Saturday, August 30, 2008

Getting rid of your students.

In the long run, the ultimate aim of any high level music teacher should be to get rid of his students. You can only consider yourself successful as a teacher, if your student becomes independent and doesn't need you anymore. If your students are clinging to you long after they should be professionals, then there is a problem.

There are two essential skills any music teacher should pass on to ensure that his students attain some independence. They have to be able to read a score by themselves and they have to learn how to practice. It sounds simple, but teaching those skills is really hard to do.

[caption id="attachment_142" align="aligncenter" width="454" caption="That's not the trainer doing the push-ups, it's Rocky. You show the students how to practice but they have to do the actual work."]rocky[/caption]

Reading a score doesn't just involve reading the notes, it involves a whole body of knowledge that the teacher passes on to a student. Questions of style and interpretation, and how that relates to everything one learns in harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. A student has to be able to make informed interpretative decisions about how he is going to play the score. He has to be able to tell when a more literal reading of the score is appropriate and when it is necessary to take liberties with different elements of the writing. In the same way as in reading a book, one must read between the lines and into the context. A musical score is a graphical representation of a whole musical microcosm inside the composers head. One must learn how to read the intentions behind it.  Sometimes the writing in the score is in the form a direct step by step instruction manual one must follow, other times it is only an outline or an approximation to a specific interpretation understood only through a knowledge of the composer's style and place in history, in the same way as some concepts and higher meanings are represented in writing through the use of allegory, simile and metaphor.

Knowing how to practice is attained by learning the process behind solving a problem. For a teacher, it is more important to show a student this, many times letting him solve it by himself rather than just giving him everything on a silver platter, ready-made. This sometimes requires a very high level of integrity from the teacher because, on occasions, the student might make the teacher look bad. It is tempting to just tell a student what to do from the very first class because his performance in a class recital or exam will probably be much more polished and give the teacher prestige. However, a student gains a lot more in the long run by exploring and finding solutions for himself. I am very grateful to one of my teachers because of this. It was obvious that she had the solutions to many little problems in my playing, but she would hold back and never come out and tell me directly how to solve them until only a few days before a concert (sometimes leading to disastrous results in the concert). I am sure that she could have taught us in a different way, like a bunch of mindless automatons, and had spectacular results in the class recitals but instead, she chose to lets us bump our heads into the obstacle until we found our way around it.

[caption id="attachment_143" align="alignleft" width="283" caption="Mr. Miyagi doesn't tell Daniel-san how to defend, punch and kick from the very start, he shows him how to wax-on, wax-off. Daniel gets to make all the conclusions and apply by himself the skills he was taught."]kk[/caption]

By understanding the process through which one must go to solve a problem, a student gains much more in the long run, leaving him prepared for when the teacher can't be there anymore to hold his hand.

The teacher's role is similar to a trainer's in most professional sports. It is important that the student understands this. A student is largely self-taught. A competent teacher will show him the process, give him examples and steer him through his training, but can't do the actual work for him. To really get a student to become independent, one must stress the importance of being self-sufficient, always pushing them to work things out by themselves. Encourage them to choose their own repertoire. Have them take a bigger part in organizing class recitals or making schedules, encourage them to organize among themselves how to make up for missed classes. From the very start, encourage them to come up with their own little exercises and etudes for studying hard passages.  Encourage them to learn music by themselves. I tend to work music with my students in pairs of similar pieces (two Bach inventions, two similar etudes, etc.), working on one of them very intensively while letting them work the other one out mostly by themselves, applying what they've learned from the other one. The Socratic method of teaching works wonders, always ask them questions about everything, leading them on to whatever conclusion you need them to understand.

Most of all, you have to constantly push them. I try to get my students to understand that it is not enough to just do things right. I need them to start doing this right without me having to tell them. With the advanced students, doing something right after I have to tell them to do it that way is not a good thing at all. The ultimate objective is to have them do things by themselves so that they can start being colleagues instead of students and I can finally get rid of them, hoping that they won't need me again.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Be a man, dammit!

There's something peculiar about playing a big beautiful chunk of highly expressive music like the Brahms concerto. When you do it, you have to do a lot of self-inspection. You have to get in contact with your feelings. You have to analyze yourself and the reasons behind everything you do. You have to suddenly become sensitive and in touch with your emotions and when you play you wear your heart on your sleeve.

