Practice Hacks for Piano

Practice Hacks for Piano

Practice Hacks for Piano by Catherine Shefski

I’ve written a book! It’s a quick read for the Kindle and it’s available for download here on

Inside Practice Hacks for Piano you will find succinct advice on topics such as finding the proper hand position, playing octave passages, and creating a full range of dynamics, to interpreting and memorizing music — this little book has a nugget of useful information on every page, much of which has been down from teacher to student for over a century. Written in short and concise sections, intermediate and advanced piano students and their teachers will find helpful and practical advice for getting the most from every practice session.

This e-book includes tips on the following topics: Hand Position, Stretching, Scales, Chords, Octaves, Playing Fast, Dynamics, Fingers, Staccato and Legato, Memorizing Music, and Performance.

I’d love to hear what you think! And if you like what you see please leave a review at Amazon. I sincerely appreciate it!

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

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.

Demystifying the Classics

Beethoven Waldstein Sonata (1st mvt)I recently had an intermediate level student ask me if she can learn Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, a piece dear to my heart. I’ve performed it several times and I still think the transition from the second the third movement is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Beethoven’s piano music.  I told my student that it was a wonderful piece, but there were many steps to be taken before she could approach such a big work. After all we still had many sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau to learn, and if she wanted to learn Beethoven she should start with Op. 49 No 2.

That conversation has been nagging at me for a while now. I started thinking about my own experiences over the years with teachers steering me towards certain pieces and away from others. I’ve heard “Save the late Beethoven sonatas for when you’re in your fifties and sixties“…“The Weber piano sonatas suit you well”...“You should only work on short pieces because that’s what audiences want to hear“…”Liszt not Brahms“.

Well, the years have flown by and my bucket list is still full of pieces that I hesitate to pull out for fear that I won’t do them justice — Beethoven Op. 101 and 110, the Schumann Fantasy in C, and Schubert Sonata in B flat d960. Intimidating pieces? Yes. But impossible? No.

That’s why Greg Sandow’s recent post hit home and gave me a lot to think about this week.  He says:

But let me press further. Why wouldn’t we believe a new audience is out there, eager for us to talk to it simply, directly, and personally?

Because we believe too much in classical music education. Or, more specifically, we believe that classical music is complex, and that therefore no one can properly understand it, without being specially educated. And even that no one even will like it, even in the simplest way, until they’ve been taught how to do that.

Which seems tragic to me. Do we have that little faith in our music? Or in the people we share our world with? This belief — that, without special education, we can’t spread a love of classical music — seems both insecure and arrogant. One one hand, we’re apologizing for classical music. “Oh, of course you don’t listen to it. It’s so complicated!” But flip the coin over, and we’re just about saying, “Hah! Of course you don’t listen to classical music. It’s way beyond you. But we know all about it, and we’re going to teach you.”

Maybe piano teachers can be part of the change that is needed. By allowing their students to (independently) dig into works that are “beyond” them,  teachers can demystify the piano masterpieces.  Even though they most likely won’t perform these pieces as teens, these students may return to them later in life with a deeper understanding. By challenging themselves this way students will improve their technique, sightreading, and analytical skills. And, perhaps most importantly, students will start to see that this music can be just as accessible as pop, jazz, or contemporary music.

Yes, and by the way, I told my student yes — if she wanted to take a look at the Waldstein she should go right ahead. She was thrilled!

Daria van den Bercken plays Handel

A blog post from Norman Lebrecht (Slipped Disc) via a Twitter Tweet from Harold Gray (pnoman) just made my morning and I had to share this. Here is Dutch pianist Daria van den Bercken taking Handel to the street, performing on a rolling piano.

The project is called Handel at the Piano and here’s what Daria has to say about it….

There have been moments in my life when certain music — more than normally — struck a chord in me and I felt this sense of incredible beauty. It happened again a while ago when playing the keyboard works of George Frideric Handel.

I was overwhelmed by the stillness and melancholy, but at the same time it was music that felt electrifying and energetic. ‘Why is this music performed so rarely?’ I wondered. As there is no logical response, I’ve made it my goal to ensure more people can experience the beauty and power of these works. In the coming months I will be delving into Handel’s world, in preparation of recording his keyboard works in Hannover next January.

