Hearing piano practice

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

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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?

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Maui College Chorus: Earth Songs

Maui College Choir prepares for spring concerts entitled Earth Songs.

First I met the conductor, Celia Canty. Then I saw the college choir perform. Next I wrote reviews.

Now I accompany the singers, arrange for them to perform, and blog about their upcoming performances.

Maui College Chorus, April 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty
Maui College Chorus, April 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty

I asked Celia about her choice of songs for the Spring 2012 concert. “They all have to do with the earth,” she replied in a recent interview. “The songs are from all over the world, and the choir sings them in original language. But ‘earth’ also has another meaning, too — as in planting trees, jasmine flower, etc.”

In the beginning, the choir was a collection of  individuals with separate voices and universes. After weeks of rehearsing, they blend into one single sound. It requires hearing oneself and hearing others. Celia Canty, who has perfect pitch, can hear if someone sings out of tune. She says it’s both a blessing and a curse to have this ability to hear absolute pitch, as it’s sometimes called.

When we arranged to have the college cable TV crew film the singers, it was intended as a concert performance with no audience. I would have preferred a video of a rehearsal, for that’s far more interesting than a concert. At a rehearsal, one gets to learn. One gets to see how the raw material becomes refined into something beautiful. See the video below of a rehearsal of the popular Chinese folk song — Jasmine Flower, which Puccini used in the opera Turandot and which I once arranged for harp (PDF) because I loved it so much and wanted to play it.

Watch short video clip: Celia Canty rehearses Maui College Chorus on harp

Maui College Chorus, Spring 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty
Maui College Chorus, Spring 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty

Performances (all free):

  • 13 April 2012 @2:45 pm Preview for Academic Senate Meeting, UHMC
  • 19 April 2012 @3:45 pm Roselani Place, Kahului
  • 27 April 2012 @7 pm Iao Congregational Church, Wailuku
  • 3 May 2012 @4 pm Kalama Heights, Kihei
Maui College Chorus Concert Program, Spring 2012
Maui College Chorus Concert Program, Spring 2012

Rehearsals and work-in-progress as previews (trailers)

Rehearsals and behind-the-scenes work in progress lead viewers to anticipate and expect the real thing.

Watching a rehearsal of a choir or the behind-the-scenes of a film production makes me want to go see the real thing (when it’s ready). Like watching a chef prepare a meal, I start to get hungry.

Not the concert itself, Utrecht Conservatory June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer
Not the concert itself, Utrecht Conservatory June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer

Twitter led me to watch the work-in-progress of The Hobbit which will come out next here. The youtube video is not short by any means, but you grow to love the people working on the set and film.

On Facebook, I played a video of the rehearsal of the 88-member student choir of the New England Conservatory. So much goes on in a rehearsal that is not obvious. For the bystander like myself, I see beauty that is being created. I am reminded of my days as a conservatory student, singing in two choirs per year to improve my solfege. For others, it’s the awe of the director — how he manages to get the choir to produce an impressive sound.

The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam offers free lunch concerts each Wednesday. I remember queuing 45 minutes before one such event, shoulder to shoulder in the reception area, standing like sardines in anticipation of a 45 minute concert. When the doors finally opened about 10 minutes before the concert, we rushed in and exclaimed a unison “wow!”  It was the stendhalismo effect of arriving at a historically important place, feeling the special feng shui and grandiose atmosphere, and all of that we normally don’t get to experience in daily life. Once we sat down, I realized that it was just a rehearsal. Not even a dress rehearsal. But it was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. They were rehearsing a Brahms violin concerto. All musicians were informally dressed, despite being on stage and in front of a full-house of eager listeners. We fell silent when the conductor raised his stick. I closed my eyes. This could easily be the concert itself. The conductor brought the violinist into his solo. After leading the orchestra to join him in a mesmerizing passage, he stopped at a beautiful chord. I opened my eyes to another unison sigh from the audience — an “Ah!”

The free lunch rehearsal concert ended 15 minutes earlier than I had expected. Yet we all felt satisfied — as though we’ve had our lunch.

That was a live trailer of the concert that evening.

All in all, I’d say that rehearsals, work in progress, behind the scenes and pre-production all lead us to anticipate. When we anticipate, we expect. It makes us look forward to the real thing.

Check list for concert bookings

Check lists are useful. Here is the beginning of a check list for booking concerts.

Here’s a check list to remind ourselves of questions to ask when booking concerts in the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world. This list will be re-organised, re-prioritised, with time. There’s also lead time – i.e. when to ask or get the information beforehand.

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Dealing with the unexpected

How can we as musicians and concert producers deal with the unexpected? Weather plays a major role in the business of music that we’re in. Because my lessons and rehearsals got canceled, I valued and spent more time on the rehearsals that didn’t get canceled.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo photo credit: Serge van Empelen

My writing teacher advised a fellow classmate to include conflict, surprise, and humour in his travel writings. It occurred to me that such elements are also present when we give concerts. We have to travel to get there. When it doesn’t go as smoothly as we expect, there’s conflict. Often we encounter surprises.

In fact, musicians are always dealing with the unexpected.

First of all, we never get to perform under ideal conditions. We might rehearse under ideal conditions but these are never those of the live performance. Even if we get to the venue early and rehearse, we never get the real conditions with the audience present.

Secondly, there is that uncertainty of demand. In cultural economics, it’s called the “nobody knows” principle. No matter how well we predict, we’re never sure how many listeners will actually turn up. Demand is uncertain. Unless we get sold-out pre-paid concerts, we may get less than a full-house or standing room only.

Thirdly, anything that requires and involves traveling from A to B is subject to the unexpected.

