Blog

My Piano is Not for Stimming

Please read this first paragraph carefully. I am writing about an experience I had giving a first lesson with a young autistic boy, but I am *in no way* criticizing autistic people, their parents, or trying to diminish or ridicule their struggles. I have successfully taught several autistic students and even earned the title of their “favorite teacher.” I know many autistic individuals personally, some in my own family, and I believe that if I was a kid there’s a good chance I would be diagnosed. I have absolutely nothing against autistic people.

A mother contacted me to have a first, trial lesson with her 9-year old son who is autistic. He was interested in piano, but she anticipated that things would go probably need to go very slow. I agreed to give it a shot. I’ve taught several autistic children successfully, though I am not a specialist nor do I have specific training in teaching children with special needs. I wasn’t particularly concerned. After teaching for over 25 years and raising my own children, I am confident I know when a child has had enough, autistic or not.

Looking back, I didn’t ask enough questions, nor did the mother offer me enough information. I should have asked for the definition of “slow”. I had assumed slow to be a matter of comprehension, but I think it should have been defined as “how much lesson he can take at once.” Perhaps the first lesson needed to be a 5-minute meet-and-greet, see the teacher, learn her name. Maybe during the second lesson we’d spend ten minutes together, and gradually build up the length of time over a period of weeks or months. We should also have agreed on how and when to cut lessons short and discussed payment for a short lesson.

When I first met this boy, I introduced myself and asked him his name. He balked, so I asked him, “Do you not want to tell me your name?” He shook his head, and I said, “That’s OK.” I brought him over to the piano and did what I normally do, showing what the insides of the piano look like and some general things about how the piano works. He responded well, explored the pedal and even asked some questions. I was already wondering what “slow” meant since the first five minutes (at least) went just about the same as most other first lessons I have ever given.

After a bit, we sat down at the keyboard and I explained the groupings of black and white keys and had him find them. At this point, I did need to adjust my explanations and questions a bit so he could understand, but things went pretty well. He played what I asked and seemed to comprehend. Again, I was wondering what “slow” meant. So far, things were not going slow.

That is when we began to have problems. The boy began lifting the keys on the piano. Every kid lifts the keys of the piano. I have another student, a six year old boy, who recently did this during a lesson. I remember well lifting the keys myself as a kid. There is something interesting about it – look, the keys do this! It is weird and curious, and the keys make a thumping sound when you lift and release them quickly. In ignorance, it is fun to keep doing. It is just bad for the piano.

When I asked the six year old to stop because he could damage the piano, he immediately stopped. He may need a reminder from time to time, as all kids do, but he stopped. Unfortunately, the autistic boy did not. I asked him about six or seven times to stop lifting the keys and told him he could break the piano. He just looked at me and then kept doing it. Inside, I started to panic a little. On one hand, I get it. I remember being a kid, and I understand the fascination and the repetition. *I really do.* I knew a lot of this was normal. Lifting the keys is normal for all kids, and the repetition is normal for autistic people. BUT – and this is a big but – I couldn’t allow it to continue because it could damage the piano – MY piano!

At that point, I closed the lid down over the keys. I knew a battle of wills was coming, so I held the lid down with my arm. I was right. The boy immediately began trying to pull the lid up off the keys so he could could go back to lifting them. I told him that I could not allow him to lift the keys and hurt my piano, and that I was not going to raise the lid until he was ready to not lift the keys. After a few minutes, he must have realized I wasn’t going to budge and seemed to settle down. So, I raised the cover so we could try again to proceed in the lesson, but he went right back to lifting the keys. At this point, I decided the lesson was over even though there were ten minutes remaining in the allotted time. I couldn’t risk damage to my piano.

I called over his mother, who had been in the room. I went over things the boy could do at home, but also explained that he cannot lift the keys and why. She said she heard everything. I wondered to myself why she hadn’t intervened. At that point, I felt a bit like I had been set up or at least stranded. We scheduled a lesson for the following week, but she later emailed me to say she didn’t think her son should take lessons.

That’s too bad. After a couple of days of thinking, I had come up with some ideas. The first was to limit lessons to 15 minutes for a while. The second was, that if she was willing to pay the extra cost, I could give the lessons at their home. Perhaps the boy would have felt more comfortable there, and if any damage was done it would be to their piano, not mine. The third was to make sure he had some kind of stim toy that he could use instead of using the piano. However, I didn’t get a chance to present my ideas.

I have taught students with all kinds of special needs: some with autism, some with ADHD, some with dyslexia, some with crippling anxiety. Sometimes parents don’t tell me about these difficulties ahead of time, and that never goes well. In every one of these situations, students need some modifications, either in the way material is presented or in the way “performance” is assessed, or both. Not only is it helpful to know ahead of time that a student has special needs, it is also important to be told what is already known to be helpful. I did not ask the mother of this boy enough questions, nor did she provide enough information. I believe that had these things been discussed in greater detail, we would have had a better plan for a first lesson and a more successful outcome.

Sorry, You Must Pay for That Recording

Twice in one week I was asked by individuals in different choruses to create an accompaniment track so they could rehearse a solo. The first expected it would cost something, but was shocked at the price I quoted for a 40-minute piece. The second seemed shocked I would charge anything at all. Both asked, “Can’t you just press record on your phone while practicing?”

Well, yes, I could. But I won’t. Not for free, anyway. And here’s the reason: this is my work, and this is my product. Like any service provider or shop owner, I don’t give my service or product away unless it is for a charitable purpose.

