Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Studying piano with other instruments (Part 1)

Over the years I’ve been asked more than a few times if a young student should learn the piano as well as other musical instruments, or just piano, or just other instruments. I believe strongly that a completely inexperienced novice should start out with just one instrument at first (especially if they are younger than about 8 or 9). So I usually answer that the potential little musician should pursue whichever instrument fascinates them the most. Hopefully that initial fascination will (over time) slowly morph into a desire to begin a real “relationship” with the instrument, one which allows them to experience true and meaningful gratification from general musical improvement on that particular instrument.

The new music student should spend some time on one instrument to establish a good foothold on the basics of music (rhythm, pulse, note-reading, dynamics, basic technique, phrasing, etc.) Usually this takes at least a year, but the appropriate amount of time varies among students due to differing abilities and maturity levels. After they feel comfortably acclimated to music study, the student can think about learning another instrument. Students should pursue more than one instrument if they so desire, provided they can meet some minimal conditions:

1) the student can properly prepare lesson or rehearsal responsibilities set by the private teacher/band/orchestra, and
2) the lessons (and instruments) can be afforded comfortably by the student’s family.

There’s nothing worse than pushing a kid too hard so that the money investment in multiple instrumental study seems “worth it”. No offense intended here but I have to say that parents can be really bad judges of this sometimes: If you need little Johnny to sound like Joshua Redman after six months of saxophone lessons because you’re going broke from the combined fees from sax, drum, and piano lessons, chill out and drop an instrument or two. Not everybody can be Mike Oldfield. (Besides, it’s better to accomplish good training on one or two instruments rather than be a total hack on five!)

Sometimes parents ask me which instrument (or kind of instrument) would be good to study alongside piano. I can’t speak for every instrument because I don’t play them all, but I do think that an especially effective possibility is to choose an instrument that contrasts with how the piano makes sound. In other words, the instrument should be non-percussive and be able to produce sustained tones that can vary dynamically over time (this would include all the wind instruments, string instruments, and brass instruments). Learning how to use a wide variety of fluid motions to make sound (the breath in wind and brass instruments, the bow gestures in string instruments, the use of arm weight in piano) can help a student’s music making immensely. (Yes, this sounds a lot like the Feldenkrais Method, which teaches how better awareness of physical movements can improve our activities and experiences.) For example, playing a nicely rounded phrase on a wind instrument can help a musician play more musically at the piano, because awareness of the “natural” musical flow from the breath can affect how one hears and plays the phrase on the piano. The weaknesses I hear in most piano students when attempting to phrase smoothly are “bumpiness” and uncoordinated physical gesture. Generating better musicality at the piano can be helped by finding out about other ways of making sound and then “projecting” those ideas to the movements used at the piano. (I really like to use analogies of various instrumental sounds or gestures in my piano teaching because it can be rather effective with imaginative students.)

So, some examples of good instruments to pair with the piano would be, in no particular order: flute, trumpet, clarinet, viola…you get the idea. (By the way, I played trumpet and piano when I was a pre-teen. I tried guitar but utterly failed!)

Now this doesn’t mean that it would be worse to have a piano student learn the drums or guitar, or another percussive or plucked type of instrument. By all means, if that is what the student really wants to try then go for it. But I do think that learning a wide variety of ways to make sound can be a truly stimulating discovery in musical study.

I realize that other teachers and musicians (and also parents whose kids study multiple instruments) may have a different outlook on this topic than myself, so these people should feel free to express alternative views through the comment option if they think that could be helpful.

This is the first installment on the topic of varied instrumental study (hence the “Part 1” in the title). My next post on this topic will focus on the benefits of piano study versus other instruments.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

CCM Dean makes quick getaway

It was announced earlier this week that CCM’s dean Doug Lowry has resigned from CCM and will move on to take the helm of dean at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Didn’t he just get here? (He started at CCM in 2000.)

Since I have attended both schools (I earned my BM at Eastman in 1995 and my DMA at CCM in 2004) this is a move that is of some interest to me. I don’t know where Eastman now stands in regards to its financial situation, but it seems to be in better shape than CCM. I know from various sources (as well as through my adjunct experiences there) that UC has implemented budget trimmings in the millions of dollars and how this crisis has affected many of the departments at CCM.

Speculation: Could a reason for leaving be that the dean’s hands are tied with all the cutbacks, and he just simply can’t get done what needs to be done? (From my point of view the dean has generally maintained the status quo and seems most interested in furthering a compositional career.) CCM seems to have been “drifting” recently, lacking any real significant forward momentum into the new century with innovative and refreshing approaches to the training and experiences it provides to students.

On the other hand, Eastman enjoys its wonderful new Institute for Music Leadership (funded by the Mellon Foundation) which promotes “creating, sharing, and implementing cutting-edge ideas and programs that will ensure the vitality and relevance of music in the 21st century.” (source) This is a just a part of the series of new “Eastman Initiatives” which are ensuring Eastman’s role as an international leader in music for years to come. I guess if it were me, I’d rather run the more forward-looking, well-supported institution than the stuck-in-neutral, underfunded one.

If CCM is to ever hold on to its status as a world-class center of relevant musical education and professional training, it needs dedicated leadership and proper funding (especially when it comes to recruiting the best musicians/students). Yes, the problems stem from many different types of circumstances, some of which are out of CCM’s control. But it needs a dean who wants to be here for more than seven years and who has a clear perception for where the school needs to be five, ten, and twenty years from now. Cincinnati’s (and CCM’s) rich musical and historical heritage deserves better than the stagnation of this school. Let’s hope the dean search committee rises to the challenge.

