Saturday, February 16, 2008

How to Get Out of a Practice Slump

Parents and students often ask me how to motivate their child or themselves to practice --- especially when the they feel stuck in a musical rut. If only I had the magic formula! Alas, I do not, however, here are a few suggestions that have worked for me or for my students.

1. Be patient! Being in a practice slump often means that the student is about to break through to a new technical level.

2. Think quality not quantity. Practice as little as 10 minutes a day. Set specific goals for each 10 minutes. Work on only one measure, phrase, or piece per day. Learn a scale a day. Or don't practice any new repertoire -- just play your favorite pieces for 10 minutes a day.

3. Repertoire. Sometimes the pieces students are working on are just not inspiring, even though they may be important to study to continue to develop piano skills. Find a piece on the piano that you just can't wait to play (old or new repertoire). This is a strategy that works for me. I always have a least one piece that I have to play every day, because I love it so. Once students are at the piano playing something they love, it is easier to work on the repertoire that is hard or giving them trouble.

4. Think Teamwork. For parents: offer to be your child's piano coach. Then offer your child the opportunity to coach you through something you are having difficulty with --- getting enough exercise, stopping smoking, cutting calories etc. It's always easier to get through a down period when you are part of a team.

What the parent can do as part of the team: Sit with your child while they practice. Playing an instrument by yourself is lonely - especially when the rest of the family is watching TV or playing games. Don't offer suggestions or corrections. Just be there and offer gentle encouragement if it is needed.

5. Rewards. When students are in a slump, punishment is not going to help. Offer rewards for practice. Pay yourself to practice. It is work, after all. Go to a concert --- find performances that will inspire in any genre. Arrange a lesson with a different coach or master teacher as a special motivation. Your regular teacher may be the best in the world, but outside perspective often provides a needed spark.

6. Make a "PLAY" date! Arrange to have a friend or family member who also plays the piano or another musical instrument to get together with the student -- perform for others informally including your family -- adult students have arranged piano potlucks with other pianists to practice performing a complete work, or simply to share the repertoire they are learning.

Most important of all - don't give up! As with any difficult time in life...a musical slump too shall pass.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lessons with Tamara Loring

I had my first lesson with harpsichordist, Tamara Loring on Thursday, February 7. We will be studying the French Suite of Bach in E Major together. I will have to learn to think in Baroque --- which on the piano is not easy. From an earlier posting you may remember that I have had some trouble with the Polonaise from the E Major French Suite. Not the notes, but the affect I hope to effect with my playing. Tamara told me to go Bach's Notebook for Anna Magdalena and play through all of the Polonaises. Perhaps then I'd be more familiar with the form and that would help me realize the E Major Polonaise more fully. Right now, I'm just not hearing it as a dance piece with military roots and overtones.

No. 8A (all of the numbering is from the Henle edition of the Notebook) I found the first two F Major Polonaises rather ornate - so many trills, mordents and the like. How military is that? The second Polonaise, No. 8B, was more fun to play - especially the sequence for the right hand in the B section.

No. 10 in g minor is lovely. I remember studying this one when I was a child. I began to feel the rhythmic drive of the traditional Polonaise in this one. The eighth note followed by two sixteenths is not obscured with ornamentation. I could make this a pompous military tribute easily.

No. 17 - another one in g minor. Does the key of g minor suggest a Polonaise? The traditional rhythm is prevalent in this one, making it easy for me to feel the dance rhythm. This one is in ABA form - a new twist. Usually the Polonaise is in binary (AB) form.

No. 19 again in g minor is beautiful and soulful. It's mood, perhaps, reflects an unsuccessful outing for the troops. I have played this Polonaise before. I even arranged it for the organ and played it as an offertory when I was a church organist. This Polonaise has the same rhythmic figure as the E Major - two sixteenths followed by a eighth.

No. 24 in d minor has a lot of ornamentation, but it didn't bother me. Since this is the sixth Polonaise that I've played today, I think I might be beginning to understand the Polonaise form. Now the embellished beats seem to add color and nuance and not obscure the rhythm as I thought before.

No. 28 - in G Major sounds very regal. I could image this played in the court of a Polish King to celebrate a triumph. The eighth note followed by two sixteenths is back. That traditional Polonaise rhythm suggests to me a grand procession.

Back again to the E Major Polonaise in the French Suite. The other rhythm of the two sixteenths followed by the eighth does make me wonder if it means it is different from the more traditional rhythm of an eighth followed by two sixteenths. Or since that difference is so slight, it might not mean a thing. I would think that the dance steps would be different depending on where in the beat the eighth note falls. I'll be musing on that for awhile.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

From last Friday's New York Times (full article linked.) It's St. Valentine's Day...happy hearts and flowers to all. If you would like some "ear candy" as the New York Times suggested last Friday --- visit my web site: and you'll be able to sample a Mompou bonbon. Delightful and 100% calorie free!

