Emily Bear (MGBH) is a young pianist and composer with a beautiful heart. Her enthusiasm for music is inspirational and contagious. A role model for many young girls around the world, she maintains her modesty and sense of direction. Here are some insights into what it’s like to be her.
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PPM: Please, tell us about your family. From other interviews we know that your grandmother is a pianist and a piano teacher. What about your mother and father? What are their occupations? EB: My Mom was a voice major at University of Michigan Musical Theater Department. She also teaches piano and voice privately and has a Masters from Columbia University in NYC in Music Education. My Dad is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in Hand & Upper Extremity Surgery. He trained at the Mayo Clinic and Hospital For Special Surgery in NYC. He is the only one in the family who doesn’t play an instrument but is a huge supporter of all of our interests (and has become a great Harp mover for my sister!) PPM: What do you siblings do now that they are older? They learned to play instruments, too. Do you play music together sometimes? EB: My sister plays the Harp and Piano. She is the Principal Harpist with the Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra and has played with several professional orchestra’s as well. I love to play with Lauren (MGBH) and have accompanied her on the harp as well as played harp-piano versions of my original music with her. Lauren is also a competitive figure skater, skating at the Novice Level (all the double jumps) and her competition music for her skating program is one of my original orchestral pieces! My brother plays piano, guitar and tenor saxophone. He doesn’t play sax that much any more since he is in college now and not playing with a jazz band anymore. His main hobby is photography. I love playing music with my siblings. Sometimes my brother and I will play 4 hands on one piano, and my sister and I will play 2-piano duets as we have 2 grand pianos back to back in our living room. Or I will play piano, my sister harp and my brother wither on the other piano or on his guitar.
Sometimes my brother and I will play 4 hands on one piano, and my sister and I will play 2-piano duets as we have 2 grand pianos back to back in our living room.
PPM: Tell us about your Ravinia experience at 5 years old. Do you have a memory of it? EB: I remember being super excited for the concert and doing cartwheels backstage. Once I got on stage, I was super focused. The concert music was 1/3 classical, 1/3 jazz and 1/3 my own music that I composed. I remember that I played a song that I had composed that week for my sister called “Little Angels”. I really love performing at Ravinia – it is a very special place for me.
PPM: When you write music for an orchestra, do you use a software like MuseScore or similar? EB: I compose using LogicPro. I first create a mock up using orchestral instrument samples, layering them one by one. Then I input each note into Finale (a music notation software program) to make the music ready to print for the orchestra.
PPM: What inspires you in writing music? EB: It could be anything, the weather, a person, a place, something that had just happened. “Snowdance” was composed after I noticed the snow swirling from the wind outside my window by my piano. I composed “Northern Lights” after reading a Magic Treehouse book on the North Pole. I asked my Mom what an Aurora Borealis was. She showed me video’s of the rainbow lights in the sky on Youtube. “Final Journey” was composed after a very close family friend passed away and “Les Voyages”, an orchestral piece was based on the book Homer’s Odyssey, which I was reading in English Class at school! I was awarded the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer of the Year Award for “Northern Lights” when I was 6 years old out of a 30 and under age category.
PPM: What was your first composition and at what age did you write it? EB: I composed my first real pieces when I was 3 years old. A couple of my earliest pieces are called, “Crystal Ice” and “Sunday Morning.” Hal Leonard Music has been publishing music I composed since I was 4 years old. I currently have 5 sheet music songbooks distributed worldwide and 2 sheet music singles. It is so cool to hear other people playing my music – even using them for recital pieces! A teenager recently won the grand prize in the senior division in a classical music competition performing my piece, “Peralada.”
I composed my first real pieces when I was 3 years old. A couple of my earliest pieces are called, “Crystal Ice” and “Sunday Morning.”
PPM: What charities do you raise money for? EB: It has always been really important to me to give back through my music. Each of my 7 CD’s have profits designated for different charities. Some of these include Children’s Hospitals of Los Angeles and Chicago, The Ronald McDonald House, PAWS Pet Rescue, & Cancer Charities. I also like to perform at charity benefits, concerts and galas around the world and have helped raise millions of dollars for various charities. One of my favorite concerts was when I performed for the kids at a summer camp for children with cancer. I still have the friendship bracelet they made for me.
PPM: What is your relationship with classical music vs pop vs jazz? EB: Classical is my base and foundation, Jazz is where I can express my freedom, Pop is fun yet harder than you would think! Last April I performed the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, and in October performed Rhapsody In Blue by Gershwin (OBM). I love learning and performing classical works as well as my own orchestral music. Performing jazz is like a conversation with the other musicians I am playing with. Writing and singing pop music is another way to communicate things that I am feeling and can relate to. For example, one of the songs I recently wrote is about a friend who was getting bullied at school.
PPM: Has your mom ever make you practice piano? EB: Never. It’s actually a rule in our family that if we have an interest, whether it is piano, figure skating or whatever – that it is our responsibility to be prepared for lessons. When I was little, she would sit with me as I practiced, but that was more for company. It has also been stressed to me and my siblings that you need to have a passion for what you do, work hard and try your best but most important – keep it fun.
It has also been stressed to me and my siblings that you need to have a passion for what you do, work hard and try your best but most important – keep it fun.
PPM: Do you have your daily routine in practicing piano? How many hours a day do you practice? If not every day, what are your practice patterns? Do you take days off music? EB: Every day is different depending on what concerts are coming up, when my lessons are, how much schoolwork I have, if I am focusing on a new music composition. It is definitely never boring. I might work on classical piano after school then get an idea for a piece and run upstairs to compose and then start playing some jazz or reviewing for a concert. It is never the same!
PPM: How often do you travel for concerts? EB: I travel often for concerts, for music lessons in NYC and Chicago as well as songwriting sessions in Los Angeles. I really love traveling!
PPM: You have been a recipient of ASCAP jazz award. Did you formally study jazz? If so, who were your teachers? EB: I have studied jazz piano since I was 5 years old. My first jazz teacher was Alan Swain in Chicago. I also study jazz with Frank Kimbrough from Juilliard Jazz Department. I was really honored to be awarded the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award in 2016 and now in 2017 as well. My new CD, Into The Blue, a collection of original jazz tunes performed with my trio reached #5 on Billboard Charts. Quincy Jones has been my mentor for many years and he is a huge influence on my music.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your experience of playing at the White House. How did that happen? EB: We received a phone call from the White House asking me to perform at the White House Easter Celebration. They asked me to perform 2 concerts in the East Room. It was surreal to be able to walk through the rooms of the White House and to meet the President.
PPM: Do you have a pianist/piano performer role model that you grew up with as a child? EB: I like Lang Lang (MGBH), because he is very well respected in the classical world yet is bringing classical music to other mediums and does a lot of outreach with education as well. PPM: What were some of the most interesting collaborations so far and who do you aspire working with in the future?
EB: I love collaborating with all musicians – I learn different things from each of them and it is always so much fun. I loved collaborating with Zuill Bailey, Grammy Award winning classical cellist, and I love performing and working with musicians from all musical styles. Gloria Estefan (MGBH), Patti Austin (MGBH), Esperanza Spalding (MGBH), Melissa Manchester (MGBH), David Sanborn (MGBH), Lucy Simon (MGBH), Quincy Jones (MGBH), Makoto Ozone (MGBH)…
PPM: What attracts you to composing for film? If you were to become a film composer, how would you choose your films? In what instances would you say no? EB: I love composing for film because of how music adds such critical emotional layers to the movie. I would have to make sure I was comfortable composing in the style of that film.
PPM: What are some of your favorite moments in performing for audiences? EB: My favorite performances have been: The White House, Carnegie Hall, Art On Ice (Zurich, Switzerland), Montreux Jazz Festival, Hollywood Bowl, Hangzou,China. When I arranged an original piece I composed to be played by 25 piano’s at the same time in 5 parts (a piano orchestra) for a concert at the Mesa Performing Arts Center last year.
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The Van Cliburn Competition has been one of the most prestigious and well-organized ones in the music industry. We reached out to Mr. Jaques Marquis (MGBH), the President and CEO of Van Cliburn Foundation to ask him a few questions.
PPM: How long have you been a president? How is Van Cliburn Competition different today from when it was originally started? JM: I have been president and CEO of the Cliburn for four years. The Cliburn Competition started in 1962, and the world has changed a lot since then. The main changes have been: 1) the use of technology to increase local, national, and international awareness; 2) A big increase in our artistic programming with the additions of the Amateur Competition, Junior Competition, Cliburn Concerts series, school/education programs, community concerts, etc.
PPM: Please, tell our readers a little bit about yourself. JM: Born in Montreal, I was raised French Canadian, studied the piano and was part of a choir as a young child—including a boys choir doing the Mass every Sunday in the big church of Montreal. This is why I began to study music. After many years, I decided to get a bachelor’s degree in music (piano) and taught piano for a few years. Then I chose to get a bachelor’s degree in business — the idea was to combine these two different worlds. Today this would be the field of arts management, but at that time there were few programs for this.
After that I entered my first job with the orchestra as an accountant, then an artistic administrator, and later COO (Chief Operating Officer) (for 8 years). Next, I was hired as executive and artistic director of Jeunesses Musicales of Canada, which is an organization that promotes youth and music throughout Canada. It is also under the umbrella of Jeunesses Musicales International – a worldwide movement for youth and music. While at Jeunesses Musicales of Canada, we restarted the Montreal Competition. I led eleven editions of the competition and also produced up to 800 concerts per year (600 for youth and 200 for young artists at the beginning of their careers). I was also head of the foundation through which we organized five different fundraising events per year.
