Category Archives: Piano

The Dry Desert of Discipline

After 20 years of playing piano, I find myself enjoying performing more all the time. I get a burst of excitement when I find a new piece that I just have to learn, and another dose of satisfaction from playing it at a performance-ready level. (A live performance is icing on the cake!) But then there’s that long, hard road connecting the beginning to the end. You know, the part that takes the most work. Practicing!

To me, practicing a difficult piece is sort of like running a long race. This year I’ve been running pretty consistently, having done two 10k races in Victoria and now preparing for a half-marathon next month. I’ve found that as the distances of the runs increases, so does the mental battle. It’s easy to be motivated at the start when my legs are feeling fresh, and the approach to the finish line brings it own burst of adrenaline. So about 10% of the run is exciting. The only way to get from start to finish is to run the whole way through. That long, burning middle section has to be run courageously, with the finish in mind.

And so it is with making good music. It’s in the labour of consistent practice that a good performance is made. Music has taught me to stop waiting for inspiration to take hold of me, but to go out and wrestle it down myself. It’s that thing we call self-motivation. Practice will always be a chore, and will always be necessary. But the greater discipline, the more spectacular the result. And the sooner the finish line comes.

Exam Time!

This week I get to accompany four talented singers as they complete their RCM vocal exams on Wednesday, and then their end of the year recital on Thursday. The exams are for Grades 3, 4, 6, and 7, and repertoire ranges from Handel to Mendelssohn to Sondheim.

In an exam, the difficulty lies in being relaxed enough to deliver a great performance, while having the poise to incorporate all the details learned in lesson and reinforced through practice. Consistent practice, that is, not cramming at the last minute. Sports commentators often talk about being “in the zone” (wherever that is), meaning that an athlete is totally focused and ready to perform. That’s when all the sweat and blood in the gym is paid off by that one move that beats the defender or saves a goal. The same goes for music (yes, I’ve seen people practice until they bleed…although I don’t recommend it) in that you only get one kick at the can, one chance to prove all that you’ve learned. And if you don’t prove it, your audience will move on and forget about you. But the most rewarding time is when you know you’ve really sung or played your heart out. That feeling of accomplishment is something you can’t replace.

So hats off to you students, and I pledge to do my part in making you all sound your best!

Viva for another season

I have accepted an accompanist position with Viva Choirs for the 2010/11 season. This will be my third year working with the Boys and Girls Choir on Tuesday nights under the direction of Marnie Setka-Mooney. I hope to be able to write a piece for the choir again this year, as this was one of the highlights of last season for me. Once we figure out the theme for the concerts (we do two major concerts) I’ll starting working on an idea. I’m looking forward to it!

A Recital Like No Other

The audience squirms in the dark, stuffy concert hall. A grand piano sits expectantly in centre stage, waiting for its next victim. After a smattering of applause, music begins. The people in the pews drift in and out of focus, trying to make sense of the sounds. (Was that the start of the second movement? Who was this ‘Liszt’ fellow anyway?) And then in reverse, the music stops, the crowd claps, and lights come on. The herd files out to the bathroom, preparing itself to return for another forty minutes of enlightenment.

At least, that’s what happened at your grandma’s piano recital.

What if seeing a solo pianist earned you (aside from breathtaking music) confetti, neon lights, comedy skits, and a history lesson? Adrian Bronson asked and answered this question and many others at his solo recital last weekend at Alix Goolden Hall in Victoria. With a program featuring music of Haydn, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy (say that ten times fast), Bronson showed his passion for engaging the audience.

He explained not only when and by whom the music was composed, but also what it was about. Debussy’s Children’s Corner, for example, is a collection of six short pieces with evocative titles, such as Jimbo’s Lullaby, and Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. Going through one by one, Bronson told the story of each piece using visuals and musical demonstrations. And then came the performance. Bronson began the movement The Snow Is Dancing under a darkened ‘sky’, (dimmed stage lights) and later showered ‘snow’ onto the audience (tossed by his trusty stage hand Peter from the balcony).

The second half featured a skit called One Nod, One Page that reminded me of Victor Borge’s page turner. Page turning is one of those simple jobs that shouldn’t be difficult, but can become terrifying because one mistake can cripple an entire performance. (In my mind, this is one notch more frightening than being the cymbal player in the orchestra who waits for the final bars of the symphony for his one moment of glory.) The comedy routine involved Bronson, playing himself, and Peter Garrett, a ‘volunteer’ page-turner who caused a simple wedding march to go awry. I’d like to see a sequel.

The third performer of the night was Robert Dukarm, an excellent violinist who collaborated with Bronson for three pieces. The final music of the night featured my own arrangement of Shostakovich’s Second Waltz, which the duo performed as a well-deserved encore.

All extras aside, a piano recital really is about the pianist, and we were treated to some tasty playing. My favorite was Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous Prelude in B Minor. This piece shows off the range and power of the piano, and it was a treat to hear it performed well. Bronson engaged our minds with words, our hearts with music, and our senses with some surprises that made this a remarkable show. It was a pleasure to see classical music brought to the public in a way that is engaging, entertaining, and thoughtful.

Honors Concert

Tonight Quentin and I performed at the Vocal Honors Concert. (See the previous post.) This concert featured the top vocalists of the festival and also served as an awards ceremony. Quentin won the prize for best English Language Art Song. Woohoo!

One neat part of the concert was when we all sang O Canada at the start of the show. There’s something nice about a hall full of strong singers belting out the anthem that just makes me happy. The beautiful phrasing and impeccable diction were what you’d expect from a room of classical vocalists, but what really came across was the passion for singing and making music together. And I’m all for that!