Chico in Monkey Business

Today I took a poll of some of my students. I asked them what they liked the best about playing the piano. Most of them said the pieces. Particularly the fast pieces. I know exactly what they mean. And I know Chico certainly had fun playing fast too.

Lola Astanova plays Madonna

Lola Astanova answers questions about practicing and playing the piano on her YouTube channel at AskLola. She says she’s happy that her viewers are able to look beyond the “stuffy and snooty image that the classical musical world projects.” Here she plays her virtuoso version of Madonna’s “Music.” Not stuffy at all.

What does the classical music world need? According to Astanova…

In my opinion, the industry needs to loosen up quite a bit. Traditional classical managers need to take a step back and allow the artists to breathe and take chances. They should also come to terms with the fact that the world today is a very different place than it was 50 and even 10 years ago. That’s first. Then, I believe it is time for classical musicians to finally say out loud that we are in the entertainment business. Intellectual, elegant, thought provoking, but entertainment. That means that classical performers must aspire to go beyond hitting the right notes and beyond academia. Classical music is not a museum piece, but a performing art that lives only through the artist and the audience. So each concert must be a love affair, not a funeral.

I happen to agree. If Gen Z is going to continue the classical piano tradition, pianists and teachers could learn a lesson or two from Lola Astanova…her use of YouTube, her composing, and her fearlessness.

Regarding Practicing

According to Dr. K. Aders Ericsson, author of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, the speed at which you acquire a skill, such as piano playing, and the level of expertise you eventually achieve, is primarily a function of how intensely, and how wisely, you practice.

Blogger David Steinberg writes about what it is exactly that we need when practicing.  Passion and Opportunity. Here’s what he says about Passion.

Dr. Ericcson writes of his fellow researcher Benjamin Bloom, who concluded that:

elite performers are typically introduced to their future realm of excellence in a playful manner at a young age. As soon as they enjoy the activity and show promise compared to peers in the neighborhood, their parents help them seek out a teacher and initiate regular practice.

Want to improve? Be great? Passion matters. Rarely does an expert form who neither enjoys their mastered activity nor has a driving desire to improve. Pete Sampras likely found tennis to be a childhood love affair. He dreamt it, lived it, daydreamed it. Endless hours of practice are rigorous, and only the passionate tend to endure them.

Earl Woods wrote about consistently affirming that Tiger had developed his own passion for golf. He insisted that the boy finish his homework before practicing, and he noted that Tiger did indeed see golf as a reward. He insisted that Tiger call him at work, presumably an intimidating task for the child, so that he could ask his father if they could practice. Tiger Woods had a passion to improve that outweighed the rigors.

The less passionate? Ericcson writes:

Many individuals seem satisfied in reaching a merely acceptable level of performance, such as amateur tennis players and golfers, and they attempt to reach such a level while minimizing the period of effortful skill acquisition. Once an acceptable level has been reached, they need only to maintain a stable performance, and often do so with minimal effort for years and decades.

I, and likely you, never cared to be an excellent typist. I worked on it until it felt like “riding a bike” and then stopped trying to improve. My speed has not risen since, despite decades of experience.

Live it, breathe it, love it, or you probably will not get there, no matter what you do to prepare or how much experience you collect.

Read the entire article here… it will make you want to sit down and practice in an entirely new way!

Horowitz Plays Rachmaninoff

I don’t know what it is, but Horowitz’s performance of this  Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau  (Op. 33 No. 2)  reminds me of Russia in the winter, a la Dr. Zhivago.  Every note is crystal clear! A perfect ending to a stiflingly humid 90 degree day.


I was intrigued by an article in my local paper about a program at the Melberger Arts Center where teacher, Don Thompson, emphasizes “learning repertoire” over all those other pesky details such as finger technique, theory, interpretation and tone color. When you come right down to it, that’s what it’s all about, right?

I tell my students that it’s all good and fine to know your National Guild requirements each year, but it’s a good idea to keep something in your fingers after the auditions are over so that when you go away to college and there’s a piano in your dorm, it sure would be nice to be able to sit down and play something for your friends. Even better would be to be able to play something they would recognize.

“We’re teaching them a skill, not a career,” he said. “So they can build up their repertoires. So wherever they go where there’s a piano or a keyboard, they can play from their repertoires.”

Croatian Crossover

Muso, my favorite magazine for classical music, features Maksim Mrvica, the Croatian classical/pop crossover pianist. Maksim studied at the Music Academy in Zagreb under Professor Vladimir Krpan,  a pupil of Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli. He then spent a year at the Franz Liszt Conservatoire in Budapest winning first prize in the Nicolai Rubinstein International Piano Competition. A year later in 2000, he moved to Paris to study with Igor Lazko and there, in 2001 he gained first prize in the Pontoise Piano Competition. His talent and image makes him appealing to a large and varied audience and led to a career performing for international beauty pagaents, the MTV awards, and sponsors such as American Express and BMW.

Here he is, a classical pianist like you’ve never seen before, performing Rimsky-Korsokav’s Flight of the Bumblebee.

