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.
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
There are certain musical experiences that stay with you forever. I’ve written about a few of my own before (e.g. my first experience listening to Alicia de Larrocha.) When I first started writing this blog, I wanted it to be an outlet for sharing the things I find fascinating and incredible about music — listening to music, playing music, teaching music, living life as a musician. One of my first posts on this blog, “Brahms as it should be played”, was about a recording that I adore: the Brahms Piano Trios with Janos Starker, Julius Katchen, and Josef Suk.
In fact, to say that I adore this recording actually falls short of what I mean; listening to this CD has become something of a physical need. Every few weeks, I find myself needing to listen to it. Every time I listen to these incredible musicians play, I find something new that I love about their playing. Even though I’ve literally listened to this recording hundreds of times, just yesterday I fell in love with a peculiar change in bowing when Starker repeats the first part of the B major Trio; last week I fell in love with the way Josef Suk changes colors constantly in the development of the first movement of the C major Trio, making it seem as if there were a viola playing along with them; just this morning, there was a little glissando in the Scherzo for the second Trio that just blew my mind… The people around me know that I can go on for hours about the things I love in this recording.
A few hours ago I read that Josef Suk recently passed away. I was very sad to get these news. To me, he is the violinist. The way this amazing musician played the violin is for me the ideal; he played the violin as it was meant to be played: warm, emotional, extremely rich in color — like a singer, but so much more songful than any singer could ever hope to be. Josef Suk’s excellent recordings of Dvorak, Martinu, and especially this recording of the Brahms Trios, made me fall in love with chamber music and with a particular way of playing that is at the core of what I think music should be.
Rest in peace, Josef Suk. I never got to meet the man, or listen to him live. However, every few days I listen to his playing and find something new to love. I’m sure that will still be the case for a long time to come.
This is the third time I’ve linked this video since I started writing this blog. I’m sure it won’t be the last:
In his novel Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel refers to words as “…cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field.” I believe that this metaphor, while unflattering, describes my experience with music quite accurately. There are plenty of quotes out there about how music is the soul of the universe — Plato — or how the Big Bang was really a “Big Chord” — Terry Pratchett. For people from every time, place, and culture music has always served as a link to the cosmos, to the eternal both inside and outside of ourselves. Faced with this, musical notes really do feel as an inadequate way of expressing something so astonishing — they are like cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field.
We deal with it constantly and for many musicians, including myself, it is a constant source of frustration that the notes we play are nowhere close to the music we feel and imagine. I suppose that for some composers this must have been torture. This isn’t frustrating only for performers; the hardest thing for me as a teacher is to give that enthusiasm to a student, that sense of awe about the works we play.
We should be grateful for our notes though, those sounds we coax out of our instruments are really all we have. They’re our connection to the universe and, while the sound that results may seem ridiculously small compared to that, music isn’t really in the sounds that we make by blowing, hammering, scratching and making stuff vibrate. It resides in our imaginations, in our intentions when we play and in our reactions when we listen. Let’s try then to perform our musical notes with joy but to always go beyond them, lest we find that our notes are as cold, muddy toads croaking along with nothing to say.
All of a sudden I get the urge to play a specific piece in recital. I may have practically no time for it — having to balance family, teaching, and learning the repertoire that I’m actually getting payed to play — but it’s an urge that is very hard to resist. There’s a hole inside of me that needs to be filled by what that particular piece of music is saying. Like a blank space on the wall that is urging you to paint it, or cover it up with something. Most of the time, just sitting down in private and mucking around with the music is not enough; the urge to play it for an audience is overwhelming.
I think that this need is what is behind art, a need to fill up holes within ourselves. At some point the composer also felt that urge to fill his own void with sound. That’s the closest I can come to explain how it feels; there may be no practical reason to play that recital, but there is something within that needs attention, a hole that may be making everything else come out of balance. The best part of the whole experience comes afterward, once you are playing and someone in the audience finds that what you are playing also fills a similar hole of their own. That is probably the greatest thing I can get out of a recital, not having it be “beautiful” or “well-played” but having it be something that helps fill a hole in my soul and does the same for someone else.
For one of this year’s concert engagements, I will be playing Mozart’s 21st piano concerto. This piece has a very personal meaning for me. It’s one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with the piano and with music. This will be the first time I play this concerto with an orchestra and I am very excited.
