Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Stuff" Happens: 5 Tips for Surviving (and Recovering From) a Bad Performance

No one likes those "Oh, -----!!" moments that can happen on stage, and most performers have one or two horror stories about very public mistakes.  This article, written for Pianist Magazine, offers 5 tips for bouncing back from a bad performance--because it isn't that professional pianists never make mistakes on stage, we just know how to learn from them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Waco Variations, One Year Later: What I've Learned

A year ago I watched my novel, The Waco Variations, leave the safety of anonymity and set sail on the sea of public opinion.  The launch was a long time coming—since finishing the novel it had gone through several years of edits, a couple of years of seeking an agent, and another couple of years of waiting as the agent attempted to find it a publishing house.  Yet even with so much time between writing it and releasing it, letting go of this book was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Being a performing musician helped a bit.  I play concerts.  I’ve released CDs.  I’ve learned to work through the crippling self-doubt that comes from having my work judged by other people.  That was why my seesawing emotions surprised me.  Many meditation sessions (and a whole lot of journal entries) later, I realized what terrified me the most:  I wasn’t afraid of failing myself.  I was afraid of failing Cassie, the book’s protagonist.  After all, I hadn’t even wanted to write the story and it was only because I felt Cassie’s insistence that I birthed her story, went through all the steps of editing it, and eventually took a risk and released it.  

A year later, I’m glad I did.  Because of this book, I’ve met, communicated with, and become friends with people all over the world.  I’ve found an online home in the music blogging community—a community I’d been reading for years but hadn’t had the nerve to approach until I needed to market my book.  Not only did they provide opportunities to guest post about The Waco Variations, they wrote reviews and have generously promoted it to their readers.  

This past year taught me that the readers who “get” the book belong to one (or more) of these groups:  musicians, former fundamentalists, and people who have suffered trauma.  The deeply personal conversations I’ve had with readers have been humbling and inspiring.  The phrase I’ve heard most often?  “I thought [experienced, lived] this very thing and I thought I was the only one.”

I’ve also learned who doesn’t like my book--generally people who can’t relate to Cassie or her story.  Through those reviews I’ve learned that I can take a punch, get up, and keep going.  

I’ve learned some unsavory things about myself this year:  I thought I could be sangfroid when sales slumped.  I panicked.  Immediately.  And it took me days to work out of that pit.    Another unpleasant truth?  I discovered an internal reservoir of anger toward friends who promised to buy the book and then didn’t—friends who’s CDs or books I dutifully purchased and concerts I attended and promoted.  It took me a month to work through those feelings of betrayal and to realize that my expectations, not their behavior, were wrong.  

Despite ups and downs (and the fact that's it's a "literary novel"--a category that would be better described as "Literary Graveyard"...), the book has been selling fairly well.  Readers ask me if I’ll write another novel.  I tell them, only if I’m compelled to.  Despite having written a couple of teen romances in my early 20s, I consider myself more of a nonfiction writer than a novelist.  But this novel was a story I needed to tell.  Perhaps it is as Ted Hughes once said, that writing is about facing up to what we were too scared to face—about saying what we would prefer not to say, but desperately needed to share.  

At this one-year mark, I am so grateful to the readers who read Cassie’s story, loved it, and took the time to reach out to me.  I’m grateful to those who have chosen to review and champion in.  Most of all, I’m grateful that through my imperfect yet earnest way, The Waco Variations is out there reminding people that healing can occur and the through the notes of great music we can touch grace.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

An Interview With Frances Wilson (aka "The Cross-Eyed Pianist")

During my recent visit to London, I had the opportunity to sit down and share a drink and a chat with Frances Wilson.  This multi-talented woman has long been one of my blogging heroes who through email and social media has become a friend.  Over the course of an hour, we never stopped talking.  For all her successes, Frances is humble, funny, and warm--a person with whom you want to share a drink and a laugh.   

Frances generously agreed to share her thoughts on the many aspects of her successful career, as well as this video of her sensitive, musical playing.  For more of her wit and wisdom, follow her on social media and through her blog

With over 20,000 visitors per month, and a number of awards/nominations, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, is one of the world’s most widely-read classical music blogs.  What inspired you to launch it, and how has it evolved since you started it in 2010? 

