Half Steps and Whole Steps

Posted March 1, 2009 by halfnotes
Categories: Bach, Blindness, Braille, Chopin, Dreams, Family and Friends, Mozart, music, piano, psychology, Special Days

Frederic Chopin lived from March 1, 1810 to October 17, 1849. He is recognized as one of the giants of pianism, and his playing and composing impact the art even today.

Chopin was a master of smaller-scale works, and most of his output was for solo piano. He was equally at home making grand and dramatic musical statements as well as small and intimate ones.

Drawing on the traditions of great keyboard player-composers of previous generations, particularly Bach and Mozart, he developed his own unique approach to melodic writing. His melodies in and of themselves are often minimal in character, and taken out of context, they appear to not even be melodies at all–more akin to kernels or seeds than full-bloom creations.

However, he mastered the art of using ornamentation–trills, scales, arpeggios, sequences of notes played “outside of time”–and these elements are what create the momentum that allows the melodic kernel to soar.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. As a pianist, I am keenly aware of history and the heritage I am drawing on when I play. Up until now, while people said I had the talent, I did not have the mindset to play at a world-class level. I couldn’t imagine myself taking a year to study a recital program–I was afraid of boredom, but, perhaps to a greater extent, I was afraid of the weaknesses in my own technique that would be revealed if I focused so intensely for such a long period on such a small repertoire.

As my technique has gotten stronger and my ability and desire to play expressively have increased, my desire to apply that type of single-mindedness to practice has also grown.

So, when the idea for a Chopin lecture-recital pairing for 2010 came in the middle of the night earlier this winter, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I played with it, considering how I could illustrate Chopin’s evolution as a composer.

The program took shape fairly quickly:

Bach: English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810

Mozart: Sonata in B-Flat, K. 281

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28

I’d heard someone play the complete preludes on a recital when I was in college and always dreamed of doing it myself. But, while I started a few times, I was quickly deterred and discouraged, lacking the technique and the discipline to tackle such challenges as Prelude No. 3 (an all-16th-note left hand that required equal parts speed, smoothness and dynamic shaping); and I never even looked at No. 8 (if 16th notes were beyond what I could do, then 32nds were even further beyond my capacity).

But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, I have begun, taking half steps and whole steps as my mind and hands are able to find a way.

My most recent victory was to finish the fiendishly chromatic Allemande from the Bach suite. The first half was learned easily enough, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that I was able to hold the final few measures of the second half in memory from one practice session to the next.

I still often catch myself wondering how I’m going to accomplish what I’ve set out to do, especially since, as is often the case when we take an opportunity presented by the universe and run with it, the project has grown into a mission to play the program at least once in all fifty states.

Yes, it’s about Chopin, but it’s also about raising awareness of the fact that a blind person can play at the highest level, of showing the world that Braille music is a viable tool for independence, and taking listeners on a journey they might not otherwise embark on.

I could have done an all-Chopin program, and I’m sure many pianists will. The B Minor sonata is on my “must play” list, but not until my technique has grown even further.

In the twenty-four preludes, Chopin put all the different aspects of pianism in miniature form. For me, this is a journey of education. I’m allowing the pieces to teach me how to play, how to produce effects I once only dreamed of being able to achieve. Already, No. 8 has shown me that, by keeping the fingers close to the keys, you can bring out a melodic line and surround it with swirling notes that sound as if they have just blown in on a strong west wind.

Some days, I leave the piano exhausted, unsure how I will learn everything I need to if I want to play this program. I listen to the CD I’ve made of the recital pieces (Schiff on Bach, Uchida on Mozart, Polini on Chopin). With each listening, the music gets absorbed a little deeper into my being, and when I return to the keyboard, things that seemed insurmountable the night before make a little more sense. Even if I don’t have the whole solution, I may have the first step, enough to make my way through two more measures.

This coming Thursday, I will give the first semi-public performance of the prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5, the piece that will open the program next year. I will be playing for a meeting of the Etude Club of Schenectady. It is a group for women musicians who gather each month to play for one another. For me, the meetings and the performance opportunities they present are an impetus to bring a piece to the highest level possible, at least given the short time it’s been since I first began working on it.

Throughout the next year, I will set several such performance milestones for myself. For me, these are important because they will compel me to have things finished and in a coherent musical form in time to present them convincingly to an audience.

