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.’

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.

Chopin’s Women, BBC Documentary

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost one year since Chopin’s 200th birthday! But here’s a treat for you as we approach his 201st. This BBC documentary is now available in eight parts. Watch the first part here and find the rest on YouTube.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, this film follows young pianist James Rhodes on a journey to Warsaw, Paris and London to discover the real women who had such a powerful influence on the composer.

Exploring the events of Chopin’s life, Rhodes encounters the singers who enchanted the composer with their voices: Konstancja, a young soprano and the object of his teenage affections; Delfina, the sexually notorious Polish Parisian emigre countess; fellow composer and opera singer Pauline Viardot; and, during the final few months of his life, the Swedish operatic superstar Jenny Lind.

Threaded through the narrative of the film is a selection of Chopin’s piano music performed by Rhodes, while rising young opera singer Natalya Romaniw performs some of the signature arias that thrilled Chopin.

Featuring contributions from Chopin experts including the interpreters Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson, his biographer Adam Zamoyski and piano guru Jeremy Siepmann.


Relaxing Classical Music

Novelty Dog Bed

I was listening to my local public radio station in the car this morning.  They’ve lost all of their state funding and now are forced to depend on the community for support so they are in the midst of another membership pledge drive.  In return for the pledges they’re giving away tickets to see Garrison Keillor, a dozen long-stemmed roses, hats, mugs and CDs. One of the CD’s is a compilation called “The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe!” Apparently according to a poll of the station listeners, most of them enjoy classical music because it’s relaxing and it helps them unwind.

Gosh! I know that in the world of fundraising, you have to appeal to your donors, but wouldn’t it be great at least try to get some new young listeners? I understand that the younger audience may not have the disposable income to be supporting public radio while paying off student loans, but to  spend ten minutes talking about how relaxing and calming classical music is only going to alienate them. Most people, myself included, are not in a position to chuck it all in, put up their feet and snooze away their day.

They say for every $40 individual membership, the station will be able to purchase 8 new CDs. Will this include yet another version of Pachelbel’s  Canon, Clair de Lune, or the Moonlight Sonata?

Here’s an idea! Let’s let the donors choose the titles of at least 4 of the 8 new CDs the station will purchase. Or how about inviting some local college music students into the studio to talk about programming. Devote one hour a week to a discussion of the more experimental side of classical music including recordings of local performances.

No state funding? Why not use this as an excuse to get wildly creative?

Save the relaxing music for the dogs.

Classical Piano Today

I remember a conversation I had with Karl Ulrich Schnabel back in the late 80’s about the future of classical music. A friend and I were at his New York apartment for a coaching for our duo-piano team. As we were leaving we started talking about the state of the arts and I remember he was very optimistic. He said not to worry about the future of classical music. He was convinced that there would be a rebirth. Perhaps classical music would take on a new look and feel, but he was confident there would be a new appreciation for classical music in the early 21st century.

Turns out he was right.

One example from the classical piano world is James Rhodes new album, Bullets and Lullabies, due to be released tomorrow in the UK and on December 28th here in the U.S.

…when he starts to play, it’s an intensely classical programme with not a whiff of a crossover number. No wonder Warner Bros. Records have just snapped him up as their first ever classical musician. It’s proper classical music, but in an overwhelmingly accessible package that screams mass market youth appeal. (read more of the review here)

Another example are the recent live broadcasts of both the Van Cliburn Competition (2009) and the Chopin International Competition (2010) which generated an outpouring of blog posts, chats, and Twitter and Facebook comments from musicians and non-musicians from around the world. Whether or not you are a fan of these competitions the fact that these performances are available to everyone (with a connection to the Internet) is more evidence of a new interest in classical piano performance.

Oh, let’s not forget and we also had Chopin2010!

Recommended reading:  Greg Sandow’s “Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music” for insight on this new era in the music world. And Kyle MacMillan’s recent article, Classical Music Is Going New Places.

Marketing Classical Music To Teens

In getting to know a new piano student, I’ve always made a point to ask them what type of music they like. This helps me assign them the pieces that I know they’ll practice. And, of course, if they practice they will improve their technical and note-reading skills, and in turn will improve their confidence and ability to play more difficult works. When I ask them about their taste in music they respond in several ways:

Some students shrug their shoulders as if they don’t care one way or the other. And they really don’t. Others need a little prodding but then they reveal that they like jazz, oldies, pop, ragtime….perhaps a family member plays jazz piano, or their dad keeps the radio tuned to the oldies station in the car….but I can count on one hand the number of students who’ve told me they like classical music.

However  the most enthusiastic responses come from students who’ve heard their peers perform. These are the students that come in to their lesson knowing exactly what they want to learn. They are inspired by the performances of their fellow students.

We all know that practicing piano is a lonely chore for many young students. And preparing for the one big end-of-year recital just doesn’t give students a lot of incentive. If we engage our piano students in regular informal performance opportunities throughout the school year, give them a chance to hear the pieces their friends are working on, and expose them to many composers and musical styles, they will come to their lesson with a list of pieces they want to learn.  Who cares if they all want to play Clair de Lune, Fur Elise (or even Lady Gaga) all of a sudden! The point is that they are fired up to play the piano.

What does this mean?

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about how kids don’t listen to classical music. They find it boring, too slow, too difficult. Even those students who regularly practice classical music listen to popular music during their downtime, and rarely download a symphony or sonata to their iPod.

Let’s face it.  If we want to get our students enthused about playing piece from the classical piano repertoire we have to let other students “sell” it.

Here’s how it works. The teens perform in a casual setting for the younger students. They play a classical recital, with some jazz and pop thrown in. They’re having fun. There’s no struggle. No judges or grading. They can dress however they want to. They laugh and talk with their friends between pieces. The audience is composed of friends from school as well as family members. The mood is set. The younger students want to be part of that community.

I guarantee there will be at least one student who attended that performance who will come into his next lesson and ask to learn a piece he heard one of the other students play.

Youth marketing author and speaker, Graham Brown of Mobile Youthasks what is the biggest influence on 16-24 year olds? The answer: other 16-24 year olds.

Stay tuned to find out how young classical musicians are building their own groundswell through community.