I am happy being a big insensitive caveman 99% of the time. Every time something like this comes up, I become a big blubbering mess, blathering on about how things make me feel. I start using words that never come up in my vocabulary; words like "self-esteem", "support", "insecure".

Normally you can count on what I am going to be like at any time of the day. Quiet, impatient, indifferent to most of the world around me, always with a very direct and a bit of a rough way of saying things. People tend to be scared, or impressed by me. They think I am an ogre; maybe they are right. All of a sudden, I am extremely worried about what other people think of how I play. I question the motives behind every compliment, or lack of. I become super-sensitive to all criticism.

Playing these monumental works of art does that to a person. I just want it to pass so I can get back to being myself again.

Bloody hormones.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bach by the sea.

[caption id="attachment_125" align="aligncenter" width="370" caption="Where'd that come from?!"]Where'd that come from?[/caption]

This particular CD followed me around for years. As much as I tried to get rid of it, for some reason, it always ended up in one of the other CD cases, or in with the computer software. I never really had a clue about where it came from. I didn't buy it. Maybe it was a forgotten Christmas present, I don't know.

The CD is pretty typical of a lot of similar recordings aimed towards the New Agey crowd out there that likes this kind of stuff for meditation. It's pretty much just a bunch of Bach interspersed with the sound of dolphins squeaking, waves whooshing, seagulls squawking and other assorted noises of the sea.

I had always been pretty cynical about why these kinds of Cd's get made. Get some stock nature sounds and some Bach/Mozart/Vivaldi recordings from the company's backlog and pair them up together. What do you get? Easy money.

Lately though, the optimist in me wants to imagine a high level executive from one of these recording labels, an executive with a vision. A unique insight about the depth of Bach's music, the constant movement of his musical lines, the unique coloring of his harmonies. Days spent in the recording studio, he painstakingly pairs sounds to each harmony. A bell-like Eb flat major chord will get the sounds of buoys, a particularly poignant diminished chord over a dominant pedal note might get a seagull's squawk. The sound of the waves is coordinated with the opening and closing of subjects and counter-subjects.

There is something fitting about comparing Bach's music to something as vast and deep as the sea. His music can be of such genius that it's easy to feel dwarfed by its greatness, much like the feeling one gets when faced with the ocean stretching into the horizon as far as the eye can see.

This summer we spent a week at the beach. One of the things I enjoyed most was laying on the sand with my mp3 player playing on shuffle. One of those times, it played Glenn Gould's  complete 1981 Goldberg Variations.

[caption id="attachment_126" align="alignright" width="219" caption="I am not good enough of a  writer to do justice to this music."]I am not a good enough writer to do justice to this music.[/caption]

Bach's Goldberg variations are beyond description; they are one of humanity's greatest treasures. Glenn Gould's version of these is intensely personal and played with a love for the music that reaches out and captures the listener from the very first note. Listening to those while staring at the horizon, with the sound of the waves in the background (and the occasional mango and coconut vendor) is one of the finest musical experiences I have had in a long time.

Maybe there is something to those Bach by the sea Cd's.

If you have not heard Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations before, you need to do that now. It is an interpretation that transcends musical tastes. Even if your thing is death metal, electric dance funk fusion or euro new age techno (and if it is, I wonder what you are doing reading this in the first place), I'm sure that, if you give it a chance, this music can touch you.

Here are variations one through seven to get you started. The whole thing is up on YouTube in various different versions.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Richter's pink plastic lobster.

There's good reason for a pianist to be nervous before a public performance. A recital or a concerto is a pretty big deal. To even play the piano, you already need the skill and coordination of a juggler. Getting through an important performance also requires lots of stamina, intelligence, eloquence and honesty. All without a safety net. If you screw up, there is just going to be silence from the crowd and lots of awkward staring. You are completely on your own. Martha Argerich has pretty much stopped playing solo recitals because of this particular brand of loneliness that the situation brings. There might be 500 people in the concert hall, but the feeling of solitude is completely unnerving.

There are countless anecdotes out there about how great virtuosi handled the pressure. Grigory Sokolov is known for dismantling his pianos before playing and writing down everything he sees in a little notebook, Horowitz had to literally be pointed and pushed out onto the stage. Many musicians out there take refuge in cigarettes and alcohol; sometimes stronger drugs. Henryk Szering took great quantities of cocaine before a performance. Lucky charms are also common. Glenn Gould traveled around the world with a chair his father made for him when he was just a kid (perhaps the low height of the chair, coupled with his strange posture and crooning were a way of reproducing his relationship to the piano as a small child). Before a concert, Sviatoslav Richter would sit and play at an obsessively slow tempo; we are talking about sitting and playing each note for half a minute or so. He would get so worked up before a concert that he had difficulty speaking or walking around unless he was clutching a pink plastic lobster that he carried around.

