May 29th, 2011 :: Practicing Days
There is an addendum to last week’s post regarding rhythms that I failed to mention. It is so important, in fact, that it deserves a post of its own.
Rhythms are basically a multi-step process: get yourself to the first long note, lallygag (as my mother would say--now there's a word you don't hear often enough!) there letting go of all tension and anticipation, then---and here’s the important part---as you are preparing to flip through the next set of short notes to the next long note, you must---YOU MUST!!---mentally think through this process first so that you know very concretely where you are about to land. This sounds obvious, but in my experience, both in my own practicing and in monitoring that of my students, it isn’t obvious at all.
In fact, this is the more common scenario:
We are sitting comfortably on our long note, happy as a clam to be there, and then without any forethought whatsoever, (except for perhaps a vague, “the next long note is out there somewhere, I’ll know it when I see it”) we go flailing through in hopes that the next place we are supposed to land will mysteriously rise up to greet us. My friends, it usually doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t in any kind of way we want to rely upon.
So instead of landing intentionally on our next long note, we overshoot it, or fall painfully short, which is, if nothing else, certainly indicative of how compromised our knowledge is of the passage at hand. When I ask students to name the next long note before they fling themselves at it, they often stutter and stumble, which does give us a good idea about what is about to happen with their negotiation of the next set of notes. When they can confidently name the next long note, they can usually always get there safely.
Really it comes down to finding that delicate balance between staying firmly in the present and thinking ahead, which has plenty of implications outside of piano practice as well. But then most things---good and bad--that we do sitting on the piano bench teach us something about how to live once we walk away from the piano. It’s just the small matter of learning to pay attention to the lessons our practice teaches us, which, of course, is the real challenge. In the end, the rhythms and all the steps involved, well, that is the easy part.
May 22nd, 2011 :: Practicing Days
My students are convinced that the answer to every practice question I ask is “rhythms.” This is not actually the case, but the “rhythms” that they are referring to do solve a whole host of technical and musical problems. We owe a lot to their magic.
I first encountered rhythms in college when I was studying with the formidable Jane Allen, who was widely recognized for her ability to turn an otherwise sloppy technique into something to be reckoned with. Her favorite way to teach scales was using rhythmic patterns of various kinds. “The ‘Longs’ should be very long, and the ‘Shorts’ very short,” she would lecture, gazing at us with her stern, unforgiving gaze. She was, once again, right. However, after years of work with various teachers, I would add another corollary to the Jane Allen Law of Rhythms: The very long ‘Longs’ should be so long that you are able to completely let go of any physical tension AND any sense of inner anticipation to the next note. In other words, sitting there wallowing in the long note, you should simply be present to that place, not racing ahead mentally to the next tricky passage. After finding your complete unattachment to whether or not you will ever finish the passage, (or even leave the piano bench) there is a moment of preparation and then you flip through the next short note (or notes, depending) before settling on another long note. There you begin again, repeating the process of letting go. It’s all very organic and deceptively simple. But, like any form of meditation, it isn’t really easy at all.
My teacher and good friend William Westney makes this concept the basis of his “scale exercise,” which is simply Jane Allen’s rhythms with a new and more holistic twist. It is just like Bill to take the old and make it suddenly not only fresh, but Zen to boot.
My students have plenty of trouble controlling their impatience while sitting on a long note. I must confess, so do I. It feels so much more productive to race onto the next grand thing at top speed, polishing off our practice tasks in record time. When my students demonstrate rhythms for me in their lessons, I have to constantly nag at them, “Longer long notes.” “Longer long notes.” “LONGER LONG NOTES!” and still their idea of long is not the same as mine. I sympathize, but nevertheless together we struggle on, trying to reign in our fast-paced lives. Or at the very least, our fast-paced practicing.
So what, exactly are these mysterious “rhythms”? Rhythms are an imposed pattern of long and short notes that can be used in any technical passage or exercise to help erase tension, to assist in physically learning the patterns of notes, and to stabilize one’s security of a given passage. All that, and they have a built-in savings account, too. Every time I practice rhythms, I feel like I am making a deposit into a musical bank account; every performance is like a withdrawal. Enough rhythmic work and I stay safely in the black. Too many run-throughs without recovery time quickly puts me in the red. No wonder I swear by this practice technique so strongly.
