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Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art. I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase. I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student. After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.

Practicing is hard work. Performing is hard work. Creating art is hard work. I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job. And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music. It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.

And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill. I do it because it’s oxygen for me. I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself. I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.

Don’t expect applause. It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will. One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone. Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days. The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies. Those are the days I have to remind myself: don’t expect applause.

Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself. For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure. Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me. Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.

Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage. I play. I do my best to communicate the music. I play some parts well. I smudge some bits here or there. Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me. Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.

Don’t expect applause. When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music. I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition. Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

 

(Image: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) Interior with Woman at Piano)

Guest post by Simon Danell

Memorizing has, for years, been very fascinating to me. I think that’s partly due to the fact that it was such a struggle for me in the beginning, whereas now it seems like a very natural thing to do. It’s something most of us haven’t really been taught, but expected to figure out by ourselves – if we don’t learn the piece by heart, we’re usually just told to practice more.

I find it interesting how such a crucial part is just left for fate do decide.

When starting to play piano, memorizing is usually not such a big problem. The songs or pieces are short enough to learn just by playing them through a couple of times per day. But once we enter even slightly more advanced repertoire, that way of learning is suddenly of no use, and we tend to find ourselves fiddling around on the keys with an increased heart rate, and with the words “Oh, sh*t” repeating in our heads.

I was no different. I easily came through the harmonically simple and motorically repetitive pieces without any difficulty, and putting my head on auto pilot was my idea of a perfect concert – I’d get up on stage, bow, sit down and start to play. Things would then turn black, and I would come out of the darkness a few minutes later once the last note is played. “How did it go? Oh, just amazing, I didn’t even have to think!” Then it came….. I went up on stage, bowed, sat down and things turned black. “But what was that note again?“, and it all changed. I came out of the darkness, but I wasn’t even half -way through the piece. Desperately I tried to find the right notes to play, my heart rate increased and “Oh, sh*t!” was on repeat in my mind.

Luckily, it was on a sort of bad piano, and the audience was a bunch of classmates who just wanted to go home. They were probably coughing and yawning a lot, so it was surely because of that, and nothing I had done wrong. All I had to do was to practice some more and just focus a bit more next time.

The next concert came – I went up, bowed, sat down.. all just routine by now. The only difference was that this time, I’d be Focused! “Focus, focus focus focus… fo.. f…. oh, sh*t!

These slips went on. I could play the music perfectly at home, and almost as good in the lesson room, but once on stage, it all just fell apart. I went on to practice 8-10 hours per day, but still with the same result in concert.

I got some tricks from my teacher, like “Think of the harmonies” or “Practice more slowly, and with separate hands!“, but that rarely made any actual difference.

The real difference came when I started studying at actual music school, when I was about 18, where other students also had to practice. The rooms quite quickly became full, and there was a lot of time spent just waiting. As the pieces had to be learned anyway, I started by just reading the score, and tried to imagine what it looked like. I read a line, or a phrase, closed my eyes, and tried to play it in my head. Not only was I unable to remember the notes, I barely remembered what it sounded like! It was such an epiphany that I knew it would change my musical life. I finally started thinking about practicing. How would I ever be able to play anything if I had no idea what I was actually playing? From then on I started practicing away from the instruments at least an hour every day. I tried to not allow myself to practice at a piano before I had a very clear idea in my mind of how it was going to sound once I started playing.

It became clear to me that the motoric memory (or muscle memory, as some call it), the thing I had used for so long, was actually very unsafe and unstable. I found that the other senses have an impact on our memory too – the aural and visual, and the intellectual part – and how they, unlike the motoric memory, really needed to be worked on properly and won’t just come by themselves.

I started analyzing my performances, and what I was thinking during my playing. As it turned out, I was thinking almost exactly the same things when I was performing as when I was practicing, and once the muscle memory turned off, I had no safety-net since I didn’t make one when I was practicing. In some aspects, practicing shouldn’t really be that different from performing.

