Monday, December 21, 2009

A wish for the New Year: Orientation

I suspect it is the legacy of the geography teachers in my family (my mother and my grandfather) that always makes me want to know where I am on the map. This is especially true for new locations. 

When I moved to Maplewood this summer, I automatically assumed that New York City was in the same direction as the train station 2 miles from here. Then, I started to take the bus, because it is just two blocks from where I live. It seemed to go in the opposite direction than the train, and  the twists and turns that it takes on the way to the city got me really confused. After 6 months, I still hadn’t figured it out.

NJT Bus 107, South Orange - NYC Port Authority

Maplewood Train Station, waiting for the "Midtown Direct" to Penn Station NYC  

When I got home yesterday afternoon, the sun catchers in the windows of the music room were sparkling in the light of the setting sun. The windows face in the direction of the train station. Suddenly, I had a revelation. 
The sunset illuminates the music room, and the sunrise illuminates the kitchen - something must be wrong with the map in my mind. 

The house on Peachtree Road - the upstairs windows belong to the music room

This morning I was sitting at the breakfast table in the kitchen, drawing a map of the world as I see it, and finally things started to fall into place.  

View from the Kitchen window at sunrise

Figuring it out by yourself is so much more fun than looking at a real map. In fact, I had looked at a “real map” before, but I could never get it to match the image I had in my mind.

It occurred to me that I figure out pieces of music in a similar way. Of course, I can “scan” the piece through and find the parts that constitute a form “rationally” - exposition, 1st and 2nd subject, development, recapitulation. But it is not the same kind of revelation as playing different sections of the piece back to back - a way of practicing that I recommend often - and suddenly realizing through the sound, by way of my senses “Oh yes, this IS the second subject,”. 

Not knowing where you are is worse than knowing you’re in the wrong place, they say. So, my New Year’s wish for everybody including myself is that we will always know where we are, and if we find ourselves in the wrong place, we’ll use that knowledge in order to get moving in a more promising direction.


Sunday, December 6, 2009


“How the hell can I top this,” said Orson Welles in the movie “Me and Orson Welles” as the audience was cheering after a spectacular performance of Shakespeare’ s Julius Caesar. I sensed a trace of the post-performance-blues in his remark, and felt in good company. 

The recital last Tuesday went very well. People came to listen and stayed, even though the room was cold and competition was tough, with the President speaking on TV at 8.  
I felt connected to the music and to the audience while I was playing. Lots of enthusiastic feedback afterwards. Mary Mann’s article on Maplewood Patch, with photographs and a video, gave me unexpected publicity.

The next day brought the familiar sensation that it’s all over. You’ve been on the top of the mountain, and now you have to go back down. 

My first practice session after the concert consisted of note reading, figuring out fingerings, hand divisions, memorizing. It was disillusioning compared to the effortlessness I had achieved with the concert program at last. There was a moment before the recital last week when I was longing to play something different. Now, the excitement had its limits. 

The day after I performed Beethoven’s Sonata op.111 for the first time, I had felt as if I had been run over by a truck. I didn’t even have the energy to practice. I went for a walk and stopped by at the drug store, where I found “Pillow Pets” for sale. I purchased a pink elephant, called it “op.111” to commemorate the occasion, put him on the sofa and called it a day.

Cappuccina and "op.111"

This time, not only did I have the energy to practice, I had the energy to tackle the laundry. I call that progress. Nevertheless, the encounter with the prosaic reality of the laundromat was depressing. 

In need of a reward, I took myself to the movies. I ended up in “Me and Orson Welles”, a portrait of the young Orson Welles and the world of the theater in New York of the 1930-s. I enjoyed the movie. What really turned the day around, though, was the surprise encore. While the audience was still applauding, three people got up and went to the front. Christian McKay, the actor who plays Orson Welles in the movie, was in the theater and gave a live interview. 

It’s comforting to know that even very ordinary days hold the potential of pleasant surprises.

Christian McKay at the Movie Theater at Lincoln Center

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday in the Park

A Warm Welcome

Christmas Carols

Free Jazz

Photo Shoot

Sun Bathing in November

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Thanksgiving Story

I went for a walk after returning home from the Thanksgiving Dinner last night. It had been a surprise invitation - Maxine works for Steinway, and we had only met once before. Two days ago, she called, and when she heard I had no plans for Thanksgiving, she invited me on the spot. The warm welcome, the pleasant afternoon in friendly company still before my mind’s eye, I walked through the dark and quiet streets. Thanksgiving is for the US what Christmas is for Germany - it really shuts the country down. I wondered whether the 24-hour drugstore a few blocks from here was open and I could pick up some cat litter for Cappuccina. 