One of my earliest musical memories is of me and my brother as toddlers dancing around while our father played a record of this concerto with Alicia de Larrocha. There were words that we would sing along to the second theme of the concerto about how “all the good little kittens were off to their beds,” (in Spanish: todos los gatitos ya nos vamos a dormir…) and when the trumpets played that little descending third that begins the theme before the coda, we would sing along: “Meaaaa-ow! Meaaaa-ow!” Now I get to practice this concerto while my baby watches from the playpen (not too long, I don’t want him getting too bored,) jumps around on his stationary jumper (louder, because that jumper is pretty noisy,) sleeps in his crib (sempre una corda e molto pianissimo,) or with him on my lap (one hand at a time and with him “playing along” with his fists — a lot of fun by the way.) I am truly blessed.
The Mozart concertos that I have played before — 9, 11 and 12 — all had original cadenzas by the composer. Since this one doesn’t, I decided to try my hand at improvising the cadenza. I am not sufficiently skilled at improvising to go out on stage and invent something completely from scratch. Instead, I decided to set up a sort of framework that I could follow, working out beforehand certain chord progressions and themes that I’d like to play along the way, but leaving enough room for spontaneity. For example, in a certain spot I could know that I want to go from C major to E minor using a certain chord progression; whether I do it playing arpeggios from the development section, or scales in broken octaves, or a sequence made out of one of the themes is up to whatever I’m feeling at the moment.
My first attempt at a cadenza went something like this: Go down along the keyboard from the I6/4 chord until I reach the bottom G. After that, I would make some sort of sequence using the second theme while modulating to E minor and then come back to G major. Play something based on the “Meaow” theme and then hit the trill and give the orchestra their cue. Quick and simple with little parts of my favorite themes from the first movement. After a while, I noticed that the beginning of the development section would be a nice way to start the cadenza, maybe changing it to major instead of the original minor key, so I added that. Then, while practicing the development, I noticed that I could cross my left hand over while playing the descending E minor arpeggios and play the “Meaow” theme over and under it, so I added that too. Every time I practiced it I would add a little more, never noticing what my cadenza was turning into.
After a month of working on the concerto, I asked my wife to listen to the cadenza. I was really quite clever: I combined themes with one another, played them in unexpected harmonies, and quoted little snippets from the orchestral part of the concerto. I showed off my broken octaves and sixths and all sorts of cool harmonic tricks I’d picked up from different parts of the concerto (especially that amazing variant on a simple progression along the circle of fifths that is right after the second theme.) So, when I was done, what did she say?
– “I liked that last part.”
– “Which part?”
– “The one where you play a scale down and then you go up again and do a trill. You should get rid of the rest.”
She was right, of course; my cadenza was a convoluted Frankenstein’s monster. Self-editing has been pretty painful now. Each section I’ve had to cut since then feels like a jab at my own ego. I think I’ve got it down to something workable now — start with the little theme the woodwinds play three times before the piano’s entrance, doing a little variation each time; then some sort of variation on the opening passage of the concerto while going up to the dominant; play one of the themes (probably the second one) on the dominant in a more risoluto character to lead into the final trill. Every time I play it I have to resist the temptation to tack on more unnecesary stuff to it again.
I have trouble with self-editing. I tend to overplay when things should be simple and transparent; I use variation when things should just repeat. I do it when I write, not knowing when to stop a sentence. I did it when I tried my hand at composition (I was a composition student before switching to the piano.)
I had this problem in my short stint as a jazz pianist in my high-school’s junior jazz band (I didn’t make the cut for the big jazz band, I was a trumpet player at the time.) There was a piano solo for me in a Count Basie standard. Each time we played it I added something new to it and, by the time we showed up to the regional competitions, it was a convoluted mess of octaves and broken arpeggios (the only technical difficulties that I could reliably do without messing them up too badly.) Back then, one of the judges from the competition wrote on his advice slip: “The pianist is way too busy, this song should be laid-back.” Apparently I haven’t learned anything since then.
We pianists do our job: we play. We learn the repertoire for the competitions, the recitals, the chamber music ensembles; we spend hours accompanying singers, amazing, good and bad… and sometimes horrible beyond words; teaching students, enthusiastic and unmotivated; we sit hours in the orchestra rehearsals waiting to play the twenty measures where the symphony has a piano part; we dutifully clean up our Chopin etudes –just not Op. 10, n. 7!– our Prelude and Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier, our classical sonata; we show up at the violin auditions and accompany the same violin concerto ten times, go to the dance studio and play the same passage in 3/4 time for thirty minutes so the dancers can warm up; we practice our concertos and prepare an encore; we sit down with kids and teach them that our thumb is number one, and our pinky is number five, and to sit up straight and sing out loud; we show up for the singers’ auditions and sight-read Italian arias for hours, sometimes transposing, until our head hurts…
We often lose sight of why we want to play. Are we even making music, or just going through the motions? We constantly have to work on maintaining our ability, the craft of playing an instrument. We are also stuck in the drudgery of having to think of the business side of things, looking for work and vehicles with which we can use our craft to create a living (that is, if we like things like having food in the fridge, and a roof above our heads.) We get bogged up thinking of perfection, and style, and whether a piece of music is suited to our particular capabilities, and how it will go over with an audience, and if it will sell.
