Yes, I do think “bad” practice days exist.
Take today, for example.
For reasons I won’t discuss here, today found me “off my game.” Has that happened to you?
Even while warming up with finger exercises I am completely used to, I couldn’t feel my hands or fingers in the usual way. That may have been okay, but my hands repeatedly slipped off the keys.
That is, of course, unacceptable.
So, what do you do? Stop practicing for the day?
Not wanting to quit right away, I opted to see if I could find a way to accomplish something.
The first thing I did was to slow down. A lot.
Then I flattened my hands more than usual, resulting in more finger surface on the keys. That helped accuracy quite a bit.
Okay, warmups worked after making adjustments in speed and hand position. Now it was time to practice some music.
Playing at performance tempo wasn’t going to work. Warmups had brought that to the forefront already.
The music I wanted to practice to day was Bach and Messiaen from my July solo program. After not playing it for some time, a slow tempo was needed.
When I tried hands together, that didn’t work for the same reason the warmups were uncomfortable at first. I couldn’t feel my hands or fingers very well.
Something that worked
The approach that worked was hands alone slowly, concentrating on fingering and phrasing. My ears were fine, so listening seemed like the way to go.
What about tomorrow?
I know why I was off my game today, and expect that tomorrow will be better. Hopefully, “bad” practice days won’t happen any more frequently than they have up until this point!
What do you do when you have a “bad” practice day? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
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During graduate school, I found myself sitting in my host’s living room over Christmas break, the music for a program of Messiaen songs spread out on the couch, French-English dictionary in hand.
My host, entering the room, noticed what I was doing. He proceeded to tell me, “Don’t translate that! You don’t need to. Just play the music.”
I hope you find that statement outrageous! I did.
A discussion followed. I wasn’t making an impression, but I had no intention of stopping, uncomfortable situation or not. Out of desperation, I said, “If I don’t translate this program, I’ll flunk out of school!”
That squelched the conversation, and I finished without further unsolicited advice.
Why is translation so important?
You need to know exactly what you’re saying!
- Maybe you know that the text is about water. You need to go further. What kind of water? Rippling brook? Crashing surf?
- Perhaps you recognize the word “heart.” What is your character’s heart doing? Beating faster? Is your character in despair? Sobbing?
- When you have repeated chords for several measures, what do they indicate? A heartbeat? Being out of breath? Why? A tolling bell?
- Is your character saying something or thinking it? Big difference!
- Is your character talking to or about someone? You need to know.
- Is this person having many thoughts at once, or is s/he going crazy?
- Is the text serious or not? Funny? Ironic?
Translating text right away will make your life much easier. You can make a plan to interpret the music meaningfully and coach singers with their motivation and character in mind.
If you have been reading this blog, you know how I feel about learning the notes first like a robot. We all need more information so we can feel the music.
Use a printed dictionary!
Google and online dictionaries are fine for looking up isolated words. But I advocate doing text translations with an actual foreign-language dictionary. The more definitions, the better. You will also be able to refer to synonyms, antonyms, variations, etc.
One of my favorite things to do is an accurate translation of a German text, followed by an outrageously inapproriate one (in my head)! So many choices….
Write the translation word-for-word into the score
When the translation appears immediately above the original text, you will save time and not have to rely on memory.
Don’t skip anything when translating ~ one word can change an entire sentence. (“She said lightly, ruefully, coyly, lovingly, darkly….”)
Gail Fischler of the Piano Addict blog challenged her college students to think of adjectives to describe their recital pieces. Interesting concept! One student’s idea was “playful, with a hint of brooding.” That would change your musical approach, wouldn’t it?
Of course, while you’re at it, you will translate all musical directions in the score, too.
Now do another translation in the vernacular
- Use everyday slang
- Include idioms
- Avoid formality
The goal is to understand & convey the story (more like John Grisham than Shakespeare) ~ so you could tell it to your best friend or an audience. Be conversational.
Include translations in your concert programs
You will want to use English sentence structure.
If the text is complicated or over-long, a synopsis may be preferable. Plot synopses for operatic scenes, for instance, provide plenty of detail without becoming confusing to the audience.
Do translations yourself
This is the only way you can ensure accurate results. Besides, after you’ve done the work, you will have in-depth knowledge of the text.