The store was open, and surprisingly busy. The holiday spirit that prevailed in the city had run a little thin coming out to Irvington, it seemed. No people in festive clothes, with smiles on their faces, carrying flowers, and bowls and pans wrapped in aluminum foil. Business as usual at the drugstore, hectic even, some folks merely hanging out, it seemed, the security guard in his place by the entrance. 

Two registers were open, long lines gathering in front of them. An old woman was first in the line next to me. She wore simple black clothes and a black hat. Her face looked weary and tired, her mouth was toothless. I wasn’t really paying attention, lost in thought. The old woman was talking to the cashier and several people behind the counter. Bits of the conversation intruded into my reverie. My line moved. 

The man in front of me handed the cashier his credit card. He had only picked up one or two items. Though the evening was chilly, he wore a light blue summer jacket that hadn’t been to the dry cleaner in a while. The beige chinos were too short and worn out. The conversation at the next register continued. Slowly, the old woman put items into her shopping cart. Something about the man in front of me caught my attention. I couldn’t really see his face - maybe it was the warm confidence in his voice. 

Still engaged in his own transaction, he reached into his wallet, took out a $20 bill and handed it to the cashier at the next register, who was dealing with the old woman. For a moment, everybody  who witnessed the scene fell silent. She didn’t understand. “It's paid for,” people explained. At last, her face brightened, as if lit from within. Still shaking her head in disbelief, smiling, calling blessings on her benefactor to last him a lifetime, she left the store.

The holiday spirit made it to Irvington. It was just traveling incognito.

Fight or Flight and Facing your Demons - Preparing for a Performance

The countdown begins when the date is set. That was in October. Now, I have four days to go until my recital at Winchester Gardens, a retirement community in Maplewood. On the program are the Prelude and Fugue in g-minor from WTC II by Bach, 6 short piano pieces op.19 by Schoenberg and Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata op.111

I’ve played the piece at the Concord Community Music School in January, so it’s “recycling” - if there is such a thing as “recycling”, especially with Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata. The piece is enough to keep you busy for a lifetime, and I only started to learn it two years ago. Every new performance is an attempt to bring the piece to the next level. Some technical issues are still “under construction” and there is no end to trying to decode the “meaning” of the piece.      

After the performance in January, I continued to play the piece for my own pleasure, reviewed memory and technical issues when it became inevitable, but not taking them too seriously. With the performance date ahead, “maintenance” turns into focussed, goal orientated practicing. After so much time with a piece, the fingers tend to remember, but muscle memory alone is not enough to rely on when playing in public. Even though I can still play the piece, I have to rediscover its structure, make clear to myself what the harmonic relationships are, sharpen my awareness of technical details like hand division and fingering, and, my least favorite, but probably most important exercise from a practical point of view - practice starting points. 

Those are “landmarks” throughout the piece where, eventually, you have to be able to start at the drop of a hat and find your way back into the piece, if someone wakes you up at 2am. Ideally, you know them out of context, like individual pieces of a puzzle. There are about 20 in the first movement of the sonata, 8 pages of music, lasting barely 10 minutes. 

I don’t like practicing starting points at all, because of the way it chops up the piece.  It’s so unmusical, exactly the opposite of “being in the music”, the ideal state of mind during a performance. Still, the safety net of starting points will hopefully catch me if the thread of the memory breaks, or if I miss a passage I’ve never ever missed before. Practicing starting points is practicing “breakdown and recovery”.

I’ve played the piece for friends. I had a performance at my lesson some time ago which was almost ideal. There were just a couple of details to go into. Two weeks later, I didn’t play so well. I hope I haven’t peaked early. Suddenly, other details need attention - it’s a never ending circle of taking the piece apart and putting it back together, sometimes, both in one practice session.

“Demons” have shown up along the way, they always do. Life issues, present and past that have been slumbering peacefully, but apparently unresolved, suddenly knock at the door and demand attention. Those are important insights, but I’ve made a rule to leave them alone before a performance. The trouble is, I don’t always stick to my own rules.