Rhythms can be in patterns of two, three, four (or more), but don’t be in too big a hurry to jump into bigger rhythmic groupings. The smaller the grouping the more challenging it is on my patience and stamina, but the better the passage in question gets learned. Depending on the situation, these can be done with either hands alone or hands together (I suggest having great familiarity with the former before rushing into both hands). I have used these with scales and arpeggios in traditional Jane Allen fashion, with LH stride bass passages, and with complicated RH licks. The possible situations in which these might be applicable are endless.
Here’s our studio short hand for rhythms:
Long-Short or Short-Long (LS or SL)
Long-Short-Short or Short-Short-Long (LSS or SSL)
Long-Short-Short-Short or Short-Short-Long (LSSS or SSSL)
The trick is knowing which pattern to use. Groups of sixes are especially tricky--you have to decide if the notes are really in groups of three or two. I can always tell an intermediate student hasn’t yet grasped the concept of rhythms if they suggest a three pattern for what is obviously a two grouping. I know there is a school of thought out there that claims that grouping notes in unnatural rhythmic patterns is helpful to the learning process, but I disagree. I match rhythms with their most natural musical grouping according to situation at hand, and save the bigger challenge for finding my inner breath when practicing them.
Just because you might not be a pianist, doesn’t mean that rhythms won’t work for you. I have used them coaching all kinds of instrumentalists and singers to boot. There is nothing like them for cleaning up those long melismas in Handel’s Messiah.
The answer to every practicing question may not be “rhythms,” but as my kids know, its not a bad place to start.
May 15th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
As I write this, the wind outside is threatening to blow the house down. This is not the first time in the last month that this has occurred. It is raining sticks and limbs, broken off from our old elm trees in the back. I can’t see the mountains because the air is so hazy and filled with dust. Before I lived in New Mexico, I thought tumbleweeds existed only in Roadrunner cartoons. I’ve learned otherwise. Driving down the highway, tumbleweeds as big as my car roll across the road and into my windshield. A month ago, I played a recital in Taos during what might have been the worst windstorm ever. I thought perhaps the church where we were performing might very well come crashing down. I understand that these winds are small potatoes in comparison to the weather damage that has occurred in other parts of the country. I know that spring in New Mexico is a windy time of year. I know all of this. And yet, as I sit huddled inside at my computer, I am beginning to think that this might be the year where the winds will never die down.
In other ways, the spring is wrapping up altogether too quickly. I recently heard a theory that I have since adopted as gospel. Apparently, in our collective sub-conscious is this notion that there will always be at least a month between Easter and the end of the semester. Such was not the case this year. There were, instead, a mere two weeks after the Easter bunny hopped away and the last push to finals began. Two. Weeks. When I realized this, I nearly choked. I am not a procrastinator, but there was no way around the ugly truth: I was going to have to start moving at top speed if there was any hope of finishing not only my schoolwork -- papers, projects, etc. -- but also if I was going to be ready for all the myriad of end-of-year activities in the studio: festivals, spring recital, concerts, etc.
I am not the only one who was under some mistaken notion about the calendar this spring. In one class, the professor handed out the final project (basically an 8-12 page paper disguised as something else) telling us not to panic because we still had 3 weeks. When someone pointed out that we only had 2 weeks until the end of the semester, he grew noticeably white. I suspect it was not out of compassion for our time that this visible panic happened, but rather that it was entirely selfish on his part. At that moment, he probably realized how much he might still have to do before the semester could be put to bed.
Then in the midst of the end of year craziness, on the day before Easter, my grandmother died. She was the perfect, quintessential grandmother, down to her white hair and the crocheting that never left her side. She was 94, and in the last few years had suffered multiple strokes, leaving her nearly bed-ridden and knowing no one. None of us who loved her wanted to see her linger like that (Indeed she would have been quite put out to imagine that she had!), and so in spite of our great sadness, it was a blessing to see her go.
