Tag Archives: Beethoven

drone strike parenting

Drone-Strike Parenting: the step beyond Helicopter Parenting. Hover, hover, hover, quietly, out of sight, then swoop in and cause massive collateral damage and mayhem. Retreat. Hover, hover, hover. Repeat as desired.


A young teenage girl, maybe 12 or 13 years old, started lessons with me earlier this fall. I put her in the beginner level of a series I hadn’t used before, wanting to try something different. It quickly became clear that this method was pedagogically questionable – illogical ordering of concepts, requiring technique way beyond the capabilities of a beginner, learning note names indirectly. It also became clear this method was geared toward very young students and my teenager was probably bored, maybe explaining why she obviously wasn’t practicing. I planned to switch her into a different method’s adult book, figuring to address all problems simultaneously.

Meantime, her father was two weeks late in paying tuition, and was giving my employer grief about charging him a late fee. This was not the first time he paid tuition late. The girl at the desk had already warned me about him, having spoken to him on the phone. (She looked terrified.) So when he came in, brandishing a check and proclaiming “and what’s this about new music for my daughter? How much will that cost? And let’s discuss my daughter’s progress, and possibly longer lessons,” everyone except my employer pretended to not exist.

While he was giving her yet more grief about the late payment, I sized him up pretty quickly. Self-important, self-proclaimed Big Deal. He was the Boss. Ready to take action, negotiate, bargain, whatever he needed to Get His Way. I put on my “Don’t you even TRY to BS me” armor, cloaked myself with a Disarming Smile, introduced myself as his daughter’s teacher and invited them both into my studio so I could clear up any questions he had regarding her progress.

He found this satisfactory. I led them back to my room; he very obviously sized up the room to see if it was professional enough for his standards. Upon seeing my Beethoven Sonatas score laying on the piano, he smirked at me. “Ah, Beethoven.” Like he knew something. Like now he knew the lay of the land. Like now we were speaking the same language. Part of the same club. Dude, it’s Beethoven. Please.

Father: (back to business) So, about my daughter’s progress. Where should she be by now? Is she going as quickly as she should? (ugh)
Me: Well, each student moves at their own pace. There are no benchmarks; I work to develop skill and build concepts. When they are ready to move on, we move on. Some are faster than others, some need more time. It’s very much dependent on each individual student’s capabilities and how much they practice.
Father: Right. I’m just thinking, you know, I know a bit about music (oh do you now?), I played guitar when I was younger (I’m sure), maybe I just forgot about the boring learning part before you get to the fun stuff, right? Heh heh. (smirk again)
Me: (wow, way to disparage your daughter!) Sure. Also, I am switching her into Adult books. I originally began her in a series more aimed for children, which I also discovered is not up to my personal standards pedagogically. This is entirely my fault – hopefully this new book will be more interesting and she will be able to progress a little faster.
(Meanwhile Daughter is standing next to him staring at her feet. I feel so bad for her.)
Father: (finding this acceptable) Fine. And how long should she be practicing? Right now she’s barely practicing at all, are you sweetie? Maybe 20 minutes twice a week.
Me: Yeah, I know. Again, hopefully this new book will be more interesting. However, I do ask that all my beginning students practice 20-30 minutes a day, six days a week.
Father: (with another smirk and a side look at Daughter) Ah, is this the old “if you want a puppy ask for a pony” trick?
Me: (for the love of…) No, sir, I don’t negotiate with my students. I don’t ask for an hour expecting 30 minutes; I ask for 30 minutes and expect them to do it.
Father: Fine, fine, good. So, I was wondering if it would be helpful to increase her to 45-minute lessons? Would that help her out?
Me: I only recommend students go to a longer lesson when they master what I’ve assigned them within a few days, long before the next lesson. Because a longer lesson gives me the chance to introduce more stuff and give them more to work on. Lessons are not supervised practicing. You’ve already confirmed with  me that your daughter doesn’t practice as it is; let’s see how this new book works out. If she starts progressing quicker than I assign pieces, we can certainly consider it then.
Father: (doubting me) So you don’t think it would help?
Me: No, I don’t. Not until she outpaces my lessons. Again, let’s see how this new book works out first before we go changing anything else.
Father: Fine, thank you, that’s what I wanted to know.

