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.