This article first appeared on No Dead Guys, the blog of pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo


It starts with fascination and attraction. Sometimes it happens slowly; other times it’s all at once. You want to spend every moment with this person. You want to know everything about the object of your desire, big and small. No detail is unimportant. No story is boring. And one day you realize that you know this person almost as intimately as you know yourself. This is what we commonly refer to as falling in love.

It starts with analysis and observation. Everything about the specimen is studied, examined, catalogued, and dissected. You draw conclusions based on findings. You write dispassionate observations. This is what we commonly refer to as scientific analysis.

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Making music, when it’s done right, is like falling in love. We tumble helplessly, passionately into a relationship with a piece of music, and in our effort to understand everything we can about it, we discover things about its structure, the composer, the circumstances in which it was created, others’ ideas of how best to play it, and (crucially) all the ways we can share our insights and love of what we’re playing through every note we play.

One of the greatest disservices a teacher can do to a student is to teach music like a scientist, not a lover. When this happens, it’s usually because the teacher has never had the experience of falling in love with music, or has shut out that love for one reason or another. In their hands, music is no longer alive, but is a thing to be dissected and coolly studied. Everything stays clean and scientific, there are safe “right” and “wrong” answers, and no one makes poor musical decisions in the heat of passion. Music becomes clinical, and (as a result) dead.

No one can think oneself into being in love. The magic is either there or it isn’t. Music is a sensual art first—we hear the notes being struck and then dying away; we feel the smoothness of the keys under our fingers; we see the play of light and shadows on the piano and the score; and we sense the interplay of sound, silence, composer markings, and our own hearts in the phrases we help shape. Analysis, observations, scholarship? These serve the senses, not the other way ‘round. This is what many of the late great pianists knew, which is why their recordings frequently offer more depth and humanity than many modern players, who play quickly and oh-so-correctly, but have little to say. We can read, memorize, study, and analyze everything there is to know about a piece, but until we abandon ourselves to the experience of playing the notes, the music lacks life. That doesn’t mean that playing the piano should be an anti-intellectual act; it means balancing head and heart; it means acknowledging that the heart part of this equation must come first.

If I could wish one thing for every pianist, it would be this: let yourself go. Let yourself be seduced—ravished!—by the music. As my undergraduate piano professor once told me, “make love to the piano.” Let the music teach you about itself through loving attention to the score, to historical writings, and to others’ experiences with it, and then abandon yourself to it. Hold nothing back. This is what it means to bring a great piece of music to life.


rhonda_rizzoRhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is a writer and a former performing and recording pianist. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018, and her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including Pianist Magazine, American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo 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.

She holds a BA from Walla Walla University and a MM from Boston University and is a passionate advocate of new music and living composers.

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

Pianists are the luckiest of instrumentalists. We’re self-contained and unlike most other musicians, we can be a musical “island”. But while our ability to work without others is a gift during a pandemic, many of us yearn to return to the delight of making music with other people. I’ve had the privilege of performing with many musicians during my career as a pianist, but some of my favorite stage moments occurred when I was sharing the keyboard with another pianist. As half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, my long running collaboration with pianist Molly Wheeler taught me that there is an intimacy to 4-hand playing that can’t be found in any other form of collaborative playing. Performers breathe together, arms are entwined, and egos are sacrificed to the good of the ensemble. There is no individual glory in duet playing, just a melding of two players and four hands into one musical organism.

We may not be able to share the bench with our favorite duo partners right now, but we can use this time of forced separation to explore new repertoire. Much of the standard duet music is lovely but can also feel limited and overplayed. These 5 gems are ones I know intimately. They’re pieces that don’t show up on every 4-hand concert program. And because I love music with a tune and a beat, all these pieces are audience-accessible crowd pleasers, sit comfortably in the hands, and are rewarding to practice and perform.

