THE PIANO DUO: INTERVIEW WITH ANDERSON/ROE

Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)

There are many ways to deliver an piano performance. Playing as a duo is one of them.  The fans of the piano world has seen and heard a number of interesting and intriguing duos that bring a different dynamic to perception of delivering a piano piece.  With this interview of delightful Greg Anderson (MGBH) and Liz Roe (MGBH), our magazine is introducing a new section titled “The Piano Duo.”  We look forward to your comments and are open to suggestions for future interviews.

 

PPM: What gave you an idea to create a duo vs. perform as soloists?
LIZ: We initially met at Freshman Orientation at Juilliard—we were actually living on the same floor in the dorm! A close friendship and mutual respect quickly developed, and when musicians are friends, the natural tendency is to play together.  The very first time we sight-read together there was an instant musical alchemy.  We gave our duo recital debut at Juilliard during our junior year; we had such an exhilarating time onstage and it was a resounding success with the audience, our friends, and our teachers. From that point onward, we felt inspired to continue our duo pursuits.  It also became clear that we shared the desire to energize and re-imagine the presentation of classical music.
GREG: Yes, it was absolutely electric the first time we ever read duo music together. The music we were sight-reading was notoriously difficult to synchronize exactly, and we were perfectly together.  We weren’t even focusing on synchronization! That same innate sense of musical timing (or is it “mind reading”?) has followed us throughout our career; we rarely spend rehearsal time on the basics of ensemble.
I think the success of our duo is due to three factors: our friendship, this innate musical chemistry between the two of us, and our shared mission for music’s role in society.  We’ve now been playing professionally for 15 years. As great friends, we feel so fortunate to be making music together for a living. That said, we still perform as soloists, and we’ve both released solo albums in the past couple years.

I think the success of our duo is due to three factors: our friendship, this innate musical chemistry between the two of us, and our shared mission for music’s role in society.

LIZ: Yes, our solo pursuits certainly continue to inform our duo approach: in honoring our individual artistic and personal identities, we find that our collaboration feels all the more dynamic.

 

PPM: How do you pick your repertoire?
GREG: Liz and I strive for variety in our programs — specifically, a musical diversity that reflects the variety of life.  Joyful and sad, profound and silly, aggressive and dreamy: we aim to capture it all. Although we perform a lot of our own arrangements, our programs almost always include some music written originally for two pianos.  We like the variety of style and perspective that these compositions offer our programs.
LIZ:  Because we value variety in our programming, we’ve pushed the boundaries of what can be performed in a classical concert: now it is totally natural for us to pair a masterwork from the standard classical repertoire with a contemporary pop hit cover.  These juxtapositions stem from our belief that great music is great music, regardless of genre, style, etc.  In that sense, we are not attached to labels; what matters about music is not what “category” it belongs to, but rather its impact—if it moves, excites, soothes, enlightens, or uplifts you.
GREG: In the end, our aim is to captivate the audience with music of divine transcendence and wild, acrobatic pianism. We serve our music piping hot with an unhealthy dose of adrenaline, 2-4 servings of sexual tension, and a dash of the unexpected…

 

PPM: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
LIZ: I was born and raised in Chicago.
GREG: I’m from rural Minnesota.

 

PPM: What/Who affected your choice of becoming a musician?
LIZ:From a very early age, I was surrounded by classical music, on the radio, through recordings, and in live concerts.  My family is full of music lovers and amateur musicians, so music always felt like such an essential part of life to me.  From my first lesson at age six, the piano felt so natural to play, and I was entranced by the instrument’s vast palette of sounds.
GREG:  I first started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old — my parents wanted my brothers and me to be well-rounded individuals, and we were all required to take at least three years of musical instruction.  I fell in love with the piano and classical music instantly, and from then on, I don’t ever recall feeling like there was a choice; I always knew I’d be a musician.  It felt so innate to me.

 

PPM: Tell us about your path to and at Julliard: what led you to this school and what was it like being a student there?
LIZ: A pivotal event occurred when I was 13 years old; I won the IBLA International Piano Competition in Italy, resulting in concerts at notable venues like Steinway Hall in New York and Salle Cortot in Paris, which exposed me to the life of a performer.  In addition to my piano studies and performances, I was an avid academic student as well and seriously considered non-conservatory schools.  However, choosing Juilliard felt like the natural next step on the pathway to a career in music, and as soon as I arrived I realized how inspiring it was to be surrounded by such incredible artists and the galvanizing energy of New York.  I had an extraordinary experience due to my brilliant peers and teachers.
GREG: Before even auditioning at the school, I was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of Juilliard students, and I knew that it was a world in which I wanted to be immersed.  My childhood teacher of 11 years, Kim Craig (MGBH), prepared me well for college.  She would work with me intensively for hours every week—sometimes as many as eight hours per week—and she would attend all of my out-of-state rehearsals, performances, and competitions.  This devotion made all the difference.  Not only did this afford us time to work in great detail, but also it provided incredible training for Juilliard, the concert stage, and life. Life as a Juilliard student was a bit magical, almost like being a student at Hogwarts.  We were living in a rarified world, devoting our lives to beauty, honing our crafts, and living and breathing music.  We were lucky.
GREG & LIZ: Here are a few of our favorite things about our time spent at The Juilliard School:

  • The palpable excitement and energy in the air
  • The colorful personalities of our classmates
  • The colorful personalities of the faculty
  • The massive, well-stocked, and browser-friendly library
  • The incredible performing opportunities offered to the student body
  • Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens 😉
  • The location: Lincoln Center!
  • The tight-knit, supportive community
  • The convenience of the dorms to the classrooms (you can wake up five minutes before class and still be on time)
  • The opportunity to meet awesome musical partners-in-crime
  • The location: Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Whole Foods, and great nightlife are just blocks away.
PPM: What was your first music video and what inspired you to make it?
LIZ: We had no promotional objective in making our first videos; we made them simply because we wanted to. (In fact, everything we do—our performances, arrangements, videos, recordings, social media, websites, writings, etc.—comes from our shared passion for creativity and adventure, and beyond that, to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.)   Both of us are highly visual people who like to delve into uncharted territory, so we were interested in exploring the artistic potential of classical music videos.  I grew up watching a lot of pop/rock music videos on MTV so I was particularly influenced by this aesthetic, but Greg (MGBH) and I have drawn inspiration from many additional sources: film, all forms of art, the music itself, and our own vivid imaginations!
GREG: We filmed our first music video (Piazzolla’s Libertango) in a classroom at Yale, where I was a student at the time. It was the only venue we could get into, and though a classroom doesn’t necessarily scream “tango!,” the misalignment forced us to think creatively.  We concocted a narrative in which I fall asleep during science class and daydream about a lustful interaction with my classmate…PPM: Did you ever consider a profession other than a pianist prior to going to Julliard?
LIZ: I’ve always had broad interests (mainly in the humanities) so I did consider other professions, but in my heart I knew music—in any shape or form—was my calling.
GREG: I considered a career as a material scientist and was on the math and science teams in high school, but I always knew music was my world.PPM: What were your favorite composers in your early teen years and how did your preferences change as you matured?
LIZ: I’ve always seemed to possess an innate affinity for lyrical and expressive music, so I would say I was drawn to the Romantics in my early teen years. I was also obsessed with Glenn Gould (OBM) at that time and thus loved Bach (OBM) from early on.  Beethoven (OBM) has been another consistent favorite, as well as the Beatles!  Over time I’ve developed a passion for chamber music, music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and music that is off the beaten path, like Britten’s Piano Concerto and Field’s Nocturnes (both of which I’ve recorded in recent years). From Messiaen (OBM) to Miles Davis (OBM), I’ve always had a diverse musical palette!
GREG: I’ve always loved exploring music of different genres and styles. In my early teens, I started going to libraries to check out music by composers of whom I’d never heard, and I’d sight read the scores at home. I remember my local library wouldn’t allow me to check out more than 45 books at once, and so I’d always have 45 library scores sitting beside the piano.  I carry that same sense of curiosity to this day! That said, I’ve never fallen out of love with Mozart. 