[caption id="attachment_119" align="alignright" width="256" caption="If it makes me play like Richter, I'll take two! Hell, I'd wear it on my head during the concert, if that's what it takes."]klklk[/caption]

It's not just the classical musicians. Everyone does it; rock singers gargling with bodily fluids to help the voice,  pop groups making ridiculous demands of food, drinks and towels in their contracts, an opera singer that took on plateful after plateful of spaghetti and then vomited it all back out after the concert. How many bands out there are sacrificing goats to the pagan Gods before a concert?

Without going to those extremes, I think most musicians have pre-concert rituals that they follow, sometimes without noticing. As a student, I had a big battle with stage fright. I tried everything, but eventually realized that the only solution is preparation and complete honesty with ones own self. I tend to be indifferent to playing in public, since as an accompanist, I have to do it really often. Even so, sometimes a concert comes up which is much more important, in which I have much more of myself invested. That's when the strange stuff comes up.

Next week I will be playing the first Brahms concerto here in Chihuahua, Mexico (if you are in town, pop in!). I've been giving some thought to how I tend to act just before the time comes.

In the days before the concert, I tend to become extremely grouchy (I'm sorry students, but you are in for a pretty tough first week). How long it lasts is always proportional to the importance of the concert. Before my first competition, I was hell to live with for a whole month. My wife ended up going to her mother's "so that I had less distractions". The day before the concert, I will practice obsessively. Going up to 12 or 14 hours if I can fit them in. That night, I will lie in bed, just thinking about what is coming up and won't fall asleep until it's almost dawn.

The day of the concert, I will wake up extremely late, or if it is not possible, then get some sleep in the afternoon. I tend to eat lots of meat, no fiber at all; a burger or a steak. I'll also have a big cup of cocoa in the evening. I usually don't practice at all that day, only if I was pressed for time and am not completely prepared. When getting dressed, I will take an extremely long shower. I'll be obsessive with grooming, combing, brushing teeth, trimming hairs, cleaning ears and nose. If there are any kinds of shampoos, rinses, exfoliants, mouthwashes, conditioners, hair gels or sprays; pretty much all those kinds of products in the bathroom, they are all going to get used, and in big quantities. It's not out of vanity, I just get into a strange mindset in which I want to experiment with all that stuff. Before going out to play I'll just warm up and play a couple of bits of whatever I'm playing that night.

When I go out to play, I seem calm on the exterior, but I am actually about to burst with pent up energy. The one thing that actually scares me the most isn't the playing, it's the walk from the wings and through the stage to the piano and bowing for the audience before I play. Maybe I am afraid I will lose my nerve and walk back out again. I usually rush as fast as I can to the piano and only do a small nod to the audience. I have been criticized a lot for that by people thinking I do it out of snobbishness or a lack of the sense of proper concert etiquette. I just do it because if I don't, I might run away! I go onstage seeing that piano bench as my safe spot.

The funny thing is that, until now, I hadn't noticed that I was doing all the stuff every single time. The ritual has been going on for years, but I hadn't made the connection between all the different concerts and how I do the same exact thing each time.

My wife, a violinist, gets extremely superstitious when she has to play. I have to treat her as if she were a delicate rose petal (more so than usual) because one dirty look from anyone, a bus driver for example, and she will be absolutely sure that the concert will be a complete disaster. She will check her horoscope the day she plays and be horrified by a bad prediction. She always has exactly half a Snickers bar before going out to play. My brother is also a violinist. He will spend all his time at the concert hall barefoot and only put on his shoes before going out to play, emboldened by a couple of glasses of red wine.

What is your pre-concert ritual?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Finding the right teacher.

Assuming a piano student has support from his family and considers music a possible career choice, the teacher is probably the single most important factor that determines a musician's development. The wrong teacher can severely cripple a musician's future prospects.

A good teacher will develop the love for music in a small child and will stop bad habits from forming from the very start. In an older student, he will help the pupil make the difficult transition towards an increasingly more professional approach towards music. He will help him set the base for a good flexible technique and show him the different elements of style and interpretation. The end result of a great teacher is an independent student that knows how to practice and how to solve problems, with the sufficient knowledge to correctly understand a score, including all the things that are in-between the lines. Not only that, but a great teacher will help that student understand more about his own personality and how to have this come through in his music.