Once I started practicing everything I had to know on the stage, all the memory slips disappeared almost over night. I finally realized not only to focus, but on what I should focus. If I noticed that my mind was drifting on a certain spot, I practiced to know what to think on that spot (the notes, the character, to sing the melody…) to train myself to think about the same thing during the performance. Or if I noticed that I worried about remembering the notes in a certain phrase, I practiced every voice carefully in my mind, both the notes and the music, before I played them, and followed each of them very attentively when I played. Then I would have created a safety net, in case I would need it in public.

I practiced very attentively like this for some time, to make sure I would cover the full piece – I remember once when I was performing the Symphonic Etudes by Schumann and, with full focus, was able to follow everything, down to pretty much every single note – but then got into the next problem….

You. Can’t. Make. Music. If. It. Never. Ever. Flows. … Which is what happens if you think on a note-to-note basis.

It was an obvious improvement from being neither detailed nor attentive, but it was a few steps too far. I tried to alternate between being in constant control, with often playing through to put everything in a certain perspective.

Now I feel that I can be both while performing. If I feel I am under control, I can let go and let the music flow by itself, and can just as easily go back to regain my focus if it’s starting to fall apart.

This article first appeared on the website of pianist Simon Danell.

Inspired by a guest post on performance anxiety written by a friend from my piano Meetup group, I am launching a new occasional series of guest posts called Advice to Myself.

The articles are aimed at pianists and musicians in general and will offer practical, supportive and inspiring advice on aspects such as managing anxiety, preparing for performance, practising, repertoire, teaching, music exams, avoiding injury and more. The advice of others based on their experience of similar issues and challenges can be very helpful, and I hope these articles will also create a forum for discussion of the many issues which face musicians, amateur and professional.

Articles can include images, links, video and sound clips.

If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact me

 

27072-books-origjpgPublished by Faber & Faber
Publication date 1 September 2016
Length 112 pages
ISBN 9780571330911
Format Hardback

 

This book is an absolute joy from start to finish. So much so that I read it in one sitting, busily making notes in the margin and nodding my head in agreement.

Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians was originally written in 1848 to accompany his famous, and still very popular, Album for the Young, a suite of piano pieces for children and students. Schumann was a remarkable man, not least for his huge and varied oeuvre of miraculous music, but also his championing and support of other musicians, as well as teaching, writing and encouraging young musicians. Celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis has taken Schumann’s advice and expanded upon it, added his own commentaries and words of wisdom, and often matching Schumann’s humorous or witty tone with his own amusing observations. Schumann’s advice, though couched in the language of his age, is always relevant and Isserlis, through his own words, demonstrates how perceptive Schumann’s wisdom is by passing it through the lens of his own experience as an established and highly-regarded classical musician. He brings the advice right up to date for today’s musicians working in a profession that is increasingly busy, competitive, uncertain and stressful. Such advice includes the importance of playing with others, receiving critical feedback from one’s peers and teachers, appreciating audiences and understanding the structure of music.

Divided into five sections, the book explore keys facets of the musicians life and work, from being a musician through playing (and performing), practising to composing, something which Schumann felt all musicians should do, and which far fewer practising musicians do today (Steven Isserlis’s good friend and colleague the pianist Stephen Hough is a notable exception, whose polymath musical life Schumann would certainly approve of). The final section contains Isserlis’s own pieces of advice which are thoughtful, intelligent and accessible. Isserlis reveals his reverence and enthusiasm for his chosen art in a way that is never didactic, sometimes profound, always realistic yet never depressing. The tone throughout is modest and sensitive, for musicians can be fragile souls. prone to much self-doubt and anxiety.

Not just a handbook for young musicians, this delightful and wise book is a manifesto for all musicians, music teachers and music lovers, one which one can read in a single sitting, or dip into at one’s leisure to extract a nugget.

Highly recommended.

One of my favourite quotes: “As you grow up, communicate more with scores than with virtuosi”