Friday, June 28, 2019

Doing Doughnuts

This month I have four different concert programs in five weeks. Last week there were three piano concerts in Ohio, featuring two different programs. This was on the theory (proven correct) that a few persons might be at two of the concerts and the repetition might look lazy. Yesterday I returned to Pennsylvania for an organ recital about a half hour outside of Pittsburgh. It was a summer concert in connection with a farmer's market next store to the church which wanted to capitalize on the foot traffic. I planned my program accordingly, playing lighter fare (even the Bach item was on the virtouso side) including Ives's "Variations on 'America' for the 4th of July. In two weeks I'll be at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh in a program of what I promised yesterday to people I talked to afterward would be much "better behaved" than the one I had just played.

All of this, of course, does require a certain amount of planning. It is not, in my opinion, safe to begin learning a concert program the week before the concert! How does it work for me? Here are a few principles.

First, I try to start preparing as early as possible. Even touching a piece for a day or two and then having to leave it aside from general busyness can be quite profitable. It never seems like the piece is quite as unfamiliar when you come back to it even if it is weeks later. The brain stores the experience somewhere, it seems.

Second, planning programs that mainly consist of music which already has a performance history helps. There was one completely new item on yesterday's program, one that I played once a year ago, one that I've played several times in the past few years, and one that has had two fairly recent performances, that is. in the last couple of years. At St. Paul there will be one piece I just learned this semester, and several others that have only been played one time a few years ago, but I've made sure to compensate for this by preparing this concert the most, and starting the earliest. The piano concerts consisted of pieces I had pretty handily under my fingers (except for one last minute addition).

Third, I triaged the programs in terms of how much work each program was likely to need and which pieces would cause the most trouble. As I've written before, when you are working with a lot of music and on short deadlines, this skill is essential. I'm rarely wrong about how long it will take to get comfortable with a piece, and if I am, it is usually because I wasn't optimistic enough. Of course, if you practice something for four hours straight, one day can do wonders.

Then comes the juggling. pick up a program, practice for several days, well in advance, put it away so you can work on something else. As the program gets close it is time to cram--well, concentrate on polishing the concert in front of you. In between comes a doughnut hole of neglect, which, if it is large enough, may require periodically playing through the program even if no great progress is made in terms of practice.

This spring I began from the back, working on the St Paul program--most of it, anyway--so that it would have lots of time to mature. I then began work on the piano programs, leaving the other organ recital till later, when the piano programs were almost upon me. At that point I spent the week mainly practicing not for the concert I was about to give but for the next in the series. The strategy mainly worked. There was one piece on one of the piano concerts in which in one of the difficult passages I basically threw up all over the piano, but otherwise, the concerts all went well. The organ recital went well yesterday, too. As my hometown newspaper would have so imaginatively put it "A good time was had by all." (thousands of English teachers just howled).

Three down, one to go. 

And if I need something to do with my time in two weeks, I've got five programs to get ready for fall. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Pushing my buttons

I have had the same digital recorder for 16 years. There were several times when it seemed to be given up its electronic ghost, but then somehow, through a lot of cajoling, colorful language, and dumb luck, I managed to keep it going. It has made well over a thousand recordings, and many of them turned out well enough to post. It has spent a large portion of its life with the skin off, exposing the wires and requiring me to have the position of the buttons memorized, or take time finding it.

But it soldiered on. Until, finally, after months of periodically destroying SD cards by writing bad sectors on them, I had had enough. So I got a new recorder.

The technological leap is in many ways astounding. Now a single memory card will get me 50 hours of recording time. Live concerts are now easy to record without having to flush the card as soon as you get a spare minute. If you have a concert the next day, or something else you want to record, there is plenty of room. And when it comes time to dump the contents onto your computer it no longer takes 20 minutes to get an hour of audio to load. The new time is about 45 seconds.

I did have some issues though. There is naturally a learning curve with all things new. What I was not expecting is that I would have problems with the menu button. Right out of the box it didn't seem to work. What gives these days?

It turns out that you need to push the button the proper way. Having spent all week using my laptop at a 90 degree angle so the power cord will connect while I wait for a new one that FedEx sent from California by way of Paraguay, I can appreciate the need to do funny things to get things to work. Half of my career seems to be about making things happen when reasonable people would have given up long ago.

It seems odd that I would be pushing the button the wrong way. It's a button, right? You just push it.

My theory is that for most people that's exactly what happens. But for me, trained in 80 flavors of staccato, whose vocation is the use of the fingers on plastic levers to make sounds, there is more than one way to push a button. If you do it with a kind of languorous ultra-legato, pressing and holding with a heavy, insistent finger, it never reacts. But an articulate, rapid flick of the finger gets it to work every time.

