Category Archives: Events

KMTA Fall District Auditions 2011

Yesterday, Saturday, Mark and I traveled to Emporia for the KMTA Fall District Auditions.

My first student performed at 9 a.m. so we left shortly before 7:30 a.m. to allow not only for travel time but also enough time to see Ava before her performance and to set things up, mainly the footstool which she would be using.

Ava and her family arrived, their mother quite frazzled – they had left their books at home. Word of our misfortune spread; fortunately one of the local teachers, Shane Galentine, offered us use of his copy of one of the books.  Even more fortunately, the judge graciously said, “Oh, I know that piece” about the other piece for which we had been unable to find a book on such short notice.

Setting up footstool went well, Ava’s performance went very well – she is surprisingly grounded for such a young person, not easily shaken.

The rest of the morning went without problems or upsets; Rachael, Hasun, Chris, Sumin, and Suyeon played beautifully and received high praises from the judge:  “dynamics are perfectly in place” – “You are so well prepared” – “expression that is quite mature” – “Your melody in the LH is just elegant and absolutely gorgeous!” – “very interesting and detailed playing!” – “This performance was absolutely brilliant – so satisfying!” – and about one of the Martha Mier jazz pieces: “This really cooks!”

Actually, there was one more upset:  the floor was rather slippery = both the bench and the footstool tended to slip a bit.  I had adjusted the left pedal for Sumin but as she started her piece, Gillock’s Dragon Fly, the left pedal of the footstool slipped off the piano’s left pedal.  The judge was able to adjust it but Sumin, having started an octave too low, actually had to get up and take a quick look at the score to remind herself of the beginning of the piece.  Once she did, she was able to play her piece as beautifully and convincingly as ever.

We didn’t have much time for lunch, so just drove quickly to Ru-Yi’s Asian restaurant to have a quick bite to eat.  As usual, it felt good to get away from the hustle of a competition, even if it’s just for 30 minutes or so.

Two more students from my studio in the afternoon:  both Gabby and Isabelle performed beautifully.  I was a bit concerned that Gabby would perform for a different judge (too many students overall to be heard by one judge in one day) as every judge has different standards and judging / writing style which makes it more difficult to compare.  However, his comments were as glowing as the other judge’s had been for the other students:  “nice clean playing” – “your touch is solid & confident” – “superb rendition!”

The purpose of the District Auditions is to hear all students and determine who will go on to State on November 5, to compete at the State Honors Auditions.  At the District Auditions, there is (supposed to be) no rating, only “state eligible” or not.  However, for some reason, this year, the evaluation form had a line for “numeric rating” where *I* meant state-eligible, and *II* meant not.

Three of my students received a I rating, five of them received a I+ rating.

After the last of my students had performed, Mark and I took at little break.  Walked to the Granada coffee shop for a vanilla latte and some cookies.  In addition to the normal coffee shop wooden or metal chairs, the Granada has two very very comfy deeply upholstered chairs which felt delicious after standing (in order to video tape the performances) or having sat on not-upholstered chairs at the competition for most of the day.

We walked back to the ESU Music Department where the competition was taking place to listen to a few more students and then were able to meet up with Jonathan who had been busy all day with his band performances for the football game.  We met briefly at the Music Department, and then drove to his house to see the new cat and then to Applebee’s for dinner.

On the way home, as usual, Mark was driving. I appreciated being able to doze off for a bit here and there.  It had been a long day, with a long couple of weeks leading up to it.

Today I didn’t do much of anything.  Uploaded the videos to my laptop, and – took a nap.


Getting old

Mark and I treasure our weekends: I do a bit of teaching on Saturdays, but for the most part Saturdays and then definitely Sundays belong to just us, to do – perhaps not nothing, but very intentionally nothing too structured.

Last Saturday, however, the KMTA State Honors Auditions took place in Lawrence, and while none of my students had participated in the Fall Auditions this year I still wanted to go and listen to as many students in as many different age groups as possible. I learn so much from listening and watching. This year, again, as usual, I saw a few, very few, outstanding performances, and other than that a whole lot of wonderful intentions that due to a lack of technique never were realized.

In order to be there for the little ones who play first thing in the morning (the drive takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes), Mark and I had planned to get up at 6:30 a.m. One of our cats decided, however, to be awake, very awake, and very vocal, at 6 a.m. already, so that’s when we woke up and shortly thereafter got up. Not that that got us to Lawrence any sooner though – my intestines had other plans and kept me in the bathroom longer and more frequently than planned.

Anyway. Once in Lawrence, we listened here and there, Mark took a break from the piano performances and listened to some strings before joining me for piano performances again, and later went to a nearby Panera to get lunch while I listened to yet another group of students. In the early afternoon, we felt we needed a bit of a break (also to get online and check email etc), so we went to Panera for something sweet and something to drink but soon returned to Murphy Hall to listen some more.

We had plans to go straight from Lawrence to Emporia, for dinner with Jonathan whose birthday had been the previous Saturday. Until shortly after 4 p.m., we stayed in Lawrence and then, after a short stop at a Starbucks for a coffee for me, made our way to Emporia. It was getting dark, I was tired, and thanks to Mark’s willingness to do all the driving I was able to doze off for a bit.

