Today I presented an interest session titled “Latin American Choral Music” about… yes: Latin American choral music. Clearly, I am not the best at coming up with creative session titles. For anyone that may find it useful, here are the slides I shows and the two handouts. Unfortunately, I gave the presentation without any notes, so I don’t have more to share.
Cultural appropriation has been on my mind quite a bit as I work on putting together the programs for Border CrosSing. This is an issue that can be immensely complicated, mainly because cultural interchange and mutual learning are incredibly positive. Through this process is how we develop a collective human experience, how we’ve moved forward through the ages. However, we must recognize that not every cultural exchange is fair, just, or beneficial for the people involved.
Privilege and power dynamics are at the root of cultural appropriation. Cultural capital has real value and those with power are able to take cultural capital from the disadvantaged at pennies on the cultural dollar. Privilege also results in a failure to recognize concepts that are considered to be sacred or inviolable. Every culture in the world has these kinds of concepts (and in many cases, this sense of sacredness or inviolability can be objectively bad, which can serve as an excuse for those that seek to benefit from this kind of cultural capital, allowing them to copy without attribution or respect).
Violating something that is held sacred by others causes real damage.
The above point should be self-explanatory, but failing to recognize its implications is at the root of the most problematic cases of cultural appropriation that I’ve observed. It doesn’t matter if you think other people’s values are silly, it doesn’t matter if you think that you should get to do what you want with an element of a particular culture, it doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the casual use of what other people consider sacred. Failing to recognize that other people have concerns and things that they hold sacred and not taking these into account is sociopathic behavior.
I mentioned above that everyone has these things that are important to them. However, those with different kinds of privilege will rarely have the experience of having something that is important or sacred to them be casually played with. It’s this privilege that is inherent in the idea of acting as if what other people care about does not count. Those with some measure of power, or privilege, are usually those that can get away with disrespecting what others value without having to fear any retaliation.
I started learning Schubert’s Six Moments Musicaux in 2006, the first semester of what would be my final year studying in Spain. I’d known the pieces my whole life, but had only been practicing them seriously about seven months. While learning them, every one of my piano lessons was a complete disaster. My piano professor would stop me after the first phrase and then criticize mercilessly. Sometimes I wouldn’t play a single note for the rest of the lesson. This went on for months. It wasn’t my playing she criticized, it was me; it was absolutely personal: I was lazy, I was slow, she felt sorry for me, I was from the wrong cultural background, I started playing piano too late, I would never have the technique, I was unrefined, I was insensitive, I was tone-deaf, I lacked character, I was too passive, I would never understand this music, I was stupid. It was hopeless. I played the Alban Berg Piano Sonata and some Debussy etudes at that semester’s jury. Maybe someday you’ll play Schubert…
After that, I worked the hardest I’ve ever worked on the Moments Musicaux. It became a bit of a running joke among the other students and teachers at the school, particularly in the viola studio, who’d hear me through their wall practicing the Moments Musicaux hours on end. I became the Moments Musicaux guy; people would hum number three or number five when they’d pass by me. I would take the score with me everywhere; if I wasn’t playing piano, I was either listening to recordings or reading the score. Those pieces were my life. There was no improvement in the lessons; if anything, they got worse. Now instead of playing a phrase, I would play a measure, a note… sometimes the criticism would start before I even played one note; the character of the breath was wrong, the way I sat was wrong. At the end of the semester, I played a pair of Rachmaninoff etudes and Beethoven’s Andante Favori for my jury. Maybe someday you’ll play Schubert…
That Summer Break, I filled in as rehearsal pianist for the International Conducting Workshop, a conducting course Gustav Meier taught in Mexico. During the lunch breaks I would practice my repertoire, including the Moments Musicaux. Before one of the last sessions, Gustav Meier came up to me and mentioned casually something to the effect of: “I’ve been listening to you practice that Schubert all week. It sounds wonderful.” We then talked briefly about one section that he liked particularly in the second piece of the set, how difficult it is to pull off the pick-up notes of the sixth piece, and our favorite recordings. After that minute-long conversation I was glowing. I played through the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth for the next couple of hours with the conducting students with a renewed energy. A weight had been lifted.
The next day, when I sat at the piano to practice those pieces, I broke down weeping and shaking uncontrollably.