PPM: How often do you practice together and how much time do you practice separately?
LIZ: Honestly, we don’t have a discernible practice routine these days — our schedule has become quite varied and unpredictable.  While we’re on tour, traveling takes up much of our time; we also spend countless hours working on creative projects like our music videos and arrangements.  That said, we aim to practice as regularly as possible (ideally on a daily basis!).  As for duo rehearsals, we make sure to schedule a substantial period of time together immediately preceding our tours, and we try to take advantage of any rehearsal time on the road.

 

PPM: What is the process of a program preparation for you?
GREG: We devote ourselves obsessively to the planning of recital programs.  We believe that the selection of repertoire significantly affects the listening experience, and we work hard to take advantage of this. Obviously with our programs, we consider factors such as variety, cohesion, mood, our audience, etc., but we value the sequence of music and its effect on the listening experience: creative repertoire juxtapositions can especially help novice listeners hear music in a new light!  For example, when we pair popular songs by Schubert (OBM) and the Beatles (or even Taylor Swift (MGBH)!), we place Schubert’s songs in a new context, and audiences may come to realize how similar these 200-year-old songs are to the popular music of today.  Likewise, the dance music of Michael Jackson (OBM) isn’t so different from the popular dances by Liszt (OBM). Recital programming is just another avenue for us to realize our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.

 

PPM: Back at the beginning of June you were hosting the webcast of Cliburn Piano Competition. What was this experience like for you?
GREG: Hosting the Cliburn Competition was an incredible, though taxing, experience.  We were so impressed with the pianism, and even more so, by the extent to which the 30 pianists shared their souls with their listeners (we went through more than one box of kleenex!). And from our point of view, we really appreciated the platform to further our mission; we were able to discuss, very specifically, just how relevant this repertoire can be in the 21st century to millions of viewers.
LIZ: It was also an exhilarating challenge to dive into the world of live broadcasting: it was high-wire act of timing, research, speaking, improvisation, diplomacy, and cooperation. (And fashion, naturally.) Instead of being in our normal element onstage, it was fascinating to be involved behind the scenes and to have the privilege of interviewing some of the most prominent figures in the classical music world.  The Cliburn and Medici TV teams were an absolute joy to work with (we felt like a family by the end!), and it was of course thrilling to actively engage with piano-lovers worldwide on a daily basis through our on-camera commentary and our social media feeds.

 

PPM: Do you have favorite performance venues?
LIZ: Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center will always have a special place in our hearts, thanks to our Juilliard days. The legacy and energy of these venues are incomparable.
GREG: In addition to beautiful concert halls throughout the States, Asia, and Europe, we’ve also had a blast playing in more intimate venues: for example, we’ve put on shows in club-like spaces, and we also periodically present “musical mixology” concerts that feature craft cocktail pairings (created by yours truly!) with pieces of music.

 

PPM: I would like to address an issue of worshipping musicians and composers that Greg mentioned during the Chicago talk.  This indeed has been one of the problems in classical music for centuries – blind reverence of the performer and the composer vs. enjoyment of classical music and using it as a tool for elevation of consciousness.   A musician, after all, is just a spiritual channel to the sound vibrations.   And depending on their level of spirituality, he or she is able to attract and produce high or low level vibrations reflected in the quality of music compositions.  What, in your opinion, is one of the ways to remove or, at least reduce, this “idolatry” element from the classical music tradition?
GREG: We want our audiences to be active participants in the concert experience. An invested listener won’t be nearly as affected by blind reverence, since they’re actively making the music their own!   We created a “Listening Manifesto,” in part to encourage listeners to invest themselves more fully in the concert experience and to deepen their enjoyment of the music.
LIZ: While we can and should acknowledge the superhuman achievements of great composers and performers, we must remember the underlying humanity of these individuals, and that their creative output is a powerful expression of our shared humanity.

 

PPM: With your performances, you are making the art of piano performance highly interactive vs. entertaining the passive listener.  From filming on college campus in Midland, TX to performing on the street.  How does the aspect of interactivity, in your opinion, affect the audience’s perception of music?
GREG: We want our audiences to feel the music more deeply and more personally than ever before. We’re always asking ourselves, “How can we make the music come alive?” and “How we make the music relevant to our listeners?”
Bringing music to life involves far more than just “playing the piano.”  Many external forces affect our perception of music, from our listeners’ emotional state to the venue, in which we are performing.  With this in mind, we do our best to align these external forces in our favor.  Sometimes this means we choose to burn pianos in our music videos, wear provocative clothing onstage, compose fiery arrangements of pop music, or, otherwise, spice up the music listening experience.  But in the end, everything we do as artists is in service of the music we perform and our audience’s reaction to it.
LIZ: In this postmodern age, the audience is an essential part of the artistic experience.  We don’t create or perform in a vacuum; in a performance we’re shaping and responding to our environment and context, of which the audience’s active engagement plays a pivotal role.  And if you didn’t catch it before, be sure to check out our “Listening Manifesto” (http://www.andersonroe.com/listening-manifesto/)!

 

PPM: What are you looking forward to accomplishing this upcoming year with your piano performances?
GREG: We’re premiering several new works, including our very own Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos and Orchestra and Danse Macabre: Bacchanal for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Violin.

 

 

PPM: Please, tell us about your CD recordings. Do you have any releases coming out?
LIZ: We do have a new release on the horizon!  We’re thrilled to be in the editing stages of our latest album – Mother Muse.  Mothers represent a whole spectrum of attributes, both mythic and uniquely personal: they can be forces of nature and nurturing, guidance and inspiration, patience and strength, and, of course, love: profound, fierce, unconditional.  Mother Muse features musical compositions that pay tribute to the diverse aspects of motherhood, from the sacred (“Ave Maria”) to the saucy (“Mrs. Robinson”), and everything in between.
GREG: In addition to the album coming out next spring, we have all-Mozart (OBM) and all-Bach albums, as well as an album of night songs arranged for piano duo (When Words Fade) and a DVD release of our music film, The Rite of Spring: A Musical Odyssey.

 

PPM: Do you have a favorite piano piece that you like playing together over and over?
GREG: Brahms’ (OBM) Variations on a Theme by Haydn (OBM), which Brahms originally composed for two pianos, is noble and grand; it’s one of our favorite pieces ever composed, and notably, it was the first piece we ever performed together as a duo.  We’ve performed it hundreds of times since, and it’s never gotten old.
LIZ: I’d add the gorgeously evocative Rachmaninoff (OBM) Suite No. 1 and our cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (in which we rock out!).

 

PPM: What are your hobbies outside piano?
LIZ: Music (listening, creating, singing) and silence, reading and writing, food and film, drawing and museums, traveling and exploration, nature and inspiration, the silly and sublime.
GREG: Playing piano, piano recital programming, hanging out, piano, film, reading, piano, astronomy, composing, design, art, piano, politics, music, hiking, mixology, cooking, wine tasting, traveling, playing the piano. Also: playing the piano.