In Emporia, we met with Jonathan who showed us his new apartment, and then went out to eat. The Chinese was excellent. We had arranged with Jonathan to rent his cello from him, so after dinner he double-checked quickly to make sure everything was in the case, and then we left, Mark and I and the cello and left-over Chinese.

It was another hour and a half, in the dark, to get back to Manhattan.

The next day, Sunday, we felt old. We didn’t have much energy to do anything. We did manage to go to the Holiday Open House at Wildflower (Yarns and Knitwear) where we bought some yarn for a new scarf for Mark, and later in the afternoon I taught a make-up lesson for two students who had been unable to come to their regular lesson during the week.

In the evening, we were very aware that the weekend was over and that there was not another Sunday the next day, to really recuperate.

Like I said, we are getting old.

Or maybe we are just not used to doing stuff anymore.

The three legs of the trip – Manhattan to Lawrence, Lawrence to Emporia, Emporia to Manhattan – was a total of 260 miles. For the 18 months we lived in Olathe, we used to drive 250 miles every Saturday, from Olathe to Manhattan and then in the evening back again, so I could teach.

How on earth did we do that??

The way I practice

My style of practicing is similar to the way I discuss things with Mark.  He’s a good listener and I appreciate his feedback, so I like to bounce ideas off him, things big and small, issues I have with students, parents, colleagues, teaching challenges, logistics.  Usually, I start out with a more or less vague idea of the issue, and as I talk and then listen to his feedback, and talk some more (lots …) and listen some more, things tend to become clearer, more focused.  Mark knows that I don’t want him to solve my problems.  But he understands that it helps me clarify things when I talk about them. 

For instance:  last week, I judged the KMTA Music Progressions in Kansas City.  Over the course of five hours, I saw nine students who each had 30 minutes to show me what they knew:  two contrasting pieces (one memorized), music understanding and vocabulary, scales, chords, chord progressions, arpeggios, rhythm clapping, sight-playing; and, for the lower levels, more applied theory such as playing intervals and “sharped and flatted notes”, they also did their listening test with me.  As we were going down the list of things to do, I wrote comments on the pre-printed form of several pages, I checked off items on the list, giving appropriate points for each.  When a student didn’t do well on one of the items, I tried to write a little comment on why I only gave, say, 8 points out of 10 points possible, etc.  The event was well-organized, most students were well-prepared, some were not, one was a complete disaster.  A normal audition/judging situation.

When I finished, around 7:30 p.m., I was exhausted.  Not just tired.  Exhausted.  Wiped out.  Mark and I had planned to attend a concert (same location) after my judging duties were done – I had really been looking forward to that.  Now all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed.  I shared this with Mark, and my confusion about it:  I didn’t understand why I was so exhausted.  When I had 25 to 30 students in Manhattan, it wasn’t uncommon to be teaching for five hours, with only a short break here and there.  Yet at the end of a long teaching day, I was invigorated as much as I was tired.  So, why would judging feel so different?  We looked at a couple of different reasons:  the fact that the audition students are strangers, the time constraints, the having to assign points for accomplishments, the knowing that my written feedback on their performance pieces would carry a certain weight and that therefore I had to choose my words even more carefully than I normally do in a lesson (where I get the chance, if necessary, to clarify any remark or comment at the next lesson), etc and so on and so forth.  What made the biggest difference, though, in how I looked at the audition, was this:  Mark has experience in both teaching and judging martial arts.  As I was complaining about how exhausted I was, he suggested that the energy that the to-be-evaluated students bring into the room is different from the energy they bring to a lesson.  That different energy tends to sap yours.  This insight didn’t take the exhaustion away, but it felt good to be able to put these feelings into words, to be listened to and heard.

Sometimes when we talk about things, we don’t get anywhere.  Sometimes his feedback results in a new insight.  Sometimes, his feedback is brilliant, sometimes it’s – not.

Practicing, for me, is similar to these conversations:  I play something, with a more or less vague idea of where I want to go with this piece; I listen – to the sound, to my body -, I take mental notes of what I’d like to improve and how, then I play some more, listen, watch, and in the end I have made progress.  To an outsider it may look like I just played the same thing over and over, which would be true of course, but every repetition yielded subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, changes.  I listen, I pay attention, I use the feedback I receive from my ear, my brain, my body, my heart, to make necessary changes.  Sometimes I stray, it’s not often a straight road, but in the end, because I listened, I have made some kind of progress.  It’s what I call mindful practicing. 

Simone Weil, French philosopher and passionate teacher, once said (something to the effect) that if you study something and it seems that despite your efforts you do not make progress, you made progress nevertheless.  Every attempt, fruitful or not, to learn something results in growth.   I try to keep this in mind when I practice.  And it occasionally proves true – when, occasionally, things seemingly suddenly fall into place, after having stalled for a while.  They were fermenting, gelling under the surface.  So, while an individual practice session may not have been as successful as I would wish, it still did its part in the bigger scheme of things.  And that, to me, is efficient and effective practice. 