After eleven years, I decided it was time for me to expand my horizons. I reached out to the Cliburn because it was, and still is, one of the key international arts organizations in the world, and I thought I could learn more. I came and proposed my services as a consultant. After six months as a consultant, they offered me the position of CEO.
PPM: Let’s discuss a concept of competitiveness vs. collaboration in music and, specifically, in piano performance. Why does it have to be a competition? Why does a musician have to compete? Why pin one musician against the other instead of enjoying and appreciating everyone’s performance equally without judgment? JM: Life is a competition! You have to be the best magazine. You have to be the best writer. Everywhere you go to have to win the audition; you have to get the job; you have to interview and when there’s a position at Exxon Mobile for the CEO, there’s only one leader.
Life is a competition! You have to be the best magazine. You have to be the best writer. Everywhere you go to have to win the audition; you have to get the job; you have to interview and when there’s a position at Exxon Mobile for the CEO, there’s only one leader.
I think that competitions are one way to gain a career. They are not the only way. I do think it is a good way to increase awareness of these exceptional young talents. Especially with the new media opportunities, we can increase awareness, and not only of the winners. Because we webcast our competition and promote it through many media avenues, we give finalists and semifinalists exposure, as well. They become better known in their own countries, too, by being a part of the Cliburn. There are a lot of ways that the Cliburn can help the careers of these young musicians.
I don’t think it’s “Why does a musician have to compete?” I think it’s about how a musician can increase opportunities for concert engagements, establish international relationships, have the possibility of being seen or viewed by conductors, presenters, jury members. We are developing a fantastic network for them.
PPM: Why is it hard to run an organization like this and why is it also easy? JM: I think the challenges of any organization are having the right people in the right places. Having good people is a good thing, but having good people doing the right thing is better. At the Cliburn, we have done some restructuring of staff in order to be the most efficient possible. The non-profit and especially the artistic world has this perception that we are “artists,” but we are managers of artists. We have to be extremely efficient in the way we do it. The hard part is to sell and to explain to people the importance of our mission because not everybody is aware of the importance of competition for young artists. The fun part, the challenging part, is the creative part. The thing that brings us to the office every morning is getting to work with the artists. We have to create an environment in which everyone is pushing in the same direction in order to achieve our goals and objectives.
PPM: How does one get to compete in this event? JM: To compete in the Cliburn you first have to have an extremely high level of piano playing. You send in an application including video so we can hear you play and see you perform. From this application, we decide whether to invite you to the live Screening Auditions — and these are crucial to the Cliburn. It’s a live audition in front of five screening jurors, and you will play for 40 minutes. These jurists are highly competent and are also concert pianists who know what it takes to remain relevant in the classical world.
If you progress beyond the Screening Auditions, you are invited to the Competition, which consists of Preliminary, Quarterfinal, Semifinal, and Final Rounds. The Cliburn is one of the most demanding competitions, but we also are one of the best in what we give to our winners. We are looking for the best of the best!
PPM: Who selects the judges? What criteria are used in their selection? Is there a set number of the judges on the panel or does it vary by year? JM: I select the judges. I want them to be pianists — it’s essential that they know the repertoire. I want people who have been playing and struggling to play the repertoire, who know the tricks and the traps and the problems that can be found in these scores. So when a contestant is playing, jurors can know that they are tricking with the pedal or they are trying to avoid a certain part or going slower because they cannot play that section well. I want jurors who truly know the repertoire.
I also look for open-minded individuals to be on the jury. I need people who are able to listen to young pianists and think, perhaps, “I would never play it like this, but I can buy this proposal.” I don’t want someone who always says, “Oh, no. That’s not the way to do it.” In music, there are a lot of ways to express yourself. There is respect for the repertoire. There is respect for the history, the ways of playing at the time a piece was written, etc. But there are also a lot of places for interpretation. So I want my jury members to be very open to these young musicians. I also want them to share the important attitude that we want the contestants to succeed and not that we are there to cut them off.
Naturally, I need an odd number for voting purposes. I like the number nine, for a big jury with a good representation of American, European, Russian, and Asian pianists, since we always have quite an international group of competitors.
In music, there are a lot of ways to express yourself. There is respect for the repertoire. There is respect for the history, the ways of playing at the time a piece was written, etc. But there are also a lot of places for interpretation.
PPM: What prizes are there and what criteria are used in awarding them? JM: The prizes are awarded based on the voting of the jury members. Yes, we have prize money, but I believe the most important prize for the Cliburn Competition is publicity/awareness and, secondly, the wealth of engagements booked for them based on their placement. We open a lot of doors for the winners in launching their careers.
PPM: How is Van Cliburn competition promoted? Is there an outreach program? JM: We have an extensive marketing and promotions plan for the Competition that ranges from contestant recruitment and branding internationally to local/national/international promotion to encourage people to attend the Competition in person, to campaigns designed to attract people to all the other ways to enjoy the Competition and its artists—the webcast, the Fathom event in theaters across the United States, etc.
PPM: What happens to the winners after the competition? Does the organization follow up with them? Are they involved in the organization in the future? Does the organization help promote their talent? JM: Yes, we assist our three winners with a career management plan for three years, and after that we help in securing a manager. We help them by booking engagements and concerts, managing their website, helping with their bios, providing photo shoots. Beyond that, we help them develop their repertoire. Through our networks, we help them talk to the people who can advance their careers.
PPM: Are there any interesting stories that happened during the last few competitions? JM: Many of the anecdotes would probably involve the host family process. Each competitor in the main Cliburn competition is housed for three weeks in the home of a Fort Worth family. Our thirty families—who all have Steinway grand pianos installed and tuned in their homes before the competition—become like second families to the competitors. In 2013, one local family who did not intend to participate signed up again when they realized that they had hosted one competitor’s father back in the 1970s. This was Nikita Mndoyants of Russia, who became one of our six finalists in 2013, and his father, Alexander Mndoyants, who was a finalist in 1977—representing the USSR! This particular Fort Worth family became quite close to two generations of Mndoyants.
Many other anecdotes would involve the woman we call the “backstage mother” – Kathie Cummins. She is the last person our contestants see in those important moments before they go onstage. These musicians are often quite young and less experienced. Kathie keeps food on hand — you’d be surprised how many pianists need a banana right before they go on. But she’s also ready for other emergencies. The sewing kit comes in handy a lot. One young man had obviously purchased a new shirt for his recital but hadn’t tried it on. The sleeves were so long, down to his knuckles, that they would have gotten in the way of his playing! So Kathie brought out the safety pins and sewing kit and fixed things up really quickly. That kind of thing happens so often that we almost don’t think of them as anecdotes.
Kathie keeps food on hand — you’d be surprised how many pianists need a banana right before they go on. But she’s also ready for other emergencies.
PPM: Are Van Cliburn and Van Cliburn Foundation separate organizations? What is the primary function of Van Cliburn Foundation? What activities is it involved in? JM: Van Cliburn Foundation is the legal name of the organization. We simply call it “the Cliburn” — much as we all refer to “the Chopin” and “the Tchaikovsky.”
PPM: What are the repertoire requirements for the contestants? JM: There are very few requirements. They can do whatever they want, with a couple of exceptions (they must perform the commissioned work by Marc-Andre Hamelin as part of their Preliminary Round program, and they choose from a list of piano quintets to perform with the Brentano String Quartet in the Final Round). What is interesting about this is that we get to see how they program. If you want to play Liszt in every round, you’d better play it really, really well! A young pianist has to have a lot of repertoire, actually. A program that is well thought-through shows some depth and reveals a young competitor’s artistic vision.
PPM: Please, tell us about the Amateur Competition. What is the idea behind it? Why and when was it introduced? JM: There are a lot of pianists out there who studied music when they were young but decided to become doctors, lawyers, educators, programmers, etc. Recently, we have increased the exposure our Amateur competitors get, with a fully produced live webcast and by bringing the orchestra in for the closing portion of the Competition … all to get the best amateur pianists in the world to come to the Cliburn to compete. It also further increases our international presence during the off year before the big Cliburn. The Cliburn Amateur was the first of its kind in the United States when it was created in 1999. The idea is to encourage the love of classical music through all stages of life. It is open to non-professionals over the age of 35.
PPM: Who were some of the most unexpected contestants of the Amateur Competition? JM: The great thing about the Amateur Competition is the variety of the contestants—they typically range in age from 35 to 70s and have a great variety of careers (though there seem to always be a lot of doctors). They’re from all around the world and have various levels of professional training, but they come together in Fort Worth for their love of the piano. Once we had a British contestant who designed race cars!
PPM: What criteria are used in deciding who gets the Press Award? JM: Members of the press who are in attendance vote for their favorite.
PPM: Let’s talk about the Junior Competition. It was launched in 2015. What motivated you to start this subdivision and what were the challenges? JM: Firstly, to have a link to the best juniors in the world and ignite them with the Cliburn when they are young. If a pianist is excellent at age 20 or 25, then he or she was already very good at age 15, since most begin when they are 4 or 5 years old. So, one goal was to have very young pianists know about the Cliburn. Secondly, to keep our brand alive in schools, among presenters, and in the media. And, finally, the more competitions we organize, then the better we get as a team. Because it is a four-year cycle for the big Competition, we can have staff changes. With the addition of another competition, we as a staff have the opportunity to get better as a team as we work together using the same software and the same production routines on each competition.
PPM: With many child prodigies out there, why is the cut off age for the Junior Competition is 13, and not 6 or 7? JM: Six or seven are too young. They can be very good, but they have not developed as individual musicians yet. Thirteen to seventeen is a crucial time for young pianists, and our goal is to create a warm, convivial atmosphere as part of the training process for the competitors. They attend seminars, lectures, master classes with teachers, master classes with conductors, master classes with former Cliburn winners. They live in dormitories during the competition — another goal is to establish international friendships with others in the piano world. Also, the Junior Competition is a training process, not a final process like the big international competition.
