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.