First of all, if the piece is not in public domain, making a recording of it is not legal and I’d be taking a big risk. If I know you personally, I would probably trust that you are not going to start passing it out to all your friends. But, it is not something I would be able to make commercially available without incurring many fees due to royalties and the like which I would owe. It automatically becomes a custom (and risky) job.

Even if a piece is in public domain, asking for a personal copy of an accompaniment that is not commercially available is a custom job. If I want to make an accompaniment track of a relatively popular piece of music and put it up for sale for digital download, I can charge less because I can expect more people to purchase it. But I have to charge a custom price for recording an uncommon piece of music that is for a single individual’s use.

The work I do is expensive; there’s no way around it. I may be an excellent sight-reader and learn music quickly, but that’s because I have been playing the piano for forty years. I still need to practice pieces to ensure I play them 100% accurately and smoothly. I can’t just “sit down and record while I practice” and expect it to come out good. At minimum, I would need a page turner or I would need to go back and edit a recording to eliminate those pauses, requiring more of my time. If you are depending on my recording for your own success, then I need to make it excellent, without idiosyncrasies that could trip up a performer .

I sometimes do recordings for the organizations that hire me, if it is part of my contract. But when it comes to individuals or time outside my contract, I have to charge. The ease of digital recording nowadays does not eliminate the need to pay for it.

You Want Me To Do WHAT?

My husband asked me to do a scary thing. Back in late November he commissioned me to write a piece for solo classical guitar.  Every year, he performs in a concert at a local church which benefits The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbe, Haiti. He said, “wouldn’t it be a great idea if you wrote a piece for me to play at the concert, and I could record it and we could sell the recording to raise more money for the orphanage?”

I agreed to try, but I made it clear I wasn’t sure I could do it.

The thought of writing for classical guitar terrified me. This unassuming quiet instrument is a beast. It is tremendously intimidating. As a pianist, I know how hard it is to play multiple voices with two hands. Classical guitarists play at least two voices at once with ONE hand! I’ve looked at guitar music.  As a pianist, I can read vocal pieces in open score, yet I find guitar music terribly difficult to read. I have deep respect for good classical guitarists. There are six strings! (And, yes, that is a lot more than the four found on standard orchestral strings!) Unlike on a piano keyboard, certain pitches can be played in multiple places on the neck of the guitar. It is more than a little tricky to keep track of the location of the notes and make sure that each combination of notes fits within a fret span that is playable. It is also important to remember not to ask a guitarist to play an open string and a stopped note on the same string at the same time – utterly impossible.

I sat down with John and our daughter, who also plays classical guitar, to seek advice. I peppered them with questions: what intervals of stopped notes are comfortable or uncomfortable to play, what is the span of frets that can be covered at once, how many notes can be stopped at once? I got information about how high in the neck I could use chords and at what point I needed to resort to single notes. They talked with me about the difficulties of making large leaps and how to make it easier for guitarists to find their place on the neck. I made a chart for myself showing the location of every pitch on the guitar’s neck and marked important locations.

Before I got to work on the piece I decided that, since this piece was intended to benefit the children in the orphanage in Haiti, I wanted to use a song that they would know as inspiration. The woman we know who works with the orphanage sent a Youtube link to a Benediction (prayer of blessing) set to a melody which the children at the orphanage sing before their meals. The translation is, “Bless this food, Bless the hands that prepared it, Bless everyone, Bless the ones who have no food.” In a nice surprise, the melody was perfect for translation into guitar. The piece opens with this melody. Additionally, I incorporated the rhythm of the Haitian meringue because I believe that God loves all the peoples of the world. I also wanted to convey the idea that prayer is not always something formal. We can talk with God at any time, about anything, and I wanted to capture a variety of emotions in the piece – thankfulness, joy, sadness, and hope. God is always near to His people.

I was in a hurry to write the piece. I knew I was going to need to give John time to learn the piece and record it before February 9, the date of the concert. I didn’t have much time, especially since we were going out of town the week after Christmas. I had a month to get it done amidst ten concerts, multiple rehearsals, and holiday festivities.

When I brought the rough draft to him it was, well, rough. I had made a number of errors (especially of the stopped note/open string variety), but John was able to help me work out some simple solutions. It turned out not to be as problematic as it appeared on first glance. After a few minor edits, it was finished.

Then came the most nerve-wracking part for me: waiting for him to learn the piece! I do not know any musician who likes to have anyone listen to them practice. I know I avoid it if at all possible. Listening to John practice my piece was worse! I knew he was learning it and I had to be patient, but I was constantly nervous. Did I make it too hard? Is it going to be ready for the concert? I was constantly biting my tongue trying not to say, “no, not like that.”  I tried to be somewhere else in the house if he was practicing, and I hoped he would practice while I was out. I am thrilled to say it is now ready and recorded!

The world premiere is this coming Sunday. Here’s a sneak peek. If you can’t make it to the concert or if you want your own copy of the recording, you can get a link to download it. All proceeds from purchased downloads go to The Loving Hands Orphanage in Turbe, Haiti.

To purchase a recording, click here.

To view the score, click here.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

The rejections keep rolling in.

