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?