Monday, April 30, 2012

Lang Lang and Continuing Education

Lang Lang and "Continuing Education"

This week featured concerts with Chinese pianist, Lang Lang.  He performed the Bartok 2nd Piano Concerto with us.  This is a huge piece with lots of big chords and effects for the piano. 

It features a movement written only for winds, percussion and piano -- a rare instance in which the string section rests and can listen to the back half of the orchestra play. The second movement has music for strings, timpani and piano that is both mystical and ominous in mood.  A scherzo is embedded in the middle of this movement.  The last movement has a great rhythmic vitality.

Lang Lang played this piece brilliantly every night.  He has played with us at least twice before and it's been interesting to see the development in his artistry.

In our first collaboration, his playing was showy and his stage presence even more so.  In subsequent appearances he has toned down his gestures to make them more meaningful and less histrionic.  His musical interpretation has deepened correspondingly.

Perhaps some of this is simply due to maturity gained through greater experience, but I think there's something else at work here.

It's clear that Lang Lang has actively sought feedback on his playing from trusted mentors.  This week he took some time to coach a Mozart concerto with Franz Welser-Mรถst.  Several years ago he took part in a famous series of masterclasses given by renowned conductor and pianist, Daniel Barenboim.

Consider the humility and sheer guts this took!  Here is a world-class classical superstar (with his own Adidas shoes available online) who has a gigantic repertoire and has performed with the world's leading orchestras for years. 

In the videos below you can see and hear him perform the first movement of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata in front of an audience on stage with Daniel Barenboim sitting next to him and turning his pages.  In the second video Barenboim offers his comments and criticism, plays examples from the Appassionata himself and coaches Lang Lang on the piece.

You can see Lang Lang absorb Barenboim's ideas and incorporate them immediately in his playing.  Take a few minutes and learn from these videos.  There are additional segments as well, since the class was a lengthy one.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Practicing examples

In a previous post I discussed the 10,000 hours theory.  I've also outlined my most recent practicing regimen involving scale work using Messiean's modes from the Lacour 28 Etudes and weekly practice of an etude from that book.

I thought it might be interesting to examine the practice methods I use when tackling these studies with a special focus on Study #6.

Here is the first page of #6:

After looking it over for the first time, I had to wait a few minutes for my eyes to uncross!  This one looked hard.  The metronome marking (quarter=120) looked nearly impossible.  Lots of jumping around and low tenor clef reading.

I took a deep breath and started by practicing the scale that is used in the study.

Yikes!  A nine-note scale!   Luckily, I found that it fit the Herzberg scale patterns I hoped to use to build my skill with this scale. By practicing this scale in the permutations used by Herzberg, I was ALREADY practicing the scalar parts of this study!

But how to figure out this scale?  It didn't fit any pattern I'd seen before.  Looking at it closely, I could see it was a symmetrical scale just like the octatonic scales I'd practiced a few weeks ago,but this one was based upon repeating one whole step and two half steps twice to get through the octave.

This didn't help me when trying to play it, so here's what I came up with:  1,2,3 of a minor scale three times.  That is, the first three notes of Ab minor, followed by the first three notes of a minor, then the first three of e minor.  That's the best I could do.

I found that after a few days of practicing the scale this way, I could manage even the top speed of the Herzberg patterns, so I gained some confidence.

By the way, I was tempted to write out the scale for the complete range of the instrument, but decided not to.  I wanted to engage my ear and my finger muscle memory to help when I read the real notes in the etude.  Technique involves three of your senses; sight, hearing and touch.  If one fails you, the other two should be able to compensate.  Developing all three when practicing builds consistency and strength.

Now I was ready to tackle the etude!

First I looked it over to see what special problems might be waiting for me.  I swallowed my pride and wrote in some accidentals I knew I would miss and wrote in the note names for the low tenor clef pitches that I rarely read (low Gb!!).

I then read the etude through at half tempo (quarter = 60) noticing where I felt the most challenged and where I felt the least challenged.

After the read through I spent some time practicing little spots that looked especially thorny.

Here is how I practiced this passage.  I chose a speed at which I could play the bracketed notes perfectly five times in a row.   For me, this was quarter=100.  I then moved the metronome up a notch and tried five times at that speed, until successfully reaching the performance tempo of quarter=120.

This is what I call "burst" practicing.  In every etude there are sections that the player can play near or at tempo from the start.  By identifying and practicing those places you discover two things:

1. The places that don't need to be practiced, thereby saving time.
2. The places like the one above that need attention, but improve quickly.

It is important to choose small enough sections for this method to work.