 

PPM: Do you have siblings? Please, tell us a little about your family.
LIZ: I have two sisters.  I was fortunate to grow up in a family of music-lovers so they are all very supportive of my career. My mother’s side is particularly musical: my mother played the violin and conducted during her school days, and I have an aunt who is a cello teacher in Seoul and another aunt who teaches piano in the DC area.  Both of my sisters are also musically talented and became accomplished at their instruments: my older sister on violin and my younger sister on cello.
GREG: I have two brothers: an older and a younger brother.  We had a wholesome upbringing in rural Minnesota, where we lived across from a farm.  My parents both grew up on farms.

 

PPM: What are your favorite places to visit?
GREG: It’s all about the food!
LIZ: Yes! We love to visit (and perform in) places with access to delicious food, but also extraordinary history and culture: London, Tokyo, Rome, Montreal, to name a few. My personal travel favorites include Paris, the English countryside, Iceland, Hawaii, and Switzerland.
GREG: I’d add China and Spain… Plus, New Zealand is absolutely magical; in fact, we have a 10-city concert tour there next spring, and we can’t wait!

 

PPM: What cuisine/food/restaurant do you like the most?
LIZ: Virtually all cuisines.  Pasta, pizza, fruits and veggies, fresh fish, all kinds of tea, dessert.  A really delicious brunch also hits the spot.
GREG: Unhealthy: pasta and cheese. Healthy: salads (with dark greens, please!), artichoke hearts, avocados, tofu. Mmmm.

 

PPM: What are your thoughts on classical music in the XXIst century?
LIZ: Classical music has been undergoing a significant shift in identity and presentation.  Since we started our careers over a decade ago, we’ve witnessed numerous changes, challenges, and developments within the industry.  Audiences desire a more personalized and less formal approach to the music.
We didn’t start with the goal to “change” classical music per se; from the beginning, we’ve aimed to be true to ourselves and to the music we love, which in turn allows us to create with freedom and communicate with sincerity.  In re-imagining music from the pop world, we’re not only striving to keep the genre relevant, but we’re also paying homage to composers like Beethoven and Liszt, who did something similar centuries ago with folk and operatic music.  We—and many of our contemporaries—find value in blurring the lines between genre as a reflection of our multicultural, heterogenous world, but also because great music transcends categorization.  To that end, we reap inspiration from the creativity and showmanship of pop and rock musicians, as well as the artistry of dancers, actors, visual artists, and more.
In doing all this, our ultimate intention is to channel the immensity of the human experience through music and to elicit a heightened sense of joy, curiosity, and wonder in others.  Classical music has the power to do that, and I believe that’s why it persists as a cornerstone of our civilization, no matter how much times change.

I think social media will continue to transform classical music in the 21st century.   The Internet makes classical music so much more accessible, whether it be through music videos, behind-the-scenes looks into musicians’ lives, or interactions with likeminded individuals.

 

GREG: I think social media will continue to transform classical music in the 21st century.   The Internet makes classical music so much more accessible, whether it be through music videos, behind-the-scenes looks into musicians’ lives, or interactions with likeminded individuals.
As we’ve said repeatedly, it is our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society, and our social media projects are naturally an important part of this mission.  Social media allows us to showcase the joyous, surprising, and life-changing potential of classical music to audiences far, far beyond the standard concert halls.  The content we create for social media—whether it be our music videos, listening tips, or cocktail recipes—ultimately serves our mission and amplifies the listening experience for our fans, but we’ve found that it enhances our performances as well, causing us to interact with our music from fresh and unique points of view.  We savor all opportunities to exist in the same creative space as the music we love so much!
Classical music is a creative, living art form, and we look forward to watching our successors adapt and transform the field to suit the needs of the 21st century.

PPM: If you were to conduct a reform in music education, what would be the one thing you would change?
LIZ: I’d start with accessibility.  Music education should definitely be more readily available to everyone regardless of socioeconomic factors.  We both grew up with music education classes in our public schools, and I think music and the arts should be considered just as important as athletic programs here in the States.
GREG: Music (and all the arts, for that matter) is an amazing tool to help young people develop creativity and imagination—skills that are increasingly necessary in our changing world.  I want to see MORE music programs in schools!

 

PPM: Who is your role model and why?
GREG: I’m limiting my answer to purely pianists here, for the sake of brevity:
I greatly admire the spontaneity of the Romantic era pianists: Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin (OBM), Clara Schumann (OBM), etc.  From what I’ve read, their concerts were wild affairs, filled with surprises, destroyed pianos, new music, improvisations, and humor. The list goes on… Shura Cherkassky (OBM) (I’d want to learn the secrets to his beautiful tone) and Ignaz Friedman (OBM) (because he’s awesome). Among my favorite living pianists is Alexandre Toradze (MGBH).  He becomes a dragon at the piano; he breathes inspiration and personality and fire!
LIZ: There are too many pianists whom I admire, but I’m especially inspired by Alfred Cortot’s (OBM) imaginative and poetic approach to playing; Glenn Gould (OBM)’s riveting iconoclasm and hunger for artistic expression beyond the concert stage; Martha Argerich’s (MGBH) organic, instinctive, and mesmerizing connection to the instrument; and Grigory Sokolov (MGBH)’s fascinating artistry and fierce devotion to this craft.

PPM: Would you share some funny stories that happened to you during your tours/performances/music video recordings?
LIZ: As you can tell from our videos, Greg and I can get very physical at the piano, especially while we’re playing four-hand music. Once Greg was a bit too physical; during a performance of our “Libertango” arrangement, he actually elbowed me in the face! I was dazed by the accidental blow, but I kept going; meanwhile Greg kept looking at me with this terribly guilty expression. Thankfully, intermission immediately followed, so I could ice my face before the second half!

Once Greg was a bit too physical; during a performance of our “Libertango” arrangement, he actually elbowed me in the face! I was dazed by the accidental blow, but I kept going; meanwhile Greg kept looking at me with this terribly guilty expression. Thankfully, intermission immediately followed, so I could ice my face before the second half!

 

GREG: Often our concerts sell out, and in such instances, the venues often add stage seating. In one very special performance, there were an additional 60 audience members seated on stage with us. While we were performing Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, a young girl in the front vomited everywhere, including on the legs of the pianos! The audience gasped, and we had to take a break to clean up the mess.

 

PPM: We’d like to thank you for an interview and give you many blessings in delighting audiences with your electrifying performances!

 

Revisiting History: Florence Price – The Gifted Outsider

Article by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)

In recent years,  Florence Price (OBM), described as “something of a mystery (1),” is beginning to emerge as an American composer of important contributions. One can gather from many online sources that Price was the first African American female composer to have a major symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra – the Chicago Symphony. Therefore, at a first glance, it appears that Price achieved major success in her career by reaching this important milestone.  However, upon closer examination, once can see that her musical path was paved with obstacles and struggles.

Florence Price, née Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 to parents of French, Spanish, English, Indian, and “Negro” heritage (2).  Despite her white bloodline, her African roots inadvertently “tainted” her chances of substantial success in the classical music world. It may be argued that she had already achieved success with the performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, however, many have ignored the fact that the performance took place on World Fair Day and not a regular season series concert, hence, her work still hovered on the periphery of the dominant white world. Towards the end of her life, she wrote to a friend in Atlanta after having struggled to secure a concert engagement for 20 years, “I have finally learned that the successful ones amongst us are usually recognized by us only after the white man has put his stamp of approval on us (3).”

