Saturday, October 6, 2018

J.S. Bach Prelude Eleven- Ornaments!

I had always thought I had arrived as a student of the piano, when my teacher Katherine Lemon started purchasing Schirmer editions of classical music for me.  As the years have passed, I am now in possession of the G. Henle Verlag, Urtext editions of several classical composers.  The Henle edition, elevates you to an even higher status, once you can master a work within the volume.

I love Bach, and I have both volumes of The Well-  Tempered Clavier, or Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Teil I and Teil II.  As an amateur, in the Henle edition, there is not a lot of direction in terms of fingering patterns, or the notes to be included in an ornament.  There is the Vorwort or Preface, for basic guidance. However, in my quest to learn quickly, I generally don't spend a lot of time reading the editor's notes that accompany these challenging preludes and fugues.

Currently I am working on the Praeludium XI.  I am the second string pianist at my church, and on rare occasions, I fill in as the pianist, for Saturday night Mass.  I'm not sure about the congregation's affinity for classical music, but I like it, and I think my pastor does as well.  I am always hopeful, that if I can master a prelude, it can become an after communion interlude, before the final announcements, blessing and recessional hymn.  There is nothing like a Bach prelude, to make you feel like you are in a house of worship, a place of peaceful reflection.

The Prelude in F major, is in 12/8 time, which always adds another dimension and another challenge.  I know this is a bold statement on my part, but without the ornamentation, I believe I could master this work of Bach, in a reasonable amount of time.  But this prelude has ornamentation, otherwise known to the common amateur pianist as the trills, mordants and cadences.  So proper mastery of the prelude is simply going to take more time.

I add that two of my piano teachers, Katherine Lemon and Suzanne Newcomb each had a book on ornamentation.  I would guess that my other teacher Madeline Karn also had such a book, but I don't recall asking her about such a necessary volume of musical information.  You don't get to piano greatness, like these three amazing teachers, without a volume on ornamentation.

The trill focuses on this concept, integrating the stream of notes that comprise the trill into the musical melody, while maintaining the steady beat of the time signature.  Often over the years, teachers have told me, learn the prelude, and add the trills, once you have mastered the notes and rhythm.  Some teachers over the years have even told me to forget the trills.  However, when you are a serious musician, even as an amateur, you want to take on the challenge of the trills, no matter how difficult and frustrating they might be.

I was scouting around on the internet this week and, I found a transcription of an ornament table(transcribed by T. L. Hubeart, Jr.)  appearing in the Clavier-Buchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, written by Johann Sebastian Bach for the keyboard instruction of his eldest son.   If you put J. S. Bach's Ornament Table in an internet browser, you will be brought to a graphic of the table.

The table gives a good description of the symbol for the ornament, as well as the written out notes for each ornament.  So, at least for the music of Bach, you can refer to the table when trying to determine how in practice, you will accomplish the ornamentation.

I add, that in time one probably will learn "the how" of playing the ornaments without referring to the table, but keeping the table close by, when playing Bach, will help you to figure out the ornamentation, and perhaps you may even surprise your teacher.

Without spending time to define the ornaments, I can add that there are at least the following ornaments:
trillo und mordant
doppelt-cadence und mordant
accent steigen,
accent fallend
accent und mordant
accent und trill

I add in defense of all of my wonderful teachers, all have been willing to write out how the ornament should be played.  Particularly in Bach's music, the addition of properly played ornaments, adds to the dimension of  the prelude or fugue.  The beauty of Bach's music is enhanced by the ornaments, and therefore, the ornaments must be integrated into the melody and counterpoint melody.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Thoughts About Aretha Franklin

I couldn't let the death of Aretha Franklin pass without a few words.  Since I grew up in Detroit, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin remain my favorite Motown musicians.  The Queen of Soul and her music are both a part of me.  I also love the fact that Aretha recorded one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs "Until You Come Back to Me."  So there will be time for Mr. Wonder, but for now I want to focus on Aretha.