They have become a measure of how hard I have been working. I started sending in earnest scores to various competitions and calls for scores in August (prior to this, I had been sending in scores, just less frequently.) Since the start of October when the results started coming in, I have received a rejection email every week. Every single week. Well, except for the week of Christmas, how nice. Last week, I didn’t get one, but then I got three rejection emails in five days, so now I am more than caught up. I’m up to about twenty. That doesn’t include the competitions/calls for scores in which the organizers didn’t have the guts to tell me “no” themselves, and I just assumed I wasn’t selected because I never heard back.

There have been a couple of bright spots. My piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, was premiered in Manhattan by the North-South Consonance in May and performed in Massachusetts in August by the Great Woods Symphony. The first two movements of my string quartet were performed at the conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers in October. Surprisingly, Daughter of the Stars was selected as a semi-finalist in the orchestral pops division of the American Prize. (Also surprising is that it hasn’t yet resulted in any traffic to my website or to the video of the piece on Youtube. Maybe a month-and-a-half is not long enough to see a single hit?)

In the midst of all this, I have had some serious technological problems. One time, our internet connection failed on the provider end the day something was due. I was unable to avoid procrastinating because of other technological difficulties as well as having to drive my son back to school. I found myself rushing to my parent’s house at 11PM so I could get an internet connection and meet the midnight deadline.

My Finale program, which I upgraded in January 2019, stopped working every two months all year long, essentially halting my progress on polishing pieces for a week while I waited for customer support to “fix” it. At one point, I had to go to a friend’s house – the only local person I personally know who has a full version of Finale – and use her computer to work on a piece when my software stopped working the week I had to fix up something for North-South Consonance! She has a Mac and I have a PC, so in the process I was also having to orient myself to a different operating system. (If I hadn’t gotten that done, there would have been no premiere in Manhattan, no performance in Massachusetts, no selection for the American Prize!) The Finale “fixes” lasted another two months until the problem resurfaced again and the efforts to overcome the problem became more complicated and took longer. The problem was finally resolved when I bought a new computer.

However, setting up a new computer is not easy because I just don’t have time to do it. In the process of getting my files moved from my old computer I made a mistake in how I backed them up, accidentally moving them onto an external hard drive instead of copying them from the old computer. Then last week my hard drive, which contained ALL my pieces and publishing files and other professional materials in addition to lots of personal stuff, fell on the floor and stopped working. Thankfully, a local shop is able to retrieve my files for *only* $500.00.  In the meantime, I’ve made use of some hard copies I have lying around so I can scan them and make new PDFs to send into competitions I probably won’t win. I am thankful White Out is still made since I had to remove my name.

Is it a coincidence that the hard drive problem happened the same week I had relief from email rejections? It seems whichever way I turn I am facing either more rejection or technology problems that are hampering my work. It’s a lot of painful frustration. And in my vulnerable state, the negative things people have said force themselves into my mind, things I fight so hard to keep out. I have wondered if I don’t have the personality to handle all the rejection and if I lack the technological prowess to manage the work. I have wondered if I should just quit composing.

I have had to ask myself: Why am I even doing this?

I talked about this with my husband, my best friend, my kids, and some of my composition colleagues in the CFAMC. They have all been very supportive and encouraging. My husband continually assures me that my investment in composition is not a problem (as much as I work at composition, many people put a great deal more  time and money into their hobbies.) My kids assure me that the rejections don’t reflect on my ability as a composer (They are correct. It may be that a group didn’t like my ideas or style, or that someone else had *just the right piece* for that performance. My technique is good.) My colleagues assure me that these things happen to everyone, and suggest that if this is a calling, it is worth the sacrifice. The problem is that when everything goes wrong I wonder if it is a calling or if it is a sign to go do something else. My best friend asked, “but don’t you love it?”

Do I?

I am thrilled hearing my pieces come to life in performance. But that is usually dependent on the willingness of others to help make that happen. If other people don’t want to perform the music I can’t perform myself, it just sits there, lifeless dots on lines that only sound in my imagination. That’s no fun. So my reason for composing has to be something unrelated to the willingness of others to participate with me in making music. The days when my ideas flow easily and I get a lot written are great, but the days when I am feeling grumpy or have to expend extra energy to fight negative thoughts are not. Composing is hard work, and sometimes I just don’t feel like doing hard work. (I have yet to meet a person who enjoys *every single day* of their work, regardless of how enjoyable it is overall.)

So what is it? Why should I continue composing? What is the fuel that will burn through hindrances which threaten to extinguish it? That is the question I have been contemplating for days. I figured out the answer by asking myself about each piece, “Self, why did you write that piece?”

For love.

But it’s not love for the process, not love for the finished product, not love for a performance, not love for accolades, all of which do not provide the sustaining power to continue to create. It is about love for the subject that inspired the piece. It is having so much love for that story, concept, person, folk song, piece of art, poem, sunrise, or instrument that it is worth the commitment and exertion to birth a piece of music and to seek its fulfillment in a performance. It is a love that cannot be expressed another way.

I knew my music needed to be born of love, but I lost my way in the midst of the trouble I had this year with all the technology problems and constant rejections. I wish they didn’t bother me, but they do because I am sensitive. I reject stoic philosophy, so that’s not likely to change. Besides, if I didn’t feel deeply, I doubt I would have enough passion to see a project through to the end; there are too many obstacles ready to kill the desire. Love must burn brighter and hotter, and I believe it is the only thing that can.

 

 

I Don’t Read All the Notes!