 

Price was first taught the piano by her mother and had her first composition published at age 11.  Her musical talent was recognized early. Growing up in a household where the cream of travelling African American artists and intelligentsia often frequented, she had broad exposure to the arts world since childhood. World travelling pianist Blind Boone (OBM) was once a houseguest of the Smiths and reportedly showed interest in hearing Florence play.  Florence continued her tertiary education at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, majoring in piano and organ as well as studying composition.  She was one of the very few students with a double major and graduated with honors in 1906.  In her year, a mere 58 students out of 2000 graduated, and she was the only student who pursued two degrees.  At NEC, she was selected to play at various important concerts, and the repertoire she performed showcased her as a highly skilled organist and pianist.  However, after graduation she did not stay in Boston to pursue a performing career, but returned to the South where she became a teacher of music. Later, between 1910-1912, she headed the Music Department of Clark University in Atlanta.  In her personal life, she met her husband Thomas J. Price (OBM), an attorney with a career of promise.

After a few years of settling in the South and raising a family with two daughters in Little Rock, she started experiencing escalated racial tension. The White American Music Teachers Association turned down her applications to join the society. With lynching and segregation laws being implemented, the movement evoked a massive ‘migration,’ some 6 million African Americans emigrated north. As the racial segregation situation worsened, the Prices moved the whole family to Chicago to escape from the brutal situation down south. In Chicago, Florence’s career was able to flourish. She mingled among the most gifted and influential African American social circles.  The support led to more compositions despite leading a busy life. Invitations flowed in, including lectures on rare instruments for the Chicago Music Association. However, Florence’s husband suffered from the Great Depression and lost many clients.  His law firm and client lists dwindled, and facing increasing financial difficulties, he became abusive towards Florence. Inevitably, she had to divorce him to lead a single mother life with her two daughters.  Being the sole breadwinner of the family meant that she had to work as much as possible to provide for the household. Her various jobs included being the organist for silent film screenings. It is important to note that this was a position tailored for white musicians, in a theatre with predominantly white audiences. Thus, Florence must have been hired for her skills. Other jobs included running a large private piano studio at home and publishing her own teaching pieces to supplement her income as well as composing songs for radio under a pen name.

During a period when she broke her foot, she was forced to stay at home and rest.  With more time on her hands, she devoted time to compose her first symphony. Despite her injury, the time she had for composing this large-scale work proved to be a fortuitous turning point in her career. She entered two compositions – her Symphony in E minor and Piano Sonata – into a competition hosted by the Wanamaker Foundation. Out of a total of $1, 000 awards, her Symphony won first prize of $500 and the Piano Sonata won the 3rd prize of $250. This very success garnered attention of Frederic Stock (OBM), the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time, who thought very highly of her work and decided to program her symphony. In 1940, following the accolades she received for her composition at this performance, she was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.  Aside from composing large-scale works such as symphonies, sonatas, and concertos, Price was an avid arranger of spirituals.  Delving into her heritage for musical inspiration, she utilized elements of African American music in her compositions.  Her 3rd Symphony, for example, is written in the Juba dance style, of West African heritage. Not only did Price arrange spirituals, she also incorporated them into her compositions. The second movement of her piano sonata for example, is a poignant movement and uses elements of spirituals as a basis of the musical language.  It is a known fact that Antonin Dvořák (OBM) recognized the importance of incorporating ‘folk’ or ‘common people’ elements into Western classical art music, and he once predicted that spirituals would become the basis of American compositions.

Leading African American musicians including Marian Anderson (OBM) and Leontyne Price (OBM) performed her works in public concerts, during national events, and on radio. Her Piano Concerto gained the support of Frederic Stock again, who conducted the premiere of her piano concerto with her student and Margaret Bond (OBM) as a soloist. In the 1950s, Sir John Barbirolli (OBM), director of the Halle Orchestra in England, asked her to write a work made up of spirituals, which is a testament of how well- regarded her compositions were. Other ensembles, which performed her other works included the U.S. Marine Band, the Pittsburg Symphony, the New York City Symphonic Band, and the Michigan Symphony. For a period, she wrote using the pseudo name of Vee Jay, which, perhaps, gives us a hint of her fear of rejection due to her ethnical heritage if her real name is recognized. A particular work, At the Cotton Gin was published by Schirmer (OBM).  A thorough examination of her correspondence reveals, however, that while she did receive praise for some of her works, it was at times difficult to have all of her submitted compositions published.  Having received her formal musical education in Boston, she especially lamented being rejected by Serge Koussevitzky (OBM), the music director of the Boston Symphony, who turned a blind eye to her plead to look at her scores.  She wrote, “I’m a woman and I have Negro blood in my veins,” (5) and she understood that race and gender were her two ‘handicaps’, limiting her path to wider success.

Despite rejection by some American organizations, she did receive recognition from key figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt (OBM), who recognized her contribution in 1933 after attending the World’s Fair concert in Chicago.  In 1953, she received a letter from Clayton F. Summy Co. music publishers, which referred to her works as ‘attractive’ and that they ‘hope to see more of [her] compositions.  Valter Poole (OBM), conductor of the Michigan Symphony Orchestra was “very interested and quite anxious to do something from [her] pen.”  She appeared at the NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) Convention in Chicago, and attendees were referred to as the “Finest Music Talent In the Country.”  Rae Linda Brown (OBM), a scholar of Price’s work, remarked in Drew Magazine, 2011 that Price was “a piece of African-American history, a very important piece of history.”

To this day, Florence Price is far from being a household name. Along with her counterpart, the African American composer William Grant Still (OBM), also from Little Rock, their works are still awaiting to be widely recognized. Price’s lively piano teaching pieces for children with animated titles such as ‘Tip-Toe To the Cookie Jar,’ ‘Pop Corn,’ ‘Washing Machine,’ and ‘Criss Cross’ would appeal to children who could relate the music to their everyday lives. Many of these pieces are still relatively unknown in piano pedagogical circles. Among these, a short teaching piece, “The Goblin and the Mosquito”, written for the elementary level pianist is a great study of hand coordination, yet containing varied thematic material. Works available online are few and far between and to date, and many of these compositions are still unpublished.  Her Piano Concerto, with the complete score lost since the 1940s, was reconstructed in 2011 by composer Trevor Weston (MGBH) with a commission from Center for Black Music Research.  It received a premiere by Dr. Karen Walwyn (MGBH), a devotee of Price’s music.  Yet, her compositions including her violin concertos and numerous other works, would be a very welcome addition to the American art music repertoire.

The compositions of Florence Price deserve much closer attention and recognition from classical music circles. The story of her life is a courageous and heroic one, with her having upheld herself as a strong willed, capable, and independent woman living in challenging times of the history of the United States. Traditionally, female composers have always been outnumbered by male composers, and being a female African American composer is a rarity. Her efforts and perseverance to break down the invisible walls, inch by inch, are still very much relevant today.

 

 

References:

(1) “Price, Florence Beatrice Smith (1887-1953) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” www.blackpast.org/aah/price-florence-beatrice-smith-1887-1953.

(2) Gordon, Ashleigh. “The Life and Music of Florence Price: An Interview with Rae Linda Brown.” AAIHS, www.aaihs.org/the-life-and-music-of-florence-price-an-interview-with-rae-linda-brown/. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.

(3) Hann, Christopher. “The Lost Concerto | Drew Today | Drew University.” Drew Today, 2011, www.drew.edu/news/2016/04/21/the-lost-concerto-2. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.

