. Even so, their music strikes something deep within the listener which transcends the snobbery. It can be kitsch, but it has a kind of sincerity, of emotional honesty, that makes the music great.

Talking about that sort of music, I get to play the celesta in the Nutcracker suite ten times in the next two weeks! Can someone get tired of the Sugar Plum Fairy? I'm about to find out, first hand. I'll also be playing some harpsichord with Corelli's christmas concerto, but I can change it up a bit each time we play it.

In any case, sorry about the lack of updates, right now. My students are playing a concert, I'm applying end of the year exams and I'm playing concerts almost daily, either with the orchestra, or accompanying students from the school, or going out and playing recitals (mostly with singers). Regular updates will come soon (once the school year and the concert season is over), but for now the daily piano tips will be "daily" in Pluto days.

In the meantime listen to a lot of Puccini; and sing along, if no one is watching.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Getting high on Beethoven.

Just thought I'd share this. Seems I should add "Beethoven is better than any psychedelic drug" to my list of things we can learn from Schroeder:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

#67 Doing it for a living.

When you have to choose a career, a lot of people say "Do what you love". I think this is extremely naive; it is definitely not that easy. I love to sleep, but I can't make a living off of that.

The ideal career path for a person has to fit three categories:

- It is something you are good at.

- It is something you love doing.

- It is something people will pay you to do.

If the answer to all of those is "yes", then that is the perfect career choice for you. When it comes to the piano, you've got to ask yourself those questions when making the decision. Not only do you have to be good at it to be a pianist, you have to be very good, or people won't pay you, and you definitely have to love doing it; especially if you are going to be a teacher.

Choosing a career in music isn't just about "doing something you love". There is more to it than that; there is a lot of competition.

Friday, November 21, 2008

#66 Constancy

Being constant with your practicing is much more important than the total number of hours that you put into the instrument. It is also important to spread out the practice hours; a lot of the progress we make is done when we are away from the piano, processing everything we did.

A person that practices one hour a day is always going to make more progress than a person that doesn't practice for two or three days straight and then pulls an eight hour marathon session.

"If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it."


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

#65 Lessons with an accompanist.

Remember, specially if you are a singer, a session with an accompanist is about ensemble work. It is not like any other lesson. If you are still very insecure with your part of the music, do everyone a favor and stay home and practice. If you can't play your music yet and keep stopping every few measures, you are wasting the accompanist's time; more so if you are working out technical details and your accompanist is sitting in a corner waiting for you to finish.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mexican Candy is Awful.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that I like spicy food, no matter how hot. As any good Mexican, I was of the idea that anything can be made to taste better if you add some chilies to it, even candy. Oh, how wrong I was.

Today, my wife and I went for a walk at the mall. We stopped for a snack at a typical snack counter, the kind that sells candy, chips, nachos, some fruit--- junk food in general. I hadn't been to one of those places in a long time, since I was a kid. I realized, we Mexicans have gone too far with our obsession for hot food. I kid you not, every single item in that store had either chili powder, or tamarind chili paste, or the most god-awful stuff there is: Lucas--- most things in the store had all three. I'm not talking about a light sprinkling either, almost everything in shop--- peanuts, apples, tamarind, pineapple, mango, Doritos, pistachio nuts--- was served completely submerged in chili sauce, usually after being thoroughly coated with Lucas or chili powder, turning into a bizarre sort of stomach-destroying soup.

[caption id="attachment_560" align="alignright" width="175" caption="We don' need your steenkin' chocolate, gringos, we got Lucas. Yes. That stuff is considered candy here."]We don' need your steenkin' chocolate, gringos, we got Lucas. Yes. That stuff is considered candy here.[/caption]

We also visited a candy shop in which every item in the shop had a chili covered version, including nuts of all kinds, hard candies, soft candies, marshmallows, dried fruit and, yes, even chocolate (even the Aztecs prepared chocolate mixing it with chili peppers instead of milk and sugar). Tamarind pulp mixed with chili was everywhere. For the love of God, tamarind is not candy. Asians have the right idea about tamarind: in Asia, people believed that the tamarind tree poisoned the air around it and that people who fell asleep under the tree would be dragged off to hell by demons.

Mexican candy is awful, it seems every time a Mexican has a snack, it's just an excuse to cram a liter of hot sauce down his throat. Candy is supposed to be sweet and soothing. Here in Mexico, most of it is hot and stings. It will burn your throat and make your eyes water. It will also contain sticky red tamarind that will stain and burn everything it touches, and will refuse to let go of your teeth until you are forced to taste every single last bit. It's usually deceiving, the very first taste of Mexican candy might be pleasant, but it quickly spreads down to your throat and up into your sinuses and refuses to go away, making its presence felt every inch of its way down your digestive tract.

There are a lot of things I love about Mexico, just not the candy. It's terrible.

#64 Age.

I want to point out that it is never too late to start playing the piano. This entry in the Daily Piano Tips is aimed at people wanting to pursue a career in music; anyone can learn to play the piano reasonably well, but it is a very competitive field for people wanting to be professionals.

Because I started playing the piano when I was sixteen years old--- not in the way most people mean it, that they started "taking it seriously", which is pretty common, I mean that I really started, playing Clementi sonatinas and pieces from the Anna Magdalene Notebuch--- I've gotten several e-mails asking me about the importance of starting early. It is well known among pianists that, if you want to be a professional, sixteen is an extremely late age to start. I won't lie to you, it is very difficult. I also had previous musical experience, having played the trumpet since I was a small child. I have no idea what it is like to start completely from nothing at that age but it must be near impossible. During my time studying, I learnt one thing:

Age matters.

I studied in a very competitive environment in which most of my classmates had been playing the piano since they were four or five years old. I experienced first-hand the big difference age makes in every aspect of a musicians life, from learning and reading new repertoire to performing consistently well. People that started younger simply have an easier time with all of it. Gradually, I have tried to close the age gap and I think that, in the end, I am at a point where it has ceased to be a big issue. Getting here was a whole other matter.

If you are starting to play at an older age, expect it to be very hard. Classical music is already a fiercely competitive field without adding such a severe handicap. The only advantage you have over a six year old starting out is a (hopefully) more developed mind and maturity. To make it, you have to make as much use of it as possible; a person starting so late does not have the luxury of slacking off mentally while practicing. You will have many more problems to solve in each practice session, and you won't have that mass of empirical knowledge other pianists have (at least not as much of it), or the instinct that many develop over years of playing; your problems, you are going to have to actively think about and solve, one at a time. It should be obvious that a lot more practice time is also necessary.

I had a really hard time studying alongside people who had a ten year head start over me and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone; imagine how it must be to attend classes with a group of people and having to do ten times the work that everyone else does to get the same result. To be completely truthful, I'm not sure if I would do it again if I had the chance; I had no idea how hard it could get. I would probably have studied something musical but not performance-related if had known back then.

For me, the worst part of starting late was getting over the "started late clause" to any opinion, grade or review I ever received. Every time I got a positive opinion, it was along the lines of: "that was really good, considering you started so late!" or "that wasn't bad since you started so late". It was a big moment for me when my teachers and classmates started treating me like a normal person, and the "started late" issue was not apparent. You will be treated as having some kind of disability, and it will block your progress in some way. Learning to get over this, is a big part of closing the age gap.

If what you are aiming for is doing something "great" and being a "concert pianist" while being so old and just starting out, I think you should forget about it; you are probably doing it for all the wrong reasons and won't be able to handle the load of work you are in for. You've got to have a desire, a passion, for making music that will carry you through the hours of labor that starting late entails.

I knew I had to do it when I realised that I wanted music in my life. It didn't matter where I ended up, I knew I would be very happy even if I never left the tiny town I was living in, just teaching the ten kids in the church choir and playing along with them on a small electric keyboard; working part time at the local dancing studio playing the piano for the old ladies learning Spanish dance, and the little kids in the ballet class. Even if I ended up bagging groceries at the local food market, it would be all worth it if I could come home and play some Schubert.