The Times article does not mention how difficult it is to make music sound effortless --- from both the creative and performance angles. Just like in cooking, you need the best raw ingredients (for musicians (and cooks) --- great technic) to make a simple dish standout and it often is better than a dish made with butter, cream, fois gras, truffles, champagne, etc. I propose, then, that a serving of Mompou for example is not always a sweet treat for the ear, but perhaps more of a palate cleanser. A needed dish of sorbet, so that the ear is refreshed and ready for another serving of great music.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Here are some of my Valentine creations....must rush to the post!

inside message: ...when you are near me

other message on this theme: Love my heart for you

Inside message: your love goes straight to my heart

Doily Cards

Fancy Hanging Doily Card

...many more variations on the doily theme...

All made by Bee for FoundArtCards 2008.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Art Speaks

You may know of the pianist Leon Fleisher. I admire him greatly as a musician and human being. He has faced adversity with great courage and has overcome challenges that would have destroyed a lesser man. He was recently honored by the Kennedy Center for his contributions to the arts. Even though he was deeply touched by the recognition --- he was not able to completely honor his own morals and ethics by accepting this award. I received this email this morning with his letter to the Washington Post regarding his feelings about the honor. I post it here.

Sent: Saturday, February 09, 2008 1:48 PM
Subject: Leon Fleisher's utterance in the Washington Post

My White House Dilemma
By Leon Fleisher
Saturday, February 9, 2008

I am a musician, one of five artists -- the others being Brian Wilson, Steve Martin, Diana Ross and Martin Scorsese -- honored recently by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The event, a deeply moving and gratifying tribute to the performing arts and artists in America, was broadcast to our nation. But what you couldn't see in that broadcast was how conflicted I felt about being there. Let me be frank: I was flattered to be included in so distinguished a group and to be recognized for whatever contributions I may have made to American life. I was pleased to be part of an event that raises money for an institution as vital as the Kennedy Center and to be with my family and to see their joy at the ceremony. What made me unhappy and continues to trouble me was that I was required to attend a White House reception on the afternoon of the gala. I cannot speak for the other honorees, but while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush's policies. In the past seven years, Bush administration policies have amounted to a systematic shredding of our nation's Constitution -- the illegal war itinitiated and perpetuates; the torturing of prisoners; the espousing of "values" that include a careful defense of the "rights" of embryos but show aprofligate disregard for the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings; and the flagrant dismantling of environmental protections. These, among many other depressing policies, have left us weak and shamed at home and in the world.

For several weeks before the honors, I wrestled with this dilemma, deciding in the end that I would not attend the reception at the White House. That decision was met with deep, if understandable, disapproval by the powers that be. I was informed that I was hardly the first honoree to express such reserve; cited to me, among others, were Arthur Miller and Isaac Stern duringthe Reagan years and several during the present administration. I was asked to attend all of the scheduled events and to follow the well-established protocol of silence. While this might have made for a glamorous experience, it also presented a profound irony. Turning a blind eye to the political undercurrents of the event dismantles the very force of art in this country that the honors celebrate: the freedom, nay, the obligation to express oneself honestly and without fear. Ultimately, there is no greater honor than that freedom. In the end, I decided to attend wearing a peace symbol around my neck and a purple ribbon on my lapel, at once showing support for our young men and women in the armed services and calling for their earliest return home. My family did the same, as did a number of fellow attendees who, over the weekend's various events, asked me for ribbons of their own. I had no wish to pressure or embarrass the other honorees. I did not want to disappoint my family, and I certainly did not want to embarrass or injure the Kennedy Center, where I have performed for decades and which is named for an American whom I greatly admired. As President John F. Kennedy said, "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation is close to the center of a nation's purpose -- and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."

I can't say yet whether these small gestures were or will be sufficient to neutralize the sense of regret that came with having agreed to follow protocol. Time, one hopes, will tell. And there is, of course, much more to do. I am nearly 80 years old and have been making music for almost all of that time, sustained by the belief that, in the words that Beethoven inscribed in his copy of the "Missa Solemnis," the purpose of music is to communicate from the heart to the heart. Beethoven's vision of music as a force capable of reconciling us to each other and to the world may today seem remote, but that renders it an ever more crucial ideal for which to strive. Therefore I am making known the dilemma I faced during my most celebrated hours. Perhaps speaking about my internal struggle will loosen the ties that bind future honorees -- not to mention the generations of artists they mentor and for which they serve as models -- from the code of silence that has pervaded this pinnacle of artistic recognition. Some seven decades separate the time when older people would tell me that I played very well for my age from the occasions nowadays when younger people say the same thing. That time seems to have flown by, and I have come, perhaps inevitably, to understand the aphorism "Ars longa, vita brevis." Yes, art is long. And life is short. And I am waiting most impatiently for Jan. 20, 2009.

The writer, a pianist and conductor, was awarded one of the 2007 KennedyCenter Honors.
Due to presidential executive orders and the recent action by Congress, the National Security Agency, FBI or some other federal agency may have read this e-mail without warning, warrant or notice. You and I have neither recourse nor protection.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Pompous Polonaise

Ah, the Polonaise. From an earlier post I mentioned how much trouble I've been having while trying to play the Polonaise pompously --- or rather more in a manner befitting a dance piece with roots in military processions --- and as this clip will attest, I'm still struggling.

