Crash Course in Staying Focused – Performing at My Studio Recital


Sunday was the annual Winter Recital for my younger piano students, whose ages range from 7 to 16. While a few just began lessons with me, most have at least five or six recitals under their belts.

Most teachers I know find listening to their student recitals stressful. I know I often feel anxious or excited for the student as they navigate the rapids of performance, which is why I don’t usually play on my student concerts. Also, it’s difficult to prepare while I’m trying to help them get ready.

But this year, I wanted to perform my Carnegie Hall repertoire in as many stressful situations as possible before the actual concert in Feb. 2014. So I decided to play at our Winter Recital.

A few months ago I subscribed to Dr. Noa Kageyama’s “Beyond Practicing” online performance preparation course. While I haven’t had time to review the entire course, I did study the first two modules. The take home message I gleaned was that I need practice staying focused and centered before and during a performance.

At past studio recitals, I have listened closely as each student played, making notes on what to work on next, on what succeeded and what didn’t. But I knew I couldn’t maintain my focus to be able to perform and track the students closely – my brain would be worn out before it was my turn to play. So, I brought my iPad and a tripod and videotaped the concert. Now the parents can share the video with family and friends, and I can watch the student’s performance with them in their lesson if I think it would be educational for them.

And of course, I also videotaped my own performance, because I KNOW it is educational for me to watch myself on video. I usually perform with more intensity and flair when I have an audience, although sometimes the extra adrenaline causes memory problems.

During my performance,  I found my mind wandering off down the familiar and distracting pathway of panic. However, I was able to ignore the emotional charge and drag my focus back to the task at hand. On the whole, I was happy with my playing. Especially since it was at a studio recital!

I’ve posted the videos here:

Enjoy!

 

Memorization

small__4655700001Some time ago I purchased Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang. Taking my usual relentless as a bulldozer approach, I decided to read it straight through. But about 20% into the book, I folded. I found it quite tough sledding. When I hit sections with technical advice that I completely disagree with,  I gave up. I found the effort of sifting through his suggestions to find valuable nuggets of information just too difficult.

But as I was crafting my new practice regimen to prepare for my Carnegie Hall recital, I remembered that Chang had written a detailed chapter on how to memorize. Realizing that a lot of my past performance anxiety had been fear of memory slips, I decided to reread his advice.

I have read a many sources on how to memorize, but I found that Professor Chang had a lot of ways of working that I had not thought of before that made sense to me. So I tried his approach. The results have been even better than I had hoped.  Here is my version of what he had to say.

I memorize one measure at a time.  Seems obvious,  rather like putting one’s pants on one leg at a time, but I hadn’t really been this organized about it before.

First I study the score and memorize the left hand for one measure.  Then I look at the keyboard (or close my eyes) and play the left hand’s music for just that one measure. Then I look at the score and silently hear the left hand’s part in my inner ear.  Then I play the music again on the keyboard,  only with one hand.  I repeat this process until the left hand’s music.Next I repeat the process for the right hand.

When both hands feel solidly memorized, then I try to play that one measure from memory hands together.  in the Rachmaninoff-Kreisler Liebesleid, memorization would often be progressing smoothly and then the process would breakdown completely when I tried to play the hands together.  In this piece, one hand will often be playing a triad or a fifth,  and the other hand will be playing a triad or fourth/fifth that seems unrelated. When I would put the hands together, I would have to refine my listening so I could remember the new harmonic color created by the combined sonorities.

The texture of the Manna-Zucca Valse Brilliante is much thinner and with a slower rate of harmonic change (aka ‘harmonic rhythm)  so it went into my memory much more quickly.

What has been revolutionary for me about this process is that I am much more able to hear the left hand clearly when I play hands together.  Also,  the alternation of physically playing the music with strengthening one’s inner recording of the music has helped to create a tremendous sense of security, of really KNOWING the piece.  I have done a lot of mental playing of music in the past, so my skills in this area are already fairly well developed.  But I had never melded the mental play with memorizing the hands separately, and it has been incredibly helpful with the dense harmonies and counterpoint of the Liebesleid. 

What works for you when memorizing a piece? Do you perform from memory? Why or why not?

photo credit: Indiana Public Media via photopin cc

Concert Attire for Pianistas – More thoughts

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve had a bit of a gown shopping obsession manifest into manic online cruise shopping. Here’s a rundown of the sites I’ve checked and my impressions of each, in order aid my fellow pianistas in their hunts for concert looks.

