Although he competed and won titles in many prestigious international piano events, this is not what defines Luigi Carroccia, a 25- year-old Italian pianist from Valle Marina. He brings his own unique style into interpretations of well-known compositions through his multifaceted personality and character. From his story we can see that an early start isn’t always a prerequisite for a successful career as a pianist.
PPM: Please, tell our readers a little bit about your family. LC: My mother dedicated her time to educating my brothers and me. The most important values for her are family, loyalty and respect – so these are the values I grew up with. My grandfather was very passionate about music. He learnt to play a lot of instruments by himself (clarinet, saxophone, accordion, piano) and later started working on fixing instruments and manufacturing accordions. He passed on his passion to my father who had an academic education in piano, but mainly played, and still does, the accordion. I have two younger brothers. We are very close in age so we grew up together. Both of them studied music, one got his Bachelor’s in Clarinet, but started another career afterwards while my youngest brother will graduate soon in Accordion.
PPM: Where in Italy did you grow up? What was your childhood like? LC: I grew up in a very small town in the south of Rome called Valle Marina. It is a place with a very small population and only a few stores. It is surrounded by mountains and is very close to the sea. For me as a child it was a wonderful place to spend my days there. There are a lot of vineyards and fields, so I used to take long walks, play soccer or wander in the mountains. The days where never long enough to play outdoors with my friends.
I actually started learning piano very late. I was about 13-14 years old. <…> I started preparing my admission exam with him and in a shortly discovered I loved the piano much more than the accordion.
PPM: When and under what circumstances did you start learning piano? LC: I actually started learning piano very late. I was about 13-14 years old. I grew up in a musical family, but until then I only played the accordion. Later I decided I wanted to enter the Conservatory, and my father thought I would have a broader education if I studied piano. I started preparing my admission exam with him and in a shortly discovered I loved the piano much more than the accordion.
PPM: What was the first competition you entered and what did it take to compete there? LC: My first important Competition was the Busoni Competition in 2015.
Today pianists start competing at a very young age while I started when I was already 24. I really didn’t have much expectation because of this, but inside I knew I had my point of view to share. I prepared and practiced a lot before the Competition and when I passed the preliminary audition it was a huge accomplishment for me.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite composers? LC: There are things about almost every composer that I really love. So, it is difficult for me to choose. If you ask me, whose compositions I love performing the most though, I would say Schubert (OBM), Chopin (OBM), and Scriabin (OBM).
PPM: Where do you live now and what is your typical day like? LC: I still live in Valle Marina – my childhood town. I am not a morning person, so I like starting my day calmly with a nice breakfast and some physical exercise to wake up.
When I am not travelling, I spend my days practicing and listening to music. If I have the time, I love cooking and watching movies. I try to go swimming twice a week and when it’s possible, I enjoy playing soccer with my friends.
PPM: What was it like for you to participate in the Fryderyk Chopin Competition? What repertoire did you play? LC: It was an amazing experience. Of course, there was lot of pressure, but the atmosphere was exciting. You could feel that the Competition is not only a piano competition, but also an important cultural and social event for the entire city. The public was so warm, and I really loved Warsaw.
The rules of the Competition required to play one piece from each genre, so I played some etudes, mazurkas, a waltz, a nocturne, the Polonaise op.53, Polonaise Fantasy, Barcarolle and Preludes op. 28.
PPM: What are your performance plans for the 2018 season? LC: I am very excited I will be going to China for the first time. I am also very happy I will perform some chamber music, which I played very rarely until now.
The important thing for me is only to live intensely through every performance and give the best I have in that moment.
PPM: What was the performance that you were most proud of? LC: Each one of my performances is different depending on my mood and inspiration, so I am not able to choose one, they just are very different. The important thing for me is only to live intensely through every performance and give the best I have in that moment.
PPM: What is the most complicated piano piece that you have not played yet, but would like to master? LC: Right now my goal is to play all of Chopin’s etudes from op.10 and op. 25. I think they are very demanding mentally, physically and emotionally. So, it will be very challenging.
PPM: What are some of your favorite places in the city where you live? LC: I am very lucky to live near the beach and the mountains. These are my favorite places to recharge during periods of intense activity.
PPM: What inspires you in life? LC: It depends on the periods. At the moment, I am reading about and inspired by the stories of people who managed to overcome their limits or handicaps living great lives and achieving amazing results. However, I can find inspiration in many other ways. Sometimes, listening to music, reading a book or watching a movie, talking to people, visiting new places or even from unexpected experiences.
PPM: Do you compose music? LC: I don’t compose but in the future I would love to start.
PPM: Can you share any funny stories from your performances? LC: It was summer and I was playing in a beautiful venue outdoors. In the middle of the performance a cockroach came out of the keyboard and started walking in and out from the keys. I had to finish playing expecting it to come out again every moment. Every time I think about it, I find it very funny.
PPM: Thank you, Luigi! We wish you luck in your future competitions!
There is a conceptual paradox present in our society. When it comes to raising children, for the convenience of the mothers who need or want to work, we have organized the system of daycares and then schools that focus on mass production – the mass production of uniformly thinking people that follow the rules, who robotically live on an auto-pilot without thinking too deep and too much. This is what our system designed to do. If a child is different, he acquires a label as the one with “special needs,” and our educational system makes every effort possible to push him or her back into the artificially created mold with all the methods available. If it works, it is called “success, and if it doesn’t, it’s called “failure.” On the other hand, we look for and celebrate individuals – the people who are different, who are thinkers, who are deep. The kid, who was labeled as a “failure” in the middle school, grows up and invents something incredible or becomes a prominent musician. And then everything changes. We raise people like him to celebrity status. We practically worship them. We go to their concerts or lectures, read their books, inhale their thoughts, and are ready to follow them on the spur of a moment. Why is that? In this interview we feature a musician who did not follow a traditional path of “learning piano since he was 4.” He comes from a world different than that of most classical pianists, but still (or because of that) amazes the audience with his originality and individuality. Ladies and Gentlemen, we present to you Lucas Debargue (MGBH).
Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
PPM: What is your most prominent childhood memory? LD: The first time I fell in love…
PPM: Which city and neighborhood did you grow up in? What was your childhood like? LD: I had the chance to grow up in a house not far from the forest, one hour drive up north of Paris. I had a very happy childhood and had no special interest in music before I was 9. I loved drawing, reading. I didn’t have too many friends, but the ones I had were very close ones.
PPM: When was your first introduction to classical music? LD: Mozart, 21st piano concerto. I was 9 years old.
PPM: How did you transition to jazz? LD: It was not a transition, but a very natural inclination to the world of jazz and improvisation when I was around 20, mostly due to the discovery of the music of Thelonious Monk (OBM). Also, I met a guy in the conservatory who had a very strong harmonic sense. Thanks to him I felt the need to learn more about all of it.
PPM: Please, tell us more about your family. LD: I have 3 little brothers. My parents are divorced. My mother is a surgeon-assistant, and my father is a kinesiologist. I have many wonderful memories of family meetings, when we were all 7 relatives playing together in my grandparents’ garden.
The ones who let the strongest impression on me were those who were first of all wonderful human beings. Their personalities went beyond the codes and “limits” of their profession and, so, they had the possibility to share their passion, which is the most important thing a teacher can do, I think.
PPM: Which teacher (s) in school influenced you the most and in what way? LD: It was during the years between 2002 and 2005, the jazz band coach in Compiegne, who has now passed away.
During the same years, I had a gym teacher, who humiliated me terribly and made me realize what a poor team player I was.
My literature teacher, school year 2006-2007.
My harmony teacher in the CNSM of Paris, 2012-14.
And, actually, some others. The ones who let the strongest impression on me were those who were first of all wonderful human beings. Their personalities went beyond the codes and “limits” of their profession and, so, they had the possibility to share their passion, which is the most important thing a teacher can do, I think.
PPM: Which books of your adolescence helped build your character? LD: Kafka’s (OBM) Metamorphosis. Dostoievski’s (OBM) Crime and Punishment. Balzac’s (OBM) Illusions Perdues.
For me it has no sense to spend days repeating difficult passages. Everything has to be clear in the mind, and for this a keyboard is not necessary.
PPM: Do you have a daily piano practice routine? If so, what is it like? LD: Not at all. My aim is to practice as less as possible. And when it’s unavoidable, to prepare my working sessions very precisely. For me it has no sense to spend days repeating difficult passages. Everything has to be clear in the mind, and for this a keyboard is not necessary. It’s even better to not lose energy and time moving the fingers on a musical substance that is not yet well-learned. Would an actor stage himself before knowing is role very well?
When I have a big repertoire to prepare like I do now – (Scriabin’s (OBM) Prometheus, Ravel’s (OBM) G Major Concerto, Chopin’s (OBM) and Szymanowski’s (OBM) Solo Recital, Prokofiev’s (OBM) 2nd Concerto – I need, of course, to work on it every day. I have been working on it for a while though. I couldn’t be in the situation of being not prepared a few days before a concert. The last few days are for checking if everything is running smoothly and, maybe, to find some new musical ideas.
I think it’s very important to learn some orchestra scores or string quartets and to read books to get more in touch with composers and the spirit of their time.
PPM: Is becoming a celebrated pianist a dream come true or is it an unexpected result of a challenge that you took upon yourself by entering a competition? LD: I cannot say it was a dream… I never dreamt to become a soloist. However, I know that I have been a musician for a long time, and this a very “real” feeling. Maybe one should be careful what he or she dreams about. Precisely, because these are dreams, they have a high chance of never realizing: one can get obsessed by his ambitions and lose many opportunities around. Better to know what you need and go for it without wasting time.
Knowing that I was a musician and that music had to take the biggest part of my life was the only strength that helped me achieve my preparation in such a big city like Paris, where I was absolutely unknown and not very much supported by anyone. I had no piano at home and no way of earning a living. This was a very serious test of how important music was for me: to take the time to get lessons at 22 years old instead of being all over the place looking for a job, which was essential in my situation.
I feel fed up by invitations to take drugs and “lose control”, and also politically correct and narcissistic conversations. I don’t make friends easily, but I remain loyal to the few I have!
PPM: Which character traits are important for you to work on and which character traits do you appreciate in others? LD: Concentration. Mental strength. Loyalty. Honesty. Deep sensitivity to art and nature. Not being scared about talking about difficult matters. Youth and freshness (nothing to do with age: I know a lot of teenagers or people of my age that are way more creepy, spooky or simply boring than my grandmother).
The time that many people of my age spend on Tinder, Instragram or listening to electro music (and all the variations on electro music with the drugs directly associated) is a time that fascinates me, because I cannot find it or resonate with it in my own life. I cannot even say I hate it: it’s just too far from me and what I love. And this was already the case years before I made the Tchaikovsky Finals, even before I got the idea to prepare myself to perform. I am passionate about the people my age and always eager to listen to their experiences, but I cannot bear being pushed to share these experiences with them. I wouldn’t have the idea to present Shostakovich (OBM) 4th symphony as the “ultimate musical experience” in front of a group of young people; even if it’s exactly what I personally think. I keep it for me and for the ones who could understand my point.
In others, I appreciate everything that can speak to me and, at the same time, take me somewhere I haven’t been and feel curious about. I feel fed up by invitations to take drugs and “lose control”, and also politically correct and narcissistic conversations. I don’t make friends easily, but I remain loyal to the few I have!
PPM: Do you have a favorite place to travel to? LD: Some places in France and Italy. Russia. I also loved visiting Montana during the Tippet Rise festival in 2016.
PPM: What was your experience at the Verbier Festival like this year? LD: Very exciting. Frustrating in a way, because it was too short to enjoy all the aspects of it! But I should come back next year …
PPM: What jazz clubs did you enjoy performing at the most? LD: Paris: Chat Noir at Pigalle, Hotel Shangri-La at Alma Marceau; Chicago – Showcase; Rio de Janeiro – clubs in Lapa.
PPM: What is your favorite holiday? LD: Hmm…. Christmas?
PPM: Are you a night or a morning person? LD: Both, but very much depending on the context…
If a musician is not creative, what is he all about?
PPM: What does creativity in music mean to you? LD: “Creativity in music” is just a pleonasm for me! If a musician is not creative, what is he all about? I would say the same about performers, composers, conductors, and improvisers … Moreover, I put creation on the higher level than creativity. Creativity is almost a trait of character, while creation needs a lot of work, patience, and will over it.
PPM: Which composers affected you the most as a person and a musician? LD: When I was 15, Rachmaninov (OBM), Prokofiev (OBM), and Scriabin (OBM). They’re still close to my heart but not as much as before. Also, Beethoven (OBM) and Shostakovitch (OBM).
PPM: Do you cook? What are some of your favorite foods? What are some of your favorite restaurants to go to? LD: I would like to cook more, but one needs time for it … And my kitchen in Paris is too little. Favorite restaurants are the simplest. The best and the simplest, like the wonderful food you find in Italy.
PPM: Would you, please, share a few funny or just interesting stories that happened during performing life over the years? LD: Once, right before the performance, I realized that I was wearing sport shoes. Someone had to call my friend who was sitting in the hall to run to the car and bring me the proper ones.
PPM: With music being your passion, what are your hobbies? LD: I don’t really have that many hobbies. Spend all day in a library, maybe? Very seldom – Tekken on PS3 with a very good mate. Hard time for the thumbs. Bike with my father, but this is also very rare. Hiking.
PPM: What is your favorite sport to help you keep in shape? LD: Running and swimming.
PPM: Would you share your life philosophy with our readers? LD: “Swing until death.”
PPM: Do you compose your own music? LD: Yes. Since 2014 I composed 2 cello and piano sonatas – one little and one big; 1 violin and piano sonata; 1 piano trio (created in Moscow Dom Musiki, Sankt Peterbourg Mariinsky, and on September 29th in Paris, Vuitton Foundation); 1 concertino for piano, drums and string orchestra (created in June 2017 with Kremerata Baltica); 3 melodies for voice and piano; and a set of Toccatinas and Fugues for piano “Variations chorales.” My first big piece for solo piano I am just working on now.
PPM: Are you planning a tour to the US any time soon? LD: Not a tour per se, but I will be coming to the US with Martin Frost, Torleif Thedeen, and Janine Jansen to perform at Carnegie Hall on December 5th. It’s going to be a wonderful program – Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time (we just recorded it with Sony Classical, same team, should be released in November), Bartok’s (OBM) Contrasts, Szymanowski’s (OBM) Mythes…
And prior to this, I am very much looking forward to playing the program of my new album – Schubert and Szymanowski – in Chicago on November 19th!
PPM: Thank you, Lucas! We are looking forward to welcoming you in the US.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
There are many ways to deliver an piano performance. Playing as a duo is one of them. The fans of the piano world have seen and heard a number of interesting and intriguing duos that bring a different dynamic to perception of performing a piano piece. With this interview of delightful Greg Anderson (MGBH) and Liz Roe (MGBH), our magazine is introducing a new section titled “The Piano Duo.” We look forward to your comments and are open to suggestions for future interviews.
PPM: What gave you an idea to create a duo vs. perform as soloists? LIZ: We initially met at Freshman Orientation at Juilliard—we were actually living on the same floor in the dorm! A close friendship and mutual respect quickly developed, and when musicians are friends, the natural tendency is to play together. The very first time we sight-read together there was an instant musical alchemy. We gave our duo recital debut at Juilliard during our junior year; we had such an exhilarating time onstage and it was a resounding success with the audience, our friends, and our teachers. From that point onward, we felt inspired to continue our duo pursuits. It also became clear that we shared the desire to energize and re-imagine the presentation of classical music. GREG: Yes, it was absolutely electric the first time we ever read duo music together. The music we were sight-reading was notoriously difficult to synchronize exactly, and we were perfectly together. We weren’t even focusing on synchronization! That same innate sense of musical timing (or is it “mind reading”?) has followed us throughout our career; we rarely spend rehearsal time on the basics of ensemble.
I think the success of our duo is due to three factors: our friendship, this innate musical chemistry between the two of us, and our shared mission for music’s role in society. We’ve now been playing professionally for 15 years. As great friends, we feel so fortunate to be making music together for a living. That said, we still perform as soloists, and we’ve both released solo albums in the past couple years.
I think the success of our duo is due to three factors: our friendship, this innate musical chemistry between the two of us, and our shared mission for music’s role in society.
LIZ: Yes, our solo pursuits certainly continue to inform our duo approach: in honoring our individual artistic and personal identities, we find that our collaboration feels all the more dynamic.
PPM: How do you pick your repertoire? GREG: Liz and I strive for variety in our programs — specifically, a musical diversity that reflects the variety of life. Joyful and sad, profound and silly, aggressive and dreamy: we aim to capture it all. Although we perform a lot of our own arrangements, our programs almost always include some music written originally for two pianos. We like the variety of style and perspective that these compositions offer our programs. LIZ: Because we value variety in our programming, we’ve pushed the boundaries of what can be performed in a classical concert: now it is totally natural for us to pair a masterwork from the standard classical repertoire with a contemporary pop hit cover. These juxtapositions stem from our belief that great music is great music, regardless of genre, style, etc. In that sense, we are not attached to labels; what matters about music is not what “category” it belongs to, but rather its impact—if it moves, excites, soothes, enlightens, or uplifts you. GREG: In the end, our aim is to captivate the audience with music of divine transcendence and wild, acrobatic pianism. We serve our music piping hot with an unhealthy dose of adrenaline, 2-4 servings of sexual tension, and a dash of the unexpected…
PPM: Where were you born and where did you grow up? LIZ: I was born and raised in Chicago. GREG: I’m from rural Minnesota.
PPM: What/Who affected your choice of becoming a musician? LIZ:From a very early age, I was surrounded by classical music, on the radio, through recordings, and in live concerts. My family is full of music lovers and amateur musicians, so music always felt like such an essential part of life to me. From my first lesson at age six, the piano felt so natural to play, and I was entranced by the instrument’s vast palette of sounds. GREG: I first started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old — my parents wanted my brothers and me to be well-rounded individuals, and we were all required to take at least three years of musical instruction. I fell in love with the piano and classical music instantly, and from then on, I don’t ever recall feeling like there was a choice; I always knew I’d be a musician. It felt so innate to me.
PPM: Tell us about your path to and at Julliard: what led you to this school and what was it like being a student there? LIZ: A pivotal event occurred when I was 13 years old; I won the IBLA International Piano Competition in Italy, resulting in concerts at notable venues like Steinway Hall in New York and Salle Cortot in Paris, which exposed me to the life of a performer. In addition to my piano studies and performances, I was an avid academic student as well and seriously considered non-conservatory schools. However, choosing Juilliard felt like the natural next step on the pathway to a career in music, and as soon as I arrived I realized how inspiring it was to be surrounded by such incredible artists and the galvanizing energy of New York. I had an extraordinary experience due to my brilliant peers and teachers. GREG: Before even auditioning at the school, I was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of Juilliard students, and I knew that it was a world in which I wanted to be immersed. My childhood teacher of 11 years, Kim Craig (MGBH), prepared me well for college. She would work with me intensively for hours every week—sometimes as many as eight hours per week—and she would attend all of my out-of-state rehearsals, performances, and competitions. This devotion made all the difference. Not only did this afford us time to work in great detail, but also it provided incredible training for Juilliard, the concert stage, and life. Life as a Juilliard student was a bit magical, almost like being a student at Hogwarts. We were living in a rarified world, devoting our lives to beauty, honing our crafts, and living and breathing music. We were lucky. GREG & LIZ: Here are a few of our favorite things about our time spent at The Juilliard School:
The palpable excitement and energy in the air
The colorful personalities of our classmates
The colorful personalities of the faculty
The massive, well-stocked, and browser-friendly library
The incredible performing opportunities offered to the student body
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens 😉
The location: Lincoln Center!
The tight-knit, supportive community
The convenience of the dorms to the classrooms (you can wake up five minutes before class and still be on time)
The opportunity to meet awesome musical partners-in-crime
The location: Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Whole Foods, and great nightlife are just blocks away.