Unfortunately, without experience, it is quite hard to tell the difference between the quality of teachers, and sometimes one recognizes bad teaching too late, after a lot of damage has already been done.

[caption id="attachment_96" align="alignright" width="193" caption="The slick used-car salesman type. I wouldn't trust him with my child. "]The slick used-car salesman type. I wouldn't trust him with my child, no matter what he says.[/caption]

Parents looking for a teacher will tend to go with superficial factors, like the teacher's clothing, rates and how smoothly they talk without realizing that many so-called teachers out there prey on this, behaving like slick used-car salesmen. They butter up the parents with their oily talk, exaggeratedly praising the little kids at every turn and making up fake qualifications for themselves, all while the child develops an ever more deformed technique and most of the time, an aversion for 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 usually ex-students turned into teachers) in their school 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 shared flaws (all of them the results 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 (specially in conflict with the rest of the group), so they tend to enshrine 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 they 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.

[caption id="attachment_97" align="alignleft" width="230" caption="The power-hungry type. I wouldn't trust this crazy old bat with my child either. "]The power-hungry old lady type. I wouldn't trust this crazy old bat with my kid either.[/caption]

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

In a child's case, the single most important thing is motivation. When working with young children, the best teachers are those that do two things:

- They keep the child motivated.
- They prevent the child from acquiring bad habits.

You want a teacher with which the kids are obviously having fun. A good teacher at this level leads to children eager to play their instrument, or more correctly play with their instrument. It's fun, not work. They'll keep the kids active and entertained; clapping, singing and sometimes even coloring and playing games. But if that were all that is necessary, then any competent baby-sitter would be a great music teacher for children. The one thing a teacher that works with children should have is a complete practical knowledge of their instrument's technique. Musicians who are great at playing their instrument, but can't really explain how they do it have no place teaching children how to play. A teacher at this level must be able to clearly show a  student how to hold and play their instrument. He should be able to identify bad habits and correct them immediately. He also has to be able to tell the parents clearly what to look for so that they can supervise what their kid is doing and keep track of his practice time.

An important thing to have when working at this level, is a sense of structure. A teaching method, a book or a lesson plan available to everyone. Few things motivate more than seeing how you are advancing through the ranks. We all remember looking with awe at the very last pieces in our beginner's book, full of weird symbols and notes way out of the range we were playing at the time; wanting to be that kid who plays last at the class recital, with the hardest pieces. Having an outside source (a book, a website or even a guest teacher) to further clarify what the teacher is doing is also great. A clear lesson plan for each student is very important. Unlike further stages in a musician's development, here it is desirable for all students to follow the same road. They love to compare themselves to the other kids, and it gives the parents a clear idea of what is going on.

[caption id="attachment_99" align="alignright" width="293" caption="The Suzuki method is great for very young ages. Beware of sticking to it for too long, though."]The Suzuki method is great for very young ages. Beware for sticking to it for too long, though.[/caption]

At this level, one must strike the balance between playing 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 has to be a sort of game in which the child, the teacher and the parents are all involved to some extent. At this level, there is no room for yelling and screaming from the teacher; if the teacher loses his patience easily, he should not be working with children.

Signs that things are wrong at this level are when the child doesn't want to take lessons anymore for an extended length of time (it happens to all of us at one time or another, but if it lasts 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 level at which a student is at, the musical result has to be as good as possible. Even if the child is playing very easy pieces, a steady rhythm, a good sound and intonation and some elements of style all should be present. 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. A problem that tend to plague some professionals is that they switched too late. Remember the basics of teaching a child: motivation and the bases for good technique. If the motivation is so strong that the kid wants to be a musician when he grows up, then the switch to a more advanced type of teacher should be done sooner than later.

Up until now, music's been more of a game. Like a sport, there comes a point where we have to change gears. Now it's time to start "training", and going down the road towards being a professional. An intermediate teacher will challenge you, and push you to give the most you can. During this period, a musician has to have a teacher that he can respect. Teachers at this point come in all kinds of flavors: the crazy screaming ones that 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 one who will just shrug and kick you out. What you want at this point is someone that will nit-pick. A teacher that will give you repertoire that will push you to your limits, but that has the knowledge necessary to show you how to overcome them.