When I moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1987, my friends and colleagues began to identify me with Motown music.  People often would ask me whether I was a fan of Aretha or a fan of Stevie Wonder and I always responded with a resounding "yes!"

Aretha had her roots in gospel music, and in any good gospel performance there is always the amazing piano accompaniment and a great soloist.  Since Aretha's death I learned that she played piano by ear, and was more often than not, able to play and sing one of her amazing songs at the same time.

In one of the many news shows covering Aretha's recent death, it turned out, she sought out classical training on the piano, and decided to attend The Juilliard School.  Can you even imagine what it would be like to teach Aretha?  I have nothing to base this on, but I think she would have approached her lessons with great humility.  I would hope that Aretha would subscribe to my motto, while taking piano lessons, that of "trusting the professionals."

Aretha had occasion to collaborate with many musicians, but I loved the fact that she connected with former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.  Aretha and Secretary Rice, teamed up to perform for one of President Obama 's fundraisers for underprivileged children.  Secretary Rice even accompanied Aretha on "Say a Little Prayer."  It is simply good to know that a Republican like Secretary Rice and a Democrat like Aretha Franklin can team up and accomplish something great.  Greatness comes, when folks put aside their differences for the good they can do!!!

Take a moment  to read Randy Lewis' tribute to Aretha in the LA Times.  Mr. Lewis has been covering pop music for the LA Times since 1981.  He hit some of her music highlights, and has praise for her ability as a pianist.  Mr. Lewis aptly describes Aretha, "But there was something special when she sat at the keyboard:  a fusion of singer, instrumentalist and song that inevitably pushed the goose-bumps quotient up several notches."

Mr. Lewis also writes about Aretha's 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington DC.  He mentioneds that the performance has had over 12 million views on Youtube. 

I must add that everytime I see that performance, I literally cry.  First, Aretha is playing and singing for Carole King, an accomplished pianist and song writer.  In fact, Aretha is performing Carole King's (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.  To see Carole King's reaction to Aretha's performance, is so amazing.  You are swallowed up by the emotions of Carole King.    At the same time, the video pans to President Obama, as he wipes away tears during this song.  You can only imagine what he is thinking, but at least I feel that he is recognizing how much Aretha means to citizens of this great country, and particularly citizens, people of color, who look to her for meaning, understanding, leadership and frankly soul.

I'm going to miss Aretha.  Her songs are entwined in the tapestry of my life.  But music reminds of us of one thing, that it lives on.  Her singing, her piano playing will continue, everytime you tap your music on your I-phone, when you pop your vinyl on the turn table, when you still push a CD into your car player.  That's the essence of music, the musicians may not physically be here, but the music is still with us, whether we are singing it playing it, or watching memories on television or the net.    Aretha is truly the key ---to my peace
of mind!!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Suite Detroit Sounds of an American City

During the last several months, I have been focused on some chronic medical issues, and closing my solo law practice.  I have been an adoption and estate planning/administration attorney for the last 25 years and have been practicing law in total for 30 years.  I often think about the big events in my life that have brought me such happiness, and I can honestly say there are several:  meeting and marrying my husband Mark, the births of my children Sarah and Michael, graduating from law school and passing the bar examination and buying a 6 foot grand piano.

I think now,  I am going to have a little more time to pursue hobbies and interests, including this blog.  In keeping with the spirit of my blog, to focus on the mind of the amateur pianist, I want to spend a small amount of time writing about composer Catherine Rollin.

I have had a variety of piano teachers over the years, and currently I take lessons from Dr. Suzanne Newcomb.  I will try to blog about her interest in adult students, her sign up genius program to schedule lessons, and what I think her approach is to adult piano students with some level of experience, in a follow up blog post.

But for now back to Catherine Rollin.  I was born and raised in Detroit the Motor City.    Ms. Rollin is a pianist, composer, clinician and teacher, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Oakland University.  You can take a look at her many accomplishments at   Ms. Rollin is a committed teacher, clinician and composer.  Frankly she is quite amazing!!