Boris Berman Master Class

Park University in Parkville, Missouri, is different.  Perhaps not so much in that Parkville is not your typical college town, or even in that Park University offers undergraduate and graduate programs on 43 campuses in 21 states and Online.  Park University in Parkville, MO, is different because it is home to the International Center For Music and Park’s Youth Conservatory For Music.  According to their mission statement,

The International Center For Music at Park University was established to foster the exchange of master teacher/performers, renowned young musicians, and programs from countries across the globe.  […]  By involving the highest caliber artists of our generation, as educators, we will enable our students and audiences to experience the wealth of musical literature that has impacted generations of our global society.

And highest caliber artists they are.

At the moment, from March 6 through 9, the ICM is hosting The Grand Piano Festival: concerts which feature international competition winners from the Ioudenitch studio, and, of even more interest to me, masterclasses, all of which are open to the community and free.  Guest artist and Master Teacher Boris Berman is giving masterclasses from 2 to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.  

At the end of my piano studies with Barbara Fry, I was lucky enough to be invited to a piano course given by her teacher, Bruno Seidlhofer (Vienna) in Switzerland.  Professor Seidlhofer explained that he disliked the traditional term “Meisterklasse” – master class – because it implied that either he was a master and/or that the students were.  Of course, he was a master, but out of humility and perhaps to draw attention to his emphasis on artistry , Professor Seidlhofer called this particular course an “Interpretationskurs” – interpretation class. 

William Westney, in a similar yet different attempt to get away from the traditional “master class” is promoting his Un-Master Class (R).  I remember his presentation from a few years ago. While I whole-heartedly agree that there are teachers who are so imposing and so intent on perfection that they stifle natural physical intuition and artistic expression in the student, I found Mr. Westney’s approach not quite as liberating as he probably thought it would be:  his shouting at the student, “Make a mistake!  Go ahead, make a big, fat mistake!!” was, to me, no less intimidating and stifling than a “master teacher” staring down a student for having played a wrong note.

Boris Berman, not that I expected any different but as I have witnessed yesterday and hope to see again today and tomorrow (weather permitting – it snowed, again!), is a true Master as well as Teacher.  Even if you didn’t know anything about him or hadn’t read his book Notes from the Pianist’s Bench, it was evident from the very beginning that he not only knows his stuff but knows how to present it to the student as well.  He took his time explaining what and why he wanted the student to try something different; he shared with the (pitifully small) audience of piano teachers his observations on how teaching certain aspects – in this case, functional harmony – has changed over the years, etc.  Given the format – a teaching situation – there were opportunities to put a student down, or ridicule a student’s lack of theoretical knowledge.  While Professor Berman never sugarcoated any criticism, he always remained warm, friendly and polite, occasionally using gentle humor, never sarcasm.  How liberating it was to hear him say, with a warm and comforting tone in his voice, “You look so worried when you play this.  Please don’t be so concerned!  You know this piece, you don’t need to worry about wrong notes.”

I am looking forward to more of this.

Another observation of Mr. Berman’s Master Class can be found here.

Piano Concerto Competition

The Manhattan Area Music Teachers Association (MAMTA) hosted the 11th Annual Piano Concerto Competition today. 

The Competition is open to students in grades 4 – 12.  Contestants are grouped by grade level, Elementary (grades 4 -5), Lower  Intermediate (6 -7), Upper Intermediate (8 – 9), and Advanced (10 – 12), and perform one concerto movement from memory.  

There were some changes this year, perhaps most noticeably the fact that instead of the 23-25 students we’ve had at each competition over the past couple of years, this year we had only 11 contestants.  There were questions and concerns as to how this low number might influence the issue of awards:  the thought was that it might be a foregone conclusion that if there were only two contestants in a division, there would be a first and a second place, and therefore not as much of a competition as when you have six or seven contestants in a division. 

Fortunately, these fears turned out to be unfounded.

For once, we had an adjudicator who was not afraid to not award a prize unless it was well-deserved.  In the past, while it was nice to have so many first and second places (which come attached with a gift certificate to the local music store as well as the honor of performing again at the winners’ concert), I have often felt that prizes were awarded too liberally.  Instead of judging the quality of the performance, most adjudicators seemed to rank the performances:  whoever played best in any given age category got first place, regardless of the quality of the performance.  Second-best got second place, etc.   Of course, many times the two overlapped, and the “best” performance was indeed worthy of a first place, simply because it could not have been done any better.  But many times, “best” wasn’t really good enough.

This year, for the first time ever, there was no First Place in the Elementary Division (grades 4 – 5).  There was no Second Place either.  While at first it was disappointing to receive “only” Honorable Mention (we practiced so hard …), it was actually exactly right and justified.  Anything higher than Honorable Mention would have sent the wrong signal to the student as well as the teacher, and the audience.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to this year’s adjudicator, Dr. Virginia Houser, for having the

integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it.

Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

(Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian.)

Another observation of this year’s event can be found here.