The great thing about the Amateur Competition is the variety of the contestants—they typically range in age from 35 to 70s and have a great variety of careers (though there seem to always be a lot of doctors). They’re from all around the world and have various levels of professional training, but they come together in Fort Worth for their love of the piano. Once we had a British contestant who designed race cars!
PPM: Where do you see the Van Cliburn Organization in 10 years? JM: In ten years, I would like to see the endowment doubled — that will be key to sustaining growth and financial responsibility. Along with this, an increase in local education programs. As arts in the schools are threatened, we can increase our presence. We will be promoting and supporting career management for young exceptional pianists in the world. In ten years I hope that the Cliburn is the competition that can address music markets on every continent at once—all in one competition.
PPM: What would be your tips for prospective contestants? JM: Talk to your teacher. Programming is the key — work on this. Be wise. Do not put all your big guns at the beginning. Don’t play for the jury or the award. Play because you believe in your artistic voice.
PPM: Thank you for your time in sharing this valuable information with our readers, Jaques. JM: It’s my pleasure.
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Built relatively recently, the Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown Los Angeles, CA opened its doors on September 24th, 2003. It catches the eye not only with its sail-like exterior, but also with the beautiful and breezy interior. It’s no surprise as the hall was designed by the two very talented men – the architect Frank Gehry (MGBH) and a master acoustician Matsuhiso Toyota (MGBH). It seats 2,265 people and serves, among other purposes, as the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The walls and ceiling of the hall are finished with Douglas-fir and Alaskan yellow cedar while the floor is finished with oak. The round auditorium features a sailing ship motif that the architect Frank Gehry likens to Noah’s Ark. Columbia Showcase & Cabinet Co. Inc., based in Sun Valley, CA, produced all of the ceiling panels, wall panels, and architectural woodwork for the main auditorium and lobbies. (1) The Hall’s reverberation time is approximately 2.2 seconds unoccupied and 2.0 seconds occupied. (3).
The Library of Congress/Ira Gershwin Gallery, housed inside Walt Disney Concert Hall, was designed by Hodgetts and Fung Design Associates and made possible by a generous gift from the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust for the Benefit of the Library of Congress. The gallery is situated on the second floor of Walt Disney Concert Hall and rotates its collection bi-annually. (3)
With the initial donation of $50 million made by the widow of Walt Disney, Lilian Disney, in 1987, the County of Los Angeles added $110 million and sold bonds in order to build the garage. The Disney family later added $34.5 million with another $25 million from the Walt Disney Company.
Disney Hall consists of the Main Performance Hall and two smaller performance spaces.
BP Hall is an intimate space with chairs, wood floors, walls, and ceilings that hosts pre-concert talks, musical performances, receptions, and private events for up to 500 guests.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall Founders Room features a signature Frank Gehry sculptured plaster ceiling which rises 50 feet to reveal a skylight. This 4,800-sq. ft. dining room includes custom lighting, millwork, private dining patio with travertine stone, and landscaping of the exterior patio area. The exclusive Founders room hosts pre- and post-concert parties for major donors.
A REDCAT Theater performance space holds avant-garde and experimental music, dance, theater, movies, and art.
Since its opening, such pianists as Lang Lang (MGBH), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (MGBH), Daniil Trifonov (MGBH), Armen Guzelimian (MGBH), Keith Jarrett (MGBH), Helene Grimaud (MGBH), Benjamin Grosvenor (MGBH), Garrick Ohlsson (MGBH), Alessio Bax (MGBH), Murray Perahia (MGBH), George Li (MGBH), Krystal Zimerman (MGBH), Scott, Dunn (MGBH), Alpin Hong (MGBH), Emanuel Ax (MGBH), Eduardo Delgado (MGBH), and Yundi (MGBH) graced the stage of the main hall with their performances.
In an interview with Deborah Borda (MGBH), Frank Gehry shares his experience of working on Disney Hall.
DB: It’s fair to say that the Walt Disney Concert Hall has changed the way how a concert hall should involve people. When I first saw the design, I was absolutely blown away hoping to be a part of it. When you worked on it, did you design the hall inside out of from the outside in?” FG: Inside out. When people look at the buildings I designed, they assume I designed from the outside in. That I make a form and jam stuff in. And I think a lot of my colleagues do that, maybe. But I don’t.
DB: What’s the one thing that stands out in your memory the most about the opening concert? FG: I can’t help to remember taking the bow with Esa-Pekka […Salonen, the Music Director of Los Angeles Philharmonic] and the confetti and all that stuff. I never experienced that before. Architects don’t do that very often.
DB: But you must have also had a special pride. We had designed those programs together. You were the artist. That’s why you were up on a stage. I don’t know if people know, but you are one of the most regular concert attenders I know. What do you think now looking back ten years later, is the most successful aspect of the hall? From your point of view. FG: Well, I think the clarity of the sound has got to be number one. And the relationship between audience and performer is right up there. It’s subtle. So when the orchestra is full on, they feel a receptive audience, because the audience can hear them. They feel it. It’s like a theater. You feel how you are coming across. And when the orchestra hears that, it makes them play better, believe it or not. I think.
Inside the main concert hall we can see a beautifully designed 6,134-pipe organ, sometimes referred to as “French Fries.” Composer Terry Reily called it “Hurricane Mama.”
The organ was built by the German organ builder Caspar Glatter-Götz (MGBH) under the tonal direction and voicing of Manuel Rosales. It cost $ 3 million to build, which was a gift to the County of Los Angeles from Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. How many instruments have a building attached to them? The building not only didn’t exist, its design kept changing. “There were many hurdles that had to be overcome. And they were civic hurdles and architectural hurdles,” Deborah Borda (MGBH), the President and CEO of LA Philharmonics. “We studied all organs that we could find in history and did a thorough analysis of what they looked like,” said Frank Gehry. “And it seemed like there were a lot of variations possible.” Mr. Gehry went back and worth with Manuel Rosales on the shape of the tubes. “I was told to walk off this project. This would ruin my career. This was insane. The organ would be a complete disaster. Nobody would pay any attention to it. It took two and a half years to reach this design and well over forty different models.[…] The organ went through many hoops to please the artistic sense of Frank Gehry. I had to make sure that whatever he designs, works ultimately as a musical instrument,” shares Manuel Rosales in an interview. “Because in the room like this, you don’t put sculpture, it’s focusing on the music, so we thought there was a rationale for the organ to have some spunk,” shared Frank Gehry in his conversation with Deborah Borda.
The concert hall houses celebrity chef Joachim Splichal’s (MGBH) landmark fine dining restaurant Patina designed by Belzberg Architects. Open for dinner and late-night supper, French-born and trained executive chef Tony Esnault’s exquisite dishes are made from the best ingredients available from local and regional farmers, ranchers and fishermen. Chef Esnault also offers a special tasting menu at the private Chef’s Table for nine, which offers guests an unobstructed, behind-the-scenes view into kitchen dynamics.
Accommodating 240 seated guests, including a private dining room for up to thirty, Patina welcomes guests into a warm, inviting interior undulating with organic ceiling curves and ripples of carved walnut walls. Patina also features an impressive bar display where guests can unwind before dinner or enjoy a late-night cocktail on the patio. (4)
On the third level of the building, visitors will find the community garden that features outdoors performance space and beautiful Southern California landscaping. The community garden is open for public and can be a cozy refuse from the loud noises of the busy city life. In the middle of the garden is a beautifully carved fountain in the shape of a rose, subsequently named, “A Rose for Lily” in honor of the main donor for the Disney Hall – Lilian Disney.
A concert hall, an educational space, a park, an office, and a cultural landmark – all rolled into one. Walt Disney Hall represents the best of the city of Los Angeles and the performing arts, an LA’s Phil is proud to call it home. (5)
(1) http://www.woodworkingnetwork.com/articles/columbia_showcase__cabinet_co_inc_-_an_acoustical_journey_127691448.html#sthash.S9HM2Erb.dpbs – retrieved March 16th, 2017
(2) http://www.nagata.co.jp/e_sakuhin/factsheets/wdch.pdf – retrieved March 16th, 2017
(3) https://www.musiccenter.org/about/OUR-VENUES/Our-Theatres–Concert-Halls/ – retrieved March 16th, 2017
(4) http://www.laphil.com/visit/patina-walt-disney-concert-hall – retrieved March 16th, 2017
(5) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAEd1uDOZJE – timing 7:00 – retrieved March 16th, 2017
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I met Fabio Martino (MGBH) at Aventura Performing Arts Cultural Center during the Miami International Piano Festival. His performance style was impressive, intriguing, and very original. So, I felt compelled to interview him and share his story with our readers.
PPM: Fabio, how did you get involved with the Miami International Piano Festival? FM: This is a very interesting story. In 2010 I won the BNDES Bank Competition in Brazil. There were videos of my performance online. Miss Brodsky found these videos and, I think, she was impressed with what she saw. So, I’ve got an invitation to come to this concert series in Miami. The first time was in 2012 where I performed a solo recital. We liked each other very much from the very beginning. In 2014, Mrs. Brodsky invited me to come back and perform at the Aventura Concert Series – Sundays at 5. My performance was very well received by the audience. And this year, I was invited again and honored to open the Festival.
PPM: So, let’s go a little bit back in time ….. where did you grow up? FM: Sao Paolo, Brazil. I lived in Brazil until I was 19 years old and then moved to Germany. I started playing piano when I was five years old. We used to listen to classical music – LPs and CDs. My grandmother had an upright piano and used to teach her students at home. So, this is the way I got in contact with classical music.
