Friday, December 31, 2010

"It's music!"

Preparing for the annual recital is always a little nerve-wracking for students and teachers alike. My job as teacher is to focus on the positive by allowing the student to articulate what is going well, not just what needs to be improved. They have come to expect the question, "What did you like about that performance?"

As I finished playing secondo to a bright young girl's primo, I presented the same query. She looked at me with eyes full of delight. "It's music!" she said. This was the first time I had ever heard such a profound response.

Somewhere along the line, we lose sight of the simple joy of making music. Somewhere along the line, we become so concerned about the details of performance that we forget the sheer pleasure and privilege of making music.

Maybe this is why there are so many homemade performances appearing on YouTube. Surely some of these are attempts to gain attention and possibly fame, but I would like to think that there are many people who want to share the joy of making music with the wider world. "Look, I can do this! And I enjoy it!"

As the calendar year closes, I am reminding myself to return to the teaching studio with this motto in my head. Yes, it is my job to guide and correct and cajole and demonstrate. Why? Because it's music.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The irony of it all

Think about the music.

Honor the composer.

Listen to the sounds you are making.

Advice from past teachers is echoing in my head during recital season. After all the hours spent practicing and refining, there should be no doubt that the performance will be successful.

But there is doubt, and often plenty of it.

And then there is irony. In our classical training we are taught that the performance is about making the music as good as it can be. But what happens after the performance is about hearing praise for the performer, not the composer. I am still waiting for an audience member to say, "That Beethoven, what a genius!" Sure, they may say how much they enjoyed a certain piece, that it is a favorite or something they would like to hear again. Truth be told, they can hear their favorite pieces without ever leaving home, thanks to electronic access to music of all kinds.

Truth be told, they come to hear a certain performer play a recital live. And this starts with children in my studio. I can't fool myself into believing that townspeople would come to my studio recital to hear other people's children play, or to hear yet another arrangement of "Ode to Joy". They wouldn't, and they don't.

The challenge is to accept that the performance is not just about the music. However, it is not just about the performer either. A successful performance is about the performer at a given moment in time interpreting a piece of music written at another moment in time. Oh, yes, and an audience listening to the performance. It is the whole ball of musical wax.

The trick, if I dare call it a trick, is to find a conscious balance of these elements. A successful performance includes technical control, musical mastery, personal expression and communication with the audience. In other words, an inclusive awareness of the music, the performer and the audience.

Thinking about the music can be a great way to prioritize these elements, not ignore them, but prioritize them. After all, the music will not play it itself - at least not live.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

This is a test. This is ONLY a test?

The screech preceding these words vibrates through my bones like a dentist's drill. I can't ignore it. That's the idea. I'm supposed to be alerted, alarmed, and aware that my life could be in danger. The reminder that this is only a test is designed to calm down my excited nervous system so I can return to enjoying the scheduled radio programming of classical music.

Today my mind is unable to move beyond the words only a test. For me, the word test is rarely an only. It is a challenge I am required to meet, or a determination of my skills by an outside judge, or, even worse, a recital.

When did I develop the idea that playing for others was more of a test than a pleasure? I suspect I connected tests to performances on my own as a young student. I heard the older students play and wanted to measure up. I don't remember my first piano teacher ever referring to a recital as a test.

Undergraduate school was a different matter. I was introduced to the jury process. A jury is a measure of a music student's progress from year to year, and it involves playing for faculty members. In other words, it's a test.

One of my wise friends asks the questions, "If this is a jury, who is on trial? What is the crime?" Taking that analogy further, I ask, "Am I the defense?" Usually, in my own mind, the answer is yes. I am defending my interpretation, my tempi, my dynamics, my pedaling. The problem is that I don't know what charge I am defending myself against until the verdict - the jury sheets or the critical feedback - are handed to me. It is only then that I know what laws I have broken. Thanks to the uncertainty of the sentence, I can become alarmed, alerted, and aware that my musical life could be in danger. All because I am playing classical music!

Reframing this experience to something more generous and more satisfying is part of my process, especially because I work in an undergraduate school. I am around the nervous - and often judgmental - young students who are laying their musical lives on the line for juried performances. It is part of my task to help them present confident musical performances, knowing that they are also required to survive the tests built into the structure of music school.