I shake his hand, give him my business card, walk him to the door and let his daughter get composed and situated at the piano. I come back in, apologize to her that that was so awkward. She just shrugged. I started her on the new book and she found it much more to her liking.

Maybe two months pass and it’s clear she’s still not practicing. Enjoying the books more, sure, but not actually practicing. She only remembers concepts that stick the first time and she’s clearly not doing much of anything outside lessons. I start playing reinforcement games with her, like flashcards and finger number games. She’s a bright kid, maybe she just needs a little more engagement. I teach her practicing games to play at home. No improvement. Eventually I flat out ask her if she likes piano. “Yeah, I like it” with a smile – that smile you give someone when you want to say yes to please them, that smile that’s eager but not earnest, the smile that says “I like it for you, but on my own I probably wouldn’t.” I tell her, “It’s okay to say no! I won’t be offended!” She reassures me she does in fact like piano.

Time comes for semester re-enrollment. I ask her if she’s coming back next semester, because we have to get the paperwork in and square our schedules. “I don’t know, my dad is taking care of it.” That’s all I could get out of her for three weeks; it was pretty obvious she had no say in it.

One day my employer pulls me aside between lessons. She apparently contacted the father as the re-enrollment deadline (to secure your current teacher and time) was a week away. He informed her that he would let us know in one week; in the meantime he was auditioning a different teacher.

Auditioning a different teacher.

Part of me really wanted to be offended. But the better part of me thought that was the funniest thing I’d heard in a long time. Your daughter isn’t practicing! She has told me as much! There’s nothing I can do about that; I don’t live with her. But you do! You can do something about that! I even told you, to your face, what I expected from her! You’re going to pay money for lessons but not make sure she’s getting the most out of it, when I laid out exactly what to do? Please. And now you’re hoping that a different teacher will magically make her better? I openly acknowledge that not every teacher and student make a great pair, and sometimes a different teacher helps. But that’s not the case here! Your daughter just doesn’t care enough about piano. This is the equivalent of replacing your weekly personal trainer because you’re not losing weight but you still eat McDonald’s every day. You’re a fool. Please. Get out.

No, they didn’t re-enroll.


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some thoughts on returning to beethoven after a long period of playing much more recent music

All of last semester, and up until today, I have been playing somewhat unusual rep for a piano performance major. It was almost exclusively chamber music, most of it written in the past hundred years (I hesitate to use the term “modern”), and anything common practice was an orchestral reduction: not written for piano (with only one exception). So in all cases, difficult because of either the notes, the awkward writing, or both.

This semester instead of Copland, Shostakovich, and some Big Romantic Reductions, I’ve got Beethoven and Brahms! And Scarlatti! And maybe some Mozart! Okay there’s still some Shosty, I can’t lie, but still. Tonality! And let’s jump right in because that Beethoven horn sonata performance is in a week!

And these are the things I noticed as I got reacquainted with Beethoven.

1. I learned the entire sonata tonight. In about two hours. I will hit up some of the less obvious spots tomorrow and then it will be rehearsal-ready. Granted it’s not that difficult, but the last 24-page piece I had to learn took me more than a week to get the notes under my hands and required hardcore woodshedding every day just to keep it at acceptable levels. And let’s not talk about how much work/time to get it sounding good. It feels unnatural to not spend eight- or ten-hour days slaving over it just to accomplish a few pages. It feels too easy. Like I’m missing something or I’m cheating.

2. It’s relatively easy to play. It’s written for piano, by a pianist. The scale passages, melodies, and chord patterns are logical and fit under the hands. There are no strange tricks, I don’t have to finagle fingerings or orchestrate major note redistribution, acrobatics, or weigh the importance of individual notes and play Sophie’s Choice. I just have to write in the occasional finger number or accidental.

