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.


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.

Creative Venues for Musicmaking

I’m lucky to have a music studio with enough space to hold an audience of about 30. But this year I’m planning a big old-fashioned dress-up recital, mostly for the benefit of my young students and their families. Right now I’m looking into booking a church with an excellent piano. If that doesn’t work out, I will look into booking a nearby community center which has a Steinway on their stage.

The reason I say “old-fashioned” is because I’ve been reading about so many creative performance ideas recently. Really you can make any space a performance space.

Museums, shops, private homes, and galleries work well. Here’s a list of 10 ideas in unusual places, including one in a Launderette! The article mentions The Black Cab Sessions. The idea:  one song, one take, one big old London cab. They even fit a small keyboard in there for Au Revoir Simone.

At South by Southwest in Austin, TX, there were performers playing in every venue.  But one was the most intimate of all:

There were gigs in parking lots, the noise carried off on dusty winds. There were lakeside gigs lighted by fireworks. Gigs in big theaters, at an old power plant, in a “death metal” pizza joint. Gigs — parades, funky drummers, ukulele serenades — in the middle of Sixth Street, the always-mobbed party thoroughfare here. And, of course, there were gigs within, outside and above bars all over downtown.

But the most unusual performance space at South by Southwest this year, and perhaps one of the most effective, was a small, quiet hotel room blessedly removed from all the pandemonium. Just after noon on Saturday, a couple of dozen booking agents, artist managers and assorted friends and relations packed into a room at the historic Driskill Hotel to take in three guitar-cradling singer-songwriters in what seemed almost unthinkably intimate circumstances…

…at the hotel on Saturday afternoon, they sat at the foot of the bed and played with a delicacy — and a casualness — that would simply be impossible anywhere else here. Mr. Waller contemplated loss as its own sort of protest against war: “Oh my love,” he sang, “I never dreamed that you would die so far away.” (For a couple of songs, he had a cellist, squeezed between the bed and a window overlooking Sixth Street.) Jenny O. and Alessi Laurent-Marke, who performs as Alessi’s Ark, sang so quietly that, even though I was squatting on the floor just a few feet from them, I had to lean in to catch all the nuances.

Read the entire article here.

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.