PPM: Was she your first teacher? FM: She has never been my teacher, actually. But she advised my mother to find a teacher for me. At the age of five, I had private teachers, and then in 1997 I was accepted to a very good school where I studied with professor Armando for 11 years. Later, in 2011, I moved to Germany to go to the university. I studied there for six years and graduated. And now I take the time for myself to learn and discover the piece. Everything that’s behind the score: the notes, the life of the composer.
PPM: Do you have any siblings? Can you tell us a little bit more about your family? FM: Yes, I have a sister. At that point, when I was five years old, she was having classes with my grandmother. Maybe I was jealous (laughing)…. I also wanted to have classes. We love each other. Eight years is a big difference, but now we are much closer because we are both adults. She is a doctor, she still lives in Sao Paolo with her own family. Every time I come to Brazil for concerts, she along with my whole family enjoys coming to my performances. My mother also used to play the piano. So, I do come from a musical family. She is not a pianist though. She has taught college level math. My father is an engineer with no music background.
I always loved to perform in public. My teacher in Brazil used to say that I played better for an audience than I played for him in class (laughing)…
PPM: What was your first public performance like? FM: I was six years old. I always loved to perform in public. My teacher in Brazil used to say that I played better for an audience than I played for him in class (laughing)… I like contact with the audience. This is something very special and very important.
PPM: So, were you nervous when you went on stage? FM: I am always a little bit nervous when I go on stage, but I like this feeling. It’s the feeling that makes you feel alive.
PPM: How old were you when you participated in your first competition? FM: It was in 1997. I was nine years old, and it was a magical experience. I went there to play, and I won. And I used to participate in many competitions. Up until now, I won more than 20 international and national piano competitions.
PPM: So, are you used to the process of competing by now? FM: Yes, but I wouldn’t exactly call it competing. It was more like learning the repertoire that you are going to play at the competition and practicing the piece in order to have a chance to perform it there and let’s see what happens. But the work is very competitive; it’s just the way it is. There are a lot of pianists, so you have to be and play the best you can. And I think I have done so well, because I have always played with love and my emotions. It has always been the Fabio Martino way of playing.
I won several very important international piano competitions. For example the competition of the BNDES bank, the biggest Latin American piano competition. At that time, it was back in 2010, I was then 22 years old, the prize was $48, 000 US Dollars. In the final round I competed against a Japanese pianist who was 28 and a Russian pianist who was 29. It was a really high adrenalin experience for me. But it was very nice and also very important. Just one year later, I won the Piano Competition organized by The Association of Arts and Culture of the German Economy, a very prestigious international competition. With the prize money I won I was able to buy my first piano. My Steinway. That was a dream come true.
I think I have done so well, because I have always played with love and my emotions. It has always been the Fabio Martino way of playing.
PPM: When I watched you perform, I could not help noticing a… pantomime. You were laughing, you were smiling, you were looking everywhere around you. It was the first time when I saw a piano performer with such rich facial expressions and such a wide emotional range. And it wasn’t just unusual, it also was very entertaining. I was looking for something more than an ordinary performance. Your performance style, with your interpretation, an added emotional play made the performance extraordinary. What goes on there when you talk to all those invisible people and who is it that you talk to? FM: (Laughing)… Well, actually, I have no idea… When I play, I am in a kind of trans. I feel like I am in another world being in a deep and profound contact with music. And the things that happen just reflect the way I am feeling the music at that moment. And that’s why it sounds so natural because I am not inventing or trying to invent something; this is the way I am feeling at the moment. And if this is a true feeling, the audience will be able to connect to it. So, for example, when I played Chopin, I tried to feel the dance. As I was going through a search process, I saw how people danced the mazurkas, I saw how they danced the polonaise. And, so I started to think how Chopin would feel that [in order] to compose it.
PPM: So, were you imagining a ballroom full of people dancing? FM: Of course.
PPM: And Beethoven… what did you imagine there? FM: Well, Beethoven is one of my favorite composers. He was a genius who revolutionized music in the way of thinking and the way of composing. He demanded the best from everyone. And that is why I appreciate Beethoven and his music. It touches me very much. His “Appassionata” is like a psychodrama – changing moods from very aggressive and hard to very soft, delicate. It’s an angel vs. demon. A very complex story… But you can only understand this piece if you read about Beethoven and his story. What he composed before and after that. The context is very important. Otherwise, you don’t have fuel for your imagination; you don’t have a very good solid base.
When I play, I am in a kind of trans. I feel like I am in another world being in a deep and profound contact with music.
PPM: How do you get connected to the audience and what’s the difference for you between playing solo performances vs. playing with an orchestra? FM: I love to play for the audience. It’s all about the exchange. Exchange of moods, experiences, feelings, and energies. This is what happens when you play for an audience. And when you play with an orchestra, it’s an energy exchange between everyone: musicians from the orchestra, conductor, public, and pianist.
PPM: Does it matter what you wear during a performance? You have such an appealing romantic image with your curly hear, a beautiful tuxedo, and a colorful bow tie. Will the audience ever see you in jeans? FM: No (smiling), the audience is not going to see me in jeans. I always wear my tuxedo, and it’s the way I feel comfortable playing. And it’s a kind of respect that I feel for the audience, for the music, for the composer. I feel very comfortable this way. Ever since I’ve been a child, I’ve always worn my bow tie. And I’ve always tied it myself.
PPM: How many bow ties do you have? FM: A lot. A whole collection.
It’s all about the exchange. Exchange of moods, experiences, feelings, and energies. This is what happens when you play for an audience. And when you play with an orchestra, it’s an energy exchange between everyone: musicians from the orchestra, conductor, public, and pianist.
PPM: Let’s talk about Fabio Martino – the person. What do you do when you don’t play piano? FM: I go on walks in the forest with my dog. Her name is Wanda, and she is a springer spaniel. She is so sweet. She sleeps under the piano. She loves to listen to music. Sometimes she sings with me. Every time I am done, she knows that this is the end of the last page. So, once I am finished she comes up to me to get petted.
PPM: Where in Germany do you live? FM: I live in Karlsruhe, in the south of Germany, very close to France, between Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
PPM: What do you like to eat? What is your favorite food? FM: Oh, my. I eat everything. (Laughing). Too bad… I need to be more careful. I like eating out in a nice restaurant, but I also like to cook.
PPM: What is your specialty? FM: I cook both German and Brazilian food. There are two dishes I like to cook. One of them is called feijoada. It’s a typical Brazilian dish with black beans and meat inside. I also enjoy cooking moqueka. This dish is from Bahia. I cook it with coconut milk, tomatoes, and paprika. And you eat it with rice and bananas. It maybe sounds strange, but it’s very delicious. I have a sweet tooth, also. Normally, after a performance, I eat a piece of cake.
PPM: Do you have an agent or manager? FM: I have a Personal Manager in Germany that takes care of all my contracts and financial matters, and I am the one who stays in direct contact with theaters, conductors, and orchestra directors to handle performances. It’s a bit more work for me, but it makes me happy, because I love to stay in touch directly with the people. I have representation in Mexico as well.
PPM: So, what’s next? What performances are coming up? FM: I have a lot of work to do because the next season is fully booked and I´m happy to play 11 different Piano Concertos with Symphony Orchestras in Brazil, China and Germany. Among others Beethoven Nr. 1 and Nr. 5, Mozart in C Major, Rachmaninov Nr. 1 and Paganini Variations, Prokofiev Nr. 2, Villa-Lobos Nr. 5, Gershwin´s Rhapsody in Blue, Ravel G Major, to name a few… I´m very happy and proud about this!
PPM: Thank you for the interview, Fabio, and we hope to see you again soon back in Miami. FM: Thank you!
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There are many great pianists worthy of writing about, worthy of bringing the stories of their music and talent to light, but the story of Alice Herz-Sommer (OBM), a pianist from Pre-war Czechoslovakia is special. The piano did not only play a prominent role in her life. It, literally, SAVED her life.
During the war, when Nazis came to power, Alice, along with her beloved husband Leopold (OBM) and son Rafi (OBM) were sent to a concentration camp. Theresienschtadt. That camp, however, was no ordinary camp. It was a model camp that the Nazis used to show the world of how well they treated their prisoners. The Jews that comprised the elite of society and were able to contribute to that “show-and-tell” were spared. Alice was among them. She and her fellow musicians were assigned to entertain the Nazis through playing music.
Someone once said that leaders are not born, leaders emerge from the dire circumstances. Alice’s leadership emerged as she saw the ugly face of Evil. Intuitively, she realized that Evil couldn’t be fought with Evil, that Darkness could not be fought with Darkness. She decided to fight Darkness with Light. In her interviews she mentioned that she used to have a twin sister. Her twin sister was a born pessimist, and Alice was given a gift of being an optimist. In her life she chose to see only good, while acknowledging that bad still existed.
Against all socially promoted norms where children modeled their parents’ reactive behavior, Alice decided not to react. And that was the beginning of her victory. She remembered her mother’s teachings of being grateful for everything. Her motherly instincts also played an important role as she felt that as long as she was happy, nothing would emotionally scar her five-and-a-half-year-old son Rafi, who remained the only memory of her husband that had been transferred to Auschwitz shortly after the family been captured. Her plan worked. Her son avoided the trauma that so many ended up carrying with them through life. The most curious thing is that Alice did not just act happy for the sake of her son, she was truly happy. She chose happiness regardless of the circumstances, which is one of the main concepts of Jewish faith. Although she grew up without a religion in a family of intellectual humanists (her parents were friends with Kafka (OBM), Sigmund Freud (OBM), and many other prominent figures of that time), the generational genetic memory of her ancestors practicing Judaism in a proper way somehow seeped into her DNA, while skipping her sister’s.