It started initially as a place where I could record thoughts about the music I was playing, studying and enjoying at concerts. I had returned to playing the piano seriously after an absence of 20 years and a blog rather than an old-fashioned pencil and notebook seemed a useful way to track my progress. I’d already had some experience of blogging through my food blog Demon Cook so the initial set up process was easy. I felt the site needed an eye-catching, memorable title but beyond that I didn’t really think about readership/audience or a specific theme or USP. When I started out I never expected it to become as widely-read or recognized as it is now. I write about subjects which interest me and I hope that others might be interested too. But I also realized early on that a good blog takes time and commitment and should not lie fallow. I have always tried to offer varied articles, but with a main focus on the piano and pianists, and I launched the Meet the Artist series in 2012 because I felt it would be interesting for readers to have some insight “beyond the notes” of the lives of classical musicians. This series has in itself developed and evolved (and again, I never expected this!) and now has its own dedicated website (

You blog, write concert reviews, work as a publicist, host piano lessons on Pianist TV, run an Air BnB, play the piano, and probably three other things I didn’t think to list.  How do you manage it all, and what project excites you the most right now? 

People ask me this quite often! The truth is I’m someone who thrives on activity and plenty of variety, so I’m rarely bored. Routine is also very important (see Mason Currey’s book on the daily rituals of creative people) as it enables me to structure my days to fit in the various strands of my working - and not working - life. I am rather boringly strict about my daily routine and tend to get up at the same time every day. Curiously, this actually allows me to do things spontaneously and I feel able to take on new projects. 

As a freelancer, I am reluctant to turn down work, but I always try and select projects which interest and stimulate me. Everything I do is related to music in some way (except the AirBnB hosting, although I have hosted some musicians!) and I feel that these various activities feed into one big melting pot which informs my writing, my own music making and my teaching.

Recently, I’ve really been enjoying the publicity work I’ve been doing for British cellist Joy Lisney. I first encountered her when she was still a teenager and was very impressed by her mature approach to her music making. She also has a remarkable stage presence, which largely comes from her sound rather than gesture. Drawing attention to her activities (she is also a composer and fledgling conductor) has given me some insights into the workings of the UK classical music world, and also the world of PR. I’ve always been a good administrator (I worked as a PA in a publishing company before I had my son and turned into a musician/writer) and I find the minutiae of managing publicity – contacting press, liaising with venues, producing marketing material like press releases and leaflets – very satisfying. It’s also very interesting to see the industry from another perspective.

As a pianist you know how vulnerable it feels to walk out on stage and play for an audience.  How has this knowledge influenced your work as a concert reviewer?

A number of musicians whom I’ve reviewed and subsequently met have commented upon my sympathetic approach. As a pianist myself, I appreciate the sheer amount of work, attention to detail and careful practising which goes in to preparing for a concert, along with all the other aspects which need to be honed and finessed, and I feel this gives me a deeper understanding of the processes involved in performance. I do think many audiences believe it all magically comes out of the fingers due to natural talent, when in fact it takes many hours, days and weeks of hard graft. 

So when I review, I do not believe it is my job (nor indeed any other reviewer or critic’s) to tell the musicians how to do their job. Instead, I feel a review should be a record of the event, and should attempt to recreate the experience of the live concert for the reader. I would rather not write a review if I am likely to say something overly negative, as I appreciate musicians can be sensitive – and everyone is allowed to have an “off day” for whatever reason.

You’ve been extremely generous and helpful to fellow bloggers and musicians like myself.  Who inspired you when you were new to blogging and reviewing, and how do you think being helpful to other writers and musicians has benefited your work?

I think the blog which inspired me the most when I was first starting out was by Susan Tomes, a British pianist and writer. I also liked Stephen Hough’s blog for the Daily Telegraph (sadly no more). They both write in an honest and accessible way about the myriad exigencies of life as a musician and tend not to make distinctions between the professional and amateur, which is inspiring and supportive. I don’t generally read other people’s reviews, though I have always preferred “long form” reviews on independent review sites and blogs rather than those in the mainstream press (where arts coverage is being squeezed, sadly)

It quickly became apparent that my own blog was a way of connecting with others – fellow bloggers and writers, musicians, concert-goers, and music lovers – and I have always enjoyed the interactions which come from these connections. They can spark new ideas for articles and create the sense of an ongoing conversation which I find very stimulating. I have a rule for internet interaction which is “tweet as you would be tweeted by”: if one is pleasant and generous online it definitely reaps rewards. 

