The Pianist’s Artist Statement

photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc

An Artist’s Statement is the artist’s written description of their work. Generally anywhere between 100 and 1000 words, the Artist’s Statement describes the artist’s intentions. It is both descriptive and reflective and shows an understanding of his or her place in the context of art history and theory. Artist’s statements are a relatively recent development and they are used for grant applications, gallery showings, promotional materials. Most art schools incorporate them into their curriculum. The days when the artist can say “My work speaks for itself” are in the past.

It’s more rare to see an musician’s artist statement. Composers seem to be more likely to have them than performing artists (pianists). Too many pianists still seem to think “their work speaks for itself.” It’s almost like they think they can throw together a program of Bach, Beethoven, Intermission, Chopin, Ravel and, voila, a piano recital!

But many pianists are thinking about what they want to say in their programming and what they want their audiences to take away.

I admire Lara Downes not only for her playing, but for her creative programming. Not surprising, she has an artist statement on her website. Doesn’t this last sentence tell you all you need to know?

From Lara Downes’s Artist Statement:

Whether I’m at home in my studio or out on the road, packing or unpacking, doing my scales or doing my laundry, day in and day out, my life is a life in music.

 

Ora Itkin places her artist statement front and center on her website. Then she takes you into her private world with her biography. After reading you can’t help but want to listen to her music.

Ora Itkin’s Artist Statement:

In music everything starts and ends with the Sound
On piano everything starts and ends with the Touch.
Search for that sound, that transmits feeling, thought, emotion, imagery, color…even taste.
In other words, sound that makes music “alive” is the essence of my interpretation.

 

Similarly, Anderson & Roe has their mission statement prominently displayed on their website.

a&r mission statement

-to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.

-to connect with others; to engage, provoke, illuminate; to serve as a conduit for the composer’s voice; to express our inner lives; to share the joy and fulfillment that only music can elicit.

-to free the world from the constraints of sleep-inducing concerts.

Ask a teenage piano student to write an artist’s statement and you’ll probably get a lot of groans and eye-rolling. But, in my opinion, it should be a requirement. Writing an artist statement, which will most certainly change over the years, is the first step to finding your own musical ‘voice.’

Finding Joy in Piano

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about piano, taught piano, or as a matter of fact, even played piano. But it took another blogger to write a post that inspired me to post again.

Elissa Milne (pianist, writer, teacher and composer) has written a piano teacher’s manifesto. In the manifesto she lays out the purpose for piano lessons. It is what frames her teaching, her expectations and her composing for students.  Every item on the list is spot-on and I find myself wishing I had a copy of this years ago to hand out to parents and students and to hang on the wall as a reminder to myself.

Elissa talks about the “cool stuff” students can learn to do at the piano and then moves on to talk about the emotional benefits of piano lessons. You learn to understand yourself better, as well as other people. You begin to understand your place in history. You engage your brain in a way unlike the way you do with any other activity. Perhaps most importantly, you play for the joy you feel when you’re able to share an effortless performance with an engaged audience.

So, in the spirit of finding the joy in piano once again, maybe it’s time to resurrect this blog. Just maybe.

 

A message to piano students

Flickr Creative Commons – photo by Johnny Grim

My piano teaching has changed over the years, partly due to a general mellowing that’s occurred after (I hate to admit it) thirty years… but also partly due to the technological upheaval of the past decade. As I’ve talked about before, this new generation of piano students is a generation that has grown up with immediate access to information. Instant gratification has become their way of life.

As Andrew Hickey, blogger behind Faster than Light says:

My generation is starving for useful, thoughtful, intelligent, and inspiring information. If we want to learn how to do something – anything – we can google it, and be on our way; there’s even a how-to-do-everything podcast. If that weren’t enough, Wikipedia has an entry on just about everything, with all links eventually leading back to philosophy. We can learn about the fundamental stuff of the universe – or whatever philosophers ramble about — with a few mouse clicks. For those of us that don’t like reading, there are infographics and videos on every topic out there. When we aren’t absorbing information, we’re expressing ourselves by the millions, through sites like DeviantArt, Flickr, Tumblr, Etsy, WordPress, and more. Perhaps we are too entitled, too lazy, or too impatient, but, we aren’t stupid. I don’t accept that. We have access to more information than any other generation, and we are using it. We are becoming smarter with the information we are using, even if much of it drips through the cracks of obnoxious YouTube videos and incomprehensible memes. Perhaps I’m being sophomoric, but I think the internet is fundamentally good, because knowledge is fundamentally good. Maybe that crazy greek bastard was onto something when he said, “The only good is knowledge, the only evil is ignorance”. And, if you don’t know who I’m talking about, just google it.

I hate to admit it, but I have become one of those people he describes…apparently the exception to the rule considering my age. (Read Andrew’s entire post here.)

Twenty tabs open. Music playing. Headphones on. Lukewarm coffee on desk. Occasionally, I feel less like a person, and more like an amoeba that feeds on tweets, notifications, and followers.

So, to all you piano students, how has this changed my teaching over the past few years? Here are a few things that are important to me as a teacher as we immerse ourselves deeper into the digital age.

Read: The ability to sightread music has become my number one goal for you. If you learn nothing else I want you to be able to pick up a piece of music, any music, and play it. With all the classics available on IMSLP there’s a world of music at our fingertips (and you won’t be able to play any of it if you’re depending on YouTube video tutorials.)

Listen: There’s no excuse for not listening to music. With hundreds of thousands of sound files available online I can’t accept a blank stare when I ask you what you’ve been listening to lately.

Scales and Chords: Most Western music is written using the diatonic scale. There are 24 possible keys that a piece can be written in. Practicing your scales will make it easier for your fingers to find the right notes and for your ears to correct the wrong notes.

Anything Goes:  When it comes to choosing repertoire, I try to introduce you to as many different composers and musical genres as I can but I love when you bring me something I’ve never heard.  And you won’t surprise me with something new unless you listen. (see above)

Random Access: There’s no rule that says we have to finish Book One before we go to Book Two. There’s also no rule that says we can’t skip Book Two all together. Or Book One for that matter. Method books aren’t for everyone.

Creativity:  Most of you high school students have a senior project due this year. Let’s see something that represents real out-of-the-box thinking and entrepreneurship.

Play: If you’re taking piano lessons and don’t take the time to practice, ask yourself why. Would you practice if you were working on different pieces? Is there something you don’t understand? Do you remember what drew you to piano lessons in the first place? Maybe you’d go to the piano more often if you improved your sight reading skills, listened to more music, skipped around a bit in your book, gave yourself an interesting goal…get the picture?

Sightreading for fun

I love teaching piano during the month of December. We put away the pieces we’re working on, skip the scales and exercises, and spend the lesson time sight reading Christmas music…traditional carols, popular Christmas standards like Mel Tormé’s Christmas Song and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, piano arrangements from The Grinch, Polar Express, and even arrangements of Transiberian Orchestra pieces. The students choose pieces to learn quickly for the annual Christmas recital/party.  One of my students, who happens to have a lovely voice, chose Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles’ “Winter Song” to perform this year.

Why is this so important to me? Well, as I told another one of my students this week…learning how to play the piano without sitting down and playing through the music you like, is like learning how to read and never picking out a book from the library.

Musical Role Model

Last weekend the newly formed Millennium Music Teacher’s Association of Northeast Pennsylvania held a piano master class and recital at Wyoming Seminary’s Great Hall in Kingston, PA.  The informal recital featured musicians from the West Chester University Student Chapter of Pennsylvania Music Teachers and the master class was held by Clement Acevedo.

I happened to be sitting behind three boys who looked to be about eleven. They were friends, sitting together, with no parental supervision… in the front row. I glanced at the program. Bach, more Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Weber and then Ravel. Could they sit still that long? Would there be squirming and whispering? Would they distract the soloists? Would snack wrappers and water bottles that were provided turn out to be a mistake?

I’m happy to say “no” to all of the above. In fact, when it came time for the Ravel they were spellbound. Here was a young man (PMTA Young Artist award winner, John Kline), dressed in jeans and sneakers, dazzling them with the repeated notes and glissandos in Ravel’s Alborado Gracioso from Miroirs.  They looked at each other and mouthed “Wow.”

I can’t help but think, if these boys weren’t sitting together in the front row, on the same level as the piano, less than 20 feet away from the performer; and if the pianist didn’t look like he could have been an older brother, or someone on their high school’s football team…then maybe, just maybe…these three boys would have found their empty water bottles more interesting than the Ravel.

Adele and Free Notereading Method

Have you seen these guys?  Jon Schmidt, piano, and Steven Sharp Nelson, cello, call themselves ThePianoGuys and have a popular YouTube channel with arrangements of everything from the Theme from Charlie Brown performed for an audience of seniors to Carmina Burana performed on a racetrack. I love this arrangement of Rolling In the Deep.

By the way, when you visit Jon Schmidt’s website, be sure to download his Ten Week Notereading Method for FREE – a great resource for teachers and older students who are teaching themselves.