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. 

* * *

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.