Suzanne had the good fortune to connect up with Catherine Rollin at a recent Music Teachers National Association conference.  I showed up for a lesson one Friday morning, and Suzanne told me that she had a present for me.  Suzanne presented me with a suite of music called Suite Detroit, Sounds of an American City.  The cover of the music even had the modern glass structure the Renaissance Center, which has ended up on almost any travel brochure for Detroit, over the last 30 years.  The Renaissance Center was the skyscraper building in Detroit that symbolized Detroit rebirth after the riots in 1967.  The riots were the results of escalating tensions between the white and black communities, and our community was struggling for civil rights, civility and fair treatment by law enforcement.  So the Renaissance Center in a way was Detroit's way of saying, we are committing to our citizens of this great city.

Back to the suite of music, at first when I opened the score, I thought, in my usual cavalier manner "this doesn't look too challenging."  Well, as I started to discover this suite of pieces, even in music that does not appear to be challenging, there is always something to learn, and always a challenge to be conquered.

The suites are entitled, The City:  Overture and Improvisation, Belle Isle: An Interlude and Good Vibes:  Finale.  I found that these three short pieces brought back a lot of memories for me about growing up in Detroit.

The City: Overture and Improvisation.  When I first learned this piece, I realized that the melody made me very nostalgic for the Detroit I grew up in, especially in terms of my memories.  Northwest Detroit, was a beautiful area, with every street containing elm trees that formed an actual tunnel of trees.  Our street was filled with children, and all the activities that children used to play, hide and seek, tag, jumping rope, kick ball, snowball fights, playing army and bike races.  For me, growing up in that beautiful Detroit neighborhood also meant, carving out my time to practice the piano.  No matter what I was up to after school 5:00 to 5:30 was piano practice time.  As I grew older, the time would become 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. or even 4:00 to 5:30 as my practice assignments grew in length and complexity.  I never had to be reminded by my mom to practice, I practiced because I loved it so much.

This melody reminds me of what Detroit was in my memory bank, but also makes me think of the amazing people of this city.  Many of my grade and high school friends still reside in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs.  I keep track of these folks on Facebook, and many share memories of our growing up years.  The Overture, reminds me that I must keep the memories of my family, friends and neighborhood alive.

Belle Isle: An Interlude.  This melody captures the feeling you might experience if you were riding on boat on the Detroit River.  In fact, growing up, my mom, Grandma and my brothers used to take a large sight seeing boat called the Bob-Lo Boat to Bob-Lo Island with a small amusement park south of Detroit, near Amherstburg, Ontario.  If you went north on the Detroit River, you would come to Belle Isle, complete with a beautiful park and picnic area.  In fact, when my maternal grandmother was young, she told me that Belle Isle was often the place she went to picnic with my grandfather.

The piece captures what is like to live near so much water.  I took my time in Michigan for granted.  I didn't realize how much I missed living near water until I began living in Ohio.  And it seems that folks in Ohio, don't even seem to care, that they don't live near water.  I don't know, I just know I cannot explain how living away from water has changed my life, and not in a good way.

So this piece reminds me of what it was like to live in Detroit, not far from the Detroit River, close to multiple lakes, and the peace of mind I experienced in owning a sail boat and sailing with my Dad on Orchard and Elizabeth lakes.

Good Vibe:  Finale.  The finale piece leaves the listener with hope.  Hope that the once beautiful and vibrant city is returning.  In fact, when I go to Detroit now to visit, I see so many exciting things happening in Detroit, that there seems to be a real renaissance within the city.  I was in Detroit, last summer, and took time out to walk along the newly created River Walk near the Renaissance Center, and took a boat tour of the Detroit River.  I was beginning to feel a small glimmer of hope for the city I love so much.

Good Vibes also has a rhythmic, jazz feeling, that sums up the sense that Detroit is in fact a musical city.  Detroit has so many music venues, and even Detroit has its own Montreaux Jazz Festival.  The Detroit Symphony is going strong, and Detroit's Orchestra Hall is one of the top classical music venues in the City.  In Good Vibes, measure 9 starts a melodic passage that sort of feels like you are travelling upward.  Perhaps upward to more good years ahead for this amazing city, my home town.