I did not return to Spain in the fall. I played the Moments Musicaux in a recital later that year and put them away until now, almost eight years later.
Maestro Meier passed away this week. We did not stay in contact after that, although I played piano for his conducting workshop the next year and ran into him once while living in Michigan. Although the gestures and ideas discussed in those workshops have stayed with me and become an important part of my conducting background, I was most affected by that one casual remark. I could have gone back to Spain and continued on the self-destructive path I was on. I was depressed, lonely, alienated from my family, and potentially suicidal. That simple gesture of appreciation changed my life. That ability to reach out and touch another human being so profoundly is, in my opinion, the highest ideal of any conductor.
Motivation is one of the trickiest and most important aspects of leading an ensemble. A choir can live or die depending on a conductor’s capacity to maintain the group’s motivation. Different things will demotivate different people, so it can be difficult to pinpoint specific techniques that can be useful in all cases. There’s also a widespread assumption that this aspect of conducting and teaching is entirely dependent on charisma and that it can’t be effectively taught.
While there are countless rehearsal techniques to work on rhythm, articulation, balance, diction, pitch, etc., I’m interested in finding rehearsal principles that will help:
From my own experience and from observing and talking with conductors that I admire for this aspect of their conducting, I’ve come up with three broad principles for rehearsing with motivation in mind:
This should be your first priority. Surely not everyone will love a particular piece, but they shouldn’t get to a point where they abhor it. Getting a choir to learn a work temporarily is never worth making them hate it permanently. Help your choir get excited by showing them early in the process what excites you about the piece — programming repertoire that doesn’t excite you is always a bad idea. This is usually easy to do, but hard to maintain in the long term; it will usually take several reminders of what makes a piece exciting to you to get a choir on board with your vision.
There are probably certain details of the piece that you are crazy about. However, love of the details came from a broader appreciation of a work. Get your choir excited about the big picture: the big picture will help them appreciate the details of the piece, not the other way around. Learning notes, drilling passages, and detailed rehearsing will be more productive and permanent if the big picture is in place. Learning details without context can feel futile, and few things are as effective at promoting hate for a piece of music as rehearsing with a sense of futility.
We learn most of our rehearsal techniques in the context of school. There, singers’ main motivation is a fear of not graduating — many of the rehearsals “work” because students are pressured by their tuition costs, peer pressure, and grades. Outside of this environment, interest does not always translate into motivation, especially because of the other pressures in your musicians’ lives. It can be difficult to return to a piece of music repeatedly and attention spans can vary from one rehearsal to another. It is important to take this into account when planning rehearsals. The following techniques can help account for varying levels of motivation:
It’s easy to forget just how confusing certain aspects of a piece can be in the beginning. It is important to acknowledge this and reassure the group that you’re there to help them figure it out. Failing to acknowledge that things can be confusing or difficult can imply to the group that the fault lies with them. A conductor’s job is not to be omniscient authority. Let’s not expect perfection from our ensembles and ourselves. Rejoicing in the the process of rehearsal and practice is the best way to attain lifelong commitment and continued satisfaction from what we do.
College athletes with the sole goal in life of playing in the NFL or the NBA are probably setting themselves up for failure. However, athletes that are prepared to play several sports, coach, train teams, and run sports-related businesses are equipped to succeed in their careers, regardless of the circumstances. Thousands of music students every year enter the best universities and conservatories with a similarly improbable goal in mind: to join one of the top orchestras or to become a famous soloist, yet the odds of attaining a full-time position in a good orchestra or being able to make a career of touring and playing concerts exclusively are astronomical.
There is a demand for musicians and music educators in today’s economy. A well-prepared musician can make a decent living and the idea of the “starving artist” is a myth, perpetuated by unrealistic expectations and inadequate preparation. As with any other career, an adequate preparation is essential. It’s not enough to attain a suitable level of skill in performance and teaching abilities but one has to engage in multiple aspects of musical life.