Alice played piano along with other musicians, and this was her escape. To her, music was food – the manna from heaven. And with that food she fed her child as well.
After being liberated from the camps, Alice moved to Israel where, ideologically, she felt at home. She raised her son and partially restored her piano career. Although she became a successful teacher, given the circumstances of being a dedicated single mother, she was unable to pursue a full-blown career of a pianist as she did before the war. Life was good to Alice. Her attitude in adherence to the Light put her in a mental state that so many wish to achieve – a state of perpetual gratitude. Gratitude for every little and big thing that came her way. “Life is a present,” she would often say to her late friends. “Everything in life is a present.”
Later in life, she followed her son to London. But the hopes of growing old next to him did not realize. Her son Rafi, then in his sixties, right after his stage performance in Israel (he became a successful musician as well) told his friends he didn’t feel well and they rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with iliac aneurysm, and was given anesthesia prior to the operation. “He never woke up,” Alice recounted. He went into a surgery with hope and faith. He died without fear or suffering. And this is what his mother, the brave Alice, chose to concentrate on after she received the news of his unexpected death. She grieved with a positive attitude. In her interviews she mentioned that she was happy he did not have to experience all the troubles of old age and that he passed in a peaceful way without suffering.
So, she stayed in London, next to her daughter-in-law and her grandsons. At the age of 108, she lived by herself, without a home attendant. She still gave interviews, welcomed guests daily in her small apartment, and …. as part of her daily routine played the piano. For several hours a day. She used to say that she was a Jew without a religion, and that music had become her religion. In the musical sense, she was an ultra-religious Jew.
Alice passed away at the age of 110. She became an inspiration to many. Another fellow pianist, Caroline Stoessinger, wrote a book “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.” In 2013, Malcolm Clarke directed, wrote, and produced an Academy Award-winning documentary titled “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,“which reached over 1.3 million views on YouTube. Tony Robbins, a world famous motivational guru, interviewed Alice in her apartment and was amazed when she said that being in a concentration camp was a gift in some ways. “HOW?!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “I look where it’s good. I know that there is bad, but I look at the good thing,” she answered, with her smile turning into laughter. “I was always laughing. I was with my son lying on the floor, and I was laughing. How can a child not laugh, if the mother laughs?!”
There is something special about Holocaust survivors. Once faced with intense Darkness, one finds a strong desire to cleave to Light. And that feeling stays deep inside forever. One of our synagogue members, Henry (MFBH), is in his 90s and is by far the most cheerful person I’ve ever met. At his age, takes dance lessons, travels the world, and even has a girlfriend. Once he gave me his card, which stated his first name, last name, and his title – LOVER OF LIFE. Now, this is special. But this is the story for another time. And for a different magazine.
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Acknowledged by the Grove Dictionary of Music for occupying ‘an important position in the history of Polish music before Chopin’, the name of Maria Szymanowska (OBM) may be familiar to students and teachers of today. Born in 1789, she carved out a career for herself as a professional concert pianist and a composer, and from 1815 sustained a successful performing career totaling around 100 concerts until three years before her death in 1831. She travelled extensively, socialized, and performed amongst the cultural elites in various European countries. However, her roots were somewhat humble.
Coming from a working class Polish-Jewish family with her parents being owners of a brewery, she was educated at home. She received her piano training under private tutors in Warsaw and never attended a music conservatory.
Following a few years of piano lessons, Szymanowska’s musical talents shone through, and her name began to be recognized and circulated within the cultural circles of Warsaw. She is known to have performed in private salons and homes.
Originally known as Maria AGATA Wołowska, she married JÓZEF Szymanowski (OBM), an estate owner in 1810. It appears that her career took flight after the marriage, which is highly unusual considering the dominant gender roles of the day. After officially becoming Maria Szymanowska, she entered motherhood bearing three children – two daughters and a son. In 1812, her name first appeared in the Polish press, and she became known to the public. In 1815, she started her international concertizing career as possibly the most successful professional female pianist before Clara Schumann (OBM). During Szymanowska’s lifetime, she became associated with two of the major literary figures of the time: the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (OBM) and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (OBM). She is famously known as the dedicatee of Goethe’s Aussöhnung (Reconciliation to Fate) verses, in which he laments the suffering caused by passion and juxtaposes the pain by depicting angelic qualities of music, no doubt inspired by Szymanowska’s playing when the former became a close friend of the pianist. Other major figures she encountered include Alexander Pushkin (OBM) and Mikhail Glinka (OBM) during her years in St. Petersburg and Moscow after emigration to Russia as the prestigious “First Pianist to the Russian Court,” a title bestowed on her by Tsar Alexander I (OBM). Information from sources are divided as to whether she studied formally with the Irish composer John Field (OBM), yet it is without doubt that they were friends with each other and spent time together in Russia. As for her relationship with Chopin (OBM), although there is no account of their correspondences or meetings, he was nevertheless familiar with Szymanowska’s name since he wrote in a letter to a friend that he had plans to attend Szymanowska’s recital at the National Theatre in 1827. As two top ranked musicians living in Warsaw, with Szymanowska, being the established artist, and Chopin, the talented, emerging artist, it is highly possible that they did meet each other despite Chopin being 22 years her junior. Other major composers of the era including Hummel (OBM), Field, and Cherubini (OBM) – all dedicated works to her.
As Maria Szymanowska had no formal compositional training, her works appear to be more creative and less confined by the strict rules of compositional structures and styles. Despite being relatively more active as a pianist, by no means was she an underachiever in the compositional realm. She signed and negotiated a contract with the German publishing firm Peters. Another German publishing firm – Breitkopf and Härtel – published her entire body of work. John Field’s recommendation letter addressed to the firm is well documented. She has been the subject of many recommendation letters by distinguished musicians of the day. The majority of her compositions were written between 1815 and 1820. They include etudes, mazurkas, polonaises, nocturnes, and songs. These genres are immediately recognizable as the ones, in which Chopin later excelled. Among Szymanowska’s output, her Vingt Exercises et Preludes are widely acknowledged as her most successful piano compositions and thus provide the modern pianist with a glimpse of technical capabilities and her musical language. Polish pianist Sławomir Dobrzański (MGBH), author of the book Maria Szymanowska, Pianist and Composer, dedicated an entire chapter recounting the similarities between Chopin and Szymanowska’s works in terms of keys, figurations, and musical idioms. Although Chopin, without a doubt, pushed the boundaries of technique and pianism further, Szymanowska can be regarded as a pioneer who first composed etudes in a musical style, which can be performed as concert pieces. Robert Schumann (OBM) once referred to her in Music and Musicians: Essays and Criticisms as “the feminine [John] Field” and commented that her compositions have “much in them that was new and extraordinary,” a testament that she was indeed an innovator.
As a concert artist, she travelled extensively throughout Western Europe and later settled in Russia. There are numerous reviews of her performances, and a review published in the Kiev press described her as a “genuine virtuoso pianist.” However, not only was she a virtuoso, the Dresden review reported that “she possesses a magnificently strong touch on her instrument, combined with delicacy and much expression.” Another review, which appeared in Leipzig in 1824, noted that “skill and musical spirit are equally strong in her.” With her busy traveling schedule and performances all over Europe, Szymanowska became one of the first Polish pianists to reach audiences outside of her native country, which is an achievement in itself, especially when considering the confinements of travel in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a successful female performing artist, she was one of the first in the field. She appealed to the audience of the day with her feminine grace, as recounted in the Weimar Literary Newspaper in 1823, “she gains insight into the spirit of a musical composition with a subtle female delicacy of feeling.” The London Courier review of 1824 described her playing that possessed “grace and spontaneous charm…the biggest attributes of the female sex.” Through these reviews, it is apparent that her playing, somewhat different amongst the leading male pianists of the time, brought about a breath of fresh air to audiences and critics, which was much appreciated. At her recital in Poznań in 1823, she performed her own composition Caprice sur la Romance de Joconde by memory and stunned her audience with yet another pioneering feat. Aside from solo concerts, she performed the Concerto for Two Pianos by Dussek (OBM), with Hummel (OBM), the leading piano virtuoso of the day, demonstrating her possession of comparable pianistic abilities.
In 1820, an important event occurred in her life. Szymanowska divorced from her husband and took up the role as the sole breadwinner of the family through her concerts and compositions. For a woman to divorce her husband at that time was groundbreaking as far as gender roles are concerned. A woman possessing a flourishing career was almost unheard at the time, let alone a divorced woman retaining her married name. Moreover, she was battling through a new frontier as a concert artist since the concept of a public concert was just beginning to be developed. As a divorcée in the 19th century, Szymanowska made a bold move and immigrated to Russia with her three children, establishing a salon, which became a musical center at St. Petersburg, welcoming both local and visiting artists.
The story of Maria Szymanowska deserves far more attention than it is currently receiving. Prior to the 1980s, her name had fallen into oblivion in the English-speaking world due to extremely limited sources and texts in English. Until this time, information about Szymanowska was mostly documented in Polish and Russian texts. Only since the 2000s had two books had been published by Anne Kijas (MGBH) and Sławomir Dobrzański respectively. In 2013, Dobrzański has also released in Poland a CD album of her complete piano works. Most of her works are available for printing at www.imslp.org
Szymanowska’s role in history demands further investigation because her influence in the realms of music and gender roles are threefold. She was at the forefront of groundbreaking piano performance practices, before Franz Liszt changed the piano solo recital forever and her concert played by memory was certainly a novelty at the time. Her compositions planted the seed of the beginning of Romanticism and her etudes played a part in propelling the advance of piano technique. Lastly, she transcended traditional gender roles and social class divisions by appropriately utilizing her musical talents and became one of the first independent career women in classical music history. Szymanowska died suddenly at the age of 42 from cholera in Russia. If it were not for this premature death, there may have been further pioneering and influential acts by this courageous and ambitious Polish musician.