I don't know Catherine Rollin, but I think you should take some time to explore her website, and perhaps even encourage your piano teacher, to purchase some music that she has created.  You might even consider the Suite Detroit.  It may make you even a little appreciative of the beautiful Motor City.  Another opportunity for you to be inspired!!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Pianists in the movies

I have a great obsession with old black and white movies.  I am a particular fan of the directors William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock.  The playwright and writer Robert Sherwood, created two of my favorite screen plays The Best Years of Our Lives and Waterloo Bridge.  Robert Sherwood was an original member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, poets and satirists that met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City during the years from 1919 to 1929.

The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler, focuses on the stories of three United States servicemen returning from World War Two.  Each little vignette within the movie, tells of how these three brave men acclimate themselves to live after the war.  Teresa Wright, plays the daughter of one of the service men who returns home, and she ends up falling in love with one of the other men, who returns to the states, realizing his wife no longer wants to be married to him.

Harold Russell plays Homer, a returning sailor who has lost both hands in an accident on his naval ship.  The film beautifully portrays how Homer comes to grips with the loss of his hands, and how he finds that the promise he made to his girlfriend Wilma before the war, to marry, is still the promise she shares and wishes to keep.

Harold's relative owns a bar establishment called Butch's in the film.  The relative Butch is played by the great jazz pianist Hoagy Carmichael.  Hoagy Carmichael's simple duets with Homer, including Chopsticks, showcase Mr. Carmichael's versatile style.  While at the same time, the piano again, is displayed at as a force for good in a difficult world, an instrument, that since it's inception has brought people together. 

Mr. Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana.  His mother Lida was a versatile pianist, and she taught him to play and sing at an early age.  As a lawyer, it is a comfort to know that he earned his bachelor's degree and law degree at Indiana University.  After graduating from IU's law school he did move to Florida, where he failed the Florida bar exam, but managed to pass in Indiana and he joined an Indianapolis law firm.   The law was not to be, as Carmichael devoted most of his energies to music, arranging gigs and writing tunes.  I must admit, I can relate to this part of Hoagy Carmichael's life.  Throughout my law practice career, I find myself during the day, listening to clips of classical music or jazz, and reading about my favorite musicians.

The beautiful melody Star Dust was composed by Mr. Carmichael and recorded in 1927.  Carmichael also composed Georgia on my mind, and arranged and recorded Up a Lazy River.  Interestingly, as it drives a lot of amateur pianists crazy, Carmichael composed Heart and Soul, which has become a popular duet performed by American children everywhere.

For me, my favorite song he collaborated with Johnny Mercer to create Skylark.  It is a beautiful song, and has been recorded by many artists, including my personal favorite Linda Ronstadt.

In his performance in Best Years of Our Lives, he taught a disabled veteran to play Chopsticks, and I find that so endearing.  Even teaching someone a simple piano tune, can change someone's life.  William Wyler as a director had a real gift, in determining what scenes to keep and which ones he should cut. This is one of the beautiful stories, within the whole story of this incredible film

And though he was a pianist, his greatest strength was as a melodist.  His songs have stood the test of time, and the beautiful Georgia on My Mind, is the State of Georgia's official song.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Jon Nakamatsu

Columbus, Ohio is known for its infamous Big Ten football team, The Buckeyes of The Ohio State University.  Yet outside Columbus, many do not realize that my adopted city is home to a thriving arts scene.  Discriminating customers of the arts, will find that Columbus is home to several incredible chamber music organizations.  In the past few years, I have attended Chamber Music Columbus concerts, in the acoustically perfect, Great Southern Theater.

I had the good fortune on December 16, 2017 to attend a concert of the Escher String Quartet with pianist Jon Nakamatsu.  I am a fan of chamber music, but I add that I am definitely a fan of Jon Nakamatsu.  When I think of my favorite pianists, I think of this quintet, Emmanuel Ax, Angela Hewitt, Kathryn Stott, Jon Nakamatsu, and Jean Yves Thibaudet.  So when I saw that Jon was coming to Columbus, I simply had to attend.  If nothing else, the concert would be a glorious way to celebrate Beethoven's birthday.