On a more practical level, my blogging has led to a variety of paid roles, including writing for other music websites and magazines, publicity work, and teaching.

What advice would you give to young pianists who are struggling to build sustainable careers?

This is similar to one of the questions on my Meet the Artist interview questionnaire and when I read responses from other musicians there seems to be a common answer to this question which is “Be yourself”, coupled with very down-to-earth advice about working hard, being a good colleague, and finding your own musical identity. It is very very hard, the industry is highly competitive, and often quite cut-throat. Today it is not enough to be good, one has to be exceptional – and not just musically exceptional. You have to be prepared to graft, to market and promote yourself, and do a lot of your own leg work. So my advice, based on my interactions with young people in conservatoire or those just starting out on their careers, is to work hard, don’t look at what others are doing and think “maybe I should be doing that”, try to create your own artistic identity, and be prepared to have a “portfolio career” (teaching, even working outside of music). Oh and don’t accept every gig that’s going just because it’s a gig. Be a little discerning if you can – this can help maintain a sense of your own artistic integrity - and make sure you get paid!

Frances Wilson is a pianist, music reviewer, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Established in 2010, The Cross-Eyed Pianist has become “an important voice in the piano world” (Peter Donohoe, international concert pianist) and enjoys a wide global readership. Frances is also a regular writer for Hong Kong-based classical music site InterludeHK and a content creator for classical music streaming service IDAGIO. She writes an occasional column on aspects of piano playing for Pianist magazine’s online content, and has acted as a syllabus consultant for all three major UK music exam boards. She has also appeared on BBC Radio Three’s Music Matters programme with Tom Service to discuss the effect of the internet on music criticism today.

Frances returned to the piano after a 20-year absence and subsequently completed two professional performance diplomas (both with distinction) in her late 40s. A passionate advocate of amateur pianism, in 2013 she co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group which organizes performance platforms and workshops for adult pianists in and around London. 

Frances lives in Dorset, SW England with her husband, cat and a 1913 Bechstein grand piano, known affectionately as “Bechy”. 

Twitter @crosseyedpiano

Monday, May 13, 2019

An Open Letter to Composers: 6 Reasons Why I Didn't Play Your Piece

Dear Composer:
It’s an accepted fact: most classical pianists prefer to play tried and true masterpieces by famous composers who have been dead for at least 100 years.  It’s frequently what arts presenters want to book us to play, and it’s what audiences understand. The few of us who prefer to play brand new music face daunting challenges—not only do we have the challenge of co-creating a piece of music we’ve never heard before, we must also convince concert presenters and audiences to listen to it and appreciate it too.   And sometimes, no matter how much we may love a composer’s piece, we simply can’t commit to programming it.  Over the years many composers have asked me why I haven’t performed pieces they’ve written; while I can’t speak for all pianists, here are some of my reasons:
The piece is too long. There are several multi-movement works in my music closet that I’d love to play but know I can never convince a concert presenter to allow me to program because they’re just too long.  Most of my audiences are classical music lovers who want a little dash of something new thrown into a musical meal of something they recognize.  If you want me to perform your pieces, send me shorter works.

The piece is too abstract.  This may label me a Philistine, but if the composition doesn’t have a tune and a beat, I don’t connect well with it and (as a result) neither does the audience.

The piece doesn’t fit with the rest of my program. I do most of my concert programming with the idea of creating a seamless experience for the audience because, let’s face it, we’re all in show business.

I’m in a stylistic “phase.” Composers go through compositional “phases”; pianists do as well.  Several years ago I couldn’t play enough tangos.  For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with pieces that blend minimalism and edgy rhythms, as well as stuff that sits on the line between classical and jazz.  Tomorrow? Who knows?

The piece is too hard. I hate admitting to this one, but sometimes the score is so daunting that I can’t muster the enthusiasm to spend a year of my life learning it.  Other times, physical limitations (such as small hands) keep me from being able to do the music justice.

It’s not your best work. Few composers write masterpieces every time they compose.  If the latest piece you’ve sent me doesn’t seem to do you justice as a composer, I simply don’t perform it.  I may be wrong about the piece’s quality, but if I’m not, you’ll thank me for this someday.

This humble pianist wants to “do right” by my composer friends.  I'm grateful for the chance to bring a new composition to life, and I live for those moments when I succeed in catching your vision of the music.  Keep writing, but be patient with my limitations. The next piece just might be that perfect match.

Your biggest fan

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Tango in Edinburgh by Cynthia Stillman Gerdes

Born in Buenos Aires and quickly adopted around the world, the tango was once described as “a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.”  Playing it should feel like an improvisation--just the same way that the Argentinian tango is danced.  It's the pianist and the piano and the interplay of notes--sensuous, slinky, unapologetic. Despite the meticulously detailed score, A Tango in Edinburgh needs to be played from the senses, not the brain; instinct, not reason.

Composer  and pianist Cynthia Stillman Gerdes is an experienced tango dancer.  It shows in the lines of this piece.  Propelled by an active bass, the right hand becomes the showy, flamboyant follower—much like the relationship between the male and female dancers.  This tango is a musical memory of a dance she shared with a stranger in Edinburgh and Cynthia’s description of that night is so evocative that I needed to share it, in her own words: 

That May night in Edinburgh, Scotland the music was more sensual, complex and subtle compared to our usual tango scene. Being a composer/musician I loved it.

We were surprised how the dancers warmly welcomed us as distant American “cousins”. The whole evening was fun; however, there was one especially unforgettable, juicy, smooth tanda…  

"A Tango In Edinburgh" is an honoring of those special, fleeting connections with a stranger. Romantic? Well...maybe. My “traveling partner” didn’t seem to mind. He found his own tango pleasures that evening.

To learn more about Cynthia Stillman Gerdes and to purchase a copy:

Monday, April 29, 2019

Collaboration and the Arts: an Interview With Dr. Christopher Foley of Foley Music and Arts

One of the biggest surprises of my foray into the blogosphere has been the creativity, depth of knowledge, and generosity of fellow blogging musicians.  A passionate collaborative pianist (and founder of  Foley Music and Arts and The Collaborative Piano Blog, Chris Foley has created a multi-faceted career for himself that goes way beyond the confines of a "typical" job description.  Here are some of his secrets on how he put it all together. 

You’re a pianist, a teacher, an adjudicator, a writer, and an extremely successful blogger.  What made you decide to pursue so many career paths and how to juggle them all?

One aspect of working in the arts is that it can be a challenge to focus on any one activity and make enough money doing it to survive financially.  Therefore, it becomes necessary for many of us to pursue multiple streams of activities. 

When I started out in Toronto in the middle of 2002, my work was exclusively playing: coaching singers and instrumentalists, playing recitals, auditions, and opera contracts. That was great as long as I had steady paychecks coming in. When the gigs were slow, money was tight. But at the same time, that allowed me time to pursue other avenues, with the anticipation that there might be the possibility of employment with these down the road. 

That's what directly led me to starting the Collaborative Piano Blog - I had nearly two weeks in late 2005 with no work! The startup process and the thinking it generated led me to an interest in teaching piano, which in turn led to examining, adjudicating, giving workshops, and a host of other career possibilities down the road. It all started with the cognitive avenues that opened up from the process of starting a blog. 

Your first blog, The Collaborative Piano Blog, has an an international readership and is extremely successful and long-running.  How do you feel it has contributed to helping people see collaborative pianists as musical co-creators, not just “accompanists”?

One of the early decisions I made with the Collaborative Piano Blog was to put the focus not just on myself, but on the entire profession. 2005 was a time when there wasn't much information available on the internet about the field of collaborative piano. It was difficult for many people to discover what collaborative piano actually is, what specific skills are needed, what the field of work comprises, or how to succeed at it as a freelancer in an urban area. In the first few years, I attempted to create resources to address those needs, and I'm continually blown away that so many people have found those resources useful, even with the passing of years. 

At the same time, I'm concerned that many of the challenges I faced as a full-time collaborative pianist are still major issues that people are facing today. These include fundamental things such as knowing how to negotiate fees, getting paid fairly for performing engagements, being mentioned on programs, and getting the basic level of respect that they deserve as a musician in professional situations. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

Foley Music and Arts, your newest blog, is about “music, creativity, and productivity in the arts, and how they fit together.”  Please elaborate.