Here are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Those that study expertise in musicians, athletes, etc., say that to achieve mastery a skill must be successfully repeatable.  Thus, the five times perfectly rule.  It's great to have a "mountain top experience" while performing sometimes, but really most performing is about repeating success already attained through deliberate practice.

Speaking of which, it's also important to emphasize that just putting in 10,000 hours at a skill doesn't get you to mastery.  Repeatability and several other elements make up the kind of practice that achieves success, so no flailing!  That's why it's important to identify sections of a piece that don't need practicing and save them for later when you're ready to run through. For me, it was the scale passages in this etude that didn't need the work.  The jumping lines were the ones that needed my attention.

This takes self-knowledge, and it may not be realistic to expect a younger person to choose so wisely.  I know I flailed around quite a bit when I was a young practicer.

Back to the etude!

After practicing little sections like the one above, in the same session I also spent time putting together segments to make a larger section.

 Using the same rule of five times perfectly, I inched up the speed until I felt the challenge was too great.

How do I know when to punt on the speed?

Colvin talks about three zones in "Talent Is Overrated".

First is the Comfort Zone.  This is the speed at which you could play a passage perfectly while watching TV.  No learning or advancement occurs here.  The Comfort Zone may be beneficial for building calmness and confidence, but it's easy to get stuck there. Some students who have trouble attaining performance tempo over a period of time with a piece are spending too much time in the Comfort Zone!

Next is the Stretch Zone or the Learning Zone.  This is the speed (or also the amount of music) at which your brain feels gently stretched or challenged, but not overwhelmed.  You've got to pay attention to a few things, but you're not going to crash and burn. This is the zone in which improvement occurs.  Finding and staying in this zone by choosing the right speed or right amount of notes/measures for a passage makes your practice session most effective.

The next zone is called the Panic Zone!  This zone can be a lot of fun - a white-knuckle ride through Marriage of Figaro, for instance! 

What will happen, will I get it?  For success, these are questions that shouldn't be on your mind during practicing.  Practicing should be about building confidence and gently stretching your abilities.

Life in the Panic Zone can be destructive.  A failed run-through can build frustration and make you want to try it again at top speed to "see what will happen".  Well, what do you think will happen?  Maybe you're successful once, but once isn't repeatable, and isn't acceptable in a professional world of repeat performances.

Don't practice mistakes!

Back to the etude.

In a few days, I started putting together larger sections of the etude.

And then, finally the last half of page one was complete.

After I was able to play this section five times perfectly at quarter = 100 and after having worked in a similar fashion on the rest of the etude, at the end of the week I felt confident about trying a run-through at quarter = 90.  This was successful, so I tried 100 which was less so.

Note:  I had not allowed myself a run-through since the initial reading!  If you need a run through during this time, do it without the music!  Run-throughs are overrated.

I worked on the etude for another week, using the same methods.  I wasn't able to achieve the printed marking of 120, but made it up to 110 at the end of that time.

There are many other methods of practicing, of course.  This is the one that's working best for me now.  It allows me to solve problems quickly, repeat success, stretch gradually until reaching a goal of performance at a respectable tempo.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

San Francisco coffee

 We're in San Francisco for three days, so I have only a little time to explore.  I've happened upon some good coffee, though!

Right across from our hotel in the massive Westfield Shopping Mall in the Union Square district you can find Caffe Central.  It's located in the basement Food Emporium below the shopping mall.

The coffee shop sits in the middle of this upscale food court and looks rather unprepossessing.  However, they serve Oakland's famous Blue Bottle Coffee.  The baristas are expert.  You can get individually brewed coffee in ceramic funnels as well as the usual espresso drinks.

My "acid" (ha-ha) test for a new coffee place is the espresso with no sweetener.  If they can do this well, it's usually a cinch that the other coffee drinks will be great.  There's no hiding a bad espresso in foamed milk or mocha shots!

My espresso at Caffe Central was really good.  Italian style ristretto with hints of coffee and lemon in the shot.

This morning I went for an 8 mile run with Hugh Michie, who is playing second bassoon with us for the tour.  We ran along the Embarcadero past all the wharves, through Fisherman's Wharf and up the hill to Fort Mason and nearly to the Presidio.  Beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay, Alcatraz, etc.

When we got back to the hotel Hugh took me to a Starbucks nearby that has a Clover machine.  I sampled a Kona brewed with the Clover.  If you're not familiar with this method, you might find this video interesting:

This store is at the corner of Cyril Magnin and O'Farrell.  I'll probably go back there tomorrow before we board the bus for the airport, since Caffe Central isn't open until 9:00am (!).