The concert was amazing.  The Escher Quartet started off the program with Mozart's Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458 otherwise known as "The Hunt."  Mozart continues to be my absolute favorite classical composer, and the chamber music he composed is beautiful.  There was another work by Thomas Ades, called Arcadiana.  It was very modern but like eating grand cuisine, I am willing to try anything

Then the Escher String Quartet, performed Erno Dohnanyi's Quintet in C minor, with Jon at the grand piano. Escher takes its name from Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, inspired by Escher's method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole.  I love this description, so apt in terms of chamber music!

Dohnanyi was a Hungarian composer, and this was the first time I had the opportunity to listen to this beautiful chamber music work.  I had forgotten what attention to detail is necessary to perform such a beautiful chamber music set with five movements.  All in all, it was an incredible evening of exciting chamber music.  Sometimes I hear friends say that classical music is boring.  Well, then you might find your musical place at a chamber music concert.  There is always something knew to listen to and learn about.  You also get to see firsthand, the commitment that chamber musicians make to each other and the audience.  I do not have a disc of the Escher, but I plan to get one very soon.

What a country, to hear such incredible musicians, including one of my top favorite pianists Jon Nakamatsu, in our incredible Southern Theater.  I am very blessed indeed.

As luck would have it, I am friends with Charlie Warner, who is a labor and employment attorney with the law firm of Porter Wright.  Charlie is a consummate arts aficionado, and he extended an invitation to my husband Mark and me, to attend an after concert reception, where we could meet Jon.

As an amateur pianist, meeting Jon Nakamatsu was just another fine example of "dying and going to heaven."  As a Gold Medal Winner of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, I purchased his Chopin cd, that included Impromptus, the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Mazurkas and Polonaises.  The cd is still one of my favorites, and a "go to" when ever I want to be inspired by beautiful playing.

Getting a chance to meet with Jon was a dream come true.  He was incredibly kind and gracious, and I hope he returns to Columbus very soon.  His playing was truly wonderful, and it was simply an honor to be in attendance.  And one of his classmates from Stanford showed up at the after concert reception, so it is good to know that folks are following his exciting career as a concert pianist.

I add that Jon was happy to chat with his fans.  I guess what I find so appealing about Jon, was the fact that he was a high school German teacher, before winning the Cliburn.  And with his concertizing he is changing up classical music in an inspirational and positive way.

Jon is also the Artistic Director of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival.  I hope to get there, since it is on my musical bucket list.  He also had the same piano teacher, Marina Derryberry for most of his life.  There is something so admirable about great loyalty.  He also studied with Karl Schnabel, which enhances his already impressive resume.

I believe the Great Southern Theatre, lives up to his concertizing expectations, because it is in fact the second time I have heard Jon play in this venue.

I have lived in Columbus for over 30 years, and I never give up, on the citizens of this city and their commitment to the arts.  To have a piano gem like Jon Nakamatsu performing in our fair city, is such a gift.  I hope he will continue to introduce us to new and exciting chamber music works.  The piano never ceases to amaze me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Beyond Czerny and Hanon Exercises

As a long time student of the piano, I have done my fair share of Hanon and Czerny exercises.  At times, one can get bored with the repetitive nature of these exercises.  Yet at the same time, when you really analyze what the exercises are working on, often strengthening of a specific finger pattern, you come to appreciate the value of these tried and true etudes.

I know I have mentioned before in this blog, that one of my teachers Dr. Suzanne Newcomb, who is a piano professor at Otterbein University.  As a pre-teen she actually played Czerny Exercise #5 in a piano recital.  I must admit, that over the years it has become one of my favorites.  It is fast, and has the quality and intricacy of a piano sonatina or sonata.  It actually is fun, and whether you play it slowly or speed it up, you can sound like you know what you are doing.