 

 

 

 

About The Author:

Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.  She has recently been appointed as Senior Lecturer of Music (Piano) at United International College, China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Christopher Hann, Drew Magazine 2011

[2] Handwritten document on a form from the University of Arkansas Special Collections archives

[3] WQXR Radio Feature by Terrance McKnight

[4] Great Divide at the Concert Hall, New York Times, Aug 2014

THE PIANO BRAIN: REPETITION FOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

The inflexible and automatic knowledge gained through repetition is the foundation of expert performance.  A warning has to be issued, however.   The learning brain does not distinguish between good and poor habits, but learns whatever we repeat. Repetition creates permanence, and habits are difficult to correct. In particular, it is essential to pay attention to rhythmic accuracy as rhythmic patterns are robustly set in the memory and difficult to alter once in place.

Inexperienced learners struggle with the discipline required for repetition and get lulled into a false sense of mastery when they judge themselves as having played a passage reasonably well. Without sufficient repetition, however, the learning soon unravels. It’s best for teachers to practice in front of students, modeling the “how” of repetition, and give young musicians a specific number of repetitions to aim for in their practice.  As students become more mature learners, they regulate repetition, depending on the complexity of the passage. Experts repeat short passages of music again and again.

Most musicians stop repeating when they play a passage correctly, but it is crucial that they keep repeating after this point. Brain connections strengthen and consolidate with myelin, a substance that insulates the axon of a neuron; it is known as the white matter of the brain. Myelin development seems to be a key for learning and maintaining skills because it increases the speed and accuracy of data transmission. Myelin formation is more important than the number of neurons in the brain. Albert Einstein’s (OBM) brain, for example, had no more neurons than the average brain, but it had twice as much myelin. Experts have more myelin build-up on the neural circuits pertinent to their domain than do non-experts. In 2005, a Swedish professor found a positive correlation between myelin development and the number of hours professional pianists practiced. Myelin is a product of activity and is one aspect of brain plasticity, a term that refers to physical changes in the brain.

Brain plasticity includes an increase in myelination and an increase in the number of connections between neurons. In musical learning, increasing repetition of a phrase after one plays it correctly builds myelin, which supports consistent and accurate performance.

“The amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he cannot get it wrong”. – Stephen Hillier (MGBH)

The amateur stops repeating when he gets it right. The professional repeats well after to consolidate the myelin coating of the axon sheath. – Michael Griffin

It is common to confuse temporary performance effects with long-term learning. The teacher or parent may mistake the phrase “but I played it better yesterday” as a white lie, and the student might be disillusioned because he or she will think the blocks of repetition should have been sufficient for more permanent learning.

There are two issues here. First, even with spaced repetition, the consolidation process takes time. We cannot predict how much repetition it will take to master a skill, but human nature almost always underestimates this. If a passage a student thought he or she learned yesterday is a muddle today, the student must repeat the repetition process. Try not to be despondent. This is a natural part of acquiring skill. Memories do not just form at the point of learning, so it may take several sittings for neural connections to become strong. Some people seem to learn faster than others, but learning is not a race, and we are all capable of complex skill development through repetition. It may take one person six hundred repetitions over two weeks to consolidate a phrase, while it may take someone else only three hundred repetitions in one week. Students must learn to be patient and trust in the power of repetition.

Blocked and Spaced Repetition

 

Recently I was watching television when a commercial break interrupted my program. Commercials are annoying at best, but this set of five commercial spots really got under my skin. This is because one of the commercials played three times, not in a row, but with a different commercial in between. Just when I had forgotten it, back it came to haunt me. And I thought rondo form was just a musical concept!

A B A C A

The repeated commercial A was deliberately interspersed with other commercials. The arrangement was cleverly designed to make me forget and retrieve, and I found it difficult to dislodge the commercial from my attention for some time afterward. I had to acknowledge that this marketing technique was really successful. I had “learned” the commercial. I turned this irritant to my advantage.

A German psychologist – Hermann Ebbinghaus (OBM) – famously revealed the “forgetting curve”, proposing that students forget 90 percent of what they learn within thirty days. Further to this disheartening finding, the most significant memory loss occurs within the first hour. A memory becomes more robust when the information is repeated in timed intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better for learning, and the more spaces between the repetitions, better again.

Imagine, you have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided on three passages on which to work. How would you distribute this amount of time? You could practice the target passages in three blocks consecutively.

Passage A—ten minutes          Passage B—ten minutes          Passage C—ten minutes

Or you could practice them in the following manner:

Passage A—four minutes         Passage B—three minutes       Passage A—three minutes

Passage C—four minutes         Passage B—five minutes         Passage A—three minutes

                                        Passage C—six minutes             Passage B—two minutes

The first method is referred to as blocked repetition. The second, like the television commercial example, is known as spaced repetition.

Blocked repetition refers to sticking to a single practice task until it is effectively learned, then progressing to the next learning task. Spaced repetition switches between different tasks during the course of a single practice session. In both methods, one encounters the same material for the same amount of overall time, but as with the distributed practice concept, spacing the repetitions exposes one to learning the task repeatedly over a longer time span.

Blocked repetition is a useful technique for introducing new skills to create a foundation. It is effective for beginners as it allows them to concentrate on a single task. Even for advanced musicians, very difficult passages require a single focus and attention that might be disrupted if one switches frequently between tasks. However, blocked repetition requires the intense engagement of the learner. If concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate. It is essential to remain attentive and fully alert during practice.

Provided that the practice time is not restricted and that the learner has the metacognitive ability to determine practice goals, spaced repetition is more effective than blocked repetition. Varying practice tasks frequently creates interference, which leads to a degree of forgetting. As with distributed practice, the benefits of spaced repetition relate to stronger memory formation due to the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When one revisits learning material a neural reconstruction takes place leaving a deeper impression on the brain.

Spaced repetition can be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are worth this extra effort. Marketing teams and musical learners use spaced repetition, as do professional athletes. For example, golfers are required to play shots of varying distances. Whereas blocked repetition drills require a golfer to hit many consecutive balls to one distance marker before practicing another distance. Spaced repetition alternates distance replicating the real demands on the golf course. In skill-based endeavors such as piano playing, drills can provide an illusion of competence. Most teachers have heard their students say, “But I could play it yesterday!”

Spaced repetition can work in concert with blocked repetition, so music teachers should model how a practice session might alternate between the two. Practice technique also should be modeled to students in ensemble rehearsals. In any given rehearsal, I aim to revisit the passages that require the most attention at least three times throughout the rehearsal. I answer initial squawks from students (“But we’ve already practiced that piece!”) by explaining the rationale behind spaced repetition. Teachers cannot expect students to integrate these learning concepts if they do not exhibit them in their own methodology.

 

An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin. 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author, and pianist. He has delivered keynote presentations in about 270 conferences and schools in 25 countries. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition and intrinsic motivation.

GENERATION Z: Elias and Zion Phoenix – The Samsons of Piano

Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)

Passion, raw excitement about the craft, and a surprising sense of humor is something we rarely encounter and expect from adult pianists.  In fact, as we grow up, usually, the more excitement we display about something the more immature and childish we are perceived.  Such display of emotion is usually frowned upon in society.  But coming from children, however, it is welcomed and appreciated. Why is this so? Perhaps, watching display of excitement in children reminds us of something that we’ve lost – an innate appreciation of everything around us and pure enjoyment from doing what we love. Elias and Zion Phoenix -the long-haired twins from Florida – are sources of such inspiration for us, the grown up pianists.  Here is a snapshot of their unusual story.

 

PPM: Does anyone in your family besides you and your brother play piano?
Elias&Zion: Yes, our mother plays piano although she never had any formal training in piano.  She taught herself!  She has a background in music as a french horn player. 

 

PPM: Who was your first piano teacher? And whom do you study with at the moment?
Elias: My first piano teacher was my mother. She’s amazing and I still study with her. I’ve had a couple other piano mentors and teachers. I currently study with Dr. Grigorios Zamparas (MGBH).
Zion: My mom taught me how to play.  She’s the one that got me interested in playing, she always played music around the house.