But by this date next year, I will be unveiling the first full-length public presentation of my program. More than ever before, I know that I can play this at a level of musicality and polish that I never could have in the past. I also am beginning to believe the people who have said all along that I am a great player, with something unique to present. I am beginning to understand that I should be heard by more than just family and friends. And, at long last, my heart is returning to my music, and my voice is no longer content to sing in just a whisper.

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The Mind of a Composer

Posted February 25, 2009 by halfnotes
Categories: healing arts, music, piano, psychology, spirituality, teaching

I never thought, as a piano performance major in college, that I’d spend a good percentage of my professional time composing.

As a concert pianist, I’m immersed in the ideas of other composers, and I love the intellectual challenge of trying to figure them out. Most of the time, it’s fun, although there are stretches that are just plain hard. Like now, as I painstakingly make my way through the Allemande from Bach’s fifth English Suite. There are so many changes in harmony that don’t quite seem logical to me–but, hey, I’m just the player. Yesterday’s practice session got me to the end of the first half, and it’s always interesting to see what stayed in memory a day later when the piece pushes my mind to its limits like this.

On another level, I’ve earned a good portion of my annual income from composing. My “Soul Essence” pieces have continued to sell steadily, and I passed the hundred-song mark sometime last December. Besides these individual portraits in sound, there has been the “Five Elements” series of music for healing, meditation or plain enjoyment, and I’ve written lots of things to enhance my piano teaching.

Perhaps the most fun, though, is my teaching composition to students. These range in age from five to their late teens (pretty much K-12 kids). So many kids tell me, “I can’t compose,” because they’ve never tried it and, to a lesser extent, their creativity hasn’t been stimulated.

Every year, I hold a series of competitions for my students called the Piano Olympics, and one of the categories is for composition. Once kids discover that they can be creative, that, with the technological advantage of a digital keyboard hooked up to a computer and software that not only creates lots of different sounds but can also correct uneven rhythm and otherwise produce a very polished end result, and that there is no such thing as a “wrong” composition, they often surprise themselves.

Often, this process takes a few years to unfold. Students who only composed the first year because I made them do it decide they want to try something bigger their second time around. And they’re not content to do two songs that sound alike. They begin exploring different moods, styles, and national traditions–music with an Asian flavor is popular.

There’s a different frame of mind for each of these. As a pianist, if I’m interpreting someone else’s music, there is room for my own personal sound, and this is what sets me apart from the other thousands of pianists out there–it’s what distinguishes Pianist A from Pianist B and both of them from Pianist C. But, the composer’s ideas must take precedence and guide what I do.

Writing for students, with a pedagogical goal, requires me to work within sometimes very strict limits. A first-year piano student won’t be able to play what a third-year student can, and yet, both deserve engaging music that is enjoyable to play, teach, and listen to. How, for instance, do I create a full, rich harmonic landscape without moving beyond the scope of what a 5-year-old’s hand can reach?

Finally, music for healing or as an expression of a person’s humanity, perhaps more than the other two forms, demands that I, as an individual, step aside, make room for the “song of the spirit” to come through. It’s the same tenet that should guide healing of any kind: “It’s not about me”.

One of the things that gives me the most satisfaction as a teacher is that all my students don’t sound like me. They don’t even sound too much like one another! We produce a CD of their Piano Olympics compositions every year, and it’s always fascinating to me to listen to the whole thing, as a group, and hear just how diverse the music is.

We’re heading into “crunch time” now–the deadline for the composition competition is April 1, and some of my longtime students, who can usually be counted on to produce very interesting pieces, haven’t even started yet. As I write this, two kids are just about done, and two more have the main content of their work finished. A fifth has a melody, but nothing beyond that.

Over the next few weeks, guiding students in what to listen for as they create, how to balance repetition and change, using instrumentation to highlight their ideas, and coming up with a title that fits the piece, I’ll be challenging them and challenging myself to think and hear in new ways.

Let the games begin.

A Royal Return

Posted February 24, 2009 by halfnotes
Categories: Family and Friends, Sports

As a kid, I loved names. I haven’t outgrown that, but some things have changed as I’ve gotten older.

I really enjoy baseball, particularly the “old-fashioned” notion of listening to games on the radio. Being a New York state resident, I’m interested in the Yankees, but I’m certainly not a diehard. I’ll happily cheer for any team in any game if I think they have a compelling story. Yankees, Mets, Devil Rays, Rockies … give me a good story to follow, and I’ll follow a team.