But playing just because we want to? Whatever we want to play? That’s a different story and, for some reason, we stop doing that. We need to find those moments, and embrace them. More importantly, we need to create those moments. Once in a while, we need to put down the sheet music we are required to learn, find something we like and play it. Just for the joy of doing it. Because we can. It sounds so simple and yet, we forget how fulfilling it is to simply make music for no other reason than to make music.
The physical, emotional and artistic satisfaction that we get from making music is something that we should never forget to nurture. It’s so easy to lose our way and forget this part of our artistic soul. Just play something you love. Doesn’t it feel amazing? The way our bodies interact with our instrument and the noise it makes. For a brief moment, losing ourselves in that sweet nonsense that is musical discourse, wrapping ourselves in the vibrations we make. Connecting with other people without saying a thing, just sharing a moment of music with an audience, or with other musicians.
Once in a while, find your voice and make some music because you need it, because you want it. Get together with other people and make chamber music together, find a piece of music you really like and play the hell out of it in your living room, or just sit with your instrument and make some noise. Organize a concert, just for yourself and play music you really love. Write about music and don’t be afraid to share your passion with other musicians, even if it means sounding a bit ridiculous during rehearsals. Then, when you walk back into the business side of things, you know what it feels like to do what you do. To make music just because.
My house is right beside the city’s bullfighting ring. Today was the first corrida of the year, which meant an extremely noisy day at my home, there was a huge crowd cheering and Olé!-ing and a band playing La Virgen de la Macarena every few minutes for six straight hours.
La Virgen de la Macarena is a very traditional pasodoble (a march-like dance in 2/4, usually in Phrygian mode –think of the theme from the second movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez if you’re having trouble picturing it.) La Virgen de la Macarena is the most popular pasodoble in Mexican bullfights, in many cases it’s the only one the band can play –which I think is the case with my local bullfighting ring because it’s all they played over and over. There are popular versions of this piece that heavily feature the trumpet, usually in some sort of virtuoso setting.
I grew up in this same house, and the bullfighting arena has been there since before the house was built. When I was a kid, I played trumpet; La Virgen de la Macarena holds a special spot in the repertoire for me because, along with an LP of Alicia de Larrocha playing Mozart’s 21st piano concerto and a few Scarlatti sonatas my dad used to play, it is one of my earliest musical memories. When I started playing the trumpet (I was about seven years old) instead of practicing what I was supposed to practice, much to the irritation of my teachers I’d spend hours learning by ear all the solos from the bullfighting band, and I’d go out into our backyard and play La Virgen de la Macarena along with them. When I was growing up I heard this recording of Rafael Mendez playing La Virgen de la Macarena:
Along with his famous double-tonguing and the circular breathing extravaganza in his version of Paganini’s Perpetuo Mobile, that recording, and the fact that he was Mexican, turned him into my favorite trumpeter –a funny thing about Mendez, he had the worst luck with his embouchure; his mouth was struck with a rifle butt when he was kidnapped by Pancho Villa, crushed when someone slammed a door into his trumpet and smashed with a baseball bat when he was in the stands watching a game! He was my idol throughout my childhood (until I turned teenager and discovered Maynard Ferguson’s ridiculously high notes and, later on, Wynton Marsalis.)
I’ve only been to a couple of bullfights in my life and I’m pretty ambiguous about the whole thing. I expected something barbarous and cruel but instead I was fascinated with the complexity of the bullfighting ritual. There is art and passion in the dance of bullfighting, there is much of flamenco dancing in the elegance of the poses of the torero (the correct term is torero, the word toreador has no place anywhere except in Bizet’s opera.) The observer’s point of view is what defines a bullfight. While one person sees a metaphor for the triumph of life over death, another sees a mob cheering while an animal is tortured and then slaughtered. Personally, the cruelty with which the bull was taunted and killed was pretty sickening. Even so, I can understand why people are passionate about bullfighting and, being an enthusiastic carnivore, I have no illusions about my place in the food chain. I don’t mind them killing bulls all day long, but I’d rather not watch. I’ll just listen.