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The Big Baroque Festival!

I cleared most of my Saturday morning lessons so I could be on time for a special rehearsal at Fresno State. I took no chances given the steady rain these past few days that caused dangerously deep puddles along Shaw Avenue. The inevitable flow of traffic to crowd-jamming Bulldog games would also be a time delayer. (What season were we in?) My ignorance reminded me of the time I inadvertently scheduled a student recital on Superbowl Sunday. I had booked Northwest Chapel well in advance for a particular weekend afternoon, and naturally a specific Sunday in February was the only one available. Not a mystery with all the sports hoopla engulfing the city of Fresno. Since a pile of tailgate parties had to be canceled on account of my recital, the inconvenience cost me 4 students. And by coincidence, these kids all lived on the BLUFFS, a pseudo wealthy northwest enclave where homes overlooked a custom contrived pasture. (I noticed similar landscapes along my weekly train route to the Bay) It appeared that almost every city had set aside acres for panoramic views of a deep, expansive ditch decorated with trees, a few roaming horses, and some wild dogs chasing a few rodents that needed easy disposal) Here in Fresno there had been a fever pitch rush to buy such properties on the newly fabricated hills back in the late 80’s. (But I often wondered if the people hawking these houses, realized that a chugging, whistle blowing train would whiz by at frequent intervals, turning their dream homes into railroad flats)


Despite the fact that these Bluffs parents were put off by my recital scheduling on the day of a mega sports event, they still managed to show up for their kiddies’ concert with a variety of television hook-ups. Since iPhones had not yet arrived, I wished I had brought my camcorder to videotape some of the instant replay videotaping going on. No joke. The unpleasant distractions virtually ruined all of my students’ performances.


Flash forward: Thank God, today’s musical event at the university didn’t compete with football mania. (I happily reminded myself that the Superbowl came and went)

A high brow Baroque Festival sponsored by the Music Teachers Association of California had been planned in the afternoon, and one of my ten-year old students eagerly participated. The event had a competitive edge because only 1/3 of the entrants would be selected to go on to the Regional recital. In simple terms, those who were picked in this round by two esteemed out of town judges, would play in March at an Honors performance. It came with a Certificate of recognition and a handsome medallion. Not exactly an Olympic event, but for some keyed up students, it was a good comparison.

For starters, at 11:30 a.m. my student and I met at the concert hall to test out the stage piano.

Just last week, I had nearly died, thinking I missed my student’s run through, because a mistake was made in the announcement put out by the local music teachers association. Or maybe it was last year’s flier that got sandwiched into my branch’s Yearbook with an erroneous date of 2011 instead of 2010. Naturally, with the old dating, the February Festival would have been past history along with me.

What a relief to have come back from hell this week with another shot at being this kid’s teacher. Close call.

Today this very talented youngster performed two Bach Inventions weeks after she had appeared faceless on You Tube demonstrating her technical prowess. With only her HANDS on camera, she was put through grueling technical paces, playing every scale and arpeggio known to mankind. A bit of an exaggeration, but used to give her credit for hanging in there with a camcorder gaping over her shoulder.

Here’s a snatch of her anonymously rendered keyboard agility:

(Note that one of the pianos on video was waiting for a tuning, while the other had just received one. Hence, the warbling between them.)

In any event, the formerly invisible student, finally emerged with a face attached to her name, along with an assigned number that followed her to the Walberg concert hall stage that was equipped with a 9 foot size Yamaha.

Incidentally, last year I had learned a mighty lesson about Festival pianos and warming up. Mistakenly, I permitted a student to practice on a small upright piano in one of the university’s cubicles after she had tried out the concert hall’s concert grand. The diminutive practice size instrument had a very light action by comparison to the house piano’s resistant touch, so when my pupil played the first few notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata on stage, they totally disappeared. Naturally, she was caught by surprise and remembered the most recent piano she had tried. Live and learn.

The atmosphere at today’s Festival, or COMPETITION, was superficially low keyed. Everyone was supposed to be celebrating the age of the Baroque without a second thought, and I guess I should have joined in the fireworks, or the candle lighting ceremony but neither took place.

In preparation for the ordeal, or golden opportunity, however one wanted to spin it, I gave my student a copy of Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney Chase and told her to meditate over several selected, underlined passages.

I made sure to recommend my favorite mantra:
“To be a pianist, in one sense of the word, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music; it is to feel that one phrase loves another; it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing. It is to know a loneliness crowded with the beautiful as you play.”