I admit, I’ve played very little Handel, except for the occasional piece for a wedding or background music, but after hearing this “rolling” performance I will be taking a second look.  I agree with Daria that there is an urgency and vibrancy to his work that fits this day and age.

Chord Piano is Fun by T.K. Goforth

No matter how much we might want our students to practice their Bach Inventions and Beethoven Sonatas, many students just want to learn how to play popular music, and the quicker the better. As I’ve written about before, teaching students how to read chord symbols kills two birds with one stone. The students can quickly get their favorite tunes performance-ready while at the same time getting a daily dose of basic music theory.

TK Goforth is a musician, music teacher and author who’s traveled the world performing professionally with local bands, big bands and jazz combos in Houston, New Orleans and Seattle as well as with bands in Europe, Africa, and the Philippines. As a teacher she makes it her mission to teach students (both children and adults) how to play piano in a way that they could actually use through their entire life. She feels there should be no reason for teachers to hear new adult students say “Well, I used to play.”

Her book “Chord Piano is Fun” is a straightforward explanation of music theory basics. Beginning with an explanation of whole steps and half steps, TK takes the student through the construction of the C major scale and then explains how to build a C major chord. She spends plenty of time on C major with written assignments as well as actual keyboard practice assignments before moving to G major and then F major. A new student will not be overwhelmed by pages and pages of chord and scale charts, but will be able to break down each new concept before moving on to minor scales and 7th chords. By the completion of the book students should be able to write a song and play the blues, in addition to having a thorough understanding of major and minor scales and chords.

Teachers and students: Preview the book here and spend some time exploring TK Goforth’s website. Lots of information and instructional videos for the pianist who wants to get “up and running” with the music they always wanted to play. A great resource!

Chatting with Elena from Neo Antennae

Neo AntennaeI recently had the pleasure of interviewing Elena, fifteen-year old writer, pianist, hopeful composer, and listener. Elena is the author of the popular classical music blog Neo Antennae as well as guest blogger at the Christian Science Monitor.  I was particularly interested reading her advice to teen pianists and their teachers.

Why “Neo Antennae”?

When I first decided I wanted to blog, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on as a writer. Reviews, comparisons, essay like pieces, or even advice popped into my head. I didn’t want to restrict myself to a specific medium, so I chose a title that allowed me to do that. “Neo Antennae” in my mind means “new perceptions.” The prefix “neo” means new, and I think antennae are a perfect item for all-encompassing perception.

How do you divide your time between piano and writing? Which is your first love?

That’s a hard question! I’ve been playing piano for much longer than I have been writing about music, but I’ve loved writing since I was little as well. If I had to chose a first love, it would be piano simply for the fact that it was the activity that introduced me to music. Playing piano satisfies my craving for getting out the music inside of me, but writing makes me feel more connected to the world of music. Dividing my time is definitely difficult, but it’s something that makes me stop and think about my priorities, which is a good exercise. Piano is something I can practice in either longer periods of time or short spurts. But to write one post, I have to research, listen, and work for hours in a row. It just boils down to balance.

Do you improvise or compose your own music?

I started to improvise and compose more once I got over the initial intimidation. I wouldn’t give myself the full-on title of “composer,” but I have written a horn quartet, a viola and cello duet, and I’m working on a string quartet. And it’s almost impossible not to take a break from practicing pieces and mess around. At first, I thought improvising was only for the jazz masters. But then I realized anyone can do it, and it doesn’t have to be jazz. I personally enjoy improvising in more of an impressionist way, even if I only do it when I’m by myself!

Twitter or Facebook? Which is more useful to you?

In a social sense, Facebook is more useful because of the different methods of communication. When it comes to music, Twitter is more useful because I’m able to connect with people I admire without having to know them personally. Plus I can type cool things like “RT” and “#.”

Your blog has been mentioned by Grammaphone Mag and you’ve had guest posts in major newspapers/magazines. What do you credit this to? Social media? Traffic-building for your blog?