While recording, I thought about an encounter I had at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City while I was visiting this past December. I went to the Met to see the exhibition of the Baroque Tapestries Threads of Splendor and the Annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche to facilitate my study of Bach's music by immersion in some of the artworks from his time. I spent a delightful morning at the Met and even had time to take in the beautiful new Ancient Near Eastern Art galleries. Perhaps I dawdled too long admiring the classical proportion of the statues and drinking in the glorious light that illuminates these galleries, because when I went to retrieve my coat --- the line for the coat check was discouragingly long. However, as luck would have it, my wait seemed short as I had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with an intelligent man from Vancouver. We had visited the same galleries and a lively discussion regarding our views ensued. I mentioned that I went to the Baroque Tapestries exhibition because I was currently studying Bach. He said that the Tapestries seemed old fashioned to him, but Bach's music sounds fresh to his ears and sometimes very modern. He asked me why was that. I replied that as we learned from the Tapestries catalog, the tapestries were made for the glory of Kings and Dukes highlighting their prowess in battle, showcasing their magnificent wealth and sometimes were created and displayed to humble viewers of less exalted status. My line companion murmured - ah yes, shock and awe....I agreed, but then countered that Bach wrote his music for the glory of God, not the glory of man --- so which art stands a better chance of withstanding the test of time - works for God or works for man?

So back to my attempts to record Bach's Polonaise. In my mind I saw the Tapestries --- not their beauty, nor the almost unimaginable skill and artistry to took to create the images, but the pomposity of the subject manner. Horrid battle scenes, Kings slaying their enemies with no blood on their hands, the materialistic splendor of their estates --- and tried to express these ideas in my playing. Perhaps I went to far and this rendition of the piece does not do justice to its charm. All in all an interesting experiment. More experiments forthcoming...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sound of the Courante

Here is a recording of the Courante after studying in New York with Bruce Potterton and before studying with Tamara Loring. Bruce basically asked me to lighten up my playing --- Courante means running and I think my "running" sounded more like fast stomping. I'm still stumble on the trills and tend to accent them rather than letting them flow into the musical line, so the polishing will continue.

This would have been posted yesterday, but I had technical difficulties with the sound clip.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

If You Live in the Bay Area, Don't Miss This!

A little departure from Bach's French Suite in E Major...David Schofield - a wonderful organist - will be performing an all Bach concert in San Francisco. David's blurb about his concert is below:

My all Bach concert is coming up on Thursday, Feb. 21st at 7pm at St. Francis Lutheran Church (Our Lady of Safeway). It's free. It'll last about one hour with no interval and there will be a reception following. I hope you can make it. Each year I give one of these programs of the organ works of Bach. Bach was arguably one of the greatest musical minds of any age in any culture. His instrument was the pipe organ and he wrote a prodigious repertory for it. These works are some of his most personal and expressive, but also austere and uncompromising both for performer and listener. They are played often enough but not heard by many, as the organ is not in the mainstream of classical concert life. However, the organ works of Bach are full of stunning musical gems which have fascinated me to the point where I have spent most of my adult life learning and relearning this music. This concert is my little musical party where I share them with you and anyone who cares to listen. I promise there will be something you will like, even if you're not a classical music initiate. I invite you to join me. Thursday, Feb. 21st. 7pm. I list the program below. If this means nothing to you, don't worry. The music is great stuff.

Fantasie in G major

O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (from the Leipzig Chorales)
Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor
Manuliter Chorales from the Clavierubung
Kyrie Gott Vater in ewigkeit
Christe, alle Welt troste
Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist
Allein, Gott in der Hoh sei er
Wir Glauben all in einen Gott schopfer
Vater unser in Himmelreich
from Individually Transmitted Chorales
Erbarm dich, mein, O Herr Gott
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier
Ach Gott vom Himmel sei darein
Toccata and Fugue in d minor

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Fingers Dance a Gigue

Bach ends the Sixth French Suite in E Major with a joyful gigue. Imagining feet taking flight while my fingers do the same as I play this most delightful piece. A description of the gigue follows at:

or of the musical form at:

I'm beginning lessons with Tamara Loring* on Thursday. I'm sure that all of the ornamentation I've been so painstakingly putting into my fingers will change. I know that I've said this many, many times - but, I will have a recorded version of the suite before my lessons with Tamara. Will I post them? It was interesting for me to hear how my versions of the pieces - especially tempos - changed after my lessons with Bruce Potterton at Turtle Bay Music School in New York. I will try to be less self conscious about my non polished playing and post my pre-Loring versions on this blog.

*Tamara Loring is a teacher of chamber music and harpsichord in the Bay Area, and a founding member of WEKA. Her chamber music program, Baroque Ensemble Seminars, is a longstanding fixture of the local (San Francisco Bay Area) early music scene.