PPM: When did you first start playing piano? 
Elias&Zion: We started playing piano when we were first exposed to one at around 3 years old. We started playing by ear and figuring out complex songs we had heard.  Our mom noticed the songs we played were always in the correct pitch, and she realized we had a perfect pitch.  She also noticed we really loved playing and performing.  She then bought us each a baby grand piano and started giving us lessons around the age of 5.
PPM: Who are your favorite composers and why? What music do you like listening to?
Elias: Beethoven is one of my favorites because I feel like I can relate to him. Rachmaninoff has created some amazing pieces of work. I also like listening to people who, I think, interpret songs the way the composer intended. There is actually a sound recording of Rachmaninoff playing Piano Concerto No. 3, which is truly a work of art. Beethoven is amazing. I wish there were sound recordings of him playing some of his amazing concertos and sonatas. I also like classic rock and alternative artists such as Elton John (MGBH), Queen, Tori Amos (MGBH), and Beck (MGBH). I listen to a wide range of music.
 Zion: Tchaikovsky (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Rachmaninoff (OBM), Albert Ammons (OBM), Tori Amos (MGBH), Cat Stevens (MGBH), and Elton John (MGBH), to name a few.   Currently, I’m really enjoying Jethro Tull (MGBH)’s music.
PPM: Do you compose your own music?
Elias: Yes.   
Zion: Yes, I’ve been composing all kinds of music since I was very young.   I write Alternative, Classical, and all different types of music.  I write songs all the time.
PPM: Have you done any recordings so far and are you working on any?
Elias: No, but I am planning on recording a piano album.
Zion:  Not on piano yet, but I put together a compilation of my original songs in an album called “My World At 9 Years”, where I sing and play all the instruments. I recorded it all by myself.  I was young and had no experience recording so it sounded pretty amateur as I had a lot to learn then.  Now, I’m working on recording my next album of original songs called “My World at 10 Years.”   You can look for it soon on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, etc. 
People can mess with your brain, and it can drive you insane
You think that you know all the answers but it just doesn’t pay
Just think for yourself, you don’t need any help
The inside of you knows exactly what to do
Keep away the monster, imposter, he’ll exhaust you, he’ll cost you
He’ll drown you, he’ll hound you, bind you, bound you,
Break free of the chains, it’ll renew your brain, and your spirit flies high like a bird in the sky!
– Lyrics from Zion Phoenix’ Song “The Know-It-All”

PPM: Do you play piano every day? If so, how much?
Elias&Zion: We don’t have a schedule, but I play every day.

 

Elias: The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was really special, because it was my first big venue.  I was so proud and excited that when I was done, I went in the streets of New York City telling everyone I saw that I had just played at Carnegie Hall!!!

 

PPM: What have been your favorite recital venues so far? Do you have any interesting stories to share about them?
Elias:  There was something amazing about every venue I have performed at.  Every time I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall was great. The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was really special, because it was my first big venue.  I was so proud and excited that when I was done, I went in the streets of New York City telling everyone I saw that I had just played at Carnegie Hall!!!  I happened to bump right into Brandon Stanton (MGBH) from the Humans of New York blog, and he asked if he could take my picture.  We didn’t even know who he was and had never heard of the blog, but my Mom said yes.  It turned out the picture he took of me right after performing at Carnegie Hall was popular on his blog, and he put it in his NY Times #1 bestselling book last year, Humans Of New York: Stories, page 363.   So, that amazing night is sort of encapsulated in that one picture that is now in a bestselling book, and that’s really special to me.  The Segerstrom Center was great because it was a sold-out concert, and I received a standing ovation.  At the historic Balboa Theater, I also received a standing ovation, and it was sold-out, but I loved the Balboa Theatre because I got to see my name in lights. The Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where we filmed the audition for America’s Got Talent, was really special,  it felt great to perform for the judges and felt amazing when the audience leapt to their feet.  All of the venues I’ve played are great, and I feel honored to have performed in 11 different countries.
Zion: Carnegie Hall, America’ s Got Talent, and the Ellen Show’s Studio were all really special to me.  I love performing at nursing homes.   We’ve had some great experiences with the patients who have gotten up to dance or taken part in making music, and those are really special memories.   I also love street performing.  My brother and I spent hours performing on a street piano across from the Eiffel Tower entertaining people. I love impromptu performing.

 

Zion: I also love street performing.  My brother and I spent hours performing on a street piano across from the Eiffel Tower entertaining people. I love impromptu performing.

 

PPM: When was your first TV interview?
Elias: My first interview was on ABC Action News.
Zion: My first interview was when I was 7 years old on a news station. It was so fun. It was my first experience seeing a professional film crew and how interviews are done and seeing myself on TV later!

 

PPM: What makes you more nervous:  performing on stage or giving live interviews, if at all?
Elias: I never get nervous. I pride myself on that.
Zion: None really, but if I had to pick one, probably live interviews, because you never know what they might ask you!

 

PPM: Why did you decide to apply to America’s Got Talent and what was the process like for you? I have read that you withdrew from the Judge Cut competition. Why?
Elias: We just saw the show and thought it would be cool if we auditioned.  So, we auditioned, and it was so exciting when we got to go before the judges and got 4 yes’s! It was a great experience, and I wish we had been able to participate in the Judges’ Cuts, but we had a prior commitment in Germany during that time. I still regret it.
Zion: We just thought it would be fun to audition, so we went to Orlando to try out. There were thousands and thousands of people there, and it took all day, but it was worth it.  It was a long, but fun experience!

 

PPM: What have been your favorite places to travel so far and why?
Elias: Taiwan is great, because everybody is so kind.  England was great, too, and their tea was great. There was also this thing in English convenience stores called Fry’s Turkish delight, and it’s a rose-flavored Turkish delight covered in milk chocolate. I’m not a big fan of chocolate, but that Turkish delight was so good that it made me change my opinion. France is probably the best country I’ve ever been to. If I could buy a house anywhere in the whole entire world, it would be in Paris, France. The people were as sweet as the pastries and crepes they sold.  The Eiffel Tower is awesome, too.  France gave me a great feeling that I will never forget.
Zion: Taiwan, because everyone was so nice there. But I also loved France, mainly because I got to eat my dessert first. London was really nice, I love their lifestyle! I enjoy getting to see cultures other than my own and observe how other people live. You know, I pretty much love any place I go.   I love traveling and feel very lucky to have been able to travel to 11 different countries.

 

PPM: Do you have pets at home?
Elias: Yes, we have German shepherds.  German Shepherds tend to bond with one person, and a male that bonded with me is my favorite.  He is the son of one of the 2016 world champions in Germany.  His name is Leo, and he is a 3-year-old long-coat German Shepherd. He is like a big giant teddy bear. I sleep with him every night. He is the smartest dog I have ever known.  He loves to play ball, and when he wants me to play with him, he finds a ball and nudges it to me.  He is the best dog ever.  We also have cats. The cat that bonded with me is an orange tabby named Teddy Graham. I have talked about him on Twitter, and many of my fans know about him. He is amazing. Leo and Teddy are the best pets ever.
Zion: Yes, I have beautiful German Shepherds.  The one I am closest to is named Maja. She is an adorable female long-haired German Shepard. I actually cried of happiness when I first got her.  I really love all our pets.

 

PPM: What are your hobbies other than playing piano?
Elias: I collect coins, and I have every type of coin of the twentieth century in a blue velvet box.  I am also interested in creating visual effects, making videos with special effects and using CGI and creating 3d animation.
Zion: I really like science, especially physics and astronomy.  I also love ballet, art, photography, singing, guitar, dancing, and acting.   As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy writing music and I have also written a science book.