PPM: What was your first music video and what inspired you to make it? LIZ: We had no promotional objective in making our first videos; we made them simply because we wanted to. (In fact, everything we do—our performances, arrangements, videos, recordings, social media, websites, writings, etc.—comes from our shared passion for creativity and adventure, and beyond that, to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.) Both of us are highly visual people who like to delve into uncharted territory, so we were interested in exploring the artistic potential of classical music videos. I grew up watching a lot of pop/rock music videos on MTV so I was particularly influenced by this aesthetic, but Greg (MGBH) and I have drawn inspiration from many additional sources: film, all forms of art, the music itself, and our own vivid imaginations! GREG: We filmed our first music video (Piazzolla’s Libertango) in a classroom at Yale, where I was a student at the time. It was the only venue we could get into, and though a classroom doesn’t necessarily scream “tango!,” the misalignment forced us to think creatively. We concocted a narrative in which I fall asleep during science class and daydream about a lustful interaction with my classmate…PPM: Did you ever consider a profession other than a pianist prior to going to Julliard? LIZ: I’ve always had broad interests (mainly in the humanities) so I did consider other professions, but in my heart I knew music—in any shape or form—was my calling. GREG: I considered a career as a material scientist and was on the math and science teams in high school, but I always knew music was my world.PPM: What were your favorite composers in your early teen years and how did your preferences change as you matured? LIZ: I’ve always seemed to possess an innate affinity for lyrical and expressive music, so I would say I was drawn to the Romantics in my early teen years. I was also obsessed with Glenn Gould (OBM) at that time and thus loved Bach (OBM) from early on. Beethoven (OBM) has been another consistent favorite, as well as the Beatles! Over time I’ve developed a passion for chamber music, music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and music that is off the beaten path, like Britten’s Piano Concerto and Field’s Nocturnes (both of which I’ve recorded in recent years). From Messiaen (OBM) to Miles Davis (OBM), I’ve always had a diverse musical palette! GREG: I’ve always loved exploring music of different genres and styles. In my early teens, I started going to libraries to check out music by composers of whom I’d never heard, and I’d sight read the scores at home. I remember my local library wouldn’t allow me to check out more than 45 books at once, and so I’d always have 45 library scores sitting beside the piano. I carry that same sense of curiosity to this day! That said, I’ve never fallen out of love with Mozart.PPM: How often do you practice together and how much time do you practice separately? LIZ: Honestly, we don’t have a discernible practice routine these days — our schedule has become quite varied and unpredictable. While we’re on tour, traveling takes up much of our time; we also spend countless hours working on creative projects like our music videos and arrangements. That said, we aim to practice as regularly as possible (ideally on a daily basis!). As for duo rehearsals, we make sure to schedule a substantial period of time together immediately preceding our tours, and we try to take advantage of any rehearsal time on the road.
PPM: What is the process of a program preparation for you? GREG: We devote ourselves obsessively to the planning of recital programs. We believe that the selection of repertoire significantly affects the listening experience, and we work hard to take advantage of this. Obviously with our programs, we consider factors such as variety, cohesion, mood, our audience, etc., but we value the sequence of music and its effect on the listening experience: creative repertoire juxtapositions can especially help novice listeners hear music in a new light! For example, when we pair popular songs by Schubert (OBM) and the Beatles (or even Taylor Swift (MGBH)!), we place Schubert’s songs in a new context, and audiences may come to realize how similar these 200-year-old songs are to the popular music of today. Likewise, the dance music of Michael Jackson (OBM) isn’t so different from the popular dances by Liszt (OBM). Recital programming is just another avenue for us to realize our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.
PPM: Back at the beginning of June you were hosting the webcast of Cliburn Piano Competition. What was this experience like for you? GREG: Hosting the Cliburn Competition was an incredible, though taxing, experience. We were so impressed with the pianism, and even more so, by the extent to which the 30 pianists shared their souls with their listeners (we went through more than one box of kleenex!). And from our point of view, we really appreciated the platform to further our mission; we were able to discuss, very specifically, just how relevant this repertoire can be in the 21st century to millions of viewers. LIZ: It was also an exhilarating challenge to dive into the world of live broadcasting: it was high-wire act of timing, research, speaking, improvisation, diplomacy, and cooperation. (And fashion, naturally.) Instead of being in our normal element onstage, it was fascinating to be involved behind the scenes and to have the privilege of interviewing some of the most prominent figures in the classical music world. The Cliburn and Medici TV teams were an absolute joy to work with (we felt like a family by the end!), and it was of course thrilling to actively engage with piano-lovers worldwide on a daily basis through our on-camera commentary and our social media feeds.
PPM: Do you have favorite performance venues? LIZ: Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center will always have a special place in our hearts, thanks to our Juilliard days. The legacy and energy of these venues are incomparable. GREG: In addition to beautiful concert halls throughout the States, Asia, and Europe, we’ve also had a blast playing in more intimate venues: for example, we’ve put on shows in club-like spaces, and we also periodically present “musical mixology” concerts that feature craft cocktail pairings (created by yours truly!) with pieces of music.
PPM: I would like to address an issue of worshipping musicians and composers that Greg mentioned during the Chicago talk. This indeed has been one of the problems in classical music for centuries – blind reverence of the performer and the composer vs. enjoyment of classical music and using it as a tool for elevation of consciousness. A musician, after all, is just a spiritual channel to the sound vibrations. And depending on their level of spirituality, he or she is able to attract and produce high or low level vibrations reflected in the quality of music compositions. What, in your opinion, is one of the ways to remove or, at least reduce, this “idolatry” element from the classical music tradition? GREG: We want our audiences to be active participants in the concert experience. An invested listener won’t be nearly as affected by blind reverence, since they’re actively making the music their own! We created a “Listening Manifesto,” in part to encourage listeners to invest themselves more fully in the concert experience and to deepen their enjoyment of the music. LIZ: While we can and should acknowledge the superhuman achievements of great composers and performers, we must remember the underlying humanity of these individuals, and that their creative output is a powerful expression of our shared humanity.
PPM: With your performances, you are making the art of piano performance highly interactive vs. entertaining the passive listener. From filming on college campus in Midland, TX to performing on the street. How does the aspect of interactivity, in your opinion, affect the audience’s perception of music? GREG: We want our audiences to feel the music more deeply and more personally than ever before. We’re always asking ourselves, “How can we make the music come alive?” and “How we make the music relevant to our listeners?”
Bringing music to life involves far more than just “playing the piano.” Many external forces affect our perception of music, from our listeners’ emotional state to the venue, in which we are performing. With this in mind, we do our best to align these external forces in our favor. Sometimes this means we choose to burn pianos in our music videos, wear provocative clothing onstage, compose fiery arrangements of pop music, or, otherwise, spice up the music listening experience. But in the end, everything we do as artists is in service of the music we perform and our audience’s reaction to it. LIZ: In this postmodern age, the audience is an essential part of the artistic experience. We don’t create or perform in a vacuum; in a performance we’re shaping and responding to our environment and context, of which the audience’s active engagement plays a pivotal role. And if you didn’t catch it before, be sure to check out our “Listening Manifesto” (http://www.andersonroe.com/listening-manifesto/)!
PPM: What are you looking forward to accomplishing this upcoming year with your piano performances? GREG: We’re premiering several new works, including our very own Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos and Orchestra and Danse Macabre: Bacchanal for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Violin.
PPM: Please, tell us about your CD recordings. Do you have any releases coming out? LIZ: We do have a new release on the horizon! We’re thrilled to be in the editing stages of our latest album – Mother Muse. Mothers represent a whole spectrum of attributes, both mythic and uniquely personal: they can be forces of nature and nurturing, guidance and inspiration, patience and strength, and, of course, love: profound, fierce, unconditional. Mother Muse features musical compositions that pay tribute to the diverse aspects of motherhood, from the sacred (“Ave Maria”) to the saucy (“Mrs. Robinson”), and everything in between. GREG: In addition to the album coming out next spring, we have all-Mozart (OBM) and all-Bach albums, as well as an album of night songs arranged for piano duo (When Words Fade) and a DVD release of our music film, The Rite of Spring: A Musical Odyssey.
PPM: Do you have a favorite piano piece that you like playing together over and over? GREG: Brahms’ (OBM) Variations on a Theme by Haydn (OBM), which Brahms originally composed for two pianos, is noble and grand; it’s one of our favorite pieces ever composed, and notably, it was the first piece we ever performed together as a duo. We’ve performed it hundreds of times since, and it’s never gotten old. LIZ: I’d add the gorgeously evocative Rachmaninoff (OBM) Suite No. 1 and our cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (in which we rock out!).
PPM: What are your hobbies outside piano? LIZ: Music (listening, creating, singing) and silence, reading and writing, food and film, drawing and museums, traveling and exploration, nature and inspiration, the silly and sublime. GREG: Playing piano, piano recital programming, hanging out, piano, film, reading, piano, astronomy, composing, design, art, piano, politics, music, hiking, mixology, cooking, wine tasting, traveling, playing the piano. Also: playing the piano.
PPM: Do you have siblings? Please, tell us a little about your family. LIZ: I have two sisters. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of music-lovers so they are all very supportive of my career. My mother’s side is particularly musical: my mother played the violin and conducted during her school days, and I have an aunt who is a cello teacher in Seoul and another aunt who teaches piano in the DC area. Both of my sisters are also musically talented and became accomplished at their instruments: my older sister on violin and my younger sister on cello. GREG: I have two brothers: an older and a younger brother. We had a wholesome upbringing in rural Minnesota, where we lived across from a farm. My parents both grew up on farms.
PPM: What are your favorite places to visit? GREG: It’s all about the food! LIZ: Yes! We love to visit (and perform in) places with access to delicious food, but also extraordinary history and culture: London, Tokyo, Rome, Montreal, to name a few. My personal travel favorites include Paris, the English countryside, Iceland, Hawaii, and Switzerland. GREG: I’d add China and Spain… Plus, New Zealand is absolutely magical; in fact, we have a 10-city concert tour there next spring, and we can’t wait!
PPM: What cuisine/food/restaurant do you like the most? LIZ: Virtually all cuisines. Pasta, pizza, fruits and veggies, fresh fish, all kinds of tea, dessert. A really delicious brunch also hits the spot. GREG: Unhealthy: pasta and cheese. Healthy: salads (with dark greens, please!), artichoke hearts, avocados, tofu. Mmmm.
PPM: What are your thoughts on classical music in the XXIst century? LIZ: Classical music has been undergoing a significant shift in identity and presentation. Since we started our careers over a decade ago, we’ve witnessed numerous changes, challenges, and developments within the industry. Audiences desire a more personalized and less formal approach to the music.
We didn’t start with the goal to “change” classical music per se; from the beginning, we’ve aimed to be true to ourselves and to the music we love, which in turn allows us to create with freedom and communicate with sincerity. In re-imagining music from the pop world, we’re not only striving to keep the genre relevant, but we’re also paying homage to composers like Beethoven and Liszt, who did something similar centuries ago with folk and operatic music. We—and many of our contemporaries—find value in blurring the lines between genre as a reflection of our multicultural, heterogenous world, but also because great music transcends categorization. To that end, we reap inspiration from the creativity and showmanship of pop and rock musicians, as well as the artistry of dancers, actors, visual artists, and more.
In doing all this, our ultimate intention is to channel the immensity of the human experience through music and to elicit a heightened sense of joy, curiosity, and wonder in others. Classical music has the power to do that, and I believe that’s why it persists as a cornerstone of our civilization, no matter how much times change.
I think social media will continue to transform classical music in the 21st century. The Internet makes classical music so much more accessible, whether it be through music videos, behind-the-scenes looks into musicians’ lives, or interactions with likeminded individuals.
GREG: I think social media will continue to transform classical music in the 21st century. The Internet makes classical music so much more accessible, whether it be through music videos, behind-the-scenes looks into musicians’ lives, or interactions with likeminded individuals.
As we’ve said repeatedly, it is our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society, and our social media projects are naturally an important part of this mission. Social media allows us to showcase the joyous, surprising, and life-changing potential of classical music to audiences far, far beyond the standard concert halls. The content we create for social media—whether it be our music videos, listening tips, or cocktail recipes—ultimately serves our mission and amplifies the listening experience for our fans, but we’ve found that it enhances our performances as well, causing us to interact with our music from fresh and unique points of view. We savor all opportunities to exist in the same creative space as the music we love so much!
Classical music is a creative, living art form, and we look forward to watching our successors adapt and transform the field to suit the needs of the 21st century.
PPM: If you were to conduct a reform in music education, what would be the one thing you would change? LIZ: I’d start with accessibility. Music education should definitely be more readily available to everyone regardless of socioeconomic factors. We both grew up with music education classes in our public schools, and I think music and the arts should be considered just as important as athletic programs here in the States. GREG: Music (and all the arts, for that matter) is an amazing tool to help young people develop creativity and imagination—skills that are increasingly necessary in our changing world. I want to see MORE music programs in schools!
PPM: Who is your role model and why? GREG: I’m limiting my answer to purely pianists here, for the sake of brevity:
I greatly admire the spontaneity of the Romantic era pianists: Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin (OBM), Clara Schumann (OBM), etc. From what I’ve read, their concerts were wild affairs, filled with surprises, destroyed pianos, new music, improvisations, and humor. The list goes on… Shura Cherkassky (OBM) (I’d want to learn the secrets to his beautiful tone) and Ignaz Friedman (OBM) (because he’s awesome). Among my favorite living pianists is Alexandre Toradze (MGBH). He becomes a dragon at the piano; he breathes inspiration and personality and fire! LIZ: There are too many pianists whom I admire, but I’m especially inspired by Alfred Cortot’s (OBM) imaginative and poetic approach to playing; Glenn Gould (OBM)’s riveting iconoclasm and hunger for artistic expression beyond the concert stage; Martha Argerich’s (MGBH) organic, instinctive, and mesmerizing connection to the instrument; and Grigory Sokolov (MGBH)’s fascinating artistry and fierce devotion to this craft.
PPM: Would you share some funny stories that happened to you during your tours/performances/music video recordings? LIZ: As you can tell from our videos, Greg and I can get very physical at the piano, especially while we’re playing four-hand music. Once Greg was a bit too physical; during a performance of our “Libertango” arrangement, he actually elbowed me in the face! I was dazed by the accidental blow, but I kept going; meanwhile Greg kept looking at me with this terribly guilty expression. Thankfully, intermission immediately followed, so I could ice my face before the second half!
Once Greg was a bit too physical; during a performance of our “Libertango” arrangement, he actually elbowed me in the face! I was dazed by the accidental blow, but I kept going; meanwhile Greg kept looking at me with this terribly guilty expression. Thankfully, intermission immediately followed, so I could ice my face before the second half!
GREG: Often our concerts sell out, and in such instances, the venues often add stage seating. In one very special performance, there were an additional 60 audience members seated on stage with us. While we were performing Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, a young girl in the front vomited everywhere, including on the legs of the pianos! The audience gasped, and we had to take a break to clean up the mess.
PPM: We’d like to thank you for an interview and give you many blessings in delighting audiences with your electrifying performances!
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
In recent years, Florence Price (OBM), described as “something of a mystery (1),” is beginning to emerge as an American composer of important contributions. One can gather from many online sources that Price was the first African American female composer to have a major symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra – the Chicago Symphony. Therefore, at a first glance, it appears that Price achieved major success in her career by reaching this important milestone. However, upon closer examination, once can see that her musical path was paved with obstacles and struggles.
Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Florence Price, née Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 to parents of French, Spanish, English, Indian, and “Negro” heritage (2). Despite her white bloodline, her African roots inadvertently “tainted” her chances of substantial success in the classical music world. It may be argued that she had already achieved success with the performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, however, many have ignored the fact that the performance took place on World Fair Day and not a regular season series concert, hence, her work still hovered on the periphery of the dominant white world. Towards the end of her life, she wrote to a friend in Atlanta after having struggled to secure a concert engagement for 20 years, “I have finally learned that the successful ones amongst us are usually recognized by us only after the white man has put his stamp of approval on us (3).”
Price was first taught the piano by her mother and had her first composition published at age 11. Her musical talent was recognized early. Growing up in a household where the cream of travelling African American artists and intelligentsia often frequented, she had broad exposure to the arts world since childhood. World travelling pianist Blind Boone (OBM) was once a houseguest of the Smiths and reportedly showed interest in hearing Florence play. Florence continued her tertiary education at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, majoring in piano and organ as well as studying composition. She was one of the very few students with a double major and graduated with honors in 1906. In her year, a mere 58 students out of 2000 graduated, and she was the only student who pursued two degrees. At NEC, she was selected to play at various important concerts, and the repertoire she performed showcased her as a highly skilled organist and pianist. However, after graduation she did not stay in Boston to pursue a performing career, but returned to the South where she became a teacher of music. Later, between 1910-1912, she headed the Music Department of Clark University in Atlanta. In her personal life, she met her husband Thomas J. Price (OBM), an attorney with a career of promise.
After a few years of settling in the South and raising a family with two daughters in Little Rock, she started experiencing escalated racial tension. The White American Music Teachers Association turned down her applications to join the society. With lynching and segregation laws being implemented, the movement evoked a massive ‘migration,’ some 6 million African Americans emigrated north. As the racial segregation situation worsened, the Prices moved the whole family to Chicago to escape from the brutal situation down south. In Chicago, Florence’s career was able to flourish. She mingled among the most gifted and influential African American social circles. The support led to more compositions despite leading a busy life. Invitations flowed in, including lectures on rare instruments for the Chicago Music Association. However, Florence’s husband suffered from the Great Depression and lost many clients. His law firm and client lists dwindled, and facing increasing financial difficulties, he became abusive towards Florence. Inevitably, she had to divorce him to lead a single mother life with her two daughters. Being the sole breadwinner of the family meant that she had to work as much as possible to provide for the household. Her various jobs included being the organist for silent film screenings. It is important to note that this was a position tailored for white musicians, in a theatre with predominantly white audiences. Thus, Florence must have been hired for her skills. Other jobs included running a large private piano studio at home and publishing her own teaching pieces to supplement her income as well as composing songs for radio under a pen name.
During a period when she broke her foot, she was forced to stay at home and rest. With more time on her hands, she devoted time to compose her first symphony. Despite her injury, the time she had for composing this large-scale work proved to be a fortuitous turning point in her career. She entered two compositions – her Symphony in E minor and Piano Sonata – into a competition hosted by the Wanamaker Foundation. Out of a total of $1, 000 awards, her Symphony won first prize of $500 and the Piano Sonata won the 3rd prize of $250. This very success garnered attention of Frederic Stock (OBM), the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time, who thought very highly of her work and decided to program her symphony. In 1940, following the accolades she received for her composition at this performance, she was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Aside from composing large-scale works such as symphonies, sonatas, and concertos, Price was an avid arranger of spirituals. Delving into her heritage for musical inspiration, she utilized elements of African American music in her compositions. Her 3rd Symphony, for example, is written in the Juba dance style, of West African heritage. Not only did Price arrange spirituals, she also incorporated them into her compositions. The second movement of her piano sonata for example, is a poignant movement and uses elements of spirituals as a basis of the musical language. It is a known fact that Antonin Dvořák (OBM) recognized the importance of incorporating ‘folk’ or ‘common people’ elements into Western classical art music, and he once predicted that spirituals would become the basis of American compositions.
Leading African American musicians including Marian Anderson (OBM) and Leontyne Price (OBM) performed her works in public concerts, during national events, and on radio. Her Piano Concerto gained the support of Frederic Stock again, who conducted the premiere of her piano concerto with her student and Margaret Bond (OBM) as a soloist. In the 1950s, Sir John Barbirolli (OBM), director of the Halle Orchestra in England, asked her to write a work made up of spirituals, which is a testament of how well- regarded her compositions were. Other ensembles, which performed her other works included the U.S. Marine Band, the Pittsburg Symphony, the New York City Symphonic Band, and the Michigan Symphony. For a period, she wrote using the pseudo name of Vee Jay, which, perhaps, gives us a hint of her fear of rejection due to her ethnical heritage if her real name is recognized. A particular work, At the Cotton Gin was published by Schirmer (OBM). A thorough examination of her correspondence reveals, however, that while she did receive praise for some of her works, it was at times difficult to have all of her submitted compositions published. Having received her formal musical education in Boston, she especially lamented being rejected by Serge Koussevitzky (OBM), the music director of the Boston Symphony, who turned a blind eye to her plead to look at her scores. She wrote, “I’m a woman and I have Negro blood in my veins,” (5) and she understood that race and gender were her two ‘handicaps’, limiting her path to wider success.
Despite rejection by some American organizations, she did receive recognition from key figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt (OBM), who recognized her contribution in 1933 after attending the World’s Fair concert in Chicago. In 1953, she received a letter from Clayton F. Summy Co. music publishers, which referred to her works as ‘attractive’ and that they ‘hope to see more of [her] compositions. Valter Poole (OBM), conductor of the Michigan Symphony Orchestra was “very interested and quite anxious to do something from [her] pen.” She appeared at the NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) Convention in Chicago, and attendees were referred to as the “Finest Music Talent In the Country.” Rae Linda Brown (OBM), a scholar of Price’s work, remarked in Drew Magazine, 2011 that Price was “a piece of African-American history, a very important piece of history.”