As if the recital wasn’t enough to deal with, a million other things suddenly demand attention, challenging my need to practice and to get some rest. The mailbox is full of unanswered messages, appointments need to be scheduled, ads to be renewed, the phone is ringing all day, the fridge is empty, Cappuccina is down to the last can of cat food, the laundry hamper is full and the windows look dirtier than ever. It’ s always like that before a performance, and it used to throw me into fits of frantic activity. In the meantime I have had the experience that there is life after a performance, and learnt to make better decisions as to what needs to be done and what can wait until later. 

Being super alert and much more sensitive than usual to everything within and without are just two more facets of the  “fight or flight” reaction, Phyllis Lehrer pointed out at her lecture at MEA. It’s always good to hear one more time that I’m not the only one going through this. Also, being a little more advanced in age and life experience makes it easier to take a step back, recognize performance anxiety for what it is, accept it like another ghost you’ve met before and draw comfort from the fact that you know it will pass.   

“Why do you still take the trouble to perform and put yourself through all this?” a friend asked me some years ago. “You ’re successful as a teacher, why don’t you leave it at that?”  

There’s a thrill to it. I like to have highlights in my life. I like the challenge, and I know the victory has to be earned. Living with the anxiety is part of it. Musical performance is the artistic equivalent to mountain climbing and car racing. One wrong move and you’re in serious trouble - you could be dead. Performing is not the goal, it is the result of practicing. After exploring the music for months, often years, I want to share it with an audience. It’s the difference between talking to yourself and having a conversation. When everything goes well, there is a closeness between the performer and the audience that is unique. It’s an exchange of energy that can bring out the best or the worst in you. Which ever way it goes, there is always something to be learnt. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Letting go

The hardest part of the creative process is letting go. Letting go of the image you created, the character in the story, the melody that came to your mind. 
Maybe the character of the story will become the hero of a different story, the melody become a new song, but for the moment, you have to take leave. You were just getting used to each other, and letting go is hard.  
You put in time and energy that appear wasted now. All you have created is another dead end, it seems. 
You get attached to the things you create. If you don’t, your heart isn’t in it. Nothing thrives without passion and commitment. 
Sometimes the fear of having to let go can prevent you from setting out on the journey in the first place. 
You bring an idea to life, and you have a concept of how it ought to work and what it ought to be. As it grows, it develops a character and a life of its own. You can’t force it into being something that it is not.  

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Crooked Paths in Central Park

There is no express bus on Sundays, so I have to catch the 7:35 in order to make it to choir rehearsal in the city by 9:35. We get into Port Authority at 8:30. That gives me 55 minutes to walk from 42nd and 8th Avenue to All Souls at 80th and Lexington. That’s 38 blocks north and 6 blocks east. It takes me about a minute to walk one block, so I should have plenty of time, if I can resist the temptations on the way: Street Fairs being set up on 8th Avenue, the little coffee shop at the edge of the Central Park at Columbus Circle, and, greatest temptation of all - the park itself. There’s got to be a way to cut across, straight to East 79th street and 5th Avenue, and the last three blocks over to church are a piece of cake. 

The trouble with the shortcut through the park is that I haven’t found it yet. So, most Sundays see me rush up the stairs to the choir loft last minute or later, grasp a hymnal and whatever is left of today’s music on the table and participate in the first work of the rehearsal without taking off my coat or my backpack. Usually, I mumble something like “Sorry, it’s a real challenge to get here from New Jersey on Sunday mornings” towards the choir director.

He sent us an e-mail this week:

“ Remember to set your clocks back before you go to bed on Saturday night -- since you will have any extra hour of sleep, there is no excuse for anyone to be late!  I need every singer possible there for rehearsal at 9:25 since we did not have our usual Wednesday rehearsal this week.
Also, be aware that this is Marathon Sunday!” 

Marathon Sunday! I could take the subway to church, to be on the safe side, but it’s just too tempting to walk and look for evidence of the marathon. Do runners warm up, like pianists and singers? 
8th Avenue is quiet. No runners. A quick “Hi” to Columbus at the corner of the park - it’s not even 8:45, but I’ll skip coffee today. The coffee shop is out of reach anyway, disappeared behind bleachers and an open-air stage. 59th street is closed. 

The park is quiet. The runners I meet appear a little too relaxed to be  participating in today’s event. Maybe they’re warming up for next year’s Marathon. Dogs and people in the dog run, as usual.  A woman carrying pieces of red cardboard under her arm asks me whether I have anybody in the race. Sorry, no, I’m running my own race - against the clock. Just stay on the main path, don’t get sidetracked, I remind myself. The main path winds, but it goes in the right direction, and it does lead me right to 72nd street, where I decide to abandon the park experiment for today, reach the church gate at 9:20, a personal record. 