 

PPM: What is your favorite food?
Elias: Grilled swordfish, pumpkin ravioli, chimichangas, burritos, lamb gyros, knishes, Crème Brûlée, and Fry’s Turkish Delight. One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving, because my mom makes the best food ever.
Zion:  My Mom’s vegan macaroni and cheese.  I’ve been a vegan for about 2 years.

 

 Elias: I really appreciate and love my fans. It’s a great feeling to know you have a group of supporters who are always behind you no matter what.

 

PPM: Do you like interacting with your audience? Please, give us examples if there are any when you had direct contact with your audience before or after a performance?
Elias: I think music is a universal language.  You can express emotions with music that you can’t express with words. I interact with my audience all the time through music. I also have a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram account where I interact with my fans as well.  Sometimes, when I’m done doing a big show (like The Ellen Show, Little Big Shots, or something like that), we do something fun afterward to celebrate. For instance, sometimes when we’re done recording a show in Hollywood, we go to Universal Studios Hollywood.  Sometimes, people come up to me and say they were in the audience and they loved my performance or they just saw me on TV.  I really appreciate and love my fans. It’s a great feeling to know you have a group of supporters who are always behind you no matter what.
Zion: Sometimes, after a show people from the audience will give me a thumbs up or they will come up to me and say “Good job!,” or something.   People often recognize me from television and come up and say positive things to me.  It’s really great to have people support and encourage me.

 

PPM: Do you speak or are you learning any languages other than English?
Elias&Zion: We both know some Spanish.

 

PPM: What do you usually do on weekends?
Elias: Sometimes we take road trips. Go to concerts, museums, the beach, just whatever we feel like.
Zion: All different things.  Sometimes we just stay home and sometimes we travel. One of my favorite things is when we have a movie night and have popcorn with M&Ms!

 

Zion:I take pride in the things about myself that are “different” from others and try not to let bad things people say affect me.

 

PPM: You are very active in social media. Does each of you have your own cell phones to post from? Have you ever experienced bullying online and if so, how did you deal with it?  Would you have any suggestions to young kids or teenagers who have to deal with cyber-bullying?
Elias: We don’t have phones or iPads, we post on our mom’s phone. People have called me names and insulted me online. In my opinion, the best thing to do is just ignore and know that whatever people say, it’s their problem and not yours.
Zion: We have had people online call us names, but we don’t let it affect us.   When I was first teased about my hair when I was 4, I was really hurt, and my mom asked if I wanted to cut it, and I thought about it.  But I decided that I wouldn’t cut my hair because someone was teasing or bullying me about it because that didn’t seem like a good reason to me.  Since then I take pride in the things about myself that are “different” from others and try not to let bad things people say affect me.

 

PPM: What performances do you have planned for the upcoming year?
Elias&Zion: We just performed on the Harry Connick Jr show, and Elias is going to perform again at Carnegie Hall, and some other things are in the works.

 

PPM: Thank you, Elias and Zion for such an interesting interview! Good luck to you both and, please, continue being the two bright shiny stars that you are.

 

 

 

The Approach: Shinichi Suzuki’s Talent Education

by Esther Basha (MGBH)

When it comes to ways of teaching piano, there are many.  There is the Russian School, the Alexander (MGBH) Technique, the Alfred System… And then, there is the one by Shinichi Suzuki (OBM).  When I ask piano teachers what they think of the Suzuki approach, the answers vary. However, the skeptics share one thing in common – only a partial familiarity with the approach based on the commercially available version of it promoted by .  

 

The biggest mistake that today’s music educator makes is reduce the Suzuki’s approach to a method rather than treat it as an approach or a philosophy.  This article is designed to provide an expanded overview of the basic principles of the Suzuki approach towards education through analysis of one of his main books – “Nurtured By Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education.”

It is worth noting that the book itself is barely structured as a philosophical teaching, but rather as an autobiography with some educational insights.  We recommend this book not only to music teachers, but also to the parents who want to well-rounded and spiritually refined individuals.  Before we begin discussing the approach itself, however, we must talk about its originator.

 

Shinichi Suzuki

Shinichi Suzuki, one of twelve children, was born on October 17th of 1889 in Nagoya, Japan and lived to be almost a hundred years old passing on January 26th, 1998. He was a son of a violin factory owner. Thus, giving the environment, the violin became his preferred instrument of choice later on in life. During his lifetime, he received several honorary doctorates in music including from the New England Conservatory of Music (1956), and the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. He was proclaimed a Living National Treasure of Japan, and in 1993 was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize.

“The voice of conscience is the voice of God.” This quote by Leo Tolstoy made an indelible impression on Shinichi Suzuki and became  one of the main principles that her would apply in his daily life by honing his intuition to be able to hear and follow the voice of his conscience.

Suzuki’s life’s philosophy was heavily influenced by the teachings of his father, as well as by those of Tolstoy (OBM). “The voice of conscience is the voice of God.” This quote by Leo Tolstoy made an indelible impression on Shinichi Suzuki and became  one of the main principles that her would apply in his daily life by honing his intuition to be able to hear and follow the voice of his conscience.

In his religious life, he followed the principles of Buddhism. Of all classical composers, Mozart (OBM) was his favorite for his ability to create pieces filled with light and high vibrations.  Suzuki believed that a man had to constantly work on improving his character and personal traits.  And he would continuously put these principles in practice. He trained himself to wake up at 5 a.m. while was working at his father’s factory to provide a positive example to the rest of the employees and maintained this habit for the rest of his life.

Even though Suzuki himself was not a pianist, his approach called Talent Education is now applied in teaching many instruments, including piano.

 

Talent Education

 

The Talent Education movement started in 1945 when Suzuki’s former co-teacher Mrs. Tamiki Mori (OBM) proposed to start a music school in Matsumoto – a city in Japan.

In his letter to her Mr. Suzuki replied, “I am not very interested in doing ‘repair’ work on people who can play already. I did enough of that before in Tokyo. What I want to try is infant education. I have worked out a new method I want to teach to small children – not to turn out geniuses, but through violin playing to extend the child’s ability. I have been doing this research for many years. That is why I want to put all my efforts into this kind of education in the future. <..> (1).”  Shortly thereafter, the Talent Education movement started at the Matsumoto Music School.

In the United States, Talent Education was introduced by professor Kendall (OBM) of the Music Department of Muskingum College (Ohio) and Professor Clifford Cook (OBM) of Oberlin. In 1959, Mr. Kendall came to Japan for a month. Upon his return, he published Suzuki’s violin method and started giving lectures all over the United States. Later, Mr. Cook also visited Japan and, after having done research, introduced Talent Education workshops in Oberlin College.

“What Suzuki has done for young children, earns him a place among the benefactors of mankind, along with Schweitzer, Casals, and Tom Dooley,” wrote Professor Cook (3).

Today Suzuki’s Talent Education is widely used in early childhood education and combined with philosophies and approaches of pedagogues such as  Orff, Kodály, Montessori, Dalcroze, and Doman.

I want – if I can – to get education changed from mere instruction to education in the real sense of the word – education that inculcates, brings out, develops the human potential, based on the growing life of the child. (Shinichi Suzuki)

 

Education Vs. Instruction

In his philosophy, Suzuki differentiates between education and instruction. “With emphasis put only on informing and instructing, the actual growing life of the child is ignored. “The word “education” implies two concepts: to induce, which means to “bring out, develop from latent or potential existence” as well as to instruct. But the emphasis in schools is only on the instruction aspect, and the real meaning of education is totally forgotten (3).”  “I want – if I can – to get education changed from mere instruction to education in the real sense of the word – education that inculcates, brings out, develops the human potential, based on the growing life of the child. That is why I am devoting all my efforts to furthering Talent Education (4).”