To this day, Florence Price is far from being a household name. Along with her counterpart, the African American composer William Grant Still (OBM), also from Little Rock, their works are still awaiting to be widely recognized. Price’s lively piano teaching pieces for children with animated titles such as ‘Tip-Toe To the Cookie Jar,’ ‘Pop Corn,’ ‘Washing Machine,’ and ‘Criss Cross’ would appeal to children who could relate the music to their everyday lives. Many of these pieces are still relatively unknown in piano pedagogical circles. Among these, a short teaching piece, “The Goblin and the Mosquito”, written for the elementary level pianist is a great study of hand coordination, yet containing varied thematic material. Works available online are few and far between and to date, and many of these compositions are still unpublished. Her Piano Concerto, with the complete score lost since the 1940s, was reconstructed in 2011 by composer Trevor Weston (MGBH) with a commission from Center for Black Music Research. It received a premiere by Dr. Karen Walwyn (MGBH), a devotee of Price’s music. Yet, her compositions including her violin concertos and numerous other works, would be a very welcome addition to the American art music repertoire.
The compositions of Florence Price deserve much closer attention and recognition from classical music circles. The story of her life is a courageous and heroic one, with her having upheld herself as a strong willed, capable, and independent woman living in challenging times of the history of the United States. Traditionally, female composers have always been outnumbered by male composers, and being a female African American composer is a rarity. Her efforts and perseverance to break down the invisible walls, inch by inch, are still very much relevant today.
(1) “Price, Florence Beatrice Smith (1887-1953) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” www.blackpast.org/aah/price-florence-beatrice-smith-1887-1953.
(2) Gordon, Ashleigh. “The Life and Music of Florence Price: An Interview with Rae Linda Brown.” AAIHS, www.aaihs.org/the-life-and-music-of-florence-price-an-interview-with-rae-linda-brown/. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.
(3) Hann, Christopher. “The Lost Concerto | Drew Today | Drew University.” Drew Today, 2011, www.drew.edu/news/2016/04/21/the-lost-concerto-2. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.
Enjoyed the article? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
About The Author:
Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong. She has recently been appointed as Senior Lecturer of Music (Piano) at United International College, China.
The inflexible and automatic knowledge gained through repetition is the foundation of expert performance. A warning has to be issued, however. The learning brain does not distinguish between good and poor habits, but learns whatever we repeat. Repetition creates permanence, and habits are difficult to correct. In particular, it is essential to pay attention to rhythmic accuracy as rhythmic patterns are robustly set in the memory and difficult to alter once in place.
Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Inexperienced learners struggle with the discipline required for repetition and get lulled into a false sense of mastery when they judge themselves as having played a passage reasonably well. Without sufficient repetition, however, the learning soon unravels. It’s best for teachers to practice in front of students, modeling the “how” of repetition, and give young musicians a specific number of repetitions to aim for in their practice. As students become more mature learners, they regulate repetition, depending on the complexity of the passage. Experts repeat short passages of music again and again.
Most musicians stop repeating when they play a passage correctly, but it is crucial that they keep repeating after this point. Brain connections strengthen and consolidate with myelin, a substance that insulates the axon of a neuron; it is known as the white matter of the brain. Myelin development seems to be a key for learning and maintaining skills because it increases the speed and accuracy of data transmission. Myelin formation is more important than the number of neurons in the brain. Albert Einstein’s (OBM) brain, for example, had no more neurons than the average brain, but it had twice as much myelin. Experts have more myelin build-up on the neural circuits pertinent to their domain than do non-experts. In 2005, a Swedish professor found a positive correlation between myelin development and the number of hours professional pianists practiced. Myelin is a product of activity and is one aspect of brain plasticity, a term that refers to physical changes in the brain.
Brain plasticity includes an increase in myelination and an increase in the number of connections between neurons. In musical learning, increasing repetition of a phrase after one plays it correctly builds myelin, which supports consistent and accurate performance.
“The amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he cannot get it wrong”. – Stephen Hillier (MGBH)
The amateur stops repeating when he gets it right. The professional repeats well after to consolidate the myelin coating of the axon sheath. – Michael Griffin
It is common to confuse temporary performance effects with long-term learning. The teacher or parent may mistake the phrase “but I played it better yesterday” as a white lie, and the student might be disillusioned because he or she will think the blocks of repetition should have been sufficient for more permanent learning.
There are two issues here. First, even with spaced repetition, the consolidation process takes time. We cannot predict how much repetition it will take to master a skill, but human nature almost always underestimates this. If a passage a student thought he or she learned yesterday is a muddle today, the student must repeat the repetition process. Try not to be despondent. This is a natural part of acquiring skill. Memories do not just form at the point of learning, so it may take several sittings for neural connections to become strong. Some people seem to learn faster than others, but learning is not a race, and we are all capable of complex skill development through repetition. It may take one person six hundred repetitions over two weeks to consolidate a phrase, while it may take someone else only three hundred repetitions in one week. Students must learn to be patient and trust in the power of repetition.
Blocked and Spaced Repetition
Recently I was watching television when a commercial break interrupted my program. Commercials are annoying at best, but this set of five commercial spots really got under my skin. This is because one of the commercials played three times, not in a row, but with a different commercial in between. Just when I had forgotten it, back it came to haunt me. And I thought rondo form was just a musical concept!
A B A C A
The repeated commercial A was deliberately interspersed with other commercials. The arrangement was cleverly designed to make me forget and retrieve, and I found it difficult to dislodge the commercial from my attention for some time afterward. I had to acknowledge that this marketing technique was really successful. I had “learned” the commercial. I turned this irritant to my advantage.
A German psychologist – Hermann Ebbinghaus (OBM) – famously revealed the “forgetting curve”, proposing that students forget 90 percent of what they learn within thirty days. Further to this disheartening finding, the most significant memory loss occurs within the first hour. A memory becomes more robust when the information is repeated in timed intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better for learning, and the more spaces between the repetitions, better again.
Imagine, you have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided on three passages on which to work. How would you distribute this amount of time? You could practice the target passages in three blocks consecutively.
The first method is referred to as blocked repetition. The second, like the television commercial example, is known as spaced repetition.
Blocked repetition refers to sticking to a single practice task until it is effectively learned, then progressing to the next learning task. Spaced repetition switches between different tasks during the course of a single practice session. In both methods, one encounters the same material for the same amount of overall time, but as with the distributed practice concept, spacing the repetitions exposes one to learning the task repeatedly over a longer time span.
Blocked repetition is a useful technique for introducing new skills to create a foundation. It is effective for beginners as it allows them to concentrate on a single task. Even for advanced musicians, very difficult passages require a single focus and attention that might be disrupted if one switches frequently between tasks. However, blocked repetition requires the intense engagement of the learner. If concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate. It is essential to remain attentive and fully alert during practice.
Provided that the practice time is not restricted and that the learner has the metacognitive ability to determine practice goals, spaced repetition is more effective than blocked repetition. Varying practice tasks frequently creates interference, which leads to a degree of forgetting. As with distributed practice, the benefits of spaced repetition relate to stronger memory formation due to the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When one revisits learning material a neural reconstruction takes place leaving a deeper impression on the brain.
Spaced repetition can be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are worth this extra effort. Marketing teams and musical learners use spaced repetition, as do professional athletes. For example, golfers are required to play shots of varying distances. Whereas blocked repetition drills require a golfer to hit many consecutive balls to one distance marker before practicing another distance. Spaced repetition alternates distance replicating the real demands on the golf course. In skill-based endeavors such as piano playing, drills can provide an illusion of competence. Most teachers have heard their students say, “But I could play it yesterday!”
Spaced repetition can work in concert with blocked repetition, so music teachers should model how a practice session might alternate between the two. Practice technique also should be modeled to students in ensemble rehearsals. In any given rehearsal, I aim to revisit the passages that require the most attention at least three times throughout the rehearsal. I answer initial squawks from students (“But we’ve already practiced that piece!”) by explaining the rationale behind spaced repetition. Teachers cannot expect students to integrate these learning concepts if they do not exhibit them in their own methodology.
An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin.
About the Author:
Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author, and pianist. He has delivered keynote presentations in about 270 conferences and schools in 25 countries. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition and intrinsic motivation.
Passion, raw excitement about the craft, and a surprising sense of humor is something we rarely encounter and expect from adult pianists. In fact, as we grow up, usually, the more excitement we display about something the more immature and childish we are perceived. Such display of emotion is usually frowned upon in society. But coming from children, however, it is welcomed and appreciated.Why is this so? Perhaps, watching display of excitement in children reminds us of something that we’ve lost – an innate appreciation of everything around us and pure enjoyment from doing what we love. Elias and Zion Phoenix -the long-haired twins from Florida – are sources of such inspiration for us, the grown up pianists. Here is a snapshot of their unusual story.
PPM: Does anyone in your family besides you and your brother play piano?
Elias&Zion:Yes, our mother plays piano although she never had any formal training in piano. She taught herself! She has a background in music as a french horn player.
PPM: Who was your first piano teacher? And whom do you study with at the moment? Elias: My first piano teacher was my mother. She’s amazing and I still study with her. I’ve had a couple other piano mentors and teachers. I currently study with Dr. Grigorios Zamparas (MGBH). Zion: My mom taught me how to play. She’s the one that got me interested in playing, she always played music around the house.
PPM: When did you first start playing piano?
Elias&Zion: We started playing piano when we were first exposed to one at around 3 years old. We started playing by ear and figuring out complex songs we had heard. Our mom noticed the songs we played were always in the correct pitch, and she realized we had a perfect pitch. She also noticed we really loved playing and performing. She then bought us each a baby grand piano and started giving us lessons around the age of 5.
PPM: Who are your favorite composers and why? What music do you like listening to?
Elias: Beethoven is one of my favorites because I feel like I can relate to him. Rachmaninoff has created some amazing pieces of work. I also like listening to people who, I think, interpret songs the way the composer intended. There is actually a sound recording of Rachmaninoff playing Piano Concerto No. 3, which is truly a work of art. Beethoven is amazing. I wish there were sound recordings of him playing some of his amazing concertos and sonatas. I also like classic rock and alternative artists such as Elton John (MGBH), Queen, Tori Amos (MGBH), and Beck (MGBH). I listen to a wide range of music.
Zion: Tchaikovsky (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Rachmaninoff (OBM), Albert Ammons (OBM), Tori Amos (MGBH), Cat Stevens (MGBH), and Elton John (MGBH), to name a few. Currently, I’m really enjoying Jethro Tull (MGBH)’s music.
PPM: Do you compose your own music?
Zion: Yes, I’ve been composing all kinds of music since I was very young. I write Alternative, Classical, and all different types of music. I write songs all the time.
PPM: Have you done any recordings so far and are you working on any? Elias: No, but I am planning on recording a piano album. Zion: Not on piano yet, but I put together a compilation of my original songs in an album called “My World At 9 Years”, where I sing and play all the instruments. I recorded it all by myself. I was young and had no experience recording so it sounded pretty amateur as I had a lot to learn then. Now, I’m working on recording my next album of original songs called “My World at 10 Years.” You can look for it soon on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, etc.
People can mess with your brain, and it can drive you insane
You think that you know all the answers but it just doesn’t pay
Just think for yourself, you don’t need any help
The inside of you knows exactly what to do
Keep away the monster, imposter, he’ll exhaust you, he’ll cost you
He’ll drown you, he’ll hound you, bind you, bound you,
Break free of the chains, it’ll renew your brain, and your spirit flies high like a bird in the sky!
– Lyrics from Zion Phoenix’ Song “The Know-It-All”
PPM: Do you play piano every day? If so, how much? Elias&Zion: We don’t have a schedule, but I play every day.
Elias: The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was really special, because it was my first big venue. I was so proud and excited that when I was done, I went in the streets of New York City telling everyone I saw that I had just played at Carnegie Hall!!!
PPM: What have been your favorite recital venues so far? Do you have any interesting stories to share about them? Elias: There was something amazing about every venue I have performed at. Every time I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall was great. The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was really special, because it was my first big venue. I was so proud and excited that when I was done, I went in the streets of New York City telling everyone I saw that I had just played at Carnegie Hall!!! I happened to bump right into Brandon Stanton (MGBH) from the Humans of New York blog, and he asked if he could take my picture. We didn’t even know who he was and had never heard of the blog, but my Mom said yes. It turned out the picture he took of me right after performing at Carnegie Hall was popular on his blog, and he put it in his NY Times #1 bestselling book last year, Humans Of New York: Stories, page 363. So, that amazing night is sort of encapsulated in that one picture that is now in a bestselling book, and that’s really special to me. The Segerstrom Center was great because it was a sold-out concert, and I received a standing ovation. At the historic Balboa Theater, I also received a standing ovation, and it was sold-out, but I loved the Balboa Theatre because I got to see my name in lights. The Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where we filmed the audition for America’s Got Talent, was really special, it felt great to perform for the judges and felt amazing when the audience leapt to their feet. All of the venues I’ve played are great, and I feel honored to have performed in 11 different countries. Zion: Carnegie Hall, America’ s Got Talent, and the Ellen Show’s Studio were all really special to me. I love performing at nursing homes. We’ve had some great experiences with the patients who have gotten up to dance or taken part in making music, and those are really special memories. I also love street performing. My brother and I spent hours performing on a street piano across from the Eiffel Tower entertaining people. I love impromptu performing.
Zion: I also love street performing. My brother and I spent hours performing on a street piano across from the Eiffel Tower entertaining people. I love impromptu performing.
PPM: When was your first TV interview? Elias: My first interview was on ABC Action News. Zion: My first interview was when I was 7 years old on a news station. It was so fun. It was my first experience seeing a professional film crew and how interviews are done and seeing myself on TV later!
PPM: What makes you more nervous: performing on stage or giving live interviews, if at all? Elias: I never get nervous. I pride myself on that. Zion: None really, but if I had to pick one, probably live interviews, because you never know what they might ask you!
PPM: Why did you decide to apply to America’s Got Talent and what was the process like for you? I have read that you withdrew from the Judge Cut competition. Why? Elias: We just saw the show and thought it would be cool if we auditioned. So, we auditioned, and it was so exciting when we got to go before the judges and got 4 yes’s! It was a great experience, and I wish we had been able to participate in the Judges’ Cuts, but we had a prior commitment in Germany during that time. I still regret it. Zion: We just thought it would be fun to audition, so we went to Orlando to try out. There were thousands and thousands of people there, and it took all day, but it was worth it. It was a long, but fun experience!
PPM: What have been your favorite places to travel so far and why? Elias: Taiwan is great, because everybody is so kind. England was great, too, and their tea was great. There was also this thing in English convenience stores called Fry’s Turkish delight, and it’s a rose-flavored Turkish delight covered in milk chocolate. I’m not a big fan of chocolate, but that Turkish delight was so good that it made me change my opinion. France is probably the best country I’ve ever been to. If I could buy a house anywhere in the whole entire world, it would be in Paris, France. The people were as sweet as the pastries and crepes they sold. The Eiffel Tower is awesome, too. France gave me a great feeling that I will never forget. Zion: Taiwan, because everyone was so nice there. But I also loved France, mainly because I got to eat my dessert first. London was really nice, I love their lifestyle! I enjoy getting to see cultures other than my own and observe how other people live. You know, I pretty much love any place I go. I love traveling and feel very lucky to have been able to travel to 11 different countries.
PPM: Do you have pets at home? Elias: Yes, we have German shepherds. German Shepherds tend to bond with one person, and a male that bonded with me is my favorite. He is the son of one of the 2016 world champions in Germany. His name is Leo, and he is a 3-year-old long-coat German Shepherd. He is like a big giant teddy bear. I sleep with him every night. He is the smartest dog I have ever known. He loves to play ball, and when he wants me to play with him, he finds a ball and nudges it to me. He is the best dog ever. We also have cats. The cat that bonded with me is an orange tabby named Teddy Graham. I have talked about him on Twitter, and many of my fans know about him. He is amazing. Leo and Teddy are the best pets ever. Zion: Yes, I have beautiful German Shepherds. The one I am closest to is named Maja. She is an adorable female long-haired German Shepard. I actually cried of happiness when I first got her. I really love all our pets.
PPM: What are your hobbies other than playing piano? Elias: I collect coins, and I have every type of coin of the twentieth century in a blue velvet box. I am also interested in creating visual effects, making videos with special effects and using CGI and creating 3d animation. Zion: I really like science, especially physics and astronomy. I also love ballet, art, photography, singing, guitar, dancing, and acting. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy writing music and I have also written a science book.
PPM: What is your favorite food? Elias: Grilled swordfish, pumpkin ravioli, chimichangas, burritos, lamb gyros, knishes, Crème Brûlée, and Fry’s Turkish Delight. One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving, because my mom makes the best food ever. Zion: My Mom’s vegan macaroni and cheese. I’ve been a vegan for about 2 years.
Elias: I really appreciate and love my fans. It’s a great feeling to know you have a group of supporters who are always behind you no matter what.
PPM: Do you like interacting with your audience? Please, give us examples if there are any when you had direct contact with your audience before or after a performance? Elias: I think music is a universal language. You can express emotions with music that you can’t express with words. I interact with my audience all the time through music. I also have a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram account where I interact with my fans as well. Sometimes, when I’m done doing a big show (like The Ellen Show, Little Big Shots, or something like that), we do something fun afterward to celebrate. For instance, sometimes when we’re done recording a show in Hollywood, we go to Universal Studios Hollywood. Sometimes, people come up to me and say they were in the audience and they loved my performance or they just saw me on TV. I really appreciate and love my fans. It’s a great feeling to know you have a group of supporters who are always behind you no matter what. Zion: Sometimes, after a show people from the audience will give me a thumbs up or they will come up to me and say “Good job!,” or something. People often recognize me from television and come up and say positive things to me. It’s really great to have people support and encourage me.
PPM: Do you speak or are you learning any languages other than English? Elias&Zion: We both know some Spanish.
PPM: What do you usually do on weekends? Elias: Sometimes we take road trips. Go to concerts, museums, the beach, just whatever we feel like. Zion: All different things. Sometimes we just stay home and sometimes we travel. One of my favorite things is when we have a movie night and have popcorn with M&Ms!
Zion:I take pride in the things about myself that are “different” from others and try not to let bad things people say affect me.
PPM: You are very active in social media. Does each of you have your own cell phones to post from? Have you ever experienced bullying online and if so, how did you deal with it? Would you have any suggestions to young kids or teenagers who have to deal with cyber-bullying? Elias: We don’t have phones or iPads, we post on our mom’s phone. People have called me names and insulted me online. In my opinion, the best thing to do is just ignore and know that whatever people say, it’s their problem and not yours. Zion: We have had people online call us names, but we don’t let it affect us. When I was first teased about my hair when I was 4, I was really hurt, and my mom asked if I wanted to cut it, and I thought about it. But I decided that I wouldn’t cut my hair because someone was teasing or bullying me about it because that didn’t seem like a good reason to me. Since then I take pride in the things about myself that are “different” from others and try not to let bad things people say affect me.
PPM: What performances do you have planned for the upcoming year? Elias&Zion: We just performed on the Harry Connick Jr show, and Elias is going to perform again at Carnegie Hall, and some other things are in the works.
PPM: Thank you, Elias and Zion for such an interesting interview! Good luck to you both and, please, continue being the two bright shiny stars that you are.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Bolshoi Theater strikes us with its opulence and grandeur. Today, with the help of the most professional teams in the world involved in its renovation, it looks more solid than ever, but its history is comprised of a serious of unfortunate events paired with perseverance to preserve this national monument that became a hallmark of Russian cultural life.
Built by Price Peter Urusov (OBM), Bolshoi, or Petrovsky, Theater opened its doors on December 30th, 1780, with the help of theatrical entrepreneur Michael Maddox (OBM), whom Prince Urusov invited as a business partner. Its opening performance consisted of a solemn prologue The Wanderers by Alexander Ablesimov (OBM) and a big pantomime ballet The Magic School, produced by Leopold Paradis (OBM) to music by Joseph Starzer (OBM). Later on, the Theater repertoire consisted for the most part of Russian and Italian comic operas with ballet interludes, and separate ballets. (1)
After becoming a sole owner of the theater and having taken too many loans from the government, Michael Maddox was forced to transfer the ownership of the Theater to the hands of the Government Loan Office.
In the fall of 1805 the Theater building burned down, and the Company had to perform in other private theaters. In 1808, it started to perform at the New Arbat Theater, designed by Carlo Rossi (2). During the 1812 war against Napoleon, this building burned down as well.
The new Petrovsky Theater was redesigned by Alexei Mikhailov (OBM) and Joseph Bove (OBM). On January 6th, 1825, the Theater, accommodating over 2,000 people, re-opened its doors. As it was much bigger than the original theater, it was often referred to as the Big (Bolshoi) Petrovsky Theater. The opening night performance was so successful that it had to be repeated the next evening for the people who weren’t able to get in.
