Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tips on How to Tap into Your Musical Side While Performing!

By Dr. Naomi Seidman - Associate Professor of Flute, Penn State University

Naomi Seidman

I am listening to one of my online Pandora radio stations while I type this blog. I love the capability of music to color my perspective on the world when I listen with headphones. The mood of the music I select streaming through my headphones can make me bounce on my walk to work (which is incredibly useful when it is only 20 degrees outside!) Obviously I am not the only one who enjoys listening to music in this way. All you have to do to confirm this theory is to take a look out my office window and count the multitudes of students accompanying their walks with their own personal soundtracks on their wireless devices. As listening to music on headphones is so common, it’s surprising that it is often difficult to stress the importance of listening to my studio when they are putting the finishing touches on pieces they are getting ready to perform.  The common scenario that brings this topic up is after a student has played through their entire jury piece with piano. The performance may have gone technically well but the student does not seem satisfied with the performance. When I question the student on why they do not feel great about the performance, they usually dwell on minor technical issues. It is only after we examine the lack of musical elements that the student becomes aware of how important these elements are to feeling fulfilled about a performance. Whether you are getting ready for your end of the semester jury, college auditions, or All State audition, you have probably spent 99 percent of your practice time on learning the notes and rhythms, all the technical stuff, and only 1 percent on the musical side. 

Not to worry - you still have time to fix this! Luckily, there are some great ways to make you sound not only technically fabulous but also musical!! 

All performers struggle with the balance of execution and musicality. Some students are granted more musical talent than others, while others are better at technique. I remember my struggle to expose the musical side of my playing and how much more personal my playing became once I became more concerned with how my performances where making my audience feel, rather than whether or not I nailed a passage. Of course you want to find a balance between the technical and the musical - the music that really moves you (the stuff that you love to listen to) is a musical marriage between the two!

Here are ten tips that will help you to bring out your more musical side!!

1)    Sing through your phrases
Your inner voice is most exposed when you sing. In order to be more musical you must take a risk and expose it. For example, take the first phrase in the piece you are working on. Sing through the phrase, exaggerating the musical gestures you would like to bring out (add lyrics if you like). Does this experience make you aware of phrasing elements you were not including? Did you notice that you were chopping the first phrase up too much? After singing through the phrase a couple of times, play it on your flute. Notice any differences? Be sure to include the musical gestures from your singing in your flute playing!
2)    Dance to recordings of your piece
We all learn in different ways. Some of us are visual learners while others rely more on aural directions. A few of us are kinesthetic in our learning - what better way to explore this path than to dance to the piece you are working on.  I know you may feel silly at first, but it is very much worth the experiment. I bet you dance to music when you listen on your headphones!
3)    Supportive sound
How engaged are you physically when you are playing? A great way to test your physical engagement or support is to have a friend press against your left shoulder (pushing you backwards) while you play. If your friend can easily push you over while you are playing you need to engage more. Try the experiment again and this time, push back at your friend so you are meeting the resistance. Notice the difference in your tone! Now recreate this feeling when you are performing!
4)    Record yourself
If you love listening to music on your headphones, it’s time to start listening to your performances with headphones. Record yourself playing your prepared piece and then take the time to listen to it with headphones. Check and make sure your musicality is coming through. Most often I find that I have to exaggerate my musical gestures so much more than I originally thought (think stage makeup).
5)    Find colors and contrast
If you listened to yourself on your headphones and found that you did not sound as musical as you would like, it’s time to find parts of your piece where you could incorporate more colors and contrasts! Incorporating tone colors as well as dynamic contrasts frees up your interpretation ten-fold.
6)    Rubato if possible
Have you ever seen a person walking a dog where it clearly seems as if the dog is in control of the walk and not vice-versa. You want to be in control of your performance, and not the other way around. This type of control requires a lot of leading. In some pieces this leading requires rubato in order for the musical gestures to come alive.  A great piece for this type of rubato is the Charles Widor suite. However, in order for this type of rubato to come alive it must come from you, and your musical direction must be clear to your pianist in order for this to work.
7)    Memorize passages
My students often focus so much on this technique that they already have most of their jury pieces memorized by the second month of lessons. If this is also the case for you, take away the music when you practice. Keep the passages fresh and give yourself the freedom to explore what the musical passages are trying to say instead of reading the notes on the page (which you already know).
8)    Articulation
Good articulation is like good diction. I am sure you have heard many pop singers with bad diction and you end up singing the lyrics incorrectly for months before you realize it. If you are clear with your articulation you will leave no room for misinterpretations and your audience will be able to tune in 100 percent to your musical phrases!
9)    Find a story
I am sure you have heard this idea before, but not only should you find a story that you can tell in your performance, but try to make it a personal story. This is similar to actors who think of a specific moment that made them cry when they have to reproduce crying in a scene. If you are playing a movement of a work that is sad in tone then try and connect to that emotion with a personal story of your own while you play. Usually this works incredibly well.
10) Pick your musical idol and become them when you perform
I am sure you have a musical idol (if not 20) in your playlists. Pick one and become them when you play. This way you still have a little room to hide and yet you have the freedom of being this confident performer that you so admire while you perform.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Travel Stories - "Variations on a Theme by Mozart"

Sandra Kipp
I have played from memory many times in my career, but never felt completely comfortable. I have always preferred the comfort of having the music in front of me, even if I use it as one would use note cards in a well-prepared speech. But one hot day in a small town in Thailand, I truly regretted not having memorized more pieces!