As an accompanist, I put my sight-reading skills to the test. I am constantly given new music that I must learn in a short amount of time. So, what exactly is sight-reading? In musical terms, it means being able to comprehend and play (or sing, if a vocalist) the music the first time ever seeing it. The more skilled one is at sight-reading, the more accurate the first time through the music will be.

Sight-reading takes a lot of practice. When I was about six years old, my piano teacher started making me sight-read. She would put music up in front of me, often four-part hymns, and tell me to start playing the music without looking where I was placing my hands on the keyboard. The first few times were very scary! I eventually recognized that I had a knack for sight-reading and put it to use. For a time when I was thirteen I didn’t practice my classical piano pieces at home and only sight-read them during my lessons. (I was playing plenty of piano then, just not what I was assigned!) After several weeks of this, when I wasn’t progressing at my usual rate, my teacher caught on… I call sight-reading my super-power, but it is really just a skill that I have honed. In this post, I will share three strategies I believe will help improve one’s sight-reading skills.

The big takeaway is that I don’t read all the notes. It is impossible, especially when playing complicated pieces! Piano music has a lot of notes. A LOT. One piece I played averaged about forty notes per measure! There’s no way I could quickly learn a piece of music like that if I had to determine the name and location of every single note! In this way, sight-reading is a little bit like reading words. Fluent readers do not phonetically spell out every sound. The sounds are ingrained and most words are memorized. Likewise, I primarily read music using shapes, lines, and memorized rhythmic patterns.

The first step to learning to sight-read is learning the instrument. That may sound obvious, but I am not talking about just learning some technique or fingering. It is important to become intimately acquainted with the instrument. The location of every single note needs to be something we feel automatically in our body, using proprioception. When I sit down at the piano, I can find a note with my eyes shut because I know where my hands and arms are located in relation to my body. I can feel the distance between notes even without the piano present and have sometimes annoyed people by practicing on a table. It needs to become as automatic as being able to touch the tip of one’s nose without using a mirror.

This takes a lot of time. Just like we can’t get to know other people without conversation and time together, we can’t know our instruments without it. We need to put in the practice time, and we need to have the right conversation: scales and chords. I can hear the groans. I know my students don’t like having to constantly practice scales and arpeggios over and over, even if they have known them for years.  Learning only individual pieces will not be sufficient. One will only memorize the physical locations of the patterns of that piece. Scales and chords, however, help one memorize *the instrument”: the physical size of intervals, the distance between octaves, and what it feels like to move in whole steps and half-steps from various starting points and using various fingerings. There is no short cut. It takes a bit of faith, really. Faith that all these scales and chords really do make a difference. They do. But it takes time. This is the musical version of “wax on, wax off.”

The second step to improving sight-reading skills is memorizing rhythmic patterns.   Rhythms in classical music tend to be quite different from Latin styles like samba or bossa nova; however, the lines are increasingly blurring in newer music. The more rhythmic patterns one becomes familiar with, the greater one’s ability to sight-read music in a variety of genres will be. This is probably the easiest step, since there are only so many ways a beat or a measure can be divided, unless we’re talking about avant-garde music, which isn’t really meant to be sight-readable anyway.

The third step is to learn music theory. The more theory one knows, the more one’s sight-reading improves. This is due to several factors. Understanding the building blocks of music helps one to recognize the shapes and patterns of intervals and chords, including triads and seventh chords in all inversions, as they are seen in the notation, both stacked and separated. Again I do not read the individual notes. I use certain notes as “anchors”, but then use my knowledge of intervals, scales, and chords to find my way from there. I have memorized combinations of notes I learned through studying theory. Understanding keys allows a musician to identify the most-used notes in a piece and quickly recognize notes that are unusual. In my own experience, an understanding of harmonic structure helps me to aurally predict what is coming next, which helps guide my fingers to the right notes. Even though this is not necessary for sight-reading, it helps a lot! This is similar to the way understanding the grammatical structure of a language helps one to anticipate words and ready smoothly.

These steps all take time, but working on any one of them will bring about improvement in sight-reading. Of course, more is better! These approaches have been the foundation to my own sight-reading development, and I believe they will work for anyone who wants to become a better sight-reader.

 

Accompanying = Only One Part of My Music Life

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The third question was: What do you hope to be doing in five years?

My answer is: more of all I am doing now. That is, accompanying, teaching, and composing. I would like to increase the amount of classical chamber music I play as a collaborative pianist, I would like to increase the number of students I teach, and I hope that my composing career takes off. For clarification, I was asked if I was teaching and composing *until* my composition career takes off, and the answer is no. I need the balance of all three parts of my musical self.

The collaborative piano work gives me music and motivation to practice, which helps me maintain my piano and sight-reading skills. It gives me some social interaction. It is also fun to perform. And, while I told my parents when I was five years old that I would never be a concert pianist (soloist) and my personality is not really bent toward performing, I really enjoy being on stage in a group with other people. I don’t like the limelight, but I like bringing pieces to life with other people. Concerts bring together the community, and pleasing the people I play with and pleasing the audience brings me joy.

I have always felt that it is important for those of us who are ahead on the path to share our experience and wisdom with those who are coming behind us. We all have something to teach. I find teaching music especially important because it is a creative activity that develops diligence and focus while boosting good feelings. It can be a healthful option for bored or aimless kids who might otherwise be drawn into negative, self-destructive behaviors. Music lifts the spirits in mood and purpose and makes the world a better place in many ways. I believe teaching music, which betters both the lives of students and the community, is very important – so much so that I have at times even taught for free kids who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. I started teaching privately when I was 15, and I haven’t stopped. Even when I moved halfway across the country and back, even when my kids were babies. It’s not just a form of income, it is a calling.