Thirty years later, on March 11th, 1853, the fire broke down in the Theater and continued for three days (3), destroying everything but its walls and columns. A renowned architect Alberto Cavos (OBM) won a privilege to re-design and rebuild the Theater. On August 20th, 1856, Bolshoi Theater re-opened its doors to the public for the third time with a performance of Vincenzo Bellini (OBM) I Puritani.
In 1917, the Bolshevik government entertained the idea of clothing the Theater, but spared it later. On 7 December 1919 the house was renamed the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre.In 1921, after the Soviet Revolution, the government commission examining the condition of the Theater, found it to be catastrophic(4) and started emergency repairs under the supervision of the architect Ivan Rerberg. Beethoven Hall opened on February 18th, 1921. In 1938, the stage was majorly reconstructed. In August of 1941, the Theater was closed for complete reconstruction.
On October 22nd, 1941, a German bomb was dropped on the Bolshoi Theater building. Despite the wartime hardship and the severe cold, restoration work on the Theater was initiated in winter 1942 (5). In 1943, the Theater re-opened its doors to the public.
Forty-six years later, after yearly cosmetic repairs, in 1987, the Theater has undergone another major reconstruction to build a second stage that would open in 2002. In 2005, its Historic Stage was shut down for reconstruction and refurbishment, which turned into a world-level project.
In 2010, the Lobby, the White Foyer, the Choral, Exhibition, Round and Beethoven halls were renovated. “Muscovites were able to admire the restored facades and the renovated symbol of the Bolshoi Theater – the famous Apollo quadriga, created by the sculptor Peter Klodt (OBM). (6)
The modern version of Bolshoi Theater boasts not only its opulent look, but also its supreme acoustics and state of the art machinery. The main stage consists of seven two-tier rising and descending platforms. The platforms can easily change their positions with the stage having an ability to become horizontal, raked or stepped. The depth of stage space can be achieved by connecting the stage and backstage areas.
New upper stage equipment, remotely controlled by computer, makes it possible to derive maximum use from lighting, sound and visual effects. Cutting edge rigs have been installed for the deployment of lanterns, special effects apparatus and acoustics (7).
The orchestra pit seats up to 130 musicians and is one of the largest in the world.
The installation of state of the art stage equipment was a unique world-scale project. The reconstruction has doubled the Theatre’s total floor space. Thanks to the expansion of the Theatre’s existing underground spaces (under stage house) and to the construction of new underground space under Theatre Square, this has been achieved without any change to the Theatre’s external appearance.
Thus the Theatre has acquired badly needed new space, including an underground concert and rehearsal room, which has inherited its name from the Beethoven Hall, under the Theatre lobby.
This hall is a multi-functional space, which can be used in different ways. It consists of five main platforms: the central platform is the stage itself, two platforms to the right and left of it can be used either to increase the size of the stage or as audience space. The two remaining platforms form the main space of the auditorium. All of the platforms can be raised to foyer level to create a space for holding formal, receptions. Apart from this concert hall and its auxiliary premises, the rest of the underground space under Theatre Square accommodates a large number of technical, service and staff rooms.
The Bolshoi Theatre reconstruction project also included the renovation of the Khomyakov (OBM) House, a protected architectural monument of the first half of the nineteenth century situated immediately behind the Bolshoi, which has been transformed into a service wing. Due to numerous 20th century reconstructions, the historical interiors of the Khomyakov House have been totally lost. While its main walls have been preserved, the interior layout has been redesigned to meet the Theatre’s present-day requirements. Thus the Khomaykov House, which is linked to the main Bolshoi Theater building by an underground tunnel, is a key element in the gigantic Bolshoi Theatre complex.
PIANO AT BOLSHOI
Although Bolshoi Theater was originally built to host opera and ballet performances, it also has a rich history of hosting piano concerts by such prominent pianists as Svyatoslav Richter (OBM), Emil Gilels (OBM), Dmitry Shostakovich (OBM), Alexander Goldenveizer (OBM), Maria Yudina (OBM), Lev Oborin (OBM), Grigory Ginsburg (OBM), and Yevgeniy Raikov (OBM).
Today the Beethoven Hall continues to host piano recitals and events. It has become one of the main locations for the Vladimir Spivakov’s (MGBH) International Festival “Meet the Friends” as well as a series “Faces of the Bolshoi Theater” featuring collaborative piano performances.
When I found Oleg’s (MGBH) performance videos on such shows as Ukraine’s Got Talent, The Minute of Fame, and Britain’s Got Talent, I experienced mixed feelings. The intellectual classical snob in me wanted to say, “Oh, no!”, but in my heart I truly rejoiced as I watched his performances. I also thought to myself, especially after the comment of one of the judges who criticized him so harshly at The Minute of Fame, “Here we are, whispering in dark corners about the demise of classical music and how a young generation is not so interested in it so much as the older generations used to be, and here he is – this young, brilliant, creative musician who is offering at least a partial solution to this problem, and we are throwing stones at him. A little hypocritical…” All these thoughts inspired me to learn more about this pianist.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Dear Oleg, at some point, trying to do what you did you experienced criticism from the classical piano watch dogs. They just didn’t understand what motivated you. And I am sure, some people are still raising their eyebrows and wrinkling their foreheads. Is it hard to be different? Oleg Pereverzev (OP): With my performances I wanted to show that music can also transfer information that can feed your heart and soul. I didn’t just want to come out on stage and play the well-known compositions of Chopin and Bach. There are many people doing this already. I wanted to create an exciting show where the audience could feel my soul. I wanted to affect the hearts of people not only through music, but also through special effects. And I think I was able to achieve it. I receive letters from many people around the world – some of them started listening to classical music, others started improvising. The process of communicating with my audience and connecting to it is very important to me. I constantly work on it.
I didn’t just want to come out on stage and play the well-known compositions of Chopin and Bach. I wanted to create a show….
PPM: Please, tell us about your family. Who created an environment for you to study piano? OP: My mother was a doctor, and my father was in the military. I have a sister, who became a doctor just like our mother. Everyone in our family loves music, but no one, except for me has formal music education. It was my mother who instilled love for classical music in me. She would always buy music magazines and vinyl records. Thus, I would always hear the sounds of classical piano in our house as I was growing up. Once, when I was six, I attended a concert of the legendary Svyatoslav Richter (OBM). I remember the dark music hall, complete silence, and then… music…. As a child, it made an indelible impression on me.
PPM: Please, tell us about your classical piano background. OP: I went through all the stages of formal classical music training: seven years of music school, four years of music college, five years at the Kazakh National Conservatory , and two years of post graduate training. Then I had my apprenticeship at the School of Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany with a piano duo “Genova and Dimitrov.” (MGBT)
I loved going to music school. I would come up with all kinds of stories to skip classes in my regular day school to practice piano every chance I got.
PPM: What was it like for you to be a piano student in a music school of a post-Soviet space? OP: Those were still Soviet times – 1986 through 1993. I loved going to music school. I would come up with all kinds of stories to skip classes in my regular day school to practice piano every chance I got.
PPM: How did you get an idea for your first creative performance? OP: Do you mean the video where I play two pianos at the same time? Here is the story. I created a YouTube Channel, and to attract the attention of the audience, I started thinking of what I could do that no one else had done before. That’s why I had to find a cat, had to drink coffee, and, finally, to play the most technically challenging piece “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” in Rachmaninoff’s (OBM) arrangement. And the video became tremendously popular. That year – 2011- it got 460,000 views.
PPM: Please, tell us about that moment when you looked at your piano and decided – let me try to play backwards and see what happens. OP: After the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” video I had to come up with something new. And that was the video where I play piano backwards. It was very challenging. Both my arms and my back hurt. It was very uncomfortable, but I managed to accomplish it. Two weeks later I recorded the video where I played an excerpt from the 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt (OBM).
PPM: In one of your videos you play “Fur Elise” backwards – starting from the end and ending at the beginning, which turned out pretty good, by the way. How and why did you get the idea to do that? OP: There is a joke where a student brought his own composition to an exam in a conservatory. When the student was asked whose composition it was, he answered, “I just copied the composition of my teacher backwards. That’s it.” When I was thinking of my next video, I thought of this joke, and it inspired me to take Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and play it backwards.
PPM: You did a commercial for BeeLine, a Russian cell phone company. Is it hard playing piano in the air? What was your experience like filming it? OP: We actually shot two versions. The second one, where I am in the air, turned out to be more successful and more visually appealing. It was very scary to play piano in the air. Since I didn’t have aerial training, I kept thinking, “Oh, no. Something’s gonna happen now.” So – yes – I was very frightened.
PPM: What is your dream as a musician and an artist? OP: I wish that all people had an opportunity to be exposed to beautiful, high quality music. Today there is a lot of bad music out there, and, somehow, people allow themselves to be exposed to it. Of course, everyone has their own opinion and their own taste. However, in general, there is a lot of garbage.
Every aspect of a pianist’s work is a big job: working on your spirituality, developing business relations, giving performances.
PPM: Is it hard to earn a living as a pianist living where you are? OP: It’s hard to make money no matter which profession you choose. I doubt that all pianists lead a luxury lifestyle. Every aspect of a pianist’s work is a big job: working on your spirituality, developing business relations, giving performances. Writing your own compositions also takes an enormous amount of effort. There is a lot to accomplish. That is why it is very hard for an artist to focus on making money. A good example would be Rachmaninoff as a pianist. While he made money as a pianist, but didn’t compose anything.
PPM: Are you planning to tour some time in the future? OP: In the near future, I definitely plan to do tours. For now, I try to perform at least once a week.
PPM: Please, tell us about your CD albums. OP: My first album is called “Classics For All.” In this album, I play the most famous pieces of Bach (OBM), Mozart (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Schumann (OBM), Schubert (OBM), Chopin (OBM), and Liszt, to name a few. There are 21 tracks in the album.
My second album called “Dudarai” is dedicated to Kazakhstan, where I was born, grew up, and received my education. Here I play Kazakh folk songs in my own arrangements as well as five of my original compositions.
My third album is still in my head. That’s what I am working on at the moment.
PPM: Besides being a pianist, you are also a composer. Please, tell us more about writing your own music. What is the process like for you? OP: When I was a student at the conservatory, I got familiar with the music of contemporary composers. They would ask me to play their music. And I was very interested in it. I started composing my own music back when I was a child, but then I stopped. At the conservatory, I felt inspired to start composing again. I would compose in the style of Chopin (OBM) and Rachmaninoff. Today I compose in a neo-classical style. One of my musical inspirations was Yiruma (MGBH), a Korean pianist and composer.
PPM: Do you have a family of your own or is music taking all of your energy right now? OP: I don’t have my own family yet, but I have my sister and my father, who both live Russia.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite composers – classical and contemporary? OP: Oh, the list is quite long. Every composer that I studied affected me in his own way. Today I can listen to Shostakovich (OBM), tomorrow – to Badalamenti (OBM), and the next day – Morricone (MGBH). I listen to a lot of music and love almost all composers. I am not talking about avante garde here – this is absolutely not for me.
PPM: What made you choose a career of a professional pianist? OP: It’s a hard question. When I was thirteen, my father asked me – what are you going to do next? I answered him, “I will continue my piano studies.” And that’s how it went.
PPM: Where do you live and how often and where do you travel? OP: I live in Alma Ati, Kazakhstan. I like it here very much out here – the nature is beautiful, the city is small. Recently, I had a chance to live in Los Angeles, CA and see what life like is out there. It was a very interesting experience. I try to travel as much as I can. In the past, I have also visited Turkey, China, Germany, and Holland.
PPM: Has a music piece ever made you cry? If so, which one? OP: Music is a reflection of feelings. One can start crying hearing Beethoven’s (OBM) Moonlight Sonata, for example. It’s about what it’s in your heart. And if the music touches your heart, it will make you cry. I enjoy music videos. If the visual component matches the music – it’s genius.
Today’s time is characterized by demise in many spheres of society – music, economy, politics … And, certainly, it is not a good thing. However, the cycles are such that there will always be a peak and demise. And it is through these cycles that humanity evolves.
PPM: Why do you think young people are not so interested in classical music as the older generations? OP: In my opinion, music was at its peak in the 19th and 20th century. Today’s time is characterized by demise in many spheres of society – music, economy, politics … And, certainly, it is not a good thing. However, the cycles are such that there will always be a peak and demise. And it is through these cycles that humanity evolves.
PPM: Where do you draw your inspiration from? OP: … from nature walks, travelling…. For a musician it is very important to travel. Sometimes it happens that a melody comes to me in my dream. I try to remember it and write it down afterwards.
PPM: Are you planning to perform in the US in the near future? OP: Once I performed in Glendale, CA where I played my music as well as the music of other composers in my original arrangements. I would definitely love to perform in many different cities and music halls. I very much enjoy doing it and am open to invitations.
PPM: Tell us, please, about the piano duo “Vivat.” OP: My friend and I decided to form a piano duo. We started working and sent an application to the Taneyev (OBM) Chamber Music Competition in Moscow. We got accepted and won 3rd prize among the piano duos. This competition was very important to us – we worked very hard and, as a result, reaped the fruits of our labor. During the same competition, one of my compositions “Kazakh Rhapsody” was awarded a Tchaikovsky prize. My friend and I performed together a lot. I created many piano arrangements for our duo.
PPM: Do you have an agent or a manager? OP: I have an administrator, who helps me handle all my performances.
PPM: What is your favorite Kazakh food? OP: I love pilaf. There is a folk saying: How many kinds of pilaf are there? As many as there are towns in the Middle East.
PPM: What’s your plan for the next 5 years? OP: To find new ways in wowing my audience.
PPM: Thank you, Oleg. We are looking forward to be wowed! OP: My pleasure.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
She instinctively knows who to touch the audience with her delicate, sophisticated, yet powerful manner of performing some of the most technically complex classical pieces. When I first heard Zlata (MGBH) at the Miami Piano Festival, I thought to myself, “She is very special.” Maybe because of the way she performed the Chopin (OBM) Etudes, maybe because of the way she gracefully carried herself on stage in a princess-like manner, or maybe because of a little bit of both. Zlata’s sophisticated personality is intriguing, and her performance style points to genuine authenticity. She plays with sensibility and class.
With this interview we took the opportunity to learn more about her and her work.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Please, tell our readers a little bit of yourself and your family. Zlata Chochieva (ZC): I was born in Moscow. My parents are Ossetians from Tskhinval, South Ossetia. They moved to Moscow when they were young. So, I grew up in Moscow, having absorbed Russian culture in all its glory. However, I also feel the Ossetian blood in me that I inherited from my ancestors. My Mother is a pianist. My Father was a TV man who was also extraordinarily musically gifted. I have an older beloved brother, to whom I owe my introduction to music. It was his piano lessons that gave me the first impressions of the sounds of music. I wanted to play piano like him, and my parents became my supporters in this difficult matter. They helped me, gave me faith and hope, and inspired me for any creative achievements.
PPM: Who named you Zlata? ZC: My mom gave me this name. Zlata is a Slavic name, quite often used in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia. My mother liked this name, and I have no complaints about it.
Blind imitation destroys creativity, but unadulterated individual expression, which a great artist can provide us with through his pure art, enriches and teaches us.
PPM: Who were your role models as a child and a teenager? ZC: My parents – both then and now. And yet, I try to see myself beyond imitation and comparison. Unfortunately, a nowadays profession of a musician dictates different rules which is, of course, our choice – to follow or not follow… Everything is subject to strange laws: we live in an era of competition in every sense. People devour themselves and, sometimes, others around them… All this destroys individuality, without which existence of a true artist is impossible. It’s so important to find your own voice in art, your face in this world. Blind imitation destroys creativity, but unadulterated individual expression, which a great artist can provide us with through his pure art, enriches and teaches us. For me, an example of such artist was and still is Vladimir Horowitz (OBM).
PPM: What is your dream as a pianist? ZC: I want to be able to express as much as possible through the piano, and better yet – beyond the scope of this instrument.
PPM: Who are some of your favorite composers of the past and the present? ZC: Mozart (OBM) and Rachmaninoff (OBM). To me, they have always been more than just composers – they’ve been my best friends. Not just because of their music, but also because of who they were as individuals. Rachmaninoff is my favorite though. In my world, he is the greatest pianist of all time – nobody who can come even close.
I never have a goal of memorizing music. It comes naturally to me – the same way people become friends.
PPM: You have a beautifully recorded CD titled “Chopin – Etudes Complete” where you play a complete set of Chopin’s Etudes. You frequently include the Etudes in your concert repertoire. How long did it take you to learn and memorize these? ZC: I never have a goal of memorizing music. It comes naturally to me – the same way people become friends. Ten years ago I choose Chopin’s Complete Etudes as part the program for my graduation exam at the Moscow Conservatory. And a few years later I decided to record them, but for a different reason. My goal was to overcome any technical difficulties by means of music only, and to create poetic sketches showing the real meaning of the title “Etude.”
I like the recording process. It’s very different from a live performance, but it has its own magic, I think. You play for the microphones, and they are your strictest judges.
PPM: What is your process of recording an album? ZC: I like the recording process. It’s very different from a live performance, but it has its own magic, I think. You play for the microphones, and they are your strictest judges. Being in the recording studio leaves you completely alone with music. You don’t feel the breathing of the audience. Instead, there is complete silence. It’s just you and music.
When I record, I always play by memory – you need to make music become yours…
PPM: Do you have a daily routine? ZC: I had a lot to do with a routine when I was a child. When I grew up I felt that I wanted to somewhat play with my time, to make my day and work a bit more spontaneous. But when my work and travel schedule becomes demanding, I have to admit of becoming a slave of a routine.
I have a deep appreciation for jazz. Not only I get inspired by it, I also learn from it. I admire great jazz players sometimes more than anyone else. Jazz is a pure art in its natural flow and freedom.
PPM: What CDs (of performers other than yourself) do you have in your car? ZC: To be honest, I don’t keep my own CDs in my car. And it’s quite a torture for me to listen to myself… I try not to listen to classical music, because I get quite distracted and can’t pay attention to the road. I have deep appreciation for jazz. Not only I get inspired by it, I also learn from it. I admire great jazz players sometimes more than anyone else. Jazz is a pure art in its natural flow and freedom.
PPM: Do you collaborate with other musicians? ZC: Yes, I play lots of chamber music. For me it is an inseparable form of performing art. Recently I started playing a piano duo with a pianist Misha Dacic (MGBH), whom I admire enormously, and this collaboration brings me a different perspective on piano and its potential.
PPM: Would you, please, share a story from your performance tours? ZC: I feel very lucky to have a chance to travel over a huge, very diverse, but beautiful country – Russia. One of my favorite parts Russia is Siberia. Once I had a series of concerts in Novosibirsk and in-between rehearsals with the Novosibirsk orchestra, I was offered to join a group of musicians and organizers to go to a private aerodrome and fly a small plane. I dreamt about it for a long time, and suddenly my dream came true. I had my first flying lesson and flew up into the skies. And since the owner of this private aerodrome is the biggest admirer of Chopin (and I was lucky to be playing Chopin concerto # 1), he offered to give me complimentary lessons. I would love to go back and practice more. It’s something what makes me feel time and space in a completely different way. Unfortunately, one can’t feel it by being a passenger of a big Boing or Airbus…
PPM: Under what circumstances did you start teaching? What is it like for you to share your knowledge with others? ZC: Some years ago I moved to Salzburg to study with Professor Jacques Rouvier (MGBH) at the Mozarteum University. A year later, he offered me to become his assistant, which was a big honor. And now, after having taught for four years, I can say that it makes me happy to have what I call “a friendship” with young and talented musicians. They are all very different, and they have their own world. I teach them, and they teach me as well, because any kind of musical collaboration gives a different perspective. It’s an extremely interesting growth process. It is simply amazing to be a witness of a process of “becoming an artist.”
PPM: What is your favorite city in the world? ZC: New York. It is definitely one of the few places in the world where I feel free.
PPM: What affects your choice of performance wardrobe? ZC: I must admit that an artist’s look is important. To me it’s one of the ways of showing respect to an audience. However, in my opinion, eyes shouldn’t distract ears in any way… Everything should act and collaborate together hand in hand with music.
I love forests as I feel time is different there – it flows organically and doesn’t put pressure on you. Nature has it’s own music created by wind, birds, trees, and leaves…
PPM: How do you connect with nature? ZC: For me nature is the most powerful inspiration together with experiences that life presents to us … I enjoy walks as a chance to connect with nature, which is so important, but quite difficult in our modern epoch. I love forests as I feel time is different there – it flows organically and doesn’t put pressure on you. Nature has it’s own music created by wind, birds, trees, and leaves…
PPM: Where does God fit in your life? ZC: In the world’s beauty, love, and hope. In its meaning. Life without faith, which we can call God, or Spirit, or anything you choose, is pointless…
PPM: Do you compose your own music? ZC: No, unfortunately… Or … maybe…. fortunately? When I start thinking about composing something by myself, right at that moment the music of Bach (OBM), Schubert (OBM), Schumann (OBM), Tchaikovsky (OBM) jumps into my head, and then I ask myself, “Why?” And next minute I start sight-reading Tchaikovsky’s operas… I’m more interested in improvising and transcribing. I would like to devote more time to it.