The Marathon reigns the city. It’s the topic of the sermon, and even the hymnal has something to offer: “Guide My Feet.” We’ve never sung the hymn before, and it hasn’t been a great loss. Hopefully, we’ll only sing it once a year.

When church is over, I enter the park at East 79th, Mile 25 of the race. Whoever has made it this far is bound to cross the finish line, somewhere around West 72nd Street

The crowd’s in a good mood. “ Go man, go. Smooth, keep it smooth, no puffin’. Downhill, it’s going downhill, you’re almost there.”   I find out what the red cardboard is for. It would be fun to have someone to cheer for. Maybe I could talk some of my athletic friends from Germany into running the New York Marathon.

The cheering crowd is just as much fun to watch as the runners.

Not everybody is focussed on the race.

If I were in it, I’m sure I would care less what I looked like at this point.

I hate to glance at my watch, but it would be good to catch the bus at 12:50. With a lesson tomorrow, a tryout on Tuesday and a recital in a month I should do some practicing in the afternoon. So,this is the moment to cut across the park and catch the subway at Columbus Circle. I’ve done it this morning, after all - only now, my former shortcut is part of the racetrack. 

Confidently, I follow a small trail that leads into the woods. 
It’s surprisingly quiet, just a few steps away from the race 

After a very short time, the cheering comes closer again. And sure enough, I’m back with the race. That was quick. It’s  strange that I can’t recall seeing the buildings behind the trees back there on the West Side, though. Slightly confused, I turn around and recognize a sign a little further up the road that I remember from the place where I stood five minutes before.
 I’ve come full circle.

It’s probably safer to follow the path of the race all the way down to 59th street, and cut across there. More runners, and more spectators.  “Coda” announces a sign at mile 26. It’s good to know there are other musicians in the crowd. Columbus Circle is already in sight, and with a slight feeling of regret, I realize it will be time to disappear into the subway in a moment.

So close to the finish line, nobody is permitted to cross the track. Sturdy metal barriers separate the crowd from the runners, closely monitored by security personnel. So much for being on the wrong side of the road. “Entrance West”, says a sign on a fence. The sign is pointing East.  

A wide detour leads back to the racetrack around West 63rd Street. I’ve watched the marathon before, but I’ve never taken the time to see anyone cross the finish line. Since I’m this far already, I might as well take the chance - it can’t  be much farther. I send a telepathic note to Beethoven, the piano and my cat, saying that I’ll be home and take care of them eventually. 

The path along the track ends abruptly in front of a fence and a gate. “East Side Bleachers, tickets only” says a sign. “East Side Bleachers?” We’re on the West Side, I’m positive of that, and I don’t have a ticket. I follow the fence, which connects to other fences, and finally, seamlessly, joins the fence on the far side of Sheep Meadow. Here, in the middle of the park, it is possible to get a glimpse of the place on the East Side where I watched the race more than an hour ago, while the wind carries the cheers from the finish line all the way across from the West Side. The gate to Sheep Meadow is closed. No shortcuts here, either.

When the path finally rejoins the racetrack, we’re already past the finish line. High screens covered with blue transparent fabric line the path, mercifully shielding the faces of the runners from the view of the curious crowd. Wrapped in white and blue aluminum blankets, the winners mill about like a crowd of seagulls, all sense of determination and focus spent in the race. If the security personnel didn’t keep everyone moving, some of them would probably plop down right there and then and not take another step for a long time.    

The Japanese have a saying that bad spirits can’t walk a straight line. For this reason, many bridges in traditional Japanese parks  have angles. The bad spirit can’t make it across and falls in the water. Since the first time I’ve been to Central Park, I‘ve noticed that, when I leave the park, I’ve always left behind whatever may have been weighing heavily on my mind when I walked in. Not a single path in Central Park is straight, I’m sure that’s why. 

The bad spirits crash into the rocks, slam into the trees, drown in the lakes, and whatever is left is absorbed by good vibes of the park. I wonder whether that’s why the marathon ends there - so that the runners can forget the agonies of the journey and limp home with an unclouded sense of joy and pride at their accomplishment.     

