What do pianists do when they aren’t practicing?

November 4, 2013 Comments Off on What do pianists do when they aren’t practicing?

About the same time she started taking piano lessons from me, Sherry Green took up fencing. This October she was a member of the USA Veterans team and fenced in the World Championships in Varna, Bulgaria.

The team took the gold.

The USA Veterans' Team, after their win.

The USA Veterans’ Team, after their win.

This is the fourth time she has been a member of the USA Veterans team. In 2005 she came in fifth in the World Championships. In 2006 she was the top-ranked female sabre fencer in the 60+ category.

In 2007,  she was on the USA team that went to Sydney, Australia for the World Championships but was unable to compete. The night before the first match, while in line outside the famous Sidney Opera House, she tripped on a messed-up bit of sidewalk and broke her knee. Mad doesn’t even begin to describe her state of mind, as she had to forgo not just the fencing championships, but the opera as well.

Alllez, Sherrie!

 

YouTube’s top pianist invites you to her Royal Albert Hall rehearsals

June 4, 2012 Comments Off on YouTube’s top pianist invites you to her Royal Albert Hall rehearsals

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Live streaming via webcam of Valentina Lisitsa’s practice for an upcoming recital. A true piano geek’s entertainment.

Maria João Pires Plays It Cool Under Fire

May 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

What are a performer’s worst fears? How about being ready to play one Mozart concerto and hearing the orchestra start a different one?  This video shows the fine pianist from Portugal in just this situation. She shows amazing aplomb, calmly switching from one concerto to another, without the score or visible anxiety.

Something similar once happened to me. I was  playing in the orchestra as a last minute addition. The piece was unfamiliar to me (a trombone concerto) and in those days before YouTube I had never heard it. The orchestra started playing and I was counting my rests, getting ready to come in, but-what the heck were they playing? It was nothing like what was in my part. They were in a completely different key, a different tempo and a different meter. Was this piece really that far-out? Did I miss something?  Maybe I was not as good a musician as I thought. And why was the conductor flashing the peace sign at me so insistently?

Oh! Not peace-TWO! Second! Second movement! It seems that everyone but me knew that they were skipping the first movement and starting with the second. Surprise!

Luckily I was just playing the piano as part of the orchestra and the spotlight was on the soloist. But I can break out in a sweat any time I want just by remembering those first few moments of confusion. How Ms. Pires pulled off this calm switcheroo is beyond me.

To return your pulse to its normal serenity, here is Ms. Pires playing the lovely second movement to the fifth Bach keyboard concerto, BWV 1056.

Eminent Scientist Explains How Musicians’ Brains Are Different

April 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

ring tone waltz

March 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Marc-Andre Hamelin, who can’t keep his talented hands off a good tune, turned the Nokia ring tone into a charming waltz.

You can get the sheet music here and play it yourself.

Another Video In Our Continuing Series On “How To Play The Piano” : Just Play It!

March 11, 2012 Comments Off on Another Video In Our Continuing Series On “How To Play The Piano” : Just Play It!

Here is little Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson (often mistakenly thought to be Little Richard) playing up a storm with his fists and elbows at the age of about 7. That kid could clearly have gotten music out of a sofa cushion. I’ll bet the piano teachers are horrified.

Little Frank was a child prodigy and played with Lionel Hampton, appeared in movies, toured with Count Basie and played for President Harry Truman. Then, rather become an adolescent has-been, which happens to most prodigies,  he dropped out of the music business to get an education. He got a degree in history and one in psychology.

Thanks to my brother Joe for this video. Growing up with me, he knows good piano playing when he sees and hears it.

A Piano Teacher’s Guide To Fooling Around At The Piano

February 26, 2012 § 12 Comments


If you are a parent who thinks music should always be soothing and children should only play their assignments, this guide is not for you. But if you want to help your child feel so at home on the piano that he will think and feel and move and dream like the piano is part of him, read on.