Azoury, P. H. Chopin through his contemporaries: friends, lovers and rivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
Dobrzanski, Slawomir. “Maria Szymanowska and the Evolution of Professional Pianism.” Chopin Foundation of the United States. N.p., n.d. Web.
Dobrzański, Sławomir, Maja Trochimczyk. ….Maria Szymanowska: pianist and composer. Los Angeles, CA: Polish Music Center at USC, 2006. Print.
Grove, George. A dictionary of music and musicians. London: Macmillan, 1902. Print.
Interactive, SUPERMEDIA. “Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). Kobieta Europy.” Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). A Woman of Europe – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.
Sadie, Stanley, George Grove, and Alina Nowak-Romanowicz. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980. Print.
Swartz, Anne. “Maria Szymanowska and the Salon music of the early nineteenth century.” The Polish Review 30.1 (1985): 43-58. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
TROCHIMCZYK, Maja. “Szymanowska and Chopin in Paris .” Chopin with Cherries. N.p., 12 Nov. 2011. Web.
The talent of Shelly Berg (MGBH), the 21st century jazz pianist, is unique. Like many talented people, he is talented in many things. Throughout his career he equally managed succeed as a jazz musician, an educator, a composer, a music administrator, and an entrepreneur. But most importantly, he succeeded in becoming a man of integrity and character.
PPM: What was your home atmosphere like growing up with the musician father and a writer mother? Would you, please, share some of the your childhood memories of experiences that made you like music? SB: There was always music playing in my home. My father had a large LP collection, and a large collection of 78rpm recordings. He was both a classical and jazz musician, so the listening palette was large. He began teaching me jazz when I was 11 years old, and we had a lifetime of making music together. My parents loved to entertain and invited touring musicians to parties at our home. Some amazing jazz artists played in my living room when I was a child. In the early years of my jazz piano playing, my father would pull out three small nesting tables and use them as a drum set, teaching me to “leave space” and to be collaborative and attentive in playing music. My mother knew the lyrics to hundreds of pieces from the Great American Songbook and sang them to me in the car, while she was cooking, etc. She instilled in me a contextual way of experiencing music.
PPM: What kind of writer was your mother? SB: My mother wrote short stories and a novel. Like so many of her day, she was a homemaker, so her writing was never published.
PPM: Please, share with our readers a little bit more about your father. What entrepreneurial activities was he involved in besides being a musician? SB: My father, Jay Berg (OBM), was a very talented musician. He played principle French horn in the Camp Pendleton Marine Band during WW2 and played jazz trumpet with many legends, including Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. After he married my mother, he decided to make music his avocation and embarked on a business career. He had a successful aluminum siding businesses in Cleveland. When that market became saturated, he moved the family to the Texas Gulf Coast. He invented a foundation pier for homes that were sinking in the Texas clay, and he remained in that business for the rest of his life.
PPM: Did any of your siblings play an instrument? What do they do now? SB: I was the lone musical sibling. My eldest brother was a brilliantly talented visual artist who tragically passed away in 1990. My next oldest brother has had a varied career in business, and my younger sister is a prominent entertainment attorney in Los Angeles.
One week, after not practicing for a few days after my lesson, I forgot the keys my teacher had played in. At the following lesson, I played the assigned pieces, but in the wrong keys. Subsequently my parents took me to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I was accepted at 6 into a gifted program, which included private lessons, solfege, and theory.
PPM: At what point was it decided that you needed to take special instruction with Maxine Priest? What did she give you as a teacher? SB: By the time I was four years old, I had discovered the piano, and I instinctively knew how to play it. One day, my parents overheard me playing the then popular song, “Alley Cat,” by ear with both hands. I was started in piano lessons when I was five, but the teacher failed to recognize I was playing entirely by ear. One week, after not practicing for a few days after my lesson, I forgot the keys my teacher had played in. At the following lesson, I played the assigned pieces, but in the wrong keys. Subsequently my parents took me to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I was accepted at 6 into a gifted program, which included private lessons, solfege, and theory. Maxine Priest was my teacher for the next 10 years. She began my education in earnest, including etudes (such Czerny op. 299 and 740) and a wide variety of repertoire. She was a very nurturing teacher, and instilled in me a confidence that music could be my life.
PPM: Let’s talk a little bit about your other childhood passion – baseball. Was that an alternative professional choice or just a hobby? Was there a time when you had to decide between baseball and music? Do you still play baseball? SB: I was a good baseball player in my childhood and spent more time in childhood summers with baseball than I did with music. I developed an ability as a batter to put the ball in play and almost never struck out as I progressed through the various levels of little league and high school ball. In fact, in my year of Pony League, I never struck out al all. BUT, as much as I loved the sport, I would never have made it to professional baseball, because my talent was not at that level. If I see anyone playing baseball or throwing the ball around I still want to join in!
PPM: When you were 12, your father started teaching you jazz standards and exposing you to jam sessions. Do you remember your first impression of being with a bunch of men playing jazz? SB: I remember very well the first time I played at an adult jam session with my father. I was 13 years old. I got kicked off the stand! I wasn’t ready. As I sulked in a corner, the drummer came over and said to me, “Son, you’re going to be fine. You only need one thing . . . mileage.” Over the next year I worked very hard to acquire that mileage and grew to be accepted at jam sessions. We moved to Houston when I was almost 16, and my father took me to a jam session with a Texas saxophone legend Arnett Cobb (OBM). We arrived early, and I began to play solo piano. During the song other musicians arrived, and as I told my mother later that night, I heard the “whoosh” of great musicians coming in behind me. It was the biggest thrill I had up to that time in music. I’ll never forget the exhilaration, and it is a something I still experience today.
PPM: When was your first public performance? Do you remember the feeling of first performing in public? SB: My very first public performance was playing “Lavender’s Blue” at my teacher’s studio recital. My feet didn’t reach the floor yet. I felt a very strong connection to music even then. I remember that it began my 30-year quest to overcome stage anxiety. Today, one of the most important aspects of teaching for me is helping students enter a beautiful, anxiety-free space when they play.
Jam sessions are an important right of passage for jazz musicians.<..> The joy of playing jazz is the collaboration – the musical moments that feel telepathic. It is indescribably wonderful to be “in the zone” with other accomplished jazz artists.
PPM: What does a jam session mean to a jazz player? Is it inclusive or exclusive? Do musicians invite whoever is good or is it a cliquish activity? How are the players selected/invited? SB: Jam sessions are an important right of passage for jazz musicians. As I explained earlier, if you are not ready, they will send you “back to the woodshed.” If you are ready, it is not cliquish at all. The joy of playing jazz is the collaboration – the musical moments that feel telepathic. It is indescribably wonderful to be “in the zone” with other accomplished jazz artists.
PPM: What was the most important thing you learned from Albert Hirsch (OBM), your mentor? SB: I could write a book about things I learned from my greatest mentor, Albert Hirsh. When I was 17, I played for Rudolph Serkin (OBM), and he asked me who I studied with. When I told him, he said, “There is no greater teacher than Albert Hirsch, and everyone should study with him.” Albert had an uncanny ability to find simple solutions to issues of technic and execution. He was also a master interpreter and helped me learn subtleties in approaching Haydn (OBM), as compared to Mozart (OBM), or Mozart as compared to Beethoven (OBM), etc. He was such a complete and compelling pianist himself that I worked even harder, simply knowing what was possible through his example.
PPM: While in college, you played in a band six nights a week, to help support your family. What was that experience like and how did the things you learned translate into having your own band after you graduated?
SB: I had a dual education and learned as much in the evenings as I did in college. Larry Martinez (MGBH) was the leader of the band I played in, and he was another great mentor. Martinez is a world-class trumpeter, and the quality of the music we made was of utmost importance to him. But he also understood that there is always an audience, and if they aren’t excited to hear you again, you’ve missed a golden opportunity. I learned from Larry that “entertainment” is not a dirty word, and it is possible to entertain an audience without pandering. Classical and Jazz musicians sometimes forget that fact, but my saying is, “It is never the audience’s fault if they are not captivated by my performance.”
I learned from Larry that “entertainment” is not a dirty word, and it is possible to entertain an audience without pandering. Classical and Jazz musicians sometimes forget that fact, but my saying is, “It is never the audience’s fault if they are not captivated by my performance.”
PPM: Your first teaching job at Jacinto College…. Although you stayed there for only two years, seems like you did a lot for their music program. Among many other things, you directed a Jazz band, which became one of the top bands in the country. You created Music Business and recording arts program that is still there. Why teaching at college, which is somewhat restricting vs. pursuing a full-time career of a jazz musician? SB: I was actually at San Jacinto College for twelve years, the first two at the North Campus and the remaining ten at the Central Campus. As a dean now, I would have to hire four professors to do what I did at San Jacinto, which included directing the athletic band, concert, band, and jazz band, while teaching courses in theory, ear training, music business, jazz improvisation, and about a dozen private students each semester. I am very proud of the nationally prominent program we built, and along the way I learned so much that I use today. I have always loved teaching, and had my first private student when I was 15. In my undergraduate years I was a student conductor of university orchestra and choirs, and I was subsequently awarded a teaching assistantship in Music Theory and Composition for graduate study. By the time I obtained my Master’s Degree, I was 23 years old, and had two children. I knew I didn’t want to play every night for a living, so I applied for and was given the job at San Jacinto College. It is now my 39th year in higher education!