In short, my answer to those e-mails I've received:

- Starting late is hard, expect a lot more work.

- You've got to use your head a lot more than the other guys.

- You've got to practice a lot more than the other guys.

- Make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.

Thanks for the e-mails, I hope this helps!

Friday, November 14, 2008

#63 Success

In my experience, an essential part of being successful as a professional musician--- or as a professional in any field, for that matter--- is constantly re-evaluating what success is.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

#62 Legato beyond the fingers.

Legato is as much a state of mind as it is just the mechanical connecting of one note with the other with your fingertips. The first step towards a true legato is learning to think legato; to think in long notes. Pianists tend to have the bad habit of hearing, and thinking, everything in staccato. We play the note, and then forget about it. As you try to play something legato, it is very important to make a mental connection with the sound and the transition between both notes or chords. By listening carefully to the particular way in which two things connect, we learn to reproduce it and to follow it when we play.

You can smear one note into the next all you want, and it won't sound legato if you aren't singing in your head; if you aren't listening. On the other hand, you can take a pencil and play each note in the phrase with the pencil tip, but if you are listening to the way the notes should connect, it will sound legato,

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

#61 Practice time managment (2).

After you've spent a few days checking up on the work you did during the day you may start noticing some problems for the first time. Typically, students--- those that practice consistently and regularly--- tend to practice the very beginning of each piece more than the rest of it. They tend to get stuck on the first difficult passage, and give it a lot of work, while the ending of the piece, being one of the most important parts of any piece of music, gets relatively neglected. They also tend to leave a lot of their music in the beginning stages; practicing it, but never making the jump from plodding along just reading and reacting to the page to actively trying to reach an ideal musical goal.

For now, I will hold off on giving any specific tips on practice time management--- hint: it involves making a schedule--- but try and plan what you are going to do each day before you actually go into the practice room. Just sitting in front of the piano and "going with the flow" is good to do sometimes, but if you make that your daily routine, I don't think you'll be getting a lot of work done.

Monday, November 10, 2008

#60 Practice time management.

When you're done with your day, make a note of how much time you dedicated to each part of your repertoire. Make sure that you are spending most of your time working on what is weakest. Also make sure that everything else is getting the same amount of attention, proportional to its difficulty. When working with a lot of repertoire at once, you have to learn to juggle it so that none of it falls behind.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

#59 Impressions.

Most piano teachers have favorite students. Their impression of what kind of persons their student is has a big influence on a lot of what happens during a lesson. Good teachers try as much as they can not to let their prejudices with a student show, but it's hard. At the very least, you have students whom you look forward to and students that make you think "it's seven pm already? ugh, I just want to go home."

As a student, remember that your piano teacher only sees you one or two hours each week. What he sees in those couple of hours makes up his opinion of you, and considering that his opinion has a huge influence on the dynamics of each lesson, you should make sure you are at your best during that couple of hours. If you are at your music school, also be extra careful not to fool around too much on the piano if your teacher might be around to listen. You might be a very hard-working person, and just want to let off some steam, but if the two or three times your teacher happened to listen to you practice, you were playing something completely different from what you are supposed to be working on, or just goofing around, playing extra loud or extra fast that might give him the impression that you do that all the time.

I made that mistake with one of my teachers when I was younger. During my first lessons with her, I didn't bother to dress up a bit before class, and I showed up with some ripped sneakers and patched up pants to some classes. Later, she had the unshakable conviction that I was extremely poor, and she kept offering money and to pay for my bus fare.

The impression you make around your teachers is very important, you don't want them to get the wrong idea about you into their heads.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

#58 Scooping up water.

For those passages where you want a kind of blurry, soft, and dreamy sound (lots of those in Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin) there are two things which are technically important. Keeping most of the weight off your hand--- almost as if your wrist is limp--- and playing every note in one flowing motion.


Imagine that, instead of a row of keys, your keyboard is a stream of water; with the first note of the passage, you dip your hand into the water, and in one smooth arc, you scoop some of the water up and out. I like to play the highest notes in these kinds of passages a bit brighter. Maintaining the same mental image, you can give the higher note a nice bell-like tone by flicking some of that "water" at the audience.

It's not literally the same movement, but that mental image helps me explain the way it should be played.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

#57 A tip on balance.

The closer two voices are, the bigger the difference in volume between them needed to tell the two apart.

It's easy to bring out the theme in a fugue when it is an octave distance from the nearest other voice, its quite another story if they are close together, or even crossing with each other. The same principle applies to the relationship between melody and accompaniment.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

#56 It's your fault.

When playing with other people, don't be so quick to lay the blame on others. In most chamber works, the piano is the backbone of the ensemble, and almost every single problem can be caused or made easier to solve by the pianist.

Are your singers out of tune? It might be your fault, maybe you're holding them back and they run out of air, or maybe you aren't bringing out the harmony enough for them. Are the other musicians rushing? Maybe your beat isn't clear enough. Is the melody not enough, are your string players playing with an ugly sound? Maybe you are playing too loud and they are having to force their sound too much.

When a problem arises in one of the other parts, the best question a pianist can ask of himself is: "what could I be doing in my own playing to make his part better?".

Chamber music works best if you are always trying to make everyone else sound better with your own playing. "It's his problem, I don't care." and "You are all so bad!" are the worst attitudes you can take.

Monday, November 3, 2008

#55 The things singers do.

There are two things that singers have to do that a lot of pianists neglect. As a result, paying attention to these two things usually gives a huge boost to the quality of phrasing and cantabile in a pianist. When playing with a singer, attention must be payed to these two things, or the music suffers.

The two things they have to do, that pianist don't:

1. They breathe.

If a singer does not breathe along with the music,  the music dies. Simple as that. A singer will correlate phrasing and register with his breathing. A lot of pianists don't do that, and as a result, the phrasing and rhythm sound unnatural, almost robotic, and they have a very difficult time following along with other musicians.

2. They work to sustain a long note.

A lot of pianists play everything staccato, not physically, but in the way they  follow along with their minds. A singer can't do that, if he wants a note that lasts three or four beats, he has to be actively working those four beats and as a result, the long notes come alive and are rarely static. Pianists just press a key, and then they tend to forget about the note. Actively listening to the note, imagining a crescendo or a modulation or a change of color in the note is essential to having long flowing lines. If we don't do that, the end result might be a long note, but in our mind and interpretation we are actually playing everything staccato.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Unconsoled

A couple of years ago, while browsing through a used book store, a particular book caught my eye. The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I had no idea about who the author was, or his particular style. The book wasn´t  even all that cheap--- but I took it. I took it because, according to the back cover, the main character was a concert pianist.

The Unconsoled turned out to be a thoroughly confusing book, not only for the reader, but for the main character (who has no idea of what is going on, most of the time). The town where it takes place seems to exist in some kind of alternate universe where time has no meaning at all. The book is the kind of book that English majors love to dissect, spending hours talking about what the author actually meant to say and about the symbolism of the book, and its similarities to Kafka or eastern philosophy. I see that side of the book but, what made the most impact with me after reading it was its satirical portrayal of classical music and the virtuoso.

Almost all composition students I meet complain about today's audience. They whine about how people's ears must be first educated before they can begin to appreciate new music, how traditional musical education prevents interpreters from understanding their new music. One thing that made me laugh out loud in The Unconsoled was how, in that universe, people would actually be excited about Mullery's "Verticality" or Kazan's "Glass Passions" to the point of discussing the music's significance and philosophies in the pub or in the schoolyard. The idea just has something inherently silly about it, which says a lot about the great majority of modern music.