How can we as musicians and concert producers deal with the unexpected?

Take real life, for example. Last Thursday 17th December, I woke up to a white Christmas that arrived a week early. That it would snow and continue to snow for several days was unexpected for this time of the year. Public transportation got suspended. Lessons and rehearsals got canceled.

Weather plays a major role in the business of music that we’re in.

Because of this snowy weather that befell the Netherlands, several musicians couldn’t get to their gigs on time or at all. The hosts at the Rood Noot (pronounced with long o) waived the entry tickets for the few brave guests that showed up. On the other side of Utrecht, a sold-out house concert (by reservation but not prepayment) took place in spite of empty seats. Elsewhere concerts got canceled or rescheduled.

If weather plays such an important role, we should check the forecasts and plan accordingly. We should be able to adjust to the weather, as fickle as it may be. Delay the start of the performance. Change the programme. Reduce or waive the entrance fees. Have a contingency plan.

The loss of something increases the relative value of something else.

Because my lessons and rehearsals got canceled, I valued and spent more time on the rehearsals that didn’t get canceled. Today I explored new repertoire with a cellist from 4 to 10 pm, with a 2 hour break for dinner. Under normal circumstances, it would have seemed too indulgent. If not for the cellist’s long bus and train journey back to the Hague, I would have happily continued until midnight.

Musicians, if you are reading this, how do you deal with the unexpected? Any interesting stories you’d like to share?
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A stage with a view — in Ferrol, Spain

The drive to Ferrol in Christina’s orange and grey car crossed over rolling hills, plush valleys, and panoramic ocean views. Ferrol is a coastal city east of La Coruña, where we had been staying the past few days. She asked if we wanted to see the conservatory before the beach. I had heard Miguel say that it was a special concert hall with a beautiful view.

After a hearty lunch of Galician octopus tentacles drowned in a sea of olive oil with pressed garlic and chillies, we were ready for the fourth and final concert on our first trip to Spain. The drive to Ferrol in Christina’s orange and grey car crossed over rolling hills, plush valleys, and panoramic ocean views. She asked if we wanted to see the conservatory before heading for the beach.

“Yes!” we answered simultaneously. After yesterday morning’s focussed rehearsal in the “professional” conservatory in La Coruña, we looked forward to something similar before the evening concert.

Ferrol is a coastal city east of La Coruña, where we had been staying since 2nd May 2009. Our host David, who teaches there, organised this concert for us. He greeted us at the busy reception area and led us to an air-conditioned room with a new upright piano. “Sorry, it’s not a grand,” he apologised. “You can practise here for an hour. I will be next door.”

In the Netherlands, this “professional conservatory” would be the equivalent of a music school. The kinds of conservatories I’m familiar with are called “conservatorio superiore.”

Exactly an hour later, a dark-haired lady opened the door and came in. I recognised her immediately.

“Alexandria! I didn’t know you’re here!” I exclaimed to the pianist who had played in the first composer-in-residence ensemble project at Utrecht Conservatory in 2006. She was shy then, even during the rehearsal of my “Fantasia on Vibrating G Strings” which I wrote for that project led by Chiel Meijering and conducted by Henk Alkema in the Vredenburg.

“This is my room. I teach here,” Alexandria replied self-assuredly.

“We’re playing tonight,” I announced.

“I know,” she responded. “I will be there.”

Alexandria was not the first familiar musician I ran into. Only yesterday I had spotted another dark-haired Galician pianist. Hector, who was in my arranging class in Utrecht, was chatting outside the conservatory in La Coruña where we had spent the morning practising. Earlier I had discovered the pianist Miguel walking just ahead of us on the boardwalk after our concert on 3rd May. He was equally surprised to see our photo in the newspaper that morning. “Contemporary music?” he had shaken his sleepy head at breakfast. “What are Anne and Robert doing here in La Coruña?”

David appeared at this point. “You can go to the hall now, and try the piano before the concert before yours begins.” Our concert was scheduled just after another concert. We were lucky to have any time at all in the hall.

I had heard Miguel, at our “Break a Leg” concert, say that it was a special hall with a beautiful view.

View behind the stage in the Concert Hall in Ferrol, Spain
View behind the stage in the Concert Hall in Ferrol, Spain

The acoustics were not bad either. “Christina!” I asked. “Would you take a video of us?”

Robert prefers to end our popular three-centuries programme with the last movement of Mauro Giuliani’s Variations Op 113 (65) because it is very demanding. It’s printed as “Polonoise” but we think it should be “Polonaise” though it doesn’t sound like one.

Time to go to the beach! But why do we need to go to Christina’s car? Isn’t the beach just outside? Behind the stage?

Falling on lobsters in the dark

Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” (yep! that’s the name of the piece!) is a brilliant exploration of fear through three instruments violin, guitar, and piano. The American composer Paul Richards made every use of the exciting combination and effects of each instrument to create a piece that rocks….

Commissioned and premiered by the Strung Out Trio, “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” is a brilliant exploration of fear through three instruments: violin, guitar, and piano. The title is borrowed from a speech before a Rotary Club that we’re all afraid of falling, lobsters, and the dark. The American composer Paul Richards made every use of the exciting combination and effects of each instrument to create a piece that rocks.

Our piano guitar duo plus Korean violinist Naeon Kim teamed up in Fall 2007 to study this piece, our raison d’etre….

Here is the first half of the piece, as rehearsed in in room K206 at the Utrecht Conservatory, minutes before our final master class in May 2008.

Second half of the piece, recorded in the master class with Dutch pianist/musicologist Ralph van Raat:

and watch this space for background info and analysis.