He will push you to work as fast and accurately as you can, always demanding perfection (even if what you are playing is something completely 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, we are looking to find the very best teacher we possible can within our area. Traveling is usually not the best way to go; there are bad teachers everywhere and you could end up with one of them, even if you are in a big city or in a big-name school.

The best way to judge a teacher is to do so through 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. Judge a teacher by the majority of his students, by the average. All teachers get one or two really bad ones a year, and they will quickly get rid of them, and all teachers occasionally get a young talent. The rest of them, those are the ones you need to be looking at. How do they measure up against the other teachers' average student? What level of repertoire do they play? What kind of progress have they made in the past year or so? How do his students do at masterclasses? 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, like raising their shoulders, or clenching their jaw; if they are all out of tune, or play out of style, then it is probably the teacher's fault. Have they all suffered from the same kind of music-related injury? If pretty much all the students had severe 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 student's fault for over-practicing in all those cases, then you can bet that he is definitely the cause of the problem.

[caption id="attachment_100" align="alignright" width="175" caption="A typical intermediate level piano teacher. "]A typical intermediate level piano teacher. [/caption]

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 take notes of what you learned, write it all down. Even better, record it. 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 everyone play the same thing just denotes laziness, or a lack of knowledge on the teacher's part. Musical teaching has evolved for hundreds of years, there are many things that most teachers agree on. Look around, read some books, look at some websites, 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 be helping you get better at a certain thing, and learn about all the different styles and composers out there. Make sure that your teacher is giving you things that are right for your level. Some teachers out there constantly make their students play things much harder than they can play well to make themselves look good, so that they can make more money. This tends to lead to the deterioration of a student's technique and quality of playing. At some point, the student will either be much worse off than when he started or get injured. 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 are 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 specially 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. That ensures that you can continue to get better even if the teacher is not there.

Once this level of independence is reached, it is time for an advanced teacher. A teacher at this level is your colleague; granted, 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. A teacher that is actively playing or 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. In the case of an intermediate teacher, they 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 their lessons. The lessons here 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, what teachers are best should be much more obvious. I recommend finding a teacher in terms of the individual's qualifications. 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 fundamental. An intermediate level teacher teaching a child will demotivate him and probably lead to bad habits. And advanced level teacher is often useless at an intermediate or a 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 are is the very best you can do. You are your own teacher and responsible for your progress. You should read and listen to music. 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.

[caption id="attachment_101" align="aligncenter" width="393" caption="If they only knew..."]If they only knew...[/caption]

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Moving your fingers really fast.

I watched a video by an amazing classical guitar player, John Williams. No, not the Star Wars guy.

This guy
This guy

In the video, someone asked him about his amazing tremolo. The point of his answer was pretty simple: play a note with your first finger, then play the same note with your second finger, then do that again moving your fingers really fast.

On the surface, this answer seems a bit too simple. There must be more to it than that? Of course there is. There are all kinds of problems one must resolve before being able to do the "really fast" part over time. Coordination between both fingers, building up a reflex movement, avoiding excessive muscular tension and keeping a good hand position are just a few of them.

On a deeper level though, the answer he gave is spot-on. It touches on a fundamental part of any musicians technique. The difference between contemplating a thing, and actually doing it. Those really fast scales, aren't going to play themselves, there is an intention behind them. I had a big problem understanding this until only a couple of years ago. Good technique, physical posture and movement are only the first step in solving a musical problem. There is a specific mindset one must have, for it to be really succesful. In my opinion, this mental component also goes towards explaining how it is possible for some truly gifted musicians to have a very advanced technical dominion of the instrument.

It is hard to explain with words. There is a sensation you have where you are following everything you play with full awareness of what is coming. If you don't have unnecessary muscular tension and know the music as well as you should, there is no reason why you can't just move your fingers really fast, on the piano.

The piano is a very unique instrument in this regard. It is not a difficult instrument to play. Really understand that:

The piano is not a difficult instrument to play.

Any guy can come up and get some sound from piano. A dog can play the piano. You press the key, and sound comes out. Anyone without severe mental retardation and some kind of bodily function can pick out a melody after a few minutes of sitting at a piano. It is the easiest instrument to play in that respect. It isn't a violin, where you spend two months just getting the hang of how to hold the damned thing; or God forbid, a french horn.

Piano music and technique are very complicated, though. The actual effort of playing any other instrument is quite hard but a polyphonic instrument like the piano, that also factors in how you press the keys, is very complex. After a certain point (which is quite early on), piano music is just much more complex than anything on the same level for other instruments; although the actual process of playing the piano is always ridiculously more easy. It is not one hard thing you have to do, it's trying to coordinate one hundred very little easy things in every page of music, all at the same time and one after the other.