P.S. Today, many athletes were taking their medals for a walk through the city. They were particularly abundant around Central Park.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Random Thoughts

Wednesday morning at the breakfast table. Three days after the choir concert I still wake up with a mixture of melodies by Billings, Barber, Copland,Shaker tunes and Spirituals in my mind, playing a musical guessing game with myself, trying to match each fragment with the right piece. It’s raining, pouring - if it pours like that next Tuesday, I can’t go to the meeting on my bike. The leaves have come down from the treetops in the back yard, clusters still left around the stems. The “Coco Pebbles” cereal is disgusting, but I ran out of other options so I’ll eat it anyway.   
Stream-of-consciousness-writing, musical notes strewn around at random. It is the way the spirit flows, sometimes a source for creative ideas. The spirit wanders around, looking for places to stop, for ideas that resonate, for sparks that light a fire strong enough to carry you through the long journey of a new creative project. 
Writing like that throws a light on the process. Then, you set out on the journey of finding the right words, notes, colors, shaping and refining the idea, so it can be shared. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frames of Reference

Recently, I joined a writers’ group. People come together once a week and read excerpts from their writing. I’m awestruck by the way they handle the English language. It’s an entire symphony of overtones and undertones, shades of color and subtle twists of meaning.

Different personalities reveal themselves not only in their writing, but also in their critique. Some people seem to need more information than others in order to tune in to a scene. 

Who is this character, where is this happening? Knowing that it is happening in a town nearby makes all the difference to them. To me, the town nearby is no more than a location on the map. 

My tolerance of ambiguity is high. I have learnt to accept everything as given. I listen, I ”feel it out,” and if it doesn’t make sense, it’s probably my own fault, at least to begin with. The worst mistakes are those you don’t even know you are making.

It is the way you live in an unfamiliar environment: a new job, a new neighborhood, a different culture. You try to fill information with meaning, and gradually find solid ground under your feet.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Home Studio (2) - Announcement from the Cat

This is to notify everybody that Cappuccina has appointed herself 
studio assistant 
to Birgit’s Piano Studio

Responsibilities include:

Writing e-mails

Answering the phone

Entertaining the studio giraffe

Taking care of the music library

Assisting with the production of advertising materials.
 Here: First attempt, hand crafted. 
In the meantime, we have upgraded to computer design.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Do certain pieces of music remind you of certain times in your life? When Alison wrote about Bach’s Partita in b-minor, the “French Overture” I felt transported back in time, to the fall of 1996. 

I was teaching piano full time, at two different schools at opposite ends of the city. One day a week, I attended classes at music college, trying to get a dissertation off the ground. My mother was dying, and the entire family was having a hard time.

One evening, I unexpectedly had 30 minutes off before directing a choir rehearsal. I hadn’t played solo for ever. I took a volume of Bach from the shelf, leafed through it, and started to read through the French Ouverture, just to see what it was. Such beauty, such gorgeous music - this was what I REALLY wanted to spend my time with. Despite my degrees in music education and piano I had the feeling that there was a big hole at the center of my skills and knowledge: I hardly ever managed “to be in the music” when I played, and especially when I performed. 

The struggle with the dissertation had put an end to my daily practicing. This made me miserable. I was still doing some accompanying, but didn’t find that very satisfying.  

My mother’s dying was slow and painful. It took almost another year until she passed away. During these trying times, learning the French Ouverture became my life line. I had never been able to memorize the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, my favorite music. I was determined to do it this time - and I did. 

In the little spare time I had - mostly while traveling on public transport between the two music schools, music college and my parents’ house -  I was reading a book, Seymour Bernstein’s “With your own two hands”. The connection between practicing music and “real life” is a major topic in this book. I found it tremendously helpful and encouraging. 

A few weeks after my mother’s passing, I played the French Ouverture for Seymour Bernstein. This was the beginning of studying with him. My dissertation never got finished, but I discovered how to “be in the music” when I play the piano. 

The magical formula he gave me was : “Don’t think, listen and feel”. It works not only at the piano, but in real life as well.   

Sometimes, it takes a painful experience to put you in touch with what you really need, and sad endings can lead to powerful new beginnings.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Home Studio

 "Dimitri" the piano, in my apartment on Peachtree Road

Three weeks into the new school year, I am gradually getting used to teaching at home. After 30 years of teaching at schools, it is quite a change. “You don’t need a school to teach piano,” one of my colleagues said to me, when we discussed the options a few months ago. 

