The Performer

Years ago, the grandfather of a student of mine gave me a piece of paper that had all these sketches of a performer interpreting different styles of music.  After doing a little research (thanks Google!), I found out the sketches were a Munich paper sheet published by Braun and Schneider in 1868.

I’m not sure why the performer has a tail, but the sketches are amusing anyway!  Enjoy!


Remembrance of Complacency

As pianists, we are constantly striving to reach toward goals.  We have goals of how fast to play scales or a certain passage, goals of how many minutes we should be practicing each day, goals of how many performances to have in a single month or year.  When we reach those goals, we are rightfully proud of our accomplishments, we breathe a sigh of relief, and we bask in the warmth of the fuzzy feelings that come our way.

But why can’t we strive for more?  When we say “I’ll do my best”, is that really just a way of saying “I’ll reach a certain goal, and not reach for more”?

What is the “more”?  Maybe the “more” is pushing past the norm.  Maybe the “more” is pushing ourselves to do more than what we perceive to be our best.  Pushing out of our personal comfort zones and joyfully cheering on each success or failure as a means of growth.

When I was in college preparing for my senior recital as a part of my Piano Performance degree, I had reached a plateau with Bach’s Italian Concerto.  I had the piece down cold.  Notes memorized, rhythms solid, dynamics automatic.  I thought I had reached my goal.  But I definitely had not exceeded that goal.  I had deluded myself into thinking that the piece was good enough.  It was definitely better than anyone around me could play it.  So part of my complacency stemmed from the fact that I was comparing myself to others around me.  I didn’t need to push myself any more.

My teacher suggested I take a lesson with another teacher who taught at a nearby state university.  This was pushing past the norm.  It was going out of my comfort zone by leaving the familiarity of my own teacher.  I knew what my own teacher would work on, what points he would make.  But I had no idea what this other teacher would do.  Would I fall flat on my face?   The unease of a “first lesson” fell upon me.

During that lesson, the Italian Concerto went as planned.  Everything was correct, nicely in place.  But it was boring.  How would the new teacher work on this piece?  There was seemingly nothing to “correct”, but how could I burst off of that plateau and reach for something better?

Tempo.  Tempo was the boundary that we pushed past that day.  This teacher pushed me to play faster than I had ever played that piece.  I was holding on for dear life as the teacher pushed me through that piece.  It was exhilarating!

Style.  We worked on making the piece have more of a “bounce” to it.  It was instantly more joyful and alive with feeling.

Though that lesson took place 15 years ago, I remember the underlying philosophies behind it.  We have to push the boundaries of what we expect of ourselves.  We need to constantly reach for more.

Sometimes we fail, but even that is success.   On the next attempt, we stand on the shoulders of that failure and rise to new heights of understanding.

Chai, Rachmaninoff, and Webkinz

Teacup : Teapot and teacup in silhouette Stock Photo

I’ve been enjoying my afternoons at the piano this past week.  My usual pattern is to prepare a chai tea latte – yummy! – and take it to the piano.  Then I get my four-year-old daughter all set up at the computer to play Webkinz.  She’s been especially involved in Webkinz lately, ever since she discovered she could buy a toilet for her Webkinz “room”.  We’re real classy around here.

Then, back to the piano.  A sip of chai…a few scales to warm up…a quick shout-out to my daughter in the next room…and then the Rachmaninoff comes out.  I was inspired by this concert to learn the Prelude, opus 32, no.12 in g-sharp minor.  It is so lovely and fun to play.

Back to reality.  You know how you can get so involved in the music that it feels as if time is standing still?  When you get called back to reality, it’s almost as if you are waking up from a lovely dream.  You move through many dream-levels to come back to the present.  That’s how it feels when you get jerked back to the here-and-now before you’re ready to come back.  But, alas, the Webkinz pet needs to be fed, and my daughter would like some help with that, please Mom.

More chai.  Next, a touch of Debussy.  The Ballade has been tugging at my imagination lately.  The harmonies are so beautiful.  The final chords are so satisfying.  It just sings!  It is delicious.

My chai is running low.  My daughter is getting bored.  It is now time to get back to what is necessary – mommyhood, running errands, picking up the other kiddos from school…the list goes on.  But if I can just squeeze in one more run-through of the Rachmaninoff…

“Try feeding your pet some more blueberries!” I say.  “Play another game!”  “Earn some more money!”

I am such a stellar parent.  I have just bought myself a few more precious moments at the piano.


To Make Up or Not to Make Up?

