Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing all of you the Happiest Thanksgiving Weekend.  May your cranberries be canned (yes!) and your turkey not be burnt to a crisp. Here are a few of our more popular recent posts, in case you need a break from the game, an escape from nosey (well-meaning?) relatives, or just a little “alone” time over the next few days.

-Kate

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Holiday Gift Guide for Musicians

How to Make a Supplemental Audition Recording

Holiday Gift Guide for Your Child’s Music Teacher

Spotlight Series: Crushing Classical’s Tracy Friedlander

Turning a Funk into Your Next Breakthrough

How to Learn a Piece of Music Once You’ve Left School

Secrets of Effective Practicing

Ten Things I Wish I had Known When I was Taking Auditions

The $100 Bill

Teaching According to The Four Tendencies

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(Sorry, little buddy!) 

On Tour: Chicago, Seattle and Victoria

Last month, I went on a little mini recital tour to Seattle and Victoria, and I stopped in Boston and Chicago on the way.  I got to see dear friends that I had not seen in years (and meet their children!) and I finally got to see the PNW for the first time (spoiler alert: it’s gorgeous).  The trip was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.  Without a pianist or my very helpful husband to pitch in with the driving and other logistical matters, I was exhausted when I got back home.

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Because I often have to check my cello (in its extra heavy-duty Stevenson flight case), I try to do direct flights whenever I can.  In this case, I needed to stop in Boston for a couple of days anyway.  I taught some lessons, caught up with a good friend over dinner, rehearsed with the always-lovely Craft Ensemble ladies for an upcoming concert and helped a student make her supplemental audition recording for her Nov. 1 college applications.  I managed to cram a lot into a short amount of time, but I also got to soak up some fall colors and enjoy the changing leaves (because I had NO idea what I was about to witness in Seattle).  Continue reading

How to Learn a Piece of Music Once You’re Out of School

(and, honestly, even when you’re still in it!)

When I was in Chicago last week I had lunch with a young cellist that I know from my Boston days.  I used to work for her mom, and I’ve known this girl since she was a baby.  Now she’s all grown up (22!) and playing in Chicago’s Civic Orchestra.  I asked her what topic she would want to read about in terms of being a post-conservatory, but pre-professional musician.  After thinking about it for a while, she came up with this:  “How does one go about learning a piece of music–from cracking open the music for the first time to performance level–without the help and feedback of a teacher?”.  Ahhhh.  Yes.  Essentially, how does one learn to be their own teacher?

First of all, we are all constantly learning and tweaking our practice methods.  I do have a particular passion/obsession with practicing/learning techniques, and I can share what works for me, and what I try to instill in my students. 

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  1. Start with the Eagle-eye view. Zoom out as far as you can.  If it is a standard piece, then I would start by listening to a few recordings and just familiarizing yourself with how the the piece goes.  I like to do this in the car, while I am cooking or folding laundry, etc.  Then I listen to it a few more times, while sitting with my music, or better yet, the piano score. And I see what pops out at me.  Then, finally, I take it into the studio and just play through it.  No matter what, I just want to get a sense of what feels natural and idiomatic, and which sections will be problematic due to challenging technical demands, or because it just doesn’t sit well on the instrument (Poulenc Cello Sonata, I’m looking at YOU!).

2.  Zoom in a bit and find the large sections. I’m talking as basic as Intro, Exposition, Development and Recap, or ABA, or what have you. I like these sections to be between half a page and a full page, but definitely not more than that.  I take each one of those large sections and play through it a few times, and mark the things that prove to be obstacles (anything that causes me to stop or hesitate—usually a group of fast notes, a tricky shift, or some awkward double stops).

  1. Next step is the zoom in further and mark some smaller sections (that lyrical phrase, that line of double stops, that long run of 16th notes, etc.) and I bracket those. I ask myself what the problem/obstacle is, and figure out the best solution. Then these are sections (more than a measure or two) that I will repeat 5-10 times, and I’ll do this for a few days–always bearing in mind what my solution is to the specific problem.

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4. After a few days of that, I’ll have ironed out a lot of the kinks, but there will inevitably be a few things here and there that stop me in my tracks. That shift, that one double stop, those last 2 beats of that 16th note run.  And those are the things that I drill on repeat until they are hammered out.  This is the mouse-eye view.  The minutiae.  Getting all my ducks in a row.