Music composition is something I showed interest in from a very young age. I wrote my first piece when I was five or six (my mother says five.) It wasn’t anything spectacular, but I did write the notes on the correct lines and spaces and used the right number of beats in the measure for the time signature I used. I did originally go to college for music composition, but ultimately my anxiety and timid personality at the time kept me from pursuing it. I put it on hold for a long time until my youngest child was thirteen. By then, I was ready to try it and took lessons for the first time in 2013. Why then? Because I was bored. Very bored. I like accompanying, but reading off scores feels like reproduction work and I needed to do something more inventive. I like teaching, but I found that I needed to do something for myself and escape from the world of beginner books, simple solos, and correcting technique and rhythm.

I need all three of these aspects of my musical life. In many ways, they feed one another. Composing scratches the itch I have for making something new and working with performers on a different level of conversation. It gives me a place for personal growth and self-expression, and because I have that outlet I am renewed and can continue in my work as an accompanist and teacher. But composing is very hard. Even as I grow in skill, I don’t think this will change because it is emotionally exhausting. I put myself into my pieces, and I take a lot of emotional risk sending them “out there” and getting rejection emails at least once a week. I can get very discouraged. Enter accompanying. It provides some instantly gratifying good feelings when I get complimented for my work and am reminded that I am actually a decent musician who knows some things. It boosts my confidence and gives me strength to continue composing. It introduces me to a lot of new-to-me music – some old, some contemporary. The social part of rehearsal also prevents me from becoming a hermit who lives in the back room of my house. Teaching reminds me that music is not all about me. I am connected to something larger, which was passed on to me from my teachers, and I pass on to my students. Teaching is the only way to develop more accompanists and composers and continue the tradition of creating music and making the world a better place through beauty and art. As the tagline for my website says, I am a “composer, teacher, collaborative pianist.” I am all three.

 

Accompanying = I Go Along With You

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The second question is: What are the three most important skills you have that make you a good accompanist?

I believe all good accompanists should possess these skills. There is not one that is more or less essential, but I will list them in order of ease of explanation.

The first important skill I have is the ability to play every genre of music. I can play classical, jazz (all types, swing and Latin – I know the difference between a Bossa Nova and a Salsa), musical theater, and popular music. I developed this skill by studying both classical and jazz piano, by playing in the jazz band in high school, and by simply playing lots and lots of different kinds of music. I have heard strictly classical pianists accompany a swing tune, and they didn’t swing well. The notes were fine, but it didn’t sound authentic. Being skilled in just one area of music can diminish either the quality of the music or the number of opportunities. I am glad I can play any genre because my work has come in various forms, from classical chamber music to musical theater pits to reading chord charts in a band.  Some pianists are able to make a living specializing in just one genre, but in my work, which is primarily community music-focused, it is essential to have broader experience.

The second important skill is the ability to sight-read. Sight-reading, in a musical sense, is the ability to accurately play a piece of music the first time one looks at it. I tell people that sight-reading is my superpower. Someone can give me a piece of music and I can play it with at least 80% accuracy the first time. Even fairly difficult music. Even under pressure. I have stepped into many musical situations at the last minute when another pianist has been unable to play for one reason or another. Once, I learned the Hindemith flute sonata in two days. Another time, I learned the piano part of a difficult musical theater production in ten days. A few months ago, I sat down right before a performance and played a bass part for the first time. I am constantly learning new music, and it is often not simple. If I wasn’t an excellent sight-reader, accompanying would be a terrible job. It would be very stressful playing in front of a group teaching the notes if I was unsure of them myself. I would have to practice a tremendous amount and watch my hourly wage go down with every minute of work I put in. Accompanying is only for good sight-readers. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

The third skill is my ability to read the performer (or director.) This is primarily a skill of recognizing non-verbal cues, like how a person breathes or moves, and also being able to find patterns in a person’s approach to a piece of music. Written music, as a whole, is just a guide to how the piece should go. Each performer will approach it slightly differently, which is part of the beauty of live music. No two people will take a breath, hold a fermata, or interpret eighth notes, rallentandos, or crescendos the exact same way. My job as an accompanist is to support the performer/director, so I need to match their interpretations. When working with a director, I try to anticipate what is needed from me, especially during rehearsals before the ensemble’s understanding of the director’s ideas are solidified. This involves listening to what is happening in the ensemble and quickly assessing what I can do from the piano to enhance a section or solve a problem without the director having to stop and tell me what to do to help. As an accompanist, I work with a wide variety of people and ensembles, so I often play with people I have not previously met. The better I am at getting a read on how each person interprets the music, or what a director wants from me, the quicker the music will “gel” and the more efficient rehearsal will be.

Accompanying is not just about playing the piano. Many highly skilled pianists are not great accompanists, and good accompanists are not always cut out to be soloists who could play concertos with orchestras in concert halls. As I mentioned in my previous post, the definition of accompany is “to go along with.” The skills I described above support this idea. The ability to play any genre of music, the ability to sight-read, and the ability to read the non-verbal cues means I can play what, when, and however the soloist/director wants. I just go along with it.