I believe that even today, in most institutions, the skills most critical to a successful musical career are grossly neglected, if not outright ignored. Many instrument teachers’ approach can be reduced to “learn this piece and eventually play it very well, then learn a harder piece and eventually play it very well…” repeated from the moment a student enters school until they graduate. They’ll even actively discourage students from getting too involved in other courses lest it take away valuable practice time — especially common with pianists, who don’t have the time in the orchestra to balance out the many hours spent as a shut-in. The result of this teaching approach is a student that can play a handful of works but with no guarantee that the student understands the process involved in learning them. The student can’t communicate the process to others and ultimately will not have the means to find an audience for that handful of works. In the real world, this is close to useless.
When I know a student is going to pursue a career in music, it makes an enormous difference in my teaching approach. It becomes my responsibility not only to help those students learn a handful of pieces, but to give them the other necessary tools for a career in music. Most of the time, this results in a greater emphasis on often neglected aspects of a pianist’s education, such as sight-reading and singing, harmonic analysis, improvisation and accompaniment. This will necessarily take time away from the “learn a handful of pieces very well by drilling them repeatedly” aspect of traditional piano teaching.
I propose that, to build a career in music, musicians should strive to be as diverse in their knowledge as possible. They should be able to read music fluently, improvise, arrange and have at least a functional knowledge of conducting, composition and performance in more than one style; every musician should have at least elementary keyboard abilities and every pianist knowledge of vocal technique. More important than “playing a handful of pieces very well” is learning to learn, so one can pick up any piece of music quickly and perform it confidently on stage — in real life, you seldom get a semester to learn your repertoire. Every musician should be a competent teacher and be familiar with diverse pedagogical methods and the appropriate material for different age groups and types of students. They should be able to work with other people, as part of a team in smaller ensembles or under a director in bigger groups. Musicians should be able to express themselves in writing, speak in front of an audience, and use the Internet, notation software, and recording software competently.
My own musical education was of the traditional kind. Although I was lucky to have very good teachers, my instruction was always limited to playing the works I was assigned, and then learning some new ones. I was lucky in one sense: I had to support myself through school. That meant that I played trumpet in several orchestras, salsa bands, mariachi ensembles and on the street; I played piano in a dance studio, pretended to play jazz in restaurants, and accompanied church services; I directed ensembles and taught students of all ages; I had to take every job I could get, regardless of the time I had to learn the music, and adapt for each situation and audience. Looking back, every single one of those experiences has been as useful, if not more, than the handful of pieces I learned in school.
Música Callada (translated often as “Voices of Silence”, “Silent Music”, “Quiet Music”, or “Music of Silence”) is a very special piece. It is one of the most beautiful and elusive works in the entire piano repertoire. Although much of the music is indeed quiet, and none of it moves quickly, it is all meaningful. This makes it extremely difficult to perform. Música Callada, is a piano suite consisting of 28 pieces arranged in four books and is the considered the masterwork of Catalan composer Federico Mompou.
About Música Callada, Mompou once wrote, “its mission is to reach the profound depths of our soul and the hidden domains of the vital force our spirits. This music is silent (callada) as if heard from within.” This idea was inspired by the Cántico Espiritual (“Spitirual Canticle”), one of the poetic works of the Spanish mystical poet St. John of the Cross which presents an allegory of the human soul’s search and eventual reunion with God. The following verse resonated with Mompou and inspired Música Callada:
La noche sosegada
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora.
(night sunk in a profound
rest, with the stir of dawn about the skies,
music without a sound,
a solitude of cries,
a supper of light hearts and lovelit eyes.)
In October of 2013 I performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 with an orchestra in northern Mexico, the Orquesta Filarmonica del Estado de Chihuahua. This particular concerto is among Mozart’s most popular, frequently performed works, and I was concerned with finding ways of bringing something entirely new to my performance. Since there is no cadenza by Mozart available for this concerto, I initially decided to compose the cadenza. This cadenza was the result of hours of improvisation during practice. Since I never wrote it down, it preserved a certain flexibility that allowed me to create variations for specific passages while retaining the underlying framework. In a way similar to jazz improvisation, there were countless “licks” that I could play for a particular section that would be true to the style and work in my cadenza’s framework. For example, a four-measure ascending line connecting the end of the main theme with a long trill on the dominant could take the form of a chromatic scale, a broken V7 arpeggio, or more complicated elaborations using different types of ornamental notes.