I remind them that music is a means of communication. Even the occasional mistake in speech and writing can be understood, as can the occasional mistake in musical performance, if the performance is NOT only a test.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Same old, same old

Merriweather played beautifully at her first adjudicated master class. I should know - I'm her teacher and one of the two judges. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and of what I would like to hear change, but I was pleased with her performance. I jotted down the good points and the suggestions, as did my co-judge, and we handed them to Merriweather.

Dr. Great-with-Kids gave her a thumbs-up as well, pleasing Merriweather and her mom.
Merriweather's mom said, "What did Mrs. Hooper say?" Merriweather rolled her eleven-year-old eyes and said, "Same old, same old."

I had to laugh, my other choice being a good sulk in the corner for being such a boring teacher. Then I looked at the comments from Dr. Great-with-Kids. Slightly different words, but the same suggestions I made! Why was her opinion so well-received and mine so quickly dismissed?

A mental har-rumph was in order.

After a few days of har-rumphing, I was ready to challenge myself. There is no denying what one friend calls the "guest conductor syndrome" - same information, different delivery style. A change of environment alone is stimulating to the brain, as is the sound of an unfamiliar voice with its unique rhythms and cadences. Nonetheless, I still felt the need to rethink my delivery style.

Even though Merriweather has been in my studio for years, and I hope will be for more years to come, I may need to take on the "guest conductor" persona from time to time. I could listen to the sound of my voice for pitch, rhythm, speed and inflection. I could change some of my time-honored phrases for the "same old, same old" challenges. I could change up the order of lesson materials covered. I could bring out different learning aids from time to time. Every now and then I could surprise the student by doing something completely different, whatever that something is.

I have never thought of myself as a boring teacher, that is for sure. But I am re-evaluating the difference between "tried and true" and "same old, same old."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Them Bones, Them Bones

Hammer, anvil, stirrup. One by one, these are large objects with a common connection to saddle and horseshoe construction. Together, they are three tiny bones that are critical to hearing. Together, they would fit on a dime.

The eardrum is the membrane which picks up sound vibrations. These vibrations need amplification to be perceived. Amplification is the job of these three little bones. Small as they are, they amplify sound. If such tiny bones can amplify sound, imagine what the other 203 bones could do!

When I get a tooth drilled, the sound is the worst part of the process. Thanks to novacaine, I don't feel much pain sensation, but I do "feel" the sound. Teeth are rooted in the jaw, a large bone that connects to the skull, an even larger bony structure. The jaw connects to the skull in very close proximity to the ear. The big bone amplifies the sound of the drill directly to the three little bones in the inner ear. When the drill is not in contact with the tooth, the sound is not as loud as when the drill touches the tooth.

Singers and wind players may be more aware of the way their sounds resonate in their bones than pianists and string players. Even so, they may forget that the whole body resonates, not just the ear bones, the skull and jaw. In fact, ancient healing chants were designed to resonate in order to activate the healing process throughout the body. Modern medicine has ever-developing uses of sound for diagnostic and healing purposes.

"Hearing" sound in the whole body can be a very freeing experience. It helps to put the performer smack dab in the middle of the sound. A constricted body does not amplify sound as well as a free, balanced body amplifies sound. Allowing the whole body to experience sound is a way to release unnecessary tension. The result of this is good for the performer and good for the audience.

And... you don't need electricity for these amplifiers. Or a roadie to carry them for you.

Practice feeling sound in your whole body. Notice where the sound gets blocked. Notice how pitch and volume change the sensations. Notice how certain spaces change your access to natural amplification. Enjoy being in the middle of the sound.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do I Hear the Walls?

Ear training and hearing training are not the same thing. Ear training coaches us to listen to the structural elements of music - the chords, the intervals, the tonality shifts and the rhythmic complexities. Hearing training is going on all the time in the brain. It is the way we prioritize the sounds in our environment and make decisions based on the perception of those sounds.

Blind people use a process called echolocation to help them "hear" where they are in space.
The reflection of sound from different surfaces helps them to determine where objects are and what the density and consistency of those objects is.