I'm glad I figured that out. I would have had to take it back to the store and started my search over. Instead, I have memorized one more little sub-routine for getting through life that works and is simple once you know it.

Welcome to my weird little world. Even pushing a button is an adventure in piano technique.

In case you were wondering about the package with my new power cord in it (see last week's post), it was "guaranteed" to arrive on Monday at my temporary abode in Ohio where I knew I would be spending the week when I ordered it. It is now five days late, having started in California, and, according to the tracking information, been through New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, then Florida (where it spent 3 days for no apparent reason), Kentucky, then it passed Cincinnati and spent a day in Columbus. It made the remaining 90 minute car trip back to Cincinnati, where it was transferred to the US postal service, which now has the package at the local post office and should be delivered today. Having just wrapped up 3 concerts in Ohio I plan to return to Pittsburgh today. Which means the package may have to be re-mailed the rest of the way. Apparently "guarantee" is one of those words that has changed meaning recently.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Cue the fiddle music

My dearest reader,

It has been nearly four days since a most unfortuitous calamity has sent me careening into the 19th century. The power cord on my computer has become irrevocably damaged and to such a grave extent that I fear for the continued necessary usage of my computer. I have had to subsist on all manner of borrowed electronic contrivances. Only my phone has stood by me during this time of severe trial. I hope, God willing, to regain the use of my computer if by the next post should come the new power cord which I have ordered sent to my current address. It will only be then that my regular mode of life shall be restored. Until then I shall be an unwilling denizen of times past when our race must needs have foraged for survival in an unkind environment.

I am in a pitiable state. The normal mode of commerce with my species having been disrupted, I have been forced to have intercourse only with my own thoughts, and they are black indeed. Whither shall I wander in this un-digital world? In what manner can I profitably spend my time if not in front of a computer? What little talents I may possess can surely be of little use without the approved electronic medium to disseminate them among my brethren.

Once assured that my computer was not at fault, I turned my attentions to procuring a new cord for it, the old one having been mercilessly ripped apart by my thoughtlessly dangling the adapter box from the port side of the piano whilst composing. Heedlessly I have acted, but I shall not repeat my misdeed. A new power strip will relieve its successor of gravity's rapacious grip rather than twisting the plug into the shape that circumstance has forced it into, thereto.

Whenceforth I shall continue in weeks to come to protract my opinions in this space, newly returned to the century of the 21st. Entertaining the fondest hopes for the speedy remedy of this malady, I am, ever your blogger,


Friday, June 7, 2019

Miss Olga

Miss Olga retired last week.

Her name is Olga Radosavljevich, and she taught piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Preparatory Division, for 59 years. She didn't think students would be able to pronounce Radosavljevich, so she went by Miss Olga.

I had to look up how to spell it, but I had no problem pronouncing it. In fact, I just tried saying it five times fast. It's been awhile, and I only got through it four times before stumbling on the last one.

Miss Olga was the head of the Prep Department, which is where you went for lessons before being enrolled at the Conservatory. When I was 16, I took lessons in the Prep department, though Miss Olga was not my teacher. In fact, I think, due to my sloppy technical skills, she didn't want me as a student. A year later, at the end of year exam, she wrote "EXCELLENT!" in big letters across the top of the page. "When he first came it was obvious he lacked formal training but he has made an ENORMOUS improvement since" was her enthusiastic assessment. It remains one of my most glowing reviews.

I had studied with an elementary music teacher in our little town for several years. I owe her a lot, too, but it eventually became clear that, to borrow her own words, she was "not suitable for [my] purposes."

In the two years I had in the prep department I studied with a conservatory graduate student and made huge strides. Miss Olga was there to make sure of it.

Of course, Miss Olga's 59 year career only came to a peaceful and magnificent conclusion last week because my grandmother didn't kill her thirty years ago.

Miss Olga gave a master class in which several dozen of us played Czerny exercises for her one long Sunday afternoon. I was apparently the most advanced (I was probably a high school senior at this point) and was held for the end. The first students got a lot of instruction, and as the class dragged on past the four hour mark and the relieved parents left with their charges one by one as they finished taking their public lesson, only I and my family were left. Miss Olga looked at her watch wearily and said that maybe it was time to stop. My grandmother, according to my mother, looked like she wanted to kill Miss Olga.

We stopped grandma in time, and I got to play for her anyway. She was encouraging.

I have a recording of the 90 second etude I played on that occasion. I made the recording a few years ago one afternoon. I imagine it has improved a little since 1989, though I barely practiced it before I turned on the microphones!

Here's to you, Miss Olga. You have a lot of thankful students.

Czerny, Etude in Bb, op. 299 #13

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