Another thing I loved about the book was the exasperating way every single person the main character met asked him (pretty forcefully, most of the time) for a favor, or an opinion about something. The way they kept expecting the main character to solve their problems reminded me of the strange sense of responsibility one feels when playing. All performing artists, regardless of their fame, have a public life of sorts. As soon as you decide to play for an audience, you are immediately taking on a responsibility, you take on yourself people's expectations; most of them complete strangers. That same sensation is what I get from this book, all of these people, strangers to the main character, asking favors of him which he cannot refuse because of a sense of responsibility to society.

And in the end everyone, including the reader, is unconsoled. That is what struck a chord with me the most, that sense of the futility of it all, after all the build up to the great concert that was supposed to save the town in some way. Sometimes I feel that after a concert, after all the preparation and work that was put into it, the horrible pressure put on the performer in the moment, and then... well, it's done; it's gone and it won't come back.

The Unconsoled is long and confusing and in the end, fulfilment hardly comes from the book, it comes from within. It is well worth the read, and maybe a musician will read more into it than most.

#54 Difficulty.

The difficulty of a particular piece is highly subjective, completely relative to each particular musician.

I insist, the piano is not a difficult instrument to play, as I wrote in a previous post.

After a while, a piece can only have two possible difficulties: easy or impossible. Which of these it is only depends on how you practice.

Think about it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Updates start on monday.

We just got a new computer! Updates start on monday again.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A short break.

My computer decided to have a complete system malfunction that included smoke, sparks and weird stuff all over the place. It is beyond repair. So, while I get a new machine, I'll have to take a short break from updating this place.

Don't buy a stupid Compaq, they are terrible.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

#53 Orchestra etiquette for the pianist.

Pianists aren't generally accustomed to playing in an orchestra. It is a small community in itself, with rules designed to prevent excessive loss of rehearsal time and a strict hierarchy. Here are a few simple tips about how to act when you are called to play with an orchestra, either as a soloist, or as a line musician:

- Not everyone is allowed to speak out with opinions or questions. Generally, only the conductor is at liberty to speak at all times. Not all musicians are allowed to address the conductor in the middle of rehearsal. If you are the soloist, speak directly to the conductor, and avoid disagreements in front of the orchestra. All matters of interpretation should be done in a private rehearsal between conductor and soloist, and if absolutely necessary, in a lowered voice directly to the conductor during a pause in rehearsal. If you are playing as part of the percussion section address your questions to the percussion principal, usually playing timpani--- he is the one that handles the percussionist distribution and charts. If you are set apart from the percussion then you may talk directly to the conductor, but only if strictly necessary. Opinions, and comments should all be done outside of rehearsal time, and not in all cases.

- As a soloist, usually the conductor will come backstage to take you to your seat and usually you will walk in front of him. Make sure to shake the concertmaster's hand before acknowledging applause and sitting down to play. Remember that, in some cases, you are required to play an A for the oboe, so the orchestra can tune. If you are not the soloist you must always stand up whenever the concertmaster stands, and you have to wait to sit down until he does. Sometimes after the piece, if you had an important solo, the conductor will make you a gesture to stand up and take a bow.

- Remember to always tell the orchestra librarian before taking a score with you or if you want to make a copy of the score. Never write with pen directly on the score and usually, the scores stay on the stand after you are done. Make sure you bring a couple of pencils to the rehearsal. Some orchestras will issue the parts directly to the musicians at the beginning of the concert season; take good care of them, they are not your property.

- You must always have your eyes either on the conductor or on your music. Resist looking at the audience, and never turn around to look at someone playing a solo.

- Counting measures is something pianists are not used to. Try and not count out loud, or with an audible beat. Also take time to write some cues into the music in case you lose count. If you have a hard entrance, make sure to have a look at the score, so you have an idea of what you should be listening to.

- Some more obvious things to remember are being on time, not talking during the rehearsal, and practicing your parts. Prepare for the performance as you would prepare any performance of your own.

Most other musicians have been playing in orchestras since they were children and have a somewhat instinctive grasp of what is right and what is wrong in regards to orchestra etiquette. As a pianist, try and follow along as a way of showing respect for your fellow musicians.

Monday, October 27, 2008

#52 Understand your student's needs.

I've had students cry in the middle of their lesson in the past year. Usually I regard that as a complete failure on my part. It usually comes from applying too much pressure on students who are not aiming at being professional musicians. I've come to expect a certain level from my college students, the ones that want to make a living as musicians. Sometimes, when one of my other, younger, students starts slacking off, I have a hard time changing gears and treat them as I would treat a career musician (especially when their lessons are right next to each other). I yell and I mock them until they crack and then, I feel like dirt.

If you have a student that is generally responsible and respectful, but isn't looking for a professional career, what is the use in getting angry, and making him feel bad? It took me a while to come to that conclusion, but once made, it puts a lot of things into perspective. As a teacher, I can only have a couple of students break down and cry in the middle of a lesson before I have to stop and try and figure out what I'm doing wrong.

If a teacher is not willing to work at anything less than professional level, then he should not take other kinds of students and expect them to work at that level all the time.

I had to go back and think about each student's situation; why is he studying with me? is someone else making him do it? what does he expect from the class? how much time does he reasonably dedicate to the piano?

You can't go into each lesson and act like one of those old-school Russian teachers, throwing tantrums and smashing furniture into the walls; expecting everything to be absolutely perfect and every single student practicing eight hours a day. There are moments when that kind of attitude might be justified--- maybe if one of the more professional students is getting lazy with absolutely no good reason--- but for the most part, it is a lazy way to teach, because there is no actual teaching going on. Just bullying.

Even so, bullying works to some extent. If you doubt that, just look at Cuba or the level of piano playing that came out of communist Russia. There were some amazing musicians teaching there but, as a few of my teachers used to say--- a couple of them a product of the Neuhaus era Moscow Conservatory--- a big part of the success of the "Russian school" of piano from back then was more the result of coercion and an extremely oppressive environment than of any specific kind of technique.

In short, if you take students that are not going to grow up to be professional musicians, make sure you adapt. I'm not saying that you should dumb things down, but when they don't study as much as a career musician would, it at least shouldn't surprise you.

#51 Teaching and programming.

[caption id="attachment_490" align="alignright" width="272" caption="Few things are as exasperating as a computer, or a student, that just won't understand what you are trying to make it learn."]Few things are as exasperating as a computer, or a student, that just won't understand what you are trying to say. [/caption]

One of the skills that I recommend to any teacher, of any discipline, is computer programming, at least in a very basic form. If there is one thing that a computer excels at is at being a particularly slow and dim-witted student. It won't come to conclusions, it won't complete or order your ideas, and it definitely won't make those deductive leaps that make a teacher's life so much easier.

Imagine trying to teach a computer to play "Happy Birthday to You". You tell the computer the notes, and it will answer "I don't understand." so you have to translate those notes into something it will understand. Once you do that, you tell it the notes again, and it will say "What's a note?" and after that you have to specifically tell it to learn each note individually and keep it in its memory and to reproduce each note at the right time, doing so for each and every thing it does. In other words, a computer is an idiot. You have to take what you want it to do and organize it and analyze it until you are sure that even an idiot would be able to follow you. Thankfully, most students aren't as slow and dim-witted as a computer although some come close with the added difficulty of having a hard drive that erases itself every few seconds.

When you program a computer, you are forced to think about your material in a completely different way. It will help you develop an analytical approach to the subjects you are teaching. It is not always about getting the computer to do something, but about what you are left with after you do. You can learn a lot from the computer, the same way one learns the most from the slowest and dimmest students in the class.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Noche de los Mayas

I'm posting from a hotel lobby, a couple of hours before tonight's presentation. We will be starting the concert  with Noche de los Mayas, by Silvestre Revueltas. The other half of the concert is standard Mexican orchestral repertoire, including the ever-present Huapango by Moncayo (covered in my previous post, Viva Mexico!).