Understanding this is fundamental towards learning how to practice. Anything you do on the piano can be reduced down to a lot of easy things. You can always make something easier to study and understand by dividing it up into ever smaller sections until you are left with single isolated notes, if necessary.

So we come back again to John Williams' answer. How do you play anything on the piano? Well... you play one note, and then another one, and then another one, and sometimes more than one at the same time. In the end, the really important part of the practice is not about getting your fingers to move at all, but getting you mind to follow and remember all the little things you are supposed to be doing, until they start to become second nature and you can concentrate on other more general things.

If you aren't doing anything to block free movement in your hands and arms, and have a good idea of how things are supposed to be played technically (what finger you have to use, what position you have to have, how the movements are supposed to be), then it's pretty much all in your head. It should get easier over time If it's not, then there might be a problem with your teacher.

Ahmed the terrorist.

Ever since 9/11, when I pass through customs in US airports or in Spain, I usually get a bit of special treatment. While the other people from my flight go through, one after the other, I'll stand there holding up the line, under the suspicious glare of a border officer struggling to pronounce my names and to determine my true intentions in his country, awkwardly trying not to seem racist. After a few minutes, the effect is compounded by the nervous whispering from the people behind me, wondering what exactly is taking so long. Some time of nervous staring and awkward silence later, sometimes after calling a supervisor, I'll finally pass. Everything on his face tells me he'd rather have me strip-searched, my luggage dismantled, and my butt shipped to Guantanamo Bay because you never know.

I don't blame them. By all odds and logic, I should be a terrorist. I fit the profile pretty well. Few of my experiences illustrate this better than my first trip into Spain, for an audition at the school at which I was ultimately accepted. Let's examine the factors that contributed towards a disastrous arrival into Barajas airport, in Madrid.

The very first problem was the timing. I arrived only a few days after Spain suffered the biggest terrorist attack in its history, (on March 11, 2004) the infamous bombing of the Atocha train station. It wasn't certain if the attack was by Islamic terrorists or by ETA (the basque separatist terrorist movement), or if there was some previously unheard link between the two. Which leads me to the second problem; my last names.

You can't get more basque than the first of my last names, and my second last name is completely Arabic. My first names are Ahmed Fernando Ben-Mohammed.  That is one very unusual combination. The media was fearfully speculating about a link between ETA and Islamic terrorism, three days later I show up at Barajas airport. My physical appearance didn't help. Back then, in bad taste, I let my beard grow really long. I looked exactly like the guys on Al-Jazeera. I also get quite nervous with all kinds of policemen, for no reason at all; I'll start to stutter and sweat. I looked like George from Seinfeld, in that episode where he eats spicy chicken.

When I was younger I traveled a lot, so my passport had visas from quite a few countries, including Iran and Egypt. It didn't help that, being a poor student, I had to take the cheapest flight possible. I had been traveling for almost 48 hours. With no American visa back then, my itinerary was something like Morelia-Chihuahua-Mexico City (stay there for about 15 hours)-Frankfurt-Paris (about 8 hours here)-Madrid. It just seemed like I was trying to hide something with such a roundabout itinerary. My passport is Mexican, so my mother  tongue was supposedly Spanish, but this was my first time in Spain so I had a hard time understanding everything they said (which didn't help matters any). Everything they said sounded like growling to me, they speak so fast. To a Mexican hearing it for the first time, it's like listening to someone grunting with his mouth full of wads of cotton.

I had a Koran in my luggage, which didn't help to diminish suspicions. I'm not saying they give Muslims a hard time at Barajas, I'm just saying that I looked like a really suspicious Muslim. I remember spending at least an hour longer than necessary going through customs. I had already talked with at least four different officers asking me the exact same questions, and my luggage was checked over and over again. I started to get nervous, expecting a big strong thug with an elbow-length latex glove to show up at any moment. If you've lived in Spain, you know that the country completely shuts down on Sundays and religious holidays. It's like a small town, everything is closed, and it's impossible to do anything. I remember calls to the school where I was going were useless, being a Sunday.

Finally, with no evidence to my being dangerous, a lot of awkward standing around, shuffling of feet and mumbled apologies, they let me go.