Before our last concert I made a stop at a Philz coffee in the 700 block of Van Ness Avenue.  I went in and asked for an espresso and got a funny look from the barista.  Philz specialty is individually brewed coffee, and, as such, they don't offer espresso drinks.  Instead they have a wide variety of coffees made individually.

I tried the "handmade" espresso.  Not really espresso as there was no pressurized water forced through a portafilter.    What the barista did was use an extremely finely ground coffee (like what is used for Turkish coffee) and put it through a special funnel with filter paper. 

The extraction took a couple of minutes -- not like the simple Melita style filter cone. 

The result was a very strong, complex and clean cup of coffee.  It had the taste of a French Roast done in a French press but without the sediment in the cup.

My favorite reed knife!

This is my favorite reed knife!  It is a Graf curved clarinet knife.

Here is a close-up of the blade.  It is not as thick as a beveled knife, nor as thin as a usual double-hollow ground knife.  It is closer to the double hollow in contour, though, having concave curves from spine to tip.

The distinctive characteristics of this knife are the two curves above and below the tip.  The top curve allows for a resting place for your thumb when using.

The curve below is ground in especially for this knife.  I find it allows me pin-point accuracy when scraping the channels.  The curve gives a smooth, rounded scrape that is lacking when you use the heel or tip of a straight blade.  You can also duplicate your work on one side of the blade more accurately on the other.

The blade is extremely sturdy, yet fine enough at the tip for delicate work.  If kept very sharp it won't chatter on the blade when you do some heavy scraping in the back of the reed, either.

I sharpen the knife with a pair of ceramic sticks.  You can also use a sharpening steel.  There is no need for honing or putting on a burr or any bevel to work with.  I find it holds its sharpness for a long time.

The knife is sold by Albert Alphin and available elsewhere, I'm sure.  You may have trouble finding the knife on his website, so contact Albert directly.  It's expensive:  about $200, but worth it!!

I contacted the Graf company in Zurich and Felix Graf replied with the following description of the knife (my translation!):

Herr Graf says that the knife was developed by Ernst Graf in consultation with faculty at the Zurich Music Conservatory. The steel is made in Sweden especially for their company.  The Swedish firm makes the steel blanks in batches of 10 for them.  They are produced by hand by a single artist. The handles are made of rosewood, but I like the folding model.

I've had to be very careful on this tour to keep the knife out of my carry-on bag and bassoon case to avoid confiscation!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

10,000 hours to expertise

Around this time every year, college music teachers are in touch with students who are trying to decide which school to attend in the fall.

There are many factors to consider, but expense is becoming more and more of an issue.  Perhaps I'll write about this problem in another blog, but for now I'd like to focus on a question that has come up more than once this spring in my discussion with prospective CIM students.

The question is, "Do you think I can get an undergraduate degree in performance and get a job, thereby avoiding graduate school?"

I imagine the main driver of this question is that most music schools, CIM included, are becoming more and more expensive and parents are (rightfully so) becoming more and more debt-averse.  Families are looking for ways to get a quality education for their talented musician without incurring a crushing load of debt.

One solution might be going to a top school like CIM and hoping the student will, in four years, come out ready for the job market. Does this regularly occur?

The answer is almost always, "No".

It is rare that a 21 or 22 year old wins an audition for a full time orchestra job.  Most positions are won by people in their mid-20s or older.

Here's why:

In many disciplines in which expertise is crucial, it takes human beings about 10,000 hours of accumulated practice to achieve expert level.

This has been studied thoroughly and written about in various books.  The first studies of chess players and musicians took place decades ago by researchers A. D. de Groot, (chess) and K. Anders Ericsson

These studies and others like them have been cited in scholarly journals many times.  There is a growing consensus now that "talent" in the sense of innate advantage in a particular skill is overrated by society and that the role of deliberate practice in developing that talent is vastly underrated.

The myth of Mozart sprung from his mother's womb as a perfect musical genius makes a great story, but upon investigation falls apart. Yes, people are born with individual strengths and weaknesses in certain areas prized by society, but it is in the development of those strengths that real differences appear.  

Here is a good summary of the attributes of deliberate practice

For great books on this topic that have mass appeal, I can recommend three:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

All three quote the same studies and develop the theme of deliberate practice with the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert.

So, how did the 10,000 hours theory work for me?  Let's see. . . I started playing the bassoon when I was 11 and won my first job when I was 22, so that's 11 years. 