  1. When I am satisfied with having gotten a handle on those bits and bobs, I start to zoom out again. From small sections to larger sections and back out to the whole piece.  When I can honestly say that I’ve got the notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations down, I’m ready to move onto Part B.

 

If Part A is all about figuring out the printed markings, then Part B is to figure out what they all mean.  WHY is it marked fortissimo there? Is it angry? Excited? Just a balance thing to carry over the piano? 

  1. Decide what the music is about. If the composer is alive and well, and you have access to them, you can just ask them. Otherwise, you might be able to dig up some good program notes online, or read up on the composer.  Maybe there are some published letters in which they talk about writing this piece.  Barring all that, you can just find your own interpretation of the music.

2. I zoom back in again, and create a story, with characters and plot and plot twists, and emotions and reactions and dialogue. I try to make it as vivid as possible and line up the notes/rhythms/dynamics/articulations with that story. I want it all to MEAN something.

On to Part C: Hone your storytelling skills. 

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Now that I’ve got the notes down, and I have decided what story I am trying to tell with those notes.  The only thing left is to see whether or not I am successfully communicating my story to my listeners.  If I have performances happening, that’s easy.  I’ll get feedback.  If I have decided that my story is one of hope and inspiration, and an audience member tells me that they really enjoyed my sorrowful lament, then I know I need to tweak something.  Maybe my tempo was too slow? Or maybe my tempo was fine, but I need to increase my bow speed to keep the energy level up.  And this is the part that makes it worth performing a piece over and over again.  Each time you have a new opportunity to be more convincing with your story; to tell it better, or communicate more clearly– to reach your listener in a more direct way.  And that is what it’s all about.  There is no such thing as a “right” interpretation, but you should be clear about what YOUR interpretation is, and if any of the notes/rhythms/dynamics/etc. are insecure, you won’t be able to get your interpretation out smoothly.  It will feel held back and stifled.

So there you have it.  Through a series of zooming in and out and in and out again, you first learn all of the little black dots, lines, dashes and words on the page, then you find out as much as you can about the circumstances behind the writing of the piece, then you decide what it is about, and figure out how to bring your story to life.

It is a wonderfully empowering journey.  A little scary at first, when you are accustomed to having a teacher there tell you how to play every note, but doing it brings about more self-confidence and the feeling of connecting with your audience over a piece that you brought to life yourself is an incredible feeling.

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in front of the Arts Center at College of Charleston

 

 

Ten Things I Wish I Had Known About Auditions When I Was a Kid

Audition season is just around the corner.  In fact, I am flying to Boston on Friday to do 10 days of cello auditions for one of the youth orchestras there.  All around the country, young musicians are gearing up to audition for various ensembles and getting their audition video materials ready for last-minute summer festival admission.  I remember those days well, and I mostly remember that I did not have a clue what was being asked of me, how these things worked, or how I needed to prepare.  So I thought I would compile a list of things I wish I had known when I was taking auditions.

1. The judges want you to play your best.

We really, truly do.  We are 100% on your side.  If we sense that you are nervous, we might make small talk with you or crack some jokes to try to put you at ease.  We are NOT trying to trip you up, we are NOT testing you, and we are NOT sitting there counting your mistakes.  We are always looking for the good in your playing, so you should focus on that too.

2. It is far better to play an “old” piece really well, than to play a “new” piece that hasn’t settled.

When I was growing up, my teacher had a clear progression.  Suzuki books–Haydn C Major Concerto–Boccherini–Saint Saens–Kabelevsky–Lalo–Rococo–Elgar–Shostakovich–Dvorak–Prokofief.  So I thought that playing a scrappy Saint-Saens was better than playing a solid Boccherini, because the Saint-Saens meant I was more advanced, and therefore, a better player.  That is ridiculous.  Saint-Saens didn’t sit down looking at the Boccherini score, and set out to write a piece “a bit more difficult”.  So, while it might seem like a momentary disappointment to play a piece that you thought you had “retired”, it will serve you better to audition with a piece that you are comfortable with and will allow you to focus on the musicality, rather than “omg, I hope I make this shift!”.

3. You’re not being asked for scales for the sake of the scales.

I don’t know what fingering your teacher taught you and I don’t care if you accidentally used a different fingering.  I want to see that you have a fluid bow arm and can make a gorgeous, full, rich sound on your instrument.  And no, you do NOT win extra points for playing your scale as fast as you can.  That tells me that you are impatient and that you don’t care about your sound, and that you really want this audition to be over as soon as possible :-).

