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:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Caught between the Lines - an experience in dysfunctional communication

More than a year ago, a German organization invited a friend of mine to teach a workshop in Germany. When it came to figuring out the details, I translated correspondence and sometimes negotiated on his behalf.

At first, everything went smoothly. In addition to the fee, the organization, represented by A., agreed to pay for my friend’s flight and hotel. It seemed like a tall order for a weekend workshop, but A. was talking about contracts to be sent out soon.

Some more details needed to be cleared up, a few messages went back and forth. My friend realized that he wasn’t quite happy with some of the details, and asked me to request a few changes. I had a feeling A. wouldn’t be thrilled, but did my best to communicate the request in an open and polite way.

In the meantime, two other prestigious institutions had learnt about my friend’s visit to the country, and invited him to teach. A. knew about this, in fact, her organization had tried to secure an additional engagement for him earlier on, but this had not worked out.

For weeks, there was no response. My friend became worried, thinking that A. must be ill, or have other serious reasons for not responding. He insisted on writing to B., a friend of A., who also knew about project. B. answered after a few days, no, everything was fine, A. would get in touch with us whenever she was ready.

More time passed, during which we heard nothing from A. At last, my friend felt it was time to look into booking flights. The event was only three months away. Still there were no news from A., whose organization had agreed to pay for the flight. It seemed a good idea to touch base with them, and receive a confirmation before booking anything. My friend wrote several messages that remained unanswered. He started to become impatient and angry, understanding the silence as a personal insult. Unfortunately he has had similar experiences with Germany in the past.

At last I wrote - asking whether A. had received my recent message regarding the change of my contact information. I also inquired about the changes in the program my friend had requested, and asked A. to let me know if they caused any problems.

Two days later, A. informed me of the cancellation of the entire project, due to financial difficulties of the organization. She expressed her deepest regrets, and asked me to translate her message - she said she wasn’t able to find the words in English.

I think I did an adequate job of translating the message, but I added the wrong comment: “At least there was a serious reason for her silence.” Of course, I assumed she had been trying to save the project until the minute she informed me of the cancellation.

Shortly after I received the message from A., my friend received an e-mail from the president of the organization- a person we had never heard of before. A copy of that message was addressed to me - to my old e-mail address, which has ceased to function a month ago. I had just asked A. to confirm that she had received my new e-mail address.....

The president's message mainly consisted of the copy of a letter he said he had sent to my friend in June, informing him of the cancellation. The letterhead shows it was sent to the address where my friend teaches during the winter. Normally, the mail is automatically forwarded to his summer home from there, but who knows......

After he sent the letter, the president of the organization apparently never realized that he hadn’t received the confirmation he had asked my friend to send. It’s vacation time in Germany - maybe he went on vacation.

My friend was furious. I was, too. The cancellation was disappointing, but unfortunately this is something you have to be ready for these days. It was the way it was communicated that made us so angry: the lack of transparency, the delayed answers, the lack of responsibility when it came to making sure that important information was received.

If anyone in A’s organization took the trouble to take a step back and look at “the big picture,” they must have realized that their cancellation would have an impact, and possibly jeopardize the other two events. Had everyone been informed when A’s organization decided to pull out, this issue might have been resolved.

How about my friend, an internationally known teacher in his 80s, who has changed many people's lives - wouldn't he deserve to be treated with more respect? How about his work, about which A. published an enthusiastic article in a magazine? How about the students, who will not get the opportunity to work with him?

Are these aspects that matter at all, or is this primarily about the benefit an organization gains from someone else’s reputation - and if things don’t work out, you quietly sneak out the back door and keep a low profile.

As a German citizen I felt deeply embarrassed by the poor handling of the matter on the part of the German organization, sensing issues I had often criticized: the bureaucracy, the habit of hiding behind procedures, the lack of personal responsibility.

When I was ready to lash out at the people who screwed this up, and send them a message telling them what I thought of their behavior, my friend asked me to stop. “It will only create hostility,” he said. I didn’t send the message, because I sensed he was right.

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Thinking and Feeling" - the Russian Pianist Alexander Kobrin

The first time I heard Alexander Kobrin play was two years ago at a concert in Concord, NH. I had never heard of him before, but a Russian friend and colleague at school had called my attention to the concert.  

Kobrin had programmed the four Scherzi by Chopin. I must admit that they are not my favorite pieces, but when Kobrin played them, they sounded like music I’d never heard before. There was the glitter, the passion, the technical perfection, but they were means to convey a meaning, rather than an end in themselves or a means to show off the skills of the pianist.

