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. 

* * *

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. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Wisconsin Winter

Yes, ice fishing is a “thing” here.  So are cheese curds and beer; the Packers and the Badgers.  Restaurants offering Friday night “Fish Frys” are packed each week with multi-generational families.  People drink brandy Old Fashioned cocktails and beer and the bars are as plentiful as coffee shops are in the Pacific Northwest.  

Snow is also a “thing” here.  I haven’t seen the ground since mid-January.  I discovered after the first snowfall that you need two kinds of shoes in a Wisconsin winter—snow boots and in-between shoes.  In-between shoes are waterproof, non-skid, “can walk on ice and a couple inches of show” footwear.  I call mine my “Grandma shoes.”

I was prepared for the cold when I moved here.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer beauty of sunlight on pristine snow, the sound of the Fox River outside my living room window, and the ducks, robins, seagulls, ravens, hawks, and bald eagles that populate this area.  I am still stunned by the sheer number of live music events offered every night of the week and to say that I’ve been gorging myself on it is an understatement.  

All of this seeps into the music I’m learning.  I hear the running river in a Goldberg Variation, and the uncompromisingly beautiful cold in the closing chords of Chester Biscardi’s Companion Piece.  Most musicians know that the music they learn becomes imprinted by what’s happening in their lives when they’re learning the notes; revisiting an old piece can feel like a mini form a time- travel.  

Reminiscence was written by Dave Deason, one of my smartest, funniest and most generous friends.  When I play it, I remember how he used to drive to my house with stacks of new pieces and play through them for me in my teaching studio.  I remember how he let me title this piece while grumbling that first he’d “have to learn to spell the damn thing.” Dave moved to the Midwest a year and a half before I did (he’s in Kentucky), but we stay in touch.  Last week he sent me a sound file of a piece for unaccompanied flute.  It’s eerie, icy, and haunting.  

The title? A Wisconsin Winter.  

Saturday, January 26, 2019


There’s the “postcard” kind of cold that makes you want to hunker under a blanket with a cup of coffee and watch it snow.  There’s the “toughen up” kind of cold that bores into your forehead like an ice-cream headache.  And then there’s the “shrill” cold that whips around corners, tears at your face, and pulls a string of highly colorful vocabulary from your lips before you even realize you’re speaking.  

I’m learning about cold—it’s brittle, diamond-like texture, and it’s clear, clean character.  It’s three weeks into my move to Wisconsin and I’ve been outside every day.  A Wisconsinite told me that the best way to acclimate to the weather was to be in it, so that’s what I’ve done.  Every day.  Several miles a day. Bundled up like Nanook of the North, trudging through snow and ice and frost.  I do this because cold is like a bully, and bullies need to be faced head-on.  I refuse to cower in my house. Cold is what you expect them you move to Wisconsin in January.   The  surprise is that I like it.

There are things I don’t like:  salt on everything (thank goodness for my Swiffer), hat hair, and the turn, on a hill, leading into our underground garage—a driveway so treacherous that despite not having put a scratch on the car, I keep having visions of crashing through the garage door in an uncontrolled skid…

But I like the cold. I like the way it creates instant community and common ground in public places.  I like how it feels to wake up to a day so clear and frigid that everything is diamond-hard and brilliant.  I like how the river steams when the temperatures get into the single digits as it flows through banks of pristine white—a monochrome, architectural world. I like sleeping on cold nights, snuggled under quilts, while the weather presses against the windows.  The Danes call this sort of cosy thing Hygge.  I call it winter in Wisconsin.   

The outside world: snow, sunshine, an adrenaline rush of exercise in cold air.  The inside world: sun warming hardwood floors, a view of the river, hot tea, soft quilts, and music.  I’m working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Chester Biscardi’s Companion Piece.  But on this particularly cold day (it was -12* this morning), I warmed my home with Still—a piece of music as loving and generous as my friend Dana Libonati who composed it.  Here it is—an impromptu “performance” on my out-of-tune piano and filmed on my phone—a little slice of Wisconsin Hygge on a frigid day.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

On Wisconsin!

Lawrence University Chapel in Appleton, WI

Our condo sold four days after we listed it.  The piano was the first to go, followed a week later by the furniture.  In two days my husband and I will drive across country, in January, with a cat (!) to our new home in Appleton, WI.

“Why Wisconsin?” I’ve been asked by many Portland friends.  

“For the weather,” I reply.  And then, after the laugh dies down, I add “and for family.”