3-Day Mix

Composer: Eleanor Alberga (b. 1949)

Description: In this rousing 9 minute party on a piano, Alberga draws on her Jamaican background to create a whirling celebration of color and cross-rhythms. 3-Day Mix requires the pianists to have a strong rhythmic sense and a fearless sense of bravura, but Alberga is a pianist and she knows how to make difficult passages feel accessible. Of all the 4-hand music I’ve performed, this piece may be the most fun two pianists can have on one keyboard, and its dramatic ending pulls an audience to its feet.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Eleanor Alberga


Gazebo Dances

Composer: John Corigliano (b. 1938)

Description: This 16 minute 4-movement suite is, in Corigliano’s description, “ a musical depiction of the pavilions often seen on village greens throughout the countryside where public band concerts are given on summer evenings. It consists of a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio and a bouncy Tarantella.” This suite is rhythmically challenging and (at times) melodically unpredictable but the humor, beauty, and exuberance make it a joy to play. The Tarantella is a rousing way to end a concert.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Musicroom


Legacies: Fantasy-Suite on American Folk Songs

Composer: Terry McQuilkin (b. 1955)

Description: American folk song favorites Wayfaring Stranger, Jack Went a-Sailing, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Shenandoah, and Cindy are featured in this 14-minute 5-movement suite. McQuilkin walks the line between classical and jazz, requiring performers to possess both strong technique and the ability to swing and play a decent walking bass line. No folk song is presented in a straightforward manner; instead, these familiar tunes dart in and out of the texture, teasing performers and listeners with fragments of the familiar embedded in an unfamiliar landscape. In this way McQuilkin saves the folk songs emotional power; in the moments that the melodies emerge intact, they’re so powerful they’re like sun breaking through dark clouds.

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Where to purchase: Terry McQuilkin


Pièces Romantiques, Opus 55

Composer: Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Description: This jewel-box collection of 6 elegant, Romantic pieces is 19th century 4-hand French piano music at its finest. Similar in style to Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, these pieces by Chaminade contain lyrical melodies and elegant harmonies but are more accessible than Fauré to the late intermediate or early advanced player. These are pieces to be shared by and with friends—perfect jewel-box musical moments.

Difficulty level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: IMSLP / Sheet Music Plus


3 Modal Tangos

Composer: Alexander LaFollett (b. 1985)

Description: Mix a handful of unfamiliar modes and catchy melodies with traditional tango rhythms and you get 3 Modal Tangos. This 10 minute suite is technically and rhythmically accessible to the early advanced player, but has the benefit of sounding a lot more difficult than it is to play. The rhythms, melodies and solid structure make it feel familiar, but the modes keep the music fresh and unexpected. Satie-like performance notes give the tangos a theatrical feel, allowing the performers to explore unexpected ideas on how to approach the score.

Difficulty Level: Late intermediate/early advanced

Where to purchase: Alexander LaFollett


Rhonda Rizzo is a pianist, and author.  She 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. She has also released numerous articles and a novel, The Waco Variations.  She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, No Dead Guys, and she is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

I’m 17 years old, starting my first year of university, and I have strong opinions about music. I embrace the music of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt—revelling in the tumultuous emotions, lyrical lines, and flashy virtuosity. I love the mysticism of Scriabin, the drama of Prokofiev, and the accessibility of Gershwin. I walk into my college professor’s studio and inform him (with all the arrogance of an outspoken 17-year-old) that I don’t like the Classical era. He councils me to withhold judgment, and then assigns me Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31, no. 2, commonly known as the Tempest Sonata. He reads me perfectly. I rush headlong into the sonata with all the passion I brought to the Romantics. The mercurial shifts match my dramatic mood swings, the sudden changes keep me from “zoning out” in the development, and the sheer masculine energy of it assures me that it doesn’t sound easy. With this one piece, Beethoven becomes “mine”—music where all the drama of college romance, artistic dreams, and growing up find an auditory home. And through Beethoven, I learn to love an era of piano music I’d ignorantly dismissed as “boring.”