I had never played Noche de los Mayas before. It is a lot of fun to play, the piano only plays in the very last movement, a series of variations with lots of percussion. Silvestre Revueltas is considered a sort of Latin American Stravinsky. In my opinion, that is only on the surface due to his similar use of the orchestra. His is more like Bartok in his use of elements from Mexican folk music. He is also capable of music that is stunning in its originality and ahead of its time in many respects.

What I love most about Revuelta's music is how it is Mexican to the core. There is an element in his music that embodies perfectly the soul of this country, completely beyond the hemiolas or ending melodies in a descending major third (although he does both constantly). When listening to Noche de los Mayas, I hear the cadences of the Mexican spoken language (especially the rough falling-down-drunk way of talking that Revueltas was known for himself), the characteristic sing-song quality (although not in a pretty way) of the speech of people from Mexico City, and, most of all, a sense of magic and majesty. His music evokes a pre-hispanic Mexico, a culture of transcendental ideas that went beyond every day life. A culture with a rough and brutal side (like Revueltas) but with the dignity and majesty of a civilization convinced of being the center and focus of the universe and the gods.

Here is a video I found on YouTube, the background music is a fragment of the last movement of Noche de los Mayas. It has a huge percussion section, and the last movement is noisy, wild music. When played in Mexico, following the example from Revueltas' premiere of the work, it is traditional to let the percussionists take turns improvising solos in the ad libitum at the end of the first variation of the last movement; I haven't seen it done elsewhere.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Short hiatus.

One of our local pianists fractured her leg the other day, and I'm covering for her at the orchestra and the school. I'll be out of town from Thursday until Sunday, so there won't be any daily piano tips from now until Sunday.

Be sure to check in starting next week!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

#50 Have fun.

Do I really need to tell you how to have fun?

Just enjoy what you do. At the end of the day, all the practicing and hard work results in something that we love. Let it make you happy.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Presidential Candidates and the Arts.

I've been following the American elections very closely. Here in Mexico, a lot depends on what happens in the United States. I was also raised in the USA and lived almost half of my life there, so a lot of it is curiosity. From a professional point of view, I am very interested in the candidates' stance on the arts. I live in the border states here in Mexico, and there is a lot of artistic and cultural exchange between both countries; a lot of shared projects.

In any case, I found this site. It compares Obama's and McCain's record on the arts. Make sure that you click on the specific policies and speeches linked in that document. As a music teacher and artist, it is important to see how each candidate might affect your work and job opportunities.

#48 Fear.

Fear is easily underestimated.

Every time we play in public, we take a wild dive off a cliff, with no safety net below. Most professional musicians have learned, through trial and error how to control their fear. The path towards keeping that treacherous adversary at bay is long and hard, usually fought over the course of our whole lives. The balance in the war we fight against fear shifts constantly as we progress through life; sometimes we are practically invulnerable to its effects, other times its mere first appearance is enough to make our defenses come crashing down.

We all know the process; one moment you are calm and happy and then fear, subtly slips into our thoughts. It's disguised as doubt at that point--- what was that note in the left hand again? right: C sharp. No problem. I wonder if I studied enough. We quickly push doubt away, but that little seed is planted. Unrest seeps into our thoughts and we get a tiny bit nervous. It's not a big deal though, we can reason our fear away--- I've been studying this piece for months now, hours and hours every day. Of course I studied enough. in any case, a wrong note is nothing to worry about. We calm down for a little while, but just on the surface. Under that thin protective layer of positive thought that reason gave us there are negative thoughts stirring, ready to take over. Slowly but surely, reason is losing the battle, despite having been proved right countless times before.

Fear, at first a tiny idea made up completely in our minds has now revealed itself for what it is, a projection of all our self-destructive thoughts and impulses. It now starts attacking our body--- shortness of breath, speeding heart, dry mouth, sweaty clammy cold hands, our knees tremble and we get a sudden urge to urinate. We start falling apart, all while reason tries to hold up the defense. Eventually, we just give up. This is irrational fear, reason can do nothing against it. We only have a couple of defenses left. Hope, blind trust that everything will be alright. I'm sure that most musicians reading this have lived that feeling of just jumping out onto the stage, clinging to a hope that it will all work out, because it is the only thing we have; even if at that point, we are practically defeated by fear, an illusion made up by our own minds--- even less than that; a notion, a fleeting thought.

Every time we let fear break through, we are losing the fight against our own selves. That battle against our own self-destructive tendencies--- against our demons, prejudices and negative thoughts--- is the most important battle most musicians have to face in their development. The only way to beat fear is to face it head on. It is tempting to forget, to look away and let it lie. But if we don't take the offensive against it, it will just come back and win again. That journey of self-inspection; that long hard look into the mirror is difficult, but it is a step that all musicians have to take. Once we see ourselves as we really are and truly accept and embrace reality, the fear will be gone.

#47 Mozart and Chopin.

In my opinion, the way Mozart should be played on the piano has a lot more in common with Chopin than with Bach, Haydn or Beethoven. The clunky period-instrument Mozart with an almost non-existent sound and a constant staccato has almost nothing to do with what I think he wanted his music to sound like. That kind of playing, while historically correct, is far from the spirit of the works and makes Mozart's piano music sound completely different from his music for other instruments and for voice. Mozart's work for winds, strings, orchestra, and voice are as enlightening in regards to interpretation and sound on the piano as musicological research.

There are three things that I find Mozart has more in common with Chopin than with other composers of his time: (1) a constant singing line, (2) fast passages that are melodic in nature, and (3) a way of developing accompanying harmony in a horizontal way.

Both composers were very particular about a singer's capacity to maintain a legato line. In Mozart's letters to his father and Chopin's letters to his own family, the both make nearly identical remarks about the interpretation of grupetto markings (they should be integrated into the musical line, instead of being mere ornaments--- Chopin was pretty upset after listening to a Bellini performance where the singer kept singing these melodic figures with an accent on the first beat and a diminuendo, instead of having the grupetto lead towards the next note) and both composers also write melodies which carry almost a full harmonic weight by themselves--- most of the time, the melody can stand alone. In the interpretation of both composers' work, there also needs to be a larger than normal distance between the dynamic of the high singing voice and the accompaniment, giving the illusion of space. A common mistake that many pianists make with this music is having the left hand part strangle the melody, especially when the melodic line has long notes.

In both composers, fast passages usually have implied harmonic movements that are quite intricate. In all cases, these passages should be studied slowly and with attention paid to phrasing because, in the best performances of their work, these passages never sound like mere technical exercises. With today's technology we can listen to the recordings of old masters like Rubinstein or Hoffman at 1/4 or 1/8 of the speed without distorting the notes. It is very interesting to do that (with aid of the computer or audio player) because, even when the passage is very fast and complicated, it is still phrased nicely with attention payed to the harmonic and melodic progression in the music. Few pianists today can pass that test, a few are Arcadi Volodos, Murray Perahiah, and Krystian Zimmerman. In the music of Chopin, these fast passages are usually a consequence of the musical line, as seen very often in his nocturnes, and should not be played as something independent from the rest of the music; because these passages are usually studied by themselves, this tends to happen a lot. The same thing happens with Mozart, although the melodic and harmonic lines are usually more simple because of the differences between the classical and the romantic styles.

Alexander Satz used to say that, in Chopin, our most important finger is the thumb of our left hand. The same applies to Mozart. The way both composers develop the harmony in a simple accompaniment usually leads to a secondary melodic line that is played almost entirely with our left thumb. Both composers also tend to use an accompaniment that is much more complicated than the simple arpeggiation of the chords or a simple basso de Alberti favored by their contemporaries.

A perfect example of the similarities that should exist in the interptretation of Chopin and Mozart is in Clara Haskil's recording of Mozart's concerto number 23 coupled with Chopin's second concerto. This recording is a must-have for any pianist. While stylistically, the performances from that period are not considered acceptable these days, I firmly believe that pianists from her generation and before did a much better job of doing justice to the spirit of Mozart's music than most of the playing that we are used to hearing today.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Finding the right teacher.