Over time, I grew discontent with playing the same cadenza repeatedly, especially since my improvisatory excursions in the practice room continued to yield interesting ideas and a more fulfilling experience than my “written-out” cadenza. Through repetition, my cadenza had grown stale and uninteresting to me. My purpose in composing the cadenza was to imbue the concerto with spontaneity, to embrace the juxtaposition of an improvisatory cadenza and the rigidity of classical form. By fearing the uncertain and performing only the most successful versions of my cadenza repeatedly, I was taking away from my performance. To remedy this, I decided to improvise a new cadenza in every performance; I decided to confront my fear of the unknown and embark on a search for freedom in playing this music. Essentially, I took my practice room improvisations to the concert stage. I consider improvisation in 18th and 17th century keyboard music as one of the most exciting, largely unexplored areas of piano repertoire and performance and was very excited when my friend, conductor Armando Pesqueira, agreed to accommodate my urge to improvise on the spot. This was the result:
To prepare for improvising in front of an audience, I had several lessons and conversations with jazz performers. I am currently based in Western Michigan University, home of some of the most exciting jazz musicians performing today and they were an invaluable resource. The differences between improvising in jazz and Mozartian style quickly became apparent; jazz has a high tolerance for inaccuracy and a low tolerance for the unoriginal, completely the opposite of improvisation in the Viennese classical style. I also came to realize that there is an enormous difference in the performance experience of inserting different interchangeable “licks” into my already established cadenza framework, as a jazz player improvises on a given melody or progression, and creating a new framework for each performance. Improvising a cadenza would be as much about improvising a balanced large-scale form, with its tonal centers and modulations, as it would be about improvising at the small scale.
For my improvisation, I set a limit for myself: I would only improvise in complete adherence to style and performance practice, working within the limits of the instruments and techniques of this particular period; no octave passages a la Liszt or jazzy extended harmonies for me. Improvising in a classical, Mozartian style requires an abnormally high degree of accuracy and adherence to style in the harmonic and melodic movement, balanced forms and gestures, and respect for performance practice guidelines. Finding practice strategies that would not encourage me to repeat the same material every time was a fundamental problem. The goal was to attain higher degrees of freedom with the material every time.
I talked with various jazz musicians about their practice and teaching methods and used these to teach myself over the course of several months. I began by studying other cadenzas for this and other Mozart concertos – often from recordings since they are frequently performers’ own compositions and not publicly available – and then worked to replicate them as closely as possible. Transcribing these cadenzas by ear and replicating them helped immensely, and I can understand why transcribing solos by ear is such an important part of jazz pedagogy. In the process, I isolated specific licks that were characteristic of the style, that appeared repeatedly in different works and cadenzas. What do I mean by a “lick”? This is also an idea taken from jazz. A lick is a stock melodic pattern or phrase fragment. Jazz musicians will often learn these licks and study how other musicians use them in their own improvisation, gradually evolving their own musical language. This is a common jazz lick:
I also found several licks in cadenzas of other classical concertos. I used the ones that I found most attractive and experimented with them. Doing this helped me gain insight into certain characteristics of the different material in the concerto that I had overlooked before. For example, Dinu Lipatti’s cadenza in the extraordinary 1950 recording highlights the contrapuntal relationship between the main theme and the characteristic arpeggio sequence that connects the second theme with the coda; Mitsuko Uchida’s 2012 recording begins the third movement cadenza with the “B” theme of the rondo-sonata, illustrating how that theme can be adapted freely to virtually any common classical chord progression. I also improvised countless variations over the framework of specific themes, chord progressions, or accompaniment patterns and often used jazz-specific pedagogical methods such as playing fragments of the melody and improvising new endings or beginnings, inserting rests and stops at different places, or experimenting with inserting sections from one part of the work into other parts of the chord progression.
In the moment of the performance I was constantly thinking about the large-scale form of my cadenza. My practice methods helped me build up hundreds of licks (most interchangeable with any other Mozart concerto), accompaniment patterns, and chord progressions that would help me go from one key to another or develop a particular theme. This allowed me to focus more on where I was going and how I was going to get there than on the mechanics of a specific passage. My main concern was making decisions on the fly about which keys and themes I wanted to visit, following through without embarrassing myself, and then finding ways to return to the original key’s V7 chord to queue the orchestra’s entrance. It was an incredibly exciting experience, a rush that I have rarely experienced when playing classical music in the traditional way.