Good news - sighted people do this, too. Not only do we hear reflected sound and determine the location of objects, but we can also determine the shape of an object based on the reflected sound, even when we are blindfolded. Isn't hearing grand? (Check out "See What I'm Saying" by Lawrence D. Rosenblum.)

It is not unusual for musicians to want to rehearse in a space before a performance because we want to know how the space "sounds". True enough, obvious even. We also know the sound will change when the audience moves into the space, and we hope they DO move into the space.

What we may not realize is that the way we perceive sound changes the way we move in a given space. If we are hearing the resonance of a large hall, we are more likely to move as though we have a lot of space to move through. If we are in a "dead" acoustical space, it is more difficult to feel the luscious reverberations that encourage free movement. We tend not to like the sound, both on an aural level and on a kinesthetic level.

Adding conscious hearing training to your day helps you to be more observant of your surroundings and helps you to make movement decisions that are more favorable in the worst of acoustical environments. Take a few minutes a day to sit in one spot and listen to all the sounds around you. Notice the ones you like, the ones you don't, the ones that encourage comfort and ease, and the ones that induce tension. Make a decision to move freely, wherever you are, whatever you hear.

Be surprised that you can hear the walls, and enjoy the conversation.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Devil's in the Details

In a study examining differences between more effective and less effective principals, Doug Fiore determined that one significant variation is that the very best leaders ignore minor errors. Though this finding was not limited to how they treat high achievers, we can see how it would readily come into play. High achievers hold themselves to very high standards. They expect to succeed at everything they do and work exceedingly hard to do so. That is one reason they are so good.
When high achievers have their shortcomings pointed out by someone else, they emotionally deflate. They are used to expecting tremendous things of themselves and they hate to let others down. If we point out minor flaws in their achievements, they take fewer risks and keep their successes more private. This is just the opposite of what we want our best role models to do. We want their work to shine as an example and inspiration to others.
The Fiore study also pointed out that if principals harp on minor errors, the faculty shies away from contact or interaction with them. The less effective the principal, the greater the likelihood that teachers will describe that leader's comments as consistently negative. For the sake of our own self-worth, we tend to stay away from someone who regularly points out our mistakes.
from "What Great Principals Do Differently" by Todd Whitaker

Do you, the teacher, see yourself as a leader? A boss? If so, does that make the student the follower? The employee?

If so, what kind of leader are you? Are you the kind that leads by nit-picking away until there is nothing left of the student's self-respect, let alone the muse? Or are you the kind that encourages a bit of risk-taking?

When I first read this quote, I saw myself as the employee, and I cheered! Yes, I said to myself, I DO become easily deflated when someone picks at little things that aren't quite perfect. I DO become frustrated when creative risk-taking is unappreciated or dismissed.

Then I took the position of the boss. I thought a lot about how complex it is to balance the "major" musical details against the "minor" musical details. As music teachers, we are trained to hear sound as a rich mix of pitch, intonation, articulation, dynamics and accent. Oh, yes, and then there are the fingerings, the pedal decisions and the technical movements that need to be assessed. What is major? What is minor, other than the keys, of course! When have we hit the point where the student is unwilling to take any chances for fear of being lacerated with the details that are whipping by?

The job of the music teacher is to teach the music AND the student. When our awareness is narrowed to the musical details, we may miss the point of overload for the student. There is sometimes a fine line between enough information and too much information, between too much control and not enough risk-taking.

If you are sensing that the student is bracing against the inevitable onslaught of criticism, maybe the line has been crossed. If you are sensing that the student is content to play without any discipline what-so-ever, chances are you've gone too far the other way. Remember, every student's line is in a different place.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chemistry Problems

Believe it or not, I was good at high school chemistry. I would go so far as to say that I LIKED high school chemistry. The mathematical and physical connectivity of valences and formulas was intriguing to me. Certain molecules produced exciting results when mixed with other molecules. Other chemicals just couldn't talk to each other, thanks to electrical charges or lack of receptivity. Those experiments turned out to be "duds".

When piano teachers talk about chemistry problems, we are talking about something entirely different. We are talking about the inability to connect with a student in a way that sets off positive electrical charges that encourage receptivity.