It's funny. I'm a quiet guy. I read a lot and sit around all day playing things like Mozart and Bach on the piano. I'm pretty much the complete polar opposite of a destructive maniac. I guess there is something a bit exhilarating about being considered dangerous. Being a classical musician isn't really considered a very manly profession. I suppose that going into a plane or an airport and having people nervously look at you is an interesting change of pace.

I don't blame them at all. I really do look like a terrorist.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

St. Coltrane

[caption id="attachment_59" align="alignnone" width="240" caption="A holy relic."]A holy relic.[/caption]

How do you describe a truly great performance?

There is something there that defies explanation; it just is.

John Coltrane was an amazing musician. One of my teachers had a saying about Liszt and Schubert. Something hard to translate about Liszt taking the listener up to paradise with his music and Schubert making that paradise here on Earth. In a Love Supreme, Coltrane takes us up into the stratosphere on a staircase made of sixteenth notes.

One can get lost completely just getting carried away with the waves of harmony from McCoy Tyner and the ever changing rhythmic background created by Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. On the endless walls of sound that Coltrane produces, the mantric nature of the theme, always developing always changing. For a trained musician, the effect this music has is huge. Coltrane was a genius, hundreds of amazing modulations in every solo; he does things with whole-tone scales that I had never dreamed were possible. The relationships he finds between keys are always fresh and completely groundbreaking. At the end of Acknowledgment, when they start chanting "A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme" it is a release, it is as if that is the only outlet left for what he is saying after everything he has played before it.

One of the things that strikes me the most about Coltrane, was his involvement with the music. He almost stands completely still while he plays, with an intense look of concentration on his face. Few things bother me more than those sax players out there who are sweating rivers while they play, swinging their instrument up and down and all around, screaming and doing all kinds of silly crap, blowing out their cheeks and with their eyes ready to pop; only to have a mediocre uninspired musical result. Coltrane, even in his completely dissonant period (with things like Jupiter and Leo) is always amazingly interesting to listen to. You can just sit back and let the music carry you away, or you can perk up your ears and try to catch everything he is doing; either way, it is a trip to another universe, a glimpse of a whole other world of his own making.

A Love Supreme is a miracle in its own right, something holy. It inspires the listener with Coltrane's faith and belief in God's supreme love in the same way as Bach in the St. Matthew Passion. He was one of those musical greats that stands alone. A Love Supreme has done more to make us feel what faith and belief in God's love are like than many actual clergy members out there. He was just a man, although many claim him a saint; but he brings out the best of music, shows us what "just a man" is capable of with practice, dedication and playing with complete honesty from the heart.

The complete video of his only live performance of A Love Supreme -July 26, 1965 in Antibes-  is lost. Only little snippets of home videos remain. If this video surfaced, I am sure it would be the holy grail of Jazz. Enjoy a minute and a half of greatness, and then go out and buy this album if you don't have it!

Playing Brahms with an orchestra.

Every time I have played with an orchestra, it is an amazing experience. It doesn't matter if the orchestra is great or if it is terrible. For the pianist, being in such a huge group setting is usually a rare thing. One of the things I love most about concerto playing is the way the sound of the piano constantly evolves as it is supplemented with all the different timbres in the orchestra. It is like playing a whole new instrument.

For those of us that love chamber music, the first Brahms concerto is great. The level of communication and prior discussion that must exist between the conductor and the soloist is very high. The piano and the orchestra constantly complement each other, but the writing is not so dense as to exclude the use of a rubato normally reserved for chamber playing.

I've found that as you add instruments to an ensemble, the liberties you are allowed to take with the music are gradually lessened, since one must take into account more musical lines, more individuals and more opinions. I haven't seen this to be the case with the Brahms concerto. The conductor and the piano form a duo in which both participants must interact constantly. It acts as a chamber group that constantly changes. At times it is a horn and piano duo, at times a piano quintet, a string quartet, a wind quintet, a clarinet duo plus piano or an oboe duo plus piano; there are many combinations. Even so, it never sounds "small". It is a  big concerto, with very loud and dense tutti sections. Since it was originally written as a symphony, the orchestra's role is just as important as the piano's and the constant interaction between the two makes for a great piece of music.

The attitude the soloist must have towards the concerto before playing is something to think about. Some pianists try to work with the orchestra, others just want to be accompanied with something loud in the background that plays tutti while they rest. And some, like the genius pianist Sviatoslav Richter, take a completely different approach, as is seen in this video of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto:

Maybe my wife wants to be Rita at my next concert?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Brahms, the way it should be played.