That being said, there are times when I do have to speak up because there is a problem with the music that goes beyond a difference in interpretation. Sometimes, it is a mistake I made that I didn’t notice; it could be that the soloist or director made a mistake; more than occasionally there is an error in the written music that came from the publisher! Either way, “going along with” doesn’t mean that I just accept everything as it comes, without question. Neither does my ability to sight-read mean that I *like* being thrown into situations where I am needed at the last minute. I call it my superpower, and it is. But superheroes are weakened when they use their powers. Likewise, I find sight-reading takes effort and can be exhausting, despite how skilled I am at it.

 

 

 

Accompanying = It’s Not About Me

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The first is: What is your philosophy of accompanying?

In short, I tell people, “My job as an accompanist is to make the soloist (or group or director) look good!”

When I accompany, the audience is really not there to see me. They are there to hear the soloist, or the group. As an accompanist, I am a support, someone who is there to enhance the musical performance, not to bring attention to myself. Of course, there is some music where the piano part is quite intricate and becomes more of an equal part in the piece, but most of the time, the piano provides more structure than decoration. It is my job to know when to bring out my part, and when to fade into the background.

In every instance, my greatest goal is that the group or singer do as well as they possibly can. I try to prevent and minimize their mistakes, and I cover their mistakes whenever possible. I am not saying that I never make mistakes myself, but I make few.  The group or soloist is depending on me to be a reliable rock, a foundation in the piece, always playing something the exact same way every time. When I provide that security, they can perform with more confidence knowing that if something goes wrong, I will be there and catch them.

I have repeatedly told performers, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Don’t worry about making a mistake. If something happens, I know exactly where you are and will follow you no matter what you do. No one will even notice. Just go out there and give it your all.”

How true this is.

One time, I was accompanying a high school senior who was playing the Hindemith flute sonata for an audition. During our rehearsal, everything went just fine, but during the audition, we got off. I am not exactly sure what happened. I can’t say it wasn’t my fault, but I thought she made a rhythmic mistake. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I had two choices: continue playing and make it obvious something was wrong, or stop playing for a moment and begin again in the spot where she was. I did the second, because that was my responsibility as an accompanist. Her mistake or not, I took the blame by acting like I didn’t know where I was, instead of potentially making it look like she got lost or making it sound like she was playing a bunch of wrong notes. I also wanted to prevent any confusion that may have led to her feeling insecure about how the piece was going. It was my job to make her look good, not my job to be right. She won a spot in our state’s honor recital.

There have been times when I have skipped entire measures to match a singer that didn’t come in correctly. I have covered mistakes by directors who have conducted beat patterns wrong. I have created aural cues and signals in the piano part to help groups and soloists to know when to come in or where we are in the music. As an accompanist, I need to know how to get from here to there anywhere in the music, in case of emergencies. Sometimes there is a big harmonic change, and a mistake could be very abrupt, weird, and obvious. I have heavily relied on my training in harmony at times, filling in something that makes reasonable sense in an instant. Most of the audience is none the wiser. However the soloist, group, or director performs it – that’s how the music goes, regardless of what is written on the page.

Besides a commitment to the group or soloist, my greatest commitment as an accompanist is to the director of an ensemble. The director is the one who makes the judgments about pieces to be performed, style, interpretation, and technique. I do whatever I need to do to help the director’s vision come to life. If I am helping to teach notes to singers in a particular style of music, I play it in that style. For example, the eighth notes in jazz are often swung, so if I am teaching the notes in a jazz piece, I play them swung. I model changing dynamics according to the wishes of the conductor so the ensemble can hear what that sounds like.  Occasionally, I might have an idea or be asked for some input. In those instances, I speak with the director privately.  I go according to what the director ultimately decides, because it is not about my ideas.

It is also part of my responsibility as an accompanist to model submission to the director. I have been in ensembles where there has been some negative chit-chat among members, complaining about the director’s decisions. I don’t engage in that. If someone asks me something about it, I say “I just play the notes. I am not involved in making those decisions.” If I do know the director’s reasons, I might explain them. In times when I am asked to fill in and run rehearsals because the director is absent, I teach the music according to the director’s wishes. It’s not my time to put my own polish on it. No matter what, I do not question the director. They have enough to worry about!

The definition of accompany is to “go along with.” That pretty much sums up my work. As an accompanist, I go along with the soloist, the group, or the director. Wherever they go, whatever they do – I’m there with them.

Keep On Keeping On in 2020

It is the start of the New Year and the standard time to make resolutions. A long time ago I decided I didn’t care about new year resolutions. I make them throughout the year. I don’t only reflect on life the week after Christmas. I generally assess how things are going month to month. If I am able, I make adjustments mid-year. Why wait? That doesn’t mean that I spontaneously decide on a goal and immediately start working on it. I do make a plan and aim to start at an optimal time. Sometimes, that is the New Year. Sometimes is the next Monday. Sometimes the start date is unknown, and I have to wait until after a period of extra stress and upheaval is over so that I can reduce the number of obstacles in place that would interfere with establishing a new healthy habit.

But since the New Year is the time when public announcements about resolutions are made, I might as well share what I aim to do and how things are currently going.

First and foremost, I plan to keep on doing what I am doing. More of the same. More performing, more teaching, more composing. More healthy eating, more exercising, more reading. More herbal medicine, more yard work/gardening, more hiking/camping. Everything I’ve been doing, just ramped up a little. I have already identified problems and worked on some strategic planning. Some habits have already been put into practice. Some will be implemented once I am back into routine (looking at as late as January 6!)