My one constant, though, from childhood on, has been that I’ve always had a soft spot for the Kansas City Royals. As a kid, I thought it was cool that a team called themselves “Royals,” and not just “Kings” or “chiefs” or “Padres”.

My husband likes to tease me that, once I get interested in something, particularly TV programs, they die and get canceled. That might not seem like it’s relevant, but the Kansas City Royals, over the past ten years at least, have been kind of like those TV shows. They start with lots of “promise,” and end every season with a losing record, not even close to the wild card, let alone the World Series.

Now, with my best friend in Kansas, I’m even more interested in the Royals. (To wit: Never one to pay much attention to college basketball, I gladly got caught up in March Madness and spent the last two days of the run on the edge of my seat, just as overjoyed as any Jayhawk fan when Kansas won it all in overtime.)

Some “experts” are saying the Royals have even more “promise” than usual this year. But we all know about early expert picks–they’re either dead right, or dead wrong, and you may as well just flip a coin to figure out which it’ll be in any given year.

I’m not paying some crazy cable bill just for Kansas baseball games. There’s a strong possibility that I’ll be in the state for intensive piano study this summer, in which case, I’ll find myself a good radio station and, when I’m not at the keyboard, I’ll be listening … and dreaming that this will be the year they recapture their crown.

Sweetness from the Trees

Posted February 23, 2009 by halfnotes
Categories: Family and Friends, Food

Most winter mornings, breakfast for me is oatmeal with maple syrup. This time of year, I think about how the Iriquois had a Maple Sugar Moon, and I marvel that a tree can provide such sweetness.

We have a maple in our front yard, but I’m not sure if it’s a sugar, and besides, sap from one tree, once it’s been cooked down, doesn’t make much syrup.

When I was in sixth grade, I was in what was called “The Outdoor Team”–a class that, along with the usual math, science, social studies and language arts, went on camping trips, hikes, cooked outside, and, in February and early March, tapped the maple trees in the woods on school property.

Every day, we’d go out into the snowy woods and empty the buckets, bring the sap inside, and cook it down. You always knew when the sap was running because our whole wing of the school would be redolent with the burnt sweetness of it as it simmered and thickened.

The season always culminated in a sleepover in the gym. We’d eat pizza on a Friday night and play volleyball, stay up until well past midnight, then awaken later Saturday morning for a pancake breakfast.

My grandmother had woods behind her house, and each year, my uncle taps the trees. I always said I wanted to go with him to do it. But now, it may be too late, as time has passed, he has aged, and I … I’ve had a full life, and sometimes, it’s hard to find time for everything you want to do, and the first thing that gets pushed aside for “later” may, at the time, seem small and unimportant. Now, with my grandmother gone almost two years, the time for walking in her woods, savoring the sweetness that comes from her trees, is past.

But each morning, even if it’s not foremost in my mind, these memories come to me as I eat my breakfast.

Listening for History

Posted November 13, 2008 by halfnotes
Categories: Blindness, music, piano

A few days ago, I went to a local convenience store to buy ice cream. While I was paying, I noticed that, when the cash register drawer was opened, a little speaker on the machine made the sound of an old-fashioned cash register drawer, with a bell and everything. This struck me as funny and then got me thinking. How many things in life now do we use that artificially produce the sound of their non-electronic predecessors?

The most obvious, perhaps, is the cell phone that rings like an old rotary phone, with a bell instead of a chirping, trilling tone. I shake my head whenever I hear someone’s cell phone emit this sound, because in a way, it totally defeats the purpose–to have an electronic device make the sound of something it’s not. Not to mention that, usually, when this choice is set, the person who chose it has the ring volume so loud that everyone within a quarter-mile vicinity knows they’re getting “an incoming”.

Being a musician, of course I thought about synthesizers that reproduce all the instruments of the orchestra. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this field evolve, so that now, there’s even a keyboard that can be used to play parts with a human orchestra if players of those instruments aren’t available. Some musicians see this as a threat–after all, if a machine can now do what they can for less money and without the possibility of errors or fatigue or the need for health insurance and retirement benefits, pretty soon they’ll be completely irrelevant. Not really, in my opinion. The quality and realism of these synthesizers blows my mind. But there will never be a replacement for live music, played from the heart. No machine can replicate that.

Another overlooked sound, because it’s so obvious, is the doorbell. Lots of them go “ding-dong,” or play “Westminster Chimes”. But most of them have no bells anywhere in them. Instead, they’re wires hooked up to a receiver that has been programmed to play digital versions of those sounds.

