Facilitating Creative Freedom in Performance

At the PIanoWhen I was an active and successful concert pianist playing recitals in Britain and across Europe, one of my main focuses was practice. I was most often playing repertoire chosen by others, as I was a collaborative pianist working with singers and instrumentalists. One moment I would be working on a Brahms cello sonata, the next a Messiaen song or an operatic ensemble by Verdi. I loved the variety of repertoire and performers — but I often would feel anxious as the performance date grew nearer. With so much repertoire to prepare, practice time was frequently limited, and on the evening of the performance I would find myself backstage thinking:
“If only I had one more week to practice…I’m just not as good as I should be…. Call yourself a professional….I wonder if I’ll make some big mistakes… I wonder what (fill in the blank) will think…”. Continue reading…


Klezmahler!

She’Koyokh and members of the Aurora Orchestra

A few days ago, I happened to hear about an intriguing concert in London- the Aurora Chamber Orchestra playing Mahler’s First Symphony, followed by a Klezmer band, She’Koyokh. Being a fan of both Mahler and Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music), I decided to book tickets, not quite knowing what to expect.

The concert took place at St Luke’s, Old St in the City, a converted church, now rehearsal and concert space for the LSO and others. The first half began with the orchestra in darkness, a sole spotlight on Timothy Orpen, an astonishing young clarinetist, who played a virtuosic solo by Jörg Widmann. Hardly had he finished when a clarinettist in the rafters took over (Susi Evans, from She’Koyokh), playing a traditional Doina, accompanied, still in darkness, by the orchestra. This was drama at the service of the music, and it worked beautifully, highlighting the prime role of the clarinet in both the symphony and in Klezmer music, and introducing both improvisational and traditional music from the outset. It was only after the conductor, the charismatic Nicholas Collon, crept on to the stage and the first few chords of the Mahler symphony trembled into life, that the lights began to come up.

The Mahler was performed in a brand new version for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington, with one instrument per part. This version was fascinating. Watching single strings cope with demanding counterpoint and lyrical intensity in a virtuosic display with the transparency of chamber music was stimulating. Each wind player brought individual colour and charisma. There was nowhere to hide, and no one wanted to. There was sometimes a pull between those wanting to let music breathe (particularly string players), and the wind agreeing with the conductor in wanting to drive the music forward. This resulted in minor ensemble difficulties occasionally, but over all the playing was outstanding. The famous funeral march of the third movement is punctuated by obvious references to Klezmer music, making explicit the raison d’être of the programme. It was only in the fortissimo sections of the final movement that I really missed the impact of a large orchestra.

After the interval, it was the turn of She’Koyokh, a distinguished klezmer band, to take the stage. In vibrant outfits, with rakish hats and equally rakish grins, they provided an immediate contrast to the classical players, and the audience were enthralled within minutes by a series of songs and dances from the Sephardic Jewish tradition, Bulgaria, and Turkey, amongst others. Astonishingly, some of the Aurora players had volunteered to join them, having taken a series of workshops on Yiddish music. A main part of the success of the evening came from seeing music being made with such playfulness, courage and risk-taking. Watching the classical players step (leap) outside their comfort zone, be inspired by folk music, and willing to improvise publicly was an inspiration.

As humans, we often mistake seriousness for purposefulness, and vice versa. Here purpose was all joy. The strengths of the classical players: virtuosity, musicianship, the ability to learn new music quickly in different styles, combined with the strengths of the multi-cultural band: Characterfulness. Juice. Drama. Instinct. Chutzpah. Groove. It was one of the most invigorating evenings I’ve experienced in a long time, and I didn’t want it to end.


New blogging job.

This week, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve joined a team of bloggers on the well-established Music Teachers Blog to add my thoughts and ideas on music teaching and teachers.

I’ve been enjoying this blog for nearly a year already, as I find great value in being able to exchange ideas with other independent music teachers. It’s very easy to feel isolated, and it’s been interesting finding out how many of us have the same challenges and pleasures, as well as having the opportunity to benefit from new ideas and resources.

I’m going to be contributing ideas from the point of view of a life coach who is also a longtime performer and teacher, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to try out my ideas. Here’s a link to my first post.


On hearing Leon Fleisher play Bach

 

He knows what’s important— the purity, the essence of the music. There’s nothing like not being able to play the piano for forty years to make one appreciate each sound. Each opportunity to create beauty. There’s no excuse, no need for artifice. Each moment has purpose.

Years of absence and silence have refined the desire to create sound. Decades of trying and failing to regain health, prestige, career have bruised and beaten the ego to a pulp. Only the heart of the music remains, as only the soul of man survives.

Now he wants to play Bach, Chopin, Schubert. Why play music that is purely virtuosic? He learned long ago that maximum notes per second are not where it’s at.

“Before, I was just a two-handed piano player,” he says. “What happened to me has expanded my life, my awareness, my humanity.”


A Legend at Lunchtime

The other day, I was privileged to meet Katinka Scipiades Daniel, an eminent piano teacher and almost solely responsible for introducing the Kodály Method of music education to America back in the 1960’s. Katinka, now in her 90’s, joyful, sprightly and alert, welcomed members of the Kodály Association of Southern California for a potluck lunch, where we had chance to hear stories and reminiscences of all kinds.

Katinka’s own history is interesting– her husband Ernö Daniel was an eminent concert pianist in Hungary, giving concerts internationally, when the Communists took over Hungary in the 1940’s. As he happened to be abroad at that time, he decided not to return, although Katinka and her children were still in Hungary. Ernö went to America, accepting a position first at Wichita Falls and then at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and eventually after twelve years, his wife and children were permitted to join him.

The family all flourished in America– both parents becoming renowned as teachers, their son and daughter eventually becoming well-respected and successful doctors. Katinka has made an interesting video on how to combine the Kodály method with piano teaching, which also contains valuable examples of her technical methods. She has also written excellent books on teaching Kodály from Kindergarten upwards. However, her most lasting impact has been the training of some wonderful Kodály teachers in California, who are now passing on her legacy. I’m excited to join them.


Sounds of Alarm

Lots of alarm about “the future of classical music” on some of the blogs I read today. What occurs to me is that one of the reasons that people are so alarmed by this idea is that they don’t regard classical music as just music. It has to be kept separate and elevated, ideally in an airtight container marked “Fragile :This Way Up”.
Continue reading…