This is one of the first articles I published on this site. It is still one of the most popular and the one I get the most comments about from friends and colleagues. English is not my first language, so I sometimes have a hard time with basic grammar and composition. A friend (name not mentioned until he says it's alright) offered to do some basic-copy editing on some of my writing, so as to help me improve gradually. Here is a new version of "Finding the right teacher" that won't make English majors want to claw their eyes out.

Assuming a piano student has support from his family and considers music a possible career, his teacher is probably the single greatest influence on his development. The wrong teacher can severely cripple a musician's future prospects.

A good teacher will develop the love for music in a child, and will prevent the formation of bad habits from the very beginning. He will help an older student make the difficult transition towards an increasingly professional musical sensibility. He will provide the foundation for a good, flexible technique and introduce the different elements of style and interpretation. The end result is an independent student who knows how to practice and solve problems, with the sufficient knowledge to correctly understand a score, including all the stylistic and emotional that are often in-between the lines. Furthermore, a great teacher will help a student understand and express his personality through his music. Unfortunately, without experience, it is quite hard to gauge the quality of teachers; bad teaching is often only apparent after the damage has already been done.

Parents looking for a teacher will tend to rely on superficial considerations, like how the teacher dresses, what rates he charges, and how smoothly he talks, without realizing that many so-called teachers out there prey on these tendencies like slick used-car salesmen. They butter up the parents with their oily talk, making up fake qualifications and exaggerating their praise for the little kids at every turn, all while the children develop an ever more deformed technique and an aversion to music.

Older students looking for a teacher tend to fall into the peer pressure trap. They go with the teacher that all their friends are studying with, usually being talked down to by the other students (and often ex-students turned into teachers) until they finally cave in and join the clique. Young teenage students tend to have big expectations, and many teachers out there will prey on that, promising them the world but failing to deliver. Even when all the students have obvious common flaws (all of them the result of bad teaching), the teacher will heap on the praise. At this stage, teenagers and young adults are usually afraid to acknowledge a wrong decision (especially in conflict with the rest of the group), so they tend to idolize their teacher. The bad teacher will take advantage of that and go as far as to call other teachers complete garbage. Outside opinion is this teacher's enemy, and he will try to isolate the students from other musicians. The only yardstick the students have left to measure their progress is their teacher's opinion and their peers' progress. They are good because teacher said so, all objectivity lost in the constant reinforcement from their friends.

In order to find the right teacher, you have to examine the short- and long-term goals you want to meet at different points in your development. Understand what kind of teacher you need, and find the very best teacher for that level in your area.

In a child's case, motivation is crucial. When working with young children, the best teachers are those who manage to keep the child motivated, and prevent the child from acquiring bad habits.

You want a teacher with whom the kids are obviously having fun. A good teacher at this level leads to children eager to play their instrument, or more accurately play with their instrument. It's fun, not work. The teacher will keep the kids active and entertained-clapping, singing, and sometimes even coloring and playing games. But if that were the only necessary qualification, then any competent babysitter would be a great music teacher for children; a teacher who works with children should also have a complete practical knowledge of technique. Musicians who are great at playing their instruments, but who can't really explain how they do it, have no business teaching children how to play. A teacher at this level must be able to show a student how to hold and play the instrument, identify and correct bad habits, and explain to the student's parents clearly what to look for so that they can supervise their kid's practice time.

A sense of structure is important at this level. Students are motivated by recognizing their advancement through the ranks. We all remember looking with awe at the very last pieces in our beginner's books, full of strange symbols and notes way out of the range we were playing at the time. Having an outside source (a book, a website or even a guest teacher) to further clarify what the teacher is doing is also helpful. A clear lesson plan for each student is very important; unlike later in a musician's development, at this stage it is desirable for all students to follow the same road. They love to compare themselves to the other kids, and it gives their parents a clear idea of their progress.

At this level, the teacher should assign the student enough short easy pieces to avoid boredom, teaching the basics of sight-reading and music theory, and keeping the child eager for his next lesson. Music ideally should be a sort of game in which the child, the teacher, and the parents are all involved to some extent. There is no room for yelling and screaming from the teacher; if he loses his patience easily, he should not be working with children.

Warning signs at this level are: the child not wanting to take lessons anymore (which happens to all of us occasionally, but if the disinterest lasts too long, it's probably the teacher's fault) and unnatural playing. If a child complains of back, neck or tendon pains, there is something seriously wrong. In the case of the piano, playing with flat or excessively curved fingers, locked elbows or wrists, a hunched back, or hard, inflexible joints are all signs of deficient teaching.

Most importantly, remember that whatever the student's level, the musical result has to be as good as possible. Even if the child is playing very easy pieces, he should exhibit a steady rhythm, a good sound, intonation, and some elements of style. A lack of these is also a sign of a lazy or indifferent teacher.

Eventually it will be time to get a teacher more suited for an intermediate level; even some professionals are plagued by having switched too late. Remember the basics of teaching a child: motivation and the bases for good technique. If the kid's motivation is so strong that he wants to be a musician when he grows up, then he should switch to a more advanced teacher sooner rather than later.

Up until this point, music has essentially been a game. Now it's time to start "training," as if for a sport, and heading down the road towards being a professional. An intermediate teacher will challenge you, urging you to give the most you can. During this period, a musician needs a teacher he can respect. Teachers at this point come in all flavors: the crazy, screaming teachers who bang on the piano with their fists when they don't get their way, the motherly ones that will make you want to cry with just a sad look each time things don't work, maybe the friendly ones who will just shrug and kick you out. What you want at this point is someone who will nitpick at evert aspect of your playing and give you repertoire that will push you to your limits, but who has the knowledge necessary to show you how to exceed those limits.

He should push you to work as quickly and accurately as you can, always demanding perfection (even if what you are playing is something basic, like a Clementi sonatina). He has to cover all the bases-technique, interpretation and style.

A bad teacher at this point can do more damage than a buffalo in a china shop.

Recognizing a bad teacher at this stage is very important. Remember, you are looking to find the very best teacher you possible can within your area. Traveling is usually not ideal; there are bad teachers everywhere, and you could end up with one of them regardless of where you're looking.

The best way to judge a teacher is to analyze his students. Don't necessarily look for teachers with students who play very well; many teachers will just showcase a couple of really good students, usually self-made or the product of another teacher's work, while trying to hide the rest of them from view. Instead, judge a teacher by the majority or average of his students.

All teachers get one or two really bad students a year (whom they'll quickly get rid of), just as all teachers occasionally get a young talent. The rest of the students are the ones you need to be looking at. How do they measure up against the other teachers' average students? What level of repertoire do they play? What kind of progress have they made in the past year or so? How do his students perform at master classes? How do they do in competitions? Have any of them progressed to study at a higher level? Most importantly, is there some shared flaw between them?

If all the students have some kind of bad habit-raising their shoulders, clenching their jaws, playing out of tune or out of style-then these habits are probably the teacher's fault. Have they all suffered the same kind of music-related injury? If many of the students have had carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis at some point, then there might be a problem with the teacher. If the teacher says it's the weather's fault, or the students' fault for over-practicing in all those cases, then you can bet that he is definitely the cause of the problem.

Analyze your lessons. How much of your lesson do you spend just playing the piece over and over again? How much of your lesson does your teacher spend giving you information and criticism, and how much does he spend just complaining, wasting time and repeating himself? After the lesson, sit down and write down what you learned. Or, even better, record the lesson. Are you getting information from your teacher? Is he helping you solve your problems, or just yelling at you for having them? Have you had all your lessons?