According to Maksim…

“Well, it’s not a question of money … I just always wanted to take a different approach. It’s a question of experimenting. I always wanted to try something different, something new. I want to reach as many people of all ages with classical music. That’s my dream.”

And that’s what it’s all about, right?

Karajan Phone Apps for Musicians

Karajan Beginner is a free iPhone App, very handy for piano students. It’s an easy to use music and ear training application for the iPhone and iPod Touch which provides lessons for learning to recognize intervals, chords, scales, pitch and tempo with detailed statistics. The free version is limited to one level and features 5 built-in instruments and 4 different play modes.

For more features including a multi-touch keyboard upgrade to the Karajan for $14.99 (see video). I don’t see much point to the BPM exercise unless you really don’t want to have to deal with metronomes. But nevertheless, I wish I had something like this years ago!

Piano Rock

Tom Moon on the NPR Music Blog opens up the discussion about why the piano fell out of favor as the main solo instrument of rock-n-roll.  Guitar, of course, is more portable, and it’s easier for the performer to get around on the stage playing the guitar. Although Jerry Lee Lewis does quite a bit of dancing, he still has to remain within arms reach of the keyboard.

But I wonder if piano might require just a little bit more from the performer. Teens pick up guitar and quickly learn to strum a few chords so they can play with their garage band friends, but pianists generally start lessons as children. Elton John and Billy Joel both studied piano from an early age. Billy Joel studied piano with a Juilliard grad (his father was a classical pianist) and Elton John began piano at age 3 and won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, London, at age 11! How many boys are taking piano lessons in your neighborhood?

Piano Survivor

yamaha peace piano

A 77-year-old piano that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and has become a symbol for peace is heading to New York next year as the city marks the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Read more here.

Dark Side of Piano Competitions

The Competition

According to this piece in the New York Times, the number of international piano competitions rose from only five held in 1945 to 114 by 1990 and no, and 750 piano competitions are held worldwide.

But behind the black ties, strapless gowns and Oscar-like atmosphere of the finals lurks a world of naked ambition, sometimes corrupt judging and bitter disputes over results.

The article points to the lack of standards to guide the judges as well as the strenuous judging process.  But this is part is disturbing:

Perhaps more sinister is the practice of jurors – often prohibited from voting for their own students – secretly trading votes with other jurors whose students are also competing. To complete the picture, teacher-jurors have been seen approaching the losers, offering to train them for future competitions – at which the teacher will also be judging. Such practices “will ultimately cannibalize the integrity of these competitions,” said Eugene Pridonoff, a piano professor at Cincinnati University.

Read the entire article here.

New Grand Piano Design from Audi

special edition bosendorferWish I had a chance to try this out! From Furniture Fashion:

German automobile maker Audi recently put their designers up to the task of designing this modern Grand Piano to celebrate their 100th anniversary. Audi teamed up with manufacturer Bosendorfer, and this modern designed piano debuted at a celebratory ceremony in Germany last month. The expected price tag will be $140,000 US.

Nora, because it’s Monday

Mindaugas Piečaitis composed and directed the Catcerto for Nora The Piano Cat™ and orchestra, which was no small feat.  Nora, the soloist, was brought in via video for the performance which was held June 5th in the Klaipėda Concert Hall in Klaipėda. Nora has her own blog and a few books for sale.  No wonder she’s so talented, she grew up in an artistic household.

Two new Mozart pieces performed

The two new Mozart pieces were performed today in Salzburg by Austrian pianist Florian Birsak on Mozart’s own piano an a house in Salzburg where he once lived. According to the story on NewsDaily:

The concerto movement and a prelude were originally judged by their archivist, the International Mozarteum Foundation, to be anonymous works. Further analysis determined they had been composed by Mozart when he was 7- or 8-years-old.

Both pieces were transcribed in the writing of Mozart’s father Leopold but the analysis showed he must have done so from what his prodigy child was playing on a piano, the foundation’s Mozart researcher Ulrich Leisinger told a news conference.

He said the young Mozart almost certainly asked his father to put the pieces to paper because he could not yet do musical notation, and later made his own corrections.

“This was a young composer running riot to show what he was capable of. The piece does contain real technical mistakes and clumsy moments that an old hand like Leopold Mozart would never have made,” Leisinger said.

“Neither the compositional style nor hasty correction-ridden hand-writing are consistent with Leopold’s authorship.

Jazz and Classical Pairing

On Tuesday Chinese pianist, Lang Lang, and jazz legend, Herbie Hancock, took the stage at Ravinia for what must have been a terrific concert.  See the pic of Hancock’s purple suit and read the review over at Chicago Classical Review.

The alliance works because the two share more qualities than is initially apparent. First, both artists don’t discount the elements of fashion and style, and Hancock’s shades and striking indigo suit seemed a nice companion to Lang Lang’s glamtastic waxed hair and dapper black two-piece. Secondly, Hancock’s career launched after he played the opening movement of Mozart Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was only 11. Lang Lang similarly found stardom when he performed the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the CSO in 1999. It was clear Chicago-native Hancock was speaking for the two of them when he said, “It’s good to be home.”