So beyond Czerny and Hanon there is Stephen Heller.  Born in Hungary in 1814, Mr. Heller developed a career as a brilliant pianist, and from the notes of my Heller book by Lynn Freeman Olson, he actually studied as a boy with Carl Czerny.  Quoting Maestro Heller, his purpose in writing the etudes was "not only to help the development of finger ability,but also to enable both students and amateurs to perform a composition with the expression, grace elegance, or verve demanded by the work."

Well, to quote a famous movie line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding...."there you go"  I guess I should have read the music notes before I started conquering the etudes.  Perhaps I would have been a bit more tolerant of the work required of these gems, to become a more capable pianist.

So now to focus on the Etude in E Major Opus 45, No. 20.  This is an exercise that can bring out the expletives in even an upstanding person like myself.  From the view of the amateur, there are a number of partial arpeggios that require you to use the fingering patterns that are in the edition.  In my line of work as a lawyer, we legal types often think we know everything.  Well when it comes to piano fingering, I have learned, I DON"T.

The next tricky aspect to this etude in particular, is playing legato notes in the right hand, and staccato notes in the left.  I can add that for an older student, this probably works important parts of your brain, and could contribute to sustaining your memory.  Maestro Heller does let you off the hook,starting around measure 68  with a passage, that is more like a simple sonatina.  So if you can conquer the first two pages, the third and fourth pages offer smooth sailing ahead.

I often start my practice sessions playing popular music of the days.  But in my stacks of music, Czerny, Hanon and Heller, are there, and you can't ignore them, if you want to play with more ability, control and even elegance.  So pianists, put on your poker faces, grit your teeth and jump in.  You will be glad you did.  And quoting Lynn Freeman Olson the editor of my Heller edition, "And do keep in mind Heller's own goal of finger "ability" as a servant of the expression inherent in each piece."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The piano will save you

The title of my blog post references two conversations I had with my mother over the years.  One took place, I believe when I was in college in the 1970s, the other when I was a young mother in the 1990s and my mom moved our little Baldwin piano to my house.

Both conversations took place in the context, that even if I was not going to pursue a career that involved piano, the piano, and the time I spent in lessons would "save me" during multiple peaks and valleys in my life.  In my early twenties, I laughed off my mother's statement as almost ridiculous, and in my early 40's I was simply too busy juggling the balls, of work, and family to think that anyone could save me from my far too busy life.

But now that I am in my 61st year, I finally understand what my mom was saying, and how much the piano has saved me from so many things, recuperation from "discussions" with adult children, making mistakes with friends that cannot be turned around, anxiety and worry from job pressures, working through family peaks and valleys both immediate and extended, and many other situations that make up life.

I now admit that all of the lessons have paid off, in the sense that I have a place to turn to, and a place where I can create, sort of a no judgment, no ridicule zone.  Whether it is working through a classical piece that is far too difficult, or leafing through a book of popular music, I can find music that will make any day better, even if I can only plink out the melody.

The practice of law can be so challenging, that sometimes, the worries can only be removed, when I play a Beatles song, a Mozart sonata, or a Bach prelude.  I can make the day better, just by getting to my peaceful place of 88 keys.

Music also helps me to work through how I interact with friends and families.  Through music, I can understand fences I need to mend, or bridges I need to build.  Music can be the background to devising a solution for almost any problem.  Music can also speak, when honestly, no words are exactly right.

When I first started taking piano lessons and playing, I sometimes became caught up in the smaller picture, glossing over a difficult measure to play through, or not practicing scales and arpeggios diligently, to improve my dexterity and hand position.  Perhaps if I had thought about what the piano would mean to me later in life, I would have realized how much I needed to look at the big picture, and the difference piano playing would make to me in so many ways.

I've mentioned in prior blog posts, how grateful I am when I come down the stairs and see my beautiful piano in the living room.  I think of all of the ways the piano by its very presence has changed my life.  And how my ability to play it, has taken me through the joys and struggles in my life.  It's quite amazing actually!