4. Dynamics will get you far.

Insta-musicality.  The death of any performance (and particularly an audition performance!) is to be boring.  Dynamic contrasts will help create different colors and will create shape and interest in your playing.  Dynamics are your friends.  See #6 below for more on this.

5. Figure out the essence of each excerpt/piece and really go for that.

It is fairly standard practice to ask for “two contrasting pieces” in an audition.  And those contrasts are usually going to be fast/slow, baroque/romantic, etc.  Figure out what makes each piece.  Is it a slow, lyrical piece?  Then go for sustained sound, smooth bow changes and long phrasing.  is it a rustic peasant dance?  Then really go for that kind of character in your articulations and dynamics.

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6. Sight-reading: it’s not a speed test.  it’s a “can you follow instructions” test.

I was raised to not ever keep people waiting, so whenever I was handed that dreaded sheet of sight-reading, I would try to dive in immediately, so as not to waste my judges time with my petty “thinking”.  Oh, poor little me.  Don’t be like that. We judges are testing whether you can look at a bunch of black dots and foreign words and translate them into music.  It would behoove you to take a moment and look through the entire thing.  take note of the key, meter, clef, how high and low it is going to go, and locate and count out any tricky rhythms.  Bonus points for actually playing the dynamics as well! You want to have an idea of how it goes before you play a single note. Take your time.  I have, a few times, had to tell an auditionee that they had taken long enough, and we needed them to start playing, but I have NEVER faulted them for it.  If anything, they have shown that they care, and that they want to play it well.

7. Dressing up helps

I have seen auditionees come in wearing their pajamas.  We want you to be comfortable, but also, have a little respect. Even if you are going to be behind a screen, dress as if you are going to a job interview.  Because essentially you are. More importantly, when you are dressed for a performance, you focus for a performance.  It really does help you play better.

8. Be friendly, but don’t lose your focus.

I have always been a pretty outgoing person, and I never wanted to be perceived as being a diva.  So, if I was in a warm-up room, I would find myself chatting it up with the staff, the other auditionees, parents, ANYONE.  The problem was not in my friendliness, nor did I really need another 5 minutes of practicing, but I would walk into my audition, and I would be in social mode, not in cello mode, and I would find myself making silly mistakes because I was distracted.  In hindsight, it would have been far better for me to just smile, say hello, and then sit in a corner going over my pieces slowly–just to stay in the right mind frame.

9. Practice playing something from memory in front of people (or your dog).  take note of where your eyes go.

Do you practice in front of a mirror? (like you should!).  I do too.  But then you show up to a performance or an audition, and not only is the mirror not there, but instead of a mirror, there are judges.  It’s amazing how different it feels to go from playing something and seeing the mirror image straight ahead of you, to suddenly looking DOWN at your hands.  Everything is in a different place!  So I would be sure to practice your piece a few times without a mirror and with people in front of you.  Figure out where you want your eyes to focus on (sometimes I just close my eyes) and start getting accustomed to how it feels.

10. The results are totally out of your control (and often out of our control too).

Sometimes, there are tons of kids graduating, or moving up, or have moved away, etc. and for whatever reason, there are PLENTY of spots for all of the people who audition.  Sometimes that is NOT the case, and the competition is stiffer that year.  A person can play the EXACT SAME AUDITION, and have completely different results based on random factors that have nothing to do with their abilities.  This is where life lessons come in.  Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes in life, you will be disappointed.  I promise you, you’ll get over it, life will go on, and give you more pleasant surprises.  All you can do is play your best, and if you use your audition date as a practice goal, and then learn as much as you possibly can from every moment of the process so that the next one can be even better?  Well, then you’ve come out ahead in so many ways, no matter what the result is.

If you are taking an audition this spring, best of luck to you!  Keep the above information in mind and let me know how it all goes!  If you’re auditioning for me, please know that I am so excited to hear you play, and I hope that you have a really great experience.  Colleagues, what other tips/advice would you add to this list? Have any of you readers had any particularly amusing audition experiences?