 

The Mother Tongue Principle

The mother tongue principle is the foundation of Suzuki’s approach: if you start teaching a child to play an instrument early enough through play, he or she will achieve the results readily and easily.  Suzuki would start his children at about 3 years of age with the first lessons being for the child’s mother.  Because children learn by imitation, a parent would learn a piece first with the child having a natural desire to do the same.  “She comes once a week with her youngster, and after three months has normally progressed to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (5).”

Suzuki brings up an example of a 3-year-old girl who played the violin for 3 hrs every day. The way it was achieved was that “Hitomi’s mother brought her a violin instead of a doll and played a record of the piece to be studied over and over again as a kind of background music. Hitomi played with the violin all day, as if it were a toy. Her mother would now and then show her the correct way to play, according to our instructions, letting Hitomi think she was playing a game with her. <…> This is the art of education at its best… First you must educate the mind, then inculcate the skill. This is a correct natural method (6).”

 

Loving Kindness in Teaching

Never having had children of his own, Shinichi Suzuki projected loved all children he taught and inspired a kind and loving attitude towards them among his followers. He postulated that a teacher was to approach the learning process through loving kindness. This approach would ensure a connection, which, in turn, would achieve the best learning results. The ideal teacher for a child is a person with a high moral character as it is even more important to raise an outstanding human being than to merely teach a skill.

 

The purpose of Talent Education is to train children not to be professional musicians, but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter

 

And as the child is growing up, parents are to surround him with “fine people to help develop nobility and beauty of character (7).”  “The purpose of Talent Education is to train children not to be professional musicians, but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter (8)”.

 

Talent Is Not Inborn

One of the main observations and believes of Suzuki was the idea that the talent is not inborn, but is developed as a result of placing a child in the environment that encourages its development. “It is up to the parent to provide the right environment to develop talent as it is not inherited, but cultivated.”

Let’s take Mozart, for example. His father – a musician – trained both Amadeus and his older sister Maria Anna (OBM) since the young age.  Both kids had the perfect environment to develop their talent under the loving mentorship of their parent and showed a supreme ability as a result. The fact that Maria Anna did not reach the same heights as her brother can be attributed to a single factor such as the social norms of the time.

When we interview pianists, most of them tell us that either their parents were musicians or they have been exposed to music early in their life.  Is it genes, the environment, or both?

We know that many celebrity actors’ or musicians’ children become actors and musicians as well. Is this a co-incidence or a direct result of “familiarity” that becomes their comfort level as they grow up?

Research tells us that a baby can hear and experience the outside environment starting at 20 weeks old. So, it is safe to say that the term “environment” can be used to describe the time starting with pregnancy as well as the time after birth.

“There is no use in judging children’s abilities from the training they received five or six years after birth. Abilities are born and developed by the working of the vital forces of the organism as it strives to live and to adapt to its environment right in the beginning. Therefore, the only superior quality a child can have at birth is the ability to adapt itself with more speed and sensitivity to its environment than others (9).”

And vice versa: what does not exist in the environment cannot be developed (10).

For that reason, Suzuki never tested kids prior to accepting them to his school.  He was an advocate of testing through games and believed that a test was a testimony of a teacher’s ability to successfully educate vs. a child’s ability to inhale knowledge.

 

Emphasis on memory training

Suzuki’s approach emphasizes memory training.  All students are to know their music by heart. Once the piece is memorized, “it should be thoroughly mastered by repeating it again and again (11) “… until it becomes natural and easy to play. “The more one practices, the better one becomes. Talent is born this way (12).”

 

There has been criticism in the music educator community regarding the emphasis on memorization that allegedly leads to poor sight-reading. However, it is worthy of mentioning that the critics neglect the fact that the approach was developed for infants.

 

There has been criticism in the music educator community regarding the emphasis on memorization that allegedly leads to poor sight-reading. However, it is worthy of mentioning that the critics neglect the fact that the approach was developed for infants.  At this age, between 3 and 5, one can hardly expect the young kids to take keen interest in sight-reading.  Additionally, European research shows that physiologically and psychologically the best time to start teaching children to read, which sight-reading is part of, is between the ages of 6 and 7 and not before that (13).

 

It Has To Be Organic

In Suzuki’s Talent Education philosophy natural growth and organic progression in learning is the key. “Don’t hurry. This is a fundamental rule. If you hurry and collapse or tumble down, nothing is achieved. Don’t rest in your efforts; this is another fundamental rule. Without stopping, without haste, carefully taking a step at a time forward will surely get you there (14).”

What about the deadlines and recitals, you will ask? That is exactly the point. It’s not about the result, but the process where at the end a child develops patience, tenacity, and other personal traits that help him or her excel later in life.

So, if you are a teacher at a music studio or school with tight deadlines, this approach might not be for you.

 

Reliance on Intuition

“Kan” is a central concept of Suzuki’s philosophy.   In Japanese kan means “intuition, or sixth sense (15).” By means of kan we receive the power of sensibility to play.  And it is the ability of kan that enables us to overcome all difficulties. Kan produces kan through training.

What does it mean in practical terms?

First, a student builds a base through mechanical repetition of a piece.  This becomes the carcass, the foundation of the process. Once the carcass is built and the muscle memory is formed, the kan becomes actively engaged in the next stage of nuanced play: “a little crescendo here, a few more rubatos here, slightly slower in the 5th bar.”  Sensibility is everything in a superior piano performance, and a nuanced play can only be achieved once all the mechanical details are taken care of through practice and training. That’s when the kan emerges.

 

The Wish of Shinichi Suzuki

If we were to sum up the philosophy of Suzuki’s approach, the following quote would have been sufficient to encapsulate it.  The following thought is a part of the postscript of his book:

“People today are like gardeners who look sadly at ruined saplings and shake their heads, saying the seeds must have been bad to start with, not realizing that the seed was all right, but that their method of cultivation was wrong.   They go on in their mistaken way, ruining plant after plant.  It is imperative that the human race escape from this vicious circle. The sooner people realize their mistake, the better. The more the situation is changed, the nearer the human race will come to happiness (16).”

Perhaps, if each of us takes this quote seriously and tries to apply it in their everyday philosophy and personal as well as professional practice, we will have a better chance of raising wholesome and happy people who will dare to fearlessly shine brightly throughout their lives just like the “little star” from their first music class their mother brought them to.

All of a sudden, a quote by Marianne Williamson, an American spiritual teacher and author, comes to mind:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I believe that Shinichi Suzuki and Marianne Williamson both tried to relay to us the same message.

Are we ready to let it in?

 

 

References:

(1) Shinichi Suzuki. “Nurtured by love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education” Second Edition, year of publication. Exposition Press, Smithtown, New York, 1983.  P. 29
(2) Ibid. P. 105
(3) Ibid. P. 86
(4) Ibid. P. 87
(5) Ibid. P. 105
(6) Ibid. P. 96
(7) Ibid. P. 8
(8) Ibid. P. 79
(9) Ibid. P. 13.
(10) Ibid. P. 14
(11) Ibid. P. 37
(12) Ibid. P. 42.
(13) http://waldorfresearchinstitute.org/pdf/BALiteracyClouder.pdf
(14)  Ibid. P. 46.
(15) Ibid. P. 46.
(16) Ibid. P. 108