PPM: What character traits do you admire the most in people? ZC: Honesty. Modesty. Ability to look at people beyond their status, nationality or religious background.
PPM: As individuals, we all have to grow, whether we like it or not. Some grow through their own conscious efforts and others through the push of the circumstances. What kind of person do you aspire to be ten years from now? ZC: A better one? At least not worse than now, at least…
PPM: What architectural style do you like the most and why? ZC: Art nouveau. It drives me to another galaxy. I love Russian wooden architecture and Russian orthodox churches.
PPM: What are some of your favorite foods? ZC: Peruvian. I was first introduced to Peruvian food when I came to Miami to perform in the International Miami Piano Festival. I hope to have a chance to visit Peru one day…
PPM: What repertoire are you working on at the moment? ZC: I’m focusing on the repertoire, which I’m going to record for Piano Classics label in September. It will be Rachmaninoff’s transcriptions, Variations on the Theme of Corelli (OBM) and his Second Sonata in the first 1913 year version. This repertoire inspires me enormously. And it’s going to be the best summer for me, because I will be surrounded by something, which I call “worthy of living for”.
PPM: Name three things that make you happy. ZC: To see my loved ones healthy and smiling. To help people and any living creature with whatever they need or with whatever makes them feel happy and more fulfilled. To play the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sergey Rachmaninoff.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Motivation, from the Latin movere meaning to move, is the fuel that starts, stops, directs, and sustains human behavior. It creates a desire to persist beyond the boundaries of comfort, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve beyond our own, and others’, highest expectations. Motivation is the pre-cursor to music practice. Motivation gets results. It is, therefore, an overarching concern for pianists and teachers.
In general terms, motivation is categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we enjoy an activity for what it is and for the pleasure it brings, we are self-motivated, or intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing the activity comes from the activity itself. With extrinsic motivation, the reward is an external benefit from doing the activity. We observe intrinsic motivation when students engage in activities alone, when they choose to participate in activities without external pressure, and when they engage in activities in the absence of the promise of or opportunity for external reward. It is not only the choice to engage in activity that defines intrinsic motivation, but also the quality of that involvement. Does the student attend to difficult passages thoroughly or just go through the motions? Trying hard and spending extra time on a task are examples of intensity and persistence. These are hallmarks of an intrinsically motivated student.
External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.
Extrinsic motivation is entrenched in systems of education. External rewards – including gold stars, stickers and grades – are both material and verbal and presented with the hope that students will be encouraged to learn. In his massive body of research, John Hattie (2009) found “praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards are the most ineffective forms of feedback for enhancing achievement.” External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears. Extrinsic performance goals and intrinsic learning goals are different. Getting an A in music is an extrinsically motivated performance goal, whereas becoming a better musician is a learning goal. This is one of the drawbacks of grading systems. Students are interested in achieving good grades, but become less interested in learning because of being graded. When students focus on grades they do the work that is necessary to get that grade, but rarely more. When told that work will be graded, students are less likely to enjoy the task and less likely to return to that material after the test. In comparison to learning goals, outcomes from performance goals are shallow and limited.
Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer.
Intrinsic interest sustains motivation. We are born curious, with a natural desire to seek out novelty and challenge, to exercise our abilities and to explore. Have you ever seen an infant who was not curious and self-directed? However, extrinsic rewards can deliver short-term boosts. They can serve as a last resort to kindle a desired behavior or as a symbol of competence and belonging, but the effect wears off and can reduce longer-term motivation. Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer. Therefore, a central mission for piano teachers and parents is to influence how children motivate themselves. Only then will children freely apply the effort required to reach greater heights. To foster intrinsic motivation in the music studio requires attention to three innate human needs: the need to belong, the need to feel competent, and the need to direct one’s own actions.
Autonomy refers to actions chosen and endorsed by self. The key here is choice. Increasing students’ options and choices is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and subsequent effort. As early and as often as possible, teachers should give students some control of their learning. Choice might be as simple as involving students in selecting repertoire, but teachers must discern when allowing choice is wise. Permitting a student to decide which music fits the requirements for their technical and aesthetic progression is not prudent, but a teacher-selected assortment of several pieces that fulfill the criteria allows students to then choose a piece they like. Choice can be offered in the context of tasks and task order (“which piece would you like to start with”) as well as learning goals (“would you like to aim to improve sight-reading, playing by ear or playing from memory?”).
Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers.
Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers. Students need to think that teachers like, respect, value, and care about them. When students connect with and respect their teacher, they are more likely to subscribe to the values and practices of that teacher. If the student does not like the teacher, very often they will not do well in that subject.
“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, ” (Theodore Roosevelt)
An increasing level of competence, or progress, is a great motivator. One must believe in his or her capacity to accomplish a task. Even if students have healthy self-esteem, are interested in the learning content, and believe it to be important, they will not fully engage if they believe the task is beyond them. Hence the number one reason people quit music? Lack of progress and lack of competence.
“I’m not getting any better.”
“I’m no good at this.”
“I just can’t do it.”
Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort.
Students need the tools for making musical progress. A practice system that incorporates repetition, chunking and slow physical movement, when done on a regular basis over time, will deliver progress.
When students quit music, they give reasons like “it was boring, I can’t be bothered”, or “it’s stupid.” The challenge to play music is not boring; if anything, there is too much for the mind to pay attention to when working through a musical challenge, not too little. Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort. Devaluing an activity allows one to quit without the embarrassment of failing. Kristin Neff puts it well:
“One way to increase self-esteem is to value the things we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. The problem here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In other words, our desire to achieve high self-esteem in the short term may harm our development in the long run.” (Neff 2011, p. 138)
The real reason for quitting is fragile competence beliefs. And this points to a lack of practice. Progress cultivates pride, enthusiasm, and perseverance.
Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.
He plays piano with utmost passion and excitement, and his smile is contagious to anyone who catches it. Brandon Goldberg (MGBH), an 11-year-old Floridian, a gifted jazz piano player, has conquered the hearts of many, including mine. Will he win yours, too?
PPM: Please, tell us about your participation in the TEDx. Did you have to practice your speech a lot? Did you have help writing it or did you do it yourself? BG: My mom made me write the speech by myself. She said, “Just tell your story.” So, I went to my room, and I wrote it down. Then, she helped me organize my thoughts and put it all together. The whole TEDxYouth@Miami experience was great – all the kids selected to participate would meet at the Cushman School every Saturday morning for several months to rehearse in front of each other. Arvi Balseiro (MGBH), Principal of the Cushman School, and Lisa Herbert (MGBH) would give us feedback on our speech. They did it in such nice a way that it gave everyone the confidence to present in front of a big audience. At first, some of us were nervous, but at the end, everyone memorized their speeches. They helped us become better speakers and it was fun getting to know the other kids. On the last practice day, they brought in the red circle that TED is famous for, and we all had to practice speaking and staying on the circle. It was fun.
PPM: How did you first start composing music? BG: I first started composing music when I had an idea and I wanted to develop it. I really wanted to express my thoughts. I asked my parents for some manuscript paper and then I just went from there. Soon enough I started using Sibelius and Finale, and eventually I started using Logic Pro X to record.
PPM: Did/do you study classical piano with a teacher? BG: Yes, I currently study classical piano with Paul Posnak (MGBH), a retired professor from University of Miami Frost School of Music. He is a good fit for me, because he can teach classical and also appreciates other genres of music. He’s best known for his note-for-note transcriptions of Fats Waller and George Gershwin (OBM) Improvisations.
PPM: Who was your first piano teacher? BG: Well, my first unofficial piano teacher was a Russian lady, Ina (MGBH), who lived around the corner. I think I was three or four, but I was too young to stay focused. Then I worked with, Rosa Rabinovich (MGBH), a teacher at our elementary school for a little while. Eventually, I switched over to Mila Vaserstein (MGBH), when I was five years old. I studied with Mila for about three years.
My first Jazz teacher was Markus Gottschlich (MGBH). He taught me a lot and introduced me to Wendy Oxenhorn (MGBH) at the Jazz Foundation of America. I’ll always be grateful to him.
PPM: Does anyone in your family play piano? BG: Not really. My mother took piano lessons when she was younger for about 5 years, but she she stopped playing.
PPM: Do you have any siblings? If so, do they play an instrument? BG: Yes, I have a younger sister, Aubrey (MGBH). She’s more into sports, especially gymnastics. She’s really good at gymnastics and dance.
PPM: You speak eloquently in from the audiences. How is speaking in front of people different from performing? BG: Thank you. Speaking in front of people is different because I use words to share my experiences and my story. I try to choose my words carefully to make sure I get the right message across. With performing, it’s more fluid and spontaneous. I really try to inspire people through my music.
My first introduction to jazz was through an old Rat Pack Movie that I watched at my grandparents’ house. I became somewhat obsessed with the Rat Pack and everything about them…
PPM: Who introduced you to jazz and what was the first jazz song that you learned? BG: My first introduction to jazz was through an old Rat Pack Movie that I watched at my grandparents’ house. I became somewhat obsessed with the Rat Pack and everything about them…how they carried themselves, what they wore. Then I started watching old concert videos of Frank Sinatra (OBM) with Tony Bennett (MGBH), Ella Fitzgerald (OBM), and many other singers from the Great American Songbook era. There was one Frank Sinatra concert with Oscar Peterson (OBM) on the piano and that was it – I just loved the sound of jazz, and it excited me. From there, I listened to the Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans (OBM) collaborations with Tony Bennett and just kept listening. I would probably say the first standard I learned was “Fly Me to the Moon”.
PPM: Tell us about meeting Tony Bennett and Joshua Bell (MGBH). What was special about meeting those men and what did you speak to them about? BG: I’ve been lucky enough to see Tony Bennett in concert four times – and I’ve been able to meet him after each show. There’s always a long line of people to meet Mr. Bennett, so we don’t really have time to talk. I wish I could really spend some time with him and play the piano for him. It would be a dream come true to accompany him.
I got to meet Tony Bennett’s whole band once. They were really nice, and each band member autographed the set list for me. That was really special.
I met Joshua Bell briefly after his performance at Tanglewood. He encouraged me to keep playing. My parents also met Joshua Bell at a YoungArts event in Miami (I wasn’t there). He told them the story of how, when he was little, he used to put rubber bands on the knobs of his dresser drawers to create different sounds. My mom shared that story with me, and I even put that into my TEDx speech. It inspired my theme…everyone has their own instrument; you just need to take the time to find it.
People always tell me I’m an old soul.
PPM: Do you feel your age or do you sometimes feel older? Do you have older friends? Do you have a preference of having friends your age or older? BG: People always tell me I’m an old soul. It’s hard to know what an older person feels like, but sometimes it is easier to connect with older kids and adults, especially if we can talk about music. I have friends my age and a few older friends that I play music with. To me age is only a number, but I am only 11 so I may need some more life experience.
PPM: Do you go to school or are you home schooled? BG: I go to a regular school. Next year, I’ll be going to a performing arts middle school.
PPM: What are your favorite subjects to learn? BG: I like Math because the numbers and equations relate to music. PPM: What are some of your most memorable performances? BG: I have a few… Definitely the time Monty Alexander, one of my heroes, surprised me for my 10th birthday and invited me onstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center to play “Fly Me to the Moon” with his band. That was awesome. I also got to play at the famous Apollo Theatre at the Jazz Foundation of America’s A Great Night in Harlem. I was invited there to honor McCoy Tyner (MGBH) as he received his lifetime achievement award. That was really cool. There were a lot of amazing musicians performing that night – Dr. John (MFBH), John Batiste (MFBH), John Mayer (MFBH), just to name a few.
Recently, I played at another Jazz Foundation of America event in Los Angeles at Herb Alpert’s club – Vibrato Grill. I got to meet Patti Austin (MGBH) and the amazing Merry Clayton (MGBH), who sang “You Are So Beautiful to Me” while I accompanied her on the piano. That was impromptu and really fun! I also met the one and only – Mr. Quincy Jones (MGBH). That was cool.
Harry Connick Jr. (MGBH) was also pretty great. It was nice talking to him – I feel like he understood me and it was really fun to jam with him on the piano. His band was really great, too!
I like Frank Sinatra, because he used his voice as an instrument. The variation and his phrasing of the lyrics and songs was like an improviser playing with the melody.
PPM: Why do you like Frank Sinatra (OBM)? BG: I like Frank Sinatra, because he used his voice as an instrument. The variation and his phrasing of the lyrics and songs was like an improviser playing with the melody. I always like the arrangements that he sang that were done by Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle (OBM).
PPM: Do you have other kids pianist friends? BG: Not really, but I do have a good friend that plays guitar really well. I also have some friends that are in high school that I like to jam with.
PPM: Does your family take road trips? If so, where do you go? BG: Sometimes we drive to Disney World or Universal Studios, since we live in Florida. We like go to the Berkshires in the summer for our family vacations and we’ve gone skiing the last few winters, but we fly to those places.
PPM: Do you have pets at home? BG: No, but I would love a dog. My sister and I have been begging for a dog.
PPM: What are your responsibilities at home? BG: I make my bed, keep my room clean, do well in school, and practice piano. I work on composing and playing in my Dad’s office at home, so he is always telling me to clean up all my wires, instruments, and cases.
PPM: What do you do on weekends? BG: I have my classical piano lessons on Saturdays, and we’re usually busy with events or performances. I usually have homework to do on the weekends, but if we have free time, I like to swim or just hang out at home, compose music, and play on my Fender Rhodes vintage keyboard. If there is a jazz concert or a show in town, we try to go to that.
PPM: What is your biggest dream? BG: I want a successful career playing and making music. I want to record and play my own compositions along with the top artists in Jazz.
My favorite book to read and re-read is Herbie Hancock’s (MGBH) autobiography, “Possibilities.” My mom says that it may not be age appropriate, but it’s really interesting.
PPM: What books do you like to read? BG: My favorite book to read and re-read is Herbie Hancock’s (MGBH) autobiography, “Possibilities.” My mom says that it may not be age appropriate, but it’s really interesting.
I got to meet Herbie Hancock after a concert he did in Miami. He was so kind and inspiring. We talked about music, and he autographed my book and album covers. He wrote some really nice messages to me. He’s amazing, and I really look up to him.
PPM: Do you speak any foreign languages? BG: I can understand Russian and speak it a little. My mother was born in the Ukraine.
PPM: Have you travelled outside the US? If so, what was the trip you enjoyed the most? BG: The only time I’ve been out of the US was on a cruise to the Caribbean we took with my family.
PPM: Do you like to be funny and make people laugh? BG: I like to make people laugh, but that seems to mostly happen unintentionally.
PPM: Do you have any recorded CDs? BG: Not yet, that is my goal in the next year or so.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
Victor Borge (OBM) used to bill himself as an “unmelancholy Dane,” a description that modestly understates the laughter and joy this pianist – turned comedian has brought to millions around the world. If his father who played violin in the Royal Danish Symphony, hoped for a son to follow in his musical footsteps, this son was not one to follow the footsteps of anyone’s footsteps. Long before he fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Victor Borge found the magic and the fortune to be made from combining the talent for music with a facile wit and the sense of the absurd. And as if to prove that every Dane has at least two sides to his character, he found time between world tours, one man shows, command performances and television specials, to start, of all things, a highly successful business, marketing frozen cornish hens.
James Day (JD): Mr. Borge, I would like to ask you about your one-man show, which you performed before all kinds of audiences, all over the world. You performed before royalty, before heads of state. I want to ask you to imagine what you think it might be like if you performed your one-man show for a very select audience made up of Bach (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Tchaikovsky (OBM), Brahms(OBM), Mozart (OBM), even throw Debussy (OBM) in there. How do you think they’d receive your show? Victor Borge (VB): Sitting down, I guess, first (laughing). And I think I could compare it with an audience or some people that have had an audience. For instance, when I had a luncheon performance for the New York Philharmonics some years ago when Bruno Walter (OBM) and Metropolis and all the leading musicians in the world, you name them – they were there – and sat with napkins in front of their faces, not because they wanted to hide themselves, but I think it was from laughter. I think the composers would have done the same, because when I perform, for instance, with symphony orchestras, which I do very often, I conduct the evening, and then in-between I would do some of my piano things. And of, course, they are the first to grasp the humor, the depth of humor in it, and there are often times when they’d break the instruments.
JD: They do? VB: Yes. Not deliberately, I guess. This is my best audience.
JD: Well, they were clever men of humor, were they not? VB: Of course. Some of them.
JD: Which one would you chose to perform before if you had that selection to make? Which one do you think would be the most appreciative? VB: That I don’t know. Because what I would do, I would, of course, not ridicule a particular person. And I don’t ridicule, I just have fun with. For instance, when I play with a symphony orchestra, I never use the orchestra as a scapegoat or as a gimmick. I do it with them and for them. And the same with the composer.
I have a young singer who has been now with me for a couple of years. And we do some travesty, you know, on opera singing and accompanying. And I do things that are normally being done, but I may underline then a little more.
The same when you do an opera parody. What do you do if it’s not funny to see a 250 lb primadonna who is supposed to be 17 or 18 years old?
If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: It’s almost the way of looking at it. Something that we all see, but we blind ourselves to the humor sometimes, because we are expected to take it quite seriously. VB: Of course. If people only knew what’s been said by, for instance, singers during an opera, during the most dramatic scene, what they whisper to each. If people knew what takes place in the minds of the musicians when they perform, I think it would enlighten them quite a lot, and I think it would justify many of the things I do.
JD: I talked with one distinguished musician, and I asked him what was on his mind when he played. He told me it was sheer concentration upon the music, which it required. There are some musicians, where, apparently, this is not always the case. VB: Well, there are certainly musicians who concentrate on it get frightened…
One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright.
JD: Frightened? VB: Yes, they get frightened. One of the things that ruined my career as a concert pianist, so to speak, was fright. Because if I would concentrate on what comes next or does that cadenza begin with the C# or with something else, it would drive me out of my mind. And I couldn’t go through with these things. I did it for a while, but I thought, “If this is going to be in my future…” And I know, you know very well also, that some of the great pianists of our time like Horowitz have gone through hell sometimes before a concert. And they don’t want to perform. And I think that it’s terrible that people have to perform, and nervousness or circumstances takes away maybe 30 or 40 percent of their ability. I think it doesn’t make much sense.
JD: What do you do about nervousness or are you without nervousness? VB: No, I am terribly nervous, of course.
JD: Before you go on to one of your own performances? VB: Depending, of course, on what kind of performance I do. If I play, for instance, when I play with an orchestra, which I often do when I conduct it from the piano, when we do Gershwin, maybe, the concerto in F or when we do some special arrangement, I am terribly nervous.
JD: … and nothing I can do about it. VB: …and there is nothing you can do about it. Well, there is nothing I can do about it. May there there is something you can do about it (laughing)?
JD: You began to play piano at the age of 4 or 5 in Copenhagen. VB: Yes, whenever I could reach the keyboard (smiling).
JD: Were you ever encouraged or forced to play the piano? You father was a musician. VB: No, I was forced not to. By the neighbors.
JD: Your father was in the Royal Symphony, was he not? VB: Yes, he was there for 33 years.
JD: As a violinist… VB: Yes. I think he played viola.
JD: Oh, did he? VB: Yes.
JD: Why did you take up the piano? VB: Because my father used the violin all the time (laughing).
JD: I guess it’s a good enough reason. VB: I told you, he was there for 33 years. As the matter of fact, we never recognized him when he came home.
JD: You did become a concert pianist, as you’ve said. And played for how many years? VB: Until now (laughing)… Oh, concert? Oh, I don’t know.
JD: You were a child prodigy… VB: I was a child prodigy. Yes. I am not that any longer.
JD: I see. It must be something of a handicap to be a child prodigy. VB: Yes, particularly when you aren’t any more. It has its advantages, of course. But it also has its disadvantages. The advantages are that you are featured, but you do not accept it while that happens, because you don’t know the difference. It’s only afterwards, when you are not featured any more, it becomes more difficult. But I changed from… in other words, when I was going to make my own life and support myself, I had pupils, I was supposed to be a very good teacher.
If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny.
