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.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Entrepreneurial Pianist: 7 Things to Consider When Planning a Career in the Arts

Years ago a piano student asked me what he could do professionally with a degree in music.  I told him he could become a wine maker. 

After I elicited a startled laugh from him, I went on to tell him the truth of being a freelance musician: we get paid to do what we love, but no one is going to create the job for us. We have to create it for ourselves from the gifts and resources we’ve been given and from the circumstances of ability, location, age, and life responsibilities.  We have to become experts at creating multiple income streams.  We have to become savvy self-promoters. We have to accept that nothing—not even the biggest dream—comes without a price.

Unfortunately, while most music programs do a great job preparing us to play our instruments, they give us little or no guidance on how to get people to pay us to make music.  We have to figure that all out ourselves, drawing on our own personal abilities and determination.  Some talented and lucky few will have paths paved for them.  This advice is for the rest of us.  

Assess the music industry.  To paraphrase an old advertisement, this isn’t your grandfather’s music industry.  Neither is it your father’s.  I know musicians in their 60s remember a time of plentiful live music gigs, a large network of arts councils who sponsored concerts, recording contracts that paid artists real money, free-flowing grant money, and university career paths that didn’t end in dead-end adjunct servitude.  That world disappeared years ago.  Throw out that old “play book”, erase any hint of nostalgia from your mind, and get to know what’s happening today.  Be aware that the music industry changes as quickly as the rest of society—in other words, make it part of your job to keep up with these changes.  Knowing what is or isn’t viable in today’s marketplace will save you many hours of fruitless effort, not to mention a lot of money. 

Assess yourself.  Soberly and honestly asses your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and abilities.  Don’t lie to yourself.  Don’t pretend.  Make a list of everything you do well.  Make a list of things you don’t do well, or things that don’t interest you.  Decide if you need more training or guidance in a few areas.  Then, through the lens of what you learned about the music industry, begin to hone your options.  My particular strengths led me toward writing, collaborative playing, and teaching.  My weaknesses kept me away from jazz and pop gigs, as well as composition.  Your list needs to be personal to you.  

Assess your community.  Now that you’re aware of the music industry and your place in it, it’s time to look at the resources in your community.  Are there organizations or groups you can join to promote yourself? What performance opportunities exist?  Are there places where you can create concert opportunities for yourself and other musicians?  If you’re planning to teach, research school districts and neighborhoods before you open your studio.  But even while you’re establishing yourself in your own city, don’t forget that thanks to the internet, your community extends far beyond the borders of wherever you live.  You live in your city; you work in the world.  There are musicians everywhere who are creative and innovative “powerhouses.”  Study them, learn from them, and use these good ideas to strengthen your own career.  

Embrace social media.  For all its bad press right now, social media is one of the best effective ways to market yourself, connect with other musicians, learn about the industry, and be alert to all the latest ideas.  In today’s musical world, if you can’t be found on the internet and on social media, you’re effectively invisible.  There’s no need to sign up for all options—just pick one or two commit to it for a certain amount of time each day.  For an excellent break-down of options, I recommend reading this article by Frances Wilson: https://crosseyedpianist.com/2015/04/14/classical-musicians-and-social-media/.  Although written in 2015, Wilson’s points on how classical musicians can benefit from social media remain timeless.  

Have a web presence.  There’s no need to invest in an expensive website—a simple, clean, easy-to-navigate one will do.  And no, a Facebook fan page isn’t enough (although it’s great to have both and to link them to each other).  People who want to pay you for your expertise need to know that you’re a legitimate artist and business person.  It’s almost impossible to do this without a website.  

Whether you design your own or hire someone to do it for you, choose a clean and simple design over anything gimmicky and/or hard to read and navigate.  Make sure everything on your site is cleanly written, professional, and lets visitors know exactly who you are, what you do, what you’re selling, and how to reach you.  For those wishing to build their own, I recommend reading this article in PC Magazine https://www.pcmag.com/roundup/334639/the-best-website-builders.  Important note: if you’re not a writer or if you have no desire to try building your own site, invest in professionals to help you.

Develop a “portfolio career”. Call it a “portfolio career.”  Call it multiple income streams.  I call it job security.  Let me explain: if I work a conventional job, only one person has to fire me before I don’t make an income.  If I work for myself and I have multiple sources of income, many more people have to fire me before I can’t pay my bills.  The trick to making this work involves two things—knowing what people will pay you to do, and having a great deal of personal discipline.

Any self-employed person understands that being great at something isn’t a guarantee of making a living.  Surviving and thriving as a musician means finding the magical intersection between what you’re good at doing and what other people are willing to pay you to do.  Look carefully at your list of abilities and interests.  Now look at what you’ve discovered about your community and about the music industry.  Where do these two things meet?

One of the most inspiring “portfolio” musicians I know is composer and pianist Dr. Joel Pierson.  After he received his doctorate in composition, he grew disillusioned with the idea of teaching in universities and pursued his own path.  Today he teaches piano lessons, authored the infamously hilarious You Suck at Piano teaching method books, and is creator, band lead, and composer for The Queen’s Cartoonists—a jazz band that’s now represented by CAMI and tours all over the country.  Oh, and he continues to compose some pretty amazing contemporary classical music as well.  https://www.therealjoelpierson.com

Never stop learning or innovating. The most dangerous thing a musician can do is become frozen in time.  What’s relevant today is outdated tomorrow.  Leading musicians everywhere are blurring the lines between classical and pop and music and activism.  They’re reimagining concert spaces and recordings, and are keeping classical music alive for future generations.  They’re doing this by embracing change, not by resisting it.  We need to commit to doing the same thing because if we don’t, we’re dooming ourselves to extinction.  

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 https://crosseyedpianist.com

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 (www.meettheartist.site)

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: http://www.cynthiastillmangerdes.com

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 https://www.foleymusicandarts.com and The Collaborative Piano Blog https://collaborativepiano.blogspot.com), 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.