But that’s not the whole story.  Yes, my husband’s family lives in Wisconsin and yes, it’s a big factor in our choice to move, but it’s only part of the reason. Truth is, we’ve been looking to leave Portland for the last two years.  We started with Europe:  London (can’t stay longer than six months), Amsterdam (can’t stay longer than three months), Bordeaux (not a good fit), Dublin (couldn’t sell the condo).  Then we looked at American cities: Austin, Denver, Seattle, Santa Fe (to name a few), but none were the right fit.  I kept saying I wanted a place that felt like Appleton and two months ago I said, “why not just move to Appleton?”

Why Appleton? A myriad of reasons: great music (it’s home to Lawrence University), an airport, close to Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, as well as Milwaukee, real seasons, cheese, live music in restaurants and bars any night of the week, Brewers/Packers/Badgers—a trifecta of sports greatness...but underneath it all, a sense of community.  This is a place where political parties raise money side by side for a shared cause.  This is a place with a well-educated middle class and a strong work ethic.  This is a place with refreshing humility and open-faced friendliness.  It’s a place where you feel like you’re part of something even when you’re a stranger. 

Will Appleton be a forever home?  Maybe, maybe not.  All I know today is that it’s the next step.  It feels right.  It feels grounded—like sinking your hands into fresh soil—a place to put down roots.  The winters may be brutal, but the people are warm.  My husband is returning home.  I’m returning to a place that might prove to be home:  the heartland.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Make Me Care: Writing About Music

The Rizzo/Wheeler Piano Duo

This blog entry first appeared on “The Cross-Eyed Pianist”

“In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own—spoken in a language too deep for words.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

 Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  And while I can’t speak to dancing or architecture, this cliché sums up the problem of using words to describe what is fundamentally an experience, not a concept. Whether listener or performer, we enter into the world of the notes and receive and respond to the music through the lens of personal experience and understanding.  And, because everyone’s experience and taste is different, how does a writer capture in words the sensation of sinking one’s hands into the piano keys, or the eerie magic of “one mind” that occurs when musicians perform together? 

Write what you know.  It’s another accurate cliché.  As a lifelong pianist, I know music.  I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others.  As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love to Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.  I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music. 

Show, don’t tell.  A writer’s cliché.  If I tell the reader that Cassie and her boyfriend Eric, had a good performance of a Bach double concerto, it’s dull boring.  Showing makes it tactile.  It makes it real.  It makes it matter.

“In the second movement, Cassie stopped being aware of any reality beyond the music.  The competition, the judges, her hair, her dress—none of it existed.  The notes defined her universe.  And as she and Eric passed the sensuous lines back and forth, she dissolved into them.  She was the piano, and the piano was her.  She was Eric, Eric was her.  And Bach was what held everything together.  There were no mental pictures and no stories.  Just the music, and Eric, and the piano, which seemed to grow out of her fingertips.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Make me care, I used to tell my piano students.  Don’t just press the notes.  No matter how beautifully you phrase a line, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you’re just speaking phonetic music.  Writing requires the same because readers deserve entry into all aspects of the moment, not just a description.  In both art forms, if the notes or the words don’t communicate something beyond themselves, everything comes out flat and lifeless.  

Another quote: the visible is the invisible written down.  As musicians and writers, we use what’s concrete  (notes, words) to point to intangibles: love, joy, loss, hope, and a myriad of other human emotions. It’s an internal landscape we all share, and because of this common ground, music—and writing about music—is about bringing the listener or reader into a new world through our shared emotional doorways.  We don’t need to know why a piece of music moves us to tears, or how a paragraph conjures up an entire world.  We experience it. We feel Cassie’s struggle with an unfamiliar piano and we know her belief that somehow she can communicate with her deceased parents through the notes of Liszt’s Sposalizio.

“Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the keys, closed her eyes a second, and then played the opening lines.  The muted upper register hampered her attempt to get a bell-like tone in her first right-hand arpeggio section.  She tried to play through it, thinking of each note as being wrapped in thick velvet.  Perhaps the clarity was there, at the center of all that velvet? What the piano took away from the upper register it gave back in the middle; when Cassie started what she always thought of as the prayer-like section—the one where she sensed she needed to breathe the notes rather than just play them—the velvet tone gave the notes a warmth she had never before been able to achieve on any other piano.  The sounds matched the one she had been hearing in her mind, and the magic of reality matching the ideal was so strong that she could feel the hair on her arms bristling.  Normal life fell away, and for those breathless moments she sensed that the notes were getting through and that somehow, someone was on the other side, hearing all the love and loss she poured into each pitch.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is, ultimately, writing about humanity because that’s where power of the best music and literature resides.  The form—the architecture—only points to the bedrock truths we all share.  We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.