Have ʻuke, will travel

tiny_tenor
Tiny Tenor of Romero Creations (mahogany)

This past January, I introduced myself in Joel Katz‘s intermediate ʻukulele class by announcing that I was downsizing from the nine foot grand piano to the less than two foot ʻukulele. People laughed.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t giving up the piano by any means. Rather, I was embracing the ʻukulele. It has my namesake after all: KU in ʻukulele.

In truth, I didn’t know what I was getting into. A few of my music students had shared their love of the instrument. One even gave me a hand-built ʻukulele stand as a parting gift. Eventually I succumbed to my usual thirst for novelty and variety.

Continue reading “Have ʻuke, will travel”

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Hearing piano practice

Hearing piano being practiced upon is a welcoming sound when one is a stranger in a big city.

In the distance, I can hear someone practising piano. Last night, until about 9:30 PM, it was harmonic minor scales. Maybe it’s a music school. How can someone practice at all hours in a day?

Continue reading “Hearing piano practice”

When piano practice becomes performance

Finding a piano is difficult on Maui. Finding a room to practise can prove tricky when there are eager listeners. Practice becomes performance in the presence of an audience.

There are two places I practise on Maui: the classroom with electric pianos and the community centre with an upright piano. I cannot reserve these rooms. Over time, I have come to learn when the rooms are available.

On Tuesday and Friday afternoons, I use the classroom. On other days, I try my luck at the community centre nearby.

Yesterday (Wednesday), I found three music books in the local library. I could not wait to sightread “Opera’s Greatest Melodies” at the community centre. But an activity was taking place, as evident from the lack of parking space. Today, however, the centre was dark and unoccupied.

I switched on the light, opened the piano lid, sat down, and started to practise. A gardener stopped and listened. After “Miss Celie’s Blues” I heard an eruption of applause behind me.

My practice turned into a performance.

The routine and rhythm of daily practice

Practising is not so boring or tedious that you have to lock yourself in a room to accomplish the task. You do need to resist the temptation to stop practising though.

A concert pianist, who claimed to know more than 100 piano concertos from memory, once told me that competition winners have to lock themselves in a room and practise for hours on end before they will be ready to go on tour.

I don’t remember his exact words, but I do question the need to “lock themselves in a room.”

My piano with scores divided into piles: for French horn, cello, guitar, solo
My piano with scores divided into piles for French horn, cello, guitar, flute, and solo piano

Practising is not so boring or tedious that you have to lock yourself in a room to accomplish the task. You do need to resist the temptation to stop practising though. I think that’s what he meant.

You don’t get paid to practice. You will miss out on a lot of activities, including the world around you. You have to be able to give up many things, including the temptation of interruption.

Everything becomes an interruption. Phone calls. Door bells. E-mail checks. Breaks for the loo. Tea breaks. Coffee breaks. Lunch breaks. Dinner breaks. It has been said that breaks are good. One must not practise without a break.

After my trip to Helsinki in November 2009, I decided to enter a self-induced piano marathon. I would practise as long as I could by liberating my diary of commitments. I stopped taking Dutch language lessons. I declined meal invitations. In spite of this, I could only manage a maximum of five hours piano practice. There were still too many interruptions and responsibilities in my life.

The view into the reception and winter light from my piano
The view into the reception and winter light from my piano

Just before Christmas, a computer programmer by day and pianist otherwise told me that 4 hours is a good target, if you have a full-time job. I should be able to do more. At university, I once clocked in 4 hours practising for my senior recital. I had the time but not the stamina then. Now I have the stamina but not the time.

I suppose the only way to clock in more practice time is to get into a regular routine and rhythm. Wake up early. Simplify all meals. Delegate all house chores. Switch off the telephone and the wireless Internet. Stop blogging. Stop writing.

Help! I need to lock myself in a room so no one else can enter and interrupt my practice. And I’d better do this before the seasons change and the (hopefully) warmer weather and (happy) sun tempt me outside.

The view from my piano to the garden house and the outside world
The view from my piano to the garden house and the outside world

Practise to perform: clocking performance time

For a chamber music duo like ours, not only do we have to practise alone, we also need to rehearse together. Just putting in the hours, however, is not enough. I have come to the conclusion that we need to clock in performance time. Performers use tryouts — a concert before a concert — to get ready. It’s the step between the last rehearsal and first important performance.

On Carnegie Hall’s website, it says “While it takes some people a lifetime of practice to get to Carnegie Hall (as the saying goes), others just have to follow these simple directions.”

Question: “How to get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “practice, practice, practice!”