We all know what this is like. We have our share of stories of "difficult" students. Yet I find that they are the students that we'd rather not admit to when we gather to share experiences. Maybe we would rather think about them as "duds".

When I was a young teacher, I felt like a failure when I couldn't connect with a student, especially if that student showed something I regarded as talent. I would get frustrated in a lesson, impatient with the lack of progress, and yet somehow unwilling to let go of the student.
Maybe next week, he would come around. Maybe next week she would hear my wise advice and follow it.

Now I know that some molecules just don't mesh with other molecules, splendid as they both may be on their own. Looking at the larger picture, I remind myself that I am not the "perfect" molecule either. Maybe I am the "difficult" teacher for some students. Maybe - unthinkable as it may be - the student will do better with someone else!

If I've done what I can to adjust to personalities, learning styles and goals, and the experiment isn't working, it probably will never work. This is why I have piano teacher friends who are not clones of me. This is why we can confidently recommend students to each other when the chemistry problems arise.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Learning from the Piano

Many of us call ourselves "piano teachers", as though we were teaching the piano something. Recently I have been more interested in what the piano teaches me.

It was my good fortune to become the owner of a 6' Kawaii grand this summer. It was much loved by its previous owners, whose memories of a daughter's performances kept the piano alive. The daughter, unfortunately, is no longer alive. The piano wasn't being played by the bereaved parents, in part because of their age and physical pain, in part because of emotional pain. This odd-shaped container of strings and screws and bridges and blocks held more than the potential for sound.

It took it into my studio, and I took it into my heart. It has begun to teach me how to make it sing, different as it is from its predecessor. It has a voice that can be both muted and ringing, and it takes more coaxing, more finesse, more precision. For a while, I mistook these needs for stubbornness, and I took to an old habit of muscling my way through the music.

Mistake, big mistake. After one long practice session, I was more aware of my habit than I had been in years. I sat back and looked at the instrument, inside and out, and devised a more subtle approach, one that involved listening to its distinct qualities and playing them to the best of my ability.

Many years back, I tried this same habit in teaching. Surely a student with stubborn habits would get over them if I just insisted and insisted, if I muscled my way through the lesson.
All students could, would, should learn to play just the way I wanted them to play.

Mistake, big mistake. Every student has distinct qualities. Every student has a distinct voice.
Now I am more likely to sit back and look at the student, inside and out, and devise a more subtle approach. That is teaching to the best of my ability.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I have a hunch - and I'm big on hunches - that the media must get pretty weary of the news cycles that happen at the end of the calendar year. December - who is buying what and when, how to create fabulous holiday meals, and where to entertain your friends and family. January - how to return what you didn't want in the first place, how to lose the pounds you gained eating fabulous holiday meals, and where you can go to escape the long, inactive, gray days of January.

Oh, yes, then all the media chats with psychologists who tell us why we don't follow through on our New Year's resolutions. As if we didn't know.

We are creatures of habit. We are wired for repetition. Our brains learn by repeating actions that become reinforced by an insulating substance called myelin. The more we repeat an action, the more myelin is created around the sequence of nerves which carry the message for that action. This becomes a rapid response system for a given action, and it can feel like
"automatic pilot".

This kind of automatic response is something we often want in musical performance. It is the result of practice that results in reliable performance, for the most part.

But sometimes, it doesn't work, and we don't always know why.

In some cases, this is because being on auto-pilot is called "concentrating". Concentrating is a state of mind in which all of one's attention goes to a single element. The brain is not particularly happy when concentrating because it is capable of processing a HUGE amount of input at once. The well-trained musician's brain knows how to prioritize what is happening
in the performance environment while presenting well-crafted performance. This prioritization is a CRUCIAL skill in performance.

Developing this skill requires an awareness of its value - just like a good New Year's resolution - and creative ways to hone this skill. For this reason, I developed "Sensory Tune-ups: a guided journal of sensory experiences for performers of all ages". It is easy to use and - dare I say - fun, unlike most New Year's resolutions.

Find out more by visiting my website at www. Send me an email for more personalized information.

Resolve to develop a new skill, rather than break an old habit. You may find that more newsworthy and more valuable.