I love performing in public spaces. I personally feel uplifted and transported whenever I hear beautiful, live music while passing through a crowded area, and I love offering those feelings of peace and respite to others - especially in hospitals.
When I moved to Boston I joined a group called Volunteer Musicians for the Arts (http://www.volunteermusicians.org). Jonathan Yasuda does a fabulous job of getting professional area musicians together a few times a year to collaborate in offering public concerts.
Yesterday a group of us (two cellists, a clarinetist, a tenor, two violinists, and two pianists) played an hour long noon-time concert in the main lobby of Massachusetts General Hospital. It did my heart so much good to see people stop and linger for a few moments, reveling in the beauty offered to them in the midst of a busy and, mostly likely, stressful day.
You can see a short video of our performance below.
Along with playing piano and teaching, I love to cook.
Right now while I write this post, I have a pan of AMAZING granola toasting in the oven. As I measured and mixed and poured (and kept Jeffrey off the counter) I was curious whether or not there were muscles in my body that were tensing while I cooked - but didn't need to be tense.
So as I stood at the counter and stirred the granola ingredients together I began a scan of my body from head to toe:
bottoms of my feet....
I tried to be aware of exactly which muscles were needed for me to stand and stir the bowl, and which ones could take a break and relax.
As a pianist, being tense in places where you don't need to be tense can be detrimental to your performance. And throughout normal, everyday tasks I'm convinced we spend most of our time much more tense than we need to be.
Take a "scan" of your body throughout the course of your day - while you sit, while you drive, while you read, while you reach for the light switch...
Relax those muscles that aren't needed at the moment.
Starting today, every Wednesday I will be writing a short post about some topic that is relevant not just to pianists but also non-musicians. I have often thought that there are so many aspects of living life as a musician and performer that can be of great benefit to life in general - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
For the next few weeks, I will be focusing on topics related to relaxation.
Jeffrey is very clearly very good at relaxing. I think she spends 90% of her day relaxing. The other 10% is spent awake during the hours of 3 and 5 am.......
Have you ever realized you can hold a lot of tension in your eyes? When I was trying to recover from tendinitis, I was working with a physical therapist who spent a lot of time training me how to use my body in more thoughtful and intentional ways. He even trained me to change the way that I use my eyes. This very concept was one of the things that cured me of pain.
Very often, we think of our eyes as going out and "grabbing" the information in front of us. This actually creates a lot of tension in the muscles on our skull and neck. In actual fact, our eyes are only gates for light to enter in. If you, instead of "grabbing" at information with your eyes, passively allow your eyes to be gateways for light, you will find that your entire face relaxes - and very often your ears, jaw, and neck relax, too.
Try it now - let your face and eyes relax, and let the light come in.
...Ok, don't throw it out, but at least admit that it doesn't completely solve all of your rhythm problems.
I think most pianists (whether they are of beginning or advanced levels) struggle to maintain a consistent speed through a piece, or a section of a piece. I certainly struggle with this, and I know that every single one of my piano students at Grace Piano Studio do as well. Some sections end up slower than they should, or faster than they should. No matter how hard we may work with the metronome, we cannot seem to get the speed to even out and remain constant.
The metronome tells you that there is something wrong, but doesn't always help you correct the problem.
We may also struggle with calming our nerves in performance, and instead of being able to objectively CHOOSE a speed we want to take when we take to the stage, our nerves dictate a speed that is 50 clicks faster than what we ever practiced...
Or, yet another problem pianists have is being able to create an organic, natural sounding rubato/ritardando/accelerando....
I wanted to share with you pianists out there a trick I learned from my undergraduate piano professor, Laura Kargul.
Laura would make me work through every piece I ever learned with her by saying "Tah" on the strong beats of each measure. No metronome (except, perhaps, to find the starting speed for the piece). For instance, in a 4/4 meter I could say "Tah" on each quarter beat, or in a 6/8 rhythm I could say "Tah" on every dotted quarter rhythm. I could also manipulate this, so if I wanted to get a larger sense of the phrase rhythm, I could say "Tah" at the beginning of each measure, etc.
This worked miracles. This technique radically changed my piano playing so that I was absolutely in control of the rhythm, and was independent of a metronome. Let's be real - you work with the metronome in the practice room, but you can't take it on stage with you - so we need a more objective rhythm technique!
It controlled my nerves, because I could quietly say "Tah" through tricky passages even while on stage. And it provided me that ability to develop an organic change in rhythm, such as rubato. It also, amazingly, allowed my body to be much more relaxed while playing, maybe because I knew I was always in control of the rhythm.
It doesn't only work for me, though! I tried the "Ta" technique with a student of mine just recently. Her rhythm in this one piece was ALL over the place. One week of her saying "Ta" - problem solved!
When not attempting to drink my glass of freshly-poured filtered water, Jeffrey the cat is providing constant entertainment and delight for all my piano students.
But she's more than that - Jeffrey is my teaching assistant.
Some of my students struggle as they learn new, more complex rhythms. We may clap the rhythms out, count them out with words, write numbers into the music... but I have found that THE MOST HELPFUL technique is making and saying/clapping a rhythmic sentence that includes "Jeffrey". One of my students was struggling for two weeks with the rhythm seen in the picture below - but as soon as I introduced the sentence about Jeffrey there were INSTANTANEOUS results! Haha, thanks Jeff!
Another way Jeffrey cat helps my piano students here in Belmont is by helping to illustrate the dynamic character changes found in the music. As our piano lessons go on, Jeffrey may be off in a corner destroying her sock monkey, or on the chair next to us taking a nap, or pouncing on an imaginary predator. Jeffrey's playful character depicts a range of dynamic change that we see in our music - and often a reference to something Jeffrey is doing brings out better results in my student's playing than any reference to what may be written in the score!
Who knew a fuzzy, tail-less, clawless, silly little cat could be the best piano teaching tool.
Michal Grace Harris
Piano Teacher & Accompanist