But this meant that in the middle of the race to the end of the semester, Matt and I flew home to KC. He was planning a trip anyway to be a part of his older sister’s 50th birthday celebration. Grandma would have been pleased to imagine even in death she managed not to inconvenience too many people. Originally, I had begged out of this birthday trip, because it fell on the same weekend of performance classes, a local music music festival and a children’s choir concert that three of my students were accompanying. However, life--or in this case death-- has a way of changing our plans. Instead, I found helpful parents and colleagues to cover my work, sent the students off to do their jobs with my fingers crossed, and got on a plane, with my pile of papers to edit and my laptop. It turned into a weekend of respective life celebrations: a milestone birthday and a gathering to remember and honor a grandmother we loved.
While this trip home gave us a brief respite from our frantic pace, it also unfortunately ate four days out of my precious few. Coming back, I had to work at double speed to make up for lost time. My students, freed of my hovering, performed beautifully, reminding me once again, that if I have truly done my job, then as they grow up and away from me, they should need me less and less.
As it turns out, my spring studio recital last Saturday night may have been the best one of my teaching career. I am graduating a senior this month, the last of a group of students that have been one by one graduating over the last few years. It’s the end of an era, for that group of kids all came to me as transfer students from other teachers. The slightly younger mid-high/underclassman group that is stepping in to take their places are all mine---good or bad. I have had some of them for as long as I have been living in New Mexico. They are, in many respects, a stronger group of pianists, even as they are going through a particularly squirrelly age. Saturday night I watched my senior play his last studio recital (his solo senior recital is still ahead of us in a few weeks) thinking fondly of all the kids that walk out of our lives in search of their own. But this next group is feisty enough to keep me on my toes, I have no doubt. Studios change; chapters in our lives open and close. There’s been a lot of both lately.
The semester is now officially behind us. I am not taking summer school this year, relishing the months ahead devoid of reading textbooks and writing research papers. It’s easy to be overly optimistic about how much time---how many days, and literally hours---will be all mine in the next few months of summer. Life does have a way of filling a void. But for now, I’m pretending that the summer is an open canvas waiting to be filled. I want to swim more laps and do more yoga. Crack open that pile of books that have been waiting patiently for me. Dive into some music of my choosing. Learn how to throw pots. Hike every weekend. And maybe, if this wind ever stops, there will be long lazy evenings in the garden nursing a glass of wine while the stars come out. I can’t wait.
May 8th, 2011 :: Recipes for Technique
My students are busy getting ready for festivals. One of the most rigorous events around here requires technique work as well as three contrasting pieces. Exactly what that technique work might consist of is up to the teacher, but students must be prepared to play some sort of technical exercise in the key of each of their three pieces.
I think this is great, because it allows me to use a third party to enforce careful technique practice. (“I know this is hard, but the judge is going to ask for it and it is part of your score, so you need to be ready....”) Anything sentence that begins with “The judge” gets their attention, and I milk it for all its worth.
For my students, their prepared technique consists of 5 Finger Positions or Scales, chord progressions with set-ups, and Arpeggios---either traditional arpeggios or what I call “Cartwheels” or “Cross-over Arpeggios.”
Piano “Cartwheels” work like this:
Playing either broken chords or blocked chords, students play Do-Mi-Sol patterns alternating the LH and then the RH, topping off the whole sequence with a cross-over LH “Do” and then coming back down to the original position. I teach these in simple two-octave patterns with the added cherry of the top Do---LH, RH, top Do---or in four octave patterns--LH, RH, LH, RH and then top Do and reverse. We do blocked chords and broken, major and minor. For the most part, students like these exercises---they love any drill that allows them dramatically lurch up and down the keyboard.
Cross-over Arpeggios or Cartwheels have been around forever in my studio. But one day, Sam came in with a composition entitled “Monkeys” that used a variation on these exercises. Always looking for new patterns to use for technique work, I asked him I could steal his idea. He, of course, was thrilled (They always are, loving the concept that their inventions might be worthy to be used with other students.). We have named these patterns “Sam’s Monkeys.”
77. LH: broken Do Mi Sol then RH: blocked Do Mi Sol
78. RH broken: Sol Mi Do then LH blocked: Do Mi Sol
These, of course, can be done in either major or minor keys, and are a great preparation step for the trickier traditional Cartwheels or Cross-over Arpeggios.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com