As a piano teacher, one thing I have learned is the absolute necessity of having a clearly written studio policy.  I hand the studio policy out to each family at the beginning of the fall semester of lessons (or to new families, at the beginning of study), regardless of whether they have been in my studio for only a short length of time or they are seasoned veterans.  I strongly feel that good communication solves many issues before they even become issues.


One topic necessary to include in any good studio policy is that of makeup lessons.  My current policy reads:

“At the end of each semester, there will be a week for make-up lessons.  You are entitled to receive one make-up lesson for any and all lessons you may have missed during the semester.  If you did not miss any lessons, you will not have a lesson that week.”

I personally enjoy having a week at the end of the semester designated for makeup lessons.  It feels like the cool-down at the end of a long workout.  It provides a little extra breathing room, and gives us some margin to work within the limits of a sixteen week-long semester.


Recently, I have come across some very interesting articles making the case for offering no makeup lessons, unless the teacher must cancel a lesson.  While I do not intend to change my current policy on makeup lessons, I appreciate the philosophy behind the “no makeup lessons” stance.  I appreciate the fact that teachers should be regarded as professionals who “sell” their time and expertise, and it is the responsibility of the student to use the time that they have purchased wisely.


You may find the main article I’m referring to here.  Another article on the same topic is referenced within the first article.


Sunday Music in the Library

Yay!  Another Sunday, another concert at the Canyon Theater in the Boulder Public Library.  What a beautiful recital hall!  I’ve been to three concerts there since we moved to town four months ago, and each time it has been packed out.  It’s so nice to see the community supporting local arts.

Pianist Nina Tichman presented a concert of music by Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and contemporary composer Stefan Heucke.  This was the program (my observations are written in italics):

Franz Schubert

Sonata, Opus 122, D. 568 E-flat major

Allegro moderato

Andante molto


Allegro moderato

Frederic Chopin

Polonaise-Fantasie, Opus 61, A-flat major

Claude Debussy

Etudes These pieces are extremely difficult to play.  Ms. Tichman played them with superior technical control and touching musicality.

pour les tierces (thirds)

pour les degres chromatiques (chromatic degrees)

pour les agrements (ornaments)

pour les octaves (octaves)

Stefan Heucke

Skizzen, Ruinen, Adlerfittige aus Preludes These preludes were written as a birthday present to a friend.  This was the American premiere of these four preludes.  The set includes twelve preludes.

Allegro maestoso

In moto scorrendo Very unusual and striking harmonies.  I loved it. (Scorrendo means “flowing”).

Molto moderato, in tempo di Polacca

Sehr langsam und schwer (Meaning “Very slow and burdensome”).

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Polichinelle, opus 3, no. 4 This piece and the next were my favorite pieces of the concert.  Ms. Tichman obviously enjoyed playing them as well.

Prelude, opus 32, no.12, g-sharp minor

Etude-tableaux, opus 39, no.9, D major

It was a lovely concert.  I was glad I brought my laptop to research some of the pieces during intermission.  It would have been nice to have some translations in the program, as well as a few program notes.  Ms. Tichman did introduce the Heucke preludes with a little background information.  The more we know about these pieces, the better we understand and appreciate.

The Beautiful Piano

A few years ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to attend a Christmas concert presented in a little theater about an hour from our house.  The whole evening was idyllic.  We are usually the type of people who show up for events just in the nick of time, or after the first song has already started.

This evening was different.  We were in a different dimension, it felt like.  We had plenty of time to travel to the venue, and we enjoyed the beautiful country drive with the snow gently falling all around.  We found a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant and ate a leisurely dinner before making our way to the theater.

This was our first time to this particular theater.  It was a beautiful little theater, complete with coffee bar, myriads of white lights hung throughout rafters, and funky decorations. My husband and I sipped on our cups of tea while we waited for the show to start.

Then the magic began.  Sam Stryke took the stage with his band of musicians: a percussionist and a bass guitarist.  With the backdrop of winter designs on the powerpoint screen, Sam and his group wove tunes of beauty and brilliance.  We heard both the usual Christmas/holiday tunes, newly-composed holiday tunes, and old classics set with new words  (The Holly and the Ivy).

It was one of my favorite Christmas concerts I have ever attended.  It was very real, organic – a comfortable evening of sitting back and being surrounded by beautiful music.  It was not high-intensity, not high-brow,  just real musicians who know their craft and can communicate their message clearly to their lucky audience.

I have come back to Sam Stryke’s music every Christmas to relive that magical evening in my mind.  And, today, on this beautiful, near-spring morning, I am reminded again of the beauty of a simple piano piece, played expressively and creatively.