Every phrase was shaped to the very last note. In the mezzo piano to pianissimo range his playing had the intensity of whispering a secret to the audience. I've hardly ever heard anyone conjure such a wide range of colors out of the piano and control them with such perfect mastery. Obviously, a general concept was underlying the interpretation, nevertheless the performance felt completely alive, every sound genuinely created in the moment. 

I always figure when someone plays music you don’t feel particularly close to in a way that makes you want to listen to it again, that was a convincing performance. 

The encore he played in Concord, “Catch me if you can” from Schumann’s “Scenes of Childhood” was like a spook. Incredibly fast, and incredibly soft, it sent a shiver down your spine, so intense, you don’t forget it as long as you live.

Seeing his name on the faculty and list of performers of the International Keyboard Institute at the Mannes School of Music in New York City made me eager to hear him again, and find out whether my first impression would hold up. The program he played last Friday consisted of Haydn’s Sonata in D-major Hob 16/37, the Phantasiestuecke  op. 12 by Schumann, and the Sonata in b-minor by Chopin. 

The impression I got at the concert in Concord wasn’t only confirmed, but reinforced. I’ve never heard the Haydn Sonata played with such humor, imagination and elegance. I felt inspired to look for new ideas in this popular teaching piece and couldn’t help thinking “I wished my students could hear this.” 

The Chopin Sonata was haunting, conveying a sense of discomfort, disturbance - parts of it sounding almost like an improvisation. At the same time, he didn’t place  “special effects” merely to attract attention.

The interpretation of Schumann’s Phantasiestuecke presented them reflecting the complexity of human emotions, states of mind rather than images of nature, to which some of the titles refer. While each detail was meticulously shaped, it seamlessly integrated into the piece as a whole. Pieces like “Aufschwung” (Soaring) and “In der Nacht” (At night) began softly, reserving the forte for the climax of the piece in the recapitulation. Yet, the playing didn’t sound as if he was intellectually “following” a plan, rather, he seemed to be “feeling” the plan in the process of playing the piece. 

Watching Kobrin play gave me the impression of a musician whose mental energy is completely focussed on the sound he hears in his mind. No energy is wasted on excess body motion or facial expression - though I did find it a little disturbing that he was humming along with his playing at times.

The Keyboard Institute also offered the opportunity to observe Kobrin teach private lessons. In addition to his magnificent playing, I found him a respectful, kind, supportive and yet intense teacher. He didn’t merely use the students to demonstrate how he felt about the the music, but interacted with them, asking questions, inviting them to think and start searching for their own answers in the music, rather than impose his own interpretation on them.

His comments during the lessons confirmed my impression that he is a pianist in search of truth rather than effect in the music. 
One of the students played Schumann’s “Davidsbuendler”. After a conversation about her background and her thoughts about the pieces he said: “ The contrast between the two characters Florestan and Eusebius, and ‘Schumann was crazy,’ that’s how most people think of these pieces. But matters are much more complicated than that. The music expresses very mixed emotions. They change all the time, and you have to feel out those subtle shades of emotion.” For this reason, Kobrin counts “Davidsbuendler” among Schumann’s most difficult piano works, together with the Fantasy, Humoresken and Kreisleriana. 

He commented further: “You have to ask yourself what is the meaning of the music? How does it reveal itself in the structure. Pay attention to all the small differences, and ask yourself why are they there, what is their meaning?”

Regarding the relationship between thinking and feeling he said: “Your first reaction to the music is : “This is beautiful”. The next step is to study the score and examine all the details of the music - the structure, not just the overall structure of the piece, but every detail, every phrase. Knowing what makes the piece beautiful doesn’t get in the way of the beauty. When you perform, you must have a plan in terms of understanding the meaning of the music. At the same time you have to remain very flexible to feel all these subtle changes while you are playing.”  

Kobrin’s playing draws you in rather than sweeps you away in big waves of sound. The remark of a friend, who visited the concert together with me made me realize that it may not be the kind of playing that makes every listener sit on the edge of the chair, electrified with tension. But I find that it is a kind of playing that reaches out to the soul and leaves an imprint.  

A final remark:  After the concert, I listened to some of Kobrin’s recordings on the internet. I feel they don’t do justice to his playing, because the subtle nuances that make it so special get lost. If you get a chance, go and hear one of his live performances instead.