Before our first concert in 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands
Before our first concert in 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands

For a chamber music duo like ours, not only do we have to practise alone, we also need to rehearse together. Just putting in the hours, however, is not enough. I have come to the conclusion that we need to clock in performance time.

A pilot’s flying experience is often measured by his flying time. No amount of flying inside a flight simulator can substitute for actually flying a plane full of passengers. However, not all planes and routes are equal. Cargo and passengers are different. Short haul is different from long haul flights.

Similarly, not all concerts are equal. A house concert is very different from a big public concert hall. Playing at a nursing home is different from playing in a museum. Is it then possible to practise performing?

After our first concert of our 2010 programme in Doorn in January, I practised even harder. At our second concert in Amsterdam, I realised that I should focus on what I thought were easy pieces. I had spent so much time gaining confidence on the difficult pieces, that I had underestimated the challenge of playing the easy pieces in sync with the guitar.

Robert Bekkers studying his score during the intermission at Doorn
Robert Bekkers studying his score during the intermission at Doorn

The more we perform, the sooner we will be ready to record our second CD. That is our ultimate goal: to record a CD so that we can move on to new repertoire. We want to reach that stage, as we did in 2009, of being so confident in our playing that we can perform anytime anywhere without any advance notice. Having reached that point in 2009, I long to get there with our new programme.

And so, we accepted a last-minute request from a composer to perform his work at a private party. We offered to play a few pieces from our new programme at another private party the following week. We deliberately challenged ourselves to play to a knowing audience of culture vultures, composers, musicians, and real aficionados of classical music. We were the invited guests, just like everyone else, but we put ourselves to work before we could indulge in the wine and festivities.

Those two occasions in Amsterdam were “tryouts” for us.

“Tryout” translates to “please forgive us if we make mistakes or don’t deliver the quality we intended.” Tryouts are usually free because the performers need the audience, not the other way around. Performers use tryouts — a concert before a concert — to get ready. It’s the step between the last rehearsal and first important performance.

Next Saturday 13th February 2010, I will go to a “tryout” house concert of a violin / piano programme of Grieg, Prokofiev, Debussy and De Falla. I will attend to support the pianist who is a good friend. I will also attend out of curiosity. I’m sure there will be others in the audience that I know and want to catch up with. It’s nearby and it’s free. [See my blog entries on why musicians attend concerts part one and two.]

Perhaps our duo will offer to “tryout” a piece as a surprise. Probably not.

The buzz of music: on a roll, in the “flow”

I clocked 5 hours on the piano today.

But I wanted more.

“Did you get a buzz from performing?” I asked an amateur guitarist who gave a concert on his 50th birthday in Amsterdam.

“Yes! The most incredible thing happened,” he exclaimed over the telephone today. “Before anyone arrived, I felt physically sick, facing all those empty chairs. But as soon as I started playing, I felt very relaxed. I just want to do it again.”

“Welcome to my world!” I said. “You get such a high that you just want to do it again. It beats drinking and smoking. It’s a natural high.” [Hint: quit smoking, my friend.]

Inspired by our morning phone conversation, I walked eagerly to my piano. There, piled in separate stacks lay the sheet music for piano and French horn, guitar, flute, and bassoon. My new chamber music repertoire for 2010 sat idle for the past few weeks when I had been traveling abroad.

It was 11:30 am when I started playing. I played until 1 pm and reluctantly got up to cook lunch for four people. Anything that interfered with the “flow” was an interruption. After cooking, eating, and cleaning, I resumed playing at 2:45 pm.

Even an accidental cut to my middle finger (from cleaning a sharp knife) didn’t stop me. Was it lightning that flashed outside? Thunder that shook the house? And rain that spewed through the front door?

Once I started playing, I couldn’t stop. My fingers glided over the keys. My ears swooned in the romantic music of Strauss, Saint-Saens, and Schumann. I was alone in my music, totally absorbed and relaxed.

At 6:15 pm I had to stop. The evening aerobics class that I had so looked forward to was now an interruption. 

I clocked 5 hours on the piano today.

But I wanted more.

Tomorrow I shall get up earlier than today, to squeeze an hour of playing before my morning yoga class. But the afternoon will be interrupted by a one hour piano lesson. And sadly there will be only 3 hours left before I cycle to my Rotary Club dinner.

Not enough time for a pianist on a roll…..

What ignited this passion? Could it be the three hours I had on a Yamaha grand in an apartment near the Finnish beach? Or sightreading with two professors at the Helsinki Hilton (below) at a doctoral dinner party?

Decision scientists playing 6 hand piano music at the Helsinki Hilton
Decision scientists playing 6 hand piano music at the Helsinki Hilton. Photo: Janne Kettunen