UntitledNordstroms.com, LordandTaylor.com, SaksFifthAvenue.com, NiemanMarcus.com, Macys.com

Well, if you have an oil well in your back yard,  these are great sites for you! Seriously, what I learned from looking at these sites is that yet again I have champagne taste and a beer budget.  The more expensive ($500+) dresses are classier, have better drape, nicer detailing, and more subtle colors.  And actually it seems that there are more of them without wearability issues.  Another plus is that the sites are easier to navigate- they have menu options to select formal dresses, dress length, and sleeve style.

Discount sites

In the past I have had good luck going to Nordstroms’ Rack in person; their site also has some good deals.  Unlike the full price site, you have to page through all the dresses to find the floor length gowns.

Overstock.com was pretty easy to navigate, with a few contenders.  But the prices weren’t much cheaper than regular retail. I left a gown in my cart in the hopes that they’ll email me a discount offer soon.  No luck so far  : (

Dress-only sites

I checked out Davids’ Bridal – they have a store near my house.  I’ve gotten a few useful things there in the past. They have some nice designs with sort of middle of the road quality.  Also spent some time on simplydresses.com, tjformal.com,  belk.com. At this point my eyes were beginning to glaze over.

Another category of site is represented by fairyin.com and milanoo.com. These sites make a dress to order for you based on your measurements.  One is located in China, the other in Australia. Great prices, but it seemed a little risky to me to order a dress without getting to see a fabric sample first.

Why not rent a dress?

It was fun looking at RenttheRunway.com. It seemed like good value for the money for the really expensive designer dresses. For the less expensive gowns, the cost was almost as much as finding a discounted or sale dress.  But the fashion tape issue rears its ugly head again.  Rentals are available for 4 or 8 days – if the dress doesn’t fit well so that I can move freely without fear of fashion accidents, I’m stuck.

So where does this leave me?

My next strategy is to go shopping in person after Christmas.  I need to see the fabric in person to be able to make a decision.  I’ll hit some of my favorite consignment stores and possibly Nordstrom’s Rack.

Concert Attire for Pianistas – Lose the Black!

Things have been hectic here for the last few days.  Thursday night I went to a play about a pianist, and Friday morning I went shopping with a friend for attire for my Carnegie Hall recital.

The Impossible Dream

Pre cancer I had two or three reliable gowns and tops that I used for performing. When I gained 30 pounds due to steroids during chemo,  I got rid of the clothes that didn’t fit me. I certainly thought it unlikely that I would ever be performing again given the financial problems I was facing. But now, the unthinkable has become my new reality and I am out in retail land, dreaming the impossible dream: that I can find a comfortable, attractive recital gown.

My Dress – My Rules

Guess I won't be shopping here!

Guess I won’t be shopping here!

Personally, I have some strong ideas about what works for me on stage. When I announced my preferences at the stores I went to,  these four items knocked out 75% of their formal wear. Good thing I am shopping several months before the big event.

NO BLACK!  I do not want to look like I am part of the piano, and I don’t look good in black. In my opinion, very few people actually look good in black. Additionally, I think the artist should be pleasant for the audience to rest their eyes on. Having everything the same neutral color onstage is boring.  Sorry, gentleman,  I know by tradition you wear black, no insult intended.

No spaghetti straps or sleeveless gowns. I personally don’t find watching the pianists upper arms and shoulders moving around as they play all that attractive – certainly not for anyone past their mid twenties. Now that I am 29, no more strappy looks.

No white – not a flattering look on me.  Plus I don’t like white.

No prints – they don’t look good on video,  and I want to post the video from my performance online.

Form AND Function Please!

Another big issue in concert attire is that it has to be comfortable to play in. Several dresses didn’t have enough give in the shoulders.  One had straps that fell off my shoulders when I took a suggestion of a breath. The saleslady suggested using fashion tape to hold them in place.  Obviously a clueless individual – I don’t want to be the Janet Jackson of the concert stage! Even if the straps stay up,  imagine the pressure of staying calm, centered, and trying not to worry about my dress!

Always important to check that you can sit down in the and walk easily in the dress and that it looks good from the side while seated. For me,  no gigantic slits up the leg, no overly poofy gathered skirts.

