Saturday, January 19, 2019

Obstacles and Open Spaces


            A friend decided to learn to hang glide and offered one of the top pieces of advice the instructor gave: don’t look at the obstacles. She reported watching other novices who ended up in trees and on fences because they were so wary of crashing into them. These hang gliders learned the hard way that your vision determines the way your body leans.
            I learned this also in my attempt to become a horse rider. My teacher’s frequent reminder: your eyes are your commitment. The same thing happens on a horse that happens on a hang glider. Your weight shifts according to the direction you look, and the horse responds to the shift. If you are shifting toward an obstacle, chances are your horse will head in that direction as well.
            Our visual systems like to find a point of focus. Staring into space is an action that we tend to consider a negative.  It’s something that teachers notice when a student seems not to be paying attention, not being focused, in both the visual and the mental senses of the word. Those of us who went to school in buildings with very large windows will remember teachers catching us “daydreaming” by looking outside.
            But clearly there are times when it is advantageous to take in the larger view. both literally and metaphorically. Standing on a high point is a great opportunity to see far into the distance and notice what comes into view. If you do this with a friend, you may be surprised at your different aspects of attention. The wider scope provides a different perspective from a directed focus, even though a point of focus may come into awareness during the experience.
            And so it is with our teaching. It is quite easy to apply narrow focus on what seems to matter the most. For some teachers it is fingering, for some phrasing, for me – counting! We may begin assessing the quality of performance from that one point, the apparent obstacle to success.
            What happens when we instead soften the focus and let our attention open? What comes into view?
            I’ve been considering focus in relation to transfer students. Sometimes a transfer student comes in with excellent preparation, the kind that allows us to move forward with ease. But sometimes all I see and hear are obstacles, and they are not obstacles that can be ignored if there is to be forward progress. There are multiple fences to get hung up on, and passing over one treetop only leads to landing in the next.
            This is the time to sit back and find a little clearing. What is working well for the student? Sometimes it’s the student’s desire to play the piano. The student wants to learn and wants to improve. Building on desire helps to put the details in order and gives a frame of reference for the focus on the details at hand.   
Finding appropriate repertoire is the next best step, and possibly the biggest challenge. The music needs to be simple enough to allow attention to the obstacles without being either frustrating or boring. This can be a tall order, but luckily there are many collections of teaching literature available.
Notice also the physical tensions that may be interfering with overcoming obstacles. A chicken/egg phenomenon for sure, but physical tension is often the outcome of being unable to decipher notes and rhythms. Tension can be due to visual issues, a possible learning challenge, or some confusion remaining from previous study. If your larger view of the student includes physical tension, encourage more freedom. This can be done at the piano through approaches such as Body Mapping® or it can be done away from the piano through whole body movement. Playing catch is one of my favorite ways to get a student to experience whole body movement, especially if you emphasize that dropping the ball is allowed.
Perhaps the most important way to look for open spaces is to avoid mentally labeling the student. Thinking of the student as the one who can’t count, uses bad fingering, has an attitude – whatever that means – sets up the likelihood of predicting obstacles rather than looking into open spaces. Every student can surprise by doing something unexpectedly well, even if briefly. Be open to the delight of these changes as they come into focus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Waiting

"Snow is falling, snow on snow." One of my favorite carols is In the Bleak Midwinter, with lyrics by Christina Rossetti. The words are simple but beautifully arranged, like "snow on snow." I wasn't thinking of these words while sitting halfway up a hillside, unable to get traction to the top, but the word "bleak" may have been appropriate.

My fellow travelers and I were aiming at the top, but not in straight lines. Depending on which way the skids had taken us, we formed a kaleidoscope of angles and colors against the gray surface of the icy roadway. We sat in our metal cocoons, not quite sure what sign would appear to let us know that we could forge ahead. We all waited.

At some point, maybe after 30 minutes or so, one person stepped out to see what was going on ahead. Not only was the surface slick, but visibility was poor. That one person unintentionally gave others permission to do the same. I stepped out to ask for help from the truck driver next to me, who kindly pushed me to the left lane so I was less of an obstacle to those behind me. I then walked back to the car behind me to explain that I couldn't get a running start. Neither could he. We began to connect in our plight, some of us shrugging, some complaining, some making light jokes "in keeping with the situation." (Thanks, Dickens!) In and out of vehicles, in and out of snow, in and out of communication.