JD: Absolutely straight, too (smiling). VB: Oh, yes. You see, the funny thing about humor is that it is very serious. The only thing that is funny is when it’s not humorous, because then it becomes funny, you see. Humor itself is not funny. It is the seriousness that makes humor. I mean, a very serious situation: one of the standard things – a person falls on the banana peel, for instance. That is darn serious, isn’t it? But you can’t help laughing if you see it on the stage if somebody does it. If somebody does something terribly serious, then it is hilariously funny. In order words, if I come in on the stage, and I am going to play the beginning of Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and I am sitting on a bench – a piano bench. Normally a pianist sits on a porcelain bench or a stool that can elevate him. Now, I ‘ve seen this happen, and I am doing it myself. I don’t do it any more, because I hurt my arm doing it, but I used to do it. Now, this pianist came in and sat on a polished wooden bench. He was used to the leather bench that would not make him scoot. And he did the first chords of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto – boom, boom, boom – and he slid right off the bench. Now, this is serious! But when I do it – ha, ha, ha – it’s hilariously funny. But it was done, actually.
JD: Well, I doubt the people laughed when he did it. VB: Oh, no, they were shocked, of course. But when I do it, I don’t think they are shocked.
… there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it.
JD: It’s partly what you expect, isn’t it? VB: … But you see, you have to do it …. Don’t we have a lot of things with people with silk hats and funerals and in vaudeville… the funeral attendance, you know? The sketches… The more serious it is, the more humor there is to be found in it. Death in itself is, of course, not particularly funny, but there is not situation that can be serious enough not to have a glimpse of humor in it. Because I consider humor to be between the… I am not prepared to say these things, so I am stuttering a little bit, but it’s quite an interesting subject – a man’s inefficiency. No man is perfect. Can we agree with that?
JD: Absolutely. VB: The difference between where we stop imperfection is where humor sets in. In other words, if some man, some person is 70% perfect, 90-92% perfect, the gap in-between is where hilarity begins.
JD: I wanted to take you back to Copenhagen. I wonder when the hilarity set with you. VB: When I was born.
JD: Of course, but there was some point in your career, and different stories are written. You winked at some ladies in the front row at the audience doing a serious concert or something. Now, I suspect these stories were apocryphal, but there was a point when you switched from serious music to serious music with humor, there wasn’t? What was the gap? VB: No, I didn’t switch. It happened very slowly. You know just like you build a road or you build a highway. Anything we do, nothing is suddenly.
JD: It didn’t happen in one day. VB: It couldn’t. Of course, it couldn’t. But I think it is a matter of chemistry. I think I was created like anybody else but with a musical ability and a sense of humor, which is a chemistry of which I consist, partly.
JD: That came with the equipment. VB: That came with the equipment, yes. (smiling). That’s what happened. And these two things are finally got together you know and become…
JD: … and you became the leading comedian in Denmark. VB: Well, when you ask me “Who is your favorite composer?” I will not do that. Or if you ask me “Who is your favorite actor?” I will never tell you that. Because I might hurt somebody who is just as favorite, therefore, I cannot answer that question.
JD: I am sorry, I didn’t put it as a question. VB: I know. But I could give you an answer to it even if it wasn’t a question.
JD: I see. But in your comedy in Denmark, I am told, I read that you did make fun of the Nazis, which were a threat at that point to Denmark, to all of Europe. VB: What may I refer to what I have said before – the more serious the situation, the more it calls for humor and the more it hits. The more there is to it. Humor is a medium. You cannot create humor. Humor is a medium, with which you can create situations. Humor is to the humorist what a brush is to the painter, and what a pen is to the poet or the composer. You create with humor. Now, depending, of course, upon the degree of artistry there is in the humor as it depends upon the degree of artistry there is in a composer or in a painter, they can be better or they can be less good… but humor can devastate. I think it’s been used many times in politics – Winston Churchill (OBM), Roosevelt (OBM). You can avoid wars, you can create wars, all depending how it’s being used and with what strength and with what intention, you see…
I remember, for instance, my father was being buried. My father was 62 when I was born. He actually jumped a generation. He should have waited, but I guess he couldn’t (smiling). He lived to be 85, and my mother was very much in love with him. And at the funeral I stood and held my mother’s arm. Some colleagues from the Royal Orchestra were carrying the casket. They had played some quartets of Tchaikovsky. And my mother was, of course, completely gone. Some of the colleagues of my father were standing next to the casket. And some of them looked terribly funny. There was a little fellow – an oboist – who had his silk hat on that was much too small – a little fat man. There was a terribly tall man who played the bassoon who had a hat that was much too big for him; and it went way down on his head. And that sight was so hilarious. And I said to my mother, “If father could open his eyes and see this, he would have died laughing anyway.” And my mother started laughing.
JD: Was your father a man who really enjoyed humor? VB: Oh, yes. He was very witty. And you talked about the Nazis. You cannot fight a situation like that with words. You must have more than just words, because you can’t do it scientifically. You have to have something that goes deeper than words. And that is, I think, humor. Humor is one of the things that can create things in a man or in a woman, in a person, like nothing else. It’s like tickling somebody. I remember once in Denmark we had a problem – we had a tax issue… They wouldn’t accept a regular 10% tax for my performances when I finally went to the stage and did theatrical performances, because they said it was variety or something like that. Concerts were 10%. If I played concerts, they were 10%, but if it were theatrical things like I do now, it would be 20%. And I went to court with it, and I insisted that all I did was exactly the same thing: when I played piano, I would touch some muscles in you or some feelings in you that would make you either cry or feel good or feel bad or resent it. And when I talked, I would do the same thing, but probably activate other muscles or other things in your body. And why should one be 20% and the other should be only 10%, which I thought was unfair? And I won the case. I had to pay 20% for both (laughing). No, I won the case, of course.
JD: The Nazi invasion of Denmark was what brought you to America, drove you to America, I suppose. But you did make your choice to come to New York. You’ve referred to it as the day you were born. VB: The day I was re-born. Yes.
JD: Why did you choose America? VB: I didn’t, but the ship went here, and I didn’t have influence (laughing). As a matter of fact, if I did have influence, I would still come to America for two reasons. Where else could you go at that time? And that was the country, to which I had my tickets. And I was fortunate, of course.
JD: I see. But earning a living here was a bit difficult at the beginning, wasn’t it? VB: It is always a difficult thing. It was impossible because I couldn’t speak the language, and nobody knew me.
And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.”
JD: As a performer this would be difficult unless you would play the piano, of course. VB: Yes, but where? You don’t go around just playing the piano. You have to know somebody. I remember somebody told me to go down to Florida to Palm Beach maybe to get involved with some of the big balls and parties there, you know, I could entertain and play, but, of course, I wouldn’t talk – I couldn’t say a word. And they sent me to a local agent. And he said, “What do you do?” I said, as well as I could say, “Well, I play the piano.” And he was going to get me a job at one of the big festivals. He said, “What do you play? I said, “I play the piano.” He said, “If somebody said, for instance, “Play the Blue Danube, what would you do?” I said, “I would play the Blue Danube, of course.” And he said, “Ok, let me hear it.” And I said, “Ok, do you have some music?” And he brought me some music, and I played it upside down. And then I turned the page around and I said, “I am sorry,” and I did it the regular way. He threw me out of the office.
JD: He did? Didn’t appreciate it. VB: No. He said, “You can’t even read music.” (laughing)
JD: Your first break came at Bing Crosby, I gather. VB: Yes.
JD: Did you really chauffer a family out West to get out West? VB: Yes. It was some friends of mine who had a daughter who was going to get married in San Francisco and would like to have a car out there. And that was my chance to come to the West Coast, where Hollywood, of course, loomed. And having made movies, I thought, when I get out there… just wait till I get out there. I am still waiting.
JD: You only made one movie, as the matter of fact. VB: Yes, that wasn’t a movie. That was a catastrophe.
JD: It was. VB: That was called “Higher and Higher.” I played Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor, an English nobleman. I could hardly speak English.
JD: How did you learn to speak English? VB: I didn’t (laughing).
JD: It’s been a real asset, hasn’t it? VB: Yes. I am still trying.
JD: I asked that as I am sure you know because the research material on you indicates that when you went to movies when you first landed in New York. Is that so? VB: Yes, I went to 42nd street where, I think, for 50 cents one could see three movies, and you could sit there for 24 hours if you wanted to. And I sat sometimes for almost 24 hours, because it repeated, and I could see the action with the words, and I would memorize the words and say them with the actors. And nobody would be disturbed, because there would be hardly anybody else in the theater. And that was… I don’t think I learned to actually speak English, but it helped a lot.
JD: You must have learned a lot of other things as well. VB: I sure did.
JD: Were they useful? VB: Well, I tried some. For instance, once I would pass a pretty girl on the street, and I said, “Hi, Babe!” She must have seen the same movie, because she said, “Scram bum!” or something like that.
It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer.
JD: I’ve heard that you are a perfectionist. That you really only feel well when you know that you’ve done extremely well, and you get depressed when you don’t feel that you’ve done your best. Is that so? VB: No, it is not exactly so. I don’t see it’s a matter of feeling that you have done your best because, once you do that then there is nothing left over. There should be something left over. That doesn’t mean that you would try to do what the situation calls for, but I think that if one has done one’s best, one has finished somehow, you know. It might be a little deep. I have never been completely satisfied with anything I have done, in spite of the fact that I have been encouraged. For instance, I have never improvised to the extent where I have said to myself, “This was marvelous.” But I have said, “This was nice, but had I only done such and such, it would have been…” You know, I always have that little thing left over. And I also have a feeling, for instance, a very gratifying feeling, when I finish the performance, and some of the people come afterwards or later they say, “I wish you had played some more…” or “I wish it had lasted longer.” It’s a great satisfaction to know that somebody wants more of whatever you have to offer. And granted that some people would probably say, “We didn’t want any of it,” but that’s their own fault – you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
But it is like driving an automobile. I can drive 140 miles. Good to know, but you don’t drive 140 miles. You have that excess, you have a little extra. And it’s good to know that you could possibly do a little better next time. Or there is something that could always be improved. I am very sensitive with letters, for instance. I often take much too much time to write a good letter. I am very fond of good letters. Because I think that the way we express ourselves in a letter mirrors ourselves, many things that, otherwise, don’t come to the fore. But in a letter, many people contradict themselves, actually. You know what they mean. For instance, like the letter from a lady who said to me she had such a marvelous time at the show and that she hadn’t laughed so hard since her husband died. Now, of course, we know….
I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: But you know what she meant… VB: Of course, I know what she meant. And that was very sweet…
JD: But saying precisely what you do means a great satisfaction. VB: Exactly. And when I read the letter all over again, and I finally sign it, I say, “This I could have said a little better.” In other words, I am very critical, particularly with myself, but I forgive easily.
JD: Thank you very much, Mr. Borge.
Interview Transcribed and Adapted for Publication by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)
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.
Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
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.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
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.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
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!
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
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.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
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.
Enjoyed the interview? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.
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.”
1. Abbott, J. 2010. Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents. London: Continuum.
2. Chandler, S. 2004. 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself: Change Your Life Forever. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.
3. Chi, M. T. H., Siler, S. A., Jeong, H., Yamauchi, T., Hausmann, R. G. 2001. Learning from Human Tutoring. Cognitive Science 25: 471–533.
4. Covey, S. 1994. First Things First. New York: Simon & Schuster.
5. Lepper, M. R. and Woolverton, M. 2002. The Wisdom of Practice: Lessons Learned from the Study of Highly Effective Tutors. 6. In J. Aronson (ed.), Improving Academic Achievement. New York: Academic, pp. 135–158.
7. Mithen, Steve. 2005. The Singing Neanderthals. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
8. Perkins, D. 1992. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press.
9. Ozubko, J. D. and Macleod, C. M. 2010. The Production Effect in Memory: Evidence that Distinctiveness Underlies the Benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology 36(6): 1543–1547.
10. Stahl, R. 1994. Using “Think Time” and “Wait Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC.
11. Zhukov, K. 2012. Teaching Strategies and Gender in Higher Education Instrumental
Studios. International Journal of Music Education 30(1): 32–45.
Jane Stirling’s (OBM) name has long been associated with Chopin’s (OBM) whenever discussions occur regarding his teaching and the final period of his life. In Western music history, she is known as an ardent supporter of her teacher, arguably the most popular classical music composer of today, and she is credited to have provided financial and professional support for him during his most desolate days. The Fryderyck Chopin Museum in Poland entitled their special exhibition in 2011 with the following words from the famous pupil, “I trust that there will always remain something to be done for him.” Her tireless devotion to Chopin is evidenced by her multiple roles as Chopin’s pupil, secretary, agent, business manager, concert organizer, benefactor, and the first “musicologist” of his music.
Jane Wilhelmina Stirling (OBM) was a descendent of the aristocratic Scottish clan, “Stirlings of Keir.” The family made its fortune from West Indian Sugar plantations, and Stirling was brought up as a prim Calvinist. She possessed a reputation of unimpeachable purity and was rumored to have turned down over 30 marriage proposals. It is known that Stirling was an accomplished pianist, and Chopin once remarked that “one day you will play very, very well.” The works she studied with Chopin included his finest and most technically advanced output such as the Etudes op. 10 and 25, the Fantaisie op. 49, the Sonatas and the Concerto No. 2. Stirling was a well educated noblewoman who spent copious time in Paris. She was introduced to Chopin around 1842 or 1843 and subsequently became his pupil. Stirling’s scores, along with annotations in Chopin’s hand had become a treasure trove of insight into his teaching and provided invaluable glimpses into his ideas regarding tempo indications, fingerings, ornamentation and pedaling. In terms of personal dedications, Chopin wrote two nocturnes in F minor and E-flat major, Opus 55 between 1842 and 1844 for Stirling. Following his death, she remained in close contact with Chopin’s sister Ludwika Jedrzejewicz (OBM) in order to manage his estate and his manuscripts.
Chopin wrote two nocturnes in F minor and E-flat major, Opus 55 between 1842 and 1844 for Stirling.
In 1848, Chopin encountered immense financial difficulties. His teaching of aristocratic students in Paris became unstable due to the outbreak of the French revolution, and his income virtually vanished overnight when nobilities fled the city. In order to alleviate him from debt, and having been informed of his break up with George Sand (OBM), Stirling initiated a plan for Chopin to tour and teach in England. Upon his arrival in London, Stirling stocked his apartment “with writing paper bearing his initials” and attended to every detail. However, despite performing in front of Queen Victoria (OBM) and Prince Albert (OBM) and socializing with the upper echelons of London society, Chopin was still “sorely in need of money,” since some pupils failed to pay for their lessons. Once again, Stirling became aware of the difficulties Chopin encountered and extended an invitation for him to visit Scotland and to pay for his expenses. He would be a welcomed guest at the Stirling family estate and concerts were organized for him in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Manchester. Unfortunately, Chopin was not able to acclimatize to the damp, cold British weather, and along with the lack of rest, all these factors took a serious toll on his health. He wrote to his friends, “my health varies from one hour to the next. In the mornings there are times I think I’ll absolutely cough myself to death.” (1)
However, despite performing in front of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and socializing with the upper echelons of London society, Chopin was still “sorely in need of money,” since some pupils failed to pay for their lessons.
While in Scotland, Stirling, along with her sister Katherine Erskine (OBM) the widow, transported Chopin around the Scottish region with countless visits to the homes of aristocracy and clan members. Due to his inability to communicate and understand English, he was only able to “watch them talk and listen to them drink.” Clearly this type of daily routine become tiresome increasingly insufferable for Chopin. He wrote, “one more day here will drive me mad if it doesn’t kill me.” (2) He found that the English and Scots were not a crowd of audience with the sense of artistic appreciation that he craved. “I feel alone, alone, alone, although I am surrounded,” he wrote.
When Stirling learnt of this news, she bought 100 tickets at half a guinea apiece to distribute to friends in an attempt to fill up the hall.
However, in order to maximize his income from the visit and to promote her teacher to the audience, Stirling organized recitals for him, and Chopin continued to stay in the northern region of the British Isles. Chopin was due to perform a solo recital at the prestigious Hopetoun Rooms in Edinburgh but due to a lack of publicity, ticket sales were poor. When Stirling learnt of this news, she bought 100 tickets at half a guinea apiece to distribute to friends in an attempt to fill up the hall. At times, the constant doting from Stirling and Erskine became intolerable for Chopin, and he excused himself to stay with the Polish doctor and his wife – the Lyszczyńskis (OBM) – in Edinburgh. Despite this, Stirling wrote to Chopin everyday, and the close contact inadvertently rendered rumors that Stirling had become Chopin’s fiancée and after his death, she was mistakenly named by a few as “Chopin’s widow.” However, the truth is revealed in Chopin’s own words in response to the engagement rumor, that “I’m nearer to a coffin than a wedding bed.” (3)
Nevertheless, Jane Stirling, along with Camille Dubois (OBM), Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (OBM), Eugène Delacroix (OBM), Auguste Franchomme (OBM), Pauline Viardot (OBM), and Jenny Lind (OBM) formed a circle as Chopin’s closest friends and pupils. Through Stirling’s letters and writings, her admiration and respect for Chopin became easily perceptible. In reference to his teaching, she deemed it to be “marvelous” and in her commentary about his playing, she praised that the chords he played “sounded more celestial than of this earth and contained an aspiration that extend into eternity.” (4) After she heard one of Chopin’s most successful pupils – Camille Dubois – perform, she remarked that she “ardently wish[es] her to preserve the [Chopin] tradition.”(5) Personally and professionally, she was devoted to Chopin. Apart from the tour to England and Scotland, Jane Stirling arranged for Chopin to perform at the Salle Pleyel in February 1848, which was to be his final concert appearance in Paris. By this time, Chopin was suffering from influenza, and Stirling had reportedly remained backstage to care for Chopin as soon as he stepped off the performing stage.
After Chopin’s death in 1849, Stirling bought his last Pleyel piano and involved herself with matters regarding the publication of Chopin’s posthumous works. She was reported to have singlehandedly funded his funeral, including the costs of the orchestra and chorus.
Her efforts to preserve his legacy and generosity by providing her personal scores for study had made an immense contribution to the world
According to the memoir of Solange Clésinger-Sand, the daughter of George Sand, Stirling was described as a “thin, pale, ageless, solemn [and] never smiling woman.” But there is no doubt that Stirling, through her devotion, had exerted significant impact on Chopin’s life and especially his later years. She stopped playing the piano for one year following Chopin’s death and in the subsequent years, dressed in black. It had been reported that she repeatedly performed the C minor prelude Op. 28 No. 2 , dubbed the “Funeral March,” in public after her teacher’s passing away. Her efforts to preserve his legacy and generosity by providing her personal scores for study had made an immense contribution to the world of Chopin scholarship, and the knowledge gained still impacts the teaching and playing of Chopin’s music today. The Chopin artifacts she bought, collected, and passed onto his family benefitted Chopin institutions and enriched archive collections.
Atwood, William G. Fryderyk Chopin: pianist from Warsaw. New York: Columbia U Press, 1987. Print.
Cholmondeley, Rose. “Chopin’s Visit to Britain, 1848.” The Chopin Society UK, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.
Eigeldinger, Jean Jacques. Chopin– Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.
Eisler, Benita. “Chopin’s Funeral.” The New York Times. N.p., 20 Apr. 2003. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.
Hadden, J. Cuthbert. Chopin: By J. Cuthbert Hadden. Adelaide: Cambridge Scholars, 2002. Print.
Portraits of Greatness Chopin. New York: Elite Corporation, 1966. Print.
Smialek, William, and Maja Trochimczyk. Frédéric Chopin: A Research and Information Guide. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.
About the Author:
Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.
When it comes to the business of piano performance, Christian Tamburr (MGBH) seems to have it all figured out. A talented entrepreneur as well as a gifted musician, he has paved his road to success (not without divine providence, of course) by using his outstanding interpersonal skills and a solid business sense. With vibraphone as his secondary instrument, he has performed in dozens of prestigious venues, produced his own albums, collaborated with many outstanding musicians, and even created a successful corporate leadership program. Here is an up close and personal with Christian Tamburr. Prepare to take notes.
PPM: Would you, please, tell our readers a little bit about yourself? Your family, your childhood….. CT: I grew up as an only child. My mother and father always had music playing in the house. My father played guitar. Some of my first memories were sitting on his lap strumming along. When I was 6 years old, I visited my great aunt in New Jersey whom I had never really met, however she had a beautiful baby grand in the living room. My parents told me not to touch and, of course, once I was out of sight of them, went and started to play the instrument. Apparently, I had a certain sensibility on the instrument and much to the shock of my parents, my aunt seemed to enjoy seeing me play this forbidden piece of furniture. A few years later, my great aunt passed away and her entire estate was auctioned off.
Approximately a month after the estate sale, a moving truck arrived to our home in Florida with a delivery for “Christian Tamburr” (which I was 7 years old at the time).