PPM: We know that besides being a jazz performer and an educator, you have developed a successful commercial jingles career. How did you get into it? Where you still in Texas or did you already move to Los Angeles? SB: Raising a family is expensive! When my children were young, I had a band that played over 100 events a year, including wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs – you name it. I wrote my first jingle when I was 20 years old, for a local wedding photographer. Throughout the next fifteen years I continued to develop writing clients, and I had moved up to national jingles by the time I moved to Los Angeles in 1991. In LA I met the late Dick Marx (OBM), who was the country’s undisputed king of jingles. Dick took me under his wing, and together we wrote not only jingles, but also album orchestrations, television themes, and movie orchestrations and scoring.
Bill taught me that the one note that will never be forgotten is infinitely more valuable than a stream of virtuosity.
PPM: In 1986 you started working with Bill Watrous (MGBH), a jazz trombonist. What was that collaboration like? What are some of your memorable travel performance memories with him? SB: My greatest jazz mentor, after my father is Bill Watrous, who I spent twenty years with. Bill is one of the few greatest trombonists ever. His sound and technique inspired a generation of followers. As I played with him more and more, I realized that behind the dazzling display was a lyricism as great as any I’d heard. Bill taught me that the one note that will never be forgotten is infinitely more valuable than a stream of virtuosity. Bill and I played all over the world, most memorably at some big jazz festival Like Montreux and North Sea. Before every concert Bill would look at me and say “who gets the brass ring tonight?” which was his way of challenging me to bring my “A game” every time. At the end of each performance, we would usually agree which one of us earned the brass ring. I would not be who I am today without Bill.
PPM: Please, tell us about your first jazz album. SB: As I said earlier, I had a “casual” band when my children were young, and although I practiced a great deal, I was not seriously contemplating a jazz career. By my late 30’s I was overdue to record my own project. A great bassist, Lou Fischer (MGBH), and an equally great drummer, Randy Drake (MGBH) also toured with Bill Watrous, and we had developed a rapport. Through Lou, I began to play with another fabulous drummer, Steve Houghton (MGBH). It was decided that we would do a trio project with Lou on bass, and Houghton and Drake splitting the drum chair. A few years earlier, I was a finalist in the “Great American Jazz Piano Contest”, and that was during my “stage fright” days. I was very worried that I would suffer debilitating anxiety at that competition, on national television! So, I wrote a song for my three children and put their picture on the pin bloc of the piano where only I could see. As a result, I wasn’t nervous, and I had discovered one of the secrets to escaping performance anxiety. I named that song, “The Joy”, and it is the title of my first album.
PPM: When did you start writing for TV and film? SB: When I met Dick Marx (MGBH) in Los Angeles, we worked together to pursue TV and film writing. We had so much fun, and Dick became another of my valued mentors. One of our shows, “Fudge” (ABC), became the #1 program on Saturday mornings, and we worked on several other TV projects and major studio films. Dick had great success in the jingle business, and was very wise. Whenever I would agonize over a musical decision, he would say, “Will your new idea sell another Pop Tart? If not, you probably already have what you need.” I tried so hard not to make in error in score writing. When I felt my score was perfect I would bring it to Dick. Hearing it in his head, he would make comments like, “Oh, this is great, very interesting, etc.” We never got through a score without him saying something like, “Isn’t this note supposed to be F natural.” He was uncanny.
In writing for TV and film, I learned how to deal with a multitude of competing opinions, while navigating the politics of an industry.
PPM: In 2005, after you started composing for jazz trio, you released your second CD called “Blackbird,” which reached #1 on jazz radio and stayed there for eight weeks, which means, people liked it. What was it like working on this album? SB: “Blackbird” was magic to me. I booked two days in the studio with Chuck Berghofer (MGBH) on bass, Gregg Field (MGBH) on drums, and my long-time engineer collaborator, Les Williams (MGBH). There were no expectations. I brought in a bunch of charts, some of them to original songs, and we picked the ones we liked best. The album felt easy to make because we got into that “zone” that athletes and musicians talk about. We weren’t overthinking, because we weren’t trying to make a “successful” recording. We just wanted to play and collaborate. There is a lesson in that experience.
PPM: Between 1994 and now, you did over a dozen of album orchestrations. What does this type of work entail? SB: I have done many dozens of album orchestrations in the last twenty years. I have been privileged to work with artists who I admire greatly, including Gloria Estefan, The Count Basie Orchestra, Renee Fleming, Steve Miller, Chicago, Richard Marx, Dionne Warwick, Carole King, Kurt Elling, and many others. I even did a record with KISS.
I love orchestrating, which is very much like being an accompanist. My first responsibility is to get inside the head of the artist and to feel what they are feeling. If I do my job well, my orchestration will inspire the artist to her or his most compelling performance. I believe that the introduction of an orchestration should transport the performer and listener into the emotion of the song.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about the Jazz Cruise. SB: I am the Musical Director of The Jazz Cruise, which is arguably the World’s best seven days of jazz each year. There are over 100 of the greatest jazz artists, and 2,000 fans onboard. Four venues are programmed day and night, and many of the shows feature combinations of artists that can only be seen on the cruise. It is the one week of the year when I am not a music school dean, I am solely a jazz pianist.
PPM: What does your jazz pianist life look like today? SB: My life as a pianist today is very fulfilling. I don’t have an agent or manager, because I am fortunate to be asked to perform as much as I can handle with my career at the Frost School of Music. My performances cover a wide range, from jazz clubs to festivals and performing arts centers. I am equally happy to accompany a great artist as to perform in my own project. For instance, lately Steve Miller and I have been producing “Jazz Meets Blues” shows at Lincoln Center. I have been privileged to perform in the last few years at the White House, Hollywood Bowl, Royal Albert Hall, the Apollo Theater, etc. I’m having fun!
PPM: Please, tell us a little bit about your children. What are they like and what life paths are they on? SB: I have three children in their 30’s (Lindsay, Kyle and Ashlyn) and a stepson (Dylan) who is 27. I also have two grandchildren (Jackson who is 14, and Noelle who is 12) and another grandchild on the way. Jackson and Noelle are both musicians. If I could never play a note again, I would derive infinite happiness from who my children are and how they lead their lives. They are happy, successful, and compassionate.
PPM: What do you like about living in Miami vs. Los Angeles? Are there times you miss LA? SB: Miami has been an amazing experience for my wife, Julia and me. By the way, Julia is my muse, and my music changed profoundly after we met. Miami is very diverse and very open. It feels easy to meet anyone, and the mix of cultures is inspiring. If I hadn’t moved to Miami, I wouldn’t have met Gloria and Emilio Estefan. They have become dear friends and collaborators. I love LA as well, and am fortunate to be there regularly to perform, record and connect with old friends.
PPM: What are your hobbies? SB: My life doesn’t allow much time for hobbies besides music. When I have free time, I want to practice! I am a runner, and try to run at least three times per week. I also love to snow ski, but haven’t gone in four years.
PPM: What do you usually do on Sundays? SB: I don’t have a Sunday routine. If I am in the middle of a composing or orchestrating project (which is most of the time), I have to work when I am not at the Frost School. My writing sessions are often very late at night or very early in the morning. So, a free Sunday for writing is a welcome day! If I don’t have a writing project, and I am not on the road, Sunday is very special. I can read the entire New York Times by the pool, take a long run and spend relaxed time with Julia.
PPM: How did becoming a grandfather affect you as a human being? SB: I don’t think becoming a grandfather has changed me. I have had such wonderful and close relationships with my children that becoming a grandfather has felt like an extension of that. The joy of being a grandfather is that it has widened the world of love in my life.
PPM: Let’s focus on the topic of your TEDx Miami talk, which I found very interesting and, I hope, our readers will do to. What is its main idea? (* We will include the video of the talk in our “Amazing Videos” section as well as on the bottom of the interview). SB: MY TEDx talk has two central ideas. First, music is an example of how we learn. We strive to master the techniques of anything we do, whether piano, sports, math, speech, or any other endeavor. Then, we naturally think that the world wants to see a display of our “prowess.” My point is that it is our “intent” that truly resonates with others, and technique gives us the tools to express intent. The last point of my TEDx talk has to do with what music teaches us about life. As a musician, I must tap into the original inspiration of a piece, so that I fall in love with it anew with each performance. If we can transfer that approach to our relationships and life situations, then we have found the secret to life. If every time I say, “I love you” to Julia feels like the first time, then our love will be infinitely renewing.
The last point of my TEDx talk has to do with what music teaches us about life. As a musician, I must tap into the original inspiration of a piece, so that I fall in love with it anew with each performance. If we can transfer that approach to our relationships and life situations, then we have found the secret to life.
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To remain a pupil is to serve your teacher badly. – Friedrich Nietzsche
In addition to enhancing musical progress, the ultimate objective for teachers is to gradually become unnecessary in the learning lives of their students. Metacognition is that wonderful learning stage when the learner drives the learning. An umbrella term, metacognition means “thinking about our thinking.” It includes planning, questioning, monitoring, memorization, self-reflection, self-knowledge about our learning strengths and weaknesses, and self-evaluation. It involves understanding our motivations, setting goals, knowing which practice strategies to implement, and being able to exercise self-discipline. It’s about knowing when and how to use these strategies for maximum learning. Novices rarely engage in the metacognitive learning strategies that drive real progress. In contrast, the skills of super learners are underpinned by executive-function skills and character traits such as sustaining focus, commitment, perseverance, and resisting impulse and distraction.