For my figure type,  dresses with more interest on the top and a flared skirt work best.  We found one in a beautiful dark reddish purple; unfortunately it didn’t fit.  I loved the style and thought it was really appropriate for the repertoire I’ll be playing.  I hope I find another dress like it that fits!

But I did end up buying a sparkly beaded top in red mostly as a fallback item in case I can’t find a dress I like. Plus it will be useful for run throughs and house concerts.

 

 

 

Working Happy, Inspired by Benjamin Franklin

ben franklinI’ve been thinking a lot about my purpose in performing at Carnegie Hall in February 2014.  As I wrote yesterday, it seems realistic to assume that not much in my external world will change. But it will be an important experience for ME. And basically I like to perform, once I  slice through the layers of fear, procrastination, pessimism and doubt.

In the past I’ve had some transcendant experiences on stage, but only when I have been very well prepared.  When I have not been prepared,  I have had some very bad experiences – panic attacks,  dissassociation, and wrenching memory slips.  What helps me enjoy performing is being very well prepared. On the other hand,  I’ve also worked incredibly hard for months, postponing and denying myself all kinds of comforts in order to give a good performance,  and then felt cheated – like all the sacrifices weren’t worth the payoff.  The performance seemed so short compared to the months of deprivation. So in the past 8 weeks or so, I have been sculpting a new routine that I will enjoy but will also help me be completely prepared to play beautifully and with confidence in February.

Stamping Out Procrastination

The first issue I attacked was procastination. One of the hardest things for me over the years has been to get to the piano.  Once I am there,  I enjoy my time,  but when I am away from the keyboard, it always seems that something else is more important.  So I devised a weekly schedule where I practice FIRST before I do anything else.  Since I start teaching several days at 9:30 a.m.,  that means I have to be at the piano by 8 to get in 90 minutes before my first student.  Which means I have to get up at 6:30 or 7.

I have created a weekly time tracking sheet for myself on a word processor.  It has lines for each half hour of the day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.  I have preentered my practice time and teaching commitments.  All tasks have to be written ON THE SCHEDULE, not on some gigantic overwhelming list that is not connected to the reality of the hours of time I have available to me.  As the day goes by I write down what I ACTUALLY do.  In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about how Ben Franklin kept a daily chart of his goals, and how she found that reviewing her  daily ‘directives’ helped her keep them in mind. I found the same thing with my new/old fashioned system. It’s really helped me where the rubber meets the road – the minute to minute choices that I make as the day goes by.  I find myself less likely to spend a few minutes here or there on things that are not important to me – playing word games online, shopping on Ebay – since I refer to a print copy of my larger time plan many times per day.

I am SOO not a morning person,  but I have been able to make the shift to this schedule over a few weeks.  Inspired by Gretchen’s lucid writing on the subject,  when I begin to feel tired in the evening,  I start my getting ready for bed routine. This means I am often in my pajamas at 7 p.m., which is an effective deterrent to running out to the store for a few items!

There have been some unexpected benefits to this new paradigm.  Once I finish my practicing for the day I feel a great sense of freedom, as if I have accomplished all that is really important for the day.  So everything else feels easy and almost like play – cleaning the kitchen, writing a few emails, doing my studio billing – it all seems simple in comparison to the mental effort at the instrument.Another is that over the 8 – 10 weeks I have kept this schedule,  I have memorized all of the Rachmaninoff Kriesler Liebesleid  and Valse Brilliante by Manna Zucca. (In another post I’ll write about how I chose this program.)

Tomorrow:  Improving Memorization

In the past I have seen myself as a poor  memorizer.  Now I am feeling a glow of accomplishment that I have tackled this fear and pinned it to the ground.  Tomorrow I will write about the approach I have been using to memorize .

 

 

What I Learned from Cancer and “The Happiness Project”

glass_skyscrapers_190522Near the end of the second round of chemotherapy drugs, my oncologist noticed a new lump under my right arm. She looked worried. ”What if it’s another tumor?,” I asked. She replied “That would be bad if the cancer is spreading while you are on chemo.” I was scheduled for a second surgery in a two weeks.  ”We’ll just have to see what it is when we go in to clear the margins from the first tumor”.

For the next 14 days I was terrified that I might be dying.  Who would take care of my cats if I died? How much pain would I go through before I passed away? Would I lose my house before I no longer needed it? Could I afford hospice care?