No, to do the job, you certainly don’t need a school. Teaching at home has advantages. Finally, I can offer every student an excellent instrument. In the past, I’ve often had to compromise on that. With students coming to play him, Dimitri may even experience some dusting on a regular basis after 24 years of living with me. 

(Dimitri is my grand piano, named by a friend after the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovitch, even though I’ve never ever played anything by Shostakovitch. Over the years, Dimitri has acquired a few battle scars in transportation - he refuses to live in easily accessible ground-floor apartments -, but as far as the sound is concerned, he’s in great shape, though currently a little out of tune.) 

My home studio on Peachtree Road
Finally, I have all my materials available at all times. There are situations in teaching when you want to be spontaneous, the moment is just right for a certain piece, an exercise, an illustration from a book. You know you have it, but when you’re at school, most of the time it’s at home when you need it. 

I don’t have to leave the house any more and travel on the train or the subway for an hour each way (in Germany), or plow my way through rain, ice and snow (in New Hampshire). I save time - but I also have to find new ways of drawing a line between my professional and my private life.

My studio at the Concord Community Music School (CCMS) - by the way, the piano was very good.

30 years of teaching at schools has taught me a lot, and but now, I feel ready to take the best of everything and form it into something that is my own way of teaching. 

The best of teaching at a good school is the community. There are the sounds from the studio next door, where somebody may be struggling with a piece you know, or a piece you’d like to learn. The students engage in conversation about their music and their teachers; they listen to the teachers practice while they wait for their lessons. “What are you working on? When is the concert?”   

There is the brief conversation with a colleague over coffee about a project, a piece or a student...... The energy of a group of people doing the same thing at the same time inspires everybody. 

No matter how tired I was after a long day of teaching, often on my way out I simply had to stop, turn around, sneak up to the recital hall on tiptoe, to see who was practicing at such a late hour, playing so beautifully and sending me home with a musical greeting, a joyful outlook to my own practice the next morning.

To create that sense of community looks like the greatest challenge of private teaching. 

The chart that listed the students’ accomplishments at the music school, the number of performance classes and recitals people had played in, theory tests, concert reports, ensembles, that chart went up on the wall of my home studio again. 

In January 2009, half way through the school year, my 30 students at the Concord Community Music School had participated in 42 events.  

Keeping track of accomplishments - CCMS, February 2009

There will be performing classes and recitals in this studio, and in the community, and I would like us to go to concerts together.

We’re counting practice points. The first goal is 100 days of practicing - and I can see people make it to 200 - and more? At 20 points you get a certificate, and 5 certificates call for a celebration. 

The bulletin board of my studio is mostly empty - except for the studio calendar and a few concert announcements. Eventually, I’d like to have the students’ photographs there - you practice alone, but it’s good to see that others are doing the same.

I found the Giraffe at a yard sale in Concord. It sat on the piano in my studio and has been listening patiently ever since. Bulletin board and chart found their place by the door, same as in my former studio.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Address

The street where I lived in New Hampshire was quiet, rural, yet, the name of my street conjured up associations with the big city: Downing Street.

Now I live 45 minutes from the big city, and the name of the street where I live is very rural:

P E A C H T R E E R O A D.

Of course, I didn’t have any second thoughts spelling “Peachtree” in one word - following a habit of the German language to add nouns like pearls on a string.

Some friends whom I’d given my new contact information seemed to disagree, sending letters addressed to Peach Tree Road, or Peach-Tree Road.

I was puzzled. I had taken the spelling from the street sign - or was I mistaken?

One day, I went out and inspected the street signs. There are three of them, and this is what I found:

Here is another way of expressing it, but I'm not sure it is compatible with the post office:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Does the music matter?

Occasionally I have ordered a ticket for a concert at Carnegie Hall through the internet.
This got me on the list of people who receive a phone call during the annual fund raiser, and they also send me the program in the spring.

I glanced through it when it came in the mail this year, and noticed that Mitsuko Uchida will be playing Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas this season. This repertoire interests me. I liked her recording of the pieces when I listened to it, and I would like to hear the performance. Unfortunately I didn‘t make a note of the date, and then I misplaced the program.

Of course, I could look it up on the internet, but since I happened to be in the neighborhood of Carnegie Hall, I decided to make a detour, see whether I could find the information on the posters in the showcases on 7th Avenue, and check for other interesting concerts at the same time.