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My Week in Florida

Hi Everyone,

Sorry I have been a bit MIA as of late.  February was insane, and then March got even crazier.  I’ve missed writing, but then you know how it goes….the longer you wait, the harder it is to get going again.  I realized that I hadn’t even posted about last month’s trip to Florida, so that’s where I’ll start.

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I had planned this week of concerts around South Florida to coincide with Paul’s February School Holidays, so he was able to join me for for the trip.  I had been in Boston for some recording sessions and a concert the week before, so we met up in Miami for a little sight-seeing and relaxation, and then moved our way up and down between Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach.  I had a mix of public and private recitals, school workshops and master classes scheduled for the latter half of the week.  Over our 8 days there, we caught up with dear friends, met some new ones, and I got to perform my solo program for a whole bunch of people. We explored the Wynwood area in Miami, checked out the Museum of Science, and went to the New World Symphony Gala.  We walked the Riverwalk in Ft. Lauderdale and hit up the shopping strip in Palm Beach, spent time with my uncle and time at the beach. It was lovely.

But we were also there on Valentine’s Day, and what should have been (especially during marriage month!) our über romantic get-away, ended up being a horrible, horrible, awful, mind-numbing day when 17 innocent kids were gunned down at their own high school a couple of miles from where we were at the time.  Needless to say, it lent a bit of a grayish tint on my memories of the week.  Everyone was distracted.  I showed up to play my concert the following day and they had completely forgotten about me.  I do strongly believe that music heals the soul, but in truth, no one was really in the mood for a concert, least of all me.  The concerts all happened (except one, but that’s a whole different story….!) but we were all walking around in a bit of a daze–at times pretending that everything was fine, and at other times, depressed and uninterested in doing anything at all.

It was, however, good to be in some warmer weather, and as I mentioned, we got to spend time with relatives and dear old friends – some of whom I had not seen in over a decade.  We ate delicious meals and went on romantic walks. I got to see Paul get excited over geeky things at the science museum and he got to catch a glimpse into my former life in Miami Beach.

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So, there you have it.  It was a strange and bizarre trip, and while it wasn’t the luxurious get-away I was hoping for, I am so grateful that Paul was there with me.  I’m not sure I could have done it without him.  Logistically and emotionally, I needed him there.  He drove me to concerts so that I wouldn’t arrive exhausted, he chatted up audience members and convinced them to buy cds, and he let me snap at him (sorry!) when I didn’t really know how to answer his questions that were generally along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country?” and “Why can’t you guys solve your gun problem the way the rest of the world has?”

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It was in Miami, actually, many moons ago, when Gary Hoffman gave me some advice that I have never forgotten.  When I asked him what it was like to travel around the world as a concert cellist, he looked at me, and said “Well, you just have to accept that 85% of the time you’re going to feel like shit.  You’re going to be jet-lagged, or have a headache, or have caught a cold on the airplane, or some weird thing is going to be going on in your life or around you, but you have to learn how to just show up and do it anyway.”  That week in Florida definitely tested me in a lot of ways, but overall, I think will come away with fond memories of the people I met and got to play for, the talented and enthusiastic students I worked with, of renewed friendships and tender moments. And on Saturday, I will be thinking of all of those people marching in the States, I’ll be going for a long walk around the island in solidarity.

-Kate

Holiday Gift Guide for Your Kid’s Music Teacher

I get asked about 50 times a year by my non-musician friends and family members what an appropriate gift would be for their child’s violin/piano/clarinet teacher, so I thought I would post a few ideas.  You will notice one entire category that is missing from this list, and that is: ANYTHING that has music notes, treble clefs, or any music joke on it  (Like a magnetic fridge pad that says “Chopin Liszt”).  As I said to one disappointed friend who had sent me a link to a website dedicated to such atrocities: You’re an accountant; would you be psyched to get a pair of cheap mini-calculator earrings? No? Well, there you have it.  Just remember, when the piano teacher in your life isn’t patiently teaching kids how to find inner discipline, listen critically and build the character skills necessary to bring about world peace, they are actually perfectly normal people.  And please remember, as always, it is truly the thought that counts.  It’s nice to mark this mid-point of the year with a show of appreciation and as a way to reflect on accomplishments thus far.  That can be in the form of a heartfelt note and a hand drawn picture from the student, or it can be a purchased gift.   Below, I have compiled a list that covers a large range of price points, and of course, gift cards are always adjustable according to one’s budget.  Hope it helps, and please feel free to pass it around! Continue reading