What does a small child do with a pencil? Does she sit down and make a perfectly nuanced drawing of a bowl of fruit? Of course not! She spends weeks, months and years making dots and lines and scribbles and ugly stuff and beautiful stuff and confusing stuff and junk and trash and funny people and trees not found in nature. She goes through reams of paper. She uses markers, crayons, pencils, paint, mud, gravy and fruit juice. And we parents treasure each mark and can’t bear to throw it out.

I have boxes of this stuff that my kids made. There is a whole corner of the basement given over to the archives of my kids’ work with pencil and paper. My brothers and I have been going through my late parents’ stuff and they saved boxes of our works on paper, from the Eisenhower era. There is even a box from my mother’s childhood, in the 1920’s. That was during the Warren G. Harding administration. Remember him? Well, I can report that little Winifred Wilson did pretty much the same thing with a pencil and a crayon back then as every other kid has done during every presidential term of office since.

This kind of fooling around with pencil and paper is normal in  human development. We all go through the same stages and do pretty much the same kind of things. If you look into the research on literacy, you find that lots of preliminary fooling around is considered essential for kids to learn to read and write. Most parents would be horrified if you suggested their kids should only use a pencil and paper when they wanted to write sentences or sketch landscapes. Even when school starts, everyone expects that kids will still be making tons of wild and creative and useless marks on paper.

Why, then, do we all insist that kids “only make nice sounds” at the piano? Or, “stop fooling around and do your lesson”? Or, “If you can’t play it right, don’t play it at all”?

The piano, my beloved piano, is in many ways the least musical of instruments. What I mean is that its action is at a remove from our bodies. A cello you embrace with both arms. A drum booms or snaps according to how you strike it with your hands. A flute plays on your breath, and the voice is nothing more than the self made into music. For better or for worse, the other instruments reveal immediately the person and the body playing them.

But our piano has a layer of machinery between us and the sounding strings. The connection between player and instrument is subtle. It is easily ignored. The connection is often never made at all. It is possible to play Beethoven or Gershwin on the piano and follow all the directions correctly and  sound just like a machine and nothing like a live human. And nothing like a particular live human, right here, right now.

One of the things this piano teacher does every afternoon is try to get young pianists hooked up to their instrument so that their playing sounds like They Are Playing. Not someone else. And I try to get it to be play, real play, with the joy and concentration and seriousness that play really is.

Sometimes I have to give them permission to fool around. Often, some parent with a headache has cautioned them against making loud or ugly sounds. They are afraid that the instrument might be harmed by banging, or that meaningless repetition is a waste of time.

Then I have to speak to the parents and explain how important it is to know your instrument, know what it can do for you and what you can do with it. Usually I say, “Half of the time fooling around, half of the time doing your lesson”. But I hate saying that, because it is a lie. The fooling around is also the lesson and it is the part that makes the other part, the part that is hard work for both the student and the piano teacher, easier and worth doing. When I meet a new student who has spent hours or months or years messing around with the piano, I know I am going to have an easy time. He has already done the work of discovering what he and the piano can do together and is ready to build from there.

I want to propose The Piano Students’ Manifesto:

  • We demand the right to be treated at least as indulgently as young writers and artists.
  • We demand the right be loud and ugly, tedious, un-melodic, repetitious, and irritating.
  • We demand the right to play outside of the book.
  • We shall use the pedals, all three of them, all the time.
  • We will play every note on the keyboard going up and then every note going down, many times over and we will do it again tomorrow. Then we will play each note twice, going up and back down.
  • We will play glissandi, we will play forte and piano, we will play presto and adagio, and don’t bother us with the vocabulary.
  • We will discover something wonderful that just happened by accident and play it until it is absorbed into the paint on the walls.
  • We will play with one finger and one hand, or two hands and two elbows, while lying on the bench, while standing and while chewing, while singing, humming or making that weird clicking sound with our tongue.
  • We will play one note that makes a funny buzzing noise  4,000 times.
  • We will lie under the piano and operate the pedals with our hands.
  • We will look into the piano any way we can and see what is going on in there while we play that one note 4,000 times.
  • We will lean on the keyboard with both forearms, especially on the low notes.
  • We will do all of this and much more. Much, much more.

We only ask that the grownups get out of the way.

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