The posters look very impressive. A photograph of the artists in action takes up almost half of the space. Those people look so involved in the music, you can almost hear them play.
Below the photograph, a headline - Experience Recitals (Orchestras, Chamber Music etc)
Then, they give you the names of the performers and the dates of the concerts, an idea about prices - but in vain did I look for any piece of information on the music those wonderful musicians will be playing!

Carnegie Hall is one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, and they don’t advertise the music!

At the beginning of the music is the composer who created it. Without the composer there is no music, and without music, who needs a performer?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Better Late than Never

When Mrs. D. signed up for piano lessons with me, she was 82 years old. She had just exchanged her spacious home for a cottage in a retirement community. The cottage was small, but not too small to host an upright piano.

She had taken lessons as a child for a while, and had decided to give the piano another try. She wanted to play songs she remembered from her younger years and learn some theory. Also, there were repertoire pieces that had always intrigued her, but she had never gotten around to learning them.

Mrs. D. was a busy retiree. She loved to socialize, went to Yoga class, and served on church committees. She took care of the flower beds in front of her cottage, and they were a jewel of landscaping. She complained about lack of practice time.
Nevertheless we enjoyed working together. She read music well and had no trouble finding her way around the keyboard. The trembling of her hands that had developed with age inhibited her playing much less than she had expected. We even observed that her hands became steadier the more she played, and when she read in a magazine that playing the piano was a good way to keep arthritic fingers flexible, she was fully convinced that she was doing the right thing.

Once she had learnt several pieces she joined a group of adult students who regularly met to play for each other. At a practice workshop she revealed to us her deeper motivation to take piano lessons at this time of her life.

When she was twelve years old, she had had a memory slip during a performance. Unable to find her way back into the music, she had walked off the stage, leaving the piece unfinished. She had stopped taking lessons, and never returned until now. Determined to face the challenge once more, she set a new goal for herself: to play Chopin’s Prelude in c-minor at a recital. She insisted on memorizing it, and even considered the possibility to perform from memory.
It took some time and effort, but she did memorize the piece. Her performance earned her the admiration of the entire audience. Later, she told me: “You know, I’m not so sure whether I can do this to myself at this age. The night before the concert, I woke up at 2 am. My heart was pounding, I heard the piece in my mind and found myself trying to picture the chord patterns on the piano.”

A few months later she fell and broke her wrist, so she had to discontinue lessons for a semester. She did not resume - other tasks had come up. She had promised to write the family chronic, and at 84 she felt she needed to get things done. But the courage she had proved in returning to the piano and getting over the former trauma inspired everyone who knew her.

Over the years I have taught many adult students. They were at different places in their lives and in their careers, and they played for different reasons.

Some wanted to “activate the other side of the brain”, feeling their profession didn’t give them enough of a chance to do so.

For quite a few the piano had proved a reliable partner to lean on in times of crisis, when everything seemed to fall apart. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, the piano was the only place where I could find peace,“ one student said.

Some wanted to improve their understanding of music. There is no better way to do that than to play yourself. How else could you hear the details of a piece in slow motion, or recognize a single voice in a piece? Even if you don’t play like a professional, your own playing will help you appreciate the professional’s performance in a way you never could just through listening.

Many adult learners underestimate how far they can develop their pianistic skills. Compared to the seemingly effortless learning of children, they feel their progress is slow and laborious. “Let’s hope this child still plays the piano when she is your age”, is my standard reply to such comments at student recitals. Understanding their personal way of learning, and accepting their own pace, I have seen some people go very far. “Never too late” one of my students wrote on the program of her first solo recital, which she played a few months before she turned 70.

Making music is a life support at any age, nourishing the soul as food nourishes the body. It is an activity that enriches our emotional world. Often, it takes the life experience of an adult to fully appreciate that, and I can only encourage any adult who feels drawn to playing the piano to give it a try.

Rehearsing a 6-hand piece for a recital

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Music in Central Park

The city is full of surprises. You’re on the subway, and the local is going express. More often it’s the other way round, but if you’re trying to catch a connection out of town, even that may lead to complications.

You’ve walked fifteen blocks with a heavy backpack to spend some time at your favorite spot in Central Park. When you get there, it has been closed off for renovation. It is the city’s way of keeping you flexible and creative, but those kinds of surprises can be a little annoying occasionally.

There are other kinds of surprises that can turn an ordinary day into a feast.