A by-product of spending massive amounts of time on the internet writing a blog is that I discovered other areas of interest that filled needs I identified with my own professional development. 

One of these was productivity and time management. I've been managing multiple projects for as long as I can remember, but I never really had the infrastructure to successfully juggle working on separate projects in multiple contexts while dealing with a large variety of inputs (voicemail, email, paper, etc.) until I discovered the Getting Things Done system of David Allen around 2007. Learning GTD allowed me to genuinely get a handle on the disparate elements of my work with a view towards better understanding my long-term goals and how to fit them into the runway of day-to-day operations. 

Another issue that tended to grow in urgency over time is that musicians in university programs are generally not taught the career tools that they actually need when they enter the profession. That includes things such as marketing skills, managing their productivity (especially email), leveraging technology, building a fan base, or how to manage career transitions over the course of their working life. 

These interests have become a defining element in my writing, and were the reason I decided to start Foley Music and Arts as a separate blog. Since starting this project in late February, things changed for me very quickly.  New contacts and friendships have arisen from the new blog have already resulted in a completely new outlook on my work and creative process. And I'm in the process of setting up availability as a career/life coach for musicians in the coming months.

Practicing is a pianist’s job description and you’ve written two free e-books on this important topic. Would you mind sharing a few tips from those books?

31 Days to Better Practicing was my first ebook and arose from a month-long series of blog posts on how to renew your practice routine. Some of the themes from 31 Days include the importance of setting up a regular practice schedule, setting goals for yourself in multiple horizons, warming up safely, the importance of finding repertoire you love, and finding a way to work through music in a genuine way at every stage of the learning process.

On the other hand, 5 Deep Breaths and a Pencil Behind the Ear was entirely student-driven. I put out a call for my students to submit their own best practice tips, and the responses were astonishing! Responses were divided into successful and unsuccessful ways to practice, including practical tips ("Keep your music organized in your practice space"), humorous things to avoid ("Check messages/email on your phone in between changing tempo on your metronome app"), and perceptive insights ("Find the passion that informs what you do at the piano"). 

As a fellow pianist/blogger, I’ve been impressed by your generosity towards other bloggers and myself.  How has this collaborative, cooperative approach enhanced your endeavors?

The most important thing anyone needs to know about starting a new project is that the ultimate focus needs to be not on the money, future employment opportunities, or hustling side gigs. Instead, the focus needs to be on creating genuine connections with other people. That is the fire that ignites an initiative, gets other people interested in your work, builds community, and leads to creating a long-lasting impact in the world. 

I'm humbled to an incredible extent by how people have responded to my work over the years and how my articles have resonated with them. Many of my readers have reached out to me over the years and I'm always more than glad to give them meaningful advice. At the same time, I use these expanded relationships to ask questions of those whose experience I respect and can learn from. Their input has been highly valuable to my own growth. 

What advice do you have for young pianists who are still building their careers?

The next 10 years will be a period of immense change for a number of reasons. The arts community is becoming much more diverse and inclusive, and opportunities are opening up like never before. The Baby Boomer generation will be largely retiring over the next 10 years, and both Millennials and Generation Z will be rising into positions of prominence in the workplace, boards, and volunteer organizations. 

The scarcity model of the profession (where an increasing number of highly qualified young graduates compete for an ever-shrinking number of positions in universities, orchestras, and opera companies) is becoming tougher than ever and might not be viable for much longer. At the same time, the entrepreneurial model of the profession (where enterprising performing artists with a wealth of skills in performing, administration, marketing, and related fields create growth in the industry through new projects) is becoming more attractive year by year. I feel strongly that the arts can be a place of tremendous growth in the new economy, and musicians need to be positioned to take advantage of these opportunities in the coming years. As a teacher and coach, I aim to equip musicians with the skills they need (musical or otherwise) in order that they can be a part of this growth. 