Analyze his lesson plans. Are all of the students playing the same programme over time, or are the pieces individually tailored to match each student's needs? Unlike with children, having students play the same repertoire just denotes laziness or a lack of knowledge on the teacher's part. Look around, read some books, look at some websites, or attend some masterclasses. Is your teacher neglecting something essential? Is he flat-out telling you things that most people consider wrong? Can he play, or did he play once? Does he apply the things he teaches to his own playing? Is he teaching you one thing, but doing completely the opposite when he plays? Does it matter to him that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it? When you ask him that, does he give you a straight answer?

Repertoire is also a big deal. Make sure that you understand the reason behind everything you play. Each new piece you play should help you improve or teach you about different styles and composers. Make sure that your teacher is assigning you music that is right for your level. Some teachers constantly make their students play things that are much too difficult to make themselves look good, so that they can make more money. This usually leads to the deterioration of a student's technique and quality of playing. At some point, the student will either get injured or find himself much worse off than when he started. Then those teachers will blame the student for everything and discard him. They'll get a bunch of naive young musicians and start the process again. Other teachers just make all their students play the same thing, because that's all they were taught and they're too lazy to do anything but repeat what they once heard from someone else.

Remember, the goal here is to get the student to teach himself. Progress is measured not only in technical achievements and difficulty of repertoire, but especially in independence. Being able to work out things for yourself; understanding how to fix problems, and having a big toolbox full of solutions for all the situations that might arise is what is most important. Independence ensures that you can continue to get better even if the teacher is not there.

Once students have reached this level of independence, it is time for an advanced teacher. A teacher at this level is your colleague (though a colleague with a much vaster experience than your own). A teacher at this point is more of a guide or an example than a trainer; someone who is actively playing or who has had a lot of experience forming good musicians is ideal.

From the moment a student starts with an intermediate teacher, he will be doing the bulk of the work. Teacher and student will build up the pieces together; the student working while the teacher pushes him. In a more advanced teaching relationship, the student will have done all the work and will ideally have the piece ready to play at his lessons. These lessons will focus more on interpretation; many times the student might disagree with the teacher, but the point of this level of development is contrasting different points of view to make your playing richer.

At this point in a student's development, the quality of teachers should be more obvious. The teacher's qualifications should be your most important consideration. Getting into a big-name school or "going to Europe" does not guarantee a good teacher at all.

Making sure that you have the ideal teacher for your level is essential. An intermediate-level teacher working with a child will discourage him and probably lead to bad habits. An advanced-level teacher is often useless at an intermediate or child's level, when a much more specific criticism or method is preferred, usually dealing with concepts too far advanced to be useful at that stage in a musician's development.

More than anything else, make sure that whatever you are playing-at whatever level you're playing it-is the very best you can do. You are your own teacher, and responsible for your own progress. You should read and listen to music, and attend conferences, masterclasses, and concerts. If you are stuck with a bad teacher and doing nothing about it, then it's your own damn fault.

#46 Stretch!

Stretch before you practice, stretch after you practice. But make sure that you are actually stretching, and not just pulling on your fingers like some people do. I like to do shoulder circles before I play and some wrist stretches. Make sure to also do some full-body stretching and breathing exercises to get the blood pumping.

There's a good list of easy to do stretching excersices at WebMD.

Friday, October 17, 2008

#45 Careful with the left-hand leaps!

A couple of years ago I had some tendinitis in my left hand. It was not too serious, but it took me out of action for about a week. When I got hurt among the things I was working on were a bunch of Rachmaninoff etude-tableaux, a Prokofiev concerto, a Dvorak quartet and some Liszt and Scriabin etudes; a lot of technically demanding music. I combed through Wilde Jagd, the cadenzas from the concerto and Rach's op. 39, n. 9 looking for anything stupid in my technique. Which of those caused my injury? Any of those pieces could have been the culprit but, ironically enough, I got tendinitis from Schubert's Musical Moment number 3, in F minor (the famous one that everybody plays as much as Für Elise).

The left hand plays staccato the whole time, jumping constantly (not big leaps though, but just enough so that they can't all be played in a single position). Instead of simply keeping my hand in a relaxed position and moving it for each jump (actually leaping), I was spreading out my fingers as far as I could--- as if that would actually help me bring the notes together--- trying to span the whole chords and not releasing the tension at all.

Watch out for that, it's one of the more common injury causing problems out there. I write this because, today, I had another teacher's student come up to me to ask about a pain she had. Her left wrist was swollen, her muscles (near the elbow) sensitive to any movement and she had a general pain that came all the way from her shoulder. She could barely move her hand anymore, much less play--- I figure she won't be playing for at least a week, probably two. She was playing Moszkowski's fifth etude and kept her left hand spread out the whole time while she played while the pain just got worse and worse. Her teacher actually told her that she got hurt because of the sudden cold weather we've been having, and made her play the etude at an exam (which just made the injury worse).

Constant leaps in the left hand--- from a single base note to an upper chord, for example--- are one of the most common pianistic patterns out there. It is in everything from Beethoven to ragtime. Make sure you are actually making the jumps with your hand in a comfortable position at all times. Don't force your hand into an open position, trying to span the whole jump all the time. That is one of the quickest ways to get hurt.

#44 I can't stop coughing.

Find things in your daily life that can make you empathise with the composer of the works you are practicing during a certain period. For example, I've had a nasty cough for the past four weeks; this stupid infection just won't go away completely. I should use it to empathise with Chopin and his tuberculosis. Or maybe not... I just want to complain about this stupid cough. Does anyone have a good cough remedy I could use? Syrups, teas and medicine of all kind have been of no use so far. I'm having a stupid coughing fit while I write this. Today's piano tip? If you can't stop coughing, at least realise how much worse Chopin had it. When you practice his music, you can relate to the Polish patriotism and homesickness, and his general aristocratic character; also remember his tuberculosis and how uncontrollable coughing can feel. Your throat closes up and you feel like you can't breath, and you can't stop no matter how hard you try. After a while your head and abs also hurt like hell from all the non-stop coughing.

Stupid cough bugs, it's the same every single year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

#43 Percussionists

Back when I was studying, I had a full scholarship. To pay for it, I had to work around the school, mostly accompanying the other students. On my second year in the conservatory, I was assigned to the percussion class, accompanying a good friend of mine for her graduation recital (on the marimba, vibraphone and other keyboard percussion instruments) and playing the piano with the percussion ensembles.

Percussionists are like a whole different world within the world of a conservatory, like with singers. While string players and musicians live in their closed little world of Beethoven and Brahms full of stress, forced labor and screaming Russians, right across the hall the percussionists seem to be having the time of their lives, working just as hard but having fun. Their music was a place for letting things go, while for the rest of the other students our instruments were a source of constant stress.

One of the most enriching learning experiences of all the time I studied were the two years I spent playing with percussionists. Among the things I learned from them were how to use my body more naturally when playing, the connection between rhythm and movement, the natural bounce that a stick--- or your hand--- should have when it hits the instrument so that it produces a good sound that resonates and letting go of many misconceptions about "legato", "expression" and "cantabile" when applied to the piano. Beyond the actual technique of playing (which is very useful in learning how to manage tension, relaxation and movement), I also learned a different attitude towards music and rhythm.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the piano is a percussion instrument. You hit strings to play. By getting down to the roots of how to play a simple percussion instrument: how to hit something so it produces a good sound and how to give the illusion of legato and cantabile through listening carefully to the dynamics and resonance of each note and using our movements to connect them, we can learn a lot of things that are very useful to us as pianists.

Today's tip? Find a percussionist, and learn from him all you can. If you can play in a percussion ensemble, even better. Observe what they do and imitate.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

#42 Felipe Villanueva

Felipe Villanueva (1862-1893) was one of the greatest composers of the Porfirian period in Mexico. He made many transcriptions and reductions for the piano of the greatest opera hits of his time. He is also know for his salon music, most famous of these is his Vals Poético. He introduced, for the first time in Mexico,  Bach´s works in the late nineteenth century. One of the saddest things about this composer is that only a third of his compositions are known today, because most of his manuscripts were inherited by his family and were not publish by them at the time of his death. Now they have disappeared.