Back in early November I made a commitment to myself to compose from 6-8AM (minimum) just about every day. I planned for two days “off” a week – Sundays and Tuesdays – since I have to leave the house so early on those days. Well, I am happy to say I have done it. I have kept that commitment. There have been a few weeks where I took more than two days off because I had an unusual schedule that week. I did take a few days off at one or two points to let my mind rest, either because I wasn’t in a good emotional state or because I had just finished a piece which causes me to go into this sort-of anti-gravity state where I am feeling a little disembodied. I have to wait for that to subside or know what project I am working on next in order to feel grounded enough to compose again. If you have ever finished a novel and then felt like it took days to re-enter reality, you know what I am talking about.

Since the start of November, I finished two pieces. The first was a choral piece which I sent into a competition (I didn’t win.) The second piece was a commission from my own husband who asked for a solo classical guitar piece for a concert he has coming up in early February. Is it really anything to be “commissioned” by your own husband? Yes, indeed it is, but the explanation will have to be reserved for another blog post. I was under a bit of a deadline because I had to make sure I gave him enough time to practice the piece before the performance, and I was very afraid I wouldn’t finish it in time. But I did. I did because I stuck with my commitment.

Through most of December, I got less than six hours of sleep each night. Rehearsals and performances kept me out late. But because I kept my commitment to compose every day, I began and finished a piece in December while maintaining a schedule that included eight concerts, five tech/dress rehearsals, regular rehearsals, hours of practicing a solo piece I had less than two weeks to learn before performing it, an interview/audition, an 8hr round trip to pick up my son from school, a 5hr round trip to the luthier (our son doesn’t have enough experience to drive the finicky van which will stall without the special touch), a 7hr trip to New York on Christmas Day to drop him off for a last-minute trip to China (for real), preparation for an out-of-state visit to see my in-laws, and some time in the kitchen to make specialty foods for Christmas. This habit of composing from 6-8AM obviously works. I will keep doing it.

I do have to tweak things, though. I generally don’t get hungry until 1-1/2 to 2hrs after I wake up. Unfortunately, that wasn’t working too well with my composing schedule. Many times, I could have continued composing beyond 7:30 or 8AM, but my stomach was growling too much. Hunger won, and I headed to the kitchen to make breakfast. I considered eating protein bars for a quick breakfast, but that is just not sustainable for me, both in taste and cost. I dealt with the problem while I considered a solution. While on vacation, I have thought of a potential solution: overnight oats. I *love* oatmeal, and I found a bunch of recipes. This may just be the perfect grab-and-go, already-made, eat-while-I-work breakfast.

One other challenge I have found is trying to fit in both composing and exercising. I no longer want to spend valuable time driving to the gym, but I didn’t want to quit exercising (never a good idea for anyone, really.) So I started preparing ways to exercise at home. I need direction, so I needed videos. I researched and watched many online and found a Youtube channel I like, which is the most similar to what I had been doing in the class I took at the YMCA. I picked up some equipment, and now I am ready to work out at home.

I already structured my day to include more reading and study, and I already implemented that. I already eat pretty well, but I am always trying to figure out how to save time without compromising taste and nutrition (not easy.) If I have one brand new New Year’s goal, it is to keep a food journal so I can prove to the doctor I eat well.

I already began my journey into learning herbal medicine mid-year 2019. I will continue that. I already made efforts to increase my performing and teaching work. I landed a new job as an accompanist for another chorus, and I put out a Facebook ad for private lessons. I will probably do that again. But the point is, I have already worked on my resolutions.

So, Happy New Year! But remember, every day there is an opportunity to start anew.

 

It Meanders Like a River

During the fall of 2017, I realized I was having a problem juggling my commitments. I was teaching, performing, and trying to put aside time for composing. I decided to switch up my schedule so that I could have 2-3 days a week when I had a large stretch of time during which I was not beholden to an outside commitment. I could spend those hours as I saw fit, and that primarily meant spending uninterrupted time composing. I am not one of those people who can switch gears easily, so if I am running around doing other things, I can’t just come home, switch off, and get creative. I need sufficient time to get the juices flowing and clear my head of negative self talk. It is a form of mental exercise.

My decision made a few people very upset with me, but my reasoning, which I made clear, was always because I needed to take care of things that were being neglected. It is a really odd thing to make what looks like time for myself as more important than giving someone else lessons. The lessons look more practical and thus valuable. And it is good to give.

But my commitment to composition is not simply a commitment to my own ideas. It was partly a commitment to my husband to not “waste” the time, money, effort, and support he invested to help me along my journey, especially while I was taking lessons and classes up in Boston and making the 4hr round trip two to four times a week. That’s a lot of gas and mileage. He took on a lot more responsibility at home while I furthered my education. I am exceedingly grateful. Most of all, putting aside the time to compose is a commitment to God. Again, I find it hard to explain how sitting in a back room in isolation arranging pitches can be a divine calling, but for me it is. I cannot give you a reason other than to say that by creating I reflect a portion of who God is as the Ultimate Creator. I hope and pray that my efforts will bring glory to God, but I can’t define or predict that. I can only just humbly put in my best effort. That requires times. A lot of it.

At the start of 2018 when I was implementing these changes, I was working on a specific project: a piece for string orchestra which I titled, “Daughter of the Stars.” (If you want to listen to the piece, see the score, or read the program notes, click here.) As the story unfolds, the significance of this will become clear.