I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide the world into the learners and non-learners. -Benjamin R. Barber
Metacognition is the learner’s coming of age. It is the hallmark of intrinsic motivation. The diverse set of skills this word represents is essential for reaching expertise in any domain, including music. This is an important distinction. It’s not talent, but the processes of development that lead to expertise. But don’t expect students to welcome this style of learning. As most teachers find, students actively resist it because it is difficult and requires more mental effort. It’s a lot easier to be told what to do and to be evaluated by the teacher than to engage with the messiness of learning.
Great learning asks great questions, underpinned by great thinking. The brain is more receptive to remember answers to questions we ask than when information is delivered by the teacher. Over time, students should be asking themselves the same questions a teacher would.
The classic sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student. Schools focus more on the transmission of knowledge rather than the transformation of knowledge.
The classic sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student. Schools focus more on the transmission of knowledge rather than the transformation of knowledge. Metacognition, the most essential learning-capacity skill set, is overlooked, or, at least, insufficiently taught. Harvard’s David Perkins (1992) posits that any substantial improvement in the learning capacity of society is unlikely until metacognitive learning is more fully addressed.
Metacognitive learners take responsibility for their learning. Music students must be able to ask, “How effective is my practice? How effective is my learning? What do I need to do to get better? What practice strategy does this task require?” Successful analysis of problems gets to the heart of the matter quickly. Metacognition is not about factual knowledge or skill, but the process involved in gaining that knowledge or skill. It enables us to question our beliefs and perspectives that color our approach and attitude to learning. Children aged eleven or twelve might have an impressive body of factual knowledge, but have comparatively low metacognitive skills. Metacognition usually flowers later in cognitive development, perhaps, in adolescence or early adulthood, but this process is dependent on the quality of teaching and parenting. Young students should be prompted with questions and encouraged to verbalize thoughts and to self-evaluate. In these early stages of teaching metacognition, teachers explicitly and consciously model (verbalize) their thought processes as they solve a problem.
Midway through my undergraduate music education degree I changed piano teachers. My first impression of my new teacher Stephen was that he was a little odd. Stephen barely said a word, so how was I supposed to learn from him? When I played, rather than comment, he looked at me expectantly, as if he were waiting for me to do the analysis. Uncomfortable with the silence, I uttered thoughts of my own. “Maybe this phrase could use more of a crescendo?” I’d ask. “OK,” he’d say. “Try it.” I did so, and the process would be repeated. I might not have understood this at the time, but Stephen was teaching me to think for myself, which led me into a new age of self-directed learning. I was learning how to teach myself. Prior to Stephen, my experience with piano lessons was quite different. My role was a passive receiver of teacher knowledge. My well-intentioned teachers always had given me directions and told me what I needed to do, and my job was to sit, listen, obey, and execute. Essentially, this teacher-directed style took the hard work out of learning.
Let me show you how to do this.
Let me tell you what you are doing wrong.
Let me tell you what I think.
Let me tell you what to do.
Great teachers seldom give direct answers or immediate feedback before probing for deeper thought.
This suited me fine, because I did not have to think too hard. Stephen would have none of this, for passive learning was not enough. Great teachers seldom give direct answers or immediate feedback before probing for deeper thought. Providing solutions before the student has had an opportunity to solve a problem constrains autonomy. Rather, good teachers hint, gradually increasing the content until the pupil works it out for themselves. Expressive disciplines like music require active participation, and teachers like Stephen enable students to question and to construct their own ideas. As I became more engaged in my own learning, my motivation levels skyrocketed.
This was probably my most valuable learning experience as a young adult, and I will always be thankful to Stephen for that.
Never stop questioning. -Albert Einstein
The simplest strategy for increasing student metacognition is to ask questions. Not whilst students are playing, of course, for this does not prevent errors or encourage self-learning. Simple, open-ended questions before and after playing prompt self-discovery. Here are some examples:
How do you think you played?
Tell me what you hear. How does it sound to you?
Is what you’re doing working? Why? Why not?
Which goals would you like to set for this week?
What can you do to learn this passage thoroughly?
Can you explain what you are doing? What are you thinking?
What have you improved upon since last week?
Can you teach me how to do this?
One study found that over 90 percent of the utterances of the best teachers are questions (Lepper and Woolverton 2002). Questions are leading and informative, demanding thinking and exploration of ideas. It is sobering, therefore, to read references that suggest that most instrumental music tutors ask questions in only 2 or 3 percent of their words (Zhukov 2012). John Hattie’s (2009) research finds that 60 percent of the 300–400 teacher questions per day require only superficial factual data, 20 percent target procedural knowledge, and only 20 percent are open, skilled questions that prompt deeper thinking and higher-order understanding.
Early studies found that in typical classrooms think time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds. By extending this uninterrupted period of silence to three seconds, the length and correctness of responses improves, the number of “I don’t know” responses decrease, more students volunteer answers, and overall academic test scores improve (Stahl 1994).
When students respond to questions, teachers must wait patiently and allow them to struggle to find the right words, resisting the temptation to put words into their mouths. Students need time to process and internalize information before giving a response. The period of silence between a teacher question and student response is referred to as “think time.” Early studies found that in typical classrooms think time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds. By extending this uninterrupted period of silence to three seconds, the length and correctness of responses improves, the number of “I don’t know” responses decrease, more students volunteer answers, and overall academic test scores improve (Stahl 1994).
Struggle is inherent in learning. This is the principle failing of the enthusiastic graduate teacher, so keen to impart as much as possible of their own knowledge that there is little real learning left for the student to do. Teaching and giving answers are not synonymous. Nor is learning and having the answers supplied. Studies confirm that when teacher talk dominates the learning environment, at best shallow learning results (Chi et al. 2001). What teachers choose not to say is essential. The best teachers tell their students almost nothing. They prompt and probe, drawing as much as possible from the student. Likewise, teachers who solve problems for students implicitly communicate to the student that they are incapable of solving it for themselves.
I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think. -Socrates
The Socratic method is a questioning pedagogy. Plato refers to Socrates teaching geometry to a slave boy, not by imparting his own knowledge, but by questioning alone, thereby allowing the boy to create his own conclusions. Aldous Huxley was acutely aware of this when he wrote “The Dangers of Good Teaching” in 1927 (quoted in Abbott 2010):
“Working on the old-fashioned system, the clever teacher (deplorable paradox!) does almost more harm than the stupid one. For the clever schoolmaster makes things too easy for his pupils; he relieves them of the necessity of finding out things for themselves. By dint of brilliant teaching, he succeeds in almost eliminating the learning process. He knows how to fill his pupils with ready-made knowledge, which they inevitably forget (since it is not their knowledge and cost them nothing to acquire) as soon as the examination for which it was required is safely passed.
The stupid teacher, on the other hand, may be so completely intolerable that the child will, perhaps, be driven, despairingly and in mere self-defense, to educate himself; in which case the incompetent shepherd will have done, all unwittingly, a great service to his charge, by forcing him into a rebellious intellectual independence.”
Initially, musical understanding is procedural. That is, students know how to do things but cannot articulate the process. A deeper knowing, declarative knowledge, is the ability to talk and think about music using linguistic terms. Allowing students to talk about concepts in their own words strengthens musical understanding from the procedural realm to include the declarative realm. Words enhance conceptual understanding; they enable us to think. Complex thoughts are not possible without them.
Verbal Mediation (Self-Talk)
Of course, I talk to myself; sometimes I need expert advice! – Thomas Jefferson
Abraham Lincoln’s secretary asked him, “Sir, why do you read aloud to yourself and why do you talk to yourself?” Lincoln’s response was, “When I do this, I remember twice as much, for twice as long” (Chandler 2004). This is verbal mediation – another strategy for increasing metacognition.
Verbal mediation, or self-talk, is thinking aloud. When students encounter a learning difficulty, I ask them to think verbally. By thinking out loud as they practice, students uncover the root of a problem and gain a better understanding of the task. Also, teachers get insight into students’ mental processes. More generally, reading aloud helps us process information in the mind and stay in the present.
Steven Mithen (2005) writes, “Children who provide their own verbal commentary, learn skills quicker than those who remain silent.” Self-talk is essential for a child’s development and, although it gradually disappears as thinking becomes silent, we continue to do it occasionally – particularly if faced with a challenging problem. Verbal cues assist with thinking, memory formation, focus, and learning in general. For example, memorizing a list of words by saying them out loud is more effective than through silent reading (Ozubko and Macleod 2010).
The skills of metacognition are applied throughout the learning cycle.
Planning. Before practicing, analyze the piece. Identify points of interest, patterns, the key, and expected difficulties. Set practice goals. Verbalize thoughts.
Actively listen and monitor during practice.
Evaluate. Identify difficulties and successes. Verbalize the strategies employed explaining why they were successful.
Describe new practice strategies, how they can be implemented, and the expected improvement.
Continue this cycle until satisfied with the result.
This is why, when compared with non-musicians, professional musicians demonstrate a higher degree of metacognition.
Most children have one music lesson each week and receive little teacher guidance in between. Hence, learning how to learn is essential. The complex and open-ended activity of music practice demands metacognitive skill probably more than any other activity. Explicitly teaching practice strategies teaches metacognitive skills. This is why, when compared with non-musicians, professional musicians demonstrate a higher degree of metacognition. The higher-order-thinking skills include performance preparation, concentration, monitoring quality, learning and memory-formation strategy, and self-evaluation. Professional musicians have a high awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. Stephen Covey (1994) writes that self-awareness is “our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.”
Metacognition provides us with this objective view of our strengths and weaknesses. It enables freedom of the mind. Through reflection and evaluation, we understand our actions more critically. We improve our learning by continually designing and redesigning our training.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success.”
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