3. It requires more smart thinking than elbow grease. In this piece, every rhythmic or technical issue I encountered could be solved by either re-barring, re-stemming, or shifting hand positions. Yes, solved. In every piece I played in the last six months, every rhythmic/technical issue had to be mitigated by lots of slow work and an infuriating amount of repetition. Also copious cursing.

4. Simple rhythms are suddenly challenging. An eighth-note melody over a sixteenth-note accompaniment? Impossible. Requires some fingering write-ins and a few slow readings to get it right. A triplet embellishment of that same melody over that sixteenth-note accompaniment? Nailed it on the first try. (This may be because the last time I had to play straight eighths, it entailed a jump of more than an octave per hand twice per measure on consecutive eighths. And wasn’t tonal.)

5. It’s tonal. There is a colossal difference between “It was written in 1948 but all the harmonies are triadically based so it’s easier to read! Too bad it’s a different triad every single eighth at Quarter Equals 152” and “It’s in F with a harmonic rhythm of one measure.”

6. I’m playing off a library copy. I never do this. I always buy and play from my own copy (if I don’t borrow one from the soloist). However given the short lead time on this performance, I borrowed one from the library (I haven’t even met the horn player yet). And after spending only about two hours with the score I’m feeling a special kinship with whoever used it before me. First off, they erased all their markings before they returned it (the first time I’ve ever seen that! Props to you!). But as usually happens, ghosts of their markings can be seen if you look closely enough. And every time I go to mark something for myself, I find a ghost – this person made the same marking I am. Every accidental, fingering, circled reminder, was made by the person before me. I feel a strange kinship with them. “You kept missing that Bb too, huh?” “Yeah, they give you the start of the turn but not how to get out of it. I agree, 4 as the pivot.”

7. I missed Beethoven. I have been having (and will continue having) a pretty steamy affair with Shostakovich, but one quick harmonic turn brought it all back to me. Only Beethoven could find such perfection in such a tiny detail. It’s nice to be welcomed back, and with a wink at that.

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kick-awesome project

Frederic Rzewski actually once said to me, “You should play the Hammerklavier. You’d be good at it.” So, that’s what I’m going to do.

He said this to me at the Music09 festival in Switzerland, and I have been pondering it ever since, weighing whether it was feasible and whether it would be worth it. It’s one of those notorious pieces where everyone claims it’s ridiculously difficult on multiple fronts – and part of me believes them (because why would they lie?) and part of me doesn’t (because how many have played it over the last 200 years?).

So, I have “permission” from my professor – that as long as I understand what I’m getting into and how big a project this will be, then do it. He also said he would be learning it with me – he’s never actually made a real study of it, but has taught it and read it many times. So that will also be very cool.

Okay then, next question: what to program with it? My first reaction is something French, like one book of Debussy’s Images. So that’s out – I’m definitely looking for something less obvious and more intriguing. This stumped me for a good year – what the heck do you program with it?! So then switched trains of thought: What do people think of when they hear “Hammerklavier”? First, that it’s enormous; second, that it’s real difficult; and third, partially because of the fugue. Fugue – what to pair with a fugue? A PRELUDE.

This was definitely more what I had in mind. Pull together a smattering of preludes by pretty much everyone – Debussy, Chopin, Shostakovich, Scriabin, maybe some late Baroque ones, etc., and end the set with Rachmaninoff’s Bb prelude – both a good set end and a good setup for the Beethoven. Solid.

So I approached my prof about it. He also thought it was a cool idea, but suggested possibly doing a complete set of preludes by one composer. I have to admit, I had considered it, but for some reason dismissed it as being too much (as if the Hammerklavier weren’t already). So he started suggesting complete sets. And I think we both lit up when he got to Shostakovich. I have always wanted to perform them as a set, and I think they’re a great counterbalance to this program.

So, as it stands, that’s my next solo recital program:
Shostakovich: Preludes, Op. 34
Beethoven: Sonata in Bb, Op. 106
It will take me at very minimum a year to learn. And it’s probably the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. No, not probably – it is. This may work, or it may prove too much. But what better opportunity will I ever have than now?