Approximately a month after the estate sale, a moving truck arrived to our home in Florida with a delivery for “Christian Tamburr” (which I was 7 years old at the time). It turned out my aunt only left one thing to one person and that one thing was her Wurlitzer baby grand piano to me. I really fell in love with the piano and, although with limited understanding of the functionality, used my ear to navigate playing along with my father as he played the guitar. This early developmental step in learning to play by ear was a critical step in my ability to understand harmony, melody, and improvisation.
PPM: Where did you get your music education and who was your first piano teacher? CT: My first piano teacher was Mrs. Rowe. I took approximately 6 months of lessons when I was in 4th grade. I wasn’t exactly the best student. I realized my ear was much better then my sight-reading, and I would have my teacher tape the exercises and etudes. I would go home, play the tape and learn it all perfectly by ear. That for me was the fastest way to get the “required material” learned and move on to making up my own music. Mrs. Rowe could have hampered that approach, however she fostered it. She continued to bring in harder material both classical and popular music, and her approach was to maintain good technique over sight-reading. I paid a bit for this when I first got into band in Jr. High but I eventually got it all together. In all honesty, I’m still not the strongest sight-reader, however I can hold my own in a professional setting and after one pass I generally have it, both by reading and also using my ear!
After completing High School I went to the University of North Florida and studied jazz performance on piano and vibraphone. I left after two years and moved to Las Vegas, which is pretty typical, so people tell me. With regards to education, my “real world experience” has led to various teaching opportunities including teaching as an adjunct faculty member at UNLV when I was 21 years old, to most recently as Artist in Residence at Florida Institute of Technology. I spend a great deal of time traveling to schools of all levels with the opportunity of inspiring young musicians to pursue their dreams in music.
I spend a great deal of time traveling to schools of all levels with the opportunity of inspiring young musicians to pursue their dreams in music.
PPM: What was your first piano project/job? CT: My first major “job” as a musician was playing for vocalist Michael Andrew (MGBH) out of Orlando, Florida. He had produced a show called “Mickey Swingerhead and the Earthgirls.” I played piano, vibraphone, and percussion in the show, and it was truly my first paying “gig” at age 14. We continued to work together for many years, which included performances all over the US with his touring band Swingerhead, headlining at venues such as Windows on the World on the 114th floor of the World Trade Center, Merv Griffin’s (OBM) Coconut Room, and The Rainbow Room. Michael was a huge supporter of my talent and as a friend in the industry. His mentorship as a bandleader taught me from the start of my career how to treat other musicians and tour around the world. We continue to work together and maintain a great friendship.
I began my career with Julio Iglesias in September of 2006, and the opportunity came about in a rather strange way
PPM: Can you tell our readers about your experience of working with Julio Iglesias (MGBH)? How did this project come about and what were the most valuable experiences you took with you moving forward? CT: I began my career with Julio Iglesias in September of 2006, and the opportunity came about in a rather strange way, which harps back to the “ya never know who you are talking to” mention from above. I was touring my quintet in St. Petersburg, Russia as a part of a jazz cruise we were performing on. While on an excursion with passengers of the ship, a man approached me and commented on how much he enjoyed my playing and band. I thanked him, and he went on to say he was a drummer. In that split moment, I put on the professional hat and commented on his kindness towards our music and asked a bit about his musical experience. As it turned out, he was the touring drummer for Julio amongst many other major touring artists. Of course, I’m so glad I approached his “hey I’m a drummer” comment with positivity as his connection led to a direct call with Julio who was looking for a pianist. After some very exciting phone calls and negotiations with Julio and his road manager, I took the position as 2nd keyboardist. We rehearsed for weeks in Miami learning all music “by ear” as there was no music, and the music that did exist was old and didn’t match the updated show. I spent time with recordings that were given to me and created my own lead sheets, which I used as basic road maps but ultimately I had to use my ear to get through the rehearsals. Once into the touring show it took months but I slowly integrated real piano into the somewhat synth heavy sonic landscape. We were in Paraguay, and I started a song, usually on electric keyboard, on piano, and Julio turned right around and looked at me… smiled and made a hand gesture for more. Over time I started to integrate my love for the acoustic piano into the show, and by 2008 I had moved my sound into his music and was leading the band as musical director. From a technical stand point, Julio expected to hear his accompaniment exactly the same every night. There was little to no improvisation or variation on harmony or melody in the piano chair, which for me was actually quite hard. As my experience was always based in jazz, which thrives on variation, learning to play the part (which technically never existed) exactly the same each night was incredibly difficult, but valuable.
I reached out to Clint (MGBH) as I knew it would be an incredible opportunity to spend quality time together, make a lot of music and really get the chance to show him all sides of my musical diversity… from performer to arranger to band leader.
PPM: How did you start working with Clint Holmes (MGBH)? CT: I met Clint Holmes when I first moved to Las Vegas in 2001. I saw him performing at Harrah’s and remember thinking to myself just how amazing he and his band were. He acknowledged the musicians and really let them play, and for all intensive purposes seemed to be having a great time musically on stage. In 2013, met up with Clint again at a jam session in San Francisco. We shared the stage and really hit it off. A month later I was presented with the opportunity to feature a jazz septet on a jazz cruise where I could bring 6 internationally recognized musicians with me. I reached out to Clint as I knew it would be an incredible opportunity to spend quality time together, make a lot of music and really get the chance to show him all sides of my musical diversity… from performer to arranger to band leader. We did that tour and have been working together ever since. In March of 2015, I started working as an arranger/musical director for him at his residency at the Smith Center here in Las Vegas. In January 2016 I became his full-time Musical Director and Arranger for our new headline show “Clint Holmes – Between the Lines” at the Palazzo Hotel here in Las Vegas. The show features a stunning 8 piece band and original arrangements on music ranging from Stevie Wonder (MGBH) to John Mayer (MGBH) to Bruno Mars (MGBH), to Ed Sheeran (MGBH), to Gershwin (OBM).
PPM: What is Sonic Leadership and where are you with this project now being so busy with your current engagement with Chris Holmes? CT: I developed Sonic Leadership in 2009. I was asked to put together a brief 15-minute keynote speech for a leadership seminar. I focused the speech on attributes of leadership musician’s use when we walk on stage to execute a high level performance and translated it into content that business executives could understand and learn from. Since then, we average about one or two Sonic Leadership presentations a month, and as they often are onsite at companies around the world, they fall in the middle of the work week, which works well with my long weekend performance schedule. To date we have presented this musically inspired program on leadership to companies such as Google, Cisco Systems, St Regis, and Starwood Hotels amongst many others. The program is scalable and the presentations range in length from 45 minute to 90 minutes using a live five-piece band, myself as lead presenter and a whole lot of interaction with our attendees. I love it as it combines my love of music, the business behind making it all happen and of course talking!
PPM: Can you, please, tell our readers a little bit about ShowHive? CT: ShowHive is a production company based out of Los Angeles and New York City. It’s co-owned by two brilliant friends of mine Garrett Cain (MGBH) and Emmett Murphy (MGBH). This company focuses on the creation from the ground up to final execution of live production shows. As head arranger and composer, I work with the creative team to produce original new music and original new arrangements of popular music for these production shows. We just finished a huge project creating 8 brand new production shows for Norwegian Cruise Lines, which are being performed nightly around the world.
I don’t care if you have 6 Grammys or if you just walked out of your senior recital from college, if you are a nice human being, I’d love to work with you.
PPM: As a Jazz Cruise producer, what do you look for in selecting talent for your projects? CT: A person must be a true artist on his or her instrument. Must be passionate about their music and the value it brings to those around them. Must be a professional. This sounds obvious, but this entails everything from showing up on time, dressing appropriately, having the material learned and ready to play to being respectful of me, other musicians and crew. Being a nice human being. I don’t care if you have 6 Grammys or if you just walked out of your senior recital from college, if you are a nice human being, I’d love to work with you.
PPM: What is your dream as a jazz piano performer? CT: My dream as a performer is to have the blessing to be able to continue to make a living doing what I love to do. I have had the great fortune of only playing music as a career for the past 20 years and at 36 years of age I still have a lot of playing and living to do. Getting to travel around the world and share great music with appreciative listeners is so special.
PPM: Your have travelled over 65 countries. What are some of the most unforgettable experiences for you on a personal level? CT: With over 65 countries visited, and I think 66 since my bio was last updated, it’s a whole other article worth of some of the great stories… but here are a few highlights.
Sitting at the piano with basketball legend Michael Jordan playing together “How do you keep the Music Playing” in Charlotte NC.
Renting a Ferrari for a day to drive the Monte Carlo race course while in town at the Monte Casino with Julio Iglesias.
Rolling a marimba down the streets of Abu Dhabi preparing for an outdoor performance in 114-degree heat.
Throwing snowballs in June in Siberia while on tour with my quartet.
Performing on top of Windows of the World on the 114th floor of the World Trade Center – NYC.
African Safari with band while on tour in Cape Town – South Africa.
Crossing a rushing river with 27 person Julio Iglesias crew on board a barge from Argentina to Paraguay.
Surprising actress Julia Roberts (MGBH) for he 40th birthday with a special private performance in NYC.
Performing inside Japanese Buddhist Temples throughout Japan.
Opening my first main stage headline Las Vegas show as co-producer arranger/band leader for Clint Holmes ‘Between the Lines.”
PPM: How did you pick the members of your quintet? Is there a story with each player? CT: I pick musicians to be in my band that I enjoy spending time with. Considering we only spend about 90 minutes on stage, the other 22 hours or so in a day has got to be filled with good times and good people. Over the years, my band members have changed, but there are a few long time members.
My bassist, Billy Thornton (MGBH), is from Tifton GA, and we met my first year of College. He and I have toured all over the world together, and he is one of my favorite people on this earth. He is an amazing bassist, and I look forward to his energy and smile each time we walk on stage. My Trumpet Player, Dominick Facinacci (MGBH), is from Cleveland Ohio. We met in 2009 after knowing of each other for years through mutual mentor Ira Sullivan (MGBH). There are few people that can make me laugh as much as he can, and his playing is truly superb! Each “kat” as we call them in the jazz world has their story and I’m grateful to share the stage with them anywhere and anytime we can.
When I was 22 years old, I was living in Las Vegas and had just finished a short residency performing at the Bellagio with a great band called the Noel Freidline Quintet. The ever-changing landscape of live performance venues in Vegas has meant you really need to keep on your toes. By chance, magician Penn (MGBH) from Penn & Teller had learned of my playing, and we became friends. One day he asked me to come see the show and comment on the opening act called “the magic box,” which featured Penn playing upright bass and Teller playing a spinet piano. In the green room after I mentioned that although Teller playing the piano at the end is impressive, its not a very powerful moment as the small box piano didn’t sound all that great, and he was seated, which didn’t look all that great. I suggested he should consider playing the simple melody on Vibraphone (my other primary instrument). Penn loved the idea, and in the next 24 hours I was tasked with composing the music for Teller to play and installing it into their multi-million dollar production show at the Rio.
I tell students all the time, when the phone rings, the more opportunities for you to say “yes, I can do that” is just one more opportunity for you to keep moving forward in this business.
I mention this story, because as a performer, I found myself in a unique situation to expand my ability to make a living. Composing and directing was something I did all the time, but had never thought to capitalize on it. This opportunity really brought me out of my shell for the commercial composition side of the business and opened my eyes to a ton of opportunity. I tell students all the time, when the phone rings, the more opportunities for you to say “yes, I can do that” is just one more opportunity for you to keep moving forward in this business. I spend about 50% of my time in the studio composing and arranging and the other 50% of the time performing. I compose and arrange in all styles and genres, and love being challenged with new projects.
PPM: What are the biggest challenges of a professional musician today, in your opinion? CT: As professional musicians we have a lot to go up against. So much has changed even in the time that I have been playing music – from the record industry, to live music to social media. We now more then ever have the ability to connect with our audience. We can share our travels, our performances and our personal life with a click of a button. Where I don’t believe EVERYTHING should be shared I do believe in a fast moving technology driven society, we must find a way to use these tools for the good of our career. I spend a great deal of time on LinkedIn, which connects me to professionals in all areas of music, production, booking, film, TV, and touring. I spend about 70% of my time focused on my professional career and the other 30% of the time playing music. If that seems off to anyone, then you’re probably not making a living playing music. When you achieve a certain level of professionalism and accreditation on your instrument the assumption is “that’s good enough” and now I’ll just sit back and wait for the opportunities to come along. The truth is, I’ve never wanted to wait. I prefer to be the one making the phone calls verse waiting for them.
I remember a clinician in college telling my jazz combo, “They see you before they hear you”. He was referencing the importance of how one carries oneself both on stage and off, from how you dress as a professional to how you speak to people. You never know who you’re talking to, and in many cases people will form an opinion of you before they even hear you play your instrument.
PPM: Can we discuss your CD “People Talk”? What was the inspiration for it and what was it like working on this project? CT: My newest album “people talk” – released January 2016 is my first “concept album”. I generally release pretty typical “band” configuration albums, but I wanted to try something different with just piano, vibraphone, and percussion. The two other artists on the album are Takana Miyamoto (pn) (MGBH), and Keita Ogawa (pc) (MGBH) are both from Japan and are both fantastic. The music I wrote has influences of Asian, South American, and American music. The music was specifically written for this ensemble, and it’s a joy to play. The City Suite is a three-piece movement that takes my impression of the sound track to three of my favorite cities – Tokyo, New York City, and Paris. I loved exploring my memories of those cities and writing that suite. It’s my favorite music on the album.
PPM: From reading your bio, what struck me the most was not only your professionalism, but also the fact that you were able to build a career by successfully collaborating with so many other musicians, creating and maintaining professional relationships. It seems that you know how to talk to people, how to get them inspired, and, most importantly, you inspire them for meaningful collaborations. CT: I’ve always been a “people person.” Growing up in a home without other children made it that I was interacting with adults more then I was other kids. I remember a clinician in college telling my jazz combo, “They see you before they hear you”. He was referencing the importance of how one carries oneself both on stage and off, from how you dress as a professional to how you speak to people. You never know who you’re talking to, and in many cases people will form an opinion of you before they even hear you play your instrument. In this industry, we need all the help we can get so the importance of being comfortable talking and interacting with your audience is as important if not more important then how you play on stage. When people meet you and get to know you, they start to learn about where your passion comes from, what drives you to pursue your dreams. They hear your personal triumphs and also your struggles. When someone can relate with you be it a doctor, or a lawyer, a football coach, they can relate with how you play your music and the connection becomes that much stronger. I try to be myself, smile, bring a sense of humor to the stage (which is who I am) and that spirit fills the music and fills the ears and minds of the audience.
I spend about 70% of my time focused on my professional career and the other 30% of the time playing music. If that seems off to anyone, then you’re probably not making a living playing music.
PPM: Thank you for sharing your story and your insights with the readers, Christian. May your dreams come true, and may you be always full of energy and enthusiasm towards your work and people in general.
With the end of the summer festival season, a new school year has arrived, and for many young pianists so has the college application process. Perhaps, the most important aspect of applying for music schools is the pre-screening recording that determines which applicants are invited for a live audition in the winter. With the level of competition higher than ever to be accepted to prestigious schools, the level of professionalism behind your recording can make the difference in being invited to audition or being rejected.
Being new to this process can feel daunting. From a young age, we, pianists, are trained to focus on just one thing – our playing. But in this modern world, it isn’t enough anymore to just play one’s instrument. You need to also have knowledge of other aspects of the music industry, where the art of recording is one of the key aspects.
There is something sacred about the recording process. All is silent in the hall, you press “go” and wait a few seconds, absorbing the silence. Then, when the moment is right, the music takes over. Unlike in a live performance where the audience is, to an extent, also a participant in the activity, recording is all about the pursuit of perfection, seeking your definitive interpretation and setting it down for all time.
You’ll be surprised at first to hear your recording. The way we perceive our playing when it is happening often isn’t the same as the audience perceives it.
WHAT TO PLAY
I would recommend only setting your most comfortable, well-tested pieces to record. Try recording yourself on a regular basis so that by the time you get set to make your final recordings, you feel centered and ready to go. You’ll be surprised at first to hear your recording. The way we perceive our playing when it is happening often isn’t the same as the audience perceives it. You might notice strange tempo fluctuations or that your range of dynamics needs to be improved.
With most pre-screening recordings due alongside the applications for many schools on December 1st, I would recommend doing your recordings well before the due date. October is a really good time to record, and it can be helpful to do a live recital a few weeks before to make sure your pieces are really ready to go. Setting your music to record a few months before the due date also gives you the chance to do the recordings again a few weeks later if you discovered that you weren’t ready.
Of course, it helps to have a well-maintained piano of the highest quality possible. Of course, if you’re still in high school working on college pre-screening recordings, your best options may be a church or a local piano dealer. See if the manager will let you do some of your recordings after normal business hours.
On the day of the recording, it is worth it to play around with the arrangement of objects on stage and the lighting in the room. It also helps the overall production your playing to dress professionally. Treat this like an actual performance!
Recording equipment (cameras, microphones, tripods) is usually available for check out from the technology center at your school, meaning this can be done for cheap.
Make sure to test out all of the equipment a few days before you record to make sure you are familiar with the set up. Some microphone systems require a ‘mixer’ that plugs into your computer (essentially a device that helps the microphones communicate with your computer). There are also some microphones that require what is known as “phantom power.” Without the phantom power switched on, your microphones will not actually pick up your performance. Try to familiarize yourself with GarageBand if you own a Mac or a related program so you aren’t trying to learn this for the first time on the day of the recording. Video cameras should also be tested a few days early so that you are familiar with the recording mechanism. Once I turned on the camera and played for about an hour and a half only to discover that the camera stopped recording after 30 minutes because it was on the wrong setting! Be sure to check the settings for automatic shut offs. You want to make sure that you have all of your bases covered prior to recording.
Once I turned on the camera and played for about an hour and a half only to discover that the camera stopped recording after 30 minutes because it was on the wrong setting!
The placement of your equipment during the recording is also an important factor to consider. I had the best result when I placed the microphones about 4-5 feet away from the piano. Having the microphones at this distance from the piano allowed for the sound to blend with the natural acoustic of the room without sacrificing the clarity of attack. Placing the microphones too close to the strings works with some types of microphones, but I found that it creates a sound that is shrill and bright. Placing the microphones too far away from the instrument results in a warm quality of sound, but the music itself sounds washed-out. On the day of the recording, you should expect the set up to take at least an hour in order to arrange the equipment and balance the microphones. The input level should be set as high as possible without “clipping” the sound and tripping the feedback detector; you should play the loudest sections of your pieces when testing the microphones to attain the right balance. If the input is set too low, then the recording will not register a very wide range of dynamics.
For the camera, you’re going to want to make sure you can see your whole body in the pre-screening video, and especially the hands must be easily visible. The most conventional position to film is the pianist’s profile, but one time I experimented with setting up the camera way up high over my left shoulder and was quite satisfied because it provided such a great view of my hands (see my self-produced video of Liszt’s 13th Hungarian Rhapsody on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GZDA5H6ops).
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
In my experience, if you haven’t gotten the take you hoped for by the third try, it probably isn’t going to happen that day. I have found that two things could result from putting in too many tries. First, continued takes will put a strain on your concentration and the mistakes will begin to multiply. The second thing that may happen is that you finally achieve that note-perfect performance only to listen back and realize that the expression was flat. You’ll be surprised how many times I listened back to my own takes just to realize that the first take was actually where I played with the most vitality.
SHOULD YOU HAVE A HELPER?
I have found that I perform at my best when I am uninhibited by time restraints. Having others around causes me to feel concerned about how the process is taking up a lot of their time. Of course, it can really help to have someone more experienced with the recording process around, but once you get the hang of things, it is best to manage it alone. I have also found that it isn’t always necessary to stop recording in between movements or entire pieces. If you think the extra step of getting up from the piano bench to stop the recording is distracting, then keep recording.
Remember that, above all else, you want this recording to capture the essence of who you are as a musician.
Many schools require pre-screenings to be submitted as a video in addition to the audio to ensure no cheating took place. This video should be submitted without any cuts, but it doesn’t hurt to use iMovie to put some credits and a fade-in at the beginning.
Remember that, above all else, you want this recording to capture the essence of who you are as a musician. The faculty are really looking for somebody who plays with a lot of expression and personality, and who seems very dedicated to the music. They aren’t necessarily looking for perfection, so get out there and have fun while you play!
About the Author:
Michael Refvem enjoys a multifaceted career as recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist. He recently moved to Montréal, where he enjoys walks in the old town and Mount Royal in his spare time.
“Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts.
There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven!”
-Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven (OBM) showed scant respect for those who generated their sense of worth through birthright alone. In his view, achievement and success were the result of effort and perseverance. But most people see it differently. The majority – even 75% of music educators – subscribe to a theory that superior achievement in music is part of a genetic endowment. Most will put that it must also include hard work, opportunities, parental encouragement and so forth, but ultimately, one must have the X factor, the natural, unbidden genetic talent, to really achieve. Logically, knowledge and ability can only derive from genetic endowment or living experience, so it must be one or the other, or the combination theory. The problem with gene theory is that researchers are yet to find gene systems among the 25 000 or so genes with which we are born that result in special musical ability. If musical talent or any other talent is innate then there must be a gene for it. Where is the evidence of genes for complex and multi-faceted behaviours? This is the challenge for talent theorists. Talent genes may well be discovered in the future but if they do not exist, then where does musicality emanate? Can something come from nothing? Is talent a gift from G-d? Homer (OBM) seemed to think so. From the Ancient World through the Renaissance, artistic skill was viewed as an intuitive gift rather than the result of effort. To this day, musical ability is more often considered innately derived than any other ability or human faculty. This is the elephant in the music education classroom. Ignorance is not a point of view. We must get to the truth of this because of the seismic impact of the implications. According to talent theory, some lucky individuals win the genetic lottery. They are born with musical talent and fortunate circumstances allow them to find opportunities to nurture this gift early in their lives. So-called evidence for this is anecdotal and stories of exceptional prodigies abound. How, for example, could Mozart’s (OBM) precocity be explained in any other way?
To this day, musical ability is more often considered innately derived than any other ability or human faculty. This is the elephant in the music education classroom.
Actually, Mozart’s musical feats can be explained rationally. The biographies of all great composers reveal substantial and sustained early training, supported by family and tutors. Mozart was no different. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction 230 years after the event, but several factors do help account for his accomplishments. Mozart was immersed in a concentrated musical environment from his earliest days. His father, Leopold (OBM), was an excellent music educator and took every opportunity to earnestly promote his son’s musical ability. Stories such as that of two-year-old Wolfgang identifying the sound of pig squeals as G-sharp should be taken with a grain of salt, as they were most likely spawned by his father, who was not always honest in relation to his son where music was concerned. As Camille Saint-Saens (OBM) says, “History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myths .” Leopold was known to subtract a year from the ages of his children, Wolfgang and Nannerl, when advertising their performances. Leopold was a smart operator. He knew that lowering his children’s ages would augment their appeal and perhaps enhance his own reputation as a teacher; it is not unusual for parents to embellish facts to help their children get ahead. A closer inspection of Mozart’s childhood compositions indicates assistance from his father as well as thematic material borrowed from other composers, notably Johann Christian Bach (OBM), with whom Mozart collaborated in London at the age of nine. If we accept that these are normal processes that lead to achievement, even extraordinary achievement, then none of this is an issue. Imitation is a natural part of the learning process, and lying about a child’s age does not detract from the skills exhibited. However, it does skew the picture. The possibility that Mozart’s great desire to make music was rooted in pre-birth fortune cannot be ruled out, but his early musical environment was encouraging and inspiring. Having a great passion for music—and a supportive even if overbearing, micro-managing and opportunistic father—led him to take advantage of his opportunities and to practice for several hours a day from the age of two. Estimates have Mozart reaching an accumulated practice figure of 10, 000 hours by the age of eight.
Even if you take the position that a child is born with genetic potential, this potential can only become skill and ability through work. As John Maxwell (MGBH) implies in the title of his book Talent Is Never Enough, major achievement requires preparation and persistence on top of any natural potential. This is most true as we progress in our skills. The assumed natural talent that differentiates children becomes less evident as they age, as dedication and sheer hard work play greater roles in achievement. Malcolm Gladwell says, “The further a career develops, the less important the role of assumed innate ability in comparison with preparation or practice”. Quality and quantity of practice develop expertise.
She plays so well because she has talent. How do I know she has talent? That’s obvious, she plays so well!
In every case, identifying talent is retrospective, and the emergence of prodigious skill follows rather than precedes unique opportunity and substantial work. In the investigation of superior achievement, precocity is the result of early childhood experiences, parental support, a young starting age, training, practice hours, habits, metacognitive skills, and opportunity. What distinguishes prodigies is the fact that they are constantly compared with children their own age, rather than with others who have accrued similar quantities of practice hours, similar opportunities, and family support. Take Tiffany Poon (MGBH) for example. Born in Hong Kong in 1997, this girl has experienced a meteoric rise as a concert pianist and has been lauded far and wide for her giftedness and substantial accomplishments. No doubt it is rare to find a child her age who has achieved so much and who plays the piano so well. At the age of eight, Tiffany accepted the opportunity of a scholarship at The Juilliard School in New York City, and flourished. As is usually the case with young achievers, testimonials on her website make age comparisons.
“Tiffany Poon possessed skills of a kind that I had never observed in such a young musician. She displays a sense of musical maturity that goes well beyond her current age.” – Gary McPherson (MGBH), Ormond Chair of Music, Head of the School of Music, University of Melbourne.
“Tiffany Poon plays with technical skills well beyond her years.” – the Columbus Dispatch.
Tiffany’s biography states that she started playing on a toy piano at the age of two and when she began formal lessons at age four-and-a-half she practiced four hours a day for the next two years. If we assume Tiffany had a rest day and practiced six days per week, this totals 1,248 hours of practice. This is substantial for one so young and is many times the practice hours of other children of that age. Assuming that fifteen minutes is about the average daily practice time for this age group, we have a 1,600 percent differential in practice time. Professor John Sloboda (MGBH) says, “There is no evidence of a fast track for high achievers,” which suggests that in terms of time expenditure, the pathway to progress is basically the same for everyone. To achieve you must put in the hours and do the work. In one study Sloboda found that predominantly it takes individuals about 1,200 practice hours to reach a formal music examination level of Grade Five, and 3,300 practice hours to reach Grade Eight. Accumulation of practice hours is not the only factor in musical achievement, but it is the predominant one.
We owe it to Tiffany to give her the credit for having achieved excellence. As an infant she had an intense curiosity for music and quickly developed the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Note also that the testimonial from the Columbus Dispatch refers to “technical” skills. Fields such as music, chess, and mathematics are suited to young achievement because the precocity is almost always derived from algorithmic study. In later life real musicianship requires much more than technical prowess. Adult musicians with technical skills alone are not special. Tiffany’s parental support also has significantly influenced her achievement. Not only did the family relocate from Hong Kong for the express purpose of gaining a better music education for Tiffany, but Tiffany’s parents also instilled in her the critical learning strategies we call deliberate practice. From the earliest stages of Tiffany’s musical development her mother challenged her to play through passages several times correctly in succession. This game taught Tiffany the power of repetition. Contrast this with how most children practice music. One study found that more than 90 percent of children’s practice time was spent playing pieces from beginning to end only once and without stopping to correct any errors. In their coaching, Tiffany’s parents showed great astuteness, especially considering neither of them had any formal musical training.
Fields such as music, chess, and mathematics are suited to young achievement because the precocity is almost always derived from algorithmic study. In later life real musicianship requires much more than technical prowess. Adult musicians with technical skills alone are not special.
Carol Dweck (MGBH) predicts developmental problems for students praised for innate talent rather than effort. Dweck’s research, as documented in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success presents a strong case that a focus on genetic gift can lead to a poor work ethic. Children with this fixed-intelligence mindset get the impression that they do not need to work as hard as “average” children do. Natural ability should not need to make an effort. People labelled as ‘naturally talented’ or ‘gifted’ can be ruthlessly protective of their labels and therefore avoid challenges or risks that might lead to their making mistakes. This desire to look smart and prove their intelligence, at the expense of improving it, must be preserved at all costs. This mindset is more likely to hide rather than correct mistakes, and following a setback, is less persistent when compared with growth-mindset individuals. Hence the typical combination – gifted and lazy. On the other hand, people who believe their intelligence is a potential to be developed through effort are less worried about short-term mistakes, difficulties, and failures. They view these events as an essential part of the learning process. People with this growth-intelligence mindset tend to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the learning challenges inherent in the process. The advantage of the growth-mindset is not just about learning how to succeed but about learning how to persevere when one does not succeed.
Dweck’s research, as documented in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success presents a strong case that a focus on genetic gift can lead to a poor work ethic. Children with this fixed-intelligence mindset get the impression that they do not need to work as hard as “average” children do…. People with this growth-intelligence mindset tend to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the learning challenges inherent in the process.
To prove or improve my intelligence; that is the mindset question!
Research into the effects of mindset on achievement is of particular interest to music educators. Susan O’Neill (MGBH) found noticeable differences in the practice efficiency among children exhibiting different mindset. For one, fixed-intelligence-mindset children practiced roughly twice as much as growth-intelligence-mindset children to reach the same level of moderate performance achievement. Fixed-intelligence-mindset students use their time less efficiently. They are more likely to avoid practicing pieces or passages that pose particular difficulties. These children probably spend more time on what they already can play well, which might be enjoyable but will hardly improve performance. Growth-intelligence-mindset children are more likely to embrace the challenges that lead to mastery. It is not easy to teach learning strategies to fixed-intelligence-mindset students who have deep-set beliefs about their potential. Unless this mindset is reformed, they emerge as adults with stifling doubts about their capacity to learn. In his book Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner (MBGH0 refers to “the menacing voices from childhood” – the struggle to learn is very often a result of being told that the task is really difficult, or you have not the talent for it. The word difficult can be discouraging. I like Werner’s suggestion to explain task complexity in terms of “unfamiliar” and “familiar” rather than “difficult” and “easy.” By attributing failure to lack of effort or poor practice strategies, rather than natural ability, teachers and parents can help transform mindset.
The word difficult can be discouraging. I like Werner’s suggestion to explain task complexity in terms of “unfamiliar” and “familiar” rather than “difficult” and “easy.”
An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin.
About the Author:
Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author and pianist. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition, and intrinsic motivation. His latest book is “Learning Strategies for Musical Success.”
A venue is more than a place where an event happens. It is where history is made and, often, a lifetime memory is created. Within the walls of these buildings, they capture the sounds from the ordinary to the extraordinary performances.
So, grab your passport and lets explore concert venues throughout the world!
The home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and The Icelandic Opera, HARPA CONCERT HALL is one of Reykjavik’s greatest and distinguished landmarks, which opened to public on May 4, 2011. The name Harpa was the winning name out of 4,156 proposals entered by its 1,200 citizens. The requirement was to name the modern space an Icelandic word that is easy to speak in most languages – Har-pa, which means “harp.”
Designed by Henning Larsen Architects, Olafur Eliasson (MGBH), and Batteriiò, Harpa’s crystalline structure was inspired by Icelandic landscapes and traditions. Its dramatic design captures and reflects the light of the city, ocean and sky to thrilling effect (1).
The concert hall and conference center are located in the heart of the city, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. It is the host to many diverse musical genres and music festivals year round. There are four performance spaces in Harpa: Eldborg , Nordurljos, Silfurberg, and Kaldalòn.
Eldborg is the largest hall in Harpa, accommodating 1,800 guests. It is truly a world-class concert hall hosting some of the biggest names from all over the world. Moving along the second floor situated between Eldborg and Silfurberg is the 520 theatre style recital hall, Nordurljòs. This space is ideal for chamber groups and smaller ensembles.
If you are looking for the best technology equipment at Harpa, check out Silfurberg – a conference hall named after a translucent crystal rarely found outside Iceland. The hall can accommodate up to 840 people. Interesting to note is the hall’s acoustics are configured for spoken word.
Lastly is the smallest hall in Harpa – Kaldalòn auditorium. Kaldalòn is perfect space to accommodate 195 guest for concerts, conferences, meetings, screenings, and lectures. A curious fact about Kaldalòn is that its reverberation time may be altered, making this hall accessible for many different types of events.
Numerous music festivals have been held in the building including Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik Midsummer Music, Dark Music Days, Reykjavik Arts Festival, Reykjavik Jazz Festival, Sónar Reykjavík, Tectonics, and Harpa International Music Academy (2).
Harpa has hosted a Master Pianists Concert Series where such world known pianists as Jorge Luis Prats and Richard Goode, appeared in concerts. Young artists are also kept in mind, with Harpa granting an annual award – the Upbeat – for children and youth compositions.
Olafur Eliasson (MGBH), the artist behind Harpa
A recipient of a number of accolades, Harpa has been chosen one of the best concert halls of the new millennium by the prestigious music magazine Gramophone magazine as well as the best performance venue in 2011 by Travel & Leisure magazine. Most recently is the prestigious 2013 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award. Wiel Arets ((MGBH), Chair of the Jury, said: “Harpa has captured the myth of a nation – Iceland – that has consciously acted in favor of a hybrid-cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession. The iconic and transparent porous ‘quasi brick’ appears as an ever-changing play of colored light, promoting a dialogue between the city of Reykjavik and the building’s interior life. By giving an identity to a society long known for its sagas, through an interdisciplinary collaboration between Henning Larsen Architects and artist Olafur Eliasson (MGBH), this project is an important message to the world and to the Icelandic people, fulfilling their long expected dream.”
About the Author:
Ronald Hawkins is a Schimmel Artist who serves on the piano faculty at The Conservatory for the Arts, Calvary Music School and Encore Music Academy in in Chrystal Lake, IL (USA). His current projects include performing the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I) by J.S. Bach and an unique multimedia program – Masterpieces: Arts that Inspired Music.
At times, “history” has been interpreted as “his story”. Although the ancient French root of the word “estoire” does not point to this particular meaning, it is, nevertheless, impossible to deny that up until the late 19th and early 20th century, the majority of historical documents which have been preserved, passed down, and studied, were written by men. In music textbooks, we have been taught that the reason female composers are so rare is because of lack of educational opportunities with their only role being a mother and wife rather than having an option to also pursue a career path.
On several occasions as I raised the topic of Nannerl (OBM), the common reaction would be, “Mozart (OBM) had a sister? I never knew that!” When the word “Mozart” is mentioned, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the name, which springs to mind and, perhaps, by relation, his father Leopold Mozart (OBM). Maria Anna, or Nannerl as was her nickname, is rarely mentioned. Alongside Wolfgang and Leopold, at most, there would be a sentence referring to her as “an accomplished musician”. What were the events that rendered her to become a mere minor figure alongside her superstar genius brother after being recognized as his equal during their childhood and teenage years?
Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart was born in 1751, four and a half years before the most famous musical genius known to mankind. She began musical training with her father, who taught her to play the harpsichord at the age of 7. Subsequently, when Wolfgang’s precocious musical talents began to manifest itself by the age of 5, Leopold jumped at the chance to display his two “wunderkinder” around Europe like a circus act, enduring all the discomforts of 18th century travel to perform for royalties and aristocrats in some of Europe’s most lavish palaces and noble homes. In a study of letters where Maria Anna’s name was mentioned, there was nothing but words of praise. In letters to his wife from Leopold Mozart, it is evident that many members of royalty and aristocracy remember Nannerl fondly and regularly asked her father to send her their best regards. In a particular letter home dated 3 February 1770, Leopold mentioned that Pietro Lugiati (OBM), a wealthy man from a Venetian family and an official of the Venetian Republic lauded his “astonishing daughter” as an “object of universal admiration” and, in particular, praised her “rare talents” (1). In another account from Count Karl von Zinzendorf of Munich (OBM), Nannerl’s performance was described as “masterly” (2). In order for the two children to be displayed as a pair of “wunderkinder” and for the performances to garner such praise, it should not be presumptuous to assume that Nannerl’s musical skills were on par with Wolfgang’s, at the very least.
… her perfect insight into harmony and modulations when she improvises is so successful that you would be astounded.
Some may argue that the aristocrats and royalty who adorned Nannerl with such flattery and commendation were not professionally trained musicians and were, therefore, less discerning. However, in her father Leopold’s own words, he proclaimed her to be one of the finest keyboardists in Europe, and “her perfect insight into harmony and modulations when she improvises is so successful that you would be astounded” (3). Up till now, studies have concluded that none of Nannerl’s compositions survived. Yet, when we read Wolfgang’s letters to his sister, we find evidence that she did, in fact, compose. In a letter written while Wolfgang was on tour, he wrote, “My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well…the song you wrote is beautiful” (4). And in another letter from 19 May 1770, evidently having reviewed his sister’s composition, he commented, “You’ve written a wonderful bass for it, without a slightest mistake” (5).
The siblings had been extremely close since childhood. Not only did they share a secret language together, which is evident in some of the letters, but they also imagined a kingdom where they ruled together as King and Queen. As Wolfgang grew, Nannerl also matured. Unfortunately, she had reached the age at which it was unsuitable for her to travel as a performing musician. Her gender meant that her role in society was bound. When she reached marriageable age, she was instructed to remain home for protection while Leopold took young Mozart to perform all over Europe. However, for a young girl who has travelled across Europe and performed in Paris, London, and the Hague in front of Louis XV (OBM), King George III(OBM), Queen Charlotte (OBM), and Johann Christian Bach(OBM), the homebound lifestyle would take a toll. In Leopold’s letters to his wife, it is apparent that he was very much concerned with Nannerl and asked questions such as, “Is Nannerl keeping busy practicing the harpsichord regularly?”(6).
As a musical genius himself who possessed skills and talent rising above so many, he had great reverence for Nannerl.
For a pair of siblings who shared stage time and musical language as well as so many travel experiences, separation proved to be difficult. There are often references in Wolfgang’s letters of him wishing for Nannerl’s company. He longed to hear from her everyday. As a musical genius himself who possessed skills and talent rising above so many, he had great reverence for Nannerl. He once wrote, “I said to Papa at once: Oh! If only I were as clever and wise as she is!”
Musically, apart from being on stage together, they were collaborators and inspired each other. Wolfgang’s Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 was written for her and his Divertimento in D major, K. 251, nicknamed the Nannerl Septet, was written for her name-day. He also frequently sent her his latest piano concerti. Examining earlier compositions, K. 16, Wolfgang’s first symphony, received help from Nannerl who was responsible for putting some of the music from pen to paper.
The most well known group of compositions associated with her name is the Nannerl Music Book (Nannerl Notenbuch), recently published by Henle Verlag (MGBH). These compositions date back to the years between 1759-64 and originally were comprised of 48 pages. However, only 36 pages survived to this day with 12 pages missing. According to historical sources, the notebook was compiled by Leopold who wrote pieces for the young Nannerl to practice. Within the book, there also are compositions by the five year old Wolfgang with the authorship of miscellaneous pieces not verified. They are currently categorized as “Anonymous 1, 2 & 3”. In light of this, is it rather inconceivable that none of her compositions survived? For a girl who most certainly possessed such a high level of musical skills, would it be impossible that she also had written compositions in her own musical notebook? And what course of events made those 12 pages disappear so mysteriously?
K. 16, Wolfgang’s first symphony, received help from Nannerl who was responsible for putting some of the music from pen to paper.
According to practices of the time, women would not be earning from a performing career. When Nannerl’s performing tours abruptly ended, she became a piano teacher in Salzburg. Her father dictated her marriage. She was forced to abandon her true love Captain Franz d’Ippold (OBM) and married the twice widowed magistrate Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg (OBM). When her first child was born, she left him in the care of her father Leopold who wished to train another musical child prodigy. Subsequently, she bore two daughters but both died – one at infancy and one at age 16. Was this the real reason why the shadow was cast over Nannerl which propelled her into oblivion for the rest of her life and in the textbooks of musical history? Was little Wolfgang engineered by Leopold to be the sole breadwinner of the Mozart family because Nannerl would not be able to provide?
Of course, it is not my intention to conjure up radical conspiracy theories, yet it could open the doors to some important questions. Was Nannerl Mozart’s voice stifled and were her wings clipped because she was born at the wrong time? Is it really plausible that even with limited opportunities for education no women had musical talents to match their male counterparts for the past hundreds of years? As I dug deeper into this, I could not help but ask, how many other women composers’ works may have been made to disappear and how many were published under a man’s name with their talents unduly neglected?
(1) Davis, Elizabeth. “Was Mozart’s Sister Actually the Most Talented Musician in the Family?” Classic FM. 2 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 May 2016.
(2) Eisen, Cliff et al. In Mozart’s Words, ‘Maria Anna Walpurga Ignatia (Nannerl) Mozart’ <http://letters.mozartways.com>. Version 1.0, published by HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.
(3) Milo, Silvia. “The Lost Genius of Mozart’s Sister.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 May 2016.
(4) Rusch, Elizabeth. “Maria Anna Mozart: The Family’s First Prodigy.” Smithsonian. 27 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 May 2016.
(5) Scheideler, Ullrich. “Preface.” Piano Pieces from the “Nannerl Music Book” Berlin: G. Henle Verlag, 2014. Web.
(6) Scheideler, Ullrich. “Critical Commentary.” Piano Pieces from the “Nannerl Music Book” Berlin: G. Henle Verlag, 2006. Web.
About the author:
Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.