There are many unknown composers out there with great music, Villanueva is one of them. His music is graceful, charming and filled with catchy melodies; overall it is very pianistic, full of difficult, but impressive, arpeggios all over the keyboard. Liszt's famous pupil Eugene D'Albert played Villanueva's Primera Mazurka and declared him to be the best artist he had known from America.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

#41 Arpeggios

When playing arpeggios, think of chords and hand positions, not of individual notes. You don't necessarily have to position your hand on the keys if the position is very wide, but it is important to think of it as a complete chord. Forget all that "thumb under" business and just shift your whole hand from position to position.

Monday, October 13, 2008

#40 Letting the body breathe.

I often stress the importance of taking a big breath before you play, like a singer. I need to specify that deliberately taking in air, forcing air into your body is almost as bad as not doing anything at all. Don't think about taking the air in. Instead, empty your lungs and then just relax your whole upper body and let the air come rushing in by itself.

Most importantly, make sure that you are breathing with your diaphragm and not with your shoulders or your ribcage. Your lower abdomen should expand with each intake of air, while your shoulders and chest remain in a relatively calm position.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A guide to clapping at a recital.

Clap often, loudly and proudly. It's a good way of making time go faster in a boring recital. I favor booing and hissing, but I find that pity-clapping or sarcastic clapping is even more devastating for the guy playing.

The first step is learning how to properly clap. You want it to be loud and deep, and you don't want to hurt your hands. Make a cup with one hand and hit over the cup with the extended fingers of the other hand. You can try cupping both hands, but it won't have a sharp sound, and you might look kind of silly.

Know when to clap:

- Clap whenever anyone enters or exits the stage.

- Clap after someone gives a speech or makes an introduction.

- Clap whenever the performer plays a really hard passage, even if you weren't particularly impressed, it will show him your appreciation.

- Clap whenever the performer messes up. You clapping will boost his self-esteem and might help him make a quick recovery.

- Clap if he makes a quick recovery.

- Clap when he finishes a piece. Make sure to keep on clapping loud and proud until you are the only one left clapping, don't stop until you are sure the performer notices you. If you do that enough, the musicians will appreciate it and might invite you for a drink after the concert.

- Make sure to bump it up a notch with a "Wooooo!" or an "Oh, yeah!" when something really cool happens. Make sure to do this in an opera or a ballet when a villain gets thwarted, the singers hit a really high note or a ballerina makes a really impressive pirouette.

- Make sure to sit as near to the front as possible. That way, when you start a standing ovation, everyone else will see you and follow along.

- Sing along if there is a really catchy theme or clap in rhythm to the music.

- Always try to start a wave if you have some friends with you. If someone near you gets up for any reason, try to take advantage of that to start a wave, specially if you're alone. Some music lends itself very well to the wave; wait for some fast scales or arpeggios going up and down and time the wave to the music (for example, Chopin's first etude from op. 10).

By clapping you show your appreciation, which has a huge effect on how the performer does. Don't walk out, clapping is better and will make the recital more fun for everybody.

#39 Finger weights.

There are products out there like finger weights, grip strengtheners or weights that supposedly make your fingers longer. I won't link to any of those pages from here, because I don't want to give them any more traffic. These devices were very popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century; Clementi made a big part of his fortune by actually inventing one. There's a reason why people stopped using them. They don't work. Not only do they not work, you can injure yourself to the point where you will never play again, which is what happened to Schumann.

We use very small muscles to play the piano, and we don't need a lot of strength to play. Using these devices to get better at the piano is like hanging weights from your ears in the hopes that it will give you perfect pitch.



Saturday, October 11, 2008

#38 How to use Hanon effectively.

1. Close the book.
2. Put it in your piano stool, or on a bookshelf.
3. Forget that it even exists.

Hanon is only effective when used in the way he asks you to use it. In all keys, with lots of variations and creativity. Otherwise, it is completely useless. I use technical exercises a lot, but for some reason, Hanon draws more ignorant students in than any other method to improve technique out there. It is also far from the best in that respect. Hanon can be useful, but to be used correctly, it requires maturity and knowledge on the part of the person using it. It also requires you to already have a solid technique, since by narrow repetition, all you are doing is "burning the mistakes in" and increasing your risk of injury.

By the time I would trust my students to use Hanon correctly, they no longer have a need for it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

#37 Learning how it all works.

You can practice chords all day, but for it to be useful, you have to have a clear understanding of how it all works. It is pretty hard because most of the harmony books out there (some still used in music schools around the world) are absolutely dreary and arid. I can't understand how an author can manage to turn harmony, a subject so rich and interesting--- considering that harmony has a huge part in determining expression, it is the soul of the music, so to speak--- into such a boring read.

There are three books I recommend if you want to study and understand what its all about:

Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression - by  W. A. Mathieu (this should be required reading in any music school).

Understanding Harmony - by R. L. Jacobs

Any of the books on improvisation and harmony by Emilio Molina, published by IEM.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Black Kitty Wednesday

[caption id="attachment_414" align="aligncenter" width="268" caption="I understand perfectly what would drive a man to tar Kitty like this, I would gladly add some feathers myself. "]I understand[/caption]

Last night, at 23:00 pm, I lost my wife forever. As some of you know, I live in the midst of a Hello Kitty infestation. If there is one thing that she goes absolutely crazy for, it's that sickly sweet Japanese cat-thing. Apparently the marketing geniuses at Sanrio decided to make an online game where people fond of all that horribly cute stuff can interact with their favorite characters from the Hello Kitty universe. For the past months, the dark threat of Hello Kitty Online loomed in the horizon. At last the ill-fated day has come; the founder's beta in the new MMORPG Hello Kitty Online started last night. From the ninth of October, I have become a Hello Kitty widow. Perhaps we should start a support group for abandoned husbands? At least the owner of Hello Kitty Hell understands what I'm going through.

#36 Piano and learning.

[caption id="attachment_407" align="alignright" width="225" caption="Scales today, Harvard tomorrow?"]Scales today, Harvard tomorrow?[/caption]

More than 2000 years ago, Plato said:

"Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, and children should be taught music before anything else."

Many studies show that listening to and playing music has profound effects on a child's learning. It also gives them an outlet to express their emotion and boosts their self-confidence and independence, not to mention that it is a great way to develop discipline.

Although there are a lot of dubious claims that are more in the realms of the esoteric and have not been since replicated--- for example, the so-called "Mozart effect"--- there are plenty of well documented scientific studies that give evidence of the beneficial effects that music and the piano has on children. Here are a couple of those studies:

- This study by Toronto professor E. Glenn Schellenberg showed that keyboard instruments in particular have a significant impact on a child's IQ and academic achievement. He offered free piano, singing and drama lessons to groups of six year olds and monitored their progress as they started elementary school. The students receiving music lessons had a boost in their IQ and the most significant results were apparent in the children taking piano lessons.

- Dr. Frances Rauscher has written many research papers on the way the brain works when learning music and the effects it has on the different types of reasoning and academic performance, ranging from pre-schoolers to college students. At the bottom of the page, most of her research papers are available in .pdf format.

A good resource online for learning about research done on music and how it affects people and learning is the NAMM foundation, at music-research.org.

So, today's daily piano tip is:

Get a piano for your children.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

#35 Public liability insurance.

Public liability insurance. If you are running a music school with groups of small children (as in a choir or theory classes), get it. All it takes is one stupid kid to trip over a rug or spill a cup of hot coffee on himself for you to get sued and go bankrupt. Some people even get it when they organize concerts, for some reason. It pays to be a little paranoid and it is not expensive at all. Understand that most parents are quite understandably neurotic when it comes to their kids, and when one of them gets hurt they will look for someone to blame. Make sure you're covered.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

#34 Sit right.