Though traffic-building and self-promotion are definitely helpful, one of the things that has helped me successfully start my writing is my age. Though it is not the only thing that makes my blog unique, the fact of the matter is that classical music these days is a business mostly comprised of adults. Hopefully, though, my age is only something that initially attracts people to my writing. I want the words, not the author, to be the reason people read my pieces. I think a reason my articles themselves have gained attention is because I spend a good amount of time on each and every one. Blogging is an activity that really varies in style, and it’s easy to just type anything and post it. I try to keep a consistent quality in the things I publish. Usually this means research, drafting, editing, and lots of listening. I actually was connected to Gramophone magazine through an unrelated email I sent to their editor, James Inverne, before I started blogging. Somehow they found my blog and realized it was me!

What are your plans for college? Long range goals?

Trust me, I can’t wait for college! I can certainly do a lot of self-teaching and learning from the people I meet in my life, but I get excited about the things I will learn in college just thinking about them. I plan on majoring in music, so colleges like Oberlin, Columbia, Eastman, Yale, or UC Berkeley would be amazing. I would also love to major in journalism or English, so Northwestern, Kenyon, or UC Berkeley (again!) are also at the top of my list. Those are my dream schools. Until college, I hope to keep writing, listening, and expanding my horizons. I would love to become a trusted source for music journalism. Oh, and being the chief music critic of the New York Times eventually would be nice too! But my main goal is to make others fall in love with music like I have. It’s so comforting to have something to feel passionate about, and I want others to feel the same way.

Who are your idols?

When it comes to piano, no one can beat Martha Argerich in my opinion. She plays some of my favorite composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Prokofiev with ease and grace. Valentina Lisitsa also blows me away with whatever she plays, as does Ingrid Fliter, the Argentinian pianist who I became obsessed with when I was 13. My other music-related idols are Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, Nico Muhly, John Adams, and Missy Mazzoli. Am I allowed to have more? Natalie Portman, Alice Waters, Esperanza Spalding…

Favorite type of music? What’s on your iPod right now?

When it comes to classical, the NOW Ensemble’s CD “Awake” is something I can’t really go a week without listening to. The piano music of John Adams played by Ralph Van Raat is my personal Holy Grail for Adams. I also have to have my daily dose of other genres. The artist The Tallest Man On Earth, the indie/world music band Beirut, and the ambient folk group Bon Iver are three of my favorites. I also love hip hop, so I have the songs of Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli, and J. Cole memorized. I’ve also just gotten into James Blake. His voice is creepily amazing, and his electronic compositions are so subtle yet obviously complex.

What exactly is the Church of Beethoven?

The Church of Beethoven is an organization in Albuquerque (where I live) that I’ve been volunteering with for about a year and a half now. It’s a weekly concert series put on by musicians in the area and beyond that takes place during Sunday mornings. Each week, music and some sort of spoken word are performed. While the music is usually classical, we’ve had a beatboxer, jazz, a didgeridoo, folk, and many other moods of sound. The spoken word varies as well from poetry to short plays, storytelling, or slam. It’s set in a warehouse downtown that functions as an art gallery/coffee shop/concert venue during the week. However, the essence of the Church of Beethoven is hard for me to express in words, because it’s so much more than just a concert. While not really a church, it’s a community that brings people together, whether they love classical music or not. My technical duty there is making coffee (and I performed there in January–the videos are up on YouTube if you search “Elena Saavedra Buckley”), but I get so much more out of it–finding a community where you can feel comfortable in your element is a huge part of finding out what you love.

What advice would you give the teenaged pianist who is just starting out with piano lessons?

One of the things that can get frustrating as a beginning piano student is the desire to play everything before you actually can, especially as a teenager, because I know I’m a very impatient one. It’s very important to realize that every step you take, no matter how seemingly insignificant, helps towards your ultimate goals. I’m not a huge Bach fanatic, but I found that when I was learning China Gates by John Adams, the skills I learned in Bach’s two-part inventions helped significantly. I was grateful that my piano teacher pushed me to learn those counterpoint exercises! Stay patient and keep listening–finding piano music you absolutely love is key.

What advice would you give the teacher of the teenage student?

Something that I’m thankful for is a teacher who listens to me. Teenagers have been exposed to a larger world of music than  younger students, and therefore they usually know what type of music they would enjoy playing. It is certainly important to learn key repertoire pieces and works that build technique, but it’s very easy to become bored and frustrated as a teenage student if one is being forced into music they do not enjoy playing. If a student leans towards jazz and improvising, they should be encouraged. If a student gains a knack for minimalist music, it would be inspiring for them to work on a piece like that.

Teenagers today, though they are typically thought of as opposed to classical music, are more open than one might think. Of course, I do know teenagers that hate classical music, but I know plenty who have either large or small interests in it. Since so much of what teenagers are interested in is influenced by the people they are around, it’s logical that one’s interest or disinterest in listening to music or taking piano lessons is shaped by the people they know and their role models. Truthfully, if I hadn’t had met the inspirational musicians in my area who introduced me to modern music and composers like John Adams, Olivier Messiaen, or David Lang, I wouldn’t be as eager about classical music as I am today. If I didn’t listen to the piano music of these composers I idolize, I wouldn’t be motivated to play anything except the obvious. One of my friends who plays mostly jazz piano knew that I loved Debussy. He started to play a Debussy piece, but got a little frustrated. But, after we talked about Debussy for a little while, he started to get the hang of it. I could feel his excitement rise. Another one of my friends and I went to a concert where we heard Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 in A Major for violin and piano played by some musicians we admire. She immediately went and bought the music, and now knows a large amount of the sonata. A teenager piano student certainly has the same tendencies. Not only does good technique and discipline matter in the success of a piano student, but the people they meet do as well. Relationships between students and teachers or students and other musicians can lead to performance opportunities, ideas for pieces to play, or information about concerts to go to (which certainly inspire me). In piano lessons, teenagers should not be afraid to ask their teachers about composers, musicians, or pieces that they find interest in. It may be scary to put yourself out there, but what’s the worst that could happen? Beginner piano students can set great foundations by doing this. Research some composers you know and figure out what type of piano music catches your interest. Once you start developing basic techniques, see if those composers have written any beginner music or if their tougher pieces have been simplified. Start going to concerts and talking about them with your teacher. Before you know it, you’ll feel immersed and comfortable in a world that can only grow.

The Independent Student

Great insight into the minds of our teenage students. Take away thoughts:

  • We need to give students a a sense of agency.
  • When given the choice, the student will choose the task that gives him a chance to be creative.
  • When given the freedom to explore, students begin to find questions in everything.
  • Everybody truly wants to learn.
  • This type of creative learning doesn’t involve a lot of fancy equipment.
  • When the adults get out of the way, the students learn.

Now how can we apply these ideas to teaching piano? Maybe the first step is to put away the method books for a while and see what happens.

Lessons from Detroit

Anne Midgette’s recent blog posts “Orchestras and Outreach” and its follow-up post – and also this post by my Twitter friend, Cory Davis, got me thinking about whether or not music education has any affect on the number of people who attend classical orchestra concerts.

To start off, I must admit, I haven’t been to an orchestra concert in two years. And I’ve had many years of musical training.

It wasn’t always like this.

In college I attended a recital or concert nearly every night, many times, two in one evening. My friends and I would switch venues at intermission depending on what was on the program. Like Cory, I went to concerts because I wanted to hear friends, or friends of friends, or faculty who were performing or who had pieces being performed. I also went because the concerts were free. And finally I went because there were good times to be had post-concert. This was my social life.

Today I really have no excuse. I just don’t feel like going. In my opinion, at this point in my life, sitting in a crowded concert hall, with cramped seating, and listening to a long symphony by Bruckner or Neilsen can be uncomfortable and sometimes even boring.

Yet I’m happy to listen to Bruckner or Neilsen at home while reading about the composer online, following the score on IMSLP, or reading reviews of performances by various conductors and orchestras. I’d prefer to be free to pause the performance while I get up to get a glass of lemonade, or take a phone call, or talk to one of my kids. I like that I can repeat sections of the piece, or switch to another piece of music altogether. Believe it or not, sometimes I even watch an unrelated video while I listen to music (not often). Other times the music has my full attention. I also like to write blog posts while I listen to music. As a matter of fact I’m listening to cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, perform in yesterday’s final gala concert of the Tchaikovsky Competition as I write this blog post.

Just try to take the wrapper off a piece of candy in the concert hall!

Are our 21st century lives changing too drastically for us to ever be comfortable sitting and listening to concert hall performances whether or not we’re musically educated? Or are we looking at the end of an era and just don’t want to admit it? Are big concert halls and community orchestras destined to go the way of many large churches? Or for that matter, some of our large cities?


This morning I was reading about the new entrepreneurs who are rebuilding the city of Detroit. I Am Young Detroit is a movement of young creatives who are turning Detroit into the next Tribeca. From urban farms to pop-up shops, restaurants and bike shops,  a new generation is reinventing Detroit. Read about them in this article from the New York Times.

Maybe it’s time for orchestras to stop trying to squeeze more money from the usual donors, put a hold on the outreach, and stop trying so hard with the creative programming. What’s the worst that would happen if we just let things take their natural course?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a group of young musicians waiting in the wings to rebuild from the ground up with fresh new ideas that we can’t even begin to imagine.

Tchaikovsky Competition: Why Listen?

Van Cliburn at 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition

Van Cliburn at 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition

I’ve put life on hold to spend these last weeks of June at my computer with my headphones on listening to (and watching) the most talented young pianists from around the world.  I even sent home a listening assignment with my students hoping that some of them would tune in but I’m afraid they are too young to appreciate the history behind this competition.

The International Tchaikovsky Competition, first held more than 50 years ago, is not only a valuable asset of Russian musical culture but is also one of the major events in the international music community. Participation by previous generations of musicians, including Dmitri Shostakovich, David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Heinrich Neuhaus, Tikhon Khrennikov and Georgy Sviridov, have enabled scores of young people from many countries to gain international prominence and to become established luminaries of the world’s leading concert stages. Past editions have spawned such renowned musicians as pianists Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikhail Pletnev, Grigory Sokolov; violinists Viktor Tretiakov, Gidon Kremer, Victoria Mullova; cellists David Geringas, Nathaniel Rosen, Antonio Meneses and singers Evgeny Nesterenko, Elena Obraztsova and Deborah Voigt.

The International Tchaikovsky Competition is held once every four years. The first, in 1958, included two disciplines – piano and violin. Beginning with the second competition, in 1962, a cello category was added, and the vocal division was introduced during the third competition in 1966.

Perhaps the most famous winner came out of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 when Van Cliburn’s concerto performance was said to have been followed by an 8 minute standing ovation and had the judges asking Krushchev for permission to give first prize to an American. Cliburn returned home to – imagine this! – a ticker-tape parade! For a classical musician, no less! The cover of Time Magazine declared him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia!”

So all of this grand tradition aside, why should our piano students watch the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition? Here’s why….

—It’s SO much better than any reality TV show (and that includes The Voice). It’s real life, seat of your pants, drama. These pianists are pouring their heart and soul into their music. They’re playing to their audience, but ultimately they will be judged by a jury of top pianists and master teachers from around the world. There’s no audience voting,  behind the scenes dirty-work or over-the-top hype.

—The contestants are young, hardworking, and talented. They’ve put in their 10,000 hours and more. Some may go on to long careers and may even become household names. But others may spend their lives behind the scenes teaching, or accompanying. In any case, for these two weeks, they are all in the spotlight and they all have a chance to shine.

—The repertoire is the best! I’ve enjoyed the Romantic literature, particularly the Scriabin and Rachmaninoff Sonatas. But I’ve also loved the surprises, particularly Yeol Eum Son’s performance of  the Variations, Op. 41 by Kapustin. What a treat! For a couple of pieces I actually opened my browser to IMSLP, downloaded the score and followed along during the performance.

—The hosts are wonderful! I love the commentary from online hosts Irina Tushintseva and John Rubinstein. I haven’t had a chance to tune into the violin competition, but I am enjoying the cohost Jade Simmon’s fun blog Stalking Superwoman with stories about her experiences in St. Petersburg.

—Surprise…the judges are human! I’ve enjoyed Irina and John’s conversations with Peter Donahue and Barry Douglas, two former competition winners.  All of the judges that have been interviewed have shown compassion and admiration for the contestants. (By the way, Barry Douglas is tweeting from Moscow, which just adds to the feeling of being there. )

—The mere fact that we can have this inside look at what’s happening in Moscow at the very minute it’s going on is amazing. Up to this point, the Tchaikovsky Competition could have been happening on the moon for all I knew. At least that’s as close as I thought I’d ever get to it. Thanks to 21st century technology, I now have a backstage pass and a front row seat!

So are you ready to tune in? Tomorrow we hear the final four Mozart Concertos. Then it’s on to the final round. Look at the schedule here. Find a link to the webcast here.