These words had worked like magic with another student who had made it to the Regional recital two years ago. In honor of her sterling playing, I had framed a picture of her holding a Certificate and wearing the medallion. But by far the truest memento of her 2009 Baroque Festival appearance, was a DVD that captured a portion of her “live” performance.

Here’s the c minor fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Book I coming from Fresno State University’s concert hall. (excuse the raw footage with some sound irregularities)

PS An in depth documentary is in progress about what transpired at the MTAC sponsored Baroque Festival. In the meantime, winners will be alerted by email on Sunday Feb. 20, 2011 so the suspense is killing most of the participants.

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The iPhone Invades Piano Lessons

Monday, Jan. 24th, was a first! Esmeralda, a retired attorney, who’d been taking lessons from me for a year, entered my El Cerrito piano studio with a bright red iPhone as a sign of the times. A dangling rectangular prism packed with limitless software had replaced her simple gold cross. This latest “look” included a top-heavy accoutrement of questionable value in the piano learning environment.

No sooner than Esmeralda began to play her five-finger warm-ups in parallel and contrary motion, she had requested that I borrow her iPhone to “record” the tricky staccato phase of the exercise (crisp and short articulation) She wanted to take the digital sample home and use it as a crutch. By re-playing it a zillion times, she believed that she would master scales at break-neck speed!

If unsuccessful, she could simply tap the iPhone metronome and watch an animated pendulum, turning herself into a piano-playing robot. If nothing else, she could induce a hypnotic state and toss aside the beat counter.

Esmeralda requested a second sample from me a week later, but not the blood type. She had already done her good deed earlier in the day and was racked with upper back pain from the lengthy drawing at the local Red Cross. I was sure the baggy, top-heavy iPhone draped around her neck had probably made things worse. Nonetheless she took a brief lesson break and did some body gyrations on my J.C. Penney, wine colored, tufted bench. This was another first!

After she reluctantly trudged back to the piano bench, I agreed to dish out a performance of Alexander Tansman’s “Arabia” only if she promised to internalize my phrasing, and not upload the recording for profit. While this was the farthest thing from her mind, she realized as an attorney that my TOS had to be met.

All this technology was dizzying.

I was born of another generation. Growing up listening to great opera singers, violinists and pianists on 33 LPs and occasionally on 78s, I knew nothing of analogs, MIDIS, DATs and the rest, and as a student at the New York City High School of Performing Arts, I was sent off one morning to the WNYC F.M. studios to record one selection for broadcast. A reel to reel tape recorder grabbed the lion share of space behind the glass as engineers tweaked it.

All I can remember was having played like an ice-cube. Stricken with performance anxiety, my Chopin Nocturne died on the vine without even a whimper. Perhaps a modern-day note splicer would have eradicated the occasional clunkers, but what about the emotionless reading. Was there a 21st Century remedy? I would e-mail “support@…” for an answer, or text message on the ride home from El Cerrito.

Decades earlier, before I had entered the Oberlin Conservatory as a Freshman, my piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, had helped me put together my audition tape using her reel to reel that captured the Schubert Sonata in A minor with gorgeous definition. Who could ask for more?

In 1992, KVPR, our local PBS radio station brought the double cylinder monsters to Northwest Church where they recorded soloists who had performed on the esteemed Keyboard Concerts Series. From my standpoint the results were crystal clear, though the sworn techie groupies would argue that digital, mp3, MIDI, and DAT were the winds of the present and future.

I recalled an ancient New Yorker Magazine cartoon depicting a classroom with 25 tape recorders of the old variety and one lonely teacher gazing upon these from behind her desk. George Orwell couldn’t have illustrated it better in 1984. Now well into the Millennium, technology had taken over, and learning by iPhone, import, plug-in, or download had displaced the well schooled, hard-working instructor at the head of the class.

Sometimes I felt like a teacher put out to pasture. My students could log onto You Tube and watch an amateur type out Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on a 61-key bell and whistle type keyboard, with a blown up graph showing how many times “E” was played in the course of a musical page. Or better yet, they could download an animated piano that hummed along at programmed frequencies. You could tap your way to pianistic perfection with a “PLAYING The PIANO in a FLASH” DVD.

I decided to go with the flow, and allow my students their iPadian idiosyncrasies. If they wanted me to record a few snatches on the iPhone, or transmit whole pieces of music to them as zip files I would get with the times.

Otherwise, I would stick to my principles and lead a monastic life of pianistic purity. I’d never even allow myself to steal an iPhone, or sneak it into the concert hall to record a full length recital of my favorite pianist, no matter how great the temptation!