I was on a two week tour of Thailand, traveling from Bancock south to Surit Thani. (Also spelled Suri Thani and Surithani) We had a very long drive in front of us, so half way through we stopped in a little town where some of the people I was traveling with knew some very welcoming and hospitable folk. They fed us, let us rest, gave us generous gifts, and well wishes for our travels. I was traveling with a pianist, a singer, and the organizer of the tour. Just before we were ready to leave, the organizer announced to our hosts that as a gift in return for their hospitality, we would perform music for them. The pianist looked around and said, “There is no piano, so I can’t perform.” The singer looked at us and said, “Without a pianist, I can’t perform.” So, all eyes turned to me. All of our sheet music and equipment had been transported to our next location in another vehicle, so I would have to play from memory. No problem, I have played countless unaccompanied works. This will be fun! Suddenly, it occurred to me that I had no idea what I should play. So I started the Andante in C Major by W. A. Mozart. No problem…how many times have we played this beautifully sublime work? I finish the opening phrases and thought this is sounding quite nice, as I see a supportive grin on my pianist’s face. Then as I continued, my mind went blank. I simply couldn’t remember the next phrase. So, I began to improvise, “variations on a theme by Mozart,” if you will. I see the look on my pianist’s face change from “How lovely” to “That’s not how I remember the piece going” to “What on earth is she playing????” I saw her starting to smirk and look down as I looked away myself. I knew if our eyes met, I might not be able to keep up this charade. She was doing everything she could not to laugh!

My improvisatory skills are quite lacking and I wish I had a recording of what came out of my flute!!! Thank goodness, this was before YouTube!!! Our hosts thought it was lovely and thanked me for my musical gift to them, as I walked away feeling so silly for having not been able to remember a piece I have played so many times. That was many years ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday! If you see me traveling somewhere, ask me to play the Mozart! I can now! Anytime, anywhere!!!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Helpful Tips for Live Improvising

By Anne Drummond

Anne Drummond
1) Draw from the melody as part of your improvisation. This is a foolproof way to play something satisfying and stay respectful to the composition itself.

2) Don't look at the chord changes. This forces us to really listen to our bandmates and also the harmonic movement of the tune. Doing this reduces the likelihood of playing practiced lines. 

3) Take a moment and pause. It takes great confidence not to play. When we allow a bit of space between phrases, everyone becomes engaged; the band, the audience, and the soloist.

4) Learn it… forget it… then do it. If we know something well enough where we can disengage the conscious mind and tap into the subconscious, we can then set the stage for deeper creativity.  

5) Stay committed to a piece. It's ok to tire of a piece played too often. Force yourself to dig deeper and draw out fresh perspective. Familiar territory is not an impediment to creativity and spontaneity can be created through applying conscious effort. 

Special thanks to the great bassist & composer Chuck Israels for his helpful and knowledgable input. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Passion Meets Passion

By Adrianne Greenbaum

Adrianne Greenbaum
Sometimes we flutists are comfortable saying that we’ve had a great ride, reached a level we’re not likely to surpass, and are basically content or, better yet, joyous and happy with our professional accomplishments. I can honestly say that I can’t complain. Seriously, can’t complain. 

In college – way back when – I was turned on to baroque period music in a big way. Played everything I could lay my hands on, learning to ornament freely and easily along the way. Stuff was also quite sight-readable. Perfect. Also began a minor in harpsichord. On to Yale for grad school and my harpsichord prof suggested I learn traverso. No clue what that was but a month later, I played a concert, albeit all in easy keys of G, D and e minor.  I loved it.  Traverso became a huge reason for being in grad school (other than studying with Nyfenger and finding a husband).

Fast forward 20 years, about 15 years ago.  I heard a kind of music that I was yet unfamiliar and fell instantly head over heels.  It was dance music with modes I had never heard before. Turns out that what I was hearing was that of klezmer music, music that comes from Eastern Europe and played for Jewish celebrations – and even somber occasions as well.  I was hooked, bonded to it forever. I whisked myself off to Klezkamp (located in the Catskills of New York, where else?) to learn more.  I apologized for being a flutist since I thought clarinet was The Instrument I should be playing. Not so. Flute was first before clarinets were invented so I’m good to go but was the first flutist to embark on the journey so I studied with the trumpet teacher.  

Thankfully this trumpet guy was smart and talented; could teach anyone. First assignment was to ornament a tune. I returned the next day with a stellar composition with “perfect ornamentation.” “How did you do that so easily?”  "Dunno, sounded baroque to me so I just ornamented figuratively like I’ve done so with the likes of Telemann." It was instinctual. I do lots more research, listening to old guys of the early 20th c. play klezmer. We have four recordings. That’s it. But they are masterful. With newly-gained knowledge and technique I began to give masterclasses on klezmer techniques and ornamentation. I’m loving my new-found love.

Fast forward to present. I hear for the first time an ensemble combining baroque works with eastern European dances.  Unreal to me. Incredibly exciting to listen to – played well – and to play. I found out where these 18th c. dances were published, ordered the interlibrary loan book of tunes of 1730, and I’m off and running.   My two passions of baroque and klezmer?  It’s a wow moment for me. Researching further I find that Telemann himself was passionate about the music that the klezmer played.  He mentions klezmer! I get very busy arranging tunes after baroque pieces for my faculty recital coming up. Happy with my new-found passion? Indescribable!  Passion meets passion!

(Recital, collaboration, with Katherine Kemler, Professor at LSU: November 2 at Mount Holyoke College. “Eclectic Flutes: Connecting the Dots” )

Adrianne Greenbaum
Professor of Flute, Mount Holyoke College
Happy Owner of Wood Powell since 2000