Seriously though, I’m so excited.

Also, if you’re wondering where “kick-awesome” comes from, it’s (of course) in a sbemail:

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I have to play a diagnostic for my DMA program during orientation week, in about 2 weeks. I’ve been slowly but surely plugging away at my rep, maybe a little slower and less surely than I should, but it’s been getting done. Then, last night, I had a dream.

I dreamed that I was playing my diagnostic pieces for Robert Levin (who will not actually be on my real-life diagnostic board). I was playing the first movement of the Appassionata (one of my actual pieces), and it was going shakily. I was getting the notes in, but my brain wasn’t quite ahead of my hands and sections weren’t transitioning. Eventually I had to stop because I couldn’t remember what key a section was in – I thought it was Ab, but I wasn’t sure. I apologized, and he told me to stop and breathe, and think, and retry with some musical intention – that should hold me together better. (Something Tsarov has drilled into me. I have no idea what Levin would have said.) I asked if he had any specific comments, and he said he wrote them in my score.

Then I woke up, and realized that there would be none of Levin’s comments in my score, which was more disappointing than the “performance” itself. And also that if I were to play my diagnostic today, there’s a 50% chance it would go something like the dream “masterclass.” Probably not as bad, but the potential was there if it were an off-day.

I don’t really have a punchline for this story, but it’s a good excuse to bring up one of my favorites: when I met Levin in real life. Last October I was in Boston taking lessons from various professors, and I had scheduled one with Ya-Fei Chuang. I was relatively nervous, so I found their house a few minutes early. When it was time, I walked up to the door and just as I reached for the doorbell, a bird shit on my head. And then Levin opened the door. True story.

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I just moved to Cincinnati from Tallahassee, because in a little over a month I will be embarking on my DMA at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). I’m stoked, overwhelmed, a little frightened and a little unbelieving. But that’s a story for another time.

As I was planning this move, I wanted to look into two investments: a piano and an Xbox. The piano seems self-explanatory; I’m a pianist. But thinking about it, why would I want to buy one when a whole bunch of new Steinways – that I can use whenever I want – come with being a student at CCM? (It’s okay, be jealous.) Welp, because sometimes I don’t want to fight for parking. Sometimes I don’t want to commit to the 2 or 3 consecutive hours of practice that would make it worthwhile to fight for parking. Sometimes I know I only want to do 45 minutes off and on. Or maybe I want to do one more hour before I go to bed at 11. Or those times (many, many times) that I’ve lost an afternoon or evening because I was cooking something that took longer than an hour. So, I decided it was a good idea; I wanted something small in relatively decent shape. Just something that could get work done.

The Xbox, well. My roommate had his hooked up to his TV as a composite DVD player/game console/Netflix streamer, and I really liked the setup. And since I was upgrading my TV to a reasonable size (from my old 14″), I needed something like that. And, in my continuous effort to be the coolest person I know, I wanted a gaming console. I always have, but growing up I knew not even to ask. So now that I’m an adult (or something) and I’m effectively the only person who can tell me no, I decided it was a reasonable investment. And besides, I already own Mass Effect (all of them, yes) from when I played it on Brooks’s console and I wouldn’t mind playing it again.

So over the course of three days I bought a TV, a couch, a piano, renters insurance, read the Ohio drivers manual and opened a checking account. At the end of the third day, feeling waaay too adult-like, I made the executive decision. On the morning of the fourth day I bought an Xbox and a pile of games.

And you know what, they were both great ideas. I have the piano and Xbox in separate rooms, about 20 feet apart, and they both call to me. I’ll be woodshedding at something and I’ll hear the Xbox call me, “But don’t you want to blast some mercs and geth and Collectors and flirt with the turian?” (I have a serious thing for Garrus, shut up.) And I’ll think, Why yes! Of course I do! and I’ll go do that for a while. And soon enough the piano will call, “But Beethoven! and Rachmaninoff!” And I’ll think, Of course! Naturally! How could I? and go back to practicing. It’s a pretty nice safeguard against burnout on either of them.