Learn all you need to know to play Brahms in three easy steps:

1. Get this CD:

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="266" caption="An amazing recording."]An amazing recording.[/caption]

2. Listen to the first 20 seconds. Rock out to Julius Katchen and Janos Starker.

3. Repeat number two as much as you can.

The way Julius Katchen plays those first two notes (F# and B), and the way Janos Starker joins the melodic line sum up for me what Brahms is all about: long lines, depth of expression, a warm sound and playing with a lot of soul.

Rachmaninoff and Chopin's waltzes.

Today we were stuck a long time in traffic. We had Rachmaninoff on the stereo; those old recordings of Chopin waltzes, his own stuff and piano miniatures. After about two hours of Rachmaninoff's playing, you start to notice the really fine things he did with rhythm. He played rubato all the time, but it never sounds heavy-handed or out of place.

Interpretations from his time tend to have some bad fame as over-romantic and as having a distortion of rhythm unacceptable by today's standards. After listening to a lot of recordings from back then, I have to disagree. The rubato and his timing are so organic and natural, they seem to mimic the natural movements of our bodies, breathing or the rhythmic cadences of spoken language.

The more I listen to his Chopin waltzes, the more I am fascinated with all the little things he did, with extreme elegance and finesse. Some of them are so tiny they can't really be accurately described. No two phrases are the same. His interpretation of the waltzes is especially enlightening. He never stops with the rubato; not once. At the same time, the waltz rhythm is always there and is easy to follow. You can dance to it.

The man.
The man.

After that, a lot of modern recordings sound extremely unnatural -either too metronomic, or with a distorted unnatural tempo full of heaving and grunting- and when a ritardando or a smorzando or something similar finally come up in the score, they kill the rhythm. A lot of modern interpretations I have heard lack that grace and elegance that seem to be present in most recordings of masters from those times, like Hoffman, Horowitz or Rachmaninoff.

There is also the issue of the interpretation of the written tempo indications. It seems that we are taught today that ritardando means "getting slower", accelerando means "getting faster" and that things like slargando, slentando, stretto or smorzando are pretty much all variations on the theme. Many professional musicians and teachers don't know the difference between rallentando, ritardando or ritenuto; as well as how they all relate specifically to the work of different composers (even if all three appear in the same work, where they obviously mean different things!).

Once I am familiar with a score, when I listen to one of the great masters play it, I don't hear them interpreting all those tempo indications in terms of "slower-faster" but into concepts which are far more profound; "a slight hesitation", "elation", "alacrity", "impatience"; which they tend to do in a very subtle way. Piano or forte aren't "soft" and "loud" but become "far", "near", "whispering", "towering". Modern interpreters might be doing exactly what is written on the score, but being pedantic with the indications is not the same thing as giving deep thought to what they might actually mean, not only to the composer but to ourselves, in a more personal sense.

Striving for an organic sense of rhythm and a natural rubato should be something all musicians try to do. I think there is a lot to be learned from those old recordings. Not so much in the sense of what are they doing? but more in the way of why are they doing that?

Sadly it seems there isn't much thought put into the "why" these days; its all about hitting all the notes and some hazy generalizations people want to call "style".

Monday, August 18, 2008

My wife is afraid of crickets.

My wife is afraid of crickets. She doesn't just dislike them, she is actually extremely freaked out and after seeing a few, she will sit in a corner and quietly sob. Today we had a typical situation. We arrived home, to find a cricket waiting for us right beside the front door. After she ran out to the middle of the street, I had to coax her into coming back to the garage. I counted to three and opened the door as she ran at full speed into the house.

The cricket situation reached a new high a couple of weeks ago. I have a gecko named Margarito. Guess what his favorite food is? If you guessed crickets, you are absolutely correct. The first week I had him, all of the crickets I had escaped and filled the living room. At the same time, Margarito ran out of his terrarium. Instead of getting some help dealing with all that, my wife started crying and hid in a corner.

After the cricket situation, I'm pretty sure we will have to go to the Sanrio store, and maybe get something with a Hello Kitty picture stamped on it. In her case, something pink, cute and flowery usually fixes things.

I've got a big concert coming up and the beginning of a new school year to manage. I wish Kitty did something for my stress. In my case, just obsessively spinning all the things I have to do in my mind over and over again is enough.

So... about the concert: fourth of September, here in my city with the local orchestra. Brahms piano concerto in d minor.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


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