Many churches still “chime the hour” and play hymns on a “carillon” at noon and five. When my husband and I lived in our first apartment, there was a church across the street that did this. I loved it because I always knew what time it was without having to look at my watch. But there was no carillon–just a pre-recorded selection that rotated through a series of hymns, and I’d be willing to bet that the clock didn’t have a bell, either.

It’s not just doorbells with no bells, either. We have clocks in our house that tick, even though there’s nothing mechanical inside that says they have to. In college, my father gave me a talking alarm clock that crowed like a rooster. We’re programmed to associate roosters with the crack of dawn, but as more of us move away from a life that includes the real feathery thing, we get our cockadoodle-doo’s from tiny speakers instead.

My brother Mike was a linguist in the Navy, and he came home from one overseas trip with an alarm clock that played the Muslim call to prayer. This clock was even louder than my rooster, and every time I heard it, I couldn’t help but envision teeming streets in some city, speakers atop poles at the corners, the sheer volume of sound from all that humanity overwhelming the senses. There’s nothing like it in the U.S.

I’ve even been to someone’s house where, when you knocked on the door, the sound of a big dog barking greeted you. This person had no dog. But if you just came to the door and didn’t know this, you’d think he did. Until, of course, you paid attention enough to notice that the barking never moved anywhere, like an excited dog running around.

There is concern among blind people about the new hybrid cars. They are very quiet when the gas engine isn’t engaged, and if we can’t hear them coming when we’re crossing streets, it could potentially be pretty dangerous. So there are proposals to have the companies install some sound-making device to alert pedestrians when one of these “quiet cars” is approaching. So we may one day have cars that don’t sound like cars but, like that cash register that started this whole mental excursion, are programmed to play the sound we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing that it’s practically hard-wired into our DNA now.

As our world becomes more and more mechanized, what sounds are we losing? How many kids holding a carton of milk have actually heard a cow moo in the flesh? How many people have listened to the racket made by a chicken laying an egg? (They sound so joyful and yet so desperately sore at the same time–how do they do that!)

We live on a busy road, and the traffic is pretty constant. But surrounded as we are by woods, since the road passes through the Pine Bush Preserve, we still get all the birds, tree-rustlings, wind, insects and other wonderful sounds of nature. Personally, I don’t think I would want to live anywhere I couldn’t hear those things, though being in a city would solve a lot of transportation problems for me as a non-driver.

I use technology every day to compose. I have a musical keyboard hooked up to this computer, and I use software to produce all the sounds of the instruments in my pieces. But I try to make the results as realistic as possible. In a piece for four guitars, for instance, I’ve been known to make each one start a tiny fraction of a second after the other three, so they’re not quite exactly synchronized. The computer is great because it will mathematically correct what’s been recorded, if you want it to, so it is perfectly aligned in rhythm. But human beings, even the most rhythmically gifted among us, aren’t this precise.

My greatest compliment comes when someone hearing something I’ve created wants to know who played all those instruments and gets this incredulous look when they learn they all came out of a little office on the first floor of my house. To me, there’s nothing worse than “canned” music–music that sounds so artificial that it’s like aural Cheez Whiz.

And when I’ve pushed enough buttons and crunched enough numbers to almost drive me crazy, I can go into the next room, sit down at a totally non-electric keyboard, pause to get my bearings, and then immerse myself in the sound of an instrument that has been bringing pleasure and expression to millions for the past three hundred years. The construction has changed as materials have advanced, but the basic structure and sound haven’t changed beyond recognition.

Even if we lose electricity and I can’t use the computer, the piano is always waiting for me.

Potent Words: Need Versus Want

Posted November 9, 2008 by halfnotes
Categories: language, psychology

How many times have you gone to the grocery store and, as you’re walking down the aisles and picking things off the shelves, said, “Oh, I need that”? If you’ve got kids, how many times have they held up some goody or other in your grocery excursion and declared, “We need more of these, Mom”?

Chances are, the item you’ve picked or the one your child is waving in front of you has come from a company that has done their marketing research. They’ve covered the packaging with bright colors and big letters. And, especially here in America, they’ve probably “enhanced” or “improved” it somehow—usually by making the box hold more servings, touting “claims” about new ingredients that boost its cleaning power or flavor, anything as long as it will catch your attention and make you think about buying it.

The problem is, too often we don’t. The trouble doesn’t start with thinking, either. It starts with a four-letter word—well, two of them, really: “need” and “want”.