During the performance, there were two sensations that I’d never experienced before and that I’ve tried to recapture every time I’ve performed since. I felt a connection to a common language from which all improvisers draw. As I performed, I remembered other cadenzas I’d transcribed, all the other music I had studied, and I drew from it for my own performance. I have felt this connection to history and to other performers in the practice room, but never to this degree in a public performance. I also felt a sense of physicality, an idea of space and a freedom to move about that space that I had not experienced in traditional performance. Each new theme, chord, or tonal area was a physical location, a room or landscape, and, as I played, I felt that I began at a point in space and visited different rooms, moving away from my tonal center and then returning home. I can honestly say that I am a different musician thanks to this experiment and I highly recommend it. It allowed me to abandon many of my fears and take part in an expansive and free form of musical performance to which I had closed myself before.
I grew up playing the trumpet. For me, trumpet technique is all about perfecting a few, incredibly difficult tasks. Playing a single note perfectly is nearly impossible. Practice was all about slowly chipping away at the mythical “perfect note”, sculpting a beautiful sound or a perfect articulation.
When I started to play piano, I tried to practice this way. Initially, I made very quick progress but soon hit a dead end. My way of practicing just wasn’t working, in some cases it was actually making things worse. That’s because piano technique is not about mastering a handful of incredibly difficult tasks. Unlike the trumpet, playing a note on the piano is the easiest thing in the world. With your eyes closed, a single note will sound the same if played by a cat, a toddler, a dropped object on the keyboard, or Rachmaninoff himself.
Piano technique is about coordinating dozens, or even hundreds of extremely simple tasks all occurring at once and one after the other. On the trumpet I’d coordinate three or four very hard actions at one time, but even the simplest piano pieces require juggling a dozen very easy things. That, coupled with the fact that the piano is extremely visual — everything is there, in plain sight! — meant that piano technique required a different approach. Its technique involves breaking a problem down into its simplest components and then putting them back together. It’d be very silly to improve trumpet technique by vibrating one lip and then the other, but in the case of piano technique there are cases where you really need to break down a problem into such absurdly tiny elements.
As conducting and singing become a bigger part of my life, I’ve struggled with an entirely different type of technique. In both cases, the “piano” and the “trumpet” approaches have not given me good results. The “trumpet” approach to technique involved learning an incredibly difficult task that I did not know how to do naturally; one learns through self-training, repetition, and exercise. The “piano” approach that best worked for me involved intense analysis of a problem and coordinating many very easy tasks in the most direct way possible; one learns through organization and coordination.
Singing and conducting technique are very similar. Both involve tasks that we do naturally from the moment we are born, moving our arms and using our vocal chords (I have plenty of memories of my three-month old son screaming at an intense volume and very high pitch non-stop for two or three hours without damaging his vocal chords to know what the human voice can do when used naturally.) Barring some kind of physical problem, our bodies are machines designed for breathing and moving. Unfortunately, the fact that we use our speech and bodies constantly also works against us; bad habits have a way of creeping in as we go through life. In both cases, there is an element of “remembering” the right way of doing things. Curiously enough, most of my breakthroughs have come from finding an association, a “magic button” that helps concepts make sense and tuning in with how the body wants to work (of course, you need to practice so that those breakthroughs will happen… I am not advocating that students stop practicing.)
The “conducting-singing” approach to technique doesn’t attack technical problems head on, trying to wear them down through exercise or break them down through intense analysis. One learns by realizing that most technique problems come from ourselves, working around them, and having the wisdom to understand that they will go away in due time, as long as we are conscious of the right way of doing things and fixing the things that we can fix at that particular moment.
These are not particularly bad ways of approaching life’s problems. Sometimes I’ll come up against a situation where I’ll ask myself: is this a trumpet problem or a piano problem? If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from singing and conducting is that there’s a third option that is equally valid: working around the obstacle and trusting that it’s mostly in my head and will go away if I leave it alone.
On October 1st 1905, a young carpenter named František Pavlík was killed in a military intervention against a Czech student demonstration. This happened after decades of tension between Czech and Germans in the region. This event inspired Leoš Janáček to write his Piano Sonata 1.X.1905. He accompanied this composition with the following inscription:
“The white marble of the steps of the Besední dům in Brno. The ordinary labourer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers.”