I’m 23 years old and am sitting in my apartment watching Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony a month and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A child of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall had felt as permanent as the Great Wall of China until it wasn’t, and when the unbelievable happened, the world got a little smaller and a little more hopeful. In this televised concert, Bernstein, the orchestra, the choir, and most importantly, Beethoven embodies an irrepressible joy and optimism that sweeps me—an American—into a celebration that transcends borders. It’s a party—one that by being a member of humanity I’m invited to join. The music and the celebration goes on and on, as if the joy can’t be contained to a few minutes in time and must erupt over and over again before the Symphony reaches its rousing conclusion and the crowd erupts. I weep through the final notes.

I’m 28 years old, standing backstage, waiting to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra is playing Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture. As the piece progresses, so do my pre-performance jitters. A woman I don’t know stands beside me and wants to massage my hands in preparation for my performance. Both my nerves and the bizarre hand massage imprint themselves on Beethoven’s Overture, guaranteeing that listening to that piece gives me anxiety for the rest of my life.

I’m 35 years old and working as a piano instructor. At certain stages of their development, most students wants to learn Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and the Pathetique. I shepherd them through the inevitable problem spots and I commiserate with colleagues about how fatigued we all get teaching these chestnuts. Through my students I find new things to appreciate in music I know well—subtle nuances that reflect the interests and enthusiasms of each performer. Through my students’ ears, I learn to hear Beethoven anew.

I’m 39 years old and have been asked to perform Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with a small chamber orchestra. A conductor-less chamber orchestra. A chamber orchestra who’s concertmaster/artistic director assures me he will conduct from his position in the orchestra. Everything goes well until dress rehearsal when the 2nd movement falls apart because the strings are in one place and the winds are in another. I go home in a panic, am awake half the night with worry, and then call a friend the next day for advice. She tells me to play with the score, color code the orchestra’s parts so I can cue entrances with my head as I perform. I do so vigorously—my concert up-do tossing curls around with every emphatic nod. The orchestra and I make it through the concerto intact. Afterward, many audience members tell me that they enjoyed how passionate my performance was—an assessment made solely on the basis of my head movements and not from the panicked notes that accompanied the unintended theatrics.

I’m 53 years old, looking back over a lifetime’s relationship with Beethoven’s music. I specialize in playing the music of living composers and as such, it has been years since I’ve performed any Beethoven. But I see traces of him everywhere—in the bass lines of some pieces, the melodies of another. Most of all, I find him in my own struggles, personal and musical. Beethoven is so completely and utterly human. Like the old Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Beethoven struggled. He worked for every note he wrote. He wrestled with infirmity and loss. Yet somehow, he emerged from these battles and his late compositions transcend notes, form, and perhaps time itself. In Beethoven I find a snapshot of life, purified in the crucible of art, offering a glimpse of the best of humanity.


4200DC39-5E3C-4868-8678-4E894B0C1D9F_1_201_aRhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist and author. She 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, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations. She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, http://www.nodeadguys.comnodeadguys.com.

No Dead Guys is the blog of American pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo, and is dedicated to new piano music, living composers, and thoughts on the intersection of music and life.

Frances Wilson, AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist, talks about her work as a publicist and how her love of music, concert-going and admin has informed her role.


I’ve always enjoyed admin – when I worked in publishing back in the 1990s I was an executive PA – and I like using my organisational skills. Working as a publicist allows me to utilise these skills to ensure material is produced on time, deadlines are met etc. In fact, it sits well with being a musician, since this is also a role which requires organisational skills such as forward planning and time management.

I also wanted to learn more about another aspect of the music industry. I’m a keen concert-goer and have always been alert to the presentational aspects of concert-giving – from advertising material to programme notes to how musicians behave on stage or engage with audiences. I enjoy drawing on my experience as an audience member to inform my publicity work, and regard this as a strength.

Read the full interview here


Find out more about Frances Wilson’s publicity services and client testimonials here

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Frances Wilson (photo by James Eppy)

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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)