What do we really need? We need to eat and drink, keep ourselves relatively clean, fairly healthy, dressed in clothes that are seasonally appropriate and cover our parts that we find it socially unacceptable to leave out for public display (at least that’s the usual definition of clothing).

If you take that grocery trip, think about this. There are thousands of items there, and a majority can be considered luxury items. Do we really “need” laundry detergent that supposedly smells like “fresh breeze”? What about seven varieties of apple, twelve different formulations of pudding mix, or twenty-three different kinds of soup? Do our kids need cereal shaped like little bears, crackers in the shape of jungle animals, or yogurt with multicolored sprinkles they can mix into it? Do we “need” a beer can that turns blue to tell you it’s still cold? And if we do, why? (For the beer, didn’t we used to use our hands to figure this out?)

We’ve gotten really confused and think we need things we don’t, and what we should be saying instead is, “I want that”.

Advertising plays a big part in this shift. We’re constantly exposed to messages from companies saying that, in order to be happy, beautiful, healthy, satisfied, all we “need” is their product and we’ll magically change.

We have drugs for things we didn’t even call diseases before, or simply accepted as part of life. We are told to eat certain foods in certain amounts because of what they’ll protect us from “getting” later—“DRINK COFFEE TO REDUCE YOUR RISK OF PARKINSON’S!”, or “EAT CARROTS TO IMPROVE EYESIGHT!” or “GET YOUR FIBER IN YOUR YOGURT!”. What ever happened to eating vegetables because they were in season or because, wondrous thought, they taste good?

But I digress—someone better come take this soapbox!

We should all be a little clearer on what we “need”—the things required for basic life support—and what we want—the stuff that we can do without but choose to have because it gives us pleasure.

I never “need” chocolate. I can live without it. But there are times when I would enjoy the taste of it. At those times, I “want” it.

My husband and I try to make this distinction whenever we go grocery shopping. As a result, we’ve cut our spending on groceries dramatically over the past few years. The best way to cure yourself of “wanting” is to go without for a while. The things you used to insist you “needed”—vanilla chai mix, cookies, corn or potato chips, frozen waffles—won’t be in the house to tempt you.

We’re not immune, of course. I’m not advocating being so Spartan in what you buy that you feel constantly deprived. But next time you’ve got that “value-pack” of gourmet salad dressings or whatever you’re holding in your hand and hear yourself say, “I need this,” stop and ask.

“Wait a minute. Do I really? Or is it just that I want it?”

There are many things I want, far fewer I truly need.

Potent Words: Surviving Versus Living

Posted November 8, 2008 by halfnotes
Categories: Dreams, language, psychology, spirituality

If you’re “making a living,” that’s a good thing, right? The bills (mostly) get paid on time, there’s food on the table, warm clothes for winter and a roof overhead. Maybe there are good schools for the kids and good health care for grandparents.

But what if you hate your job, are unhappy with the person you’ve become, dissatisfied with where you’ve ended up and long for change? Are you still “making a living”? And what does that mean, “living”? Isn’t it more like “surviving”?

Two words, meaning similar things, but with big differences.

“Survival” is when our basic needs for food and shelter are met and we have some sense of security. It’s the bare minimum required for a human being to exist. There is no thought beyond the moment you are going through right now, since the tasks associated with keeping yourself and your family fed and sheltered dominate your energy. They are so immediate that there is no room for anything else.

In survival mode, people stop listening to their hearts and the dreams that are carried there. Life becomes too busy, too full of necessaries until it is empty of everything else.

“Living” is what happens when we make time, even among the demands of basic needs, for hope, for grace, for things beyond the next meal. We truly live when we remember what our passion, our purpose in life is and pursue it, so that we get carried along on the universe’s stream, always moving closer to our dream.

In survival, there is just enough to make it through the day. In living, we have abundance, the faith that we have more than enough to see through to tomorrow and beyond.

All of us do both—survive and live. We all want to live, but it’s often very difficult to shift our outlook if we are surrounded on all sides by examples of survival and are constantly being given the message that dreaming is for kids and we’d better grow up and face reality and just do our job and stay in our places.

And yet, some of the happiest people are the poorest. Their physical circumstances are certainly challenging, but they don’t see them as a final destination. They are the ones who fiercely hold on to the belief that education will allow their children to rise above where they’re currently stationed in life. All they ask is for the chance to try.

In this light, simply surviving is no way to live.