Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Importance of Creating a Life, Not Just a Career







“One must play the right notes at the right time.  But if forced to choose between the right notes absent of character or some wrong notes for the right cause, the choice is clear.  Certain great artists can never play perfectly.  Perfection is too mundane, brittle, uptight for those who make music the way God makes trees.”  Russel Sherman, Piano Pieces


The world is shrill and just getting shriller.  Listening to any news broadcast or scrolling through social media is an exercise in cacophonous opinions, individual truths, and self-righteous pronouncements.  Posturing and badgering has all but replaced civil discourse.  We are, to paraphrase Pema Chödrön, wasting our gift of speech expressing our neurosis.

If ever we needed the oasis of sanity-saving music, it’s today.  We need artists who remind us that current events don’t define all of life, and that humans are more than animated pieces of meat.  We need music that speaks to the spirit—music that goes deeper than fad, flash, trends, and flamboyance.  We need those artists who do nothing short of getting their egos out of the way and letting the beauty and richness of music and life pour through them through the notes.  These gifted musicians are ones who understand that in order to be a great artist, one must be a full human being.

One of the dangers of intense piano training is the threat of becoming a technical wizard with absolutely nothing to say.  It’s easy to condemn the sort of flashy, depth-free performance that dazzles but doesn’t enlighten.  What’s harder to see is how a life that centers around nothing but practicing leads to these empty, meaningless performances.

A meaningful life is a rich one.  The artist who embraces life is curious, falls in love, pursues interests outside of music, and is spiritually and intellectually alive.  Artists committed to building a life, not just a career, know that everything they cultivate in the rest of their lives eventually finds its way to the piano.  Nothing is wasted.  Through the prism of their own rich lives, the great pianists touch our lives not because they play notes faster than anyone else, but because through their humanity and the humanity of the composer, they remind us that we’re not alone.  Others have felt what we’ve felt.

Sweeping pronouncements don’t create a well-rounded pianist.  Like practicing, this sort of richness is built bit by bit, through the ordinary stuff that makes up real life.  Most importantly, it involves engaging with life, not avoiding it.  Truly great artists have learned that all great musical insight comes directly from messy/beautiful life because like religion or sex, there are no borrowed musical experiences or insights.  They know if it isn’t real for them, it won’t be real for their audience.

Living like this takes a daunting amount of self-awareness.  It involves knowing when to speak and when to keep silent; knowing what to play and what to avoid.  At its center, it’s a commitment to the sacred task of speaking truths in a language deeper than words.  Any falsehood that springs from ego has been stripped away, leaving just the heart of inevitable grace and humanity.  

So what does this mean for ourselves and our students? In order to be true artists with something meaningful to say, we must be as committed to “getting a life” as we are to practicing the piano.  It means we walk out of the practice room and into the color and bustle of the rest of life.  We read non-musical things, commit to an exercise program, take up non-musical hobbies, travel, fall in love—in other words, grow roots deeply into our own lives so that the nutrients we find there can flower in the music we’re called to play. And then, if we’re lucky, we “make music the way God makes trees.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Who's Afraid of Living Composers? The Joys of Playing New Music







Imagine being the first person to bring life to the notes of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.  In your hands you hold the map of a new sound world--one that you get to birth to the world.  The music is like virgin snow--pure, clean, untouched by others' ideas of how the piece should be played.  It's just you and the notes.  You and Beethoven.

This experience, right here, is why I chose to devote much of my career to playing new music.  No Dead Guys was a tongue-in-cheek name that I first applied to a music series and now to this blog. It's not a dismissal of the masterworks of the past, but rather a decision to step outside the "holy museum" and the weight of history and create fresh paths.

It's ironic.  I, like many people, thought I "hated" contemporary classical music.  The atonal stuff I was taught to revere sent me running back to the lush melodies of the 19th century.  It wasn't until I shook off the dust of university that I discovered a smorgasbord of delicious music that begged to be played.  As a friend once said, "there aren't enough pianists to play all the music that needs to be played."

My journey out of standard repertoire began, in part, with the discovery of Yvar Mikhashoff's tango CD, Incitation to Desire.  It made my hair stand on end.  I listened to it for two weeks straight.  Then I started searching for scores.  Through this CD I discovered Chester Biscardi and Scott Pender--two of my favorite composers who's music I feature regularly on this blog.  Over the years they've both become personal friends of mine.  The title of this lushly beautiful piece by Scott Pender comes from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.  It embraces Romanticism and places it firmly in the 21st century--proof that contemporary classical music can be romantic, lyrical, intellectual and accessible.