See also Janelle Gelfand's take on Doug Lowry's departure. Classical Music: Reaction to the Dean's announcement

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Jazz Resources by Tony Caramia

Piano pedagogue and performer Tony Caramia has a nice substantial article about jazz resources on the website Keyboard Companion Online. Any pianist (student or teacher) who has an interest in jazz, blues, and other pop styles could benefit from taking a look at it. Mr. Caramia widely covers resources and repertoire on the web, how to choose jazz repertoire for students, interpretation issues, style concepts (like swing), and method books.

Some of my students absolutely LOVE playing this music. If you are reading this and you love playing jazzy things, have a look at Mr. Caramia’s article (maybe with Mom or Dad) and let me know if you’d like to dig into jazz and blues more deeply.

By the way, I took my first piano pedagogy course with Mr. Caramia while I was getting my bachelor’s degree at the Eastman School of Music way back in the 1990’s. He’s a terrific teacher and I am glad I got some pedagogical training with him (though I did not realize this until later, when I actually started teaching!)

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Medieval Times in Dayton

The Dayton Philharmonic will be performing Carl Orff’s massive Carmina Burana next weekend on May 18 and 19. This 20-plus collection of songs celebrating bawdy and hedonistic texts from the Middle Ages is scored for full orchestra (plus TWO pianos, of which I’ll be playing one) and multitudes of singers. Our performance will employ no fewer than three choruses (one men’s chorale, one full chorus, and a children’s choir) and three vocal soloists. It’s going to be a great deal of fun for everyone involved.

Here’s a performance of “O Fortuna” (one of the most famous numbers from this work) by the Bordeaux National Opera in France. Many will instantly recognize it because it is severely overused as “background” music in movie trailers and commercials!

Tickets available here. (I might be able to swing a few half-price tickets for some lucky inquirers. Let me know if I can be of service…)

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Ear Trainer for Intervals, Chords, Melodies

A reader left a comment on my recent "online ear-trainer" post, suggesting another site with free ear-training software. (Now this is what blogging is all about! It’s great to get suggestions from readers about what else is out there…because I certainly don’t know about it all.)

This ear-trainer program features a special random melody generator for those of you who want to try call-and-response. Try sitting at your instrument (if you can near the computer) and see if you can play back the melody. The site also features exercises involving intervals, chords, rhythm changes, etc. Check it out!

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Ear-Trainer for Intervals

I found this free applet (called "Big Ears") for online ear-training over at the well tempered blog.

The neat thing about this is you can select (or de-select) which intervals you want to hear. This makes it versatile for all levels of musicianship.

Students: I’ll attempt to suggest how to tailor the settings by your lesson book level:

If your lesson book is Level 1 or lower, try selecting these intervals only: P1 (unison), M2 (2nd), M3 (3rd).

Level 2: Add P4, P5 (fourth and fifth), P8 (octave). "P" stands for perfect interval.

Level 3: Add M6 (sixth) and M7 (seventh).

Level 4 and above: You already have all of the major intervals. Now add the minor intervals (m[#]) one by one until you feel comfortable with the new addition. After that try all of the intervals that are bigger than the octave (m9, M9, m10, M10, P11).

Have fun. Also, if you've ever wished you could play two notes on a keyboard and have a program tell you what the interval is, you can find that here (it's on the same site as "Big Ears").

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dayton Phil hires new Principal Keyboardist...

...and it's me!

I performed a successful audition yesterday afternoon for the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra at Dayton’s Schuster Center, made it through two rounds, and was awarded the job after consideration by the audition committee (which was chaired by music director Neal Gittleman). I played Chopin’s Impromptu Op. 29 and several excerpts of standard orchestral literature by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Respighi, and Tchaikovsky. It was a mean and technically demanding list, and I was sweating bullets in the final round!

This is a really great career move for me, and I am very excited about achieving a performance post with such a wonderful group in a nearby area. My position will begin in the fall (I am waiting on a contract for the time being). As some of my readers know, I’ve actually been playing as a substitute with the orchestra for about five years now. The real job came open just this past spring after former keyboardist Michael Chertock resigned the position. (I'm grateful to Michael for giving my colleagues and myself the opportunity!)

So it turns out I have two performance positions with two different orchestras: one now with Dayton, and the other with the IRIS orchestra in Germantown, Tennessee (where I’ve been principal keyboard for the last six years). This is a rare and fortunate circumstance for a pianist, so I will probably enhance the blog in the near future with posts about orchestral and large-ensemble keyboard practice.

TO MY STUDENTS: Rest assured! This is a part-time position (mostly in the evenings), so I will continue to teach at Slater Academy as much as possible. Since the drive up to Dayton does take commuting time, I may have to give up teaching regularly during the evening. But I will strive to accommodate everybody to the best of my scheduling ability. Since we have until the fall anyway, everything remains the same for now. Please be in touch if you have questions about how this might affect your lessons.

Last but not least, I’d like to say “thanks” to my students and their families for their patience and flexibility over the last five years. Many times I needed to reschedule lessons at the last minute so that I could rehearse and perform with the DPO as a sub. (Thanks also to Becky Slater, who allowed me to get away with this kind of behavior!) That experience helped give me the edge I needed to win a job like this, so I appreciate everybody’s willingness and good humor during those hectic times.

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