The only problem is that neither ever stops its siren call. Back and forth, back and forth, all day. It’s great – until I have to go to bed. It’s difficult dragging myself away. But, I guess that’s what coffee is for.

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why i don’t write about music

Have you noticed this? I’m a musician by trade, by day and by night, and I never write about it. Sure, I write about my daily goings-on, but that’s my profession; it’s not music. I’ve been more and more aware of this lately. Music and the arts are in the cross-hairs of budget cuts nation-wide, and champions are composing some really spectacular writings in their defense. Many of my friends and colleagues dedicate their blogs to writing about music. Some are professional, some are casual, some are philosophical. I have read things ranging from “why it’s important to improvise” to “why we compose” to “discussions on (any particular piece)” to “what goes on when I practice.” I’ve even read an article on why we should write about music more. They’re all wonderful.

Me, I don’t write about music because I’m no good at it. Oh, sure, the stuff backed by verifiable fact, that’s easy – read some stuff, compile any useful information, rearrange the pieces until the puzzle makes sense, draw a few conclusions based on how you rearranged it, add grammar, make it sound pretty and give it flow. (And cite.) No problem. But that’s not writing about music. That’s writing about about music. It’s the other kind I’m talking about.

The bit about how music makes me feel. About why it makes me feel. About why I do it. I can’t construct a vehicle of words suitable for the profound weight and importance of music. And I say “I” because I don’t presume to know anything about you regarding such a personal subject.

Thinking of the times I’ve been asked why I “do” music, I believe my standard line is, “Because I can’t do anything else.” Which, when it comes down to it, really isn’t an answer that satisfies anyone besides myself. A real answer would be something like, “Because I’m not happy if I’m not playing. Because it takes me to places I wouldn’t go in every day life. Because it shows me parts of myself I didn’t know existed. Because I’m free to explore and express sides of myself I normally wouldn’t be comfortable with. Because I’m free to say what I want to say unreservedly and without fear. Because the composer knew exactly how I feel. Because I know exactly how the composer feels. Because it’s wonderful to understand and be understood. Because you can communicate things that can’t be said – both for lack of propriety and for lack of words. Because it involves every part of my being and allows me to use every part of myself to its maximum potential. Because I am my own medium. Because it’s the essence of being alive, and therefore essential to being alive.”

Here’s the problem: this explanation (honestly the best I could come up with) is incredibly cheesy if you don’t already know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t been there – if you haven’t gotten goosebumps or cried because of a color, or a chord, or a phrase, if you haven’t had your day or even your life completely changed because of one piece, if you haven’t practiced something and said, “This, this guy knows me,” – then you’d probably look at me and say, “Well, if that’s what you want to do with your life.”

But most importantly, it only rests tenuously on the surface of music. I’m not saying anything about what music is. Because I can’t say anything about that (and I would venture that nobody can), and the harder I try, the more I flounder and the further I get from the point, grasping at just about anything.

Because I can’t say why a sonata is so powerful or a fugue so ethereal. I can’t say why that rhythm fills me with joy. I can’t say why that phrase is so beautiful. I can’t say why that voicing gives me chills. I can’t even try. The only helpful words I can offer are:

“Here, listen.”

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as promised

As I promised at the outset of this blog, I don’t write about things that aren’t interesting. And my life, right now, is pretty uninteresting to the uninvolved.

I’m taking care of Sean’s cat, she wakes me up at 5am. I’m trying to beat Sean at chess and it’s not going well. A bunch of my friends and I get together once a week to watch Wagner’s Ring cycle, and I’m 100% hooked. I’m narrowing down my list of potential schools to apply to for a doctorate. I miss Switzerland in the worst way. I also miss Vienna. I picked up a second, small, local church job. The plants on my porch haven’t died. I have an honest caffeine habit. I have a ton of music to learn, and absolutely love it. I am the happiest person when I’m playing this music, but this is much more interesting to me than it is to you.

So that’s pretty much it. If something interesting eventually happens, which I’m sure it will, I will write a full-length funny post. In the meantime, there’s very little fodder.

So, carry on, I guess.

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