After about an hour, a state trooper and a snow plow arrived. The trooper became an impromptu conductor, planning our exit order, and pushing us out with the help of some stronger stranded drivers. I remember one of them smiling with the knowledge that his helping was valuable. His face seemed to say, "I can do this."

All of this excitement happened a week after the fall studio recital. My opening recommendation to my students was to exhale while waiting to play. Let's face it, one of the biggest differences between practicing and performing in a studio recital is the waiting. I've been considering that it is an element that needs to be addressed more directly.

When I assemble the order of performers, I do my best to take into consider the ability to wait. There are some students that I will ask where they would like to be on the performance schedule. There are others with diagnoses like ADHD that I will place earlier in the program.  I also consider the personality differences, hoping to place a calmer student next to a more excitable one. Occasionally there is conflict that requires a student to play earlier or later in the program to accommodate another commitment. Yes, even for recitals we are faced with this dilemma.

But what about the rest of the students, the ones who could potentially perform in any order? What is waiting like for them? I imagine they are not unlike my fellow stranded travelers, some taking it in stride, some worrying and mentally planning what will happen when their turns arrive. When I asked one of my students which piece she liked best on the program, her response was, "I was so close the end of the program that I really didn't listen to the other performers very well."

While as we teachers we may address self-talk in advance of performance, we may or may not address the mental game of waiting. One the few crash-and-burn performances I have experienced with my students proved to me that this can be disastrous. A well-prepared student had spent the whole car ride in crippling self-doubt, which did not go away at the venue but increased, ruining what would otherwise have been a fine performance. These are things we don't forget as teachers, and definitely things our students don't forget. Trauma is not too harsh a word.

As I look back on this year's recital, I am grateful that no one went deep into the land of negative self-talk, but I still remember that the potential is there. At the moment the hands touch the keys, there is no rescue team available, no one to push the student to safety. The success is riding on preparation and learning to wait with an attitude of  "I can do this."




Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Tools of the trade, trading tools

Watch this video! Then watch it again!

A Man Effortlessly Paints the Symbol of a Person in a Wheelchair on a Handicap Parking Space, video on www.laughingsquid.com, posted September 12, 2017. (Go to About and scroll down to the search box.)

Up until I saw this video shared on Facebook, I assumed that all handicap symbols were made by stencils. Many are, I learned by further searches. But in this case, a perfect symbol was made by one man who knew exactly how to complete the shape with one roller full of paint. Without self-consciousness, he completed his task artfully, despite someone watching in the background and someone making the video in the foreground.

As one of my friends so wisely observed, this man knows his tools. He knows how much paint it will take, he knows how to place the rollers on the pavement, he knows the shapes and angles, and he knows not to step in the wet paint at the end of the design. So much knowledge and so much ease.

When F.M. Alexander was making his discoveries about human movement and awareness, long before the advent of handicap symbols, he summed it all up as getting out of your own way. More recent references to finding focus and ease include being in the zone, being in the moment, and being mindful. The challenge remains, regardless of the label, to be one with the tools and the task.

If we think of our instruments as tools, the mindset changes from something to act upon to something to act with.  For pianists, this can be a particular challenge when faced with working with an unfamiliar tool. How quickly we can adjust to another instrument can determine our success with someone else's tool. Our motor plan is trained not only to play the right notes at the right time, but also to the responsiveness of the instrument we play most often.

What do we need to adjust to in order to make an unfamiliar instrument work? Speed of key descent, speed of key ascent, pedal depth and response, overall evenness of action, sound of the hammers both with and without soft pedal, and the presence or absence of a sostenuto pedal. In other words, a lot.

Yet each of us has no doubt learned to improvise with an unfamiliar tool in other settings. When you can't find the right screwdriver, a coin may do as well. When a needle and thread are unavailable, there just may be some tape nearby. Maybe not ideal, but the quick fix just may work.

Keep in mind that we learn by contrast, and that we have very highly developed kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses. We can adjust without blaming the tool. And if we find ease in our bodies rather than tensing against the instrument, we can do it more quickly and efficiently.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Ear blind


My husband gave me a gift of expensive perfume for Christmas. I love the scent, and at first even a small dab smelled gloriously strong. I looked forward to a gentle breeze wafting it back to me. I enjoyed the delicate hints that lingered on my winter coat.

But now April is over. I have been wearing this scent most days for four months. A little dab creates less excitement in my olfactory system. I have become habituated to the perfume’s notes. I have become, as the saying goes, a bit nose blind.