“Poetic” translations rhyme in English. They do not accurately translate a text.
Translations printed in the music often tell a nice story, but not THE story of the original text.
Volumes of published translations may be accurate for one or two stanzas, but not in subsequent ones. Sometimes they can provide a good place to start, but you must look up any words you are unsure of. How can you tell if you don’t check?
Are you in the habit of doing translations? How do you go about it? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
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I discovered something this week.
A few years ago, I learned this piece, then put it away.
Along the way, I practiced it from time to time, but still didn’t feel ready to perform it.
Last weekend, a friend passed away. I had wanted to offer to play for her service, but didn’t quite know how. Her husband then requested that I play. I feel honored to do so.
What to play?
The service will be in a church with a good piano. I wanted to offer something appropriate and meaningful, not last minute thrown-together music that no one would care to listen to.
Once again, I thought of this wonderful transcription. But why would I magically be able to play it now?
On Thursday, I finally tried it. After having the flu for nearly two weeks, I must be more relaxed than usual. Also, there was neither time nor energy to try too hard.
And… now I can play the piece! What a nice surprise. I am looking forward to playing it for the service.
This is the entire prelude for the service:
Liebster Jesu, the hymn by Johann Rudodlph Ahle
Liebster Jesu, harm. J.S. Bach
Prelude in B flat minor, J.S. Bach, WTC I
Ich ruf’ zu dir, Bach-Busoni
La colombe, Messiaen (with a nod to the bird club)
Prelude in E minor, Chopin
Rest in peace, Sally.
I believe that, given the
state of the music business today, engaging audiences in whatever we do is crucial to the survival of live performances.
What I’ve tried recently:
I’ve been playing some of Messiaen’s Préludes for widely diverse audiences.
- a rural, small-town MA church;
- a larger church in a somewhat larger CT town;
- a concert series in upper Manhattan; and
- a MA extended-care facility with has weekly concerts.
- 60% of the audience liked this music;
- people went out of their way to provide enthusiastic feedback;
- prolonged applause; and
- people reacted positively
What’s the “secret?”
I talk to the audience just before performing Messiaen. This approach would apply to other non-traditional music as well, I would think. (I’m planning to try that next!)
What I’ve said:
“I’d like to talk to you about Messiaen for a minute. But first, I want to thank [Music Director] and [Committee] for asking me to play today, and thank you for coming!
These pieces are very early examples of his work, written while he was about 20 yrs. old and still in school. You will hear melodies that repeat, as well as musical ideas Messiaen developed later on.
“Even if you haven’t heard Messiaen’s music before, I’d like to ask you to suspend any expectations you might have and just let your imagination go.”
(… or something like that.)
This is not lecture-recital material, nor is it profound. Connecting with the audience and drawing them in are the important considerations here.
Why is the audience engaged?
- They feel included, and know that they are not merely spectators
- They have been invited to imagine whatever comes to mind
- Some of the “scare” has been removed; the composer seems like a real person
- You seem like a real person! Audience members will find it much easier to tell you what they experienced
A few things to consider:
- Include the audience; avoid talking down to them
- What you say isn’t as important as saying something (in the past, I was shy about speaking to a group. Trying it out by chance with a small group in someone’s living room changed my mind!)
- Giving the audience an invitation to have their own experience helps them feel free to get into the music
- Even when there are program notes, a minute or so of speaking makes the intangible more real for people
4 more things to try:
- Play excerpts to illustrate brief verbal comments
- Ask audience members for a show of hands (that’s where my 60% positive result came from, above)
- Provide historical context, constructing a musical timeline (by playing related compositions, either excerpting them during your brief remarks or including them in your program)
- If possible, having the composer present would generate audience involvement. The composer could make some comments, too. Or, the composer could make a short video for you to use. Or, you could share written comments by the composer with your audience.
Do you perform music audiences might not be familiar with? How do you present it?
When you speak to your audience, what do you say?
Have you found that audience interest and feedback improve when you reach out?
Also, a great read: “How To Make Sure We Don’t Have an Audience in 20 years — Part the First” written by Bill Eddins, Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Suggestion from Rachel Day Velarde via FB. Thanks, Rachel!