Now, if I practiced six days a week for 11 years (accounting for vacations, sickness, days off, etc.) that would be about 3400 days of practicing.

Assuming I practiced more like 5 hours per day when I was 20 and more like 1 hour or less when I was 12, maybe I averaged 3 hours a day during that 11 year period.

That comes to just over 10,000 hours total!

However, as these writers say, that's not enough.  This does not mean practicing with the TV on or with other music playing or just playing through things.  The practice needs to be deliberate, with focus, concentration, evaluation, feedback and other attributes.

And, in the audition process, there needs to be a bit of luck, as well!

Therefore, the answer for students and parents hoping that there could be a short cut to employment in this demanding field, is unfortunately, no.

Could you just take time off from school and continue working on your playing by yourself?  This is a very tough route to choose.  I tried it myself for three years after leaving that first job (I quit).  In order to support myself I worked full time in a record store and tried to free-lance.  I believe my playing stayed on a plateau during this period.  It was a time of stagnation for me.  I didn't get worse, but I also didn't get better.

For most people, graduate school is the better route.

Graduate study, by the way, can be much less expensive than undergrad, with teaching assistantships, fellowships, etc.  For the performance major it is also a chance to study with a different teacher and make more connections in an environment different from that of the undergraduate school.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gesualdo for Bassoons

Gesualdo for Bassoons

I've been working on a fun project for a few months now.  My wife is a big fan of the music of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1631).  For the music student, Gesualdo is usually the composer most remembered from Music History classes as the one with the "bad boy" image -- a murderer obsessed with guilt and physical punishment among other things -- and the composer of madrigals with daring harmonies.

Gesualdo has fascinated composers, authors, filmmakers, and other artists for four centuries.  Stravinsky arranged some of his madrigals, several operas have been written about him, etc.

His music has been arranged for diverse ensembles, so why not for bassoons?

I have arranged five madrigals and three of his responses for Holy Week for bassoons.  The madrigals are for five bassoons, the responses are for five and contra.  TrevCo will be publishing the arrangements, and my group, The Men Who Don't Bite will perform four of them at the International Double Reed Society Conference this July.

The arrangements are:

Madrigals, Book V

3. Itene o miei sospiri
4. Dolcissima mia vita
14. Asciugate i begli occhi

Madrigals, Book VI

14. Ardo per te
17. Moro lasso

Sabbato Sancto Responsoria

2. Jerusalem, surge
5. O vos omnes
8. Aestimatus sum

To arrange them for the range of the bassoon I transposed them all down by either a fourth or fifth.  They fit beautifully, though, with the highest note of the 8 being a D#4 and the lowest a low B for the contrabassoon.

In choosing the pieces to arrange, I favored those that exhibited the following characteristics:
  • ·         An “instrumental” quality such as melismatic passages or striking contrapuntal lines that would translate naturally from voices to instruments
  • ·         Chorale-like passages that could take advantage of the bassoon’s excellent blending qualities
  • ·         Daring harmonic progressions – a Gesualdo trademark
I have edited these arrangements to provide performers an immediate aid in capturing some aspects of the text, musical phrasing and style as would be heard in a compelling vocal performance. I have used the Complete Works of Gesualdo by Wilhelm Weisman and Glenn Watkins as a starting point. My choice of tempos, dynamics, and other expressions is based upon recordings of these works by Phillippe Herreweghe’s Ensemble Vocal Europeen de la Chapelle Royale (Responses – Harmonia Mundi HMC 901320) and La Venexiana (Madrigals – Glossa GCD 920935) among others.

I have been aided in these arrangements through correspondence with renowned Gesualdo scholar, Glenn Watkins. His books, Gesualdo, The Man and His Music and The Gesualdo Hex, make great reading for anyone interested in this composer.   

Gesualdo, The Man and His Music is a straight forward biography and musical analysis, while The Gesualdo Hex is an exploration of Gesualdo's influence on later generations of artists, especially, Stravinsky.  It is also partly a memoir of Watkin's interactions with Stravinsky in the 1950s and 1960s.

For those of you who observe Holy Week and Easter, listening to the Responsoria will add meaning to your week.  Here are some examples:

The Arranger's Art

I wrote out my arrangements by hand and sent them to Rich Shanklin, a friend and colleague who does a lot of music arranging and score preparation.  Rich uses Finale.  His work is excellent.

He sent me the above photos of a sort of musical typewriter used in prior days to transcribe music.

Coincidentally, a former student of mine sent me this video.  It is a short documentary on a master engraver for the music publishing firm of Henle in Munich, Germany.  


As my student said, "And I thought reed making was hard!"