Which got me thinking about other ways I may be habituated in my daily life, especially in my teaching. Perhaps I am so accustomed to certain habits in my students’ playing that I don’t sense them with the intensity I did as a beginning teacher. I’ve become habituated to the sounds of their notes. Maybe I’ve gone ear blind.

I had this conversation with an experienced teacher who agreed that, as a young grad student, she was extremely aware of nuances in expert performances. Now, after years of listening to students in the progression of learning, her ear has become attuned to less-refined qualities.  It can happen.

We may also anticipate how a student will play -  “always-too-soft”, “always-too-fast”. Does that color how we hear the performance in real time?

Another experienced teacher friend had a project of planning a sound to focus on during the school year. She would select something like “melody” or “dynamics” or “articulation” and post a sign in her studio to remind students of that particular element. While it wasn’t the only sound that required students’ attention, it was the one they would come back to throughout the year with fresh ears, as did the teacher. As I reminded a student this week, the intention to hear something helps to shape the outcome. If you have no intention to hear even 16thnotes, chances are you won’t play them evenly. If, as a teacher, you don’t listen for even 16thnotes, you won’t encourage your students to perform them.

One of the advantages of hearing our students play in different venues on different instruments is that it wakes up the auditory system. I recently heard a recording of a student playing in a performance on the school grand piano, and I have to admit that I was pleased to hear things in her playing that I had become less sensitive to in my studio.  This also happens at the studio recitals when my students play on a beautiful 7 foot Steinway in a large space, quite different from my Kawai in my small studio.

How else can we sharpen our listening skills? Go to performances or watch them on YouTube, especially those that grab you by the ear. Record your own playing and take notes on what you hear or don’t hear. Record your students’ performances and let them listen with your guidance. Create a grab bag of reminders that say “pedal” or “melodic shape” or “harmonic colors,” and pull one out before each lesson. Share it with the student so you are working toward the same goal.

Another simple practice is to listen to sounds in your daily life that may be going unnoticed. Yes, you may find it temporarily distracting to hear the ice machine in the refrigerator or the fan of the furnace. Don’t worry, your brain will soon pay less attention to them. In the meantime, your auditory system is getting a needed boost.

Friday, April 20, 2018

View from the pit: Self-care


One of my former students became a civil engineer. She told me there was one rule of engineering: the bridge may not fail. As musicians, we have a similar rule: the performance may not fail. We do whatever we can to make sure the performance is a success, and sometimes we lose ourselves in the process.

A few reminders about self-care:
  • Create a performance set-up that is as healthy as possible. Do what you can in regard to seating, lights, space for movement, comfortable clothing, whatever you can control that will help you to be more at ease.
  • Stay hydrated. Playing for several hours requires significant muscular action, and your body will need water. 
  • Practice with awareness. Notice when a lack of trust causes muscle tension.
  • Practice to problem-solve. If you are playing on short notice, don't waste time on the easy parts. Score study and mental practice can also be helpful.
  • Communicate with other pit members and the conductor. When in doubt, ask!
  • Take advantage of breaks. It may be better to walk around and shake out your arms and legs than to spend the whole break practicing that hard spot. Break time is also an opportunity to get some protein in your system.
  • Get adequate sleep. Seriously.
  • Put mistakes in perspective. Accept that they will happen because you are not a machine.
  • Last, but not least, breathe.

In retrospect, this last minute call turned out to be an opportunity to re-evaluate the elements of pit-playing. And I did have some fun! If you have a student performing in a pit for the first time, you may find it helpful to share my ideas. If you are an experienced pit player who would like to add more helpful hints or share some amusing anecdotes, please do so.



Thursday, April 19, 2018

View from the pit: The Inner Game of Pit Playing

In place and ready to rehearse. Most of the physical aspects of the preparation are also in place. From here on in, the challenge is going to be focus.

As a piano teacher, I often play simple duets from method books with my students. The first time through can be rough because they have no idea what my part will sound like. I encourage them to keep counting and stick with their part while acknowledging that they have no idea what I will be playing. Multiply this by the number of players in the pit, and that is what the first rehearsal sounds like. And each rehearsal can sound very different as players figure out what to play and when.

If there is a recording available, that can help. However, the conformation of the pit may be very different from a full Broadway orchestra. Most schools and community theatre companies scale back the orchestration to the most important instruments. The piano book may have abbreviated indications of what instruments are playing in certain sections. I needed to remind myself of the meanings for cl, va, vc, and bass cl, then realize that we had no va or vc in the pit. It is common for the keyboard player to pick up missing parts.

Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey created an equilateral triangle in "The Inner Game of Music," and I reference this often in teaching. It is called the will-awareness-trust triangle, which I sometimes shorten to WAT. Let's take the will side for granted in this case, just because I'm actually at the keyboard in the pit, and I certainly don't want to mess up. Awareness becomes really wide for me in a pit situation. I need to know where I am in the score, what key I'm playing in (keys often change a lot in musical scores), what cuts have been made, what repeats have been added, what may change in the moment depending on staging, and whether or not I have a brief solo, all of this for starters. And what is happening in the rest of the rhythm section and the pit as well as watching the conductor with a combination of peripheral vision and very fast glances. Concentration is not really the same as inclusive awareness as most folks concentrate by blocking information. In the pit, I need to prioritize lots of information.

And then there is trust. I recently read that the problem with remembering humiliating experiences is that the memory feels like reliving the moment. This may or may not be true for other kinds of memories, but regardless, remembering mistakes is far from helpful in performance. The actual experience of embarrassment may be years in the past or from last night's rehearsal or the last 8 bars, but the moment of recall feels present. If the music is under-rehearsed, it is darn hard to trust what will happen in performance. If the trust issues come from negative self-talk or reliving old failures, the third side of the triangle may collapse.

One night I headed out the door by saying to my husband, "Well, I wonder what I'll mess up tonight?"  On my ride to rehearsal, I mentally slapped myself upside the head for doing something I advise against - predicting a poor outcome. After that, I changed my mantra to a message of focus and rolling with the changes. So. Much. Better.

But, as the drummer warned, don't get overconfident. Anything can happen in the pit from night to night. Stay focused and ready to adjust. As one of my experienced pit-playing friends says, "It's always an adventure."





Wednesday, April 18, 2018

View from the pit: Places, everyone!

Kleenex, water, piano glasses, sharpened pencils with erasers, and the musical score. All of these go to rehearsals with me, and I always arrive early. I often toss my portable adjustable bench in the car just in case there is no reasonable seating available. Most pits include a digital keyboard that may or may not have a bench with the set up. Depending on the keyboard, there may be different sounds available to cover for instruments like harp, celeste, harpsichord or other instruments that are not covered by live players. According to a more experienced pit pianist, new scores involve hooking into computer patches for a variety of sounds.

Next step: scope out the set-up. The word "pit" is used both to mean the whole collective of players as well as the location where they play. Sometimes it is a specially designed area, what you see in opera and Broadway theaters. It may be as simple as the floor space in front of the stage, which may be ample or crowded. When it is crowded, the line of sight to the conductor may not always be ideal, so learn to count and to listen. Some shows actually have the pit on stage or behind scenery, with the help of video and audio monitors. Some players would rather not be able to see the stage, mainly because it is easy to get distracted that way. If the pit is covered, there is no way to see the stage. Keeping track of the action is the responsibility of the conductor.

The pianist in a pit orchestra is a member of the rhythm section, typically piano, bass and drums. In some groups, like the jazz band I joined in college, there is also a rhythm guitar player who plays chords and takes solos. Yet another reason to learn to count! Being in the rhythm section offers an opportunity for a level of collaboration that is very different from playing in a classical ensemble. The rhythm section holds the pit together, and we also tend to hold each other together. Even though I haven't had a lot of opportunities to be in rhythm sections, they were always sources of positive energy working toward a common goal. May yours be the same.

The next adjustment is to the keyboard itself. If you own one that you bring to gigs, you already have the elements of touch figured out. What surprised me in shifting to the pit keyboard, which was a  good quality Korg, was that some of my accuracy was impacted by the change in response of the action. I would have expected it to be easier to be accurate on a keyboard that had a lighter action, but that wasn't always the case. Another example of how movement becomes habituated on a very sensitive level. However, I'll take keyboard glissandos over piano glissandos any day!

Another pit skill is minimizing the use of the damper pedal. Admit it, we pianists love our damper pedal, even when we don't need it, and I am no different. Check out the nature of the score. If the part is very rhythmic, the traditional "boom-chick" kind of part, you don't want that to be muddied by damper pedal. Remember, you are part of the rhythm section. I enjoyed the lovely ballads in this show when I was required to use the pedal, and I also used it for special effects. Otherwise it was a pretty dry approach.

Except for how hot it was in pit. Another reason for packing Kleenex, to pat my hands dry. And another reason to thank a rhythm section colleague who brought a silent electric fan.