“Daughter of the Stars” has a long and windy history which began in the fall of 2013. When I was studying composition with Dr. Larry Bell up in Boston, he used a composition curriculum which he had written. One of the lessons involved taking a popular melody and using it as the springboard for a short piano piece. I chose the tune, “Shenandoah” because it is my favorite American folk song. Interestingly, after showing Dr. Bell my assignment, he told me I got the melody wrong. I had never checked! I only relied on how I had learned it! That aside, I wasn’t really happy with the piano piece and told him that I imagined it for orchestra. The kernel of the idea I had, which was to fractionate the melody at the beginning, transform the melody into minor in the middle, and bring in the recognizable form at the end, stayed with me. I put the project aside: a hard copy of the piano sketch in my office and a digital copy, which I somehow later lost, in my computer. Good thing I kept the hard copy!

In the fall of 2015, Dr. Bell had me begin working on a piece for orchestra, so I pulled out “Daughter of the Stars.”  I like to read American Indian writings and history, and a profound quote from one book stuck with me: one can never step into the same river twice. Since the tune “Shenandoah” references a river, I wanted to incorporate this idea into my piece. It didn’t go well. Dr. Bell criticized my piece for constantly changing keys. I tried to explain that was the point, but I couldn’t make it quite work. So I put the piece aside again, and worked on something different for orchestra. My heart wasn’t in it.

My ideas for the piece laid latent for a while, during all of 2016 and most of 2017. Then towards the end of 2017 I learned about a competition involving the Illinois Music Educator’s Association All-State String Orchestra. For some reason, the mention of string orchestra caused my ideas to suddenly make sense, and I could hear them working.

This is what I had to put aside time to do. I said NO to lessons on certain days so I could say YES to this project, specifically. The competition deadline was mid-March 2017. I didn’t win. I met all the criteria and thought that using an American folk song would be in my favor in an educational setting, but a friend of mine who is a professional cellist and string teacher said it was probably too difficult.

I wasn’t sure what would become of my piece. I wrote it for a high school group. It was hard, but not THAT hard. Would a professional group even be interested in playing it? Was I going to just have a great piece that just “middled”, not fitting into any group’s criteria?

But I believed my piece was a good one, and like usual I submitted it to more calls for scores.  I do so because I follow a rule I learned while running a small multi-level-marketing business: don’t decide for someone else. I would submit my pieces and let other people tell me “no” rather than deciding for them beforehand they are not interested. I can’t say that is easy because I get a lot of rejections. A LOT. In fact, I just got another email notice while writing this that another group is not interested in playing my piece. I can’t even remember which piece I submitted. Funny.

It turned out in my favor that my piece did not win in Illinois. Winning would have put constraints on the performance of my piece for a total of about two years from when I submitted it. Looking back, that could have been disastrous. This is why.

I gathered up the gumption to send the piece in to the North-South Consonance call for scores in summer 2018. To my elated surprise, they accepted it and programmed it for March 17, 2019. I was able to get a non-sanctioned recording which I have shared privately and used for my own purposes but cannot share publicly because I don’t have a contract with the performers for that. However, any good recording is important because I often need them to enter other competitions!

Within a week after the North-South performance, I learned about an opportunity to be considered for inclusion in Ablaze Record’s Orchestral Masters volume 7. The application was due in April! I figured “What’s the worst that can happen? They say no?” I’m kind-of getting used to this. So I sent in the score and recording. It was accepted! It was an amazing deal because, while I had to pay for the recording, they do all the legwork of getting it done, do all the CD inserts and marketing, etc. and I still own the full rights to my piece and the recording. It was an expensive project, but there was no way I’d be able to do this completely on my own, so my husband and I agreed to take the plunge. The CD release is anticipated for Spring 2020.

Immediately after that, I saw that the deadline for The American Prize orchestral composition division was coming up in May. To my surprise, there was now a Pops subdivision for orchestra composition! I had not seen that before. I can’t remember if it was brand new this year or 2018, but it doesn’t matter. It meant I had something to submit. One of the requirements is that the piece had to have been “read” or performed live, and without the North-South Consonance performance, I would not have met that requirement. But since my piece had been performed, I could send it in! It was an outrageously long shot, but again I thought “What is the worst that can happen?”

Time went by. Since May 2019 I have entered at least twenty calls for scores, sending in various of my pieces to different groups and hearing no after no after no. The excitement from the spring wore off, and the wondering if I would get picked for anything again and if the investment I made in the recording would be worth it started seeping into my mind. I continued to work at my composition, but I became more and more discouraged as I heard “no’s” while our old cars broke down. I began to look into other ways of “getting out there” and generally just trying harder. Work more. Try harder. Wait for the “break.”

I got some more piano work, picked up a couple of students, and landed a position as an accompanist for another community chorus – all wonderful things. But my composition seemed to be stagnant. I wrote a blog post about my discouragement here.

Then yesterday I got news that I was selected as a semi-finalist in The American Prize orchestral pops division in composition for my piece, “Daughter of the Stars”! Even though the final results are still months away, I feel like I have already won! This is something that can go permanently on my CV and will give greater value to my recording. The organization claims that those in the know in music follow the competition results and doing well often leads to a lot of performances. I hope that is the case for me!

I have learned a lesson about persevering when it feels like not many really care what I do. The persistence, not giving up on an idea, saying “no” to others in order to set aside time for creative work…it has been validated. There is a saying that the road to success is not a straight line. No, it meanders like a river, and no step into it is ever the same.