When I awoke in my hospital bed, my friend told me the lump was not cancer, just a blocked lymph node. I experienced joy more intense than I ever had before or since. I had a view of top of a concrete building and blue sky out the hospital window – it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  The sky was luminous and almost vibrating. Since that day in the hospital, the rest of my life seems to me like winning the lottery. I’ve given myself the choice to spend it in whatever way makes me the happiest.

Since getting the Bradshaw and Buono email, I’ve been through several emotional phases. There was a first phase: euphoria- that’s been gone for a while. Next came panic: what if I had a memory slip (it’s happened before)? what if I can’t handle the pressure of getting ready on top of my current teaching schedule?

I was reading The Happiness Project as I grappled with my fears. Why was I doing this concert? I mean, I could just bow out (no pun intended) and I would still be a ‘winner’.  After all, I know from experience that things very rarely change after a performance. Audiences are usually small, critics do not attend, and one does not get offered a recording contract ever! So, I concluded, the only way I could proceed with doing the concert was to find a way to prepare that I would enjoy and that would address my fears.

Last Sunday,  I did a first performance of my Carnegie Hall program from memory- and I was happy with the result! This Sunday, I’m playing it again – and I feel calm and clear about how to prepare. In fact, I have found that my regular practicing routine actually calms me down and helps me enjoy the rest of my day more.

Tomorrow,  I’ll share more about some of the solutions I found. Off to the piano!

My New Hero: Gretchen Rubin

Garden tomatoes in December?

Garden tomatoes in December?

So, I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project.  I love the honesty and thoughtfulness of her writing.  Her personality is organized along  fault lines very similar to mine, so her insights are tremendously helpful to me.

Gradually I have noticed myself becoming, well, you know,  happier.  I never ever thought it would happen.  But just as winter turns to spring,  things have been warming up and thawing out in my emotional life.  And for the first time ever,  it is happening as the darkest days of the year approach.  In fact,  I am not even annoyed by the Christmas music playing in endless loops everywhere, including in my piano studio!

Today’s example of my new happier outlook is the photo above:  I just picked those tomatoes from my garden.  December 1, and tomatos are still ripening!  I can only remember one other holiday season when I still had garden tomatos,  and that was because I had picked them green and stashed them in an egg carton to ripen.

In the past,  I could have been stressing out about global warming, drought, etc, etc.  And it’s not that I’m not concerned about those things.  But I have taken all the actions I can, at least for today, to address those concerns.  And so for now,  I will just enjoy the sunshine and the fresh tomatoes.  No griping or worrying about the high property taxes in California, either!

I find it takes a certain mental strength to not allow myself to fall into well-worn, dark negative ways of thinking. I was really down in the trenches every day fighting this issue while I was in cancer treatment and facing major financial catastrophe.  But now that I have worked my way through that phase of life, I am able to be in touch with being happy just to be alive.  Another example of seeing the glass half full rather than half empty.

 

Myth #1 With enough repetitions, you can learn anything

Several years ago I heard a wonderful talk on ‘levels of truth’ given by a speaker with a strong background in experimental physics. He explained that things that appear true on one level can be in complete contradiction with other truths on a different level.  He gave the example of the appearance of a solid object, for example, a grand piano. When we examine it with the naked eye, it looks solid. If we look at it with a magnification of 200x, it still looks solid. But if we were to zoom into the atomic level and watch the electrons zooming around the nucleus, we will see mostly space with only small bits of  matter zipping around. So it is true on one level that the grand piano is a solid object, but it is also true that on another level the piano is made up mostly of space. Both statements are true; and while they are opposites,  they are not in fact contradictory. They are merely two different levels of truth.

In my experience, there are also many levels of truth about using repetition for learning.  Yes, repetition is essential to move information or skills from short term memory to long term permanent memory. However, one can also get a lot of unhappy or at least unexpected results from repetitive practicing.

One night right before a recording session, I decided to do 10 sets of 10 repetitions each of a particularly difficult left hand passage in a Beethoven Sonata.  The next day, my left hand hurt.  It was the beginning of my multi-year journey through injury, recovery, reinjury, and finally a complete overhaul of my technique.  And while I’m happy with how the process  turned out (Carnegie Hall etc. etc.), it wasn’t something I’d recommend to others.

Certainly that one night’s practice was not what caused my injury.  There were many other events that happened later that really pushed me over the edge.  But that night’s practice has stuck in my memory for a reason – it is a great example of the underlying attitude that got me in trouble – that enough repetition could solve a technical problem for me.