This Sonata has two movements which are titled “Foreboding” and “Death”.
Since 2006, more than 80,000 people have died in Mexico due to drug-related violence. My home state, Chihuahua, has been hit especially hard by these homicides. It is now considered one of the most dangerous regions of the world, including ongoing war zones such as Afghanistan and Somalia.
Nearly everyone in Chihuahua has a friend or family member that has been murdered in recent years. Nearly everyone in Chihuahua has witnessed or been involved in one of the many shootings that occur almost daily. A dark sense of foreboding permeates everything one does and a fear for one’s life and for one’s loved ones is a part of everyday life.
On February 4th 2012, armed gunmen entered a nightclub in Chihuahua and massacred nine people, among them five members of “Quinta Banda”, a local music group. They were not the first musicians to be claimed by Chihuahua’s violence; working at night and at these kinds of venues has made being a musician in Chihuahua a very high-risk activity. Among the dead was Fernando Rivero, a young clarinet player and my close friend and chamber music partner. His death devastated Chihuahua’s community of musicians and a number of tribute concerts have been organized on the one-year anniversary of his death. Since last Summer, I no longer live in Chihuahua and cannot be present for these. However, I’ve recorded the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 in memory of Fernando Rivero, the thousands of others that have died due to Mexico’s drug war, and the many friends and family who remain in Chihuahua and have to live with the constant threat of violence at any moment.
Sonata 1.X.1905, First movement. “Foreboding”:
Sonata 1.X.1905, Second movement. “Death”:
Fernando Rivero and I playing the Romanza from Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata:
If you have never seen a piano keyboard what immediately catches your eye?
That there are white keys and black keys.
Even if you don’t know what they do, it is easy to understand that the white keys and the black keys are different from each other. All you need to know is black from white, something that most toddlers know by the time they’re two years old. The same cannot be said about many other aspects of the keyboard, which require knowing left from right or more complicated spatial reasoning.
The first thing a child will learn about the piano is that pressing the keys makes noise. Noise versus quiet is a good starting point for a game. You can play it with flashcards or with a sheet of paper (I prefer a single sheet of paper because it mirrors the act of reading sheet music better.) Make a drawing that means “noise” (for example, lots of squiggles) and one that means “quiet”. Then practice making lots of noise or lifting your hands and being quiet when you point to one or the other.
At this point, the student only needs to keep track of two elements: “noise” and “ssshhh!”
Making the transition from banging on the keys indiscriminately to finding and playing specific keys can be a struggle. Putting stickers on the keys is a common approach, but it carries its own set of problems. I prefer to start with the things that are immediately obvious about the piano and gradually work our way to specifics, one element at a time. Showing the difference between black and white keys is a great next step because it only requires adding one more element to what we already know.
First, we practiced playing only white keys or black keys at one time, so I could make sure that my kid was ready to understand the difference between them. Then we composed our score:
We already knew the difference betwen noise and quiet, so now we have two categories of noise: black-key noise and white-key noise, represented by the white and black circles. Whenever we got to a red circle, that meant “Ssshhh!” (put your hands up and be quiet!) As you can see by our sheet music, I drew the first few circles and then my kid took over. Once we had our sheet music, we started to play.
I would point to a circle and we’d do it together. Hold down the sustain pedal for each “event” (and remove it for the moments of quiet). After our first run-through he was the one playing and I was only pointing at circles. By our third run-through, he was reading the sheet music on his own:
At this point, a student is keeping track of three elements: “white”, “black”, and “ssshhh!”
What’s our next step?
The key is to add other elements gradually. For instance, we can add “loud” and “soft” playing, play with durations (with bigger and smaller circles), or we can play in different registers using four elements: “tweeting birdies”, “mewing kitties”, “barking doggies” (top, middle, and bottom registers), and “ssshhh!” As we combine all the things we know, things can get complicated very quickly. For example combining register with black and white keys yields seven different elements to identify in the sheet music:
1. High-register black keys
2. Middle-register black keys
3. Low-register black keys
4. High-register white keys
5. Middle-register white keys
6. Low-register white keys