About Chris Foley: Based in Toronto, Canada, I'm a pianist, teacher, vocal coach, and blogger.  I teach piano in Oakville in my home studio and in Toronto at The Royal Conservatory.  As a Senior Examiner for The Royal Conservatory, I have the honor of traveling across Canada and the US to hear many talented musicians of all levels.  After many years of study, I received a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Piano Accompanying and Chamber Music from the Eastman School of Music in 1994.

Over the past few years, I've adjudicated numerous festivals, including the BCRMTA Competition, the ORMTA Provincial Competition, the Vancouver Academy of Music's Senior Secondary Competition, the Davenport Festival, the Windsor Kiwanis Festival, the Royal Conservatory Festival, the Davenport Festival, and the Rotary Music Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Hybrid Life: Balancing Careers in Music and Writing--a guest post for Foley Music and Arts

Ah, the joys of working from home.  Ah, the joys and challenges of finding a balance between duel careers in writing and music.  In this guest post for Chris Foley's Foley Music and Arts blog, I talk about how each career feeds the other and how the different languages of words and music allow me two separate avenues of communication.

7 Steps to Beating the Drudgery of Practicing--a guest post for Pianist Magazine

Repetitive practicing--it's an unavoidable part of every pianist's routine.  This article, written for Pianist Magazine, offers tips taken right out of my own daily struggle with the monotony of repetition.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman) by Chester Biscardi

It has been said that composer Morton Feldman's music reflects the American obsession with emptiness and that a lonely, haunting tone runs through most of his music.  He loved the decay of sound.  When asked about his composition style,  Feldman once replied, "I don't push the sounds around."

In Companion Piece, Chester Biscardi pays homage to Feldman and his work, specifically Feldman's Extensions 3.  In this solo, you're introduced to the sound world of Feldman through the inimitable lens of Biscardi's music--a piece that enhances the inspiration but isn't overshadowed by it.

Biscardi, who knew Feldman personally, wrote this about the composer:  "I first met Morton Feldman in Buffalo in 1979.  His apartment was neat, sparse: a Steinway, a work table, a Rauschenberg on one wall, the now-famous Brown/Feldman cover from TIME Records on another, and many ancient Oriental, Turkish and Iroquois carpets.  He talked about his music and compositional techniques, which had as lasting an impact on me as did his intense passion for those carpets.  He encouraged me to get close to the floor and look at their textures, reliefs, orchestrations, what he called 'symmetry even through imperfection,' and explained how he was translating these impressions into the musical notes of the string quartet which he was writing."

Chester first introduced me to Companion Piece through a lecture recital he gave at Sarah Lawrence College, titled Morton Feldman & Chester Biscardi:  Music and Image (available on YouTube).  It hooked me immediately and I started learning it as soon as my piano was delivered to my home after my move to Wisconsin.  All my practicing of Companion Piece has been accompanied by the sound of the Fox River, which flows just outside my living room window, and the many birds that make that river their home.  In this recording you can hear some of the birds who chose to sing along to Biscardi's evocative notes. While learning the piece, I looked for 'symmetry even through imperfection' and listened deeply to the decay of sound.  In the notes I found patterns of unfamiliarity leading to moments of recognition, movement and stillness, warmth and detached coolness--in other words, a sound tour of the tapestry of real, beautiful, sometimes messy life.

This music is published by C.F. Peters Corporation.  To learn more about the piece and Chester Biscardi, visit his website,

Sunday, April 7, 2019

How to Make a Professional Recording: 16 Tips

One of the most challenging and rewarding things I've done as a pianist is making a recording.  It took just one CD to shatter my romantic idea of the process. This article, published as a guest post for Melanie Spanswick's blog, is a list of sixteen important things I've learned from making four commercial CDs.  

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Don't Expect Applause--a Guest Post for "The Cross-Eyed Pianist"

Sometimes playing the piano is a glorious celebration of music and life; other times it's all about wrestling inner demons and self-doubt.  In this guest post for "The Cross-Eyed Pianist" I talk about the ways I work with the inevitable insecurities that come with being an artist in a hyper-critical world.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Music, Writing, and Life—a Guest Post for Melanie Spanswick’s Blog

I was honored to write a guest blog for composer/pianist/author Melanie Spanswick. She invited me to write about writing and music—in other words, about my creative life.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Silence: the Space Between the Notes

On Steens Mountain in Eastern Oregon, silence is a presence.  At the bottom of the mountain, in the little town of Frenchglen, diesel trucks and rustling cottonwood trees provide constant soundtrack; at the summit, wind is strong and loud enough to make conversation difficult.  Partway up the west side of the mountain—nestled into the crevices or arms of the mountain—is where the heart of the mountain’s silence is best heard.  In moments between animal scurries or foliage rustling, the silence is the strong, maternal enveloping presence that is like being hugged into the bosom of the mountain.  This is no sentimental “Mother’s Day” silence; this is tough love—a silence that will not lie to you or let you hide but hugs you close anyway. Sleeping in that silence is like coming home to a clay cradle, and from the mountain’s arms it seems possible to feel the curvature of the earth.
Actors know the power of the pregnant pause.  Artists understand the need for white space.  Some musicians play the notes; others play the space between the notes.  Masterful artists of any discipline think perhaps the notes or words or space are a way to express the silence and that sound and silence are simply mirror images of the same thing.  But then again, have any notes really ever expressed the nature of silence?  Can words or paint or sound ever do more than hint at the eternal silence that is the foundation of everything—the silence of earth and rock and empty space.  After all, the Earth is simply a spinning marble of clay in a sea of silence older than time.
We light a candle to banish the dark and we speak to dispel the silence.  We write symphonies and play concerts and make movies and write books. We trade goods and make products and move fast and travel far.  In the first world we are swaddled in light and sound; it is not surprising that most young children fear dark and quiet rooms.  All of us know that monsters lurk just beneath the surface of the web of activity we call normal life.  We’ve broken the speed of sound but barely scratched the surface of silence. Could it be that all any of our art and productivity amounts to is a scared “Is anybody out there?” whispered in moments when we enter those dark, silent rooms.

Maybe the best we can hope for is that in capturing a few words or notes, we can capture some essence of silence—like seeing a reflection of the moon in a bowl of water.  It may be just a few drops, but perhaps that is all we can tolerate; not many of us are brave enough to stare down the barrel of the anonymity of true silence, but we get as close as we dare.  We sit on the side of the mountain and feel kinship with the sound of the wind in the cottonwood trees or the call of birds.  We tolerate the tensions of silence when bracketed by notes, words, or animal rustles because those sounds remind us that even when the silence is scary, we never face it alone.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Pianist as Composer: An Interview with Melanie Spanswick

This short romantic teaching piece, titled Inflections, is part of No Words Necessary, composer Melanie Spanswick's collection of intermediate piano solos. When Melanie graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog, I jumped at the chance to showcase a piece of music that strives to teach students new techniques while also giving the developing pianist something lyrical and beautiful to play.  Inflections is one such piece.

Melanie Spanswick is a composer who has achieved international recognition as a composer, writing music for major publishing houses such as Schott, Faber, and Alfred.  Her piano refresher course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott), is an international success. Here, in her own words, is how she puts all the pieces of her creative life together.  

Photo by Erica Worth
1.  When did you start composing and how does composing influence your piano playing (and vice versa)?

I started composing just a few years ago, so in fact, at quite a late stage in my professional life. I studied the piano at the Royal College of Music in London and had previously given many rectials and concerts as a professional classical pianist. Whilst I had a good grounding in harmony, and had some instruction in composition, it wasn't something that I focused on until more recently. About nine years ago, after an illness,  I completely changed direction in my career and began writing books, my blog, articles, as well as teaching, adjudicating and giving workshops. It was during this time that I started to experiment and I wrote a few songs for a singer. I was subsequently approached by a publisher who asked if I would write several piano pieces. 

I can't say that composing influences my piano playing now, as I don't play professionally anymore, but it does make me listen to music in a totally different manner. Certainly in a more analytical way, which I've come to really appreciate.  

2.  You've written most of your work for piano students.  What made you decide to write for this group of developing players?

I started writing educational piano music because I was asked to! Although I have a definite empathy for this demographic of students having taught them for years, therefore I'm mindful of certain technical and musical limitations or restrictions. But it's fun in a way, because it tests me as a composer; writing a seemingly simple elementary piano piece can be surprisingly challenging due to its necessary brevity. 