The way you sit at the piano is extremely important. It's not so much about how high or how far you sit, what is more important is the way you hold your body. You should pay attention to the position of your back, shoulders, neck and pelvis. I found a website that goes into great detail about everything related to how you sit at the piano. All the information you could possibly need about this subject is at  The Balanced Pianist.

Monday, October 6, 2008

#33 Read Zen in the Art of Archery.

Read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.

It deals with self-perfection and the applications of Zen Buddhism to a physical discipline. Through intuition, imitation and lots of practice, he talks about reaching an unconscious competence, which is an ideal aim for all of us wanting to master a musical instrument. The parallel with archery is also particularly appropriate to music, considering that we use the same portion of our brains to tune a note or mentally sing that we do to take aim.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

My developing musical taste; in cats.

I saw these .gifs at this blog the other day and really liked them. It seems the "Record Store Cats" have been out on the Internet for a while. Check them all out at this site.

It seems we all go through the same phases in classical musical taste; I remember going from Bach and Mozart to Chopin and Liszt to eventually discovering the whole spectrum of music out there.

Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach. The Brandenburg Concertos, the Well Tempered Clavier. Catchy melodies and music that makes you feel tingly all over. Beethoven as a gateway into the harder stuff out there. I remember owning a CD with Mozart concertos 9 and 21 by Alicia de la Rocha. I listened to it so many times it literally wore out from over-use. It was a simpler time then, going out to a record store and getting a "Greatest Classical Hits" CD guaranteed to contain Albinoni's adagio and a few of Vivaldi's seasons and Air on the G string and Pachelbel's cannon and probably Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I'd listen to all kinds of popular music (I am ashamed to admit to some of the albums I once owned) but classical music was a peaceful refuge.


One day I went out and laid out a bunch of cash on an eight CD set called "The Great Piano Concertos". Mozart 21 and Beethoven "Emperor"; been there, done that. Then followed Brahms number 1... oh my God. Grieg. Rachmaninoff 2. Schumann. Liszt 1. Chopin 2.... TCHAIKOVSKY!! Forget Bach and Mozart and those guys, this music really moves! Are those things actually possible to do on a piano?! Does anyone remember that rush of adrenaline that comes the very first time you hear one of those things? The first time I listened to the third movement of Brahms number 1 it hit the very end and I pushed the rewind button immediately and heard it again. And again. And then once more. After hearing Grieg for the first time I was so full of energy that I was ready to go out into the street and punch someone in the groin, set things on fire. I remember that I was listening to it on my headphones while taking the dirty laundry to the washing room when I was a pre-teen. I must have been funny to look at because I was practically running there, jumping with every step; kicking things in my way, throwing the clothes around in the laundry room. This music was revolution, it practically begged me to go out and do something crazy.

After the initial shock, came a phase that most pianists will remember. The "I love Chopin" phase, followed by the Liszt and the Rachmaninoff phase. Every single piano student I've met goes through it eventually. Not only is the music amazing but the sheer virtuosity of it is shocking. I remember listening to Mazeppa for the first time with my mouth hanging open through the whole piece. Eventually you get used to the virtuosity  once you listen to the really ridiculous piano transcriptions out there. Then comes the emo phase; the I'm a misunderstood artist phase. Maybe some Mahler, some Scriabin. As the musical taste became more complex, some Debussy. If you're into opera, some heavy Verdi or some -ugh, shudder- Puccini. Everything is so dreamy, you are flying around on waves of melody in that complete corny artiness that only teenagers seem to have. I remember it so well.

Then came a day when someone let me borrow a Stravinsky CD. The Rites of Spring.


Holy crap. What the hell? What instrument is that? Wait, a bassoon? Do they actually go that high? What time signature is this written in? Wait, what is going on? I don't understand anything. Oh, there's that bassoon again. Whoa, new movement. What's it called? Dance of the Adolescents? I'm head bangin'. I need a mosh pit! Boom, boom, boom, boom; clang, clang, whoosh... this is like a Star Wars sound track! (John Williams is guilty of a lot plagiarism by the way). Then some creepy stuff, then some more head banging. End of CD. Rewind. Start again.

That was my first experience with the Rites of Spring. Once you listen to that for the first time you can't go back to Chopin and enjoy it in the same way. Then I discovered that there was all kinds of piano music out there that was like this. Shostakovich, Bartok, Stravinsky himself. Ravel. Then I hit the mother-load: Prokofiev. His third piano concerto and then his piano sonatas. And then, everything else. Dissonant scrumptious music. After all that rubato and pretty melodies, these things have rhythm again. Music stops being so dreamy and artsy. Music is funky again. And no lack of virtuosity here, Liszt and Chopin seem tame after listening to Prokofiev's sixth sonata, or the Cadenza for the second piano concerto. How many pianos is this for again? Two? Three? There is no way that that is a single piano playing!

Martha Argerich's CD from the Phillips Great Pianists collection seems to be like a magnet for all those teenagers in this phase, searching out and devouring all this music that is new to their ears. Ravel's G major concerto, Gaspard de la Nuit, Bach's second Partita (that C minor seems to attract teenagers like flies to a garbage can) and Prokofiev's third concerto. I think at least half of my new students in the 15-17 age group list that as their favorite recording whenever I ask them what music they like. I know I was completely in love with that CD, until some heartless miscreant broke my wife's (then just a friend) car window and stole all her Cd's. I just hope somewhere out there, someone discovered they loved classical music- although all those Cd's probably ended up in a dumpster somewhere.

All the dissonance in that music builds up tolerance. You go on to Ligeti and then rediscover Alban Berg and Schoenberg and eventually, Messiaen and Lutowslawski. Over time, though, something seems to happen to the music. Those CD booklets are really interesting, and you look kind of cool to your friends listening to all this stuff nobody knows, but the actual music just becomes more and more difficult to digest.


Holy crap. And not in a good way, like with Stravinsky. Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, serialism and electronic music and weird stuff that is more about performance art than actual music. I play all that stuff, and I like a lot of it. I listen to it occasionally, when I am in the mood. But back then, when I first encountered it, it was so alien that it completely drove me away. It scared me, it was creepy as hell. If it did that to me, having loved music my whole life, what will it do to someone who rarely shows up at a concert hall and doesn't know what to expect? Lots of composers out there talk about how their music just needs more exposure and about things like "educating the public" and "expanding people's horizons". There's a reason why most of the people that were composing in these styles decades ago are now embracing a kind of neo-romanticism way of writing, or a funkier, more rhythmic style. It's because, while interesting on paper, most of that music was boring and unappealing to listen to. A concert wasn't a pleasurable experience anymore, it became more like getting mugged by a pack of people wielding musical instruments.

As with any other phase of musical history, the overwhelming majority of music being written is complete garbage. If history teaches us anything, it is that the people who are hailed today as the new great musical geniuses are not going to be the ones remembered in posterity. Who knows; maybe this age's Bach is living in complete poverty somewhere, his music only known to a handful of his friends or sitting- unlistened to- on a MySpace page somewhere.

I really tried to like this back then, but the more I listened to it, the more it drove me away. I tried to read some scores, and most of them were unreadable gibberish that had to be decoded before I could play a single note. Ironically, modern music is one of the styles I've been told that I play very well. My best performances have been as a pianist at a contemporary music festival, playing music I hate by new composers who, while dressed extravagantly and were full of delightful eccentricities, had no idea what they were doing. I've done a lot of performances with music by people like Morton Feldman, Brian Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann (with rehearsals with him in person), Iannis Xenakis and all sorts of lesser known composers that sound pretty much like any of the above.

I've grown to like it but at the time, it drove me away from classical music from a while.


That was my next phase. Screw all this. Let's see whats playing on the radio. Some Beatles, some Zeppelin... or I'll take out all my old Vivaldi records and start the whole cycle back up again.