Take home message?  Repetition alone will not solve your pianistic problems.

In one of this morning’s lessons, a student said to me,  ”Help! I’ve been practicing this part a lot – right hand alone, left alone, hands together one measure at a time- but it’s just not getting any better!”  Together we were able to trouble shoot the passage.  There were several different problems:

  • Some of the fingering needed to be changed to better fit her hand.
  • She needed to focus on how the hands were moving in relation to each other.  The trouble spots involved  both hands were moving into or out of the black key area at the same time, or one hand moving into the black keys at the same time the other hand was moving out of the black keys.
  • Finally,  a few problems were related to changes in harmonic rhythm or unexpected harmonic movement.  The solution?  Repetition of the harmonic outline until she could hear it accurately.  As soon as the musical logic of the measure was in her ear, she could play it.

To close this small foray into the subject of repetition as a learning tool,  I’d like to urge us all, teachers and students,  to carefully consider HOW we should use repetition as a tool in our practicing.  Try focusing on a different aspect of a short section each time you play it.  Be sure to listen carefully as you repeat.  Vary what you are listening to.  And, most importantly,  talk with your teacher or student about a variety of ways to work with a specific problem, and with repetition in general.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience with using repetition to learn or anything else…..and ……..happy practicing!

 

 

6 Practicing Myths Dissected

You might have heard the old saying, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? ….practice, practice, practice!” Now that I am scheduled to Leonardo da Vinci copyperform there in February 2014, I feel qualified to weigh in on the topic of how to practice the piano.

Piano Playing is Complicated

Studies have shown that playing a musical instrument is “among the most complex skills of (human) motor tasks” (LG Meister et al./ Cognitive Brain Research 19 (2004) 219-228). Certainly learning to perform a complicated classical piece of music from memory in front of an audience is the hardest task I have attempted. Most other things have seemed relatively easy by comparison except for facing the prospect of dying young from cancer.

Plenty of Advice Available

Many books have been written on how to play and practice the piano specifically, and on how to master complicated skills more generally. They range from philosophical books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Inner Game of Music to pragmatic recent publications such as Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!, and Chuan C. Chang’s Fundamentals of Piano Practice, and YouTube videos by everyone and their brother. It seems like mastering the piano should be a relatively easy task given the vast amount of instruction available; there were 104 MILLION listings when I googled ‘how to practice piano’.

But Will it Work?

However, when the rubber meets the road, one is generally alone at the keyboard trying to figure out the solutions to various problems. As the American folk song “Lonesome Valley” puts it:

You got to walk that lonesome valley
You got to walk it by yourself
Ain’t nobody else
Can walk it for you
You got to walk it by yourself.

What’s Ahead

I have decided to offer my thoughts on some of the more widespread beliefs about practicing. Hopefully you will find something of value here to help you on your path.Next week I will dive into the first myth: Practice Makes Perfect.  In the weeks ahead,  I will commit myself in print about some other common thoughts on practicing,  such as:

You can learn anything with enough repetitions
Practice, practice, practice will get you to Carnegie Hall
Learn it hands separately then hands together
Listen to recordings enough and you can put together a great interpretation
Learn technic first then work on music

I’d love to hear from you.  Are there any other beliefs about practicing you would like to hear about?  Do you have thoughts on the process of practicing you’d like to share?

 

Houston, we have lift off!

I called New York again today. Talk about lucky timing.  My contact told me that just yesterday the board had agreed that I could play in Carnegie Hall on a masterclass program.

So it really is going to happen!  I had been feeling rather doubtful since my last call to New York.  But after a bad masterclass experience some years ago,  I had vowed never to open myself up to other’s comments in public.

I inquired politely whether I would be performing for comments,  or in recital.  He confirmed that I would be one of several performers on the program who were not getting comments from the master teacher.  I will need to prepare eight minutes of music.

So here is the date:

February  23, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.  

Time to get a move on!  Choose a program! get a dress that fits!  scare up some frequent flyer miles and a cheap place to stay!  Start letting people know about the date!

I’m actually fine with only playing eight minutes.  In my book, that’s plenty of time for a listener to decide if they like your playing or not.  When I am judging competitions, I can usually tell in less than 30 seconds whether I need to listen closely (this person might be in the top two or three) or focus on writing helpful comments.

I’m excited again about piano.

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