One perfect afternoon, I was walking across Central Park, heading for the subway on my way to teaching. Passing by the great lawn, I noticed that it was divided into sections by orange ribbons. Loudspeakers and a huge stage had been installed, suggesting a musical event. From everywhere, people were streaming towards the place. “Which band is playing?” I heard somebody ask. “The New York Philharmonic,” was the answer, and I noticed several big boxes containing programs lined up by the path. It wasn’t clear whether they were up for grabs, but maybe the information booths lined up on the other side of the lawn could help me out. On the way there I noticed other essential items required to guarantee that a mass event will run smoothly - garbage cans and portable WCs.

At the information booth a friendly volunteer informed me that this was a free concert, handed me a program and invited me to stay. “It’s too bad, I have to go and teach,” I replied. “What do you teach?” “Piano,” I answered, and the moment I said it, the music established a connection between us. “Come back Friday evening, there’s another concert” she suggested. I promised to think it over, even though I knew that there wasn’t much to think about. I had already made the decision.

Friday was humid, and the sky was overcast. At 4 pm, the website was still informing people that the concert was going to take place, regardless of the weather. I concluded that the forecast was unfavorable, and got on the train. I arrived early enough to take a look around. I sat down on a bench and casually engaged in “people watching”. This kind of entertainment and learning experience is always available in New York, entirely free. Listen to the sounds of an unknown language as if they were music. Listen and watch, and chances are you will feel what they express: agitation, calm, sadness or joy.

I wondered where the lady was from who was sitting at the other end of the bench. Her elegant summer dress, white crochet jacket and high heeled shoes stood out against jeans, shorts and sneakers most people were wearing. She clearly wasn’t planning to sit on the lawn. She wore make up and sat with her ankles crossed, like a client in a waiting room, expecting to be called up any moment. A folded umbrella lay on the bench, and she held her purse firmly on her lap In a soft, but determined voice she turned down everyone who asked to sit down on the place next to her in slightly accented English. “French,” I guessed. When she finally made a call on her cell phone, I realized she spoke Russian.

I never found out who the mysterious friend was she had been waiting for. An elderly man the size of a small giant in shabby, unkempt clothes approached the bench and plunged down, inhabiting slightly more than the space that was left between me and then next person. Muttering to himself, he started to rummage around in the plastic bag he was carrying. When his mumbling changed to a soft and persistent hum I got up and headed for the lawn, relieved to give him more room.

The lawn had filled up. Babies, toddlers, schoolchildren and teenagers, dogs, at least one cat on a leash, young people, old people, “mainstream” and “sidestream” people, all gathered together to listen to the New York Philharmonic play Copland’s Old American Songs and Mahler’s 1st Symphony. People had been hanging out here for hours. They had spent their time reading, playing games, typing away on their laptops and chattering on cell phones, maybe finishing the week’s business. Now, dinner appeared on the blankets that were spread out on the ground: take- out Pizzas in cardboard boxes, sandwiches, home made salads in plastic containers, a multi-course menu on a tablecloth with real china and wine glasses. There was a birthday cake with burning candles. It seemed prudent to walk around, rather than step over it.

Gray clouds were hanging low in the sky. It was darker than usual at that hour. On stage the lights were coming on. The musicians entered and sat down. People on the lawn started to light candles. As the voice from the speakers greeted the audience and announced the program, I was still stepping over bikes and baby strollers, trying to find a place not too far from the exit, in case a sudden downpour required a run for shelter.

The music began. People kept settling in. Their coming and going never stopped completely, while the singer sang and the orchestra played. The small stream of people moving formed a counterpoint to the waves of music coming from the stage and from the speakers. They were joined by yet another counterpoint: the voices of nature. Sometimes the wind picked up threateningly. The rustling of the leaves mixed with the sounds of the music, the twittering of birds, the song of the cicadas and the buzz of hushed human voices. All together they formed a rendition of Mahler’s First Symphony that was unique to that place and to that moment. Fireflies lit up here and there and above the dark trees the skyline of New York rose in the distance.

Nature had the last word in the symphony that evening. As the last movement merged into thunder and lightning, the conductor apologized: “This is a terrible place to stop. We’ll continue in a moment.” It wasn’t meant to be, and the sparkling of the fireflies was as close as we got to the fireworks that were to follow the concert.

A couple of days later, I listened to the symphony again at home. It occurred to me that the most perfect recording couldn’t capture the magic of the unfinished performance on that evening in Central Park.

Photographs from a photo competition of “Concerts in the Park” can be found at: