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.

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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!