It's time to free contemporary classical music from inaccessibility and snobbery.  It's time to find and champion well-written pieces that won't cause audiences to shut down and walk out.  It's time, in other words, to liberate it from the "shoulds" and "have-tos" and embrace music played for the sheer beauty of it.

For a copy of this Etude, visit Scott's website:  http://www.scottpender.net

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

5 Reasons Why Pianists Should Avoid an Academic Career




Ten years ago I had a dream that woke me from a decades-long delusion.  In this dream, I was living on a very small compound--a heavily fortified, overcrowded place with too many buildings and not much open air.  I’d been told by everyone that nothing but a dangerous, post-apocalyptic world existed outside the enclosure.  I believed it, until a saw a train full of families on holiday stop outside the compound and start taking pictures of us.  I woke right after I realized I’d been trapped, Twilight Zone style, in a zoo.  Two weeks after this dream, I quit job and left academia forever.  

If you love academia, have secured a “unicorn” tenure-track gig, and have a passion for teaching, this blog isn’t for you.  If, however, you’re a musician who has faithfully “crossed your ’T’s’ and dotted your I’s” by grinding through advanced degrees, keep reading.  And if you’re a young musician considering a career in the arts, read and take notes.

True confession:  these words are the musings of a former adjunct professor—you know, the academic indentured servants who do much of the real work at any university.  That stated, I know dozens of musicians who work in academia, but only two of them haven’t found themselves bitter and creatively burned out. 

Why is it so difficult to be a creative artist within academia?  Shouldn’t tenured job security and its guaranteed salary free musicians to be more creative, not less?  After trying to find equilibrium between that “real” and the “academic” world, here are five reasons I think most musicians should commit to being entrepreneurs rather than throwing themselves into university positions.

  1. Academia is made up of, well, academics.  Most universities are self-reinforcing, insular, “snow-globe” worlds.  The focused is inward.  The creative arts require artists to look outward.  Looking outward works at cross-purposes with most university music departments because universities really only listen to and respect the viewpoints of other universities.  It’s similar to the political “bubbles” that develop in places such as Washington DC.  Artists lose touch with the outside world and in the process, lose the creative oxygen they need to keep creating beautiful music.
  2. Getting tenure is all-consuming.  This is a subset of my first point.  If a musician is lucky enough to land a tenure-track job, the next five or six years of her life will be spent playing a high-stakes and capricious popularity game.  There are papers that need to be published.  Committees to sit on.  Egos to stroke.  Egos to avoid.  Add in the worst classes and the heaviest course load, and burnout starts to set in.  Worst of all?  There’s simply no time to be creative.
  3. Academics can be petty.  I’m sure they didn’t all start this way, but after several years in the system, creative “bright lights” who arrived in any music department in any university will stop discussing things they read, places they visited, and new project ideas.  Most of them will be snarking about the professor down the hall, fighting over parking spaces, and attacking each other’s students in juries.  This problem is caused by two things: the insularity of the academic world and the fact that there just isn’t enough perceived power to go around.  
  4. Academia requires uncomfortable compromises.  I read that there once was a time that academia was a protector of free speech.  Sadly, this is no longer the case—at least not in American universities.  There’s an expected ethos that each school expects its professors to follow.  If you’d doubt me, try being a Trump supporter on a public university campus, or an Obama supporter at an Evangelical school.  And while it’s one thing to avoid talking about politics, it’s another to compromise an artistic vision if it runs contrary to your employer’s viewpoints.
  5. Academia lets musicians stop playing.  This, by far, is the most dangerous thing about working in a university music department—they’re full of people who at one point had impressive performing or composing credentials but are now content to sit back and rest on past accomplishments.  Creativity dies in places like this because a pianist’s creativity is stifled if not voiced through the notes we play.


The best place for an artist is the middle of a rich, juicy, real life.  We need the interaction with the rest of society because without it, the music we play becomes empty and lifeless.  And yes, that means sacrificing the perceived safety of a full-time job and embracing the joys and challenges of being an entrepreneur.  Thankfully there are many examples, from Charles Ives to present day, of musicians who have found creative and unique ways to balance their material needs and their artistic dreams.  They’re the ones I turn to when I’m looking for inspiration on how to balance my own careers.  I walked away from the academic zoo ten years ago.  It continues to be one of the best decisions of my life.