I've written several volumes of educational pieces, and whilst I will always be an educational composer, I am now branching out. Later this year I will be publishing a volume of advanced or 'professional level' piano pieces; works I've written for friends and colleagues (who are all wonderful pianists), and, at present,  I'm writing a movement for piano trio, to be performed in a chamber music series in London later this year. Recently, I've also enjoyed writing works for string quartet and chamber orchestra. 

3.  You've accomplished the near-impossible by finding a well-respected publisher for your music.  How did you do this?

I was incredibly lucky in this respect as I had already written for several major publishing houses; I've written piano text books and edited piano anthologies. Writing my blog (The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog) has been an important tool, enabling publishers to read my thoughts and practice ideas regarding playing and teaching the piano, and therefore I was approached by all the publishers with whom I've worked, almost entirely as a result of my blog. 

I also have a following on Youtube; I've recorded vlogs (or video-blogs) about piano playing and my interview series has become popular too (a filmed series on my Youtube channel called Classical Conversations, where I spoke to 40 eminent pianists and piano teachers). For the past six years I've written a regular 'how-to-play' column in Pianist magazine, which has been crucial in developing a teaching and writing profile. I now write for Pianist's newsletter and their blog. All these different facets help to develop and establish a public persona, both as a writer and a composer. For me, these two elements go hand in hand. I particuarly enjoy tutoring piano courses (I do this at Finchcocks Music, Jackdaws Music Education Trust, and Piano week, all in the UK), and they help spread the word about my books and my compositions. 

In my opinion, for a publishing house to be interested in a writer or composer, they must be visible and have had some previous success, or, dare I say it, a certain notoriety. Or, perhaps, they should have something interesting or different to offer. It takes a while to build a career, whether as a composer or a writer, and for me, the key has been to write and compose as much as possible. This is also the best way to improve and develop.

4.  How do you juggle all the creative aspects of your career?

This is tricky! I love to combine many elements; teaching, writing, adjudicating, presenting, workshops, composing - there's always a lot to do. I tend to write early in the morning; although this depends, sometimes I have to write quickly or edit to a deadline, so will work all day on a particular project, article, or book. Let's just say that I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops! I try to compose in the evening, as this is something which works well later in the day (for me, at least). My teaching is generally confined to the weekend, and I work with mostly adult students who want to improve various technical aspects of their playing. 

I am a quick writer and composer and therefore can achieve a lot in a short space of time, which really helps in this respect. After the solitary work, I enjoy meeting other musicians and teachers;  a good example of this is when I adjudicate (or judge competitions) or give workshops and presentations to teachers. My publisher, Schott Music, and I try to schedule several tours each year, so that I can present my books (specifically, my new piano course, Play it again: Piano) around the world. This year I will be presenting my books and my music at workshops in Germany, Italy, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Hong Kong, as well as in the UK.

5.  What advice would you offer a young composer?

Keep going!  And stick to your guns. If you feel you have something to say or have a gut feeling about writing music for a specfic medium, then you must find a way to do it. Never pay attention to what others are doing (or saying), and try to keep a firm image in your mind of what it is that you want to achieve. 

I am a big believer in manifesting. When I was just starting out as a writer, I was fortunate to find a wonderful mentor. He is not a musician but he does know all about the profession. He has continually taught me 'how to think'. This has been absolutely imperative to my overall success. 

When I started writing and composing, I would frequently take long walks near where I used to live. I'd walk for miles, clearly imagining my books and my music published by specific publishers and being successfully sold around the world. It was only a few years later that my life mirrored this image. 

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Melanie Spanswick is a British pianist, composer, author, teacher, and adjudicator. She graduated from the Royal College of Music in London with a Master’s degree in Performance Studies. As an educator, Melanie has examined and adjudicated widely, and she frequently gives master classes, workshops and presentations throughout the UK and abroad (most recently in Germany, USA and the Far East). As a pianist, she has performed and broadcast worldwide, and has given recitals as a soloist, chamber musician and accompanist at many music festivals and major concert halls. 

As a writer and composer, Melanie’s work is published by major publishing houses: Schott, Faber and Alfred. Her piano refresher course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott), is an international success.  She is a regular contributor to Pianist magazine and Piano Professional (EPTA), and